The Russian Intelligentsia's Impact on the Avant-Garde

"A Russian writer should never live in friendship with a Russian Government." (Kemp-Welch 1)

When we talk about the Russian Intelligentsia, it is important to recognize that the word intelligentsia is used to describe that group of people distinguishable from both intellectual workers as well as pure intellectuals, who give "life, warmth and beauty to the whole organism of Russia, to all her elements and classes of society,"(Nahirny 3) --namely the educated and half-educated public in general, the creative scholars, scientists and artists, as well as the ideologically oriented men in positions dealing with literacy. They are different from the intellectual workers in their concern with "ultimate questions," and from the pure intellectuals in their active commitment to human self-fulfillment in the fact that they reject the idea of engaging in any cultural activity for its own sake, believing instead the arts and sciences to be activities worthy of facilitating their journey for larger answers. They are historically crucial to the modernization of Russia in their critiques and internalizations of art and science, good and evil, order and chaos, fulfillment and unfulfillment, whether by putting new life and importance into these ideas, or by exposing their failures. "Glorified to the point of a kind of secular sainthood, Russian intellectuals were perceived to be utterly selfless in their devotion to the common good, which they expressed through either art itself or critiques of it." (Nagrodskaia ix) And though the intelligentsia may see the destruction of evil to be their main task while perhaps lacking a compelling positive set of goals, the Russian movement acquired much of its character from this particular movement along with its great "number of visions, designs, and experiments, most of which had some impact on the morale, ideologies, and strategies of future revolutionary generations." (Pomper 3) The intelligentsia is credited with a major role in the revolution, and thus the creation of Russian representative culture, leading to the arrival of symbolism, achmeism, and futurism -- key movements of the avant-garde, during a time when optimistic artists believed they could play progressive roles in achieving the goals of a new society. 

The Russian intelligentsia arose during the time when the dvorianstvo, the people of high social standing, were undergoing a series of transformations in the nineteenth century, when the demand that the Russian imperial governments accomplish new skills and assume leadership in all areas of modernization while the necessity of guarding and continuing traditional institutions and culture was at an all time high. While traditionalists felt threatened by modernization and adopted conservative romantic ideologies, believing that the strength of Russia lay in its ability to preserve the old military and administrative structure that they had run for many years before, another group, the rational bureaucrats, became a resource to modernize the bureaucracy, improve the economy while maintaining serfdom, uphold the legality and justice without creating a constitution, and expand education without taking away from the priviliged position of the dvorianstvo. A third group that came into existance at this time was the intelligentsia, an unforeseen and unintended consequence of this cultural change, encompassing not only merchants and commoners, but people of all estates who have been drawn together through education centering almost exclusively around the love of literature.  While the dvorianstvo were certainly the providers for most of the social thought as it was they who had the easiest access to any education, not all of their members became part of the intelligentsia। Rather, many were recruited to Russia's imperial government with the idea that they could enter the twentieth century as a major world power. "Privilege was a necessary condition of the emergence of the intelligentsia, but neither a sense of privilege nor any other attitude peculiar to the dvorianstvo is a sufficient explanation for the formation of the radical mentality of the revolutionary intelligentsia, or its democratic outlook." (Pomper 8) While it is almost impossible to produce a single source for the intelligentsia's radicalism, it seems as if it is certainly a unique response to its surrounding culture and society. 

Unlike the traditionalists and the rational bureaucrats, the intelligentsia were niether bound by class nor considered a distinct group of individuals that should be subjected to specific rights or priviliges derived from custom or law. Theoretically, anyone could join the intelligentsia if appropriately tutored and enlightened: "Only that writer, artist, or scholar served progress who did all that he could to apply his energies to the dissemination and strengthening of the civilization of his time, who struggled with evil, embodied his artistic ideals, scientific truths, philosophical ideas, publicistic strivings in creations which were fully infused with the life of his times, and in activities which strictly corresponded to the amount of his energies." (Nahirny 8) The intelligentsia was concerned not as much with the creation of cultural values, but rather with the ideological enlightenment of the people, namely the peasants and workers, believing that only those who fought unceasingly for the values consistent with the system of truth truly deserved the title of "Intelligentsia।" Within this system of truth lay certain ideas and standards which called for the creation of a critically thinking individual whose aim it would be to criticize the social world around him with the goal of reaffirming his commitment for truly enlightened action. 

