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Origins of the Intelligentsia


By no means had the radically-minded intellectuals been satisfied by the reform of 1861. Many believed that it left the peasantry as exploited and as unfree as before. Far from hailing Alexander as a great reformer, they accused him of being the swindler tsar who had left the peasant to complete ruination by not providing him with enough land. They saw that the legal freedom conceded to the peasants meant little while they remained in grinding poverty. In their view, the Tsar had betrayed the hopes of the people by not granting ex-serfs equal economic and civil rights with other social classes. The radicals argued that revolution was now the only way to achieve a genuine emancipation and a fair land settlement. A large part of the educated society was consumed by revolutionary attitudes. 


A. Herzen - the generation of "noble fathers"

N. Chernyshevsky - the generation of "plebeian sons"

In part, this dissension was due to some relaxation of censorship and the freer intellectual atmosphere permitted under Alexander II. But even more important were   significant changes in the social composition of the educated society: it was loosing fast its exclusive ‘noble’ origin. Educational reforms had opened the prospect of higher education to representatives of all social estates, contributing to the blurring of the borderlines between noble and non-noble classes. Children of peasants, townsfolk, clergy, impoverished gentry could now enter universities, become educated and then go to join the ranks of this peculiarly Russian phenomenon known as intelligentsia. They acquired new social identity and often lost links with their original social milieu.

In the mid-nineteenth century Russia members of the intelligentsia formed a small and underprivileged group which enjoyed neither the material wealth of the nobility nor the political influence of the bureaucracy. They were brain wage-workers who relied for their living on their education and intellect. Some became journalist, or writers. Others were members of the professions, such as lawyers, doctors and teachers. The ever increasing numbers of educated young people earned a living in government employment as veterinarians, agronomists, statisticians.  It was in the milieu of this ‘thinking minority’ where some of the more radical attitudes began to take root leading to the appearance of dissidents and revolutionaries.

Some historians interpret mid-nineteenth century Russian radicalism in terms of different generations, one more radical than the next. In this view, the generation  of the 1840s  were the ‘noble fathers’. On the whole, the radicals of this generation, represented by such thinkers as Alexander Herzen, were ‘idealists’ reluctant to use violence, who pinned their main hopes on reform from above.

In contrast to their more ‘idealistic’ forerunners, the new radicals of  the generation of the 1860s were more influenced by modern science and materialism. They advocated revolutionary remedies for Russia’s problems and were more willing to use extreme, violent means to achieve their ends. They are usually referred to as the ‘plebeian sons’ since most ardent radicals of the new generation came from the milieu of the raznochintsy.

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Revolutionary Movement


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