The intelligentsia (from Russian: интеллигенция from Latin: intelligentia) is a social class of people engaged in complex mental and creative labor directed to the development and dissemination of culture, encompassing intellectuals and social groups close to them (e.g., artists and school teachers). The term has been borrowed from the Russian language, a transliteration of "интеллигенция". Initially the term was applied mostly in the context of Russia and later Soviet Union, and had a narrower meaning based on a self-definition of a certain category of intellectuals.
Use of the term "intelligentsia" is first reported to have occurred in the Russian Empire in the first half of the 19th century. For example, the word was casually used in the diaries of Vasily Zhukovsky, dated to 1836. In Poland, or more precisely in Greater Poland (which then was a part of the Kingdom of Prussia) the term was popularised in a sense close to the present one by Polish philosopher Karol Libelt, and became widespread in Polish science after the publication of his O miłości ojczyzny (On Love of the Motherland) in 1844, in which he defines "inteligencja" to be those well-educated members of the population who undertake to lead the people as scholars, teachers, clergy, engineers, and who guide for the reason of their higher enlightenment. The term was also popularised by a Russian writer, Pyotr Boborykin, in the 1860s, who proclaimed himself the "godfather" of the notion in 1904. From there it came into English and several other languages. In English this word is often applied to the "intelligentsia" in Central European and Eastern European countries in the 19th and 20th centuries. The distinction was based on the economic and cultural situation of intellectuals in these countries and is different from that in Western Europe or North America.
The emergence of elite classes of intellectuals or well-educated people had been observed in other European countries (e.g., "intellectuels" in France and "Gebildete" in Germany). However, there were important distinctions observed in the lands of the Russian Empire. These differences were caused by various historical processes, whose influence still is disputed by historians. The presence of long-lasting autocratic regimes or national suppression in this region, or a low level of general education in these countries in the 19th century, are among these. This situation motivated local intellectuals to elaborate a system of common values and a sense of mutual sympathy.
After the Partitions of Poland, Polish society remained divided into nobles—the surprisingly numerous class known as szlachta—and peasants. The political and cultural influence of the cities was small in relation to Western Europe, though this influence was growing. The need for educated specialists created a new class of educated people: hired professionals, such as clerks, physicians, and lawyers. They were recruited mainly from among former nobles, but increasingly from the urbanized classes.
The Polish intelligentsia specifically was considered the backbone of the modern Polish nation. Members of the intelligentsia were well aware of their social status and of their duties, of which working for the country and patriotism were considered the most important. A considerable part of the Polish intelligentsia was massacred either by the Germans or Soviets during World War II.
Today, the notion of the Polish intelligentsia has eroded, since, following widespread higher education, the "intelligentsia" has ceased to be an isolated social class. The values associated with intelligentsia, the values of an educated life, are strong in Polish society, though they are far less associated with a nationalistic movement today than in previous centuries.
Russian intelligentsia had a similar mixture of messianism and intellectual elitism.
In the ideology of Bolsheviks, intelligentsia is not a real class; its status is described by the Russian word "prosloyka", which is normally translated as "stratum," but in this context bears a deteriorative nuance. In other words, intelligentsia does not have a "real" place in the structure of the society: it is a midlayer between "toilers" and "exploiters". Intelligentsia grows by means of "recruiting" from among the people of labor, but its produce, i.e., the produce of its intellectual labor is just a sort of goods ordered and paid by the exploiter class. Hence its independence is a mere ideological illusion, and in fact intelligentsia is by large a class of "lackeys" of bourgeoisie and landowners. While de facto being an exploited category, en masse it lacks the revolutionary drive. Ironically, this theory was put forth by the representatives of intelligentsia itself, notably Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky among many others. In particular, Lenin is famous for his caustic remark that "[the] intelligentsia is not the 'brain of the nation', it is the 'shit of the nation'".
The Russian Revolution polarized the Russian intelligentsia, together with all other strata of the society. Some of them emigrated, some joined the White movement, some joined Bolsheviks (and some were Bolsheviks from the very beginning), some tried to oppose Bolsheviks within the political framework of Soviet Russia, some remained passive. Eventually Bolsheviks got rid of all opponents by various means ranging from forced deportation to execution. The remaining intelligentsia was supposed to serve "the cause of working class". While the importance of this class was not underestimated, it was treated with reservation.
In the late Soviet Union the term "intelligentsia" acquired a formal definition of mental and cultural workers. More specifically, there were categories of "scientific-technical intelligentsia" (научно-техническая интеллигенция) and "creative intelligentsia" (творческая интеллигенция). Teachers and lawyers were considered "intelligentsia" as well, but the corresponding adjectives to the word "intelligentsia" were used rarely. And of course, the ruling class was officially nameless: the terms nomenklatura and apparat were semi-formal: they were used in working documents, but not in the legal ones.
Max Weber considered intelligentsia to be a major category essentially distinct from other social categories, both in terms of attributes and interests. In his major work, Economy and Society he used this term in arbitrary chronological and geographical frames, e.g., he wrote that "this Christian preoccupation with the formulation of dogmas was in Antiquity particularly influenced by the distinctive character of "intelligentsia", which was the product of Greek education When formulating major social classes of his time, Weber combines intelligentsia with other social categories, e.g., he defines a major class consisting of "the propertyless intelligentsia and specialists (technicians, various kinds of white-collar employees, civil servants – possible with considerable social differences depending on the cost of their training)" and yet other "classes privileged through property and education".