After Russia's victory over Napoleon in 1812, a reaffirmation of traditional values ensued. Over time, uncomfortable alliances with conservative parties and nobility led to the painful process of reform and reaction that lasted until about 1917. Unfortunately, there was no support for the goals of modernization, as "neither the court, the extended nobility, the clergy, nor the numerically insignificant urban middle class could effectively lead the vast and backward empire into the modern world. Russia's enlightenend despots, while trying to demonstrate their capacity to create the future, revealed instead their inability to deal with the present." (Pomper 11) After the war, soldiers and generals both agreed that now that the Russian government had fought and overwhelmed European tyranny, freedoms would now be restored to the motherland equal to those restored elsewhere। These freedoms were denied, leading young liberals to realize that their experience of the horrors of war were insignificant in creating liberty at home, causing many to join secret societies with the goal of armed rebellion and the overthrow of a weak government. With the failure of military and agricultural agreements that were supposed to produce vast military, economic, and social benefits, liberals felt that their trust in the government had been exploited. While these individuals were advocates for social change, many of the aristocracy were unwilling to trade their heritage and heirarchy for the abstract ideas of the enlightened philosophers. Those that did see the need for change joined groups designed to band together as a moral and intellectual elite while giving righteousness and benevolence to themselves -- their romantic quest for truth and moral purity was a sure sign of early intelligentsia behavior. They expressed their frustration with patriotism, idealism, and individualism within their generation, calling for the replacement of autocracy with an establishment of a constitutional government as well as an abolition to serfdom. Feeling that they had protected Russia from an external enemy, these social reformers now felt they must deliver Russia from an internal one. However, the revolutions in Spain, Portugal, Naples, Piedmont, and Greece led Alexander to put down and disperse these secret societies that called for change, its members regrouping underground and splitting into even smaller groups with more definite ideologies and organizations. Though disbanded before any real progress could be made, the importance of these groups is undeniable, as the ideas of agragarian socialism became the dominant ideology of the Russian revolutionary intelligentsia, inspiring many others, among them the Decembrists, who believed that the "ancient and medieval Russia's liberties had been destroyed by autocracy and thought of themselves as restorers of lost freedoms." (Pomper 23) The group, whose rebellion was firmly crushed, made a profound impression on Russia. Seen as being more effective as martyrs than as rebels, they helped to start the spread of revolutionary activity among the educated classes, starting the rise of a new intelligentsia. It is in this sense that we realize that the intellectual life in Russian entailed "not so much a shift of interest from philosophy and literature to social issues and politics, as an attempt to ideologize all the spheres of cultural life and thereby harness them to the service of a cause." (Nahirny 90)

Because a Russian writer was considered by many to be the independent critic of the state, it is logical then that it was these individuals who first began to notice the ignorance, backwardness, violence, and contradictions of the Russian culture, using their observations to fuel the material needed for literary expression. Being critical of both society and state, these writers became the intelligentsia "whose rootlessness was treated as a unique vantage point from which to articulate the 'social interest' as a whole." (Kemp-Welch 1) So, it became the intelligentsia that began to be seen by many as the guardians of cultural and ethical values against the infringements of the state. One man in particular, Maxim Gorky, after becoming an established author deeply involved in both political and literary affairs during one of the most restless times in Russia's history, formed the Gorky Commission which took on this role, eventually meeting to organize protection for the country's historic monuments, erecting statues to the fighters for freedom and helping to provide the development of Russian art by calling for its complete freedom. Though considered to be the most advanced part of Russian culture, the intelligentsia eventually found itself abandoned by the revolution which it had done so much to fuel, leading to the reflection and renewal of its identities and expressions. Thrown into a mood of deep pessimism, what with the collapse of the rule of the cultured bourgeoisie, a movement of  anti-intellectualism -- makhaevshchina -- became quite popular। Even so, the artistic world was hardly thwarted. Artists and theatres, formerly financed by the state now began to manage themselves, leading to the rise of several major movements in Russian avant-gard, the newest influential wave of modern art.

