Dead or Alive: The Discursive Massacre or the Mass-suicide of Post-Soviet Intelligentsia?

by Inna Kotchetkova
University of York

Sociological Research Online, Volume 9, Issue 4, <>.

Received: 26 Apr 2004     Accepted: 30 Sep 2004    Published: 30 Nov 2004


This paper seeks to make sense of the transformation of identity in post-Soviet Russia by exploring the debates surrounding the social category 'intelligentsia'. I argue that the concept of intelligentsia should be seen as both a source of collective identity and a rhetorical resource in the struggle for power and domination. Here then, the usage of the category intelligentsia becomes a means for understanding broader post-Communist cultural change and some of its underlying tensions and conflicts. The paper examines two competing discourses about the intelligentsia currently vying for supremacy in Russia and their associated rival interests: one discourse is affirmative, the other negative. In relation to each discourse, several discursive practices are identified and observed on political and academic territories. The analysis of the discursive struggle over definitions contributes to understanding the transformation of power relations in modern Russia. Importantly the paper speculates on the present and future implications of these different tendencies.

Keywords: Post-Communism, Transformation of Identity, Russian Intelligentsia, Discourse Analysis


'In those days spirits were brave, the stakes were high, men were real men, women were real women, and small furry creatures from Alfa Centauri were real small furry creatures from Alfa Centauri. And all dared to brave unknown terrors, to do mighty deeds <...> and thus was the Empire forged'. (Excerpt from The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy, p. 634784, Section 5a. Entry: Magrathea)

1.1 In Soviet society definitions of social categories along with assigned identities were established by the ruling ideology, leaving little chance for individuals to doubt their validity and experience uncertainty. There was an 'obvious predilection for stable, institutionalised, fixed, openly bureaucratic social identities instead of individual self-development and self-direction' (Kon, 1993: 398). This order was shattered by Perestroika[1] and people used to the stability of externally-imposed moral criteria and identity frames suddenly had to cope with an altogether different scenario. Today, instead of the joy of liberation the majority of the population experiences frustration, anxiety and longs for the comfortable past. This is hardly surprising, as the overall changes in society demand active reflexive work, reconsideration of previous identities or the search for new ones, something which most people brought up in a communist country are unaccustomed to (Miller et al, 2003).

1.2 The picture is well familiar. Indeed the erosion of stable categories and identities has been happening everywhere in the world. It is hard not to notice that previously stable boundaries are being breached: what it means to be a man or a woman, one of the most basic social categories, is contested; nationalities and religious categories are being dissolved. Even the construction of humanity as distinct from its 'other' - the animal - is no longer obvious (Gray, 2003). At the level of the individual, advance of postmodern condition is reflected in the movement away from traditionally organised identities to reflexive life-projects (Giddens, 1991).

1.3 What makes Russia such an interesting object for observation in this context is the speed of the changes and degree of pressure on identity choice. Economic, political and ideological changes occurred here simultaneously and unexpectedly and made identity work much more intense. Decisions about, struggles for and negotiations of identities are much more obvious and indiscreet here than in more stable societies. In this paper I will attempt to illustrate how the process of identity search is undergoing in the post-communist Russia. I suggest to look at Russian intelligentsia as an example of one of the stable categories which recently became contested. For a long time the category successfully provided country's intellectuals with a distinctive identity, clear sense of their position in society and the idea of purpose and role: to act as educator, guardian of culture and moral conscience. Today new symbols of private property and market economy have started to crystallise in Russian reality and brought frustration for the country's intelligentsia. Their elitist status is at threat: the ideological function of a 'buffer' or 'conscience' in Russian society has been reclaimed by the Orthodox Church. Market economy drastically transformed the arena of culture - fast saleable products instead of long-term moral and aesthetic projects are in high demand.

1.4 The question now is how intellectuals in Russia experience the loss of comfortable certainty their traditional identity provided. Do they easily adapt to the challenges, discarding the previous identities and succeeding in developing the new ones for themselves? Or do they instead try to defend the well-habituated safe territory? The frustration and uncertainty experienced by Russian intellectuals is expressed through two types of discourse: one proclaiming intelligentsia dead, the other alive. As I argue in this paper these conflicting discourses illustrate two distinctive strategies of identity formation.

1.5 Instead of attempting to answer 'What is happening with the Russian intelligentsia?' or 'Is the Russian intelligentsia alive or dead?' I will discuss how self-reflexive identity projects are realised via polar discursive practices: the attempts to hold on to the previous identity and preserve the stability of the category on the one hand, and resist the limitations and break free from the straight jacket of stable identity on the other. I will first explain in some more detail what I mean by treating intelligentsia as a discursive formation, and briefly consider the similarities and differences between the concepts of intelligentsia and intellectuals. In the second part of the paper I will identify and analyse the rival interests behind competing and contradictory discourses about the existence or death of the Russian intelligentsia and will speculate on how analysis of these processes can help us understand the struggles for identity and power in contemporary Russia. Finally I will demonstrate how traditional representations of the intelligentsia and the intelligentsia myth limit the freedom of identity choice for contemporary Russian intellectuals.

The Discursive Approach to Intelligentsia and Intellectuals

2.1 Before proceeding with the main discussion I would like to clarify what I mean by taking a discursive approach to intelligentsia. Following Bauman's invitation I treat the concept of intelligentsia as a discursive territory 'open to invasions, conquests and legal claims as all ordinary territories are' (Bauman, 1987: 19).

2.2 In their recent review of the sociology of intellectuals Kurzman and Owens (2002) emphasise the need to move on from attempts to capture intellectuals as a class (and seeing it as class bound, classless and class in itself) towards explorations of how and why identities and social boundaries are created through definitions and self-definitions (ibid.). The authors claim that defining intellectuals is less important than exploring how intellectuals define themselves, and are defined by others, in particular historical contexts. In other words, exposing the rival interests fuelling the definition process.

2.3 I agree with Bauman that it makes little sense to ask 'who are the intellectuals?' and expect the reply to be a set of objective measurements. However, current (or rather recent) debates about the intelligentsia in both the Russian media and academic texts mostly ignore its discursive nature. Instead they concentrate on identifying particular groups as intelligentsia, claiming that either it is alive and well, or, upon discovering that no individuals or groups possess the requisite characteristics, declaring that it is extinct.[2] As Bauman (1987) points out, the attempts to build up a collective definition of the intellectuals by the 'finger pointing' method are indicative of the power rhetoric used by many aspirants to the category to fight 'closure' battles.

