(conference paper abstract)
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Lev Gudkov
Russian Centre for Public Opinion and Market Research (VTsIOM) 


1. The Soviet collapse has been determined mainly by the degeneration of the highest social strata as a result of the failure of the Russian elite to ensure either a persistent social development or a consistent adaptation to changes in the world system. It was exactly the social incapacity of the Russian elite, rather than people's dissatisfaction or deep economic crisis, that precipitated the collapse of the Soviet totalitarian system.

 The paper is devoted to the current situation of the Soviet "intelligentsia", that part of the educated society that had been formed by the mid-1950's when Soviet society entered the stage of system-maintenance. Soviet intelligentsia functioned as a mass bureaucracy of social reproduction responsible for legitimizing and securing mass support for the Soviet system. In its relation to the Soviet regime it played a contradictory role: on the one hand by appealing to the "Russian" culture, traditions, conservative national values it minimized and limited cultural and informational diversity and curtailed the Western influence on the Soviet population, on the other hand it softened the most repressive and cruel manifestations of the Soviet regime acting as a sort of opponent of the totalitarian power, even if its role as the organizer of resistance had been often exaggerated.

 2. According to sociological data, major characteristics of the educated stratum (income, status self-appraisal, political preferences, values and attitudes) do not differ significantly from those of other social groups. The Soviet collapse deprived the intelligentsia of its functional role and its recognition by both the political power and public.

 3. Public life in Russia in recent years has been colored by a noticeable rise of pessimism provoked by the frustration of mass paternalistic expectation and a general loss of cultural and political perspectives, caused by the inconsistent implementation of the reforms. Among the most striking developments of the past few years I would mention a new rise of the communist influence, unimaginable after the 1991 defeat and dissolution of the CPSU, a wide-spread nostalgia for the Soviet past and great-power grandeur, a sort of idealization of the pre-perestroika period. Most importantly, liberal reformers have been discredited and the "intelligentsia" has lost its social and moral authority in the public opinion. The intelligentsia has plunged into the feelings of disorientation, depression and frustration expressed with a self-deprecating humor and self-humiliating irony (so-called "styob").

 The two complementary approaches to the reality of today, the two interconnected and mutually reinforcing ways of dealing with the predicament have been characteristic of the Russian intelligentsia. On the one hand, the relativization of all values and cynicism, the all-pervasive black humor, moral and cultural kitsch have been widely used to demonstrate the distance from "Soviet" values and norms and the rejection of Soviet ("sovkovaia") mentality. The other approach that seems to be in a total contrast to the fist one is neo-traditionalism and national conservatism aiming at the rejuvenation of the mythology of the past, the recapitulation of symbols of organic unity of the nation, calls for the return to the roots, "moral principles" and "sobornost".

 4. In this sense, the complex of notions which are in use today, represents a mixture of, on the one hand, the imitative Western postmodernism and, on the other, the ideology of Russian national culture from the time of its formation, namely, the so-called Silver Age, especially the work of Nicholas Berdiyaev, Pavel Florensky, Fedor Il'in, Sergei Bulgakov, and other conservative writers and philosophers of social-organicist orientation, who have been assimilated superficially and uncritically. Neo-traditionalism in this sense signifies, mostly, resistance to modernization and negation of such basic values of liberalism as individualism, ethical rationalism (ethical responsibility), in other words, a real obstacle for any program of Russia's national development.

 5. Seen in this light, the main intellectual efforts of the educated stratum of modern Russia – more exactly, the intelligentsia as a mass bureaucracy of social reproduction – are devoted to the preservation and defense of the proper corporate status and position, rather than the rationalization of group and individual interests or an analysis and interpretation of the ongoing social change. As a result, the less educated in the population are left on their own in trying to come to terms with the rapid social change and have to rely on the most primitive models and patterns for interpreting their world while limiting their social communication to a very narrowly defined kinship and friendship groups. The intelligentsia thus is blocking the development of Russian civil society.

 We can offer another, more important explanation for such peculiarities in organization of the Russian elite, by focusing on the strategy of conservation of the whole (including symbolic resources) by means of a systematic provincialization of political and cultural life. The strategy of absorbing into the Center the people with a provincial profile (in terms of their mentality and habitual modes of action) who represent yesterday’s cultural patterns, results in the limitation of symbolic possibilities and increases the Center’s appeal to the lower stratum of the population who are most deprived in the social and cultural sense. This strategy differs radically from the classic "conquest of Paris by young provincials" which presupposes the operation of effective mechanisms of integration and adaptation of symbolic, cultural, and ideological variety. By contrast, the process of provincialization in today’s Russia represents a restriction and often a defeat of the central symbolic structures responsible for the innovation and the universal spread of values. An analogue of this strategy may be found in Soviet times, when each of the groups competing for the power (beginning with Brezhnev and all the way to Yeltsin) had its origins in the provincial milieu and relied in their cultural or political programs on certain old-fashioned ideas and notions that had been discarded in the Center. To borrow an expression from the stockbrokers, we can say that there is a bear market in the traditional intelligentsia values, that is to say, their valuations are going down.

 6. Modern concepts of "a society in transition" pay little attention to the analysis of institutions of education and formation of the social and cultural elite. They mainly concentrate on the role of economic, political and military factors in the transition process.

Copyright 1998 by Lev Gudkov

  * Abstract of a paper to be presented at the Conference, Russia at the End of the Twentieth Century (Stanford University, November 5-7, 1998).