Intellectual as Missionaries


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Intellectual as Missionaries


  • Intellectuals as missionaries: the liberal oppositionin Russia and their notion of culture

    Igor Narskij

    Published online: 2 October 2010

    Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2010

    Abstract The present article is primarily concerned with the imagined communityof liberal intellectuals (starting with the Westernizers, in the 1840s, and ending with

    the Kadets and the participants of the October Revolution in the early twentieth

    century), rather than the community that objectively existed. This imaginary

    community constructed notions of the collective identity of their own group as well

    as that of Russian society. For this purpose, they instrumentalized the notions of

    progress, backwardness, culturedness (kulturnost) and benightedness(temnota), thereby creating hierarchies in which the constructors of collectiveidentities granted themselves the important role of intermediaries between state and

    society. Special attention is paid to the prominent role Russias liberal historians

    played in this process insofar as historians possessed great power in nineteenth-

    century Europethe power to tell their states and societies about their past, present,

    and futureand this transformed them into professional producers of (national)

    identities. Their work combined expert knowledge and ideological cliches in a

    highly complex manner. The central question posed is to what extent and in what

    respect the reality constructed by Russian intellectuals coincided with the actions of

    intellectuals in other European regions or, on the contrary, to what extent their

    discursive activities had a specifically local character.

    Keywords European intellectuals Russian liberalism Culture Backwardness

    Writing about liberalism in general, and Russian liberalism in particular, is an

    exceedingly difficult, thankless, and nearly hopeless task. Despite the immense

    research on liberalism as a philosophical and political doctrine, political movement,

    I. Narskij (&)Center for Cultural History Studies, South Ural State University, Prospect Pobedy 290, Office 602,

    454138 Chelyabinsk, Russia



    Stud East Eur Thought (2010) 62:331352

    DOI 10.1007/s11212-010-9120-0

  • system of governance, and cultural practice, most questions surrounding it remain

    extremely tangled. Fruitful progress towards understanding this phenomenon is

    hardly possible without clear answers to these questions. Amongst philosophers,

    sociologists, and historians there is no clarity about this phenomenons definition, its

    substantive core, the time of its emergence and the stages of its development, its

    social bases, its interactions with the state and radical political opposition groups,

    and how borrowings shaped its national invariants.1

    This interpretive discord is probably explained not only by scholarships

    evolving epistemological characteristics and the political circumstances in which

    liberalism is studied, but also by the objective characteristics of this phenom-

    enons maturation and daily existence in various parts of Europe: the duration of the

    use of the term itself in the pre- and extrapolitical realms, as well the variability of

    the political phenomenon described by it and its adaptability to a variety of

    geographic and temporal historical contexts. Even today it is hard not to agree with

    the view expressed a quarter of a century ago by Marc Raeff, the well-known

    historian of Russia: neither an absolute definition which would set forth very

    clearly and precisely the specific, unchangeable, and essential components and

    characteristics of an ideology or political movement nor a relativistic,

    historicist, pragmatic definition, which alters its set of traits depending on the

    specific situation, has proved adequate for liberalism (Raeff 1959: 220221).

    Raeff was addressing Russian liberalism, which for a number of well-known reasons

    has been studied much less systematically than its Western and Central European

    counterparts. The phenomenon, which was perceived by educated contemporaries in the

    nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (according to their own ideological biases and

    political temperaments) as the embodiment of either free thinking or cowardice,

    magnanimity or selfishness, evades clear definitions and melts into the air like a

    phantom when attempts are made to analyze it scientifically. Some scholars see the

    origins of Russian liberalism in the reforms of Catherine the Great and the work of

    Freemasons and representatives of the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century, while

    others doubt that it existed before 1905. A number of scholars hold that the agent of

    Russian liberalism was the bureaucracy, not society, as opposed to those scholars who

    express fundamental doubts about the expediency of attributing administrative

    liberalism to the liberal movement.

