4 Oct /13


The word intelligentsia was first used in Russia around 1840 to describe society’s intellectual elite. The Great Soviet Encyclopaedia published in 1979 tells us that by the end of the 19th century the group made up 2.7% of the economically active population and were spread between a range of sectors. Of the 870,000 Russians who met the classification in 1897, 4,000 were engineers, 3,000 were veterinarians, 23,000 worked in railroad and steamship offices and 13,000 were in postal and telegraph offices. The word first appeared in English around the same time, and with Russia a mystery to most English language speakers “intelligentsia” was often used as an exotic description of something eastern European.

In pre-revolutionary Russia the intelligentsia were influential critics of the injustices of Tsarism and Nicholas II loathed them to the point where he wanted the word removed from the language. They gained little immediate appreciation when the Bolsheviks swept to power in 1917, though. Lenin’s appreciation of independent thought was summed up by his comment to Maxim Gorky that “intelligentsia is not the brain of the nation, it is the faeces of the nation”. But this would change in time. Post war Soviet achievements such as the first manned space flight point to an understanding of the contribution of educated professionals. Scientists, artists, teachers and lawyers included in the intelligentsia were valued as architects of a better society.

The fact that this word describes something elitist sometimes seems to make people apologetic about using it. The word is often put in inverted commas and accompanied by an explanation – intelligent classes, educated bourgeoisie or middle class with ideas. Even though the social and economic contribution of the intelligentsia is clear, they still polarise opinion in whichever country they are discussed.