The Self-destructive Elite

At the end of Part Five of an article called “The Shaved Man’s Burden: The Russian Novel as a Romance of Internal Colonization”, Alexander Etkind introduces the notion of sacrifice as resolution to rivalry within a triangular set of characters. He develops this idea into three variations of literary sacrificial choice, and describes the sacrifice of the Man of Culture (one of three typical end-points of love triangles in Russian literature) as “the victory of the colonised People, which the metropolitan elite cannot, indeed do not want to resist.” The concept I am referring to sounds as follows:

Possessed by a sense of historical guilt, the elite oversees its own destruction, organizes its own sacrifice. […] In preparing for revolution, the intelligentsia – a class whose existence is justified by its colonising role in relation to the people – attempts to find some […] meaning in its own global self-sacrifice.

Sometime during the last week of October I was walking across Midsummer Common and thinking: does this concept not explain the fate of intelligentsia in (1) our culture and (2) our history? If this lens is raised out of the Dostoyevsky novel in question – if we zoom out – then both of these aspects, culture and history, are illuminated in strange ways. For instance:

(1) From a cultural point of view, the intellectual elite in Western countries is, in my experience, naturally confident. There might be an apologetic note in certain situations, which may be racially or economically determined, but no apology is normally offered to the world for the elite’s mere existence. On the contrary, it appears to feel quite justified in all contributions it makes. On the other hand, the Soviet and post-Soviet popular culture commonly connects intellect and politeness (qualities of интеллигент) with weakness, and perhaps even with lack of adjustment to the real world (a certain idiotic self-destruction). It is rather typical that the brilliant doctor in “Собачье Сердце” is initially only too willing to accommodate, understand, submit to, the creature he creates. Is this not a reflection of the general place of intelligentsia in our culture? They are tortured from within and despised from without. With some exceptions, such is the general (preferred) embodiment of the role. There is a word – юродивый – which may describe the image I’m trying to convey.

(2) Historically, we are a country that displaced, destroyed, denounced its political and cultural elite. Пролетариат восторжествовал – why? There is a great deal of work on this question from historical, economic, political points of view. And certainly, there is a great deal of answers in those aspects. But where is the work on the cultural drivers beneath the fate of a self-destructive elite which seeks “meaning in its own global self-sacrifice”? What if a certain – albeit very small – part of this role was objectively optional, but somehow perceived as fated, and therefore collectively chosen?

The strength and depth of our dissident movement, too, has shadows in this darker alley. Crowds (so-called “common people”) protested the invasion of Vietnam. Eight people walked out on the Red Square in 1968. Of course, the causes for the difference in numbers lay in the severity of expected punishment, but it’s not the numbers I’d like to point out. It’s the role that these and other dissidents – nearly all poets, lawyers, etc – proceeded to play. Despite the rare and selfless protest, despite the self-sacrifice, and despite the lost lives, they never became true popular heroes. Anatoly Marchenko is nowhere near Pavlik Morozov in contemporary idolatry. On the contrary: today, just like in 1968, the ‘wisdom’ of the protesters continues to be commonly questioned.

The two lines I’m trying to draw from both culture and history are the elite’s need to pay (if I remember correctly, Lyudmila Alexeyeva wrote in “The Thaw Generation” that the Eight had walked out in 1968 simply because they couldn’t live with themselves otherwise) and the rejection of the human value of this need by the popular culture. To me, this feels like one of the greatest cultural paradoxes. If this guilt – rather, this possession by guilt – was not such a part of our culture, would the Red Revolution and other horrors of the 20th century develop to this extent? I do not have the answer at this point. But I really wonder about some – if any? – overlap of this culture of guilt and Russian history.

… Hm. Walks across the Cambridge parks can be very productive sometimes, although not necessarily conclusive.



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