[Rachel Hicks]

The intelligentsia, in its peculiarly Russian sense, was a “‘class’ held together only by the bond of ‘consciousness,’ ‘critical thought,’ or moral passion” (Malia, 5). It was a group of people in the 19th century who questioned the problems that faced Russia—specifically the question of serfdom and class. The many generations of the intelligentsia each ascribed to different schools of thought but all were engaged in critiquing Russia. These individuals, alienated by their education and frequently exiled, created the abstract ideals that planted part of the discontent in 1917. Beginning in the 1920s a specifically Soviet intelligentsia was created by the Revolution in the form of a new stratum of intellectual ‘workers’ in Soviet Russia, a quite different connotation then the intelligentsia of the nineteenth century (Malia, 3).

Under Peter the Great’s many reforms, the nobility of Russia underwent major changes. Peter changed the role of noblemen, so that “state service became the only activity that gave one a right to social and economic privileges and rewards” (Raeff, 38). In doing so he created a need for more people to be incorporated into state service than the nobility could provide. Raznochintsy (people of different ranks) the new non-noble free men who filled the many new positions, were resented by many of the nobility due to their success in the new system (Raeff, 53). The changing composition of the state servicemen necessitated a redefinition of nobility. Peter effectively redefined nobility as “a quality of character and mind” (Raeff, 54) and by the time of his death had transformed state service from fulfilling a duty to the tsar out of love and fear to an occupation that was a service to the people and to the country. As state service changed, so did the interests of the nobility. They could not achieve the same degree of power and monopoly through state service that they once could, and so they turned to Westernization, modernization, and a renewed interest in the local level (Raeff, 111). The nobility were educated in Western philosophy, dressed in Western clothes, and even spoke in Western languages. The government-sponsored foray into the West created disappointment and isolation, as the skills the nobility acquired there were inapplicable to an underdeveloped Russia.

On this Petrine foundation, the intelligentsia is generally credited by most historians to have truly taken shape in the 1830s and 1840s with the intellectual “circles” (kruzhki) of Russia (Malia, 2). They continued their isolation and elitism and were greatly influenced by the raznochintsy in the late 1800s. The Decembrists, revolutionaries who in 1825 demanded enlightenment ideals from Alexander I, by some are considered early intelligentsia, as they did critique the government; however, because they were not fully included in the ongoing rhetoric of the Fathers, they are generally recognized only as predecessors to the intelligentsia and as a catalyst to the movement. Inspired by the Napoleonic wars and Western influence, the Decembrists’ actions helped mobilize the secret societies, and set the political tone for the development of the intelligentsia under Nicholas I (Pomper, 20-21). Nicholas I continued the process of radicalizing the gentry as he attempted to censor the available literature and created martyrs from his policies (Pomper, 40-41). Nicholas’ policies also expanded university education, creating the students, professors, and intellectuals who would join others to discuss literature condemning serfdom, some even advocating violent action. Two of these groups were the Slavophiles and the Westernizers; both had radical elements. The Slavophiles “might be called radical conservatives, in that they wanted to reestablish the political, social, and cultural unity that they believed had existed in Russia during the Moscow period” (Pomper, 43). The Westernizers advocated immediate social development from the peasant masses who possessed “unique socialist and revolutionary attributes” (Pomper, 43).

These circles of the 1830s and 1840s are the Fathers of the movement. The Sons who dominated the scene from the 1850s onwards were radicalized more that the Fathers by the Crimean war failure and by the crack-down that crushed the 1848 rebellions throughout Europe. The nihilism and populism which distinguished them from the Fathers required the “display of a correct radical style in dress, speech, and general attitude” and the Sons were also distinguished by their lack of patience with higher education (Pomper, 67 and 88). Populism followed in the 1860s as “the desire to skip the phase of bourgeois capitalism by means of the peasant commune” (Pomper, 101). The emancipation of the serfs in 1861 complicated the relationship of the peasants to the intelligentsia; the peasants were convinced that the tsar would eventually give them the land they needed, thus the intelligentsia could not “reeducate the peasants to a conscious revolutionary socialist program” (Pomper, 124). Going to the people in the 1870s did result in some successes with Land and Freedom (Zemlia i Volia), a well-organized populist group. By the 1890s, there was a clear divide in the intelligentsia over the “role of the peasants in the coming revolutions” and deep ideological differences about the interpretation of Marxism and its application (Pomper, 152). During the 1900s until the revolution, the intelligentsia developed into the many parties that would clamor for change from the tsar and provide the foundation for the Revolution and Civil War which would follow his down fall.

The intelligentsia formed from the changes created by Petrine doctrine and radicalized throughout the nineteenth century during the tsars struggle to redefine his power. As a mentality, the intelligentsia could not be contained and can barely be defined. The mechanics of the Revolution and Russian Exceptionalism were the legacy of a century of reflection from the intelligentsia.


  • Christopher Read, “Russian Intelligentsias and the Bolshevik Revolution” History Today 34, no. 10 (October 1984): 38. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed February 20, 2012).
  • Marc Raeff, Origins of the Russian Intelligentsia: The Eighteenth-Century Nobility (New York: Harcourt, Brace &World, Inc., 1966).
  • Martin Malia, “What is the Intelligentsia?” in The Russian Intelligentsia. Edited by Richard Pipes (Oxford University Press, 1961).
  • Philip Pomper, The Russian Revolutionary Intelligentsia (Arlington Heights: AHM Publishing Corporation, 1970).
  • Stuart Ramsay Tompkins, The Russian Intelligentsia (Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1957).