The third way of the Russian intelligentsia
August 11, 2022
  • Konstantin Gaaze
    Sociologist, columnist  
Konstantin Gaaze reflects upon the question of how the intelligentsia can remain a social force, having abandoned the idea of exclusively or predominantly intellectual resistance to state power. Is it possible in Russia? And in exile?
The original text in Russian was published in Republic and republished here with their permission.
People insist Chubais (The Redhead) must be imprisoned for the privatization process, 1998. Source: Wiki Commons
Your head starts to hurt from the debates ongoing among the Russian intelligentsia on Facebook, in the émigré media and on Zoom calls with friends. Did Shaninka Rector Sergei Zuev do the right thing by partly admitting the guilt? What is Anatoly Chubais to blame for? Who’s better – those who left Russia or those who stayed? Is it right to “normalize” war or should it be made part of everyday life? Is Europe doing the right thing by pushing Russia away? Who are we? And so on.

Sometimes it even seems that these debates have neither sense nor significance. That they don’t combine to make a complete picture and can’t tell us anything meaningful either about the intelligentsia itself or the place where we ended up. I believe, however, that that isn’t so.

In his play about Russian revolutionaries The Coast of Utopia, the British playwright ⁠Tom Stoppard ⁠defines the intelligentsia in a scene with Nikolai Ketcher, a Swede by birth and a doctor who was friends with Alexander Herzen. Herzen laments that ⁠Russia hasn’t made “not one contribution to political discourse”, to which Ketcher objects, saying there is one – the concept of an intelligentsia, which is Russia’s “debut in the lexicon”. Herzen doesn’t know the word and asks Ketcher to explain what it means. “It means us” is his response – «A uniquely Russian phenomenon, the intellectual opposition considered as a social force».

Most of the debates among the Russian intelligentsia today, along with most of what is being written by them, must be filtered through Stoppard’s definition in order to understand their meaning.

What the intelligentsia is has been a matter of debate for sociologists since the beginning of the 20th century. Some subscribe to Antonio Gramsci’s notion that the intelligentsia has “the function of organizing the social hegemony" in the interest of the dominant class, namely, its agent. Others side with Karl Mannheim, who believed that the intelligentsia has a choice: either attach itself to a class (though not necessarily the ruling class), entering its interests and expressing them (like Village Prose writers for the Soviet countryside and science fiction and fantasy writers for Soviet engineers), or separate itself and begin to act “as the predestined advocate of the intellectual interests of the whole."

In both cases, we are talking about the intelligentsia in general. But in reference to the Russian intelligentsia Stoppard’s Ketcher fuses both definitions into one.
"The Russian intelligentsia is connected with the ruling class, but in a special way. It isn’t its intellectual 'agent', but its intellectual opponent."
It argues with power, leveraging its lone resource – knowledge. This argument gives the intelligentsia the ability to shape and distinct society by the very fact of its opposition to power. That is, in the case of Russia, both Gramsci and Mannheim are right. There is no intelligentsia without power. And there is no society without the intelligentsia, as it needs to be created by the act of the intellectual opposition to power.

Stoppard's definition gives us a better understanding of the last decade of Russian public life, when the intelligentsia suddenly, after a long decline in importance, became nearly the driving force. For a broadly understood public, the intelligentsia offered a unique opportunity. Participation in learning, familiarization with opposing power, a sense of belonging to society – these are things that are hard to find in one place. But in Russia it was possible. Thanks to the intelligentsia. Going to educational courses was also an act of opposition. Going out to peaceful marches along Moscow in 2012-14, were intelligentsia shaped and leaded the manifestation of the political unhappiness of urban middle class was – for that middle class - an illuminating activity. Taken together it represented participation in the formation of Russian society. At first, the regime also received dividends: society was itself taking shape, protests remained peaceful, by controlling the intelligentsia that very society (and sometimes, as in December 2011, protests) could be controlled.

On the eve of the war, the intelligentsia, either due to a strengthening of its position in society or historical circumstances, almost went from being a state of mere intellectual opposition to a social force. At some points – such as, for example, the summer of 2019 – it was the leading social force in the country.

Then it all abruptly ended.
Russian intelligentsia, picture by Eugene Ivanov, 2011. Source: Wiki Commons
After the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24, the Russian intelligentsia found itself in a strange situation. Opposing the regime through reason within the country lost all sense. What is there to talk about with a ruling group that unleashed a war and bombs peaceful cities in a neighboring country? What kind of opposition can there be at all?

If there is no intellectual opposition, then there is no social force. The position as the spokesman for the interests of society was lost when talking with the regime was ruled out. The intelligentsia disappeared along with society – there are no courses and lectures, there is no society, as ridiculous as it sounds.

What is happening now? In the debates of the intelligentsia, one can discern, as it were, two different and unrelated intellectual plots.

The first is who to oppose now. This is texts about resentment toward Europe for its shunning of the Russian intelligentsia, texts about the mistakes of left-wing or right-wing Western politicians, texts about corrupt Western elites. This is the search for a new figure of power, the dialogue with and opposition of which will restore the status of the Russian intelligentsia as a social force.

Then there are the debates about who is society now. Those who left or those who stayed. Here they talk about the arrogance of the former and the indifference of the latter. Moral rightness and high horses. From within the aggressor country voices are sounding louder and louder that assert – somewhat justly – that if you’re not on the ground you shouldn’t speak from a moral standpoint about Russia and about those who remain in Russia. In other words, go ahead and analyze, but don’t lecture us on how to live.

Essentially, Stoppard's definition is the same plot and not two different ones. And here it becomes clear what choice the Russian intelligentsia faces. How can they remain a social force, having abandoned the idea of exclusively or predominantly intellectual resistance to some power?

In exile, this doesn’t work. There is no intelligentsia – politicians and intellectuals exist separately. You can go be a professor or a consultant. You can launch new anti-Russia Russian parties in Israel or the Baltic countries. But it's not the same anymore.

It doesn’t work in Russia either.
"The regime has equated intellectual opposition with political action, which means that the very gap thanks to which the intelligentsia was in a unique position in recent years has now disappeared."
You give a lecture or teach a lesson – you go to prison. In Russia, opposition in general and intellectual opposition are now one and the same.

It seems that the Russian intelligentsia is groping for some third way in which there is power, opposition and society. This is the old way of Russian emigration. First, the intelligentsia launches unions for the salvation (or condemnation) of the fatherland. Then it starts to oppose them.

Despite the seeming absurdity of this not yet fully formulated idea of a third way, it isn’t so bad. A politburo composed of the leaders of those who left and leaders of those who remain will make it possible to preserve – on the level of language and priorities – the unity of the Russian-speaking educated class, which is now spread across the entire continent. Meanwhile, intellectual opposition to this politburo won’t let it grow moldy and turn into a laughingstock, like the émigré paper Novoe russkoe slovo.

To put it very simply, the educated Russians who have stayed and left need to stop arguing about who is “purer.” And relaunch the Opposition Coordination Council that operated briefly along with the 2012 street protests. This time the impact will definitely be bigger than a decade ago.
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