2.4 The Russian category 'intelligentsia' and the Western concept of 'intellectual' share much in common, however I would warn the reader against assuming any straightforward synonymy. Both categories should be considered as 'cultural idioms', which semantic fields might overlap but by no means coincide. To a considerable extent the differences between the two concepts stem from the different cultural collective memories and mythologies underpinning them. Both categories appeared at roughly the same time in history, albeit brought to life in different contexts and as a reaction to different events. In Russia the term 'intelligentsia' was first applied to the generation of the 1860s (also called raznochintsy, narodniki, shestidesyatnikior Sixtiers) (Malia, 1961, Bergman, 1992). In the West about thirty years later the phrase 'intellectuals' was coined to describe the Dreyfusian petitioners - a diverse collection of

'novelists, poets, artists, journalists, scientists and other public figures who felt it their responsibility and their collective right to interfere directly with the political process through influencing the minds of the nation and moulding the actions of its political leaders' (Bauman, 1987: 1)
Moreover, for the Russian intelligentsia, the Western type of an intellectual or intelligentsia was always the Other to be distanced from. 'We loved and still love him for the spiritual thirst which sharply distinguishes Russian intelligentsia from the petty bourgeois European intelligentsia' - wrote N. Berdyaev after the death of N.K. Mikhailovsky (Berdyaev, 1904).

2.5 Intelligentsia, like all concepts and categories, is a social construct. As such it is subject to negotiation, and should not be abstracted from its situations of usage, discursive meanings and intentions. In this respect it is no different from the concept of intellectuals. As Said argues 'each region in the world has produced its intellectuals and each of those formations is debated and argued over with fiery passion' (Said, 1996: 10). It is especially evident in the Russian context, where intellectuals have been accorded a special destiny and historical mission.

2.6 I would not wish to deny the historical legacy of the concept - the term 'intelligentsia' emerged in the second half of the nineteenth century in order to define a collectivity of individuals. I will leave it for historians to discuss who these people were and if they ever existed in the first place. These individuals or collectivities have long gone - what is left is the category itself with the myths, narratives, representations surrounding it. Moreover, intelligentsia is one of those concepts without a clear denotate, which include an element of interpretation whenever we use them (Glebkin, 2004).

2.7 Mythological representations, deeply engraved in the national psyche, immortalise the Russian 'intelligentsia' as 'a unique social group united by altruism and their denunciation of personal advantage, sharing an ideal of life alienated from mercantilism and vulgarity and devoted solely to the interests of the country and its people' (Groys, online article). Intelligentsia, as a category, refers to those responsible for the development of models and patterns for interpreting the world (Gudkov, 1998); reflection and analysis is seen as their area of expertise (Sinyavsky, 1997:6). The intentional meaning of being either an 'intellectual' or 'intelligentsia' as Bauman (1987) argues was to rise above the partial preoccupation of one's own profession, estate, or artistic genre and engage with global issues of truth, judgement and morality.

2.8 Two themes form the backbone of the intelligentsia story. The first describes the complicated relationships between the intelligentsia and power (the authorities), the second defines intelligentsia as a group responsible for its people and needed by them, and reaffirms its role of acting in the name of the interests of the people. The intelligentsia believes in its own uniqueness and both lay people and professionals alike consider it an exclusively Russian phenomenon.

2.9 What makes the concept of intelligentsia different from the concept of intellectuals is the comprehensive system of expectations attached to it. In contemporary Russia it is usually perceived as a particular ideal type. The words 'real intelligentsia' are frequently used to define those who are more close to the ideal than the others. The hallmarks of the 'real intelligentsia' are not only an excellent education, wide knowledge and weighty intellect but also polite behaviour, a refined moral sensibility and social conscience.

2.10 It is time to abandon the romantic expectations that Russian intelligentsia possessing all these attributes will somehow emerge from the grave to save the holy land and its people as well as distance ourselves from the rhetoric of blame that charges modern intellectuals with failing to live up to expectations.[3] From a sociological perspective we should be more interested in trying to explain the interests standing behind these opposing narratives and what these perspectives function to achieve.

2.11 As Castells (1997) argues the questions of how and by whom and with what different types of identities are constructed cannot be addressed in general terms, as this is a matter of social context. The following section provides insight into the historical context in which the representations of intelligentsia were originally formed. To understand why establishing the boundaries of the intelligentsia, as well as legitimising or undermining the conceptual and objective validity of the concept, is so important for contemporary Russian intellectuals, we must first consider the historical situation of identity politics (Castells, 1997: 10). Tracing the origins of the intelligentsia myth we can see how intelligentsia came to believe in their unique position and role in society at the same time pointing to its original rhetorical function.

The Origins of the Intelligentsia Myth

3.1 The myth of the intelligentsia was created by narodniki and originates in N.K. Mikhailovsky's works. The term narodnichestvo describes the agrarian socialism of the second half of the nineteenth century, 'which upheld the proposition that Russia could by-pass the capitalist stage of development and proceed through the artel and peasant commune directly to socialism' (Pipes, 1964: 441) The first overt manifestation of the narodniki movement was 'going to the people'[4] in 1872-74. Historians describe this movement as an 'act of expiation' (ibid: 443) on the part of the Russian intelligentsia, who in return for the part the peasants played in the emancipation of nobility decided to pay back the people by bringing socialist ideas to the village. The movement failed because the peasants turned out to have a great respect for the monarchy and equally great suspicion of the intellectuals.

3.2 The cult of serving the people, the ideal of enlightenment of the people was formed by professional activists. Doctor V.O Portugalov (1883) wrote for instance: 'One hundred million of the Russian people ... which has endured a lot, experienced everything, has bought itself through many centuries of suffering a right to wish and hope, that intelligentsia will become its real protector and real doctor of its illnesses'. Precisely this idea of serving the people inspired many zemstvo doctors, teachers and statisticians in their professional activity. However for many of them the fashion of the Sixtiers for the simple life was a rough reality and enforced necessity, and not the result of a conscious choice of this life style. In this case, as Kolonitsky (2001) argues, self-identification as intelligentsia fulfilled a certain compensatory function - it helped to overcome the difficulties, giving a feeling of belonging to the sacrificial 'order' of the chosen.

