The Early Russian Intelligentsia

As Richard Pipes noted in his Russia under the Old Regime (1974), the origins of the term ‘intelligentsia’ are in fact Western European. Pipes described the word as ‘a clumsy, Latinized adaptation of the French intelligence and German Intelligenz which in the first half of the nineteenth century came to be used in the west to designate the educated, enlightened, “progressive” elements in society’. ‘Die Intelligenz’ (‘the intelligence’), for example as used in the discussions of the Austrian and German revolutionary parliaments of February 1849, referred to the ‘social group – essentially urban and professional – which by virtue of its superior public spirit deserved heavier parliamentary representation’. The word ‘intelligentsia’ entered the Russian vocabulary in the 1860s and, so Pipes argued, in the Russian context to the intelligentsia’s association with enlightened politics was added an important ‘sense of commitment to public welfare: a member of the intelligentsia or an intelligent is someone not wholly preoccupied with his personal well-being but at least as much and preferably much more concerned with that of society at large’. The emergence of an intelligentsia in imperial Russia was a ‘foregone conclusion’, because – Pipes added – an intelligentsia emerges ‘wherever there exists a significant discrepancy between those who control political and economic power, and those who represent (or believe themselves to represent) public opinion’.[i]               

Though the term ‘intelligentsia’ was first introduced into general Russian usage by Ivan Aksakov in the 1860s, intellectuals had appeared as a distinct group during the reign of Catherine II. As James H. Billington has observed, the work of these intellectuals was already marked by their detachment from the phenomenon of autocratic power in Russia. ‘The alienation of the intellectuals in many ways begins with the growing antagonism of serious playwrights toward the increasingly frivolous, largely musical theatre of Catherine’s later years.’ Billington cites the phrase ‘true wisdom’ (premudrost’), as used in the writings of Alexander Sumarokov, the director of the St Petersburg theatre. This concept, Billington sees, was ‘at variance with the ethos of Catherine’s court even when advanced by scrupulously loyal monarchists like Sumarokov’, in that it ‘seemed to propose a standard of truth above that of the monarch’s will’.[ii] Yet, as Pipes showed, it was Catherine herself who enabled the appearance of Russian intellectuals. ‘The omnipotent Russian state brought into being even its own counterforce.’ Catherine’s encouragement of journalistic activity, for instance – in 1769 she started Russia’s first periodical, Vsiakaia Vsiachina (A Bit of Everything) – ensured that ‘to Catherine belongs the credit for launching what Russians describe with the untranslatable obshchestvennoe dvizhenie’.[iii] 

Pipes provided a literal translation for this phrase as ‘social movement’ – signifying ‘a broad current combining expressions of opinion with public activity, through which Russian society at long last asserted its right to an independent existence’. The current flowed from the start in two channels, both ‘critical of Russia as it then was’: the ‘conservative-nationalist’ and the ‘liberal-radical’. It is the originator of the conservative-nationalist movement, Nikolai Novikov (1744-1818), whom Pipes labels ‘Russia’s first clearly identifiable intelligent’. In response to Catherine the Great’s stimulation of journalism, Novikov launched the satirical journal The Drone, in the first issue of which (in 1769) he posed what Pipes called ‘a question destined to be the central preoccupation of the whole intelligentsia movement in Russia’: ‘What can I do for society?’.[iv]

Novikov can be identified as a critic of Russia as it then was not because he questioned autocracy or serfdom (he did neither), but because he sought to help people to act independently: at this time (Pipes writes) ‘society first learned it could take care of its own needs’, insofar as Novikov’s multifarious educational and philanthropic works shattered the assumption that ‘the state and it alone had the right to act on behalf of “the land”’. But Novikov is nonetheless ‘classified as a political conservative because of his determination to work “within the system”’. Crucially, being a Freemason follower of Louis Claude de Saint-Martin, Novikov blamed the existence of evil on man’s corruption rather than the institutions under which he lived. It was this emphasis on man himself rather than his environment which would become a defining feature of Russian conservatism.[v]

