The National and Social Identities of the Russian Intelligentsia

By Zinaida Osipova

Ideas of nationalism, nation-states and national identity made their way to history relatively recently, yet they have caused numerous military conflicts, introduced new ways of categorizing people, and led to creation of political entities based on these categories. Grouping people together based on their shared culture, heritage, and language has been not only a pressing matter for political leaders, but also a subject for scholarly discussions. Russia presents a curious case: comprised of over a hundred nationalities, it is a country where one could be a citizen of Russia (rossiiskii) but not always ethnically Russian (russkii). It is in this setting of the multinational yet monolithic unit, often influenced by or responding to Western ideas, that the self-assured Russian intelligentsia has deliberated over the destiny of the country.

In his writings, the philosopher Isaiah Berlin argues that although nineteenth-century Russian intelligentsia was devoted to discovering and abiding by the truth, few of their ideas “were born on Russian soil.” He stresses the Western influence on Russia’s intelligentsia yet points out the “extraordinary tendency toward self-preoccupation” characterizing Russian writers.[1] Indeed, being part of the highly educated class in nineteenth-century Russia presupposed familiarity with French, English, and German texts and principles. Many prominent intellectuals traveled to Europe, bringing back ideas of how Russian society should function. Importantly, whether they looked up to Western ideals (Alexander Herzen) or despised Western preoccupation with the mundane (Fyodor Dostoyevsky), it is through the lens of the foreign that they sought to understand their homeland.

While understanding and directing Russia’s place in the world has been a major preoccupation of the Russian intelligentsia, it has also puzzled Western scholars of Russia. Simon Franklin and Emma Widdis point out that “national identity is a process rather than a result” and that “Russia is continually represented as a question, a field of possibilities, a set of contradictions.” They both reject and engage with characteristics of “Russianness,” attempting to delineate the indefinable. They suggest that the key to understanding Russian national identity is looking at how Russians understand themselves.[2] While Western scholars examine the ways in which Russians define themselves and Russian intellectuals, in turn, juxtapose themselves with the West to better understand their culture, the question of Russia’s destiny remains unanswered, and, according to Franklin and Widdis, cannot be decisively resolved.

The Russian intelligentsia may not have come up with a resolution regarding what the country is and should be, but they have had an easier time defining themselves as a social group rather than a national one. Berlin stresses “the total and unquestioning” dedication of the intelligentsia to pursuit of the truth, implying that it was an intrinsic part of belonging to the group. He also mentions “the notorious chasm that divided the educated from the uneducated,” indicating that unlike Russia’s relationship with the West, the intelligentsia’s relationship vis-a-vis other social groups was more clearly defined.[3] Thus, despite Russian intellectuals’ debates over Russia’s place in the world, their belief that they have the authority to speak on behalf of the whole country based on their sense of intellectual superiority has been their invariable characteristic.

[1] Isaiah Berlin, Introduction to Russian Intellectual History: an Anthology, by Mark Raeff (New York, Chicago, San Francisco and Atlanta: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1966), 5-9.

[2] Simon Franklin and Emma Widdis, National Identity in Russian Culture, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 2-4.

[3] Berlin, 9-10.

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