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Between 1900 and 1917, waves of unprecedented terror struck Russia. Several parties professing incompatible ideologies competed (and cooperated) in causing havoc. Between 1905 and 1907, nearly 4,500 government officials and about as many private individuals were killed or injured. Between 1908 and 1910, authorities recorded 19,957 terrorist acts and revolutionary robberies, doubtless omitting many from remote areas. As the foremost historian of Russian terrorism, Anna Geifman, observes, “Robbery, extortion, and murder became more common than traffic accidents.”

Anyone wearing a uniform was a candidate for a bullet to the head or sulfuric acid to the face. Country estates were burnt down (“rural illuminations”) and businesses were extorted or blown up. Bombs were tossed at random into railroad carriages, restaurants, and theaters. Far from regretting the death and maiming of innocent bystanders, terrorists boasted of killing as many as possible, either because the victims were likely bourgeois or because any murder helped bring down the old order. A group of anarcho-­communists threw bombs laced with nails into a café bustling with two hundred customers in order “to see how the foul bourgeois will squirm in death agony.”

Instead of the pendulum’s swinging back—a metaphor of inevitability that excuses people from taking a stand—the killing grew and grew, both in numbers and in cruelty. Sadism replaced simple killing. As Geifman explains, “The need to inflict pain was transformed from an abnormal irrational compulsion experienced only by unbalanced personalities into a formally verbalized obligation for all committed revolutionaries.” One group threw “traitors” into vats of boiling water. Others were still more inventive. Women torturers were especially admired.

How did educated, liberal society respond to such terrorism? What was the position of the Constitutional Democratic (Kadet) Party and its deputies in the Duma (the parliament set up in 1905)? Though Kadets advocated democratic, constitutional procedures, and did not themselves engage in ­terrorism, they aided the terrorists in any way they could. Kadets collected money for terrorists, turned their homes into safe houses, and called for total amnesty for arrested terrorists who pledged to continue the mayhem. Kadet Party central committee member N. N. Shchepkin declared that the party did not regard terrorists as criminals at all, but as saints and martyrs. The official Kadet paper, Herald of the Party of People’s Freedom, never published an article condemning political assassination. The party leader, Paul Milyukov, declared that “all means are now legitimate . . . and all means should be tried.” When asked to condemn terrorism, another liberal leader in the Duma, Ivan Petrunkevich, famously replied: “Condemn terror? That would be the moral death of the party!”

Not just lawyers, teachers, doctors, and engineers, but even industrialists and bank directors raised money for the terrorists. Doing so signaled advanced opinion and good manners. A quote attributed to Lenin—“When we are ready to kill the capitalists, they will sell us the rope”—would have been more accurately rendered as: “They will buy us the rope and hire us to use it on them.” True to their word, when the Bolsheviks gained control, their organ of terror, the Cheka, “liquidated” members of all opposing parties, beginning with the Kadets. Why didn’t the liberals and businessmen see it coming?

That question has bothered many students of revolutionary movements. Revolutions never succeed without the support of wealthy, liberal, educated society. Yet revolutionaries seldom conceal that their success entails the seizure of all wealth, the suppression of dissenting opinion, and the murder of class enemies. Lenin, after all, was by no means the only bloodthirsty Russian radical. In 1907, Ivan Pavlov—not the Nobel prize–winning scientist, but one of the brightest theoreticians of the especially violent ­Maximalists—published The Purification of Mankind, which divided humanity into ethical races. In this analysis, exploiters, vaguely and broadly identified, constituted a race, “morally inferior to our animal predecessors,” which must be exterminated, children and all, by the morally superior race, whose best members were the terrorists themselves. Remarkably enough, this program evoked no indignation, among other Maximalists or even among other socialists, however moderate. Another prominent Maximalist, M. A. Engel’gardt, argued for a red terror that would kill at least twelve million people. As if anticipating the Khmer Rouge, one anarchist group sought to establish equality by killing all educated people.

And yet the liberals refused to use their position in the Duma to make constitutionalism work. They would not participate in determining the government budget but confined their activities to denouncing the government and defending terrorists. Even when Pyotr Stolypin, the most capable chief minister ­Nicholas II ever had, offered to enact the entire Kadet program, the Kadets refused to cooperate. Evidently their professed beliefs were less important than their emotional identification with radicalism, of whatever sort.

