Who's Who

Russian Intelligentsia and the Bolshevik Revolution

In the aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 there was a battle for the mind of the new Soviet man with artists and intellectuals engaged in the struggle between the old Tsarist and the new Soviet culture.

Prior to the First World War the intelligentsia had become one of the most significant groups in Russian society. The story of its origin and development through the nineteenth century is a fascinating one. Growing from seeds planted by dissident members of the nobility such as Radischchev and Novikov who, in the late eighteenth century, had dared to raise their voices in criticism of the inhumanities of serfdom, the intelligentsia had, a century later, become an influential and diverse group. Its basic feature was its impulse to criticise and oppose the fundamental iniquities and occasional barbarities of tsarism. Within this rather loose framework a hundred flowers bloomed. Scientists, painters, authors, professional people, teachers and lawyers in particular, were all represented in the ranks of the critical intelligentsia. A wide variety of types and intensity of criticism could be found from the relatively gentle admonitions of Turgenev, through the penetrating and trenchant parables and sermons of Tolstoy to the fulminations of Bakunin and Lenin. Criticism might take relatively subtle forms like the 'discovery' of the pain and suffering of the lower orders of society as in Repin's painting The Barge Haulers or it might lead to overt political violence and assassination, particularly of government officials from policemen to the tsar, most of which was attributable to militant intellectuals.

By no means all intellectuals could be considered members of the intelligentsia in the sense outlined above. The majority of professional people, of university graduates, devoted their lives to furthering their careers in the service of the state, church or, increasingly, private industry and commerce without concerning themselves with wider issues. Many creative intellectuals were completely untouched by the spirit of political criticism characteristic of the intelligentsia. Thus the intelligentsia tended to see itself as a special minority, or kind of chivalric or monastic order distinguished from the rest of society by its devotion to the higher moral goal of serving the people. Its members often sacrificed their comfort, security and even their lives to the moral imperative of defending the deprived. Many intelligenty went into the villages to devote their special skills as doctors, agronomists, engineers and, where permitted to do so by the church, as teachers to the improvement of the peasants' way of life. Others organised political groupings across a wide range of the ideological spectrum from liberal conservatism to anarchism which formed the nuclei of the political parties when they emerged in the early twentieth century. Given this variety it is an impossible task to define precisely who was a member of the intelligentsia and who was not. Since it was state of mind as much as anything else which differentiated it the task becomes even more complex since individuals might change considerably over time. Thus there are many grey areas preventing a clear dividing line between intelligenty and non-intelligenty being drawn,

If one brings the creative intelligentsia into the reckoning the problem of definition becomes even more complex. Among this group political differences tended to be less pronounced. For writers, artists, sculptors and architects style was more important than politics, and consciousness more important than institutions. This did not prevent many of them from sharing the spirit of revolution which was characteristic of the political intelligentsia but they did tend to understand it in their own artistic terms. From this point of view there is some justification in concluding that their revolution was more advanced than political revolution by 1914. An explosion of talent since 1890 had not only brought the most recent European ideas firmly into Russian artistic life but had also begun to make a serious contribution to western culture in general. Previously it had only been in the literary field that this had been true but now in a variety of forms from Diaghilev's Ballet Russe, through the painting of Kandinsky, Chagall, Malevich, Tatlin and others, to the new approach to orchestral music developed by Stravinsky, the creative artists of Russia were contributing to a different and geographically more widespread revolution.

Not all of them, particularly before 1917, saw their revolution as having any connection with the intelligentsia's aim of serving the people, but after 1917 many of them came to feel that the Russian revolution was linked with their revolution in some way and might well provide the material conditions and spiritual stimulation needed for the continued development of their own artistically revolutionary aspirations. While they might not have political aspirations of the same kind they did share the rest of the intelligentsia's sense of being a dedicated group impelled by moral duty, though in most cases it was a duty to art rather than to the victims of the tsarist system.

Thus, by 1914, the intelligentsia, though divided in its political opinions and by the division into artistic and political sections was still united by its idealism, its sense of duty arising from its special skills, privileges and education and its hopes for a transformed future for Russia.

