The “Fathers”, “Sons”, and “Grandsons” of the Nineteenth-Century Russian Intelligentsia

In 1897, the first-ever census of the Russian empire categorized the entire population by different regions, languages, social groups, religions, and occupations. The census revealed that 77.1% of the population were considered “peasants'' by the imperial government. However, what the Russian census failed to show was the growing middle class that had developed alongside the Great Reforms of the 1860s. These “middle people” included professionals, those involved in commerce, and civil servants which worked for local and state bureaucracies. By joining professional organizations, associations, and clubs, the presence of the middle class was felt throughout Russian society. Expanding beyond their intellectual roots of the early nineteenth century, the developments of the nineteenth-century intelligentsia can be traced through three “generations”: the “fathers” during the 1830s to 1840s, the “sons” of the 1860s, and the “grandsons” of the 1890s.

The fathers of the 1830s and 1840s developed out of the Decembrist Revolt. Following the death of Alexander I in December of 1825, there was a crisis of succession. Northern and Southern societies took advantage of the instability and staged a coup d’etat. The Decembrists uprising, though failed, quickly grew into a movement that extended beyond the lower and middle classes and into the nobility and educated elite. As a result, the imperial government quickly enacted repressive measures on universities from Alexander I’s regime. The 1835 statutes “subjected universities to close administrative scrutiny and severely limited faculty autonomy.” Due to these strict reforms, the development of this intellectual group slowed and its members retreated to less restrictive, private venues.

The “sons” of the 1860s resulted from the Great Reforms and Russia’s start toward modernization. Alexander II’s 1861 Emancipation Reform abolished serfdom in the empire, resulting in a significant departure from the established social order. Nobility and professional classes - the aforementioned “fathers” - suddenly lost all authority over peasants, and new economic issues arose; the emancipation left numerous landowners, unable to adapt to the new conditions, in ruins. The abolition of serfdom undermined the authority of the fathers as they no longer served as role models for their sons. Furthermore, due to growing discontent from the peasantry and educated elite, the government became reluctant to extend and enforce the existing reforms. As peasants were still denied proper social mobility and access to promised land holdings following the reforms, dissatisfaction with the monarchy only grew within the class.

Despite the era of reforms, the structure of Russian society saw relatively little change: drastic inequalities between social classes and a lack of social mobility were ever-present. Support for radical, revolutionary movements came from educated progressives disappointed by the Great Reforms. This younger generation of intelligentsia saw increased participation from Russian youth: student groups, circles, and communes that stemmed from universities grew adamant about revolutionary change. The youth were drawn to “socialist, materialist, and nihilist ideologies and clandestine revolutionary organizations” that preached radical ideologies to generate social progress.

Ivan Turgenev’s novel Fathers and Children depicts the generational gap within the intelligentsia. The tensions between Bazarov, the main character of the novel, and his father, Nikolay, symbolize the two different, competing intelligentsia present in the 1860s: “the noble and conservative ‘fathers,’” and the “revolutionary-minded ‘sons.’” The dichotomy between “fathers” and “sons” was one between idealists and materialists. “The fathers were philosophical idealists and romantics, while the sons were materialists and devotees of empirical science.” Similarities between the two groups exist as “both [groups] wished to make ‘cursed Russian reality’ conform to the universal Ideas of Man and Reason,” and both’s ideologies were relatively homogeneous. However, the radicals' failure to communicate “their moral outrage, their sense of social justice and their radical programs” for the Russian peasantry demonstrates the very separate and different lives of the two.

Martin Malia poses the concept of “grandsons” that followed the industrialization of Russia. Following the assassination of Alexander II by The People’s Will, a radical revolutionary group, the intelligentsia witnessed the rapid industrialization and radicalization of the country. The class was composed of a wide variety of influences, including Marxism, Populism, and neo-Kantian philosophy. This period also witnessed a change in the status and independence of the intelligentsia, as they lost much of their social and economic independence - since the economy was no longer primarily agrarian - and became salaried, professional civil servants. Mass education, which came with industrialization, “blurred the sharp distinction which in pre-1890 Russia had separated the educated minority from the rest of the population, and given it its sense of cultural cohesion.”

Radicalization of the “grandsons” began with the Russian famine of 1891-1892, where public discontent dramatically increased due to the tsar’s poor handling of the situation. As a result, many students joined volunteer efforts, assisted doctors during epidemics, helped with soup kitchens, and organized distribution centers. Radicalization can be traced to pre-existing institutions such as universities, technical and scientific societies, and local institutions. In these institutions, students were often involved with politics and sought “self-help, mutual aid, and moral and intellectual improvement”; this led to many key student organizations becoming radicalized. Upon realizing the threat, imperial authorities confined these spheres and limited their activities.

The continuous radicalization of different organizations and discontent between the government and intelligentsia created a crucial turning point. Having turned their back on the aristocratic origins of prior generations and unwilling to unite with the government or industrial community, the intelligentsia appealed to the people. Thus there grew a tentative alliance between the Russian industrial class and the intelligentsia. For the first time, “intelligentsia radicals and discontented workers began to form real links with one another.” To the intelligentsia, the people could give shape to their radical ideologies. By examining the similarities and differences between generations, such as how Turnegev found similarities and differences between the Fathers and their Sons, we can better understand the factors that played into the social and political developments which shaped 19th and 20th-century Russian history.


Drey, Victoria. “Here’s why iconic Russian novel ‘Fathers and Sons’ is still relevant.” Russia

Beyond, ct. 2018,

Evtuhov, Catherine, et al. 2003. A History of Russia: Peoples, Legends, Events, Forces. Belmont:

Wadsworth Publishing.

Malia, Martin. 1960. “What Is the Intelligentsia?” Daedalus 89, no. 3: 441–58.

Pipes, Richard. 1960. “The Historical Evolution of the Russian Intelligentsia.” Daedalus 89, no.

3: 487–502.

Raeff, Marc. 1984. Understanding Imperial Russia: State and Society in the Old Regime. New

York: Columbia University Press.

Turgenev, Ivan Sergeevich, and Isabel Florence Hapgood. 2012. Fathers and Children. New

York, NY: Barnes & Noble Digital Library.