Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.

The Russian Intelligentsia:

The idea of an ‘intelligentsia’ is closely tied to the idea of the ‘intellectual’. The intellectual can be (and has been) roughly defined as a a certain social type: a scholar who participates in a public sphere independent from the political regime. The European intellectual (while having important forebears in the philosophes of the French Enlightenment), is usually seen as developing in the mid-to-late 19th c., and tied to the rise of mass society, the professionalization of scholarship the birth of a wide literary audience, and the growing commodification of culture.

Of course, when we transfer this standard definition to the Russian context, we immediately see some problems: the Russian intelligentsia is usually seen as coming into being in the late 18th and early 19th c., well before the development of a wide literary audience and any sort of mass society. Furthermore, it has been argued that there was no ‘true’, Habermas-ian Russian ‘public sphere’ until the February Revolution of 1917! So what, then, was this intelligentsia?

The term is incredibly slippery, and has been understood as everything from a “class”, to “an attitude” to “a body of declassé truth-seekers”. In fact, how one defines the Russian intelligentsia and where one locates its ‘birth’ is quite a political question, as it in many ways prefigures a certain reading of the Russian 19th century and the revolutions of 1917 (for example, Soviet historiography usually framed the question in terms of class and sought to legitimize their own thought through a teleological, hagiographical narrative connecting the USSR to the earliest days of the Russian intelligentsia, while Cold War western historians [and, to a certain extent, post-Soviet Russian historiography] usually told either a story of naive intellectuals unwittingly stumbling down the path to totalitarianism, or a tale of fledgling democratic thought that had been cruelly snuffed out by the October Revolution).

For a working definition, let’s call the Russian intelligentsia a varied group of educated individuals who were concerned with social justice, critical of the state, and sensitive to the contours and questions of Westernization and western European thought. However, this intelligentsia’s intellectual values, social makeup, burning questions, forms of organization, views on action, and ultimate goals varied widely overtime and even between ‘members’.

So, with all of these caveats in mind, here are some moments traditionally viewed as key stages of the Russian intelligentsia:

1) Birth

The conception of the intelligentsia is usually located in the late 18th century, during the reign of Catherine the Great. The spread of Enlightenment thought amongst the aristocracy led to a few isolated individuals attempting to interrogate Russian reality through the lens of rationalism, universal brotherhood, and humanism. The most famous of these was A.N. Radishchev, whose “Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow” (1790) was a sort of critical social travelogue, narrating the poverty and misery he witnessed on a trip between the two capitals. He thoroughly criticized Russia’s autocratic government and called for reform – Catherine the Great sentenced him to death (although the punishment was commuted to Siberian exile).

2) The Decembrists

Flash forward twenty five years or so. The invasion of Napoleon in 1812 and the pursuit of his Grand Armée back to Paris turned the earlier trickle of Western ideas in Russia into, if not a flood, then at least a steady stream. The mid-1810’s to mid-1820’s witnessed a rise in critical sentiment amongst the aristocracy, especially former officers of the Napoleonic Wars. This discontent with the autocracy reached a head on December 1st, 1825, when Emperor Alexander I died rather suddenly. A group of around 3,000 soldiers gathered at St. Petersburg’s senate square and refused to swear allegiance to the new emperor, Nicholas I. The demands of these soldiers, later dubbed ‘the Decembrists’, were not all that radical – they merely sought general reform and a constitutional monarchy helmed by Alexander’s uncle, the more progressive Grand Duke Constantine. However, the revolt was swiftly put down, with five of the leaders executed and the rest exiled to Siberia.

3) “The Remarkable Decade”

As can be expected, Nicholas I became one of the most conservative emperors in modern Russian history, stifling public organizations and imposing the strictest censorship upon the press. This, however, did not prevent the beginning of a vibrant period for the Russian intelligentsia. The years 1838-1848 have been called “the remarkable decade”, and are characterized by greater and greater exposure to western thought, the rise of (limited) public dialogue in literary journals, and the forming of clandestine intellectual circles amongst (mostly) the nobility(key examples being the Stankevich circle and the Petrashevsky circle). This decade is also marked by the popularity of German philosophical thought, especially that of early German idealism (Fichte, Schelling, etc.), Hegel, and Feuerbach. Intellectuals such as V.G. Belinksy (“the father of Russian literary criticism”), A. Herzen (“the father of Russian Socialism”) and M.A. Bakunin (quite the idealist before his shift to philosophical and political anarchism) grappled with questions such as the literary expression of the Russian spirit, and the role of the individual in world history. The later half of this period saw these figures moving away from the most abstract forms of philosophical idealism (perhaps exemplified in Belinsky’s period of Right Hegelian “reconciliation with reality”) and adopting ‘philosophies of the act’ – however, even this turn to a more engaged form of social criticism in the 1840s was still marked by a predilection for contemplation and idealist notions of organic spirit & historico-national development.