The first group to surface in the political arena were the Russian Symbolists, representing an Eastern Orthodox branch of the 19th-century symbolist movement in European art, and seeking to express individual emotional experience through the subtle and suggestive use of highly symbolized language. Rebelling against the instructional criticism and realist prose that had dominated Russian literature for the past fifty years, writers began to experiment with literature in a new way and entered what is often referred to as the 'Silver Age', drawing heavily on deep feelings of mysticism, the belief in the possibility of attaining direct communion with God or knowledge of spiritual truth through careful meditation. Primarily an age of poetry, it also produced significant prose and drama, and "attempted to educate the public in 'symbolic' language which emphasized the musical and mystical at all costs, including, some critics thought, lucidity." (Kemp-Welch 4) The movement began with Nikolay Minsky's The Ancient Debate (1884) and Dmitry Merezhkovsky's On the Causes of the Decline and on the New Tens in Contemporary Russian Literature (1892), but did not really begin to flourish until the first decade of the 20th century, with three poets in particular -- Alexander Blok, Andrey Bely, and Sergey Solovyov -- who more or less led the second wave of poets as Symbolism slowly spread across the empire, proclaiming Moscow as the unofficial center of the movement. Blok, perhaps the greatest of the Symbolists, considered colors essential in his poetry, for they "convey mystical intimations of things beyond human experience." (wikipedia.org) Examples of these represational colors include blue or violet as colors of frustration, yellow as the color of treason and triviality, and black as something horrific, but with the potential of revelation for a chosen few. Along with the idea of colors representing moods or themes in human experience, Blok began to develop a system of poetic symbols: "In his early work, for instance, wind stands for the Fair Lady's approach, whereas morning or spring is the time when their meeting is most likely to happen। Winter and night are the evil times when the poet and his lady are far away from each other. Bog and mire stand for everyday life with no spiritual light from above." (wikipedia.org) Bely's influence is apparent too, as even his name "Bely" is the Russian symbol for white. Bely began to approach poetry with a greater attention to reality, believing the Symbolist art to transcend mere symbols to reach a higher state of revelation, while at the same time reminding those that "the novelty of contemporary art lies only in the enormous quantity of the entire past that has suddenly surfaced before us; today we are experiencing in art all centuries and all nations..."(Wachtel 5) The Symbolists saw art as a way to approach a higher reality, and accepted the revolution as an evolutional end to Russia's imperial period. Though losing most of its momentum by the end of 1910, the importance of the Symbolist movement was apparent, intending to bring about a new process of thought through which the intelligentsia's sense of individualism and creativity, mixed with a sense of community could be seen.

Another poetic school of thought, Acmeism, followed Symbolism in 1910 under the leadership of Nikolai Gumilev, Anna Akhmatova, and Osip Mandelstam, based on the greek word acme, meaning quite simply, "the best age of man।" Unlike Symbolists who saw themselves as priests floating above reality and life on earth, Acmeists preferred to imerse themselves in everyday events, accepting the idea that "the earth is not an encumbrance or an unfortunate accident but a God given palace," (Kemp-Welch 8) that true art expressed the essence of life and could do without allegories, symbols, or other adornments used only to embellish and take away from its basic nature. Acmeists sought inspiration in daily life, believing "poets (who were talented human beings rather than the prophets of Symbolism) should express ideas about culture, the world, and human existence." (ualberta.ca) Acmeism became a reaction to Symbolists, whom they thought clouded their poetry which too many intangible ideologies like mysticism and symbols, emphasizing instead clarity, compactness, simplicity, directness, and perfection of form in their work.

The Futurists were the final group of the Russian Avant-Garde. Rather than innovate and build on past traditions, they instead wanted to end all that came before them, starting anew, celebrating change, originality, and innovation in culture and society, embracing technology and the revolution. They saw themselves as the cultural counterpart to the political revolution, turning to pantomime, circus acrobatics, and dance as those theatrical forms worth exploring for their own sake, with absolutely no attempt at imitative realism, with the goal of inspiring public anger and amazement, arousing controversy, attracting widespread attention, and generally startling, astonishing, and confusing the audience, as one particular interview demonstrated:

Are you futurists?

Yes, we are futurists.

Do you deny futurism?

Yes, we deny futurism. May it disappear from the face of the earth!

But aren't you contradicting yourselves?

Yes, our aim is to contradict ourselves.

Are you charlatans?

Yes, we are charlatans.

Are you untalented? 

Yes, we are untalented.