In one memorable scene, the hero of ­Solzhenitsyn’s novel November 1916, Colonel Vorotyntsev, finds himself at a social gathering principally of Kadet adherents, where everyone repeats the same progressive pieties. He soon grasps that “each of them knew in advance what the others would say, but that it was imperative for them to meet and hear all over again what they collectively knew. They were all overwhelmingly certain that they were right, yet they needed these exchanges to reinforce their certainty.” To his surprise, Vorotyntsev, as if under a spell, finds himself joining in. It requires an effort to remind himself that what these progressives say about “the people,” whom they do not know at all, contradicts everything he has learned from his acquaintance with thousands of common soldiers. When Vorotyntsev ventures the slightest discordant observation, “just . . . one little thing . . . they were all on their guard. They fell silent, as they had been speaking, in unison, and their silence was aimed at the colonel.” He retreats and, as if hypnotized, repeats progressive pieties with the rest.

What is this strange political hypnosis? Vorotyntsev gives ground and holds his peace, “not because he felt he was wrong, but out of fear of saying something reactionary,” a word Solzhenitsyn italicizes to suggest that, in other cultures and periods, a different term of opprobrium will play the same role. Soldiers who are brave under fire cower before progressive opinion. For a long time, Vorotyntsev cannot bring himself to voice counterarguments, “and he despised himself for it. . . . It was a contagious disease—there was no resisting it if you came too close.”

At last, Vorotyntsev finds it in himself to resist. Soon after, he discusses the encounter with Professor Andozerskaya, who explains that she, like professors at many universities today, “must choose every word so carefully.”

In educated Russian society . . . by no means every view may be expressed. A whole school of thought . . . is morally forbidden, not merely in lectures but in private conversation. And the more “liberated” the company, the more heavily this tacit prohibition weighs on it.

One prominent Kadet, Peter Struve, did break with “liberated” opinion. He pointed out the absurdity of liberal intolerance and the suicidal insanity of backing bloodthirsty revolutionaries. After the Bolshevik takeover, he blamed liberals for the disastrous consequences they might have prevented.

Struve was not entirely alone in trying to alert educated society. In 1909, he joined six other thinkers to publish Landmarks: A Collection of Essays on the Russian Intelligentsia. In addition to Alexander Izgoev, another prominent Kadet, the contributors included Nikolai Berdyaev, Sergei Bulgakov, and Semyon Frank, who would reshape Russian Orthodox theology; legal scholar Bogdan Kistyakovsky; and literary critic Mikhail Gershenzon, who edited the volume. One of the most important documents of Russian thought, Landmarks is a must for anyone investigating the mentality of the intelligentsia.

Landmarks caused unprecedented scandal. It went through five editions in about a year, and the fifth included an appendix listing more than two hundred books and articles answering (mostly vilifying) it. If the contributors aimed to promote reasoned dialogue, foster intellectual tolerance, and sway liberal opinion away from automatic radicalism, they failed spectacularly. Most Kadets dissociated themselves from the book, and the party leader Milyukov toured the country to denounce it for betraying the sacred traditions of the Russian intelligentsia. The volume’s unforgivable sin, Frank explained, lay in its

criticism of the basic sacred dogma of the radical intelligentsia—the “mystique” of revolution. This was regarded as an audacious and quite intolerable betrayal of the age-old sacred testament of the Russian intelligentsia, the betrayal of the tradition handed down by the prophets and saints of Russian social thought—Belinsky, Granovsky, Chernyshevsky, Pisarev.

To follow the volume’s argument, one needs to grasp how the contributors used the words “intelligentsia” and “intelligent” (member of the intelligentsia). “Intelligentsia” is a word that originated in Russia, where it was coined about 1860. Used in its strict, proper, or classical sense, it means something entirely different from its English equivalent. To be an intelligent it was by no means sufficient (or even necessary) to be well-educated. And if by “­intellectual” one means a curious person thinking for himself or herself, then intelligent was close to its opposite.

Three characteristics identified a classical intelligent. To begin with, an intelligent identified primarily as an intelligent, rather than by his social class, profession, ethnic group, or other social category. No one would have considered Tolstoy an intelligent, for example, in part because he used his title “Count.”

Unless an intelligent was wealthy or, like Lenin, could become a professional revolutionary living at his party’s expense, he had to work, but as a matter of honor he did not take his profession seriously. As Izgoev remarks,

The average, rank-and-file intelligent usually does not know his job and does not like it. He is a poor teacher, a poor engineer. . . . He regards his profession . . . as a sideline that does not deserve respect. If he is enthusiastic about his profession . . . he can expect the cruelest sarcasm from his friends.

