Among the shattering classes

Dead Again: the Russian intelligentsia after Communism by Masha Gessen Verso, pounds 14
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Intelligentsia is a Russian word - and once upon a time it was a source of pride for educated Russians. In fact, it was difficult to find a Russian who did not believe himself to be part of the intelligentsia. Nowhere else did the educated elite enjoy such prestige.

The roots of this go back to the 19th century, when students, writers, artists and critics took it on themselves to lead "the people's cause". They were united by their sense of guilt, which they would redeem by their service to the people and by special codes of language, behaviour and dress, setting them apart from the rest of privileged society. The Revolution was largely their creation. Yet they soon became disillusioned and, if not murdered or forced abroad, again took up their idealistic cause. Brezhnev's dissidents were scientists and writers who saw themselves as part of a tradition stretching back to Tolstoy and Pushkin.

Perestroika was, like 1917, the moment of the intelligentsia. In the beginning was the word. Writers and academics threw themselves behind Gorbachev, then Yeltsin, entering parliament or sitting round the kitchen table talking all night long (as only Russians can) about the reforms. But again they were quickly disillusioned, as Yeltsin rode roughshod over human rights, corrupt politicians took their place in parliament, and no one had much time for intellectuals. Nuclear scientists fled to the West. Others turned themselves into businessmen or scraped along from their vegetable plots.

As it became demoralised, the intelligentsia divided. It had been united only by its opposition to the regime, but once that was gone it split along the old dividing lines: between the Westernisers and the Slavophiles, the religious and the atheists, democrats and socialists and monarchists. By 1996, the old intelligentsia had broken up into hundreds of tiny squabbling groups. Most were disillusioned with Yeltsin. But they could not unite to establish an alternative.

Masha Gessen is a young and talented journalist who, as a child, left Brezhnev's Russia for the United States. Thirteen years later, in 1994, she returned to Moscow. Gessen has a sassy style and in Dead Again she has written a series of vivid intellectual portraits to give us a dark but not despondent picture of this fragmented intelligentsia. As the title is intended to suggest, constantly pronouncing itself to be dead is a part of the intelligentsia's mythos - but such reports are premature.

Gessen's portraits are highly selective and partisan. One gets the impression she has interviewed her friends - veteran dissidents like Larisa Bogoraz and Yelena Bonner, the politician Galina Starovoitova, the human-rights commissioner Sergei Kovaliov - and paraded this as a representative cross-section of the whole intelligentsia. And she leaves us in no doubt about her prejudices. For example, her sketch of the well-known mathematician and philosopher Igor Shafarevich ("The Genius Jew-Hater") is so over-hostile that it almost undermines her general point: that Russian nationalism, even in an activist for human rights, can turn into ugly xenophobia. Likewise, her admiring chapter on the pioneers of feminism is so absolutist as to turn one off.

There are too many figures missing here. Gessen equates the old intelligentsia with the dissidents. But she largely ignores the technocrats and writers, scientists and academics, whose politics were shaped by the Khrushchev thaw but who stopped short of becoming dissidents. In many ways, they played a more important role in pushing for reform within the Soviet system than the higher-profile but exiled or imprisoned dissidents. This was, after all, where Gorbachev came from.

It was in effect the Soviet middle class - which has been destroyed since 1991. If Gessen had focused more on them, the last part of her book would not have been so quirky or up-beat. But instead she looks at the "Generation X", the computer nerds and alternative designers of the late 1990s, whom she calls, rather flippantly, the new intelligentsia. Perhaps Russia also has its dumbing down.

The Russian intelligentsia has a long tradition of self-analysis, especially at times of crisis. In 1909 an influential group of exiles from the Marxist movement wrote a book called Vekhi, or Landmarks, which redefined the role of the intelligentsia as shapers of the nation's identity. The intelligentsia needs another book like that, if it is to lead the nation once again. This one is a start.