Revolution and the Intelligentsia

There are many studies and publications on the Russian Revolutions. This section will not seek to cover the well-documented events that have become repetitive within the historiography. Rather, it will attempt to shed light on less-covered events that were still influential in the production of the revolutions. Sometimes going back more than a few years in a region’s history will help explain what fueled a climactic event in history. The results of the Crimean War are suspected in this case. The decline of the Ottoman Empire created a power vacuum that would result in the Crimean War—between Russian and Britain. Concerned that Russia would gain access to the Mediterranean the French joined Britain’s quest to take preventive measures. In 1854, the British and French sent troops to the Crimea and destroyed the tsar’s Black Sea fleet at Sevastopol. It was a devastating defeat for Russia. Nicholas I, who provoked the War, died of pneumonia at the peak of the conflict; forcing Russia to sign a punitive peace treaty in 1856. The treaty called for Russia to dismantle navy bases on the Black Sea, crushing Russia’s hopes of accessing the Mediterranean. The event reversed centuries of Russian progress—establishing warm-water ports in the South. Intensely, it marked the beginning of the end of Russian dominance in Europe. Primarily, because the event created discontent among Russian citizens; developing a new incentive for emerging revolutionary forces that would continue to grow throughout the century reaching its climax in the events of 1917.[1]

Historian Richard Pipes once wrote “Historical events have no clear beginning or end: they fade in and out imperceptibly, and historians can never quite agree on how to date them.”[2]

Although the beginnings may not be clear the group responsible for the revolutions in Russia is not debated—the intelligentsia is credited with fanning the revolutionary flames. Pipes argues that rebellions occur in every society; how or if they are resolved depends on two things: The extent of democracy the institution abides by which will determine their actions for settling grievances through legislation. And the presents of professional managers (intelligentsia) intended on organizing the rebellion into a revolution. Intelligentsia is a word of Latin origin describing intellectuals who desire power in order to engineer society into their utopian version of how the world should be. The intelligentsia first appeared in Europe during the sixteenth century.  Most were lay thinkers approaching philosophical questions through the lens of progressive science rather than theology or the church, which was previously the tradition. The advancements in science suggested to many that the only entities that existed were those that could be measured and observed—in contrast to religion and the church that rely on metaphysical claims that humans possess a soul. This idea was irresistible to intellectuals as they began to see themselves as the ancient Greek and Roman philosophers whose job it was to intervene in the lives of citizens. While ordinary citizens pursued a living, the intellectuals were the only ones with the knowledge to engineer “sciences” of human affairs. They dismissed disciplines such as economics and political theory, viewing them as irrelevant due to being formed as a result of trial and error. They swayed public opinion and many intellectuals evolved into an intelligentsia as they became politicians free to pursue their private ambitions in the guise of working for the common good. Furthermore, Pipes describes the intelligentsia’s ideology as materialistic—regarding humans not as unique individuals with immortal souls, but as exclusively physical entities produced by their environment. This justifies their desire to engineer “a new breed of perfectly virtuous creatures” through the restructuring of society.[3] The Crimean War appears to have planted the seeds of discontent among Russian society that the intelligentsia were able to exploit at the turn of the century, leading to revolution.


[1] Martin Sixsmith, Russia: A 1,000-Year Chronicle of the Wild East (New York, NY: The Overlook Press, 2011), 127.

[2] Richard Pipes, A Concise History of the Russian Revolution (New York: Vintage Books, 1996), 31.

[3] Ibid., 21.

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