During the earlier half of the nineteenth century, the age of Enlightenment began to slowly pass away and Romanticism began to take its place in Russia, particularly in the upper echelon of society. Even though the more passionate tenets of Western Romanticism were banned by Tsar Nicholas I, there was still a substantial presence of Romanticism in Russia which manifested itself in the social group known as the intelligentsia. This group of intellectuals was usually made up of the ruling class of Russia and due to their status, had the opportunity of receiving Western styled education but yet Russia’s own intelligentsia had a different twist on their own nation and culture. This was most evidenced in the life of Petr Iakovlevich Chadaaev who instigated the debate of Russia’s position in regard to its own history and the influence of Western Europe. Nikolai Gogol, a Russian dramatist and novelist, was also influential in the Russian intelligentsia and therefore this essay will seek to explore how some of their writings reflected the intelligentsia’s attempts to deal with being alienated from “the people”
Chadaaev in his “Letters on the Philosophy of History” wrote a long discourse on the usage of history and how Russia’s conception of history is much different than that of Western Europe. In the midst of his letter, he does reflect some attempt to reunite “the people” and the intelligentsia. His first attempt can be deduced from his sympathetic language to the addressee. Although he uses elevated language and an air of nobility, he does seem to attempt to redeem the two cultures. He equates himself with the addressee in telling her that she has been “swayed by the forces which move us all, from the most exalted members of our society to the slave who exists only for his master’s pleasure” (160). Secondly, he speaks of unity on page 161 as he says, “let it be enough for you today to know that the doctrine which is founded on the supreme principle of unity and of the direct transmission of the truth through the unbroken succession of its ministers cannot but come closest to the true spirit of religion”. He says this to speak of the unity of the people in context to their common history. The second major attempt Chadaaev uses to reconcile all groups to each other is on a later page where he speaks of Russian history and nationalism. He admits that “the masses are guided by certain forces which are at the summit of society. They do not think for themselves; there among them a few who think for them, who furnish the impetus for the collective intelligence of the nation and make it advance. While this small number cogitates, the rest feel, and a general movement results” (166). Herein he describes the present situation of alienation yet he shows that because of the thoughts of the few, the rest of society moves into progress. Yet I think that Chadaaev’s overall theme of diagnosing Russia’s history problem leads to an attempt to unite Russian society, despite the social differences. He calls for Russians to be proud of their own unique history and to seek to purify it from the influence of German or French historians. He does lament though that their history is “linked to nothing” and “proves nothing” (167). This is indeed the stuff which got him in trouble with Nicholas I. Despite his antagonism toward Russian history, he should be credited with trying to unify the Russian society through nationalism and moral principles.
Nikolai Gogol’s play, “The Inspector-General”, is indeed a hilarious satire which poignantly plays the common Russian populace against the Russian official and the culture of St. Petersburg. Being satire, his character, the Inspector-General, should be noted as a phony; therefore the relationship between this character and the other more “common” characters should show some kind of social problem of the time. In the play, there are a set of corrupt village officials who find out that a inspector is on the way to their town. They quickly try to tidy up their own mess in the town and find out that a man arrived in the inn two weeks ago from St. Petersburg. Assured that the visitor is the inspector, they begin to host him at their homes and places of business. The visitor is actually a civil servant whose vain attitude makes the village officials believe he’s the inspector. In short, he takes advantage of them all, borrowing money from them all, making nasty reports, not paying his bills, and flirting with the mayor’s wife and daughter. In the end they find out and kick him out of town only to have the real inspector show up at that moment. The characters, though highly stereotyped, are nonetheless recognizable to the Russian audience and while one may laugh at their antics, their behavior is sadly true. The faux inspector general is perhaps the most comical and the most ridiculous. His haughty disposition toward the landlord when he doesn’t receive his supper is funny but at the same time typical of a civil official who is close to the palace. His comic lie about his own achievements to the governor’s wife in scene six of act three give the audience an idea of the frivolity of the Russian nobility. The governor as well, in his attempts to cover up his mistakes and cruelties, is also another example of the Russian nobility. All this goes to show the pomp and vanity of the corrupt Russian nobility. Gogol’s intent would have been to show the error of such society and say that his society will be better than these corrupt government officials and seek to descend and find commonality between himself and the masses.
While the Russian intelligentsia may seek to realign themselves with the Russian populace, it seems they are not completely humble and still show their own superiority. However, they do seem to posses the desire to unite with them in the sense of Russian nationalism to drive out the invader and the corrupt nobility. While the French enlightenment had a great impact on Russian education and culture in that time period, the Napoleonic wars had a still greater impact as it toughened the Russian spirit and gave them a true picture of what despots are like. While comfortable in their own society, the Russian intelligentsia was not so high and mighty to be above unifying with the populace against those who threatened to usurp their liberties and such.