Russian intellectuals: The hand that feeds them

Individual voices are brave. But Russia’s intelligentsia, which could be much freer than in the bad old days, is still mealy-mouthed.

THEY did not like each other much, Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Russia’s liberal intelligentsia. Solzhenitsyn, who in the West was considered its paramount flower, was as rude about it as he was about almost everything else. He refused to use the word intelligentsia, engineering instead the ugly and pejorative obrazovanshchina, roughly “educatedness”. The intelligentsia responded in kind: it paid tribute to his courage, read his works in samizdat but was spooked by his anti-Western attitude and refused to recognise him as one of their number.

His main charge was that the intelligentsia had failed in its most vital task-- to speak on behalf of the people suppressed by an authoritarian state. Members had become part of the system, allowing themselves to get comfortable in its nooks and crannies. “A hundred years ago,” he wrote in 1974, “the Russian intelligentsia considered a death sentence to be a sacrifice. Today an administrative reprimand is considered a sacrifice.” He spelt out his commandments in capital letters: “DON’T LIE! DON’T PARTICIPATE IN LIES, DON’T SUPPORT A LIE!”

When Solzhenitsyn wrote in this way, few dared to argue publicly with the great Russian writer-in-exile. But when he returned to Russia in 1994 he became a figure from the past. Few famous writers or artists came to pay respect as he lay in state. The most prominent faces were those of Vladimir Putin and Mikhail Gorbachev.

 “The Gulag Archipelago”, published in 1973, had shaken the very foundations of the Soviet system, but it did not make the country immune from the restoration of Soviet symbols and elements. Russia today is ruled by the KGB elite, has a Soviet anthem, servile media, corrupt courts and a rubber-stamping parliament. A new history textbook proclaims that the Soviet Union, although not a democracy, was “an example for millions of people around the world of the best and fairest society”. Mr. Putin bears a large share of responsibility for all this, but that does not exempt the Russian intelligentsia from its share. Putin-ism was made strong by the absence of resistance from the part of society that was meant to provide intellectual opposition.

Shortly before Mr. Putin was due to stand down as Russia’s president, Nikita Mikhalkov, a prominent Russian film director, together with a couple of Mr. Putin’s other fans, wrote a letter “on behalf of Russian artists” pleading with him to stay in power. The letter provoked indignation and an open letter from an opposing camp, telling Mr. Putin to go. The two letters were a blip on the intelligentsia’s cardiogram, which had been showing few signs of life. The death of its greatest intellectual is likely to become another blip on the same largely dormant machine.

The very word intelligentsia is a Russian invention. In the West it usually evokes the image of a talented intellectual, otherworldly, harassed by the state, soulful and conscientious. But the Soviet intelligentsia was different. It was summoned into being by the state for a particular purpose, one that had little in common with its 19th-century antecedents.

In Tom Stoppard’s trilogy about 19th-century Russian intellectuals (“The Coast of Utopia”), Alexander Herzen laments that Russia has made no contribution to philosophy and political discourse. “Yes, one! The intelligentsia,” retorts one of his friends. “Well, it’s a horrible word,” comments another. “What does it mean?” asks Herzen. “It means us. A unique Russian phenomenon, the intellectual opposition considered as a social force.”

Mr. Stoppard’s characters are strangers in today’s Russia. Their hatred of autocracy, their lacerating criticism and their ability to articulate the concerns of the oppressed seem naive and out of date. Has the Russian intelligentsia lost its social force or its intellectual power? Or does the phenomenon exist only in an authoritarian society with no functioning parliament? Was Solzhenitsyn right in his diagnosis of the Russian intelligentsia, that it amounted to no more than people with diplomas and good jobs?

Solzhenitsyn was certainly not the first Russian intellectual to criticise the intelligentsia. Self-criticism and repentance have long been part of its identity. In “Vekhi”, an important self-reflecting book written in 1909, Sergei Bulgakov describes the sorry state of the intelligentsia, its conceit towards its own people, its lack of discipline and decency. “Russian society, exhausted by preceding tension and failures, is in a state of some numbness and apathy, spiritual disjunction and depression…Russian literature is flooded by a muddy wave of pornography and sensationalism.”

Bolshevik Russia had no need for reflective thinkers like Bulgakov. He was among the first Russian philosophers to be expelled by Lenin in 1922. Many of his readers vanished into prison camps.

Come into my parlour

Lenin and Stalin wiped out the old Russian intelligentsia as a political force. Yet, as culture-centric dictators, they bribed and remoulded the finest examples to their own needs. For example the Moscow Art Theatre, which embodied the Chekhovian intelligentsia, was gradually converted into a Soviet institution. Its actors were showered with privileges and comforts, were allowed to travel abroad and could rest in government sanitariums for as long as they could lend their art to the purposes of the Bolshevik state. In the late 1920s the Soviet government started to give out large plots of land to selected artists, scientists and engineers in a special compound.

