Monday, October 28, 2019

Belarusian Intellectuals have Followed Different Trajectory than Their Russian Counterparts, Vitkovsky Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, October 25 – Putin’s claims notwithstanding, Belarus is not Russia; and the differences are fundamental. Among the most interesting, Svyatoslav Vitkovsky argues, are the different path intellectuals in the two countries have pursued, paths that have a common origin in the intelligentsia of the pre-Soviet past but have now diverged.

            In a commentary for Nashe mneniye, the Belarusian writer points out that the intelligentsia of pre-Soviet Russia was a unique phenomenon in that its members were as concerned with moral issues as with intellectual ones and with practical action as well as theoretical understanding (

            While the Bolshevik revolution was in many respects the work of the intelligentsia and its subsequent use of terror reflected the desire of many intellgents to use whatever methods were necessary to produce a just society, the Russian intelligentsia was among the Soviet regime’s greatest victims.

            Crushed by the regime and thus blocked from performing its historical role, “the Soviet intelligentsia could be characterized by one word – servility.” Until that system collapsed, there were only a few exceptions to that pattern – Likhachev and Sakharov are the most outstanding exceptions – and that had important consequences.

            One of these was that “Soviet dissidents tried in every possible way to distance themselves from the image of the intelligent – and thus reminded everyone more of Western intellectuals.” That contributed to the dissolution of the intelligentsia, and in post-Soviet times, the intelligentsia ceased to be a recognizable category.

            “The specific criteria which had defined it as a social class disappeared,” Vitkovsky says; and “in present-day Belarus and Russia as throughout the post-Soviet space, it is more appropriate to use the word ‘intellectuals’” because that term has not been “so discredited” and is “much less vague.”

            “Nevertheless,” the Belarusian commentator says, “one of the main issues for intellectuals as for the Russian intelligentsia of pre-revolutionary times is their attitude toward the social reality surrounding them.” And it is here that the intellectuals of Russia and the intellectuals of Belarus have diverged.

            In Russia, this issue came to a head twice, in the early 1990s when there was a need to “the all-consuming decentralization of political life and the criminalization of society” and in the 2000s when Vladimir Putin step by step established his authoritarian regime.   In Belarus, the situation developed differently.

            Until the mid-1990s, the most important focus for Belarusian intellectuals was national construction.  But with the rise of Alyaksandr Lukashenka, the focus shifted from nation building to his authoritarianism.  “National discourse didn’t cease to exist, but its development was stopped. It became secondary” and something like a sign of membership in the opposition.

            But the Belarusian intellectuals, Vitkovsky continues, included not only those hostile to the regime but also, in conformity with the pattern of Soviet times, its servile supporters as well.  And over the last 25 years, Minsk has viewed its intellectuals as consisting of three basic groups: those who cooperate, those who oppose, and those it considers “escapists.”

            The meaning of the first and second is obvious and doesn’t require elaboration, but that of the third, “the escapists,” does.  It includes all of the educated class who avoids taking part in the discourse promoted by the regime.  It may be active up to the point of emigration or passive, simple indifference to political issues.

            The Lukashenka regime uses this division to control the situation because it recognizes even if the intellectuals themselves do not that the latter will become a threat only when they come together and define themselves as an independent force, something the servile and the escapist, aren’t doing.

            As long as those two categories include such a high percentage of the intellectuals in Belarus, Lukashenka and his team believe, the regime isn’t threatened from that quarter. Consequently, the task of the intellectuals in Belarus must be to come together, find common ground, and recover the moral dimension that defined the intelligentsia in the past.

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