William Henry Chamberlin | Soviet Russia: A Living Record and a History

The Tragedy of the Russian Intelligentsia

"REVOLUTION is a storm, sweeping aside everything that stands in its path." So reads the present-day inscription on the former building of the Moscow City Council. And the Bolshevik Revolution, which to some classes brought an exhilarating, intoxicating consciousness of emancipation and new-found power, for others has meant bitter suffering and profound disillusionment.

To be uprooted and displaced by a social upheaval to which one is indifferent or hostile (the fate of the old Russian aristocracy and bourgeoisie) is, of course, painful and disconcerting to the persons affected. But to be swept aside by a revolutionary storm which one regarded, in anticipation, with sympathy, or even helped to raise (the fate of the Russian radical and liberal intelligentsia) - here is surely material both for tragedy and for irony. Madame Roland, guillotined by her revolutionary associates of yesterday and dying with her last bitter apostrophe to liberty on her lips, is a figure of more historical dramatic pathos than Marie Antoinette, who perhaps wondered up to the last why the people, if short of bread, did not resort to cake. And to-day the Russian intellectual who formerly considered himself a revolutionary, who perhaps experienced prison or exile or persecution under the Tsar, but who now finds the Soviet experiment in building up socialism something quite alien, is a more tragic if less spectacular figure than the former prince who has become a chauffeur or the pre-revolutionary countess who may be selling cigarettes.

Generalities are always dangerous, and most of all in dealing with a class. It would be quite exaggerated to lump the whole pre-war intelligentsia together as out of sympathy with the Soviet regime. One finds some old university students and graduates in the ranks of the Communist Party. Another and larger part of the former educated and propertied classes, while not Communist in outlook or Party affiliation, is outspoken in its support of the Soviet Government, on the ground that it represents the best, indeed the only, system of organized administration which Russia can hope to enjoy at the present time, and that it is the duty of scientists and professional men, in any case, to devote their best efforts to the service of their country, regardless of what government may be in power. And, of course, not every educated man in pre-war Russia was in favor of a revolutionary upheaval. Among the highly paid engineers and more prosperous specialists generally, conservatism and tepid liberalism were the most common tendencies, so far as they took an interest in politics at all.

But, making full allowance for these facts, the number of intellectuals who fifteen or twenty years ago would certainly have counted themselves among the opponents of the Tsarist system and who to-day are skeptical and negative in their reaction to the Soviet structure is large enough to call for explanation. The history of the revolutionary movement in Russia during the nineteenth century coincided very closely with the progress of Russian enlightenment. The leaders of the Dekabristi were poets and philosophers, men who had been touched, by the double liberating influence of Western culture and the French Revolution. A very large number of the Narodniki, the revolutionaries of the latter half of the century, were men and women of high education; not a few of them acquired distinction as scientists or linguists even after they had been banished to the most inhospitable wastes of the Tsarist Empire. The early leadership of all the modern revolutionary, parties, including the Bolsheviks, was largely recruited from the intelligentsia. The question naturally arises: what produced the schism between the Revolution, in the form which it finally assumed, and the majority of the Russian intelligentsia, the class which certainly contributed more than any other to the awakening of conscious revolutionary spirit in the masses ?

Everyone will answer this question according to his own class sympathies and predilections. The orthodox Communist answer, an answer which has now crystallized and become stereotyped in dozens of books and plays, is that the pre-revolutionary intelligentsia (its small Communist minority, of course, excepted) was a wavering, irresolute class of people, radical in words rather than in deeds, and bound to prove impotent and unreliable under the test of revolutionary crisis. The working class, according to this viewpoint, captured and held power in spite of the timidity and sabotage of the intelligentsia. One of its chief tasks now is to forge its own intelligentsia, its own class of doctors, engineers, and teachers, which will be fully in sympathy with the new social order.

The unreconciled intellectual would argue that neither the ideal nor the material conditions of the new society, as envisaged by the pioneer Russian revolutionaries, are realized in the Soviet Union. He would repudiate the idea that in failing to participate actively in the Bolskevik revolution he had been untrue to his former principles.

Each of these answers has its elements of truth; neither, I think, contains the whole truth. Some of the pre-war Russian intelligentsia, as anyone familiar with the writings of Turgeniev and Chekhov must recognize, had more than the average human being's share of spiritual flabbiness. Some of the Communist methods of getting and keeping power. are more easily defensible on grounds of practical expediency than on those of moral idealism. But the fundamental explanation for the deep rift between the revolutionary order in Russia and the class which, a generation ago, prided itself on its revolutionism lies outside the peculiar qualities either of the intelligentsia or of the Communists; it is to be sought rather in the very nature, the inevitable nature, of the Russian revolutionary process.