3.3 Later on the intelligentsia myth helped them repair their damaged self-identity and regain self esteem. 'After the journey to the people resulted in catastrophe <...> narodniki faced the task of self-justification and self-assertion. They had to cover up the abyss of mutual misunderstanding <...> and prove to themselves that "progressive ideas" had not been rejected by the deprived peasants, but were still being digested. Therefore educated people needed to work harder to assist the process' (Confino, 1972:121). The myth 'helped to dispel the doubts, overcome the crisis and retrieve' (Confino, 1990: 517).

3.4 Zhivov (1999) argues that subsequent generations have inherited the myth from narodniki, but the group itself never reappeared in history. Since 1860s different groups have claimed the right to be called intelligentsia. The name has been used to refer to educated people, intelligence, national culture, enlightenment, a group embodying national consciousness and Russian radicals (as shown in Pollard, 1964: 8-19). The homonymic nature and vigour of 'intelligentsia' is a really striking phenomena. The concept has survived historical perturbations and proved more vital than those it was used to define. Since the nineteenth century, the intelligentsia myth has been used by thousands of men and women to give meaning to their lives - as a source of inspiration and name for their calling (Gessen, 1997). The moral component of the 'intelligentsia' category still informs contemporary identity-creation.

3.5 White (2000) for instance, interviewed teachers, doctors and librarians in the provincial Russian town of Zubtsov. Her respondents were aware of the Soviet use of the word 'intelligentsia' as an automatic label for professionals with higher education, as well as the adjective intelligentnyi meaning 'well-behaved', but they did not adopt either of these simplistic definitions, and were not able to separate the idea of 'polite behaviour' from that of social status and education. Association with intelligentsia meant much more for her respondents than just professional identification. Some of the respondents viewed themselves as intelligentsia, others perceived it as an ideal to which they aspired to. All of the respondents believed in the reality of intelligentsia, and this belief was an important resource for the formation of their identity. Even when denying their own claims 'to match up to that ideal' the respondents often referred to a friend or colleague who 'almost did'. This happened even if the respondents raised the issue in order to deny the link, making statements like 'not all professors are polite' or 'all ministers are criminals'. The respondents also admitted their particular 'leading role' in the local community[5].

3.6 Sergey Rapoport (2003) argues that in post-Soviet times the intelligentsia not only perceives itself as Other, but is also perceived in this way by different social classes. He notes that 'in public places, where in everyday life the classes meet each other (e.g. the market) intelligenty almost always automatically recognise each other, and others recognise them by the external features (clothes, manners, speech)'. Meeting each other face to face is not the only way of identification. The intelligentsia is characterised by a well-developed system of symbols and artefacts. For instance Gleb Pavlovsky in an interview with the 'Russian Journal' claims that he can tell whether the flats he rents previously belonged to intelligentsia by looking at the books, records and magazines left behind.

3.7 Material artefacts are only minor attributes of intelligentsia identity. The discursive and mythological fields are of foremost significance. Their importance rises with the dissolution of the boundaries between intelligentsia and the general public. In the modern situation, where polite behaviour and education are not the exclusive attributes of intelligentsia estate, appellation to the intelligentsia myth and discursive practices become the only possible ways to fix self-identity and make it clear to others where one belongs socially.

3.8 To sum up, the myth and the category survived because they were crucial for the preservation and transmission of intelligentsia identity. However, the rhetorical power of the concept also proved to be a valuable resource for discursive contestations of power and superiority, which explains why even while trying to reject the category and undermine its value post-Soviet intellectuals are still willing to safeguard the myth.

3.9 If at first the category intelligentsia was coined to suppress the guilt felt by educated Russians and restore their damaged identity, it later became a significant resource for the rhetorical construction of the superiority of a narrow group over the majority. I will demonstrate now that the discursive contestation of intelligentsia is an example of the legitimation of a form of social superiority. However as I will also show the attempts of intellectuals to undermine the category of intelligentsia can be interpreted as a mechanism of resistance to the power of definitions.

'Yes' Discourse. Intelligentsia is Alive as a Group and as a Concept.

4.1 There are two types of discourses on intelligentsia currently in use in contemporary Russia. The first is what we might call an affirmative discourse and presents intelligentsia as 'alive'; the second on the contrary propagates the metaphor of death of intelligentsia and denies it both conceptual validity and ontological existence. The following quotes give the reader an idea of how affirmative and negative discourses are expressed by the participants in one of the numerous debates on the topic (Matloff, 1998). Film critic Ilya Lepekhov argues that the advance of capitalist economy makes it hard for intellectuals to maintain their previous identity.

"We are witnessing the last climax of our great intellectual tradition. This is partly because writers today must work like horses rather than live for ideas. We must provide food for our kids to live"
To which publisher Natasha Perova objected, insisting that the reappraisal of values does not lead to the extinction of the intelligentsia tradition:
"Not only is the intelligentsia not dead, it is more alive than ever. The intelligentsia are maybe three percent of the population, but they are like yeast in the dough - they make society rise"

4.2 These discourses exist not only in the form of informal discussions, but penetrate media news, political debates, and academic texts. As I will demonstrate, there are different interests behind each discourse and they are used to fulfil different functions. I will now look at how both types of discourses can be seen in operation in the academic and political territories.

The Academic Context

4.3 The use of affirmative discourse in the academic arena can be seen in attempts made by academics from provincial universities to turn debates about the existence of intelligentsia into a legitimate field of study on its own right. Research institutes at Ivanovo State University (Intelligentovedenie or 'Intelligentsia Studies') and the Ural State University in Ekaterinburg ('The Twentieth century in the destinies of the Russian intelligentsia') were opened in the 1990s. At Ivanovo, Professor Valery Memetov (director of the intellectovedenie research centre) reads an elective course on 'The political culture of the intelligentsia. Its place and role in the history of the country'. The Ivanovo centre has already organised 13 conferences and published several issues of an academic journal: 'Intelligentsia and the rest of the world' (Intelligentsia I mir).