Vasily Kachalov was a Moscow Art Theatre actor who played Chekhovian parts. According to his son, he dealt with the ambiguity of his new position by heavy drinking. And when drunk he cursed himself for allowing the state to see him as a symbol of continuity between the Russian and Soviet intelligentsia.

In fact it was scientists, physicists particularly, who were at the core of the Soviet intelligentsia as a social phenomenon. Andrei Zorin, a historian at Oxford, argues that the intelligentsia was largely the product of nuclear research. Stalin needed a nuclear bomb and realised that scientists’ brains do not work unless you allow them a certain amount of freedom. The conditions created for the scientists were close to ideal: they had status, money, equipment and no distractions. “Science was the favourite child in the hands of the government,” says Vladimir Fortov, a member of Russia’s Academy of Science. “It was prestigious and well paid. We could do our research and not concern ourselves with anything else.”

Russian nuclear physicists were settled in closed or semi-closed towns and housed not in barracks but in attractive cottages, which resembled Swiss chalets or small Russian mansions, amid forests. The best Russian scientists were exempted from joining the Communist Party and had direct access to the Kremlin. The fact that Andrei Sakharov was one of Russia’s top nuclear physicists, the father of the first Soviet hydrogen bomb, and a man who had direct contact with Lavrenty Beria, the security chief, gave special power and meaning to his dissent.

The scientific colonies were well supplied not only with food but also with culture. The political clout which scientists possessed allowed them to invite artists who were not allowed to perform before larger audiences. Vladimir Vysotsky, an iconic Russian poet, singer and rebel, gave one of his first public concerts in Dubna, a nuclear-research town.

Russia’s military needs led to an overproduction of all kinds of scientists, matched by a hyper-production of culture, says Mr Zorin. The consumers of this culture were the millions of engineers and scientists who worked in research institutes and construction offices with a postbox number for an address. In reality, the Soviet economy could not accommodate them all: as the Soviet joke had it, they “pretended to work and the state pretended to pay”. 

A large number of educated, intelligent and underemployed people in their 30s and 40s with little prospect of moving up the career ladder provided a perfect milieu for brewing liberal ideas. With time, they formed a political class. They were not dissidents and they relied on the state for provisions, but they were fed up with the restrictions imposed by Soviet ideology and they were critical of the system.

They wanted to live “like people do in a civilised world”, they wanted to travel abroad, get food without queuing and have access to information. But they neither anticipated nor desired the dismembering of the Soviet Union.

It was this political class of intelligentsia that prepared for perestroika and became the main support base for Mikhail Gorbachev. Perestroika offered everything that the intelligentsia desired while still keeping the Soviet Union in place. The late 1980s were, perhaps, the happiest years for the intelligentsia, combining a degree of freedom of expression with continuing state support. When in August 1991 Communist and KGB hardliners mounted a coup against Mikhail Gorbachev, hundreds of thousands of the Russian intelligentsia gathered in front of parliament to defend the achievements of perestroika.

“I think of August 1991 with great tenderness and nostalgia. I thought then it was one of the highest moments in Russian history, that it would become a national holiday,” says Lev Dodin, the artistic director of the celebrated Maly Drama Theatre. Boris Yeltsin, tall, handsome, with a shock of white hair, standing on a tank and speaking on Mr Gorbachev’s behalf, was an image made for canonisation.

Beginning of the end

But the day when the KGB-inspired coup was defeated has not become a national holiday, and its tenth anniversary was celebrated with the restoration of the Soviet national anthem. The paradox was that the intelligentsia’s triumph-- which led to the collapse of the Soviet empire-- was also the beginning of its end. Soviet intelligentsia and the state were joined at the hip. When the state went, so did the intelligentsia. The defeat of the coup did not become an ideological watershed; it was not celebrated as the birth of a new nation, only as the collapse of the old one.

Having smashed the bell jar which it inhabited, the intelligentsia felt disoriented. The contract-- under which the intelligentsia barked at the state and the state occasionally hit back but continued to provide support-- was broken. The state no longer needed intellectuals. It needed managers and businessmen able to avert starvation and total economic collapse. The intelligentsia had nurtured the cult of the persecuted and consecrated its own heroic struggle (a censor’s ban was a badge of honour). But it was caught unprepared for the practical and mundane tasks of building state institutions.

A large number of scientists left the country. Some went into business (most Russian oligarchs of the Yeltsin era, including Boris Berezovsky, were scientists in previous lives). A few took jobs in government. Some intellectuals dedicated themselves to human rights. But, as a class, the intelligentsia did not create lasting democratic institutions or solidify the freedoms granted in 1991.

Russia’s media engaged in an exercise of self-deprecation and sneering. Almost nobody was prepared systematically to study the country’s history. According to Mr Dodin, one of Russia’s most thoughtful and influential theatre directors, “When we read ‘The Gulag Archipelago’ in samizdat, we thought that if ever this book gets printed, everything will change, forever.” And then the unthinkable happened: the book was printed-- and largely ignored. Russian liberals sneered at Solzhenitsyn, though none managed to offer anything comparable to his work.