Is it impossible to talk to you?

Yes, it is.

But what are your new year resolutions?

To be true to ourselves. (Parton 74)

And though the Futurists seemed "blithly unconcerned that their anti-art gestures, rejection of conventional syntax and vocabulary and affirmation of the right to innovate at all costs might be seen as incomprehensible to a public brought up on Pushkin as heiroglyphics," (Kemp-Welch 11) the movement became gradually accepted, and eventually declared to be the most advanced form of art। Loving speed, noise, machines, pollution, and cities, Futurists embraced the exciting new world around them, and the forces that made them possible. However, on a more negative side, Futurism also glorified war, belittled women, supported fascism, and called for the end of artistic tradition with the destruction of museums, libraries, and academies of every kind. The artists captured the modern machine and city-life atmosphere with revolutionary approaches and techniques in their paintings. Abstract light and color, Movement and speed, plastic dynamism and investigation of form, the interpenetration of subjects (where different parts of the picture merge into each other), and the prismatic (shattering) effect borrowed from cubism all made up themes that Futurists struggled to find and create in their art. After the first world war, it seemed that the inventive spark had left the Futurists, and the awe that accompanied the speed and movement of machines had passed, as the war had made it a commonality. Though perhaps finished as a major movement in art history, "There is no doubt that Futurism was the first 'modern' attempt to reorganise art and society around technology and the machine ethic and, as a common ancestor of most 20th century art, there are intrinsic vestiges of Futurism to be found throughout avant-garde art during the whole of the twentieth century." (Osborn)

While Symbolism, Acmeism, and Futurism were at their hieght, the Russian people became both scandalized and excited with the daring actions and implications of the avant-garde. The cultural development that occured carried many ordinary people into a world of more modern thought and imagination, setting the standard for how people viewed their government, lives, and society, with serious consequences for the future. The avant-garde was a highly individualistic period, with each man and woman having his or her standpoint and opinion. The Russian people were profoundly changed by the movement in their perspectives on themselves and history while the artists themselves gained tremendous energy in spite of the difficulty of material circumstances and vehement squabbles about the right way to proceed. When the tzar was toppled in 1917, it seemed to the Russian artists that it might finally be possible to attain the intelligentsia's nineteenth century goal to bring culture closer to its people. It can be said that the movement's infatuation with the surreal may have been a product of the feelings of betrayal at the nation's defeat in the Russo-Japanese War in 1904 and the ensuing economic depression as well as the political depression the country was immersed in after the massacre of revolting peasants in the revolution of 1905. Similarly, it may have also been a logical reaction to the tzar and secret police who were using any means necessary to control and suppress the revolutionaries with censorship among other things. The dream world of hallucination was now safer to show than the real world, as much of it did not reflect the contemporary instability and violence that characterized the political life of Russia. After the revolution, ideas of remarkable breadth and depth were brought together, and a period of experimentation took place as Russia entered an era involving a "powerful outburst of artistic, political, and social energy resulting in unprecedented change in Russian society and the flowering of a golden age of Russian theatre, whose vitality and accomplishment were to affect the Western theatre for the remainder of the century." (rutheater.home.att.net) What distinguished the avant-garde of the early twentieth century from earlier modernist groups was its ability to bring art away from the social abstraction, autonomy, and elitism of its past social circles into a more progressive and developing climate closer to the public. It brought about an increased number of new journals, newspapers, advertisements, and other print media, displaying the increased demand for information across social classes, leading also to new theories of reality and preception, the arrival of cinema, and the first Russian film in 1908, Stenka Razin. In a time when artistic discussions occured only between the intelligentsia at the turn of the twentieth century, the avant-garde helped to bring these discussions to the public, bestowing knowledge and culture to the Russian people, while trailblazing for and influencing later developments in abstract art।

If we begin to apply the intelligentsia to Russian culture socially, we can see that they served as a catalyst for their country's period of modernization, historically fusing itself to the Russian state. Their strive to modernize the state was not an attempt to overtake neighboring European countries, but rather to keep up with them. Though the intelligentsia provided potential for this modernization, the state could not effectively use them, and so were doomed. The intelligentsia thus looked for a new subject open to the possibility of having their ideals imposed on them, believing that they had found this trait in the Russian people, and a culture of experimentation destined to serve the public arose. 


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