4.4 The result of this is not only 'really existing' intelligentsia, but 'really existing' specialists on intelligentsia. This is, of course, the way social science normally progresses, but this particular case of intelligentovedenie seems ironic. Intelligentsia becomes the same disadvantaged subject as the peasants in the XIXth century. It is deprived of the right to account for itself. In this situation Pushkin's or Tolstoy's opinions would not be trusted, due to their lack of the necessary academic qualifications, and therefore could not offer 'expert' suggestions.

4.5 For instance Ledyaev reacts to Dmitry Likhachev's argument that intelligentsia is just a number of unique individuals by saying:

'the opponents rightfully note that in this case there always will be the reasons for the 'disappearance of the intelligentsia'. As a result some might question the necessity of the intelligentovedenie. The singularity of intelligentsia <...> looks particularly disproportional and grotesque at the background of such a huge army of professional researchers of intelligentsia, who in this situation risk loosing their jobs'.
Likhachev's account is rejected because it undermines the legitimacy of intelligentsia studies as an academic discipline.

4.6 The interests behind this type of discourse are transparent: to establish a new branch of social science, along with the research institutes, university courses, journals, academic departments and all the other institutional attributes that go with it. This example illustrates how academicians can utilise the popular belief in the uniqueness and importance of the Russian intelligentsia in order to safeguard their position in the professional community. As Bauman describes it: '<...> academe is a world of cut-throat competition for funds, and some people need to prove that there are kinds of research and expertise which only they can deliver <...>' (Bauman, 2001:39).

4.7 Discussions over conceptual definitions can be seen in terms of the struggle for academic power. They enable the appearance of new disciplines by giving people something to write about and teach. Social scientists therefore have a vested interest in preserving the intelligentsia concept because it provides them with both an object of study and a disciplinary perspective to study it from: it gives them the right to claim the power of knowledge: they are specialists on intelligentsia, with exclusive rights to speak about it.

The Political Context

4.8 The establishment of the All-Russia Congress of Intelligentsia by a group of the country's intellectuals is an example of the affirmative discourse at work in political sphere. The All-Russian Congress of Intelligentsia (established in 1993) encompasses a well-developed network of over 80 regional organisations in the 75 regions of Russia. Its web page[6] describes the Congress as a social movement 'organised by scientists, artists, teachers and doctors to provide support and community for the intellectual labourers and assist together the prosperity of Russia'.

4.9 The registration of a non-governmental organisation, makes the reality of intelligentsia official and solves the existential problem: if the Congress of intelligentsia exists, then intelligentsia must exist as well. In this way, the members of the Congress of intelligentsia automatically acquire a legitimate identity and the right to pursue the role of legislators.

4.10 The Mission Statement of the Congress illustrates how in pursuing this task the myth of intelligentsia was skilfully utilised and adapted to the contemporary situation and the interests of power holders. The document translates the intelligentsia myth into modern political language, bolstering the claims made by its membership to the intelligentsia identity. The statement portrays the modern intelligentsia as not only concerned with its own narrow professional interests (only the last point of the mission statement relates to this) but also troubled by the acute political, social and economic problems facing the country as a whole. The modern intelligentsia, according to the statement, displays its 'love for the people' by advocating a socially oriented market economy and contributing to the development of social sphere (2.1.1, 2.1.3). Its second major task is to enlighten, to preserve and disseminate culture (2.1.4, 2.1.6). Finally, a third point is made about the intermediary position of the intelligentsia, which stands somewhere between the people ('society') and 'power' (i.e. the establishment) (2.1.1). It therefore ideally placed to play the role of mediator and encourage dialogue between the two sides. Intelligentsia status is presented as independent of social class or nationality. The ambition of the intelligentsia to act as a neutral intermediary in different forms of social conflicts is implied throughout the document (2.1.2, 2.1.3, 2.1.5, 2.1.7). In contrast, its belief in its own uniqueness and authority is made explicit.

4.11 Each point of the mission statement covers a different aspect of the intelligentsia's role, but one essential element is missing. In spite of the emphasis in the document on the intelligentsia as a constructive social force well-integrated into the social fabric, the image of intelligentsia as social critics alienated from the Establishment is totally absent.

4.12 However, those who openly declare themselves intelligentsia represent only part of the country's intellectuals. Their opponents tell the story in a different way. They claim that the organisation of the Congress in 1993 was yet another governmental attempt at creating an obedient 'official' intelligentsia. They recollect that the first draft of the mission statement written by the journalists from Literaturnaya Gazeta strongly emphasised the critical role of intelligentsia in relation to power: 'the high patronage of the President does not free him from the criticism of the Forum'[7]. As the authors of the first Mission statement draft tell us, it was rejected and instead the Congress was organised by the Initiative group from the Presidential Administration. Only representatives of liberal, pro-presidential intelligentsia were invited. Indeed, some details of the biography of the first and present chairman of the Congress's Soviet supports this version of events. Sergey Filatov was head of the Presidential Administration in 1993-1996. He only left this post when was appointed as head of Eltsin's electoral headquarters[8]. Unlike the original, almost every point of the current mission statement begins with 'assist' as if its authors were consciously trying to avoid giving the impression that the Congress has any critical ambitions in mind. The role it establishes for the intelligentsia is one of helper or mediator to the holders of political power.

4.13 Why are intellectuals interested in participating in this game? Why was it necessary to establish the 'Organisation of Intelligentsia' and liase with the Establishment on this occasion? The obvious benefit for intellectuals is a secure and stable identity. Discursive practices oriented towards confirmation of intelligentsia identity in both academic and political contexts correspond with what Castells (1997) identifies as a legitimising identity 'introduced by the dominant institutions of society to extent and rationalise their domination vis--vis social actors' (ibid.:8). For Castells the construction of a legitimising identity is the first step towards civil society, although not in its positive connotation as the necessary attribute of democratisation, rather completely the opposite.