It was not just that Novikov was identifiable as the first obvious Russian intelligent : as a religious conservative he appears as an exemplary late Enlightenment intellectual. Nicholas Riasanovsky has defined the late Enlightenment as a phenomenon within which ‘self-improvement was rapidly gaining adherents as a substitute for social change’, and during which ‘critics were becoming moralists or even mystics’. Freemasonry in Russia exemplified the social/mystical duality marking the late Enlightenment: Riasanovsky wrote of ‘two approaches’ or ‘main trends’ that fused within eighteenth-century Russian Freemasonry, ‘the mystical, and the ethical and social’. Whilst the mystical trend ‘concentrated on such elusive and essentially individual goals as contemplation and self-perfection’, the ‘active wing of the movement’ – or ‘the socially oriented Freemasons centring around the University of Moscow and led by Novikov’ – pursued its educational and publishing projects.[vi] 

When thinking about what makes Novikov represent an exemplary late Enlightenment intellectual precisely as a result of his being a religious – in his case, Freemason – conservative, it is worth remembering the occultist sense and derivation of the word ‘intelligentsia’. As Billington recorded, Novikov’s fellow Freemason, the philosopher and mystic Johann Georg Schwarz (a lecturer at Moscow University), was ‘apparently the first to use the term intelligentsiia’. Schwarz used the term in the sense of the Latin intelligentia (‘intelligence’), but lent ‘intelligentsiia’ both its distinctive Russian spelling and ‘the sense of special power which would eventually come to be applied to the class of people who went by its name’. Billington adds that it ‘seems probable’ that the term was in fact derived not directly from Latin, but ‘indirectly through the adoption of Latin terms in German occult literature’. He finds a usage of ‘intelligentsia’ which is ‘close to the concept of pure spirits, or Intelligenzen, in German occultism’. Such a usage would chime with Schwarz’s definition of ‘intelligence’, as pure: ‘that higher state of man, as a mental essence, free from all base, earthly perishable matter; eternally and imperceptibly capable of influencing and acting on all things’.[vii]

An ambition to exercise such occult special power, or capability of ‘influencing and acting on all things’, clearly found expression in the social/mystical dualism characterizing the simultaneously activist and contemplative operations of eighteenth-century Freemasonry. As Billington maintained, ‘the first comprehensive history of Russian Masonry claimed with some justice that Russian Masonry first gave the aristocracy “a sense of mission as an intellectual class”’.[viii] Riasanovsky argues that Novikov made ‘better use than any other individual of the opportunities provided by Catherine the Great to spread enlightenment’, and quotes the Soviet Novikov scholar Georgii Makogonenko regarding the publisher’s ‘knowing how to unite hundreds of people around his educational activities’. Thus precisely the enlightening mission of the eighteenth-century, Russian (Freemason) intelligentsia demonstrated how ‘the concept of enlightened despotism itself’, as Riasanovsky asserts, entailed ‘a logical alliance between modernizing rulers and an emerging educated public’.[ix]

Riasanovsky traced the development of the divide between the Russian state and its enlightening, progressive intelligentsia to the second, reactionary half of Alexander I’s reign. ‘It was only after the Congress of Vienna and Waterloo that the paths of the government and of at least the more radical segment of “society” began perceptibly to diverge.’ Even as late as 1825, the Decembrist rebellion remained an Enlightenment-influenced form of revolution: when Riasanovsky quotes Marc Raeff’s judgement that ‘the Decembrists resembled in many ways the generation of Frenchmen that had led the first years of the Revolution’, he adds the comment that ‘the Russian Enlightenment was finally bearing its full fruit’. 1825 thus also saw the crushing of the missionary activism of the early intelligentsia, when the Decembrist fruit of the Enlightenment was cut down by the state. In 1969 one A. Ianov would write, from his radical, Soviet perspective, that ‘not only the revolutionary quality of the gentry was shot down in the Senate Square. Also shot down were the ideological premisses of that revolutionary quality: the belief in the all-saving force of enlightenment and of political reforms.’[x]