At the extreme, an intelligent followed the prescripts of Sergei Nechaev’s “Catechism of a Revolutionary” and “severed all ties with the civic order,” renouncing family and even his own name. Of course, very few went so far, just as very few medieval Christians became monks, but Nechaev’s prescription remained the ideal—the ideal of what Frank called “the monk-revolutionary.”

The Landmarks contributors mention a second characteristic of intelligents: their devotion to a special set of manners, including dress, hygiene (deliberately poor), hair style (the famous “short-haired lady nihilists”), prescribed and taboo expressions, and a set of sexual practices that the Landmarks contributors describe as puritanical dissoluteness (debauchery practiced as a rite) fueled by “nihilistic moralism.” As Frank observes, the intelligentsia constitute

a separate little world with its own very strong and rigorous traditions, its own etiquette, mores and customs. . . . Nowhere in Russia are there such . . . a clear and strict regulation of life, such ­categorical judgments of people and situations, and such loyalty to the corporate spirit as in this all-Russian spiritual monastery, the Russian­ ­intelligentsia.

There are stories of aristocrats taking lessons in the right kind of bad manners. Kukshina and Sitnikov in Turgenev’s Fathers and Children, and Lebezyatnikov in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, caricature the type—but not by much.

Most important, and of greatest concern, was how intelligents thought. An intelligent signed on to a set of beliefs regarded as totally certain, scientifically proven, and absolutely obligatory for any moral person. A strict intelligent had to subscribe to some ideology—whether populist, Marxist, or anarchist—that was committed to the total destruction of the existing order and its replacement by a utopia that would, at a stroke, eliminate every human ill. This aspiration was often described as chiliastic (or apocalyptic), and, as has been observed, it is no accident that many of the most influential intelligents, from Chernyshevsky to Stalin, came from clerical families or had studied in seminaries. For Struve, the mentality of the intelligentsia constituted a cruel parody of religion, preserving “the external features of religiosity without its content.”

An intelligent could not be a believer, which is another reason no one would have considered Tolstoy (let alone that conservative Dostoevsky) an intelligent. They accepted atheism on faith, were spiritually devoted to materialism, and proselytized determinism. They based these commitments on “science,” a word they used to mean not a disinterested process of discovery based on experiment and evidence, but—and here the reason became perfectly circular —a metaphysics of materialism and determinism.

Still worse, intelligentsia “science” entailed an assertion that the world worked by blind, purposeless force and yet, as if guided by providence, was guaranteed to progress in human terms and reach moral perfection. (As people say today, the arc of history bends toward justice.) Berdyaev quoted theologian Vladimir Soloviev’s paraphrase of “the intelligentsia syllogism”: “Man is descended from the apes; therefore love one another.” In the same spirit, Bulgakov observed that “the intelligentsia asserts that the personality is wholly a product of the environment, and at the same time suggests to it that it improve its surroundings, like Baron Münchausen pulling himself out of the swamp by his own hair.”

If there was one “philosopheme” (Struve’s term) shared by intelligents it was the assumption that all questions must be judged politically. Thus, one could discredit a scientific theory not by logic or evidence but by calling its implications “reactionary” (“and what don’t we call reactionary!”). The Soviets banned, at one time or another, genetics, relativity, and quantum theory—not on criteria from their respective disciplines, but on the basis of their supposed incompatibility with “dialectical ­materialism.”

Such politicism disparaged philanthropy as “a ­betrayal of all mankind and its eternal salvation for the sake of a few individuals close at hand.” During the famine of 1891–92, when Tolstoy and Chekhov engaged in famine relief, Lenin advocated hoarding food to bring revolution closer (“the worse, the better”).

The Landmarks contributors agreed that individual self-­improvement must accompany political reform. A ­society can be no better morally than its people, and so the intelligentsia needed to cultivate virtues it scorned as bourgeois: responsibility, honesty, good manners, tolerance of diverse views, and the sort of self-­examination necessary for spiritual improvement. In the teeth of intelligentsia prejudice, they recommended religious consciousness as the best path to better morals.

Intelligentsia ethics appalled the Landmarks essayists. If everything is political, then the cruelest means are not only permitted but obligatory. What is more, the very tactics the revolutionaries condemned became acceptable when the revolutionaries themselves used them. The argument that comes naturally to liberal-minded people—what if the shoe were on the other foot?—was rejected in principle. For an intelligent, there is no other foot.