4.14 The question is to what extent does the organisation of the Congress fit into the model of civil society and which kind of civil society does it represent? The concept of civil society became popular in the official post-Soviet rhetoric as one of those attributes Russia must have in order to be perceived as a truly democratic state. The example of the Congress of Intelligentsia illustrates the 'top-down' (Hudson, 2003) model of civil society formation in Russia, where the government in theory declares support and encourages the formation of civic organisations but in practice is interested in a 'civil society' formed by a series of apparatuses, which aim to prolong the dynamic and exclusive power of the state. As Castells (1997: 8) reminds us, this form of civil society corresponds to the original Gramscian model and stands far away from the much recent connotations of a structure that underpins democracy.

4.15 Civil society emerges in Russia upon governmental initiative and under its strict control. The usual practice is to selects representatives of the so called "public," with whom the government conduct "ritualistic" meetings. It is enough to remind the reader about the fuss over the organisation of the Civic Forum by presidential initiative[9] and recent attempts of the President's administration to gain control over both domestic and foreign non-governmental organisations[10].

4.16 The establishment of the Congress of intelligentsia responds to the interests of both state power and a particular group of intellectuals. The result is an official organisation loyal to the government, whose members have exclusive rights to call themselves intelligentsia. Criticisms of other intellectuals can now be easily deflected as coming from an unauthorised source. It looks as though the government can now dictate from this safe position the rules of the game for non-obedient intellectuals (just in case it ever needs to). In other words, it has secured the power to define even if it does not fully exercise this power at the moment

4.17 We should bear in mind that identities 'emerge within the play of specific modalities of power' (Hall, 1996: 4) and the social construction of identity always takes place in a context marked by power relationships (Castells, 1997: 7). As Bauman argues in an unstable and uncertain world, 'withdrawing to the safe haven of territoriality is a constant temptation and defence of territory - the 'safe home' - becomes the passkey to all doors one feels must be locked to stave off the <...> threat to spiritual and material comfort' (Bauman, 2002: 29). It is obvious that intelligentsia is one of the 'safe territories' perceived as worth defending. It is not only one of the categories used to create social boundaries (and hence modern inequalities), but also a powerful rhetorical device in the struggle for power and dominance.

4.18 The category of intelligentsia is incompatible with the discourse of civil society, based on the equal participation of citizens in politics and public activities. It necessarily connotes the superiority of particular individuals who have an exclusive right to speak for the inarticulate public. It is interesting to note, that the authors of the recent 'Statement by Russian Non-Governmental Organizations' avoided appellation to intelligentsia and instead addressed their concerns to 'all political and public organizations and movements, mass media, scientists, those who are involved in education and culture'[11].

4.19 If affirming the continued existence of the Russian intelligentsia is associated with the legitimising identity, then it is tempting to consider the opposing discourse proclaiming the death of the Russian intelligentsia as a 'resistance identity', which 'constructs forms of collective resistance against otherwise unbearable oppression, usually on the basis of identities that were, apparently clearly defined by history, geography or biology, making it easier to essentialize the boundaries of resistance' (Castells, 1997: 9). I will further demonstrate how intellectuals experience and deal with strong cultural boundaries in which new form of their identity can be constructed and will show that practices of resistance can actually lead to a strengthening of the legitimising identity.

4.20 According to Foucault (1990, 1995) when something is taken to be the truth, obvious and natural, we can take it as a sign that power/knowledge complexes are operating. Therefore if someone presents intelligentsia as extant, it can be interpreted from Foucault's perspective as an application of power, which depends on ideologies and collective constructions, on the network of beliefs, assumptions and ideas people have about their place in life.

4.21 As Foucault also points out, where there is power there is also resistance and in this case, opposition is expressed through the second major type of discourse - one that denies intelligentsia both conceptual validity and ontological existence. Some authors though have criticised Foucault for placing too much faith in the liberating power of "counter-discourses," "counter affirmations," or "reverse discourses" as they leave "little if any room for [resistance] in any literal sense" (Evans, 1993:13). Indeed, as I will show Evans' criticism of Foucault can be supported through the analysis of the negative discourse on Russian intelligentsia as to a great extent this discourse appears to serve as a 'demonstration by subjects of their successful internalization of knowledge/power and their ability to police themselves." (Evans, 1993:13-14)

The Discursive Massacre or the Mass-suicide of Post-Soviet Intelligentsia?

5.1 The struggle for power often begins with conflicts over definitions and from this perspective the contra efforts of other intellectuals to devalue the intelligentsia concept can be interpreted as an unwillingness to be defined. However breaking down 'the stereotypes and reductive categories that are so limiting to human thought and communication' (Said, 1996: x) can be seen as a major task of intellectuals, as I will show further, this task is much harder to realise when intellectuals try to break free from the category which defines them.

5.2 The metaphor of 'death' is the central structural element of what I call negative discourse on intelligentsia. It is present in both academic articles and the articles published in non-academic genres (newspapers and intellectual magazines), both of which are often authored by the same people. In the more opinionated papers it is alluded to in accounts of the cynicism, opportunism and heartlessness that has spread among the intelligentsia. In research articles, the demise of the intelligentsia is demonstrated by reproducing statistics charting the overall decline of educational standards and prestige of intellectual jobs in the post-Soviet Russia. However, as I want to demonstrate, in both cases the use of this device is inspired by the myth of intelligentsia.

5.3 At this point, the motivation behind the question I put forward as the title for this paper should be clear. If we could prove that those who declare intelligentsia dead speak from outside of the frameworks of the intelligentsia myth we could call it a 'massacre'. However, what we actually observe is attempted 'suicide'. In other words, the negative discourse declares intelligentsia dead, but at the same time popularises the intelligentsia myth and traditional intelligentsia identity.

5.4 The negative discourse is born out of the reaction to the affirmative discourse and is supported by those who do not accept the 'bending' of intelligentsia identity. Among the many supporters of the discourse, Gleb Pavlovsky[12] is probably the most well-known and the most radical: 'death, corpse, burial ground, resurrection' are the metaphors he uses to describe the intelligentsia situation in contemporary Russia in an interview with the 'Russian Journal' (Pavlovsky, 2001).

5.5 Pavlovsky identifies himself as 'one of the intelligentsia tribe' but says that he 'through all his projects maintained a[VA1] distrust of it'. This image is similar to the one conjured up by the hero myth: it is an image of 'the Son of Gods who rebelled against the Gods'. Pavlovsky reinforces this impression of ambiguity by claiming that one cannot help feeling like 'one of them' (there are no alternatives) however at the same time he feels unhappy, unsatisfied with what this identity implies.

