In this post I gave the impression that the Russian word интеллигенция [intelligentsia] was a product of the 1860s; I discover from Gary Hamburg’s chapter on “Russian intelligentsias” in A History of Russian Thought, edited by William Leatherbarrow and Derek Offord (and once again I thank the unknown benefactor who gave it to me last year) that it goes much further back and has undergone considerable change:

The word intelligentsiia appeared in the Russian language in the early eighteenth century, carrying the meaning ‘alliance’, ‘compact’ or ‘agreement’. By the 1730s, however, the poet Trediakovsky had associated the word root with the Latin word intelligentia, a word he translated into Russian as razumnost’ (rationality). According to the linguist Viktor Vinogradov, Trediakovsky helped fix the basic semantic sense of the term intelligentsiia thereafter: that is, the word became associated with ‘reason’, ‘rationality’ and ‘education’. In the mid-eighteenth century the freemason Johann Georg Schwartz often used intelligentsiia to connote the ‘highest capacity of human beings as sentient creatures’. In the early nineteenth century the philosopher Galich incorporated it into his History of Philosophical Systems with the meaning ‘rational spirit’. In 1836 the term appeared in a diary entry by Zhukovsky, as a collective noun connoting members of Russia’s educated Europeanised elite. According to the historian Sigurd Shmidt, Zhukovsky’s concept of the intelligentsia connoted ‘not only belonging to a certain socio-cultural milieu and having a European education, but also a certain moral outlook and behaviour – that is, intelligentnost’ in the later meaning of the term’. Still, so far as we know, uses of intelligentsiia as a collective noun remained infrequent until the 1860s: the first edition of Dal’s comprehensive Russian dictionary (published 1863–8) contained no reference to the word.

In the 1860s the word intelligentsiia established itself firmly in the literary and political lexicon. The liberal novelist Boborykin used it as a synonym of ‘culture’ or ‘intelligence’ in an 1866 essay in The Russian Herald. [Footnote 5: … Boborykin subsequently claimed to have coined the term intelligentsiia, a claim supported by the Granat Entsiklopedicheskii slovar’ and Bol’shaia sovetskaia entsiklopediia. His purported status as originator of the term caused considerable confusion among western scholars who took the claim at face value since it was legitimated by major Russian reference sources.] Tolstoy employed it as a collective noun in War and Peace (1865–9) to denote the educated, Europeanised portion of Russian high society. The instructional fictional context of his use of the term was the famous opening scene in Anna Scherer’s salon, wherein Pierre Bezukhov, recently returned from France, thrilled to the thought that ‘here was gathered the entire intelligentsia of Petersburg’. Tolstoy’s cultural authority reinforced the term’s currency, such that the second edition of Dal’s dictionary (1880–2) defined it, ‘used in the collective sense’, as ‘rational, educated, the intellectually developed portion of the populace’. Thenceforth, the collective noun intelligentsiia retained that meaning through the turn of the century: in 1902 Mikhelson repeated Dal’s 1881 definition verbatim.

Meanwhile, the word intelligentsiia acquired a political colouration. As Nathaniel Knight has shown, in 1864 the censor Nikitenko compared Polish insurgents to Russian nihilists: ‘Their intelligentsia is the same filth as ours – theirs is worse in fact, with its extra dose of Catholicism.’ In the 1870s the conservative journalist Katkov contrasted the simple, politically healthy Russian narod (people, nation) to the subversive, Europeanised intelligentsiia, a contrast that probably led him to assume in 1879, when the young Aleksandr Solovev tried to kill the tsar, that the assassin was ‘an intelligent in a foreign top hat’. In 1880, in his famous speech at the Pushkin monument in Moscow, Dostoevsky juxtaposed the common Russian narod, their intrinsic beauty and spirit, with the ‘rootless’ intelligentsiia, a purportedly alien and destructive element in national life. He accused the intelligentsia of ‘not believing in the native soil, or in its innate strength, in Russia or in itself’. As sometimes happens in politics when a certain group attaches a label to its opponents, Russian radicals did not initially use the word intelligentsiia as a self-description. Thus, the linguist Iury Sorokin has asserted that the words intelligentsiia and intelligent are not encountered in the works of Chernyshevsky, Dobroliubov and Pisarev. Only in the 1870s did leading Populists such as Mikhailovsky and Tkachev proudly declare their membership in the intelligentsiia.

In the twentieth century the term intelligentsiia continued to have the basic meaning of the educated or cultured part of the populace, but gradually the word was also associated with membership in the professions, with jobs that carried ‘white collar’ status. […] Between 1903 and 1940 the leadership of the Bolshevik party sought to define its relationship to the intelligentsia, with very uncertain results: on the one hand, party leaders happily embraced the intelligentsia to the degree that its members accepted Marxism and Soviet power; on the other hand, the party defined non-Bolshevik intelligenty as ‘enemies of the people’.

