Zhivago's Children: The Last Russian Intelligentsia

The 'engineers of human souls' occupied a unique role in the Soviet Union, finds Harold Shukman

August 6, 2009

The Russian term "intelligentsia" came into use in the 19th century to denote the few educated people who "thought critically" about the repressive tsarist state they lived in. Without the intelligentsia, Russian literature and philosophy would not have achieved greatness, but nor would there have been political parties or the revolution. And when, after 1917, it became clear that the communist regime intended to harness the intelligentsia for its own purposes, many writers, artists and philosophers left Russia for the freedom of Western Europe. Many remained, however, and did their best to adapt to the new conditions. By the beginning of the 1930s, it was clear how the state intended dealing with them: in exchange for promoting the Communist Party's policies in all fields of human endeavour, the state granted the intelligentsia a favoured position.

Dubbed by Stalin "engineers of human souls", writers, poets, actors and artists were inscribed in "creative unions", and scholars and scientists installed in institutes. Everyone with a higher education or in the professions was now officially deemed to belong to the Soviet intelligentsia. The benefits of membership included regular food supplies in times of widespread deprivation, the best available medical facilities, country cottages, privileged holiday resorts and, by the 1960s, permission to travel abroad with access to hard currency.

In return for these benefits, the intelligentsia dutifully performed their functions in harmony with the party's needs and demands. Those who persisted in the tradition of "thinking critically" were mostly liquidated or submerged in the 1930s by the almighty NKVD and, too often, by mutual denunciation. After the victory of 1945, many warrior-intellectuals hoped for their reward to be more tolerable conditions, only to find the state demanding their unquestioning support in a new kind of war: the Cold War. The dream of Western-oriented reform was crushed by renewed oppression. The intelligentsia faced a dire choice: conform or perish. Their efforts to keep alive the spirit of their antecedents is the subject of Vladislav Zubok's Zhivago's Children: The Last Russian Intelligentsia.

Nikita Khrushchev's secret de-Stalinisation speech of 1956 encouraged the intelligentsia, and many young party functionaries, to hope for a new era of reform. Russian translations of Ernest Hemingway, J.D. Salinger and Erich Maria Remarque appeared and were absorbed as models of freedom-loving nonconformists; Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's novel about life in the Gulag was published to boost Khrushchev's programme. But in 1964, Khrushchev was "retired" and an era of re-Stalinisation ensued. The seeds of criticism had been planted, the "men of the Sixties" had been created and would evolve in various degrees of dissidence.

Writers began eluding the censor and engaging in samizdat (self-publishing) - Andrei Sinyavsky and Yuli Daniel, who were pall-bearers at Boris Pasternak's funeral in 1960, were put on trial for publishing abroad; the journal Novy Mir became the litmus test of official tolerance; a novel or a poem acquired the force of free expression, until the party said: "No!" This only stiffened the resistance. Like Dr Zhivago a decade earlier, Solzhenitsyn's novels found their way abroad.

Andrei Sakharov, a loyal and much-honoured nuclear physicist in the 1950s, emerged as the state's severest and most public critic for its abuse of civil and human rights. Emancipated from their troubled history in 1917, Russia's small Jewish population - a large proportion of whom were members of the intelligentsia, writers, critics, scientists, especially in Moscow - emerged on to the public stage as Jews only in the 1960s. The Israeli triumph in the Six-Day War aroused feelings of pride and identification with the Jewish state.

The coincidence of these feelings with the resurgence of the Russian national feeling aroused by Leonid Brezhnev's re-Stalinisation, which erected stronger barriers against penetration by Western culture and its values, set the scene for a conflict of loyalties that would soon become the total Jewish rejection of the Soviet Union, reformed or unreformed, and generate an urge to emigrate. Sympathy and support for the Russian Jews became a hallmark of intelligentsia status.

The leadership seemed unaware that the party harboured many younger intellectuals who had been "thinking critically" since 1956. Having made their careers, they emerged in the mid-1980s alongside Mikhail Gorbachev as allies of the intelligentsia, and began asking why, 70 years after the revolution, the Politburo was still debating which novel, play or poem to approve. They were the real gravediggers of communism. But the Russia that succeeded them also saw the end of the Russian intelligentsia.

As Zubok laments, "Zhivago's children, the spiritual heirs of Boris Pasternak's noble doctor, were the last of their kind - an intellectual and artistic community committed to a civic, cultural, and moral mission." This book is a worthy tribute to the history of a unique, and uniquely important, feature of modern Russian life.

Zhivago's Children: The Last Russian Intelligentsia

By Vladislav Zubok

Harvard University Press

464pp, £25.95

ISBN 9780674033443

Published 25 June 2009

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