As one reads or hears about events of nineteenth century history, particularly Western history, there is the realization that this century was much different than the last due to many things, not least of these being the Industrial Revolution and the rise of medicine. During the 1800’s in Europe and especially in Russia, there was a rise in interest of roots and beginnings, of national history and identity. This interest grew out of the Enlightenment period and the consequent return to classical thought and the idea that “On earth there is nothing great but man; in man there is nothing great but mind.”[1] During the prior century, the Enlightenment, spawned by English and French philosophers, took Western Europe by force and changed its philosophy of everything forever. The Enlightenment left no stone unscorched and, through the efforts of Russian tsars, principally Peter the Great, Russia fell to the fires of Reason. Due to the quick rise of Russian literature and philosophy, Russia soon found itself a nation divided. They had already been divided before, the haves and the have-nots, with the realization of different classes: the tsars, the nobles, and the peasants but now the gulf deepened. The nobles became enlightened, Western educated and as a consequence, Russia’s intelligentsia nobility became irreconcilable with its common citizenry by virtue of education and philosophy. And they felt it; deeply. This spurred on the writings of many Russian authors who felt the separation anxiety and longed to assuage it. Therefore this essay will seek to explore the back-story of how Russia came to be in this predicament of alienation, how the Russian intelligentsia expressed this feeling, and then how they sought to reconcile the situation.

First of all, who were the intelligentsia and how did they come to exist? The answer to this question should exhume the reasons why the intelligentsia felt alienated and lead into a discussion of how they articulated this crisis in their works. The intelligentsia of Russia was a small group of critics from among the Russian nobility whose writ greatly influenced the events of subsequent Russian history. There were several key features to the intelligentsia, all of which make defining this group very difficult since some of the features or beliefs are not universal across the board. The intelligentsia were educated to varying degrees, believed in the power of reason and ideas, and considered themselves as a group devoted to promoting political and social changes in autocratic Russia. This desire for change grew out of their perception that they were alienated from the people of their own native land and therefore tried hard to either return to the society of Russia or change it according to their norms.[2]This process of alienation began with the rise or introduction of Western learning in Russia under the Tsar Peter the Great. Under his reign, Russia experienced major changes politically, militarily, economically but more specific to this essay, culturally. His primary goal in his reign was to make Russia a European power rivaling England and France.[3] Although his efforts of advancing the military, government, and economy never exceeded England or France, he did get his wish as they became a European power, albeit a small one. His greatest success perhaps was the change he instilled in Russian society and culture. First he began with transforming Russian education or ideals of education into a Western copycat.[4] Very soon the effects of this process began to show in the literature output especially in an address by Mikhail Vasil’evich Lomonosov as he celebrates the excellencies of Peter’s deeds in bringing the modern era to Russia. He states that Peter “did induce (partly by command and partly by his own weighty example) a great multitude of his subjects to leave their country for a time and to convince themselves by experience how great an advantage a person and an entire state can derive from a journey of inquiry in foreign regions.”[5] He continues his praise: “What benefit was brought to us by all the different sciences and arts, bathed in such a glow of grandeur, is proved by the superabundant richness of our most varied pleasures, of which our forefathers, before the days of Russia’s Great Enlightener, were not only deprived but in many cases had not even any conception.”[6] In addition to introducing Western education he also imposed various Western cultural institutions particularly manners and customs which were not limited to dress and the cutting of beards[7]. His introduction of Western philosophy, education, and culture brought Russia out of the dark ages but it also caused an even greater gap between the social classes.[8] In the 1830’s, the intelligentsia “woke up” to find themselves alienated from their own native people due to their education and dislike for traditions and “backward” values.[9] According to the introduction in What is to be done, the intelligentsia, replete with Western ideas and philosophies, used those ideas to describe the state of Russia and what they discovered was not at all pleasant according to Western eyes, it was a “backward” society.[10]