There’s considerably more, but that excerpt shows that the history is longer and more complicated than I thought. And the footnote mentioning the confusion caused by Boborykin’s claim being accepted by reference works shows how important it is for lexicographers to do their work diligently and honestly.

Addendum. Hamburg discusses the dispute over when the intelligentsia as a group came into existence, with some (mostly Russians) saying it was in the 18th century (with men like Novikov and Radishchev) and others (mostly Western) saying it was the 1840s or the 1860s; he writes “As Boris Kolonitsky has pointedly observed, ‘participants in the many discussions about the intelligentsia resemble a crowd engaged in a game where each player persists in playing according to his own rules,’ and continues with the following useful paragraph:

For heuristic purposes, let us agree to speak of an ‘early intelligentsia’ which came into existence in the eighteenth century as a by-product of state reformism and the spread of European education; a ‘classical intelligentsia’ which originated in the nineteenth century at some point between 1815 and 1860, and which adopted a systematically critical attitude towards some aspect(s) of the Russian social order; a ‘revolutionary intelligentsia’ which was a subset of the classical intelligentsia advocating the overthrow of the tsarist government; a ‘zemstvo intelligentsia’ (zemskaia intelligentsiia) generated between 1864 and 1900 by the hiring of experts whose task was to serve rural society and transform Russian life through gradual amelioration of social injustice; a ‘professional intelligentsia’ which encompassed the zemstvo intelligentsia, urban professionals hired by elected city councils and privately employed professionals; a pre-1861 ‘serf intelligentsia’ (krepostnaia intelligentsiia) consisting of serfs trained as sophisticated artisans or as traders licensed to carry out commercial activity under the supervision of their lords; a post-1861 ‘village intelligentsia’ (sel’skaia intelligentsiia) composed of literate peasants, such as village scribes, local school trustees and village priests; a post-1900 ‘intelligentsia from the people’ (narodnaia intelligentsiia) connected to Russia’s burgeoning book trade; and a ‘new’ or ‘religious intelligentsia’ which appeared in the late 1890s/ first decade of the twentieth century and which repudiated the irreligion of some members of the ‘classical intelligentsia’.

Whatever quibbles one might have with the details of his classification, that seems to me a much more useful approach than arguing about when “the intelligentsia” began.


  1. SFReader says:

    Akunin’s version of its etymology in “Murder on the Leviathan”

    I see that I did not finish writing about Mr Fandorin. I do believe that I like him, despite his nationality. Good manners, reticent, knows how to listen. He must be a member of that estate referred to in Russia by the Italian word intelligenzia, which I believe denotes the educated European class. You must admit, dear Emily, that a society in which the European class is separated off into a distinct stratum of the population and also referred to by a foreign word can hardly be ranked among the civilized nations. I can imagine what a gulf separates a civilized human being like Mr Fandorin from some bearded Kossack or muzhik, who make up 90 per cent of the population of that Tartarian-Byzantine empire. On the other hand, a distance of such magnitude must elevate and ennoble an educated and thinking man to an exceptional degree, a point that I shall have to ponder at greater length.

  2. Akunin is such fun! I really have to read more of him.

  3. Part of the reasons the word intelligentsia was sharply growing in popularity in mid-XIX x. was the substantial social / class status shift of the educated “people of reason”. It used to be almost exclusively the urban nobility, but beginning in the 1830s, increasingly larger numbers of educated people and professionals became elevated from the commoner classes according to a vast array of royal rules and decrees, forming an amorphous and inglorious mass of “rasnochintsy” ~~ “miscellaneous official classes and titles”. The label of intelligentsia gave them a sense of shared identity with the leaders of the intellectual and social thought they admired (even though their officially elevated class status still remained much humbler).

    Once the connotation of “unequal by status yet united by the same thirst for knowledge and high moral standing” took hold, it wasn’t long before the connotation of “westernized / rejecting traditional values” started fading. Religious conservatives and Slavophiles came to be described as intelligentsia as well.

    (I’m sure we discussed the rasnochintsy before)

  4. Yes, we did, in this thread, where you made some very informative and helpful comments. While I’ve got you, let me ask (since you seem to know these things): would merchants have had to do army service in the late 19th century? Would there have been members of merchant families in the Russo-Turkish War of 1877–78?

  5. Beginning 1875, military service was universal ( no longer class based like earlier in XIX c.). And between the Crimean War and 1874, there had been very few call-ups anyway.

  6. Thanks!

  7. Universal military service was why my grandfather left Odessa for Baltimore around 1889, according to family lore. He was a gymnasium graduate, so the story goes, but was about to be drafted to serve, being a Jew, as an officer’s batman.

  8. Which gives me a chance to link to the batman thread.

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