4) The 1860s

The decade of the 1860s saw a huge shift in the views of the intelligentsia. Gathering around the progressive journalSovremennik (‘The Contemporary’), a group of young intellectuals (most notably N.G. Chernyshevsky and N.A. Dobrolyubov) became advocates of radical materialism and forms of utopian socialism. Influenced by the latest French and German scientific empiricism and socialist thought, ‘the generation of the 1860s’ viewed their 1840s forebears as alienated, ‘superfluous’ idealists (a generational conflict brilliantly portrayed in Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons and Dosteovsky’s Demons). Perhaps the most influential text of this period was Chernyshevsky’s What is to be Done?, a novel envisioning a utopian future marked by communal social arrangements, scientific ordering of labor and the economy, and rationalism guiding all human relations and interactions (This, incidentally, was one of V.I. Lenin’s favorite books, and the source for the title of his 1902 pamphlet “What is to be Done?”). This period is also notable for the rise in populism – unsatisfied with the exploitative terms of Alexander II’s emancipation of the serfs in 1861, greater and greater emphasis was put upon the plight of the peasantry. It is also important to note that the intelligentsia of the 1860s, besides being larger than at any point in its previous history, was also far more socially diverse. This is especially due to the rising popularity of radical views among university students, whose numbers were themselves swelled by Russia’s growing urban populations and the lifting of occupational restrictions for the sons of priests. Indeed, this generation is usually tied to raznochintsy, sons and daughters of the middle classes who made up the bulk of these radical social movements.

5) Populism

Populism, or political concern for Russia’s peasantry, can be said to characterize all periods in the history of the intelligentsia. However, it is from the late-1860s to the 1880s that Russian populism really had its greatest impact. Questions of Russia’s political future revolved around the fate of the post-emancipation peasantry. Perhaps the most famous incident of the Populist (or Narodniki) movement during this period was their ‘going to the people’ (khozhdennie k narodu) – during the spring and summer of 1874, hundreds of young students and radicals traveled to the countryside to distribute literature, spread socialism, and generally reveal to the peasantry the facts of their exploitation and show them the path to a revolutionary new future. The movement was thoroughly unsuccessful (in fact, more than a few of these radical students were turned in to the police by the peasants themselves, who viewed them with suspicion). This did not, however, decrease the popularity of populist thought. A key populist organization in the 1870s was the group Zemlya i Volya (usually translated as ‘Land and Liberty’). Devoted to agitational work and educating the people, the group split in the late 1870s into Chernyi Peredel (‘Black Repartition’, which advocated for the gradual spread of socialist thought among the peasantry) and Narodnaya Volya (‘The People’s Will’, which advocated terrorism and was responsible for the assassination of Tsar Alexander in 1881). The social make-up of this generation of the intellgentsia was like the previous, and would generally remain so until 1917 – university students, disenfranchised raznochintsy from Russia’s urban centers, professional revolutionaries, and a scattering of individuals from the lower classes and the nobility.

6) Marxism

G.V. Plekhanov, the founder of Chernyi Peredel (the splinter group from Zemlya i Volya that opposed the use of terror), emmigrated to Switzerland in 1880 to avoid arrest. During the early 1880s, Plekhanov read works on political economy extensively, and became a convicted Marxist (he is usually referred to as ‘the father of Russian Marxism’). In 1883 Plekhanov and a group of co-revolutionaries formed Gruppa Osvobozhdennie Truda (‘Group for the Emancipation of Labor’) in Geneva, which was the first Russian Marxist organization. Plekhanov was known as an incredibly sophisticated theorist, and his works on Russia and Marxist theory, as well as the ability of Gruppa Osvobozhdennie Truda to establish networks for the transmission of texts inside Tsarist Russia, influenced a generation of the Russian intelligentsia to shift their focus from efforts with the peasantry and their belief in utopian socialism to agitation amongst the urban proletariat and study of Marxist political and economic theory. From here we see the growing rise of conspiratorial circles in Russia and emigre circles abroad, the crystallization of Marxist trends in the Iskra period and the founding of the RSDLP, the split of this group into Bolshevik and Menshevik factions at its second congress in 1903, the Russian Revolution of 1905, the First World War and the Revolutions of 1917.

phew. My apologies for treating the end of the 19th / early 20th c. in rather abridged fashion. The Russian intelligentsia is an absolutely fascinating subject, and I’ve only sketched out for you just the most basic outline of the Russian 19th century. Missing are Bakunin, Kropotkin and questions of anarchism, Herzen’s Kolokol and the radical emigre tradition, the role of literature and the press in spreading radical thought, Slavophile currents in politics and culture, Nihilism as a cultural/intellectual movement, the rise of liberalism at the turn of the 20th century, and a whole historiography of the October Revolution (not to mention questions of gender, ethnicity, economics, trans-imperial connections, etc etc etc). I would be more than happy to answer any questions you have regarding certain events, periods, and persons.


The two classic works on the Russian intelligentsia, which cover the intellectual, social, and political trajectories of the 19th century, are:

  • Franco Venturi, Roots of Revolution, translated by Francis Haskell (New York: George Wiedenfeld & Nicolson, 1960 [1952]).
  • Andrzej Walicki, A History of Russian Thought: From the Enlightenment to Marxism (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1979 [1973]).

A classic work on the development of the intelligentsia out of the 18th c. is also:

  • Marc Raeff, Origins of the Russian Intelligentsia: The Eighteenth-Century Nobility (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1966).

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