Выпуск: №3 2014

Рубрика: Analysis

Intelligentsia as a Style

Intelligentsia as a Style

The material is illustrated with David Ter-Oganian's works from various years. Courtesy: David Ter-Oganian

Ilya Budraitskis Born in Moscow in 1981. Historian, cultural and political activist. MAM editorial board member.

Among concepts worth re-examining at the cusp between the Russian ‘00s and ‘10s, the concept “intelligentsia” likely takes one of the most important places. On its own, this boundary marks the transition from the post-Soviet state of affairs to still very vague manifestations of the post-post-Soviet. The Moscow events in December 2011 simultaneously signified both the completeness of post-Soviet forms, its “actuality”, and the beginning of a systemic crisis of these forms. At the moment of this recently occurred turn, the post-Soviet has finally acquired a quality of permanence, it stopped being interpreted (which was popular hitherto) as “transit,” a transitional period, in which each element of a social catastrophe or a constantly arising “state of emergency,” easily found justification as a temporary event.

It seems that the main result of the ‘00s is precisely the collective realization that the “post-Soviet” has become an enduring and stable form, capable of self-reproduction at all levels: 1) the political regime and the type of relations between power and society (known as “managed” or “imitation” democracy[1]); 2) property relations, presuming dynamic and mobile borders between private interests and groups of state bureaucracy; 3) harsh neoliberal market ideology, which has become not only the undisputed landmark of the ruling elite, but an organic societal ideology, where harsh competition and the ambition for the capitalization of one’s own social position have become an “organizing practice” (using Althusser’s definition).

The mass movement that emerged at the end of 2011 signaled the beginning of the awareness of totality of this order, its “rules of the game,” the accomplice in which is practically every person. However, a clearly enunciated emotional unpreparedness of a certain part of society to continue living according to these rules has evidently collided with the misunderstanding of what is to replace the “post-Soviet.” The self-awareness of that movement, the set of its political demands, the language with which it expressed itself, belonged fully to the “post-Soviet,” along with all the peculiarities of its social composition and its internal contradictions.

Almost from the very moment of the inception of this movement, its main political slogan—“For fair elections!” [Za chestnie vibori!]—was accepted by default as secondary in relation to its ethical content. This dominant ethical motivation of citizen participation had also immediately marginalized any attempts to make political conclusions out of the social heterogeneity of the movement. The difficulty of defining it as “disgruntled citizens,” or “the revolt of the middle class” was quickly solved through the proclamation of simply the movement of “decent people,” united not around common social interests, but owing to shared moral principles and shared culture that are above any politics. 

Cultural commonality was seen as the main virtue of the movement, as a testimony to its moral cleanliness, internal warmth and humanity, favourably different from dry determinism of social communities. For example, Olga Sedakova, a famous poet of the liberal Christian wing, defined the newly emergent subject of politics as “a certain segment of the population that has never before gathered together.” These are “calm, independently-thinking, free-speaking” “Russian Europeans” whose manners and style appeared much more important than their readiness to propose an alternative to the majority, who remained in the position of passive observers. According to Sedakova’s testimony, “normal people” had taken to the streets, who, for the first time in many years, had received the opportunity to gather together and live through the moment of recognizing themselves in one another.[2]

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The first public figures of this movement in the span of its presently-short history were cultural figures, capable of certifying the “normalness” of those gathered. Strictly speaking, it was this specific set of writers, journalists and musicians who mediated the joyful process of “recognizing one’s own,” whereas the politicians acted as an important, but secondary attribute of the gathering, called upon to remind of the specificity of the public space chosen for the assembly (the square or the street), and not its content.

A similar sense of the “joy of recognition” was described by participants of the Moscow events of August 1991 in many memoirs. Fairly popular parallels between 1991 and 2011 (largely owing to the fact that by and large, the participants and—what’s more important—the leaders of these two movements, belonged to the same generation) can be easily and reasonably subjected to criticism. From the perspective of the economy, social structure and the corresponding social consciousness, an unbridgeable gulf exists between these two epochs. However, in both cases, behind many systemic and private differences, it is possible to grasp commonalities—at the level of thinking, the method of perceiving reality and principles, distinguishing “one’s own” from “others.”

