restricted access Was the Intelligentsia Part of the Nation? Visions of Society in Post-Emancipation Russia
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Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 7.4 (2006) 733-758

Was the Intelligentsia Part of the Nation?
Visions of Society in Post-Emancipation Russia
Nathaniel Knight
Dept. of HistorySeton Hall University
South Orange, NJ 07079 USA

For remarks delivered at an event touted as a "holiday of the intelligentsia," Fedor Dostoevskii's celebrated oration on Aleksandr Pushkin in the summer of 1880 struck a rather odd note. 1 Slavophiles and Westernizers alike greeted Dostoevskii's evocation of Pushkin's genius with a shower of acclaim. But underlying his unifying message was a challenge to the position of the intelligentsia within the Russian nation, a challenge that Dostoevskii made sharper and more explicit in the printed version of his remarks. 2 Dostoevskii claimed that Pushkin embodied the capacity of an artist to express the spirit of the nation. Pushkin's greatness, Dostoevskii argued, lay in his ability to convey the beauty of the Russian [End Page 733] soul through a vivid array of unmistakably Russian characters. Furthermore, Pushkin himself manifested the essence of Russianness in his acute receptiveness to the universal spirit of humanity, a characteristic trait of the entire Russian people. But while Dostoevskii saw Pushkin as intrinsically Russian, both artistically and personally, he did not extend the same recognition to the Russian intelligentsia as a whole. Quite to the contrary, Dostoevskii adamantly insisted that the beauty of the Russian spirit, which Pushkin conveyed with such skill, was derived purely from the common people, the narod:

The main point that must be particularly emphasized is that all these examples of positive beauty of the Russian person and the Russian soul were drawn completely from the native (narodnyi) spirit. The whole truth must be told: it was not in our present-day civilization, not in the so-called "European" education (which, by the way, we never had), not in the deformity of our superficially mastered European ideas and forms that Pushkin found this beauty, but solely in the spirit of the people and in it alone. 3

The intelligentsia, in contrast, was cut off from the spirit of the Russian nation. Pushkin's contribution was to portray for the first time its pathology in such vivid characters as Evgenii Onegin and Aleko from "The Gypsies," hapless wanderers whose alienation from the nation and arrogant self-aggrandizement could lead only to tragedy.

Dostoevskii's formulation illustrates quite well a central dilemma inherent in the discourse on the Russian intelligentsia, a dilemma that has yet to receive adequate attention in the otherwise vast literature on the topic. Theoreticians of nationalism have often pointed out the key role played by an educated and culturally productive middle stratum of society—many use the term intelligentsia—in creating and disseminating the key symbols and ideas of nationhood. 4 In Russia, as the example of Pushkin illustrates, the role of intellectuals in representing the cultural attributes of nationality was [End Page 734] particularly important. Yet the discourse of the intelligentsia, exemplified by Dostoevskii's oration, served to place the intelligentsia outside the boundaries of the nation, alienated from the very culture to which it was giving birth. 5 The origins, impact, and implications of this dilemma are the topic of this article.

The dilemma of the intelligentsia is accentuated by the particular context in which the idea emerged. The period from the 1860s to the 1880s, in which the concept of the intelligentsia first appeared and took root, is commonly seen as the quintessential era of European nation-building, a movement of which Russia was very much a part. 6 The emancipation of the serfs in 1861 eliminated the seemingly insurmountable barrier between serf and master that had previously impeded an integrated vision of a Russian national community. 7 Now, optimists dreamed, Russia could begin to grow not only as a great imperial state but also as a nation. After the emancipation, a Russian "public" (obshchestvo) began generating and spreading ideas and opinion through the media of...