5.6 Pavlovsky's criticism of the intelligentsia reaffirms his intelligentsia identity: 'Even quarrels are very much a part of intelligentsia business. For me the attacks on the intelligentsia were part of intelligent self-identification. In other words, an intelligent has to be sceptical towards the intelligentsia. An intelligent praising the intelligentsia looks comical to it, it is not interesting. For an intelligent it is appropriate to slander intelligentsia, thereby feeling one of them'.

5.7 Faibisovitch (1998) - criticising the speculation of intelligentsia on the nostalgia of the Soviet past and the usage of Soviet aesthetic symbols in literature, cinema, art and television - accuses post-Soviet intelligentsia of substituting the 'interests of the people' with their own, of loosing their capacity for individual creativity and bona fide behaviour. 'People sharing a belief in the importance and significance of a historically formed intelligentsia community and considering themselves belonging to this community, often today believe they ought to do 'as everyone else'. By accusing modern intelligentsia of failing to live up to their historical stereotype and of distorting tradition, Faibisovitch maintains the distinction between the people and the intelligentsia as a superior group. The need to be different is crucial for the author - he calls it 'an instinct of self-preservation' - and if the intelligentsia is becoming more like narod, the only way to become a true intelligent is 'to become The Other by incorporating weaponry not of the raznochintsy but from the arsenal of nobility'. In practice, what this means is an about-face: instead of approaching the people the intelligentsia should now distance itself from them.

5.8 It is crucial to keep in mind that behind the myths supporting both categories of intellectuals and intelligentsia lies over a century of ruthless division of labour. Each category defines persons who preserve the ability and the right to address the rest of their society (other parts of the educated elite included) in the name of reason and universal moral principles. Parallel to the construction of specific self-identities of men of knowledge social boundaries are being drawn between 'us' - the superior group and the rest (primitive cultures, East or narod) who need our guidance and support, cannot speak for themselves and need to be enlightened.

The Academic Context

5.9 In recent years, sociologists have attempted to devalue the concept of 'intelligentsia' by portraying it as ambiguous, value-laden (Stepanova, 2003) and without sociological meaning (Pokrovsky, 1998). It is interesting to note though that, despite their declarations and ritual demonstrations of objectivity and value-neutrality, personal opinions invariably permeate academic texts whenever an author talks about the intelligentsia.

5.10 Sociological texts on the intelligentsia are normally written and read as texts 'by the intelligentsia on the intelligentsia question'. For example, although the conclusions of Boris Dubin and Lev Gudkov (1995) from the public opinion research institute VSIOM are based on the results of mass surveys, their findings are framed within an evaluative intelligentsia discourse and not in the genre of scientific publications. They argue, for instance, that 'soon Russia will rid itself of the dysfunctional intelligentsia in favour of a productive class of intellectual professionals.' They suggest that the intelligentsia has abandoned (at least definitely failed to fulfil) its historical mission: 'to reveal social deficits of meaning and values, to take emerging points of view, which have not yet been fully formed, and to confront them critically in the field of open discussion, to shape them into new texts, visual practices and types of public discourse' (Gudkov, 1998). The results of public opinion surveys provide Gudkov with the opportunity to conclude that 'the "intelligentsia" has lost its social and moral authority in the opinion of the public' (ibid) and became dysfunctional, blocking the development of Russian civil society.

5.11 By undermining the value of intelligentsia as a social group and accusing it of forgetting its responsibility to the masses, Gudkov and Dubin at the same time prove that the critical potential of intelligentsia has not been completely exhausted. The obvious inability of sociologists to disengage from the object of their studies confirms this and is worth considering in more detail. In an article by sociologist Nikita Pokrovsky (1998), published by the online intellectual magazine 'Russian Journal', the Russian intelligent is defined 'by adding a baggage of existential values, which help or on the contrary prevent him from being happy in life' to the Mertonian definition of intellectuals: 'the Russian intelligent conforms to the same rules of functioning as the intellectual labourers of society, but this, if we can say so, 'functioning' is determined by the multiplicity of various moral restrictions and counter-weights, which factually became the main content of all Russian intelligentsia culture in the 19-20th centuries' (emphasis added).

5.12 Pokrovsky is interested in how the moral context influences relations between intelligentsia and the authorities, and concludes that debates about the intelligentsia question in a market economy are cynical, hypocritical and initiated by the state propaganda machine. He argues that the intelligentsia in its traditional interpretation is incompatible with capitalist society and moreover, the Establishment does not need the intelligentsia's ideological aspirations and preoccupation with morality but requires loyal experts only. In conclusion Pokrovsky states:

'1. The Russian intellectual class quickly loses its traditional intelligentsia identity. The concept 'intelligentsia' has already lost its real meaning and turned into a decorative attribute of speech, without any sociological meaning.
2. One of the main indicators of this process is the reduction of the moral problematic in social discussions and social consciousness. <...> The basic value of 'economic success' has factually substituted the wide spectrum of moral orientations typical of the Russian intelligentsia. <...>
5. One should reject the authorities' campaign to remind the intelligentsia of its traditional role. The new-romantic idealistic attraction of the intelligentsia to power is an artificial creation of the state propaganda machine and, as a part of this campaign, constant reproaches are addressed to the intelligentsia, that it does not hurry to react to the authorities' appeals. Appellation to the great ideals of the intelligentsia of the past is pure hypocrisy.
6. One can only talk about business relations and the employment of the work force: whom, when, for how long and for how much. And no sentimental tears. Market is market. Let's trade!'.

5.13 Pokrovsky's article was published in an online intellectual magazine not an academic journal, although he claims to have approached the problem of intelligentsia and power 'objectively'. Trying to speak as a sociologist and offer a disinterested definition of intelligentsia, Pokrovsky cannot avoid (a) reference to the category of happiness and (b) excusing himself for applying the term 'function' to the activity of Russian intelligentsia. This demonstrates that the author is aware of intelligentsia norms, such as approved associations and metaphors, and feels uneasy breaching them in the text. The rejection of 'intelligentsia' as a sociological concept, the obvious awkwardness with using sociological terminology while speaking of the Russian intelligentsia, as well as the emotionality of the text reveal the dual position of Pokrovsky: as both scientist and intelligent. One cannot help feeling the bitterness with which he certifies the death of the intelligentsia in post-Soviet Russia:

'The great mission of the intelligentsia is over, as is the intelligentsia itself. The monotony of intellectual work has began <...> However bitter it might be to realise this.'