This “commonality” could be called, using Karl Mannheim’s definition, a thought style. In our case—the intelligentsia’s style. For Mannheim, style represents something that is simultaneously rooted in political and cultural expression of various social groups, and is much more mobile and dynamic than ideology.[3] This mobility of style is related primarily to the fact that it balances between the real position of a particular group in society, its social practice, and the life of ideas specific to it, its way of thinking. It is characteristic that as an example of style, Mannheim exemplifies German conservatism of the 19th century, when the political and philosophical campaign against rationalism of the “historical union of enlightened monarchy and the entrepreneur” had united the vanishing classes that have not found their place in the new state of affairs. The birth of Prussian conservatism was one of the types of reactions to the colossal influence of the French revolution. However, the ideas of this revolution, its thought style, as well as opposition to it, had found entirely new social ground. The legacy of the Enlightenment turned out to be an instrument of bureaucracy, essentially carrying out a “revolution from above,” whereas the radical intellectuals became a mouthpiece for the reactionary coalition of nobility, the petty bourgeois and other departing pre-capitalist strata. The union of conservatism and romanticism was born out of this social confrontation as an inclusion of rational arguments mediated through reflexivity for the defense of irrationality. The development of this thought did not interact directly with the social groups trying to defend themselves, but through style, produced at the level of aesthetic and philosophical thought by some distinct professional circles, which then permeated, in fact, to classes at the level of politics.[4]

In the meaning of style, or in Mannheim’s even more profound political term—determining motive—what is important is the moment of interaction between the collective consciousness of social groups and the world of ideas, produced in the “boundary layers.” The ideologues of conservatism did not always belong to the circle of a vanishing aristocracy, or the small artisans, but were found in such proximity to them as to catch the spirit of the times and to formulate it at the level of thought, which soon became defining for these layers. Talking about the tradition of German romantic conservatism, Mannheim notes that “nowhere is it more clearly seen just how unique the emergence of the intelligentsia is, the place of which in the social body is hard to define owing to its unstable social status and its lack of strong positions in the economy”.[5] However, precisely this “instability of the intelligentsia” makes it an ideological leader of its time. Indeed, “the fates of the world of thought are in the hands of socially uprooted people, a strata whose class relationship and social position do not succumb to easy definition, and which seeks the purpose of its ambitions amongst other strata that occupy a more certain position in the social order”.[6]

Strictly speaking, many Marxist definitions of the intelligentsia began from the admission of its role as a class “substitute,” capable of creating their “idea” in their stead, and for them. Thus, Gramsci’s definition of “organic intellectuals” presumes that “every social group […] creates together with itself, organically, one or more strata of intellectuals which give it homogeneity and an awareness of its function not only in the economic but also in the social and political fields”.[7] In distinction to the traditional intelligentsia, generated and transformed through the changes of social relations and then “assimilated” by the ruling class for the reproduction of its ideology, “organic intelligentsia” initially has a political function—that is, it is capable of formulating this ideology. In this way, the “organic intelligentsia” becomes an embodiment of class consciousness, the materialization of an ability to sustain its position in society—or, inversely, to demand its radical re-examination.

However, style does not presume a direct and consistent connection between those who produce it, and those who perceive it as one’s own adequate consciousness. Moreover, it can be reproduced, largely, subconsciously and, balancing between the mental construction and life practice, it may not always correspond to the epochs of the rise and fall of certain classes. That is why Mannheim takes both these definitions—style and motive—from the sphere of aesthetics, underlining the proximity of the processes of evolution of a “way of thinking” and the history of art. Artistic style is in a state of constant change, of infinite addition of small and minor details, which consequently change it beyond recognition, turning it into something entirely different. Likewise, a conservative style of thought could undergo specific social conditions of its emergence, and, as we know today, become reproduced in entirely new conditions.

That, which we call “the intelligentsia” today, has, in reality, little in common with the Soviet intelligentsia from twenty or thirty years ago in terms of social relations. However, its style, that is, its connection between political practice and a way of thinking, expresses itself time and again, especially vividly in periods of social upheaval. And the interaction between various producers of this style—from the elegant Olga Sedakova to the literary pervert Dmitry Bikov, from the academic to an ordinary Facebook user—reveals not so much the exchange of ideas, or, moreover, their structured and socially conditioned pervasion from the top to the bottom, but a subconscious reproduction of extremely similar ways of thinking on different levels.[8]

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Moreover, the commonality of style in the context of Moscow protests of 2011-2012 clashed directly with the ability of its participants to realize their social position (or their distinction in this position), necessary for the broadening and success of the protests in order to derive from them fully realized ideological conclusions. Turning to Gramscian definitions, a bold statement could be made that on the path towards the birth of the new organic intelligentsia, capable of splitting old hegemonic constructions, stood the intelligentsia of style, simply reproducing and strengthening elements of this hegemony.