Probably the best picture of the poignant tragedy of the intelligentsia in the period of the Russian civil war, a picture that is all the more true and convincing because it reflects some of the author's own experiences, is to be found in the novel, V Tupike, by V. V. Veresaev.(This novel has been translated into English under the title, The Deadlock.) The novel is prefaced by the beautiful lines from the Divina Commedia in which Dante depicts the plight of the angels who were neutral in the struggle between God and Satan, and who were, consequently, rejected by Heaven and not accepted by Hell. The fate of these angels is the fate of all moderates in historical clashes of extremes; it was certainly the fate of the Russian intelligentsia.

The heroine of Veresaev's novel, Katya, with her father, an old doctor, Ivan Ilyitch, whose radical and humanitarian ideas have often brought him into conflict with the Tsarist authorities, lives through the Revolution in a village on the southern shore of the Crimean peninsula. A feeble anti-Soviet government is overthrown in the early part of the book, and most of the action occurs while the village is under Soviet control, although there is a brief episode of White restoration at the end.

Old Ivan Ilyitch is consistently anti-Bolshevik; he will not compromise by one iota his two chief dogmas, sanctity of human life and freedom of speech, neither of which is much respected by a revolution in the making. But Katya, younger, more impressionable, and receptive to new ideas, wavers, as many honest Russian intellectuals must have wavered, during the tortuous course of the civil war. She feels the mass strength of the Revolution, she can see its beautiful and heroic side as well as its excesses and cruelties. She admires and sympathizes with her sister, Vera, a Communist of the most devoted and self-sacrificing type, who is never so happy as when she lays down her life before the rifles of a White firing squad.

But whenever Katya feels impelled to take her stand definitely on the Communist side (she never cherishes seriously the idea of joining the Whites, with their thinly veiled programme of political and social reaction) some new extreme of the ruthless civil class war drives her back to a position of neutrality. And in the end she goes away and disappears, "no one knows where."

Veresaev once told me that some of his Communist friends urged him to alter the ending and make Katya, in the last account, turn Communist. But he adhered to his own climax, which is not only psychologically more true and convincing, but more symbolic of the actual reaction of the Russian intelligentsia to the Revolution.

One can scarcely read V Tupike without feeling that Katya's experience is more than a reflection of the tragedy of the class to which she belonged, of the people who desired and worked for a revolution, and then could not accept it when it came. It is a projection of a world-tragic theme: the invariable gulf between human aspiration and human realization. One of the most illuminating passages in the book is an argument between Katya and her cousin Leonid, who is himself an active Communist. Katya points bitterly to the contrast between some of the abuses of the new Soviet regime and the ideals which she and Leonid, as hunted revolutionaries under the Tsarist regime, had both cherished. And Leonid's reply, convincing, I think, to one's logic, if not to one's feelings, was much to the following effect. The early Russian revolutionary movement was the handiwork of a small number of people of exceptional moral and intellectual idealism, many of whom broke directly with selfish personal and class interests for the sake of their conceptions of justice and liberty. It is obviously impossible to expect that the standards of such a movement, condemned to practical failure by the small number of its participants, will be preserved when the revolution passes from theory and roman-tic, ineffectual personal exploits of individuals into the stage of action, deriving most of its explosive force from the feelings of hatred and revenge that awaken in classes which are rising against long oppression.

This touches one of the most difficult psychological problems of the Russian Revolution, and indeed of every big movement that has its first conscious direction in a band of enthusiastic idealists, conquers masses through the fervor of their conviction, and then finds itself threatened with deterioration be-cause its quantitative growth has exceeded its qualitative extension. Even the most impractical intellectual of Chekhov's or Turgeniev's imagination would probably shrink from the reductio ad absurduminvolved in the proposition that the revolutionary movement should remain "pure" by remaining isolated and thereby condemning itself to the fate that overtook the Dekabristi and the Narodniki: the best leaders on the scaffold or in exile and the Tsar still firmly on his throne.

Yet even the most convinced Communist, granting that he be sincere and intelligent, can scarcely fail to be painfully struck at times by the abuses committed in the name of communism, largely as a result of the penetration of such huge organizations as the Communist Party, the Union of Communist Youth, the trade-unions, and the Soviet officialdom by corrupt and careerist elements.

