Land of Tolstoy, Pushkin Now Likes Crime Novels

Some say Western pop culture is killing Russia's intelligentsia as effectively as Stalin's purges.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

On Saturday evenings, when most Muscovites are preparing for parties, the theater, or dinner, an earnest group of people huddles around stacks of journals in a bookstore cellar to discuss lofty ideas.

One week, the topic is a Russian essayist. The next, it's socially critical poetry or similar cerebral agendas. But talk invariably circles back to one major point: the group's own identity.

"Is there an intelligentsia? Does it still live?" asks publisher Natasha Perova, throwing down the gauntlet. The topic was supposed to be American writer Gertrude Stein. But discussion diverted, as usual, to the raison d'tre of the assembled writers, philosophers, and artists.

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The response was passionate, with battle lines drawn over whether the enlightened class, which helped shape Russian politics before, during, and after the 1917 Bolshevik revolution is irrelevant now that the Communist state is dead.

Perhaps more than any other country in the world, Russia can claim a unique historical distinction between mere intellectuals and the intelligentsia.

Traditionally, it was a special class of thinking people who took moral stands, generally in opposition to the totalitarian state. The intelligentsia's vanguard counted not only artists and writers, but also scientists.

They were the bourgeois theorists of the Rus-sian revolution. They were the dissidents whom Joseph Stalin sent to Siberian gulags. They were the Alexander Solzhenitsyns and Andrei Sakharovs who bravely challenged Soviet repression while most stayed silent about the thousands of executions, exiles, and jailings.

It was this sense of responsibility to society that made the Russian intelligentsia distinct, some say. They argue that in the seven years since the Soviet Union collapsed, the small circle of people who huddled over kitchen tables to read banned poetry are a dying breed. Democracy has eroded their critical distance from society.

"I don't think that intellectual professionals today are intelligentsia," says author Masha Gessen. Her recent book, "Dead Again," insists that present-day intellectuals lack the sense of communal responsibility for Russia.

Film critic Ilya Lepekhov, who in the old days would certainly have been counted among the intelligentsia, says the onslaught of Western popular culture has killed off the intelligentsia as effectively as Stalin's purges. E-mail, American TV shows, and CDs make it easier to stay home than attend a concert or poetry reading. There is also now a greater economic pressure to survive.

"We are witnessing the last climax of our great intellectual tradition. This is partly because writers today must work like horses rather than live for ideas. We must provide food for our kids to live," Mr. Lepehov says, cradling his baby daughter as though to make his point.

This is nonsense, Ms. Perova says. She insists that the loyal Saturday crowd shows that devotion to culture still endures. She points to the popularity of a recent spate of memoirs by writers, and the tenacious survival of "Glas," the literary journal she has edited since 1991, as proof that the Russian literary tradition is alive.

"Not only is the intelligentsia not dead, it is more alive than ever. The intelligentsia are maybe 3 percent of the population, but they are like yeast in the dough - they make society rise," she says.

"We are witnessing a time of changing values, a reappraisal of everything. But that doesn't change the fact that there are more thinking persons than before. Their minds are being stimulated by the end of censorship and more books from the West," Perova argues.

Beyond the debate over the existence of the intelligentsia is the question of whether intellectuals will survive the onslaught of mass consumerism, which especially appeals to the young. Talks are under way to sell an icon of the Soviet intelligentsia, the Literaturnaya Gazeta. Published in Moscow since 1929, it has seen a dramatic drop in circulation to a paltry 160,000 from 6 million during perestroika - the sweeping 1980s reforms that were a prelude to the collapse of Soviet rule.

Publishers lament the declining popularity of fine literature. Russia's bestsellers are no longer by the likes of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, or Pushkin, but by detective writer Marina Alekseyeva. Under the pseudonym Aleksandra Marinina, this police officer-turned-author churns out lurid but highly popular crime fiction.

Even the detractors, however, are not completely certain that the intelligentsia are gone for good.

"Entitling my book 'Dead Again' was optimistic," Ms. Gessen says. "It implies that the intelligentsia can die and be reborn - again."

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