Let us try to figure this out. At the foundation of the above-mentioned joy of meeting of “Russian Europeans” in public space, there was an ethic principally set against politics. When the awareness of political questions should have widened the social boundaries of the movement, ethics, on the contrary, dictated their ongoing fixation. The circle of “decent people” brings fulfillment to its participants right up to the moment when others enter into it, destroying the unity of style. The ethical motive retains its value until such a time that it is understood more or less equally by all its carriers. Cultural proximity, contrasted to the social, is distinct from the latter by its strength and rootedness in tradition, not subject to rapid metamorphoses of the economic character.

The key element in this case is the illusion of continuity. The defining motive here becomes an ahistorical opposition between “decent people” and the savage reality, in which people and power represent two heads of the monster of historical culture of subordination and despotism. The rational analysis of the balance of power in this struggle is always pessimistic (“Let’s raise our glasses to the success of our hopeless affair”), but all the more strong is the irrational faith in the need for an ethical revolt. The myth of the intelligentsia proclaims that an ethical society was always—at least for the duration of the twentieth century—surrounded by hostile reality, from which such a widespread understanding of “power” emerges today as its main enemy.

The imagined continuity historically splinters into three communities of the intelligentsia, weakly, or not at all connected to one another socially: the pre-Revolutionary, the Soviet and the post-Soviet intelligentsia.

The pre-Revolutionary intelligentsia, in the long history of its existence, understood continuity not only ethically, but also politically. Thus, in his famous book, Ivanov-Razumnik wrote that “the history of the Russian intelligentsia dates back to the group that was the first to proclaim its motto as the struggle for people’s liberation; the second half of the eighteenth century served only as a preface to this history, which only the nineteenth century had unfurled in all of its breadth”.[9] The renunciation of awareness of their own place in the social structure, which became the main object of an uncompromising critique of Russian intelligentsia by the authors of “Vekhi” [“Milestones/Landmarks”], was never complete in reality. Education and the skills of mental labour were always understood as a sign of a privileged position. The ethical unreadiness to make peace with its forced proximity with the upper classes turned into a political mission of a struggle with inequality and oppression, despite its own “objective interests.” The bridging of a gap with “the people” was carried out through the “idea” of the masses or class. And if this type of instrumentalization of the universal theory and scientific knowledge by the intelligentsia for the solution of their narrow moral-political goals was actively criticized from the right[10] as a sign of social insolvency, then the left treated this same attribute as a sign of complacency and social futility. Whereas the authors of “Vekhi” considered that the Russian intelligentsia is too infantile to become “organic” for the ruling classes, Marxists considered it too class-bound and ingrained in the model of the division between mental and physical labour to become “organic” for the oppressed.[11]

Remaining economically connected with the way of life of the Russian capitalist periphery, and politically, with the silent (at least until 1905) oppressed majority, the intelligentsia persisted as an inseparable part of the ancien régime. And in this quality, it, like no one else, could reflect the fullness of the regime’s internal crisis, and to draw it closer to the end.

The post-Revolutionary intelligentsia was practically being born again, and what’s more, through the negation of the specific function that the old one performed. The Soviet intelligentsia started off with the direct execution of its main social goal, which was—through increasing professionalization—to play a key role slotted for it in the management of production and society. But this new intelligentsia had nothing in common with the futile attempts of “normalization” of the pre-Revolutionary intelligentsia. It represented a product of a radical rupture with the old intelligentsia at the social-economic level, and at the same time, it re-examined its own connection to it on the cultural and political level. The new mass intelligentsia of the ‘20s–‘30s was completely devoid of ethical feelings of its own privileged position and the rupture with “the people.” Its emergence was directly connected with the Bolshevik disposition towards “socialist culture” (contrary to the idea of a separate “proletarian culture”), which could have opened all the previous accomplishments of the upper classes for those who had been historically estranged from them. This “openness” of culture, the main agent of which was the new intelligentsia, was defined as overcoming the divisions of labour in the course of the advent of socialist society and a gradual withering away of state coercion.

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The establishment of Stalin’s dictatorship at the beginning of the ‘30s coincides exactly with the “cultural revolution,” the main results of which were not only the unification and nationalization of “literary-artistic organizations”,[12] but also the beginning of fundamental changes in the consciousness of the Soviet intelligentsia. The dominion of fear and the “depoliticization” of everydayness[13] organically correspond with the deliberate fragmentation of society through the promotion of competition. If collectivization draws new lines of separation in the village, and the Stakhanovite movement destroys the solidarity of the workers pitting them against each other in a race for success and money, then amongst the intelligentsia, what takes place is a turn to a constant internal division into sub-groups and layers, differently involved in the division of labour. Behind the academic and cultural elite belonging to the highest caste of Soviet society, there followed the middle and lower layers of the mass intelligentsia, deprived of privileges. And the bigger that chasm became, the more strongly was an imagined corporate connection felt amongst a growing educated part of society.

