A Champion for the Bourgeoisie

A Champion for the Bourgeoisie

Mini Teaser: A fictional 19th-century detective disdains Russia's intelligentsia and preaches a bourgeois sermon on virtue and responsible citizenship to Russia's nascent middle class.

by Author(s): Leon Aron

"With striking perseverance he tried to be everything in relation to Russian writers of the time--a father, a godfather, a nurse, a wet nurse, a prison warden and a literary critic all rolled up in one."

Yet where the state is concerned, the intelligentsia's roots manifested themselves in bonds far stronger and deeper than education and employment. Although the alienation from and opposition to the state have been that class's defining features (the very term "intelligentsia" itself came into use in the reign of Alexander II amidst the withering criticism of the autocracy by the liberal press and the world's first sustained and ideologically motivated suicide bombing campaign by People's Will), the intelligentsia's ire and resistance were directed at a particular political regime, rather than at the state as the instrument of change and as the key tool of social, political and economic engineering. For most of the intelligenty most of the time, solutions to Russia's ills were state solutions: a total, systemic change directed from above. No national betterment was possible without the state's first becoming--at most in a few years and by the decrees of an enlightened ruler who listens to his intelligentsia advisers--entirely "European" or "civilized."

The appearance and appeal of such a perspective was aided and much enhanced by the absence of a Russian version of the Reformation, which in the West tied daily personal behavior--or, in the case of Calvinists and other Protestant fundamentalists, even business success or failure--directly to salvation.

An unsurpassed record of the intelligentsia's beliefs and modi operandi was produced by leading intellectuals--and Fandorin's contemporaries--in the 1909 collection of essays on the Russian intelligentsia titled Vekhi (Landmarks). Profound and beautifully written from the first page to the last, Vekhi's philosophical, historical and political discourses are by far the most insightful, comprehensive and detailed portrait of the radical Russian intelligentsia's Weltanschau-ung ever compiled.

The Vekhi prescription was unambiguous and unsparing. The intelligentsia could reclaim moral leadership and guide Russia to "European" ("civilized") laws, liberty and prosperity only by recognizing the "individual's inner life as the sole creative force" and renouncing the ideology of "unconditional primacy of social forms." The authors beseeched their former comrades to "shift . . . the center of attention to oneself and one's own obligations", and free themselves from "the false state of mind of [being] the unsummoned savior of the world and the inevitable pride associated with it." The intelligentsia must undertake "inner work" for the sake of "renewal"; it must "embrace the absolute value of individual self-improvement."

Only such a thorough and painful re-examination of received dogmas would allow the intelligentsia to rid itself of the "desire to be assuaged in all instances with the cheap thought that 'it's the authorities' fault.'" Only if this "inner slavery" is expunged first and the intelligentsia learns to "take the responsibility [for our life] and stop blaming external forces for everything", only then "we shall be free of external repression":

"It is not worthy of thinking people to say: we are corrupted and will continue to be corrupted until the cause of our corruption is eliminated. Every man is obliged to say: I must not be corrupted any longer."

If the intelligentsia continued to spurn self-examination and reject personal and quotidian responsibility for themselves, their families, their neighborhood and their country, Vekhi predicted a disaster. Eight years before the Bolshevik revolution; more than two decades before Hitler and Stalin consolidated power; four decades before the publication of Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four; ninety years before a new global totalitarian religion came of age on 9/11, Semyon Frank's Vekhi essay, "Etika nigilizma" ("The Ethics of Nihilism") must rank among most prophetic and piercing Jeremiads ever uttered:

"The great love for mankind of the future gives birth to a great hatred for people; the passion for organizing an earthly paradise becomes a passion for destruction; and the faithful populist-socialist becomes the revolutionary. . . . [The intelligentsia's] political activity has a goal not so much of bringing about some kind of objectively useful, in the worldly sense, reform, as of liquidating the enemies of the faith and forcibly converting the world. . . . Secular affairs and needs are . . . subject to execution according to a universal plan determined by metaphysical dogmas."