In Solzhenitsyn’s August 1914, when young Veronika criticizes revolutionaries for doing just what they condemn, her intelligentsia aunts are shocked. Why,

the unfeeling girl was equating the oppressors of the people with its liberators, speaking as though they had the same moral rights! . . . Let him [the intelligent] kill. . . . The Party takes all the blame upon itself, so that terror is no longer murder, expropriation is no longer robbery.

Such thinking is a “major convenience,” Gershenzon observed, because “it remove[s] all moral responsibility from the individual.” Writing about a decade after Landmarks, the philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin called such an excuse a spurious “alibi” and insisted: “There is no alibi.”

The intelligentsia constituted one Russian intellectual tradition, the great writers another. “It is remarkable,” Struve commented, “how our national literature remains a preserve the intelligentsia cannot capture.” Gershenzon famously remarked that “in Russia an almost infallible gauge of the strength of an artist’s genius is the extent of his hatred for the intelligentsia.” Russia’s greatest contribution to world culture—the literary tradition of Tolstoy, Turgenev, Dostoevsky, and Chekhov—could not have existed had these writers written to political formula. On the contrary, the Russian novel of ideas critically examined everything the intelligentsia stood for—the simplicity of human psychology, the easy division of people into good and evil, the supposition that life’s meaning is already known, and the reduction of ethics to politics—and showed how mistaken and dangerous such ideologies are.

Intelligents favored other writers, like Chernyshevsky, who pioneered what would become Soviet Socialist realism. When the intelligentsia seized control in 1917, the great literary tradition continued in works written for the drawer, published abroad, and circulated in samizdat. Solzhenitsyn, Vasily Grossman, Boris Pasternak, Mikhail Bulgakov, and Svetlana Alexievich consciously continued the great countertradition of the Russian classics.

Some talented writers, like the satirist Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin, tried to have it both ways—or, as Struve observed, they wore the intelligentsia “uniform.” They found creative ways to defend prescribed beliefs, much as some talented Soviet writers struggled to do decades later. By contrast, “Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, each in his own way, tore this uniform off and threw it away.”

Most liberals proudly donned the uniform. This tragedy almost guaranteed the intelligentsia’s eventual seizure of power and the terrible reign that followed. For the Landmarks contributors, liberals’ attachment to illiberal movements derived from a psychological complex favoring conformism.

Though some liberals recognized their differences from the radicals, most acted like intelligentsia wannabes who were unwilling to acknowledge, even to themselves, that their values were essentially different. Socialized to regard anything conservative as reprehensible—and still worse, as a social faux pas—they contrived ways to justify radical intolerance and violence as forced, understandable, and noble. They had to, since the fundamental emotional premise of liberalism—hostility to those ignorant, bigoted, morally depraved people on the right—almost always proved more compelling than professed intellectual ­commitments.

Casting “unworthy, furtive glances at who liked what,” Berdyaev observed, these liberals illustrated how “moral cowardice develops, while love of truth and intellectual daring are extinguished.” Captivated by public opinion, they signed petitions they did not agree with and excused heinous acts, always observing the rule: Better to side with people a mile to one’s left than be associated with anyone an inch to one’s right. Educated society knew that one could not just abolish the police, as the anarchists demanded, and that socialism would not instantly cure all ills, but they assured themselves that progressive opinion must be right:

Could its validity be doubted, when it was accepted by all progressive minds? . . . Only people with an exceptionally strong spirit could resist the hypnosis of a common faith. . . . Tolstoy resisted, and so did Dostoevsky, but the average person, even if he did not believe, dared not admit it.

The Landmarks contributors aimed to change Russia so that, like England, it would have educated people but not an intelligentsia. They warned, as Dostoevsky had in The Possessed, that to the extent that a society’s educated class comes to resemble an intelligentsia in the Russian sense, it is headed for what we now call totalitarianism—unless others muster the strength to resist it.

One sometimes hears that “the pendulum is bound to swing back.” But how does one know there is a pendulum at all, rather than—let us say—a snowball accelerating downhill? It is unwise to comfort oneself with metaphors. When a party is willing to push its power as far as it can go, it will keep going until it meets sufficient opposition. In the French Revolution, terror was eventually stopped by “Thermidor,” and then by Napoleon. But in Russia, Stalin proclaimed “the intensification of the class struggle” after the Revolution, entailing an unending series of arrests, executions, and sentences to the Gulag. What meets no resistance does not stop. 

Gary Saul Morson is Lawrence B. Dumas Professor of the Arts and Humanities at Northwestern University.