Hard times for intellectuals

The country which had bloodlessly freed itself of communist ideology and had ended the cold war was experiencing a collective inferiority complex. The end of the Soviet Union did not produce anything resembling the artistic energy created by the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 or the years that followed. Russian writers failed to fill a linguistic vacuum left by several decades of the devaluation of serious language. The country still lacks the words to describe the scale of events that have taken place over the past 20 years.

Ideological and economic collapse deprived Russia’s intelligentsia of status, money and exclusivity. The very concept began to fall apart. “Capitalism was alien to the intelligentsia. Intelligentsia is a function of monarchy-- normal bourgeois societies do not have it,” says Sergei Kapitsa, a respected scientist. It was no surprise that most of Russia’s intelligentsia did not recognise Yeltsin as one of “theirs”. For many scientists, Yeltsin’s were the “lost years”.

This may help to explain why a large part of Russia’s scientific and artistic elite welcomed Mr. Putin with open arms. Solzhenitsyn himself refused to receive an award from Yeltsin-- whom he saw as a man who had humiliated Russia-- but accepted one from Mr. Putin, seeing in him a symbol of national resurgence (although he found many aspects of Putin’s Russia unpalatable).

The Putin years have split the Russian intelligentsia. Dissidents and other sharp critics still exist in Russia today, but they have diverged from the country’s cultural establishment, which does not see Mr. Putin as alien to their interests. It is not just financial handouts that have made him attractive-- although they have helped. The centralisation of the state with an added measure of nationalism has created a new sense of the return of status plus the flattery of the state’s attention.

Mr. Putin’s unexpected visits to Moscow theatres and impromptu remarks on productions leave artistic directors, who once symbolised the intelligentsia, mesmerised. When a famous scientist received a medal from Mr. Putin’s hands he was astonished by how down-to-earth the former president was.

The Kremlin pays due attention to science and culture these days. Although it bashes non-governmental organisations, it has created a public chamber of approved and loyal members of the intelligentsia, which includes scientists, artists and lawyers. One of the first public appearances of Dmitry Medvedev as Russia’s newly elected president was as a trustee of the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts.

The sense of success and inclusion is harder to resist than the wrath of the state. Carrots are more corrupting than sticks. This phenomenon is powerfully described in Vasily Grossman’s novel “Life and Fate” (1960). One of its central characters is Viktor, a talented physicist who stoically defends his science in the face of likely arrest, but becomes weak and submissive when Stalin calls him to wish him success. “Viktor had found the strength to renounce life itself-- but now he seemed unable to refuse candies and cookies.”

The adaptation of “Life and Fate” for the stage was put on recently by Mr Dodin in the Gulag town of Norilsk. When the powerful production came to Moscow it was played in a richly decorated new theatre built by a famous Russian actor who had signed a letter defending the shambolic and shameful trial of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, an oil magnate who fell foul of the Kremlin. Unlike Mr. Grossman’s character, few people in the audience had experienced the burning shame of Viktor’s choice. The moral qualities of the Soviet intelligentsia have always been exaggerated, says Mr. Fortov. He says that scientists and artists happily informed on each other even when nobody demanded it. “They did so of their own volition.” By the same token, nobody had made Mr. Fortov sign the letter about Mr. Khodorkovsky’s trial or hang Mr. Putin’s portrait on his wall.

Russia still produces brave individuals, independent and conscientious enough to speak the truth to the state. But they remain individual voices. The murder of Anna Politkovskaya, an outspoken Russian journalist, raised a few sighs and lamentations-- but not street protests. Her funeral, which produced a massive outpouring of sentiment in Europe, was a muted and depressing affair in Moscow. It did not bring journalists together, but exposed the gap between those who serve the state and those who serve the public. Mr. Putin callously said at the time that Politkovskaya’s work had minimal impact in Russia. Worse still, he was right. The country was almost deaf to her voice.

See no evil, speak no evil

Russia today is much freer than it was for most of the Soviet era. However undemocratic it may be, it is not a totalitarian state. The room for honest speaking is far greater than Russian intellectuals make use of. As Marietta Chudakova, a historian of Russian literature and courageous public figure, puts it, “Nobody has been commanded to lie down-- and everyone is already on the ground.” The media is suffocated by self-censorship more than by the Kremlin’s pressure. Nikolai Svanidze, a Russian journalist who works for a state TV channel, admits: “There is no person who tells [me] what you can and what you can’t do. It is in the air. If you know what is permitted and what is not, you’re in the right place. If you don’t, you are not.”

Yet, as Russia struggles with corruption and abuse of state power, the need for a spiky intelligentsia is greater than ever. As Sergei Bulgakov wrote in 1909, “Russia cannot renew itself without renewing, among other things, its intelligentsia”.

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