As Pipes notes, it was only the ‘post-1855 generation of “Positivists” or “Realists”’ who returned to the question articulated by Novikov: ‘what are we to do?’. The ‘Idealist generation’ of intellectuals of the decades from about 1830 on were instead more concerned with asking ‘who are we?’. Riasanovsky was referring to this post-1825 heightened alienation of the intelligentsia and concomitant interest in ‘metaphysics, religion, art or poetry’, when he defined ‘the change from the ideology of the Age of Reason to romanticism and idealism’, which occurred in the second quarter of the nineteenth-century, in terms of a ‘new Weltanschauung’ that demoted ‘political and practical concerns’. This new viewpoint of the intelligentsia also ‘contained within itself a strong affirmative and conservative bias’, Riasanovsky continued; ‘historical, traditionalist, religious, and authoritarian arguments of the romantic age were used to define and uphold the doctrine of Official Nationality’. Yet Riasanovsky also still makes the point – which I have noted elsewhere in connection with the thought of Ivan Kireevskii – that in Russia ‘the ideas of the intellectuals of the 1830s and the 1840s were much farther removed from any actual or possible reality than those of their counterparts in the preceding generations’.[xi] In the remainder of this piece I want to explore how the early Russian intelligentsia’s disengagement from external reality around 1825 seems to be accompanied by a split within its religious conservative thinking.

I view this split in connection with – as a development of – the social/mystical duality characterizing the religious conservatism of Freemasons such as Novikov. Both the intelligentsia groups that interest me in the period immediately after 1825 can be classed as ‘romantic’ intellectuals, and for both groups ‘“Russia” and “the Russian people” acquired a supreme metaphysical, and even mystical, importance’ (in Riasanovsky’s words). For this reason both groups of intellectuals can be described as mystically-inclined religious conservatives. But the group Riasanovsky terms ‘nationalists’ were much more obviously socially oriented in their interests than the other group, the Slavophiles, who in fact underlined the alienation of the Russian people from the state. When detailing the main representatives of the ‘nationalists’ (the poet Fëdor Tiutchev, Moscow professors Mikhail Pogodin and Stepan Shevyrëv), Riasanovsky points out how this group ‘stood close to the Slavophiles, although they remained separated from them, primarily by the issue of the nature and role of the Russian state’.[xii]    

The social ambitions of the nationalists – their ‘commitment to public welfare’ (Pipes) as intellectuals – worked out in terms of both a focus on general education and a substantial growth in higher education. In the 1830s Sergei Uvarov began to run the Ministry of Education and, wrote Pipes, ‘higher learning began to flourish spectacularly in Russia’. Whereas in the late eighteenth-century the University of Moscow hardly had ‘much of an intellectual impact’ on the country, with a ‘largely foreign faculty [which] lectured in German and Latin to an uncomprehending audience composed of priests’ sons and other plebeians’, during the 1830s scions of the aristocracy started to enrol in the newly fashionable activity of university study. Uvarov thought, as Pipes put it, that ‘scientific and scholarly knowledge was the best antidote to subversive ideas then floating in the country’.[xiii]

Pogodin on the other hand, as Riasanovsky saw, argued that ‘general education was a necessity if Russia were to survive as a modern state’. Nationalists like Pogodin were committed not to the aristocracy, rendered-compliant or otherwise, but to the idea of an intellectually elevated populace. Pogodin – who himself began life as a serf – once wrote that ‘every supreme authority, even the wisest, will become still wiser when assisted by the voice of the entire people’. Such a view illustrates the nationalist intellectuals’ belief in what Riasanovsky calls a ‘popular autocracy’, or ‘a real union in thought and action between the tsar and his humble subjects’. This goal was to be achieved by educational improvements which would ‘make all people active and enthusiastic participants in the destinies of Russia’. The nationalists’ impulse towards fostering popular agency was aided by Nicholas I’s government which, Riasanovsky summarizes, ‘made some significant contributions to the development of education in Russia’. But the encouragement of intelligent participation in political life was also hindered by the repressive tsarist climate, within which Nicholas I could write (in 1848) that ‘neither blame, nor praise is compatible with the dignity of the government or with the order which fortunately exists among us; one must obey and keep one’s thoughts to oneself’.[xiv] 