An Existential Refutation

Chkhartishvili's Fandorin is an existential refutation of the intelligentsia tradition of thought and action as described by Vekhi. Further-more, his learned creator has placed the hero within a philosophical framework--existentialism--that is antithetical to the intelligentsia tradition and that Vekhi, yet again, has adumbrated so strikingly, both in the description of symptoms and of prescribed cures. In the Koronatsiya (Coronation) novel of the Fandorin cycle, the hero's credo, as told to another character, could have come from Sartre or Camus:

"Do you know, Afanasiy Stepanovich, what your mistake is? You believe that the world rests on some rules, that it contains meaning and order. And I have long understood: life is nothing more than chaos. It has no order at all, and no rules. Yes, I do have rules. But those are my own rules, which I made for myself, and not for the world. So let the world be on its own, and I will be on my own. To the extent that I can. Personal rules, Afanasiy Stepanovich, are not a desire to rearrange the universe, but an attempt to organize, the best one can, the space closest to you. Not beyond that."

As in today's Russia--warily enjoying a fragile economic and political stabilization after almost a decade of revolutionary turmoil--in Fandorin's times the old rules had been swept away. Opposition to the regime could no longer serve as the sole moral compass, and millions of men and women were attempting to devise and adhere to their own guides to worthy living. Like a true existentialist (and like millions of his compatriots today) Fandorin could count only on himself in deciding how to live an honorable and virtuous life.

Both in the privacy of his objectives ("organizing the space closest to you") and, even more, in the solitude of daily compliance with the self-invented and self-enforced rules of dignified existence, Fandorin's credo is the opposite of the intelligentsia's. As if heeding Vekhi's call, Fandorin's first priority is not to change Russia, but to change himself--or rather to change Russia by changing himself and helping others around him to change as well. He is not defined--and does not define himself--by his attitude toward the state, but by his attitude toward his countrymen, many of whom he guides and some of whom he saves. He does not look to the state either with hatred or hope.

Fandorin's virtues are private, not only because they are not advertised, in the intelligentsia's fashion, to all and sundry, but more importantly because their worth is not measured by the currently fashionable short-term objectives of the Russian state but by the long-term goals of Russia.

Fandorin's occupation is an ideal venue for a man of his convictions. In the tradition of Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot and Lord Peter Wimsey, Fandorin is an individualist, fiercely guarding his independence.

This being Russia, he is not quite a "private" eye: employed by the Moscow police and later, as an "official for special assignments" (chinovnik po osobym porucheniyam), by the Moscow governor general, he is more like Simenon's Commissaire Maigret.

Fandorin attempts to put into practice a radical--for Russia--idea first articulated by Chatskiy, the hero of Alexander Griboedov's classic 1820s play Gore ot Uma (translated as "Woe from Intelligence"): "To serve the cause, not the individuals" (sluzhit delu, a ne litsam) and to "serve" (sluzhit') but not be "subservient" (prisluzhivat'). Often risking his life in carrying out his duties, Fandorin lets everyone know that he has assumed these tasks voluntarily. Occasionally, he threatens to resign and eventually does, walking away from a promotion to the head of the Moscow police. Disliked by a new Moscow governor-general appointed by the increasingly insular and incompetent court in St. Petersburg, Fandorin leaves Russia, works as a detective for hire in Europe and the United States, and returns to his country only to help solve crimes that pique his curiosity or to pursue criminals who had escaped him.

Seizing the opportunities offered by a new, freer Russia, Chkhartishvili's hero thus devises nothing short of an existential breakthrough--an alternative to the silent opposition to the regime and alienation from state-produced resignation, dour cynicism, sullen submission and shoddy work characteristic of the intelligentsia's way of life. By contrast, Fandorin acts as an honorable and free man: He offers the state his conscientious service until and unless his job contradicts his private moral code.

Chkhartishvili seems to have constructed his hero as a living antithesis to every negative stereotype of the Russian intelligenty. He is practical, pragmatic, attentive to detail, energetic, competent, physically fit and disciplined. (His hobby is constructing and testing a new means of transportation, the automobile, and he sets several distance records, including one from Moscow to Paris.)

Fandorin makes clear that he serves neither the chief of the Moscow police nor Moscow's mayor nor even, as the reader discovers in Koronatsiya ("Coronation"), the Czar himself. He serves his country. "I serve not you but Russia", Fandorin tells the head of the Russian police in Turetskiy Gambit ("The Turkish Gambit"). "And I will not participate in a war which is useless and even harmful to Russia."

Essay Types: Book Review