Reviews A sense of moral superiority. Russian intellectuals

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds page 53-54, Vol II:I, 2009
Published on on februari 17, 2010

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THE RUSSIAN INTELLEGENTSIA emerged historically as an outcome of the paradoxes of modernization. The intelligenty were “the offspring of the Petrine service nobility imbued with Western education and cultural values and dedicated to the service of the community’s welfare”, Marc Raeff claimed.1 According to Raeff, they had no possibilities of expressing themselves freely and playing an active role in society, which turned them against the state that had created them. This highly regarded theory has been challenged — or rather broadened — by Laurie Manchester, an Arizona State University professor, in her latest book. In this work, the problem of the intelligentsia is seen from an entirely new perspective. The focal point is the emergence of the “modern self”, and Manchester takes popovichi, secular sons of the Orthodox priests, as role models of “self-made” modern men.

Manchester’s work is extremely interesting not only for the new definition of the intelligentsia offered, but also for the insights she gives into the closed clerical estate, and for her presentation of its little-known cultural heritage. The study itself is based on the personal writings of popovichi: autobiographies, unpublished diaries, correspondence with their families, even suicide notes. The scope of the research is quite impressive — Manchester analyzed the personal writings of 203 popovichi that were scattered across various Russian archives.

of the book, Manchester deconstructs myths and prejudices concerning the clergy and their offspring. The hostility toward them was reinforced by the closed character of their social estate. Most of the prejudices had to do with their alleged ignorance, depravity, greed, and drunkenness. The lack of knowledge about the clergy was an underlying cause of the tendency to turn them into the “proximate other”, argues Manchester. In contrast to reigning popular opinion, shared by Herzen and other famous Russian intellectuals of noble origin, Manchester depicts the clergy as the only social estate in Imperial Russia that enjoyed independent courts, as well as its own institutions and educational system.

The clergy’s view of other social estates, however, was itself not without generalizations and superstitions. They considered themselves to be a sacred estate, whereas other estates were seen as sinful and corrupt. The most evil of all was the nobil-ity, and the reason for this was their incompetence in performing the duties that were imposed on them — and for their misuse of the power they were given as Russia’s ruling class.

After leaving their clerical estate for secular careers, popovichi were intent on overturning Russian society. However, the image of these intellectuals, as for example presented in Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons or in The Devils by Fyodor Dostoevsky, does not fully reflect the cultural changes that occurred in Russia in the post-reform period. Manchester observed that “[t]he ‘new men’ of the 1860s — whom all popovichi came to represent — were indeed rebelling against noble-dominated intelligentsia of the 1840s, but these men were not their fathers”. Their “holy fathers” were the popovichi’s consciously chosen role models.

THEIR OWN CLERICAL heritage remained an ideal for them. They were defining themselves throughout their lives and reestablishing links with the community they came from. According to Manchester, this act of making choices, of evaluating the tradition, choosing whether to stay religious and what to believe in, marks popovichi as modern subjects. Besides, what made popovichi act as modern subjects was their self-education or their being self-made men, as well as their ability to express critical thought, which they brought acquired in seminars. Manchester does describe, however, the brutality of life in the bursa (a “collective term for both primary and secondary levels of ecclesiastical education, at the church school and seminary”); nevertheless she points out that later in life popovichi fashioned themselves as martyrs, not victims of violence. The process of introspection encouraged by the clerical manuals and Orthodox tradition was the engine of a striving for self-perfection.

Nevertheless, single-mindedness of purpose seems to be the most characteristic feature of popovichi: none of them could but pursue just one goal, be it political, professional, or personal. In the domain of personal life — love could only be a perfect, divine sentiment; in science — popovichi were so dedicated to their scholarly careers that they became actual founding fathers of Russian academia; and finally in politics — most of them were “above the political”, believing to know better the way toward progress or salvation than any political party.

The study presented in the book makes it evident that popovichi remained a subgroup within the Russian intelligentsia and at the same time also exerted a powerful influence on the character of other intelligenty. In order to explain this coexistence, Manchester points out the proximity of some of the objectives popovichi and nobles shared, first of all the dedication to service and the welfare of the community (for popovichi, this derived from a secularized conception of the calling for the ordination). Moreover, popovichi, like the nobility, were influenced by Western ideas, for instance the concept of romantic love. As for other non-noble members of the intelligentsia, popovichi shared their anti-aristocratic feelings.

It was the sense of moral superiority that gave popovichi a dominant position, as a role model, within the intelligentsia. It wasn’t simply because they were born into the sacred estate that they felt a moral supremacy over the nobles, but also because they belonged to traditional (or “authentic”, as opposed to “imitated”) culture, and were brought up alongside the narod (the common people, folk or masses).

The clerical model of values was defined not by contrast with the West, but with westernized nobility. The dispute between Slavophiles and Westernizers was a discourse within the noble culture, hence, popovichi were little (if at all) interested in the question of the nation’s cultural achievements and its stature in relation to other nations.2 They did not feel the need to define their national identity or answer the question of what the “Russian way of life” was, since they perceived themselves as representatives of genuine Russian narod, something the noble intelligentsia knew nothing about. Manchester argues that the popovichi did not take any side in that noble-dominated discourse (p. 213) — as the example of Sergei Soloviev shows.

THEIR HIGH IDEAS WERE met with rather lowly reality, authoritarianism, an essentialist vision of other social estates, a patriarchal model of education, a sense of superiority — and all of this contributed to the new, anti-materialistic and anti-pluralistic discourse (p. 215). Manchester does see the potential for violence in the popovichi’s ethos, but does not equate the popovichi’s cultural background with the Orthodox tradition. Such a connection leads to the conclusion that after the revolution, the Orthodox confession was simply replaced by the faith in the final conclusion of the Communist ideal, she contradicts the interpretation of the origins of Russian Communism popularized by Nikolai Berdaev. However, there are some analogies between popovichi and Bolsheviks. It seems that these similarities could be the subject of further clarifications.

In his autobiography, Andrzej Walicki wrote that in the 1950’s he considered the Slavophile-Westernizers dispute to be the real melting pot of ideas, a starting point for understanding Russian culture, which was diminished by Soviet scholarship. Therefore, bringing the Slavophiles-Westernizers debate “back” into scholarly discussion was to him an antidote for mendacious Soviet version of history. Since then, the field of Russian intellectual history has been dominated by research on this topic, which is still considered a central issue in Russian intellectual history. However, both Slavophiles and Westernizers were of noble origin and little attention has been paid so far to the non-noble educated elite. As Manchester points out, the word “popovich” was not in use until very recently. Hence Holy Fathers, Secular Sons, which is dedicated to the phenomenon of popovichi, offers an entirely new perspective for Russian cultural studies and the history of the Russian intelligentsia. ≈


  1. Political Ideas and Institutions in Imperial Russia, San Francisco/Oxford 1994, p. 119.
  2. Suzana Rabow–Edling, Slavophile Thought and the Politics of Cultural Nationalism, New York, 2006, p. 215.
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  • by Anna Janowiak

    Graduated in international relations at Adam Mickiewicz University of Pozna´n and is completing a Ph.D. in European Social History at Ca’Foscari University of Venice

  • all contributors

+ Laurie Manchester Holy Fathers, Secular Sons. Clergy, Intelligentsia and the Modern Self in Revolutionary Russia. Northern Illinois University Press 2008. 288 pages.