Nicholas I was – in Riasanovsky’s phrase – ‘suspicious and critical’ of German Idealism, which was precisely the school of philosophy which had brought together future nationalist and Slavophile intellectuals in the ‘Lovers of Wisdom’ group from 1823 onwards. As Riasanovsky records, the study of Idealism in that literary group influenced the development of Pogodin and Shevyrëv no less than that of the Slavophile philosopher Kireevskii, and indeed Idealist philosophy ‘remained the central axis of their thought’. Idealist inwardness and tsarist militarism or bureaucracy were not well matched. But the metaphysical content of German Idealism could contribute to the historical Zeitgeist that Nicholas I both participated in (as an avid reader of Russian history) and helped foster (university chairs of Russian history were first established during his reign), as the autocratic state sought to find justification in history.[xv] During the rule of Nicholas I there arose, as Riasanovsky wrote, ‘a metaphysical issue of establishing and asserting the true principles of the unique Russian national organism, of ensuring its historical mission’. Their contribution to this phenomenon ensured that the Slavophiles created ‘the first ideology of Russian nationalism’, as Pipes noted, ‘by borrowing ideas from western Europe to extol Russia at western Europe’s expense’. Their involvement with Russian metaphysical nationalism was in fact also what allied the Slavophiles with modernizing, Westernizing intellectuals such as Alexander Herzen. The latter figure would praise the Slavophile thinkers thus:

‘The Kireevskiis, [Aleksei] Khomiakov, and [Konstantin] Aksakov accomplished their task. […] With them begins the turning-point of Russian thought. […] Both they and we conceived from early years one powerful, unaccountable, physiological, passionate feeling, which they took to be a recollection, and we – a prophecy, the feeling of boundless, all-encompassing love for the Russian people, Russian life, the Russian turn of mind. Like Janus, or like a two-headed eagle, we were looking in different directions while a single heart was beating in us.’[xvi]

Riasanovsky helps us trace the Slavophiles’ metaphysical nationalism back to the Romantic quality of their historical thinking. He argues that Slavophilism ‘represented the fullest and most authentic expression of romantic thought in Russia’, and sees ‘Aksakov’s historical writing’, for instance, as devoted to sustaining ‘the romantic ideal’ of ‘Russia’. Riasanovsky maintained that ‘the application of the Slavophile teaching to the historical plane was strikingly romantic’: Pëtr Chaadaev and the Slavophiles ‘theorized within essentially the same framework of romantic historiosophy’, wherein ‘metaphysical principles determined historical development’. For Riasanovsky, ‘even among romanticists’ Chaadaev and the Slavophiles ‘stood out for their emphasis on religion and its decisive significance in the life and history of man’.[xvii]     

The Slavophiles shared their metaphysical nationalism with the other mystically-inclined Russian religious conservatives of the period (alongside Chaadaev), Riasanovsky’s ‘nationalists’ such as Pogodin, but the Slavophiles alone invested in a Romantic historiosophy whose privileging of the transcendental suggested a detachment from material reality fascinatingly mirrored by the alienation of the Russian people from the state which the Slavophiles’ writing underscored. As Riasanovsky noted, Slavophile intellectuals hoped that their work represented ‘the bringing into consciousness, the all-important revelation of the ancient, deep, mighty, and mysterious essence of Russia, its true spirit’. Yet the ‘larger ramifications’ of the view that Slavophilism offered ‘a genuine revelation of the spirit for its age and perhaps for eternity’, as Riasanovsky adds, ‘belong to the realm of faith rather than of historical analysis’.[xviii] At one point in his account, the Slavophile historical method’s potential for ahistoricism – ‘the historian Serge Soloviev and some other critics pointed out at the time that the Slavophile view of the Russian past had very little connection with any historical reality’ – suggests the transcendental quality of Slavophile history-writing, when Riasanovsky concludes of Slavophile history that ‘indeed, it had come from quite other realms’. The Slavophiles’ take on the historical Russian commune illustrates the way the very content of their work foregrounded the transcendental: Nikolai Berdiaev commented on how to the Slavophiles ‘the commune was not a fact of history, but something imposing which stands outside the realm of history; it is the “other world” so to speak within this world’.[xix]

Riasanovsky highlights the Slavophiles’ own underlining of the Russian people’s long-term, and indeed constitutive, alienation from the state. He explains the Slavophiles’ dislike for democracy by observing how they were opposed to ‘any formal guarantee of the supremacy of the people, any established machinery for the election or control of the tsars’, because such democratic practice signified to them ‘the worst kind of legalism of the Western type, an involvement of the people itself in politics, a corruption of the Russian soul’. He cites Aksakov’s remark along these lines:

‘The essence of democracy is the most crude worship blinded by ambition of the principle of the state, of the external, material, compulsory, and relative truth, and the desire to introduce this principle into the inner life of the people’.  