5.14 At the same time there is an obvious dissatisfaction with the appellation to intelligentsia values, which is used speculatively - not by intelligentsia itself and even not by 'the people', but by the power structures for whom this is just another way to discredit the authority and social position of the intelligentsia group. To Pokrovsky the components of the intelligentsia myth appear to be a burden on present-day intellectuals, preventing them from entering socio-economic relations on an equal basis with other social groups. His argument is very similar to the one put forward by Gleb Pavlovsky, who admits: 'The mythology of intelligentsia mainstream in Russia should be ignored and utilized, if you do not want it to exploit you' (Pavlovsky, 2001).

5.15 This brief analysis of current discourses produced by post-Soviet intellectuals illustrate the dilemmas people face during the transition from classically modern to post-modern society: the construction of new identities takes place within a restricted framework of available options. The myth of intelligentsia remains prominent in public discourse and serves both as a guide in the search for new identities and criterion for evaluating the identities of fellow intellectuals, therefore mapping social reality. The intelligentsia myth remains the essential part of the cultural context for the self-representation of intellectuals in modern Russia. Even by distancing themselves from this identity, intellectuals cannot overcome the limitations of the intelligentsia stereotype, as what it means to be a moral person is still framed in public discourse and their own cultural memory in a way that correlates strongly with a particular historical tradition.

5.16 My brief review of the current intellectual debates about intelligentsia in the field of modern Russian academic and public discourses suggests that although many intellectuals insist on devaluing the validity of the intelligentsia as a group and as a identity they continue to popularise the intelligentsia as a 'name'. Thus, the concept remains a useful category for reflecting on and understanding social reality.

5.17 Intellectuals have a certain amount of power to construct definitions and, at the same time, are able to destroy definitions they themselves created. In this sense intellectuals have an advantage over the rest of the population, although in post-Soviet time Russian intellectuals seem to spend more time dismantling concepts than they do creating new, alternative definitions. Sergey Oushakin (2000) argues that 'The incapacity of the discursive regime to symbolically frame, to verbally describe, to reproduce on the level of speech the new social, political and cultural situation, forced the post-Soviet subject to build his/her new identity on the basis of "mythic notions retrieved from the past". This is a strategy used by intellectuals as well as the school children in Oushakin's study.


6.1 How do these empirical observations correspond with social theory? First of all, both types of discourses about intelligentsia demonstrate that the advance of postmodernity is characterised by complicated struggles aimed at either preserving stable identities or breaking free from them. Martin O'Brien notes: 'If you told an ordinary working-class Irish man that he had a fluid identity he might well agree with you and suggest that it was your turn to buy the drinks' (O'Brien, 2002: 39). Joking aside, what this quote illustrates is that identity formation in contemporary societies - instead of a conscious lifestyle choice - is in actual fact a 'mucous, viscous, lumpy, sticky gel: It's not a clearing away of previously established reference points and the channelling of free-flowing identifications in a bright blue sea of potential identities. It is an uneven, politically dangerous and socially regulated process of sustaining old inequalities and producing new ones. (O'Brien, 2002:39)

6.2 Categories (and the systems of meanings attached to them) provide us with identities and power but can also be used to us deprive of these. The usage of categories in discourse is also an important methodological device for investigating the operation of power in society. In the context of the transition from modernity to late/post/liquid modernity identities and categories should be understood as a process of 'identification' (Hall, 1996: 2-3). This involves the re-negotiation of previous criteria for belonging to one or another category and legitimation of one's claim to possessing one or another identity, but is should not necessarily be seen as a dissolution of all previous categories and identities.

6.3 It is important to keep in mind that the transformation from a quasi-traditional to quasi post-modern or late modern mentality does not necessarily mean that fixed categories and identities are being substituted with fluid and flexible ones. New categories are emerging and old categories have been revived and rendered with new meanings. As Larry Ray argues 'post-communism has opened up new terrains of struggle for modernity' (Ray 1997: 547). In the post-communist landscape 'many individual and collective identities are not only in transition, but also many of them are up for grabs. Diverse forces are competing to shape new identities and to capture the popular energies released by the embrace of new identities' (Breslauer, 1996:1).

6.4 Given the essential unpredictability and instability of almost all identities Bauman considered 'the degree of genuine or putative freedom to select one's identity and to hold it as long as desired' as the principle measure of social advancement and a successful life (Bauman, 2002: 23). The realisation of this freedom in the Russian context can be seen through the popularisation of the affirmative discourse on the Russian intelligentsia. Some intellectuals though are not satisfied with this 'freedom' to conform to the limitations of the intelligentsia identity and perceive it as a mechanism of control. Instead they struggle to break free from this straight jacket and develop a resistance identity - their efforts realised through the negative discourse on intelligentsia.

6.5 In his recent interview with Nick Gane, Bauman (2004) distinguishes between positive and negative aspects of freedom of identity choice and even between freedom and un-freedom. Genuine freedom is however a privilege (though unstable) of the global elite. On the other hand a substantial part of the majority do not come anywhere near to obtaining the 'freedom to refute and reject the differences enforced by others, and to resist being 'socially recognised', against their will, for what they resent to be, and would actively refuse to be were it in their power'. (Bauman, 2004: 34) As this paper demonstrates, the un-freedom of identity choice is experienced not only by the socially excluded, but also by the intellectual elite. This social group occupies an advantageous position when it comes to the articulation of new ideas, but they fall into the disadvantaged group when they struggle for freedom of identity choice.