When the downfall of tsarism finally came about in 1917 many sections of the intelligentsia, political and artistic, began to see new duties and new opportunities presenting themselves. Perhaps surprisingly it was the more conservative members of the intelligentsia rather than the radicals who played the major role in the downfall of tsarism, earning themselves the entirely appropriate title of 'reluctant revolutionaries'. Their reluctance stemmed from the fear that once major political changes were set in motion they might not be able to be controlled. This was a well-grounded fear. The initiative passed rapidly from the hands of the centre-right and into that of the radicals of the Petrograd Soviet which, at the time of its formation in the February revolution, was pre-eminently the institution created by and representative of the mainstream of the radical intelligentsia in all its various ideological hues. Even though representatives of soldiers, workers and peasants began to outnumber intelligentsia members of the Soviet there can be no doubt that the leading positions remained in intelligentsia hands. Revolutionary politics in 1917 can perhaps be best seen as a series of competitions between intelligentsia groupings to form a stable alliance with the increasingly revolutionary mass movement. The group which could most successfully harness the forces of social revolution would triumph and in this respect Lenin, borrowing much from Trotsky, found the most successful formula.

Although the October revolution represented in this way the triumph of one section of the intelligentsia, the Bolsheviks, over the others, the basic relationship, of intelligentsia leaders controlling the mass movement remained. Indeed, the guiding role of revolutionary intellectuals in the labour movement was one of the distinctive features of Lenin's political ideas and practice, going back at least to his pamphlet What is to be Done? of 1902. It is not surprising that such a relationship should survive in this way because the whole history of the radical intelligentsia since the 1860s was marked by its fundamental quandary. How could a small group of intellectuals, separated from the masses of the people by their social origin, education, western orientation and belief in reason rather than superstition turn themselves into a powerful political force capable of overthrowing the established order? The history of the radical movements of late nineteenth-century Russia is the history of attempts to apply various strategies to achieve this goal.

First of all the peasantry and later the working class were seen as the potential source of revolution. Some groups attempted to reach the people through education and propaganda, others believed violence would be more effective. Despite all these efforts the masses remained indifferent to the blandishments of the intelligentsia and it was only in the revolutionary crisis of 1917 that, for a time at least, intelligentsia and people appeared to be working together and heading in the same direction.

The apparent alliance, however, soon began to fall apart as the special circumstances of 1917 altered. The Bolsheviks inherited a very complex state of affairs with respect to the creative and political intelligentsia. This was made even more complicated because the intelligentsia, by its very diversity, had proved very difficult to analyse according to the Marxist principles used by the Bolsheviks. Thus the Soviet government faced considerable practical and theoretical problems when it turned its attention towards the intelligentsia. Given the acute difficulties, one might have expected the Bolsheviks to be more open to the need for collaboration with the radical sections of the educated class, namely the intelligentsia. However, the record shows that it was often these radical and revolutionary intellectuals who were trusted least. In the field of the arts, too, the more radical eventually found themselves falling out of favour, even where they had been ruthless in trying to wipe out what they thought of as bourgeois and counterrevolutionary art. The eventual triumph of the aesthetic values of nineteenth-century bourgeois art, represented by the Bolshoi ballet and opera, the rehabilitation of the symphony orchestra, the naive representational nature of socialist realist painting and the narrative and inspirational characteristics of the Soviet novel (even though the content of these traditional forms was altered to accommodate the new circumstances) is one of the most surprising and ironic consequences of the revolution.

Thus the scene was set for a battle for the mind of the new Soviet man. On the one hand were various groupings within the party, each trying to establish itself as the official spokesman of the party. On the other was a diminishing band of non-communist intellectuals hoping to continue to defend the values they had held before the revolution and continue along the paths of artistic creativity opened up in the early years of the century. Three stages can be distinguished in this struggle, corresponding to the wider phases of development of the revolution. First there was the period of the Civil War (1917-1921), second the period of the New Economic Policy (NEP 1921 to about 1928/9) and thirdly the emergence of Stalinism (1928/9-1936). By far the most important of these phases was the second one, NEP, because it was at this time that the conflict of ideas and groups began to be replaced by the domination of a single faction, the Stalinists. It was also, by any standards, a period of impressive intellectual and artistic achievement, particularly in the fields of literature, painting, sculpture, architecture and cinema. In recent years a great deal of attention has been paid to the avant garde of this time and major exhibitions have been held in London, Paris and Los Angeles. Beneath this brilliant facade, however, bitter political and artistic struggles were being waged.