Riasanovsky also quotes Aksakov’s comment that ‘the fewer points of contact the government has with the people, and the people with the government, the better’, noting that ‘a repudiation of enlightened despotism could hardly be more complete’.[xx]

Here the Slavophiles’ distance from Riasanovsky’s ‘nationalists’ concerning the issue of the nature of the Russian state and the people’s relation to it is clear: Aksakov’s position represents the inverse of the nationalist intellectuals’ belief in ‘popular autocracy’, or a participative union between tsar and people. Riasanovsky thus seems mistaken when he argues that Pogodin’s advocacy of popular autocracy – ‘every supreme authority […] will become still wiser when assisted by the voice of the entire people’ – was illustrative of how his ‘views overlap with those of the Slavophiles’. But there remains a sense in which the Slavophiles did believe in popular autocracy, which relates to the way in which they did actually support democracy. For Riasanovsky was correct to speak uncritically about the idea of a ‘populist and democratic nature of Slavophile teaching’ to precisely the extent that Ianov was right to claim that the Slavophiles recognized ‘the people as the source of authority’, even ‘autocratic authority’.[xxi]

The Slavophiles justified autocracy very strangely, by positing a form of democratic popular legitimation for it that was to remain separate from state power. As Riasanovsky observed, whilst for Slavophile intellectuals ‘autocracy, government in general’ was ‘indispensable in its proper place’, for these thinkers autocratic rule ‘was to be restricted to that place, to interfere as little as possible with the free life of the people’. In an allied way, ‘the Slavophile justifications of autocracy remained historical and functional, therefore relative, never religious and absolute’. The Slavophiles were seeking to conceive of a type of democracy which, being entangled with neither state nor religious power, placed them firmly on the ‘mystical’ side of any social/mystical duality. As N. V. Ustrialov writes: ‘If Slavophilism is characterized by a certain democratic element, its democracy is not formal, political, not state, legal, but mystical.’[xxii]   



[i] Russia under  the Old Regime, 2nd edn (London: Penguin Books, 1995; first publ. [London(?)]: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1974), pp. 251, 253.  

[ii] James H. Billington, The Icon and the Axe: An Interpretive History of Russian Culture (New York: Vintage Books, 1970; first publ. [New York(?)]: Knopf, 1966), pp. 715 n. 101, 234, 236.

[iii] Pipes, pp. 256, 255, 256.  

[iv] Pipes, p. 256.

[v] Pipes, p. 258.

[vi] Nicholas V. Riasanovsky, A Parting of Ways: Government and the Educated Public in Russia 1801-1855 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976), p. 51.

[vii] Billington, pp. 251, 715 n. 101, 251 (quoting Schwarz). 

[viii] Billington, p. 251 (quoting I. Findel, Istoriia Frank-Masonstva (St Petersburg: [n. pub.], 1872-74), page unknown).

[ix] Riasanovsky, pp. 38 (quoting Makogonenko), 49. 

[x] Riasanovsky, pp. 82 (quoting Raeff), 292 (quoting Ianov).

[xi] Pipes, p. 269; Riasanovsky, p. 286 (on Official Nationality see his Nicholas I and Official Nationality in Russia, 1825-1855 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1959)); Parting, p. 287.

[xii] Parting, p. 125; for further commentary on the relationship between the two groups, Riasanovsky directs us to his article ‘Pogodin and Ševyrev in Russian Intellectual History’, Harvard Slavic Studies, 4 (1957), 149-67.

[xiii] Pipes, pp. 253, 263.

[xiv] Parting, pp. 132 (quoting Pogodin), 130, 132, 130, 140 (quoting Nicholas I).

[xv] Parting, pp. 135, 156-57, 119.

[xvi] Parting, p. 150; Pipes, p. 266; Herzen is quoted from Parting, p. 197 n. 5.

[xvii] Parting, pp. 176-77, 183, 176.

[xviii] Parting, pp. 191, 198.

[xix] Parting, p. 186; Berdiaev quoted from Parting, p. 193.

[xx] Parting, pp. 195 (quoting Aksakov in n. 4), 197 (quoting Aksakov).

[xxi] Parting, pp. 132 (quoting Pogodin), 132-33 n. 5, 204; Ianov quoted on p. 205.

[xxii] Parting, p. 196; Ustrialov quoted in p. 195 n. 4.


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