Zhivago’s Children: The Last Russian Intelligentsia

TitleZhivago’s Children: The Last Russian Intelligentsia
Publication TypePublication review
AuthorsVan den Eeden, Mare
Author(s) of reviewed materialZubok, Vladislav


PublisherCambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press
ISBN Number978-0-6740-3344-3
Full Text

In nine chapters, historian Vladislav Zubok narrates the story of the rise and fall of the last Russian intelligentsia in the period 19451985. Through his prologue, which features an extended description of the life of Boris Pasternak, the author of Doctor Zhivago, Zubok outlines the structure of his monograph. Born in 1890 Pasternak represented the generation of intellectuals familiar with the values, habits, and morals of the pre-revolutionary Russian intelligentsia, and sought to pass them to the next generation. The title Zhivago’s Children: The Last Russian Intelligentsia refers specifically to Tania, the child of Doctor Zhivago’s main characters Yuri Zhivago and Lara. Tania’s fate and future life is left open for interpretation in a world where the values of her father, like freedom, creativity, individuality, and spirituality, are no longer obvious. Using this literary sketch as a point of departure, Zubok explores how Tania’s generation—intellectuals born in the 1930s and 1940s—adopted values continuing a cultural and moral tradition dating back to the nineteenth century even after the crises of the Stalinist years and World War II.

Basing his study on egodocuments, oral histories, diaries, memoirs, and interviews, Zubok portrays a group of intellectuals that, like the older Russian intelligentsia, shared a cultural mission, had faith in the power of literature, poetry, the free-thinking individual, and science, but perhaps most importantly, felt alienated from the state. The book describes the struggle of “Zhivago’s Children” “to regain autonomy from an autocratic regime seeking to control society and culture” (356). It also exposes the severe repercussions faced by those intellectuals who fought for intellectual freedom. Ultimately, Zubok’s history recounts “the slow and painful disappearance of their revolutionary-romantic idealism and optimism, their faith in progress and in the enlightenment of people, beliefs and values inherited from the milieu of the Russian intelligentsia of the nineteenth century” (356).

Zhivago’s Children is a forceful book. In a lucid and pleasing style—at points the book almost reads like a novel—Zubok provides insight into the dynamics of the relationship between culture and politics in post-World War II Soviet history. In the first two chapters “The ‘Children’ Grow Up, 1945­–1955” and “Shock Effects, 1956–1958,” he shows that despite Stalin’s efforts to gain total control over Soviet society, the spirit of the intelligentsia was not broken. The educated youth produced talented intellectuals who developed their own style, created their own private space, and met with friends to discuss all sorts of cultural production. In 1956, for example, a group of young actors launched a new theatre, Sovremennik (The Contemporary), which was the first to be founded by the artists themselves since the 1920s. Also, in cinema new themes, genres, and ideas were explored, shaping “the ethical and aesthetic worldview of the upcoming educated cohorts” (179). The political thaw under Khrushchev eventually led to increased creative output, a cultural revival, and new forms of self-expression by a group of young, (self-)critical, and gifted intellectuals.

The central theme of the three chapters that follow, “Rediscovery of the World, 1955–1961,” “Optimists on the Move, 1957–1961,” and “The Intelligentsia Reborn, 1959–1962,” is the rise and flourishing of the new intelligentsia. The reader is introduced to journalists, scientists, writers, poets, musicians, artists, and many others active in the cultural scene. Some of them return in several chapters, others are mentioned only once. Zubok uses these individuals to convey the idea that the group of intellectuals composing the last Russian intelligentsia was not homogeneous. There existed a division between those on the political left and those on the right, between idealists and radicals, cosmopolitans and patriots, Westerners and Slavophiles, etc. Yet, their optimism, the communist idealism espoused by many, and their faith in a socialist alternative bound them together.