The intelligentsia possesses knowledge that it cannot directly convert into a constant improvement of its quality of life. The discrepancy in wages between workers and technical specialists, doctors and teachers, follows an almost exponential increase in the overall percentage of people with education.

The official interpretation of class structure of Soviet society, emerging after Stalin’s Constitution of 1936, asserted the existence of intelligentsia as a “stratum” between two main “comradely” classes—workers and peasants. This dubious design stemmed from the fact that despite the perpetuating division of labour in the USSR, its consequence was not antagonism (as in all hitherto known class societies), but cooperation, based on the common ambition towards a level of production that is needed for the transition into a classless society. Classes are determined only by the place in production, but not their relations to it (because private property is absent, and the state carries a public [“obshenarodniy,” literally, “all people’s”] character).

The position of the intelligentsia as a “stratum” in this context picks up particularly important meanings. If between two working classes what is at stake is a historic division that is overcome through socialist building, then a “stratum” becomes a new social phenomenon, not inherited from the past. The intelligentsia does not only seek not to dissolve, but inversely, it recognizes its own identity—both owing to persistent ideological emphases on class divisions, and to the discrepancy in wages and distribution of privileges molding these differences.

The intelligentsia becomes an internal “other” in Soviet society, not so much by natural means, but as a result of deliberate state politics, combining the rhetoric of equality with constant reminders of differences. When this “stratum” acquires a fairly stable awareness of its own identity as a peculiar “class in itself,” the meaning of higher education as a privilege continues to steadily decline. The intellectuals of the first generation already cognizant of themselves as a separate group with their own interests, turn out to be dangerously close to the other “comradely classes,” and primarily, to workers. The mass Soviet intelligentsia is inextricably linked to production and is in constant interaction with the working class practically on all levels of everyday life: at the place of work, at the communal apartment, on the street, or in line for groceries.

The ethical problem experienced by a significant part of the Soviet intelligentsia, represents something exactly opposite to the problem experienced by the pre-Revolutionary intelligentsia: instead of the trauma of alienation from “the people,” comes the trauma of indiscernibility from them. The “stratum” turns out to be in the position of a peculiar oppressed minority in Soviet society, demanding recognition and the recovery of its authentic worthy place in society. The only addressee of these demands on the cusp of ‘50s-‘60s becomes power.

The period of the “Thaw” was connected with the hopes of the intelligentsia for changes of its position from above. By the mid-‘60s, its collective program virtually becomes the “self-reform” of Soviet bureaucracy—an evolutionary process, during which there is a gradual but steady renewal of state and party cadres, and the result becomes the transparent mechanism of the conversion of educational status into political power. Of course, in practice, these aspirations were not rationalized to such an extent, nor were they devoid of genuine ambitions to change Soviet society for the better. However, the intelligentsia was aware of itself as a key subject in the turn towards “democratic socialism.” Roy Medvedev—one of the most insightful representatives of the nascent dissident movement and simultaneously, among the main ideologists of “self-reform”—formulated an entire program of an informal “party-democratic movement,” aiming to change the system from within. Medvedev noted that allies could even be found at the top echelons of the party apparatus, although the majority of “supporters of this movement are found amongst the workers of the party and state apparatus on its various levels, especially among the relatively young ones who had arrived to the apparatus after the twentieth and twenty-second party congresses”.[14]

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The tip of the intelligentsia, its ideologists (primarily, literary figures and academic scholars) acted both as a group exerting political pressure, and as experts, influencing political decision-making. The invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968 put an end to this and drew a line under the “Thaw” epoch, in large part because it clearly demonstrated the negligibility of the expert influence of the intelligentsia on power.

The subsequent “stagnation period” lasting almost twenty years, became a time of the emancipation of Soviet intelligentsia—first, from everything that reminded it of its own origins. The intelligentsia was acquiring the qualities of “a class in itself” not through the awareness of its own actual position in the surrounding society, but on the contrary, through the liberation from any kind of claims to its changes. The manifestations of this peculiar “great refusal” could be extremely diverse and different from one another: from conformism of “double consciousness” to religious experiments, from ethical austerity of the “human rights movement” to the resurrection myth of “blood and soil.”

