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Psychological Makeup of the Intelligentsia


Intelligentsia was, first of all, distinguished by a strong social consciousness. Its consciousness had been aroused by a feeling of guilt that the whole of their life and culture was founded upon exploitation of their Christian fellow-countrymen, who were forced to live and work in the conditions of an unjustified and unnatural enslavement. Many members of intelligentsia felt they were always in debt to the people and had to pay their debt by devoting their whole life to righting this injustice. The guilt complex played an immense part in the psychology of intelligentsia. From it came a desire to atone for its ‘sins’ and a readiness to sacrifice itself for the sake of the people. The Russian thinker Sergei Bulgakov coined the phrase ‘social penitence’ to describe this peculiar frame of mind of the members of Russian intelligentsia. They were penitents who sought to make amends not to God, but to the popular masses, the Russian narod. Atonement for serfdom became the intelligentsia’s collective mission. 

Bazarov, the main character of I. Turgenev's novel "Fathers and Sons" came to epitomize the raznochintsy generation

The next important characteristic was an essentially ‘anti-bourgeois’ mentality of the intelligentsia. Typical of the raznochintsy element because of its prevailing indigence, it was also true of the intelligentsia of noble origin, for its members were brought up in a privileged environment  far removed from the pressures of earning a living and similar concerns of a more seamy, ‘bourgeois’ side of existence. To some extent, this helps to explain why, ideologically, members of the intelligentsia were inclined to socialism. They tended to treat wealth with contempt. It was a fair redistribution of wealth and not its creation that was by far their main concern. As one Russian thinker has observed, their ‘love for the poor turned into love of poverty’.

A mood of total alienation from the state is another defining feature of Russian intelligentsia. By denying the members of the intelligentsia the possibility of influencing the life of society and by subjecting it to harsh police persecution, the autocracy fostered in their milieu the feeling of a deep-seated hostility towards the state and its representatives. It drove the educated minority to embrace radical ideological systems, including various forms of Russian socialism. In its final and most absolute form it found expression in anarchism as a complete negation of the state and public order.    

The revolt from the obedience to the state and established values had also forged the main moral philosophy of Russian intelligentsia which became known as nihilism. Its name (from the Latin nihil ‘nothing’) implied a moral revolt against the existing order, a total negation of the surrounding world. Nihilism evolved in the post-reform decade of the 1860s as a hallmark of the new generation of radicals. Its main objective was personal liberation - from family and social prejudices, from blind obedience to authorities, from the burden of centuries-old traditions in all spheres of life. A Nihilist was required to develop his intellect by mastering natural sciences, to seek after some  free, rational and practical occupation, to build his own life and that of people close to him on rational, mutually-beneficial foundations. This new moral attitude played a key role in shaping the mind-set and ways of behavior of the intelligentsia as a whole.

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