Saturday, November 21, 2015

Is the History of the Russian Intelligentsia Really Coming to an End?

Paul Goble

            Staunton, November 21 – Few outcomes have been more regularly predicted in Russia than the end of the intelligentsia, “the stratum of enlightened people who have created Russian culture,” but now Moscow historian Aleksey Kiva says there are compelling reasons, some behavioral, some technological and some political, to think that is so.

            In a commentary for “Nezavisimaya gazeta,” Kiva says that he always listens to what artists say about social life because “they often earlier than politicians and political analysts sense the appearance in society of new phenomena both positive and negative” (

            Consequently, when Sergey Yursky, an artist and writer, tells “Argumenty i fakty” that “the intelligentsia as a distinctive Russian phenomenon ‘in part has disintegrated, in part died off, and in part sold out’ and that it must be ‘reborn anew’” (, it is important to take him seriously because he appears to have latched on to something.

            Yursky observes that “the intelligentsia is ‘a very specific, very Russian stratum, which is disappearing” as a result of the crisis in scientific research institutes  which were its base, the disintegration of common cultural experiences, the decline in informal relations and alienation, and a money-based culture in which many of its members sell out to business or the state.

            The rise of the Internet and the decline in social interaction and shared experiences means, Kiva suggests, that “now it is difficult to find people who have read one and the same newspapers and books, watched the same theater presentation or listened to the same music” and who are intensely interested in sharing the views on these common experiences.

            The Russian intelligentsia arose after the reforms of Peter the Great, it was overwhelmingly pro-Western and anti-regime, and it consisted of generalists rather than specialists given Russia’s backwardness, the historian continues.  All those things set it apart from Western intellectuals “who lived in different political conditions.”

            The “tradition of opposition” has unified the Russian intelligentsia ever since, but that stance, which meant that its members were typically against something rather than for something has meant as well that each generation has tended to turn on its elders as well as on the state and thus has often behaved in self-destructive ways.

            Kiva stresses that the pre-1917 Russian intelligentsia, the Soviet-era intelligentsia, and the post-1991 Russian intelligentsia “are different things.” The pre-1917 one was small and consisted primarily of creative people and has been defined by some scholars as a kind of Western “transplant” into a backward society.

            The second was massive and much less aware of itself as a distinct group. It suffered “enormous losses” but nonetheless portions of it “all the same remained a [distinct] phenomenon,” as demonstrated by the rise of the dissident movement at the end of Soviet times and the active role the creative intelligentsia played in bringing down the USSR.

            It is more difficult to assert that the Russian intelligentsia since 1991 has remained a single social group. On the one hand, it has become even larger and thus more diverse; but on the other, ever fewer of them are critics of the government and ever more have become apologists, something that was not the case before.

            There are still some who challenge the authorities, and there is once again “a new wave of political emigration and a new group of dissidents.” But the fact that the term survives doesn’t mean that the phenomenon has or is the same, Kiva argues.  In part, that is because the Western term “intellectual” doesn’t fit Russian realities.

            “In the West,” he writes, “intellectuals are people of intellectual labor who appear in large numbers in developed democratic countries and have their own organizations which develop a behavioral ethic. When intellectuals insist on their rights, the media support them, and they can go into the streets” in large numbers.

            But in Russia, Kiwa concludes, “this is impossible.” The media is now overwhelmingly controlled by the state and the government has adopted so many restrictive laws that it is difficult to protest.  And at the same time, the Internet and the collapse of the old common reading, viewing and discussing culture make it ever more difficult to say the intelligentsia lives.

No comments:

Post a Comment