Thursday, May 21, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Survival of Russia Hinges on Revival of Intelligentsia, Moscow Scholar Says

Paul Goble

Vienna, May 21 – Russia needs “a third coming of the intelligentsia” – the first occurred during the 19th century and the second during the Soviet period -- or it may not be able to survive the current crisis or even to continue to exist as an independent state, according to a Moscow commentator.
In an essay in yesterday’s “Vremya,” Yury Magarshak, a professor and president of the International Committee on Intellectual Cooperation, points out that the fates of the intelligentsia and Russia have always been closely interlinked, with the decline or destruction of the former pointing to the demise of the latter as well (
“Over the course of less than a century,” he points out, Russia has survived two dismemberments of the state – the October [1917] coup and the collapse of the USSR. The country simply cannot survive a third dismemberment,” something he suggests is likely unless Moscow does everything possible to recreate a Russian intelligentsia.
The first “coming” of the Russian intelligentsia extended over five generations from Pushkin to October 1917. Then, it was dispersed, repressed or destroyed by the Bolsheviks, Magarshak says. But that Russian intelligentsia “not only created great literature, music or the great Russian ballet. It transformed the entire world.”
The second “coming” of the Russian intelligentsia, “however strange this may seem, began at the very time when the Bolsheviks were actively destroying the intelligentsia of the first coming.” In “hungry 1918 were established the [world-class] Physical-Technical and Optical Institutes.”
“A scientific worldview,” he continues, “was the symbol of the entire Bolshevik era.” And the dissemination of enlightenment, above all of natural science, was in the Soviet Russia under Stalin in a strange way combined with the persecution of free speech.” After the dictator’s death, things changed and “in the USSR was permitted free speech in ‘definite places.’”
“Not in any case at party meetings or God forbid in street demonstrations, not in lectures or at celebratory gatherings at which more than five people were assembled. No,” Magarshak recalls, “only in smoking areas and in kitchens.” But that was enough for some of the values of the older intelligentsia to reemerge in a game of “cat and mouse” with the authorities.
This second wave of the Russian intelligentsia came into its prime over the two generations between 1953 and the end of the Soviet Union, leading one American intellectual to say with bitterness at the time, “’Today, the intelligentsia as a class exists only in one country in the world – in the Soviet Union.’”
But with the disappearance of the Soviet system, “the intelligentsia as a class which influenced what was taking place in the country and the world disappeared,” Magarshak insists. “It disappeared together with the Bolsheviks.” And Russia became a place where the qualities and values of the intelligentsia ceased to be in demand.
“To be an intelligent, someone with an intellect and conscience, in contemporary Russia is unfashionable and impractical. Entirely different qualities are in demand, [many of which are] directly opposed these.” Indeed, he writes, “the criminally cynical and not scientific or engineering talent became the necessary attribute of flourishing and success in Russia.”
This “diagnosis,” Magarshak says, is truly frightening because it “means that the country with such an elite and with such priorities has absolutely no prospects” because under contemporary conditions, “the chief hope of the country lies in the diversification of economy,” something without which Russia cannot produce anything the world will want.
“Who in Russia will produce such goods?” the Moscow scholar asks. “The bureaucrats? The representatives of the force structures which are filling up the Russian powers that be?” No, the only people who could, he says, are “the scholars, engineers, and highly qualified workers” who “in Russia have almost completely disappeared.”
For the rebirth of Russia “as a nation and a power,” Magarshak argues, there must be “a rebirth of the intelligentsia.” And to that end, “the powers that be must do everything possible and impossible so that people with honor and conscience will again require respect in society,” so that they “will have greater chances for material success than the bureaucrats do.”
That will require enormous changes in how the country is organized, he says, but there are two reasons for at least some optimism even now. On the one hand, Russia has “a powerful intellectual tradition” on which to draw. And on the other, “no country in the world can change itself more quickly than Russia.”

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