poemless. a slap in the face of public taste.

December 3, 2009

Who Are Russia’s “Top Thinkers” Today? [UPDATED]

… And why don’t we hear more from them?

These are not rhetorical questions!

Top 100 Global Thinkers

Foreign Policy magazine has recently released its list of the Top 100 Global Thinkers. It’s a fascinating list of public figures who “had the big ideas that shaped our world in 2009,” FP’s nomination of “the 100 minds that mattered most in the year that was.” Fascinating not for the big ideas so much as for the magazine’s curious selection process.

To give you a taste of what matters most to the editors of FP, Ben Bernanke comes in at #1, Barack Obama places 2nd, Bill & Hillary Clinton tie for #6, David Petraeus makes #8, Dick Cheney is #13 and Thomas Friedman barely misses the top 20 at #21. So many economists appear on the list that one is left to wonder if the editors don’t take their phrase “the marketplace of ideas” a bit too literally. There are also the usual suspects: political prisoners, pop philosophers, Fareed Zakaria. The magazine itself acknowledges that “the United States and Britain are clearly overrepresented.”

From my perspective, it is a curious and problematic exercise to conflate “throwing around one’s power” or “saying stuff people listen to no matter how bloody inane it is” with “thinking” and even more curious to award the honor of “Top Thinkers” those whose stunning absence of forethought sent the whole world reeling into a global crisis. And surely any actually thinking person would find curious the assumption that big ideas carry much weight in the application of policy, compared to things like necessity or greed, particularly within one year of their being thought. Also curious: the complete absence of any Russian on the list. I mean, it clearly wasn’t a terribly exclusive list. Cheney’s up there near the top. Why, in the opinion of Foreign Policy magazine, are there no Russian minds as a great as the former U.S. Vice President’s? It wasn’t lost on FP:

Where Are The Russians?

FP: The Missing: Where have all the Sakharovs gone?

Psst. Check Moscow’s cemeteries.

A generation ago, dissidents from inside the Soviet Union such as Andrei Sakharov and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn drew an enormous global following for their ideas on how to resist the totalitarian state. Today, Russian thinkers are absent from our list. That the Russians are missing may reflect the world’s ambivalence about post-Soviet Russia. If the global marketplace of ideas truly does prioritize those thinkers who come from either very successful or very threatening countries, then the international disinterest in what Russian thinkers have to say is likely because Russia is neither perceived as a miracle economy nor a global threat. Sadly, it’s also true that while the demand for Russian thinkers may be weak, the supply is also far from booming. These days Russia is simply not a major producer of the kind of ideas the world wants to hear. There are no modern Sakharovs or Solzhenitsyns. If there were, we’d put them on the list.

So many questions… Why does Foreign Policy magazine get to decide what kind of ideas the world wants to hear? Who publishes the dictionary in which the entry for “World” says, “see: Wall Street?” When will NATO get the memo that FPeratti no longer consider Russia a global threat?

As for our dearly departed Sakharovs or Solzhenitsyns, based on the curious criteria FP used to choose who does make the list, we should not be shocked at their curious criteria for choosing who doesn’t. But that the criteria appear to be completely OPPOSITE for Russians and Americans is … well, let’s just say I am brimming with curiosity today! I hate to belabor the “double standards” complaint made by leading Russian, er, uhm, eh… thinkers. But by their own admission, FP only accepts politically persecuted dissidents for consideration as top Russian thinkers, while being a sycophant to the American ruling elite seems to get you top honors. Maybe they should change their name to American Policy magazine? These are astonishingly unfair hurdles placed on Russian contenders, and not simply because real suffering and persecution is demanded of them! (WTF?) The fact that there are no modern Sakharovs or Solzhenitsyns may have something to do with the fact that there is NO SOVIET UNION. Writers aren’t deported or kept from leaving the country to accept awards, drawing international attention to their plight. Relations between the West and Russia, while strained, are nothing like the Cold War conditions which turned artists and physicists into unwitting pawns in a global chess game. It’s perhaps not that Russia suffers a dearth of thinkers, but America suffers a dearth of reasons to care about them. What’s in it for us to listen to some mewing poet today? Ne-che-vo. There are still