Vienna, March 17 – In 1851, Aleksander Herzen wrote that if Russia experienced “another century of despotism,” there was a very real chance that “all the good qualities of the Russian people would disappear and” that the people would be unable to maintain “their nationality and the educated classes “their enlightenment.”
That prediction, Moscow commentator Irina Pavlova says, spring to her mind when she observes the way in which Russia’s intellectual community has deteriorated thanks to the despotism of the Soviet past and the willingness of most of its members to serve those in power rather than their principles (grani.ru/Politics/Russia/m.148683.html).
When members of the Academy of Sciences defer to Kremlin advisor Vladislav Surkov as “Russia’s smartest man” and when “talking heads” like Sergey Markov and Maksim Shevchenko, neither of whom ever conducted historical research, instruct historians on “how to study the famine of the early 1930s,” she says, then the country is in trouble.
That despairing conclusion, she says, reflects Russia’s lack of “the critical mass” of free intellectuals needed to play “the decisive role in the establishment of civil society and democracy” in Russia much as they did in Europe. And this “intellectual and moral crisis,” about which few speak, “is no less dangerous than the economic one” about which all are talking.
Pavlova, one of Moscow’s most thoughtful intellectual writers on a wide variety of political and social issues, says that her conclusion does not mean “that in Russia people who see further and understand more than others have disappeared.” Such people, she points out, “exist, despite decades of negative selection” by the powers that be.
“But,” she adds, “as philosopher Vadim Mezhuyev has correctly noted, “in Russia such an intellectual is not the rule but the exception and his fate to a large degree is tragedy because society rejects him.” (For an example of one such exception and the treatment he received, see the interview with Grigory Pomerants at www.chaskor.ru/p.php?id=4415.)
In a discussion on why Russia did not make a breakthrough to liberal democracy after the collapse of communism, Mezhuyev argued that the absence of a large and independent intellectual class made that impossible given the opposition to democracy among those in power and those in the population at large.
In Europe, he said, “intellectuals played a decisive role in the creation of civil society and democracy. This process was an extremely long one – [the continent] had to pass through three ‘doors’ which separated modernity from the Middle Ages – the Renaissance, the Reformation and the Enlightenment.”
Russia, Mezhuyev continued, “has not passed through even one, because ‘we had no Renaissance and Reformation and the Enlightenment stopped midway, having touched only the upper stratum of Russian society.” That history made the role of the intellectuals in Russia particularly important, but when the time came for them to act, they had been denatured.
European intellectuals, the Russian philosopher pointed out, rejected “any tradition if it was based only on faith and not on reason” because an intellectual is someone capable of acting in the name of freedom and not feeling the need to seek the defense of tradition or more often of those in power.
If such people are sufficiently numerous, Pavlova says extending Mezhuyev’s argument, then, it is possible to establish civil society and democracy. But in Russia, despite the presence of many educated people, too few of the members of that group have “the ability to live and think freely” because of their long subservience to the state.
And the lack of such free intellectuals is why 1991 did not develop as many had hoped. Instead, as other Russian critics like Igor Klyamkin have noted, the “democratic intelligentsia” quickly again became “a hostage of political elites who were struggling not for democracy but for a monopoly on power by means of using democratic procedures.”
A decade ago only a few in Russian pointed out that there had not been any democratic revolution in Russia in August 1991 and that it was wrong and perhaps even counterproductive to carry out economic reforms “with taking into account the social and cultural characteristics of the country and without understanding what had happened with that country in the 20th century.”
The “construction of socialism,” Pavlova writes, was “a real war” that the communist elite led against the people, “periodically setting one part of the people against another” and thus creating “a new lumpenized society,” one lacking in morality, accustomed to lying and being lied to, and in which people assumed those in power were beyond any effective criticism or control.
Such attitudes have continued not only in the population but among the intellectuals, Pavlova says. At the end of 1999, for example, “the majority of Russian intellectuals supported with enthusiasm” Boris Yeltsin’s behind-the-scenes elevation of Vladimir Putin. And later when disappointed in the latter, they blamed either the former or the Russian people rather than Putin.
More recently in August 2008, Russia’s intellectuals “in an outburst of great-power chauvinism supported the powers that be in the war against Georgia,” an action that demonstrated that “except for traditional Russian despotism and new enslavement, Russian intellectuals are not in a position to offer any real strategy for the future.”
“The critical mass of free intellectuals, about which Mezhuyev spoke, does not exist in [Russia],” Pavlova concludes, “and in the immediate future it is hardly likely to appear,” given that the regime has managed to transform most of those with educations into “mankurts” rather than allow them to develop as free thinking leaders of a free people.