During the first years of the Soviet regime, the period of civil war and war communism, the struggle for survival was so intense that very little attention was paid to the intelligentsia question as such. Intellectuals suffered very badly, particularly in the major cities, from the general scourges of cold and famine in 1919. Manual labourers and party and state officials were protected from its worst effects but intellectuals had a very low priority in the distribution of scarce rations. They were also, on account of their class background, often suspected of sympathy for the counterrevolutionaries and thereby attracted the attention of the developing secret police force. Indeed a significant proportion of them had moved to areas controlled by counterrevolutionaries. Despite this, at the same time unparalleled (and as yet unrepeated) artistic and intellectual freedom flourished. Artists like Chagall returned from abroad and played a part in the life of the country. Universities operated according to the old curriculum as best they could given the practical difficulties but without systematic ideological supervision. Audiences flocked to free theatre and cinema performances in unprecedented numbers. A multitude of amateur trade-union and factory groups involved themselves in dance, choral music, theatricals, painting and writing. Even religious and metaphysical philosophy burgeoned, for instance Nicholas Berdyaev's popular 'Spiritual Academy' at Moscow University. At Gorky's prompting the government began to provide basic rations for the flower of Russia's scientific, artistic and literary intelligentsia, few of whom could be considered Bolsheviks, or even Bolshevik sympathisers.

Perhaps even more surprisingly, within the party itself the major cultural organisation which emerged, the Proletkul't (The Proletarian Cultural-Educational Association) was dominated by Bolsheviks who opposed Lenin on a number of vital issues, yet they were allowed to build up an extensive network of local organisations making Proletkul't one of the largest civilian organisations in the country after the party and the trade unions. The aim of Proletkul't was to form, as quickly as possible, a truly working-class intelligentsia and working-class culture. Extensive efforts were made, not only to educate the working-class but to discover worker-poets, worker-painters and so on imbued with the values of the supposedly emerging proletarian culture the basic themes of which were to be work, collectivism and cooperation. It declined rapidly after 1920, partly because of suspicion of the motives of its leaders on the part of Lenin who saw it as an attempt to divide the party and undermine his own leadership and partly because of internal divisions over what constituted an appropriate attitude to bourgeois culture. Should the new proletarian culture assimilate and supersede bourgeois culture or should it completely ignore it and try to write its own history on a completely fresh page? The movement became divided over this question.

The relatively free conditions of the war communist period began to alter as the Civil War came to an end in 1920. The government could now turn its attention away from the immediate problems of survival and towards longer term questions of rehabilitating the Russian economy and moving towards socialism. The initial burst of optimism about the ease with which this latter transformation might take place had evaporated and a longer and harder route was foreseen. The basic foundations for the new strategy were laid at the Tenth Party Congress in 1921 when, against a background of serious rebellions in the country, Lenin guided the party towards the New Economic Policy.

In essence, the policy reduced the state sector of the economy from its comprehensive hold over industry, commerce and, indirectly, agriculture, retaining in its hands only what Lenin called the 'commanding heights' of the economy, namely large-scale industry, banking, transport and taxation. Market relations were restored as a major element in the Soviet economy. One might have expected such a large-scale exercise in privatisation to have lead to a similar withdrawal of the state from ideological and cultural affairs. In fact, the reverse was the case. Lenin urged re-awakened vigilance against the insidious intellectual influence of the class enemy who would take full advantage of the new opportunities.

Thus, as far as the intelligentsia was concerned, NEP had a mixed effect. For scientists, engineers, managers and professional people NEP meant new career possibilities, particularly since high salaries and privileges were offered to 'specialists' from pre-revolutionary times who would continue to work at their old jobs, a policy which had been in operation since early 1918. The attraction of these opportunities even spread to the Russian emigration and for a while a trickle of Civil War refugees began to go back to Soviet Russia. The main forces encouraging this were patriotism, home-sickness, disillusion with post-war Europe and unemployment. There was also a strong belief among some of the refugees that NEP was the first step on an inevitable path of return to 'normal' capitalist social and economic relations and that it could only be a matter of time before the revolution was forgotten and some sort of restoration occurred.

