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The Birth of Intelligentsia


The tsarist government, by its own legislation, had helped to create the conditions for the emergence of the free-thinking stratum of intelligentsia. Of particular importance was the publication in 1785 of the Charter of the Nobility.  It officially recognized the existence in the structure of the autocratic empire based on serfdom of a privileged estate, whose ‘noble gentle dignity’ was proclaimed to be inviolable and hereditary.  The gentry, according to this document, could not be deprived of its noble status, life and property without a trial.  Members of the noble estate could only be tried by someone of equally noble origin.  They could not be subjected to corporal punishment. The decree freed members of the nobility from mandatory state service and thus created preconditions for transforming their manors into centers of culture and education and for the formation of intelligentsia. However, it also sowed the seeds of  the future discord between the free-thinking gentry and government bureaucracy which began gradually to supplant the gentry as a new ‘serving class’ of the state. 

From the time of the publication of the Charter of the Nobility and till the era of the ‘Great Reforms’ of the 1860s, the process of the gradual emancipation of society would develop within the limits of this ‘freedom for the few’, which the autocracy had granted to the nobility in the last quarter of  the eighteenth century. Even then, the gains of the nobility remained  insecure and could always be taken away from them at the will of the tsar.

Paul (1796-1801)

The arbitrary and willful style of government of Catherine’s son and successor Paul (1796-1801) was a clear proof of that. By the end of his short reign Paul had virtually annulled most of the articles of the Charter of the Nobility, including the gentry’s exemption from corporal punishment and the right to make collective representations to the tsar. Paul restricted the gentry’s freedom from compulsory service and the right of assembly. Practically all that was left of the Charter was the right not to be deprived of the noble status except by the power of the tsar.

Still, some of the important new trends introduced into Russian life during Catherine’s reign had survived the harsh reign of her son. The ideas of the Enlightenment, which taught that the rule of individuals should be replaced by the rule of law as the main condition for the establishment of civil society began to shape the new mentality of the intelligentsia of noble origin. 

It is not surprising then, that Russia’s first intellectual rebel appeared in the reign of Catherine the Great.  This was Alexander Radishchev (1749-1802). He was a member of the nobility who had been educated abroad.  His ideas appeared in an eloquent little book bearing the innocent title of A Journey from St Petersburg to Moscow (1790), where he vividly portrayed the injustices of serfdom and criticized Russia’s autocratic government.  Radishchev described such scandals of serfdom as the practice of forced marriages between serfs, auction sales of serfs and the pressing of serfs into the army even when they were the sole support of the family. He was the first Russian writer  to show the inequity of an empire based upon such an institution as serfdom and to condemn this institution clearly and publicly.  

A. Radishchev

Radishchev incurred Catherine’s deep displeasure. Having read his book, she is reported to have exclaimed in horror: ‘Worse than Pugachev!’ Radishchev was sentenced to death for producing such an indictment of Russian society, although the sentence was later commuted to penal servitude for life in Siberia. He languished in exile throughout the reign of Catherine’s son Paul till the accession of her grandson Alexander in 1801, who not only granted  him his royal forgiveness but even involved Radishchev in the work of a commission on the codification of laws.

This sudden  turnabout in Radishchev’s fate became possible thanks to a new spiritual and intellectual climate that marked the early years of Alexander’s reign. A relative relaxation of the autocratic regime under Alexander I has earned his reign the name of the  Era of Liberalism.

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