As Zubok shows, in the 1950s and 1960s, most of “Zhivago’s Children” supported Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization and reform efforts. They did not seek to overturn the regime and create a capitalist democracy. Rather, they promoted the construction of a humane socialist society. Their goal was to “become a moral and cultural vanguard for society” (160). Zubok discusses a wide variety of important Russian intellectuals, including mathematician Igor Poletaev, who was embroiled in a debate with writer Ilya Ehrenburg about whether science or literature had a more prevalent role in Russian society. He also mentions Alexander Tvardovsky, who believed in the Russian Revolution and basic principles of Soviet socialism, yet still aimed to uncover the missteps of the recent Soviet past. His magazine Novy Mir became “a vehicle of moral and social survival” (168). Two other key examples of intellectuals who destroyed “the Stalinist boundary between private thinking and the public social sphere” (188) are the poet and Nobel Prize laureate Joseph Brodsky and political dissident Alexander Ginzburg. Both worked in the cultural underground, but Ginzburg “behaved like a free man, not concealing his dislike for the regime.” He was “a live link between the cultural underground and those who … were about to gain official recognition” (186). Brodsky was arrested and sentenced to five years of exile from Leningrad and forced labor in the Russian north in a trial with a predetermined outcome because the regime was afraid of his growing influence. To many of “Zhivago’s Children,” Brodsky’s trial was a terrible blow to their hopes for more freedom and independence: “the revival of an intelligentsia that could be both freethinking and morally committed to the Soviet communism was nipped in the bud” (224).

Hence, the chapters “Vanguard Disowned, 1962–1964,” “Searching for Roots, 1961–1967,” and “Between Reform and Dissent, 1965–1968” depict the growing difficulties the last intelligentsia encountered. Despite the fact that some of the developments in intellectual and cultural life could not be stopped and that democratic and human rights movements did appear on the public scene, trouble was brewing: growing anti-Semitism, patriotism, xenophobic Russian nationalism, political tensions between conservatives and the artistic vanguard, the rising influence of the Party hardliners, and Khrushchev’s anti-intellectualism and hostility towards the intelligentsia. Dark clouds appeared even before the Prague Spring was forcibly repressed. “Zhivago’s Children” hoped that the Prague Spring would turn into a Moscow Spring, but instead they were confronted with the fact that “socialism with a human face” was nothing more than fiction. From 1968 on the last Russian intelligentsia was in retreat, a description of which forms the corpus of the concluding chapter “The Long Decline, 1968–1985.” “[A]cting passionately and heroically became gauche and unfashionable” (320) and many intellectuals either left the country or created and escaped into their own cultural and intellectual niches. The belief in the possibility to create a humanist socialist alternative slowly disappeared.

With this book, Zubok has laid down an extremely rich, vivid, and well-written account of an important period in Soviet Russian history. It is a captivating study that clearly shows a thorough knowledge of Soviet Russian intellectual and cultural history, and provides great insight into various events in post-World War II Soviet politics, social life, and culture. The photos of some of the intellectuals, a chronology, and a small conclusion at the end of every chapter contribute to its clarity and depth. Zubok seeks to demonstrate “the remarkable, and underestimated, centrality of the cultural and idealistic dimensions in the history of Soviet society, and consequently in the history of Europe and the world as a whole” (361), and unquestionably succeeds in his job. The book sheds a light on various cultural and idealistic dimensions of Soviet Russian history which hopefully will inspire many (young) scholars toward further research in this area.

Finally, the study provokes several new questions that might serve as suggestions for further research. The book ends with Zubok’s claim that the death of the last Russian intelligentsia and the loss of the unique centrality of culture not only closed a chapter in the history of the Russian intelligentsia but also a chapter in European intellectual and cultural history. Apart from analyzing this European dimension, which seems worth exploring further, one could ask whether intellectuals can reinvent themselves in a capitalist, democratic society. Is there any future for intellectuals not only Russia, but in the whole of Europe? Or more boldly, would it not be vital for society to have an intelligentsia that is critically engaged in culture and politics, also if that society happens to be a democratic society? Zubok leaves the question open but shows that the importance and value of a critical intelligentsia for the intellectual and cultural development of society is not to be underestimated.


Mare van den Eeden,

Central European University, Budapest