If NEP was relatively favourable for some intelligenty in the groups mentioned above it also had a selective effect on creative and academic intellectuals, offering unprecedented opportunities for some, denying all possibilities for expression to others. Here ideology, or at least attitude to the revolution, was the main factor determining an individual's prospects. Systematic party and government control of Russian intellectual life began to be exercised through the Ministry of Education, the rudimentary censorship apparatus and the ideological departments of the Central Committee. Among the first people to feel the weight of organised repression were university teachers, especially those specialising in philosophy and theology. Attempts were made to establish complete control of universities in 1922 but the frontal assault failed and was replaced by a policy of flooding the institutions of higher education with partially educated candidates from working-class backgrounds which, rather than achieving the worthwhile aim of educating such people, threw sufficient sand into the machinery to make it difficult to educate anybody. About fifty university teachers, identified as irredeemably hostile to the Soviet order, mostly in the fields of the humanities and social science, were summarily expelled from Soviet Russia in 1922. For non-communists who remained, supervision became tighter and expression more difficult.

Not all non-party intellectuals were treated in this way. Those deemed to be more favourable to Bolshevik aims and who might be won over to the cause, the so-called 'fellow travellers', were allowed greater freedom. The literary field in particular was enriched by the work of writers such as Babel', Esenin, Pil'niak, Bulgakov and Alexei Tolstoy. Evgenii Zamyatin was even able to publish abroad his prophetic account of a rational, science-based anti-Utopia, entitled We, which was to influence Aldous Huxley's Brave New World and Orwell's 1984. We was clearly critical of some of the most sacred principles of the revolution but, although the book was not allowed to circulate in Russia, Zamiatin himself was still tolerated.

Such tolerance was the exception rather than the rule. For the most part it was those writers and artists closest to the party and its aims who were given the greatest freedom and who formed the backbone of the brilliant achievements of Russian high culture in the 1920s. Cinema and the visual arts provide the best example of this. Eisenstein, Vertov and the major Soviet film directors became pioneers not only in Soviet but also in world cinema. A series of brilliantly innovative silent films was produced. While they were not especially popular with the new and unsophisticated Soviet cinema audience, film-makers abroad were impressed by them and followed some of the techniques used. Eisenstein's approach to editing, juxtaposing images against one another to create the desired emotional effects, became widespread. Painting, graphic arts and architecture were also fields in which Russian experimentation attracted great attention. Visionary schemes for designing a complete environment appropriate to a new socialist society, including not only the buildings but furniture, clothing and even kitchen utensils, were produced by Soviet art studios. In this respect Tatlin was the dominant figure who, sometimes ruthlessly, imposed his ideas on a wide section of the artistic elite.

Broadly speaking, the successful members of the avant-garde were waging a war on two fronts. First they were competing with other experimental artists. A notable example of this was the clash between Tatlin and Chagall, which contributed to Chagall's decision to leave Russia in 1921. Like many other artists and writers, Chagall was accused of not being sufficiently committed to socialist ideals and clinging to bourgeois values. Secondly, this infinitely flexible charge was levelled at the avant garde itself by its enemies on the left who accused it of being elitist and unintelligible to the masses. The tension between these three groups, the supposedly bourgeois artists, the socialist avant-garde and the self-styled proletarian artists and writers on the left continued through the twenties and can be seen in all areas of intellectual life.

