Russia, short on ideas, looks to intelligentsia Revival: Russia's moribund intelligentsia has been summoned to help write the nation's credo.

December 08, 1997|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW -- For over a year now, Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin has been prodding his countrymen to come up with an idea -- a very big idea, big enough to replace the Communist idea and carry Russia forward to a bright democratic future.

First he appointed a commission -- the National Idea Commission. In August, after a year of work, the assorted historians, philosophers and linguists came up with nine chapters of graphs, charts and theories on "Russia in Search of an Idea." It had everything -- except one really big idea.

This week, Yeltsin's former chief of staff is making another, more daring attempt. Sergei Filatov has convened a congress of the intelligentsia for Wednesday and Thursday. Not only does he want to revive the intelligentsia -- declared dead a few years ago -- he wants members to come up with an idea so powerful it will inspire a dispirited nation.

"Seven years ago, it was evident we had to deviate from the old system," Filatov says, sitting in his spacious office in a government building not far from the Kremlin. "Everyone understood that. But as to what kind of future we would have -- very few understood anything but vague references to democracy, human rights and freedom."

Nearly everyone who thinks about it here agrees that the intelligentsia has fallen painfully silent and that Russia is lurching into the future without a moral compass. But a new idea? Lots of people have had more than enough of ideas.

Perhaps nowhere else in the world is there anything quite like Russia's intelligentsia. Nor is there the same kind of yearning for a unifying idea.

The intelligentsia -- a term coined in the 1830s -- has always been more than a simple synonym for Russia's intellectual class. The intelligentsia were intellectuals with a mission, motivated by conscience and shame rather than fear and profit. They were the bearers of knowledge, duty-bound to use it to enlighten the common people, while illuminating the proper path for the authorities. They stood apart.

This gave members of the intelligentsia a peculiar status. They were defined by their relationship to the authorities -- especially by their opposition to the authorities.

Ten years ago they were the voices of glasnost, the conscience of perestroika. The intelligentsia produced the dissidents and demonstrators who dreamed of freedom and democracy and stood up against the Soviet regime until it fell apart around them. The intelligentsia was created by oppression, today's social critics say, and destroyed by its demise.

"For the 160 years the intelligentsia existed, the state repressed it," says Masha Gessen, a 30-year-old Muscovite who was born here, emigrated to the United States with her family as a teen-ager and returned in 1994. "Today, in something akin to democracy, maybe there's no place for the intelligentsia."

Gessen has just published a book called "Dead Again: The Russian Intelligentsia after Communism."

"The role of the intelligentsia was hoarding the word," she says. "That inflated the value of the word. Then the value of the word plummeted. When it wasn't repressed, its value plummeted."

Yegor Yakovlev was the editor of the weekly Moscow News in the heady years after Mikhail S. Gorbachev came to power, when Muscovites would line up early Wednesday morning to buy the latest breathtaking news, and watch in amazement as the discarded taboos piled up. Every week, Yakovlev was pressing harder against the limits and changing his readers' lives.

Today, Yakovlev runs his own paper, Obschaya Gazeta. He can print whatever he pleases. And hardly anyone cares.

"The role of the intelligentsia is very close to zero today," Yakovlev says with a small smile of resignation. "The intelligentsia only has influence when the ruling elite cares about public opinion. Public opinion practically doesn't exist for the present regime."

Many members of the intelligentsia blame themselves for this, motivated, as they often are, by shame. They also blame Yeltsin. When he used tanks to shell the legislators holed up at the Russian White House in October 1993, most of the intelligentsia supported him, fearing the hard-line Communist opposition would prevail if they didn't.

Later, they regretted their failure to insist on a legal and political solution to the confrontation. They had given Yeltsin permission to do whatever he pleased, they said later.

When the war in Chechnya began in December 1994, journalists, human rights activists and other members of the intelligentsia assumed they could report the bombings that killed thousands of civilians, and make their government stop.

"We thought that our presence and our information would make the federal authorities want to retreat," Sergei Kovalyov, a human rights activist, told Gessen. "Well, we had hope that it would. A bit of hope, less the longer it went on. And then, of course, the feeling of helplessness came."

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