Through the prolific writings of the intelligentsia there is a common thread of realization that they were alienated from their own people. This alienation is expressed in a rather different way than one might suppose. Instead of a yearning to return to the old ways of life, the intelligentsia through the writings of Petr Iakovlevich Chadaaev, Ivan Vasil’evich Kireevski, and Aleksei Stepanovich Khomiakov describe the backwardness of Russian society and its incompatibility with Western values and theories. That is the definition of their alienation-Russian incompatibility with Western thought and methods. Chadaaev is perhaps the most frank in his realization of this and therefore his words shall be used in this essay. His works were banned and he was declared insane and put under house arrest.[11] However his writings, particularly his Philosophical Letters, did not go unread and Herzan states that the publication of these letters had the “effect of a pistol shot in the dead of night.”[12] The language of his writings is quite condemning at times but he does rightly point out the backwardness of his nation and how the West has not exactly helped this. Chadaaev states, “It is one of the most deplorable traits of our strange civilization that we are still discovering truths that are commonplace even among peoples much less advanced than we. This is because we have never marched with the other peoples. We are not a part of any of the great families of the human race; we are neither of the West nor of the East, and we have not the traditions of either. We stand, as it were, outside of time, the universal education of mankind has not touched us.”[13] While this may state that Russia is inherently alienated from the rest of Europe and therefore underdeveloped, underscored is the fact that the Russian intelligentsia belongs to the Western world, at least in thought and practice. Their writings are quite similar to other Western writers and their work is synonymous with the Romantic literatures of France and England and the philosophic writings of Germany. Chadaaev’s condemnation continues, “Look around you. Everyone seems to have one foot in the air. One would think that we are all in transit. No one has a fixed sphere of existence; there are no proper habits, no rules that govern anything. We do not even have homes; there is nothing to tie us down, nothing that arouses our sympathies and affections, nothing enduring, nothing lasting. Everything passes, flows away, leaving no trace either outside or within us. In our homes, we are like guests; to our families, we are like strangers; and in our cities we seem like nomads, more so than those who wander our steppes, for they are more attached to their deserts than we are to our towns.”[14] Henceforth they don’t even seem to fit in within their own society. Chadaaev continues his rant with many more comments on how Russia has merely become a copycat, a poor piece of parchment that every other nation and philosophy non-Russian writes on. “But we [Russians], who have come into the world like illegitimate children, without a heritage, without any ties binding us to the men who came before us on this earth, carry in our hearts none of the lessons preceding our existence.”[15] Yet Chadaaev’s greatest admittance to alienation comes when he discusses how Russia cannot be compatible with the culture and things of Western Europe. He states, “You will therefore find that we all lack a certain assurance, a certain method in our thinking, a certain logic. The syllogism of the West is unknown to us.”[16] The thinking of the Western world is completely alien to them and therefore those Russian who are synched with the Western world are alien to the true Russians.

One of the best descriptions of the movement of the intelligentsia in their recognition of alienation and their move to reconcile such a gulf is expounded in the writings of Khomiakov in his treatise On Humbolt. Khomiakov writes this in his treatise:

The return of Russians to the Russian principles has already begun. By the word ‘return’ I do not mean the return of our gentle compatriots who, like so many doves, having spread their little wings and fluttered for a while over the turbulent sea of Western society, return fatigued to the Russian rock and praise its solidarity. No, they return to Holy Russia but not to Russian life; they praise the firmness of their resting place without realizing (like the rest of us) that all our activity amounts to a constant undermining at its very base. I am speaking of another kind of return. There are men, and fortunately their numbers are increasing, who return not to Russian soil but to Holy Russia, their spiritual mother, and who greet their brethren with joy and loving repentance. This intellectual return is both important and reassuring. Despite the blind resistance of the erudite and the slothful inertia of the half-literate majority, learning is not only beginning to pay attention to the true requirements of Russian life but, gradually freeing itself from its former schoolboy shackles, is manifesting a trend toward the awareness of our native values and the definition of truths latent in our own life and until now unrecognized.[17]

There definitely was a trend toward returning to Russian values and culture and one of the primary methods was through Russian and Ukrainian fiction. Taras Shevchenko was a Ukrainian poet who was one of the first non-noble writers of the Nationalism movement who was also caught up with the intelligentsia alienation crisis. His poems decry a need for liberty from tyranny but also briefly dealt with this recognition of alienation from their native people. In his poem “My Friendly Epistle”, Shevchenko has a few lines which exemplify the sense of alienation the intelligentsia possessed and call for a return to native values and desires for liberty.

Come to your senses, ruthless ones,

O stupid children, Folly’s sons!

And bring that peaceful paradise,

Your own Ukraine, before your eyes;

Then let your heart, in love sincere,

Embrace her mighty ruin here!

Break then your chains, in love unite,

Nor seek in foreign lands the sight

Of things not even found above,

Still less in lands that strangers love…

Then in your own house you will see

True justice, strength, and liberty![18]