The difference between the Leonids and the Katyas, between the sincere Communists and the doubting intellectuals, in actual life comes largely down to this. The Communists, absorbed in intense personal activity and confident in the ultimate triumph of their cause, regard the abuses as things which will sooner or later be overcome or outlived, whereas the instinctive attitude of the intellectual is much more skeptical.

This touches another element in the tragedy of the Russian intelligentsia. A basic doctrine of communism is justification by works, or rather, perhaps, by work. If one were required to name the dominant characteristic of the active Communist or of the non-Party man or woman who is whole-heartedly absorbed in some branch of Soviet or trade-union or cooperative work, one would probably say boundless, restless energy and activity. Passive and reflective by training and temperament, the typical old-fashioned intellectual is as ill adjusted to this sort of life as Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, would be, to the atmosphere of a noisily and consciously growing American mid-Western town. Quite possibly against his own will he is stranded and isolated from the main currents of the bubbling, boiling new Russian life. He turns to such inconspicuous clerical work as he may obtain, and finds expression and a certain measure of consolation by exchanging with his acquaintances the latest "anecdote," or satirical joke.(1)

Difficult material conditions also help to estrange the intelligentsia from the new social order. If the worker is better off, as a general rule, than he was before the Revolution, the average middle-class professional man, the doctor, lawyer, teacher, or engineer, is distinctly worse off, especially if he stands near the head of his profession. Not only is his money remuneration smaller, but he usually lives under much more crowded and uncomfortable conditions. I have visited the office of a Russian medical scientist of international reputation whose bed stood in his reception room.

These material hardships are exacerbated by various psycho-logical irritants. The harassed and overworked doctor at the head of a hospital naturally feels a certain amount of resentment if some delegatka (the term for the working-class or peasant women who are sent to inspect and study public institutions) gives him a lecture on how his hospital should be managed. Engineers often complain that their initiative is seriously curbed and their work generally hampered by the constant interference of the factory committee or the local branch of the Communist Party. Professors of the old school feel personally hurt if one of their number is roughly called to account and threatened with the loss of his post for contributing a scientific article to some foreign publication to which, perhaps without his knowledge, Russian emigre scientists have also contributed.

It is only fair to say that for every one of the typical intelligentsia grievances which I have mentioned there is a more or less convincing Communist counter-case. Hospitals in Russia sometimes are mismanaged; and the efforts of the delegatkas or other public-spirited citizens to bring about reforms, provided that these efforts are guided by an intelligent regard for facts, may be useful and beneficial. While there may have been some weak points in the state's case in the great trial of fifty engineers and technicians, accused of corruption, sabotage, and deliberate mismanagement in the mines of the Shachti region of the Donetz coal basin, there was enough evidence to show that a whole group of these Shachti engineers, by misusing their posts and taking bribes from the former owners, made themselves partially responsible for the atmosphere of strain, friction, and suspicion which one sometimes senses between the new Communist masters of the Russian factories and the old technical specialists. Every new revolutionary government is violently hostile to its emigre opponents and no doubt it is the part of discretion for Soviet scientists and professors to avoid even the possibility of contact with their former colleagues who are now outside the Soviet frontiers.

But, while an outside observer may recognize the two or more sides of every controversial case, it is only natural that persons living in Russia should view matters from the standpoint of their own class, of their own conditions of work. And while the theory and practice of proletarian dictatorship, as I have shown in an earlier chapter, are like a heady stimulant to the more active-minded workers and, from that standpoint, a source of strength to the Soviet regime, in other classes of the population, and not the least among the intelligentsia, this theory and practice create a sense of discriminatory treatment, if not of oppression.

This feeling of class resentment occasionally even penetrates into the ranks of the Communist Party. I heard of an in-stance when a Communist, not of proletarian origin, who had received a post which called for considerable technical preparation, was more than a little indignant when some fellow Communist raised the stereotyped question whether this post should not have been given to a worker. "Where will you find an actual manual worker who knows several languages and has the other technical qualifications for the position ?" was his inquiry.

Much of the tragedy of the old intelligentsia lies in the fact that it is a perishing class. Not that education or educated people are disappearing in Russia. As I pointed out in a previous chapter, the Revolution has greatly widened the educational facilities of the masses, and no doubt, as the country becomes materially richer, the qualitative standards of the schools and colleges will steadily be raised. But the new Soviet intelligentsia that is growing out of the rabfacs and the proletarianized universities is so different from the old in everything, from class origin to cultural and political standards and ideals, that one can scarcely fail to note here a sharp break of continuity.