6.6 Advocating and propagating the metaphor of death serves as an adaptation resource for intellectuals faced with new socio-economic conditions and power relations. The intelligentsia throughout history has rebelled against its own moral criteria, thus trying to overcome the restriction of the concept morale. It can be argued that what we observe today is just another example of the intelligentsia's struggle with the boundaries of the concept through which it is socially and culturally defined. Indeed as it has been recognised by theorists of identity: the problematic of identity 'is the ongoing dialogue between the changing individual (or self) and the continuity of the collective identity known by its name as a signifier of social meaning (Bailey, 1999:10-11). The conceptual difficulties post-Soviet scholars experience with the term 'intelligentsia' can be explained by the fact that these searches for appropriate definitions are at the same time concerned with the search for self-definition, self-description and self-presentation. The question 'who are they?' becomes 'who are we?' instead.

6.7 So far the efforts of the intellectuals to articulate a new identity for themselves have failed. The new identity is constructed as a defensive one. It on the contrary popularises the intelligentsia myth and reaffirms ideal-typical features of the traditional identity. Thus even the supporters of the discourse of death of the Russian intelligentsia leave for themselves an opportunity to reclaim traditional intelligentsia role and the superior social position associated with it. As Masha Gessen points out: "Entitling my book 'Dead Again' was optimistic. It implies that the intelligentsia can die and be reborn - again." (quoted in Matloff, 1998)

6.8 The totalitarian regime in the Soviet Union effectively controlled the vocabulary and meaning of the words and things through the mass-media. The party alone had the power to give names to things and to identify good and evil; 'socialist realism' was a major source of deceptions, maintaining an illusion that 'things are as they should be'.

6.9 The extent to which anti-communist revolutions in the Eastern Europe and Russia have been successful in eliminating the totalitarian practices of the previous regime is debatable. Totalitarian methods of control over the economy, political institution and mass-media seem to appeal to the current Russian President. Whether the resistance practices of post-communist intellectuals will be enough to prevent the restoration of totalitarian control over citizens' identities remains to be seen.


1 Some authors (Hardt, M. and Negri, A. (2000) Empire. Harvard University Press, online < > ) argue that new subjectivities emerged long before Perestroika and the inability of the Soviet empire to embrace these new identities was one of the reasons for its collapse. This argument only emphasises the strength of the grip Soviet state had on its citizens' identities and their public expression. We should not forget that the majority experienced certain comfort in this situation of no choice.

2 Here is the bibliography of just some of the articles published in between 1990-2001 in the press on the topic of intelligentsia:

  1. Afanasyev, Yu. (2001) 'The image of an intellectual is terrifying'. Interview with Mikhail Remizov. Russian Journal, February. <>
  2. Galkovsky, D. (1995) 'Russian politics and Russian philosophy' In Chernyshov, S.B. (editor) Anthology of the new Russian self-consciousness. Moscow: Russian Institute. Online version in Russian Journal (1997) <>
  3. Gudkov, Lev (1999) 'The end of the intelligentsia and mass reading', Russian Journal, November. <>
  4. Gudkov, Lev (1999) 'Educated community in Russia: sociological approaches to the topic', Neprikosnovennyj Zapas, ? 1 (3). <>
  5. Diskin, I. (1999) 'Intelligentsia: the end of the route?', Russian Journal, March. <>
  6. Pavlovsky, G. (2001) ''The XXth century and the world': uranium burial ground of the Russian intelligentsia'. Interview with Gleb Pavlovsky to the Russian Journal, October. <>
  7. Paramonov, B. (1994) 'Intelligentsia', The XXth century and the World, No.11-12. <>
  8. Posrovsky, N. (1998) 'The hot breath of power', Russian Journal, March. <>
  9. Solzhenitsyn, ?. (1991) 'Obrazovanshchina', Novy Mir, ?5, 28-46. <>Tuchkov, V. (1998) 'Yarkevitch and Intelligentsia', Russian Journal, January. <>
  10. Faibisovitsh, S. (1998) 'The songs of the most important', Neprikosnovennyj Zapas, ?2. <>
  11. Shimov, Ya. (2001) 'Requiem to the NTV. Or the third defeat of the Russian intelligentsia', Russian Journal, January. <>
  12. Yarkevitch, Igor (1997) 'Intelligentsia and literature. Intelligentsia and life', Russian Journal, July. <>

3 See an example of such discourse in the interview with Masha Gessen on Radio free Europe/Radio liberty: 'For the intelligentsia to exist, the regime has to reclaim its repressive function. I think that's happening, but to get a new intelligentsia, we'd have to wait a few years. It might be Committee 2008 [founded by journalist Yevgenii Kiselev and others], which has some of the classic traits. It distances itself from political parties and from the regime and proposes an enlightenment mission. If things go well, it will turn into a "normal" political organization. If things go poorly, it might become an intelligentsia organization'. Interview with Masha Gessen. 3 February 2004, Volume 4, Number 3. <>

4 I use the word 'people' here, however it is important to note, that in this context the Russian noun narod is semantically closer to the German 'Volk', and the derivative narodnyj serves as a Russian equivalent of 'democratic', 'populist' or 'on the side of the people' (Pipes, 1964).

5 Similar findings about the self-identification of educated professionals as the leading social group were presented by Golenkova, Z. et al. (1995) 'Social stratification of the urban population', Sotsiologicheskie Issledovaniya, No. 5.

6 See the web page of the Congress <>.

7 Quoted from Sabov, D. 'Has the end of intelligentsia really come?' Rossijskaya Gazeta, 14 March, 2002.

8 As is rather proudly declared in his brief biography published on the official web page of the Congress.

9 See for instance Mereu, Francesca (2001) 'Russia: Forum Aims To Foster Conditions For Civic Society', Russia Weekly, N181 (21 November 2001) online at < >

10 See George Soros (2004) Putin's Heavy Hand Could Halt Russia's Rise. Choking Society. June 15-16, 2004. International Herald Tribune. Online <>

11 See the full text translation of the Statement online on <>

12 Gleb Pavlovsky (1951-) - Advisor of the president Administration, often called 'grey cardinal', 'provocateur', 'great mistificator', 'guru of political consultancy'. He argues that his profession is 'applied history'.


The earlier draft of this paper was presented at the Annual conference of British Association of Slavic and East European Studies in March 2004.

Special acknowledgements are due to Nick Brown, Daniel Nelson, Vladimir Andrle as well as three anonymous referees who helped to make the final version of the paper better than it would have been otherwise; but responsibility for any flaws that remain is my own.


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