The participation of the larger part of Soviet intelligentsia in the dismantling of the Soviet Union and in the arrival to power of the authors of “radical reforms” became the breaking point of this strange emancipatory project, the consequence of which was the destruction of all social foundations of its own existence. The main victims of the social catastrophe of the first post-Soviet decade were not only the two former “comradely classes,” but also the rebellious “stratum.”

If the Soviet intelligentsia had social unity engendering a certain style of thought, then the post-Soviet community of “decent people” does not have anything but style, inherited from this unity that has remained in the past. Emerging because of social institutions of one time, today, it exists in spite of the reality of a fundamentally different period. The style, however, turns out to be so tenacious not solely because of inertia. Against the continued destruction of the intelligentsia as a social community, the current ruling elite is concerned with preserving its unique consciousness. The style becomes an important element of political division, which is carried out from the top, and evidently hinders the intelligentsia from taking responsibility for their own fates, that is, in fact, to become “organic intelligentsia,” capable of creating a conscious choice for the benefit of the majority, estranged from power and property.

The potential for re-examining the post-Soviet state of affairs, while inconsistent, but clearly evident on the cusp of the ‘00s-‘10s, requires a radical re-examination of the very concept of the intelligentsia—as a political centre, capable of constantly creating new hotbeds of conflict and solidarity.

Moscow, 2014


  1. ^ Concerning the concept “imitation democracy,” see: Furman D. Movement in a Spiral: The Political System of Russia among Other Systems [“Dvizhenie po spirali. Politicheskaya systema Rossii v riadu drugih system”]. Moscow: Ves’ Mir, 2010. 
  2. ^ “To Really be a Christian: Conversation with Olga Sedakova.” [“Bit’ hristianinom po pravde. Beseda s Olgoy Sedakovoy”] // http://russ.ru/Mirovaya-povestka/Byt-hristianinom-po-pravde.
  3. ^ See: Mannheim K. Conservative Thought // Wolff K.H. (ed.) From Karl Mannheim. New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 1993.
  4. ^ Ibid.
  5. ^ Ibid.
  6. ^ Ibid.
  7. ^ Gramsci A. Selections from the Prison Notebooks. London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1971. P. 5.
  8. ^ ]  It is interesting that an actual social collapse of the Soviet intelligentsia at the beginning of the 1990s, spawned serious artistic reflexivity tied to the experience of the “end of intelligentsia.” A previous generation of artists-conceptualists, whose practice was largely a reflection of an inherently contradictory method of relations with reality of a Soviet intellectual, has gained disapproval from a new generation of “Moscow actionists.” These aggressive interventions, erasing the boundary between the public and private were, in Viktor Misiano’s opinion, simultaneously both an expression of trauma of a “post-intellectual,” and a peculiar kind of return to the figure of a Russian pre-Revolutionary intellectual-nihilist. Elaborated on in: Misiano V. Russian Reality. The End of Intelligentsia // Flash Art, Summer 1996.
  9. ^ Ivanov-Razumnik P. What is the Intelligentsia. [“Chto takoe inteligentsiya”] // Novikova L, Sizemskaya I. (eds.) Intelligentsia—Power—People [“Inteligentsiya—Vlast’—Narod”]. Moscow: Nauka, 1992. P. 81
  10. ^ Berdiayev N. Philosophical Truth and the Truth of the Intelligentsia [“Filosofskaya istina I intelligentskaya pravda”—Note the Russian variation on the definitions of truth: the meaning of truth as istina is considered a more ‘profound truth,’ the definition of pravda is closer in meaning to ‘accuracy’] // Vekhi [“Milestones”]: A collection of papers about the Russian intelligentsia. Moscow: Pravda, 1991.
  11. ^ Trotsky L. About the Intelligentsia. [“Ob Intelligentsii”] // Literature and Revolution [“Literatura I Revolutsiya”]. Moscow: Politizdat, 1991. P. 265–270. 
  12. ^ “The Decree on the Reconstruction of Literary-Artistic Organizations.” [“Postanovlenie o perestroyke literaturno-hudozhestvennih organizatsiy”] // Artizov A., Naumov O. (eds.) Power and the Creative Intelligentsia: Documents 1917–1953 [“Vlast’ I hudozhestvennaya intelligentsiaya. Dokumenti 1917–1953”]. Moscow: Mezhdunarodniy Fond “Demokratiya”, 2002.
  13. ^ Benjamin W. Moscow Diary. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1986. P. 53.
  14. ^ Citation in: Alekseeva L. The History of Dissent in the USSR: The Contemporary Period [“Istoriya inakomisliya v SSSR. Noveyshiy period”]. Vilnius, Moscow, 1992. P. 215.

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