Two ceremonies which I attended in Moscow helped to emphasize this impression of a vanishing class. One was a meeting in honor of V. V. Veresaev, the author of V Tupike. While the ideology of that book, as I have indicated, is not Communist, the Commissariat for Education took part in honoring Veresaev, who had been a sturdy fighter against Tsarism for decades before the Revolution. Vera Figner, one of the heroines of the Narodnik movement, a woman of beautifully classic features, very erect despite her advanced age and long term of years which she spent in the dungeons of Schlusselburg, spoke eloquently of Veresaev's life and work. The audience was unusual, if not unique; here one could recognize the most typical figures of the old intelligentsia, teachers and doctors and cooperative workers, people who knew Veresaev for his writings before the Revolution, many of whom, no doubt, had found a mirror of their own problems in V Tupike.

Over the whole occasion brooded an atmosphere that suggested Daudet's famous story, "The Last Class." Very few young people were there; both in the speakers and in the audience one sensed a feeling that here was a class which collectively was experiencing the tragedy of dying childless, without a sympathetic younger generation to inherit and perpetuate its ideals and tastes and habits.

Something of this same spirit was visible at the celebration of the thirtieth anniversary of the establishment of the Moscow Art Theatre. Here again one was conscious of the presence of an audience that was unusual in contemporary Russia. It was more formal than the gathering in honor of Veresaev; many a figure in the pre-revolutionary social life of Moscow had taken out and put on his long-disused frock coat for this special occasion. But if there were here many former members of the class which is habitually and disparagingly referred to in Soviet Russia as the bourgeoisie, they were certainly representatives of the more cultured and educated bourgeoisie, who rallied around the Art Theatre and supported it from the moment of its inception.

Amid the throng of people who paid tribute to Constantine Stanislavsky on behalf of various organizations, one magnificent old gentleman in a high collar achieved special distinction when he strode to the centre of the stage, laid down his wreath, and pronounced the two words, "Staraya Moskva" ("Old Moscow"). He was a delegate of the society, "Old Moscow," which carries out archaeological researches in the city. But his words were so symbolic and. struck such a responsive chord in the audience that applause lasted for several minutes after he had vanished from the stage.

Here indeed was a gathering representative of the better side of "old Moscow." And here again was the tragedy that comes from a sharp break of cultural continuity. True, as I have pointed out in an earlier chapter, the Art Theatre still holds an honored and significant place in Russian theatrical life. It performs before crowded audiences, and high Soviet officials prefer to attend its "first nights" rather than those of the playhouses which lay more claim to proletarian purity of artistic conception. But the new Art Theatre that gives the action plays of Vsevolod Ivanov is not the old Art Theatre that excelled in interpreting Chekhov and Dostoevsky. And one suspects that in the attitude of the older actors of the original Art Theatre toward the very competent and brilliant younger troupe which appears in the more modern plays there is something more than the inevitable slight element of regret with which age yields place to youth. There is the sharper twinge that comes from the feeling that the old tradition of the Art Theatre, just because of the strong new cultural influences which are at work, will not be carried on, that no actor of the present generation in Russia, however great his natural ability, is likely to deliver Ivan Karamazov's soliloquy in the manner of the incomparable Katchalov.

The old Russian intelligentsia belongs to history. Its faults are well known, and not the least through its own writers and satirists. Even before the Communists came with their theory that the intelligentsia, with few exceptions, represented the "waverings of the petty-bourgeoisie," any student of Russian literature was familiar with the Oblomovs and Rudins, with the types in whom action was drowned in a flood of words, in whom introspective self-analysis paralyzed the faculty of decision.

But perhaps the virtues of the intelligentsia are less widely known. Anyone who is even slightly acquainted with Russian history, who has lived in Russia and come in contact with the survivors of this vanishing class, must, I think, recognize two qualities which are more characteristic of the Russian intelligentsia than of the educated classes of other countries.

First, there is the high social idealism that prompted so many men and women of the propertied and aristocratic classes to forsake their own personal interests and to throw themselves into what must then have seemed a hopeless struggle against the colossus of Tsarist autocracy. No purely materialistic interpretation of life and history can quite account for the Kropotkins, the Tolstoys, the Sofia Perovskayas, who, with all avenues of political and social preferment open to them, deliberately chose the road of protest and revolt that could lead only to persecution, exile, or the scaffold.