The final outcome of this artistic struggle was dependent on the outcome of the fight for supremacy in the Communist party which dominated the mid-1920s. The success of Stalin in that conflict was also reflected in the apparent triumph of the 'proletarian' intelligentsia. They had been on the attack since the early l920s, particularly in the field of literature, arguing that in a proletarian society a proletarian art, a proletarian culture, was the only appropriate one and any compromise with bourgeois ideology was counter-revolutionary. In this they resembled Proletkul't, itself a broken organisation by 1921, but distanced themselves from it organisationally. For the proletarian faction, art had to be immediately intelligible to the mass audience. This principle threatened disaster for all abstract and experimental art and resulted in aesthetically mediocre output being praised and encouraged by this group which argued that doggerel produced by a factory worker was of much greater value to the revolution than any work of the avant-garde. In 1925 the party checked the advance of this faction but the respite was only temporary. The party leaders who had fought, in their various ways, to retain some contact with selected parts of the old intelligentsia (of which they themselves had been a part), such as Lenin, Trotsky, Burkharin and Lunacharsky, had either died, as in Lenin's case, or had been undermined politically by the end of the 1920s.

On the other hand, throughout his career Stalin had seemed to be suspicious of all contact with bourgeois intellectuals and bourgeois specialists, whom, he seemed to think, the proletariat could dispense with. He set about doing this as soon as he had control of the party and state apparatus, and from 1928 on the freedom of engineers, administrators and scientists educated in the pre-revolutionary period was severely circumscribed. In the field of intellectual life a so-called proletarian 'cultural revolution' was undertaken from 1928 to 1931 which swallowed up, for the time being at least, most of the great names of artistic life of the 1920s, forcing them into silence, exile, imprisonment or death and replacing them with the by-and-large undertrained and undereducated graduates of the Soviet education system, who responded to what could be called Stalin's proletarian chauvinism. The results were so disastrous in practical terms that the policy was partially reversed after 1931 and some of those disgraced were restored to their positions. Nonetheless, the cultural revolution had succeeded in breaking their power and their institutions to such an extent that they could no longer enjoy even the relative intellectual freedom they had experienced before this cataclysm. By and large they had to conform to the doctrines of the proletarian faction, even though, ironically, some of the leaders of that faction themselves fell victim to Stalin. These doctrines were being codified as 'socialist realism', defined by a party leader as a 'realism' which does not accept reality as it actually exists, but as it will be.

Thus the process of weeding out intellectual groups was complete. The old intelligentsia had been destroyed. A brash and confident new proletarian Soviet intelligentsia was in process of formation. Conflict of ideas and artistic styles was almost completely circumscribed, one school now dominated intellectual life in the same way that one faction dominated the party leadership. Political and cultural diversity, limited through it was in the 1920s, was virtually non-existent by the mid-1930s. Under such pressure the old intelligentsia appeared helpless. Even so, while badly damaged, it was not totally destroyed but forced out of sight for more than twenty years. Beneath the surface the old values and traditions maintained a precarious existence. While people could be prevented from expressing their ideas even the weight of the Stalinist purges could not prevent people from thinking and the old values began to reappear slowly after Stalin's death. Not only among contemporary dissidents but even among non-protesting members of Soviet society, teachers, writers, critics, art gallery and museum employees and even in the party apparatus, many of the old values of the intelligentsia are preserved.

The great artistic achievements of the 1920s are not openly celebrated in the Soviet Union but they are remembered by many in private. The families of leading figures of the time continue to keep the flame alive, private collections of artefacts preserve some of the heritage. Unofficial painting and writing, for limited circulation among friends and acquaintances, show clearly the influence of this period. If, and when, Russian intellectual life resumes a less constricted path of development, it is clear that the period 1900-1930 will provide a reservoir of inspiration for the rebirth of a distinctively Russian tradition.

Further Reading:

Camilla Gray, The Russian Experiment in Art (Thames & Hudson, 1971); Sheila Fitzpatrick, The Commissariat of Enlightenment: Soviet Organisation of Education and the Arts under Lunacharsky (Cambridge University Press, 1970); Sheila Fitzpatrick (ed.), Cultural Revolution in Russia 1928-1931 (Indiana University Press, 1978); Richard Taylor, The Politics of Soviet Cinema (Macmillan, 1979); Boris Thomson, The Premature Revolution: Russian Literature and Society 1917-1946 (Weidenfeld & Nicalson, 1972); Stephanie Barran and Maurice Tuchman (eds.), The Avant-Garde in Russia 1910-1930: New Perspectives (MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1980).

  • Christopher Read is Lecturer in history at the University of Warwick.

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