    Despite the concerted efforts of western and Soviet/Russian scholars in this area,

    it has ironically proved most problematic to find convincing answers to the question

    of Russian liberalisms specific character. Russian liberalisms difference from its

    western analogues is usually attributed to adverse conditions for its development

    within an autocratic political regime and a complex web of unresolved issues that

    were successfully solved in Western European countries in stages over a long period

    of time; the borrowed nature of liberal doctrine; the weakness of its social base,

    represented mainly by the enfranchised intelligentsia; the ideological contradic-

    tions and radicalism of political liberal programs; and illegal activism and sympathy

    1 I have had occasion to write before on this topic. See Narskij, I.V. Rossijskij liberalizm v evropejskom i

    nacionalnom kontekste. In Istorija nacionalnykh politiceskikh partij Rossii: Materialy mezdunarodnoj

    konferencii. Moscow: 1997, 335355.

    332 I. Narskij


  • for revolutionaries. Closer examination reveals that none of the specifically

    Russian parameters of Russian liberalism is purely Russian, and that each of them

    has parallels in the history (at very least) of Central and East European liberalisms.

    Russian liberalism is not the focus of the present article. In this case, reference to

    the problems involved in studying it is not meant to underscore the complexities of

    the phenomenon (along with other, more complicated problems that we will

    encounter later in this article) and thus laud the authors courage or outstanding

    services to scholarship. This brief introduction to the problematic of Russian

    liberalism aims to outline the content and chronological framework of the present

    mini-study. The liberal opposition is understood to mean a Russian intellectual

    community whose members (whether historians or lawyers, doctors or teachers,

    writers or engineers) politicized their professional spheres as a means of achieving

    in the near or distant future (with the cooperation of a state capable of emancipatory

    reforms) the autonomy of society (the people) by enlightening and educating it to

    the level of personality. Despite the schematic nature and vagueness of this

    definition, it seems suitable for outlining the chronological boundaries both of the

    subject we are analyzing and the questions posed in the present article. The

    discussion that follows deals not with an objectively existing but an imaginary

    community of liberal intellectuals (ranging from the Westernizers of the 1840s to

    the Kadets and Octobrists of the early twentieth century) that constructed notions

    about the collective identity of its own group and Russian society using the concepts

    of progress and backwardness, culturedness and benightedness, and thus

    attempted to create a hierarchy in which the constructors of collective identities

    reserved for themselves the important role of intermediaries between state and

    society. We pay particular attention to the preeminent role of liberally oriented

    Russian historians in this process. In what follows, we must answer the question of

    how and to what degree this construction of reality by Russian intellectuals

    (members of the intelligentsia) coincided with the actions of intellectuals in other

    European regions, and what the specific features of their discursive work were.

    In order to obtain ideal-type benchmarks for comparative analysis, we must turn

    to contemporary sociological notions of intellectuals, of their functions and place in

    European societies.

    Intellectuals as complaining heroes

    In the context of the task we have set ourselves, it is expedient to omit the subtle

    conceptual differences that have formed within the sociology of knowledge2 and

    focus on the typical features of intellectuals as systematically set out in the research

    2 For further information on European intellectuals see: Geiger, T. Aufgaben und Stellung der Intelligenz

    in der Gesellschaft. Stuttgart, 1949; Mannheim, K. Ideologie und Utopie. Frankfurt, 1952; Dahrendorf, R.

    Gesellschaft und Demokratie in Deutschland. Munich, 1965; Shils, E. Intellectuals, Tradition and the

    Tradition of Intellectuals, in E. Shils (Ed.), Center and Periphery. Essays in Macro-Sociology. Chicago,

    1975; Michels, R. Masse, Fuhrer, Intellektuelle. FrankfurtNY, 1987; Lepsius, M.R. Interessen, Ideen

    und Institutionen. Oplade, 1990; Giesen, B. Die Intellektuellen und die Nation: eine deutsche Achsen