While the Russian intelligentsia probably supplied a larger proportion of people who broke with their selfish interests for the sake of their ideals than any class of any other country, only a minority of them, perhaps, could be reckoned as politically active. Even more characteristic than this social ideal-ism was the very broad and rich personal culture which one comes from acquaintance to associate with the Russian scholar, writer, scientist, or artist. Hair-splitting pedantry is not a common Russian fault; and this is largely due to the fact that the Russian scholar or scientist is not, as a rule, a narrow specialist. Kropotkin, for instance, attained a fair measure of distinction as historian, explorer, philosopher, and natural scientist. Veresaev, like Chekhov before him, was a graduate doctor before he acquired fame as a writer. It is not unusual to encounter a mathematician with more than an amateur's talent for music, or vice versa. In this range and scope, broad as the Russian land itself, lies much of the indefinable charm of old Russian culture.

It is inevitable that the role of the intelligentsia in the Revolution and civil war should be harshly judged by active combatants on both sides. In the eyes both of victorious, Red, Soviet Russia and of defeated, White, emigre Russia the radical and liberal intelligentsia, taking little active or voluntary part in the struggle, must seem almost deserters in a life-and-death conflict where desertion was an unpardonable crime.

Certainly the academical and theoretical strain in the character of the intelligentsia made them unfit, as a general rule, to ride the revolutionary storm, where quick, decisive action was the first requirement. Yet it may be that their humanitarianism, their aversion to bloodshed and terrorism, regardless of the cause for which such means were invoked, had as much to do with their inactivity in the great Russian social convulsion as their familiar historical weaknesses of irresolution and wavering. They were not the sort of people to build Schliisselburgs or Solovyetzky Islands.

History has its own laws of relativity; and noncombatants in periods of passionate stress and struggle are not always the chief sufferers from the application of these laws. Few people in any country now regard the pacifists of the World War with the indignation and contempt which were visited upon them while hostilities were in progress. And future generations in Russia, viewing the Revolution in broader perspective, may regard the tragic dilemma of the intelligentsia, who followed in the footsteps of Dante's angels and failed to place themselves on either side of the barricades of civil war, with more sympathy than can reasonably be expected from the combatant generation which fought through that war.

(1) These "anecdotes" are a constant source of amusement to the classes of the population which cannot be reckoned among the enthusiastic admirers of the new order of things. Originating in the most obscurely anonymous sources, they pass rapidly from mouth to mouth, and are almost as quickly forgotten and pushed out by new ones. Curiously enough, many Communists repeat these products of contraband humor with evident relish; more than one of those which I append here came to me from Party members in good standing. To the earnest Communist the telling of an occasional "anecdote" brings the same sense of relief and relaxation which the believer in the medieval Church experienced when he was permitted, on certain occasions, to indulge in frolicsome mockery of the most solemn rites and doctrines. The following little series of these stories illustrates their general tendency and varied character.

A prominent Soviet official is haranguing a group of workers, who complain that they are inadequately supplied with clothes. The official tries to console them by declaring that other races, notably the American Indians, wear much less. Whereupon an old worker remarks, "Well, they probably had the Soviet system much longer than we did."

Three men, a Russian, a Frenchman, and a Jew, are sentenced by some revolutionary tribunal to be executed. They are asked to state their last wishes. The Frenchman asks for a bottle of champagne. The Russian pleads to be inscribed as a member of the Communist Party. This extraordinary request arouses some amazement, and the Russian clarifies it by adding, "So that there may be one less scoundrel in the world when I am dead." The Jew puts in a request for a dish of strawberries. "But it's winter, and there are no strawberries," he is told. "Well, I can wait," is his rejoinder.

A Nepman, or private trader, goes to a store and asks for pictures which he may display in the window of his shop to prove that he is a loyal Soviet citizen. Portraits of Rykov, Kalinin, and the whole Council of People's Commissars fail to attract him, but he brightens up when he sees the picture of Lenin lying dead in the state tomb. " Couldn't you show me a picture of the whole Council of People's Commissars lying dead ?" he ventures.

A concert is announced, but with the unusual condition that tickets of admission cost ten rubles, but that a hundred rubles will be paid to any of the audience who professes dissatisfaction with the last number. The hall is crowded with people seeking to win a hundred rubles easily; the concert is a miserable affair; but when the last number proves to be the "Internationale," played by the band of the Gay-Pay-Oo, or secret police, no one feels in the mood to claim his hundred rubles.