Herein lies a call not only for Ukrainians to unite and overthrow tyranny but I believe also a call to put aside foreign ideas of “true justice, strength, and liberty”. He calls them to seek it in their own lands, their “own house”. He furthers his wishes in this poem as he calls them to take up and read and to remember what their ancestors fought and died for.[19] While his writings do call his countrymen to not seek for things outside of their own country, Shevchenko’s words are more a call for national liberty than liberty from Western ideals. Nikolai Gogol is one of the most well known of the Russian authors and his satirical short stories are full of descriptions of the alienation between the Western educated intelligentsia and the common people and through his use of satire, Western ideas, customs and society in Russia hilariously laughed at. The best example of this is in his play The Inspector General. In this play he satirically describes the shortcomings of Russian society demonstrating Chadaaev’s point that “No one has a fixed sphere of existence; there are no proper habits, no rules that govern anything.”[20] First of all there is a description of the poor quality of Russian frontier society. The hospital is in a terrible condition with the patients looking “like chimneysweeps”[21] and the whole place looking like its “badly run or that the doctor’s incompentent.”[22] The courthouse is used as a washing line and poultry yard, the mayor takes bribes, and even the mailman snoops in other people’s mail.[23] The whole place is utter chaos and very backward. While Russian society gets a bad rap, the influence of Western society doesn’t escape the sharp wit of Gogol. The faux governor inspector is supposedly from St. Petersburg and everyone of the common Russian society is mesmerized by it: “That’s the life!”[24] Even such effluence, influenced by the West, it is exonerated by the characters, Gogol shows it in its true light. The inspector general, who is the image bearer of Western/St. Petersburg ideals, is portrayed as a phony and takes loans from nearly everyone who crosses his path.[25] Perhaps one of the greatest examples of Western criticism in this book, from the perspective of the Mayor who is a member of the common Russia people, is the remark: “I don’t need to tell you that there isn’t a man alive who hasn’t some little indirection about his conscience. That’s why the good Lord created us-and those Voltairean freethinkers can say what they like!”[26] Here the gulf between the intelligentsia and the Russian people is realized and frowned upon. Russian and Ukrainian literature is one of the most poignant mediums in which the alienation sentiments of the intelligentsia are realized.

While the intelligentsia realized the alienation between them and Russian society and wrote profusely about it, it seemed very little could be done. The damage was done; Peter’s reforms had effectively brought modernity to Russia and Russia felt a wave of cold shock from its effects. Writers like Konstantin Sergeevich Aksakov wrote treatises advocating reform but very little happened. Perhaps this was due to the fact that “repressive system of government” kept reform from happening.[27] Alexander I tried to reform by abolishing the despotic decrees of his father but other constitutional reforms never took place since Alexander rejected the Senate’s demands.[28] As mentioned before, there were those who sought to return to “Holy Russia” but the fact that effective reforms never took place until after the 1830’s, would mean their efforts were too late and too little, at least for their own time. The gulf of alienation was definitely felt by all in Russia and caused disunity throughout the structure of Russian society, even among the intelligentsia. Spurred by the French revolution and republican thought, many sought to reconcile the two societies but time and time again it failed.

[1]Charles Shields. “Reason and Revelation in the Sciences,” ed. Charles A. Briggs et al., The Presbyterian Review 6(1885):279. Quote by Sir William Hamilton.

[2]Michael R. Katz and William G. Wagner, introduction to What is to be done, (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1989), 2.

[3] William Risch, “Imperial Russia: Russia before Peter the Great, Peter the Great and His Legacy” (lecture, Georgia College and State University, Milledgeville, GA, January 14, 2011).

[4] Risch, “Imperial Russia”, January 14, 2011.

[5]Mikhail Vasil’evich Lomonosov, “Panegyric to the Sovereign Emperor Peter the Great,” in Russian Intellectual History: an Anthology, ed. Marc Raeff (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1966), 34.

[6] Lomonosov, 36.

[7] Risch, “Imperial Russia”, January 14, 2011.

[8] Risch, “Imperial Russia”, January 14, 2011

[9] Katz and Wagner, “Introduction”, 3.

[10] Katz and Wagner, “Introduction”, 3.

[11] Marc Raeff, “Petr Iakolevich Chadaaev”, in Russian Intellectual History: an Anthology, 159.

[12] Marc Raeff, “Petr Iakolevich Chadaaev”, in Russian Intellectual History: an Anthology, 159.


[13] Petr Iakolevich Chadaaev, “Letters on the Philosophy of History”, in Raeff, 162.

[14] Chadaaev, 162-63.

[15] Chadaaev, 164.

[16] Chadaaev, 165.

[17] Aleksei Stepanovich Khomiakov, “On Humbolt”, in Raeff, 227.

[18] Taras Shevchenko, “My Friendly Epistle”, Taras Shevchenko Museum, http://www.infoukes.com/shevchenkomuseum/poetry.htm#link3. Lines 19-30. March 10, 2011.

[19] Shevchenko, “My Friendly Epistle” lines 19-30.

[20] Chadaaev, 162-63.

[21] Nikolai Gogol, “The Government Inspector”, Nikolay Gogol: The Diary of a Madman, The Government Inspector and Selected Stories, trans. Ronald Wilks. New York: Penguin Classics, 2005. 221.

[22] Gogol, “The Inspector General”, 221.

[23] Gogol, “The Inspector General”, 221, 300.

[24] Gogol, “The Inspector General”, 257.

[25] Gogol, “The Inspector General”, 269, 270, 272.

[26] Gogol, “The Inspector General”, 222.

[27] Konstantin Sergeevich Aksakov, “On the Internal State of Russia”, in Raeff, 247.

[28] Gregory L. Freeze, ed. Russia: A History, 2nd ed.(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002) 145-46.