Webcast Recap

The last Russian intelligentsia—the to some extent imagined community of Moscow intellectuals born between the 1920s and the early 1940s and coalesced during Khrushchev's post-Stalin thaw—was shaped both by contemporaneous forces—Bolshevism, the Great Patriotic War, and the demographic prevalence of young people in the war's aftermath—as well as by the traditions of its 19th Century intellectual forbearers, Vladislav Zubok suggested.

A number of features distinguished this particular generation of Moscow intellectuals. With the country still recovering from World War II and half of the population younger than 30, the educated elite was a driving force behind the rebuilding of the Soviet Union.

Members of the Moscow intelligentsia shared much in common with their 19th Century predecessors, including interest in Russian literature and poetry, intense curiosity about the outside world, and for some, a belief that they were society's intellectual vanguard.

Bolshevism also exerted a strong influence, Zubok posited. Thanks in part to Bolshevik ideals, members of the last intelligentsia were also members of the first generation of Russians to have broad access to education. Growing up in a market-less society, according to Zubok, contributed to a shared faith in the egalitarian benefits of socialism and may have been one reason that, on the whole, members of the intelligentsia de-emphasized economic issues and focused instead on the idea of human rights.

Circling back to the title of his book, Zubok explained that this was likely the last Russian intelligentsia. The interest in intellectual ‘high culture' and human rights which bound the intelligentsia together during the Khrushchev thaw has since been diluted by mass culture, and a new intelligentsia is unlikely to form along similar lines.

Michael David-Fox praised Zubok's unique approach to the frequently challenging field of intellectual history. Zhivago's Children, David-Fox outlined, drew heavily upon memoirs, diaries, and other ‘ego documents' which Zubok wove together in a narrative connecting key individuals with landmark historical events.

The result of this methodology, according to David-Fox, was a unique perspective on the relationship between Soviet foreign policy and domestic events. One of Zubok's examples of this, highlighted by David-Fox, was the Cuban Missile Crisis. The outcome of the crisis—resulting from Khrushchev's overconfident Cuban diplomacy—left Khrushchev humiliated and contributed to the subsequent crackdown on the intelligentsia in 1962.

David-Fox argued that Zubok showed conclusively how intellectual traditions were passed on through mirrors of repression and war; how the old Bolsheviks, descended from the radical wing of the 19th Century intelligentsia, were rediscovered in the 1920s. David-Fox also emphasized that the intelligentsia that reemerged in the 20th Century differed in its disdain for the masses, its obsession with the West and its post-Stalinist views on violent change.

‘The intelligentsia,' Eric Lohr pointed out, is an amorphous concept. This posed important challenges for researchers. Lohr defined six characteristics of the 19th Century intelligentsia (criticism of existing reality; dedication to serve the people; a sense of alienation from the political order; a basic utilitarian approach to literature; positivism and a quasi-religious sense of dedication to the cause) and compared these with the characteristics of its 20th Century successor. Among the crucial differences that came to light in Lohr's analysis were perceptions of the common people (narod). Idealized in the 19th Century, the 20th Century intelligentsia viewed the narod as enablers of Stalin's crimes. The new generation had a strong commitment to higher ideals (truth, human rights) instead of to the people. A small minority of the post-war intelligentsia felt a sense of alienation, but lacked the 19th Century drive to overcome it. For 1950s and 1960s Russian intellectuals, the larger social purpose was undermined by social realism in the USSR: instead, aesthetics grew to be valued as an end by themselves. Lohr suggested the increasing importance of scientists and technical experts in post-WWII Russia diminished the relative influence of writers and poets in the last Russian intelligentsia among its members. In contrast to their 19th Century predecessors, only dissidents had a clear sense of commitment to the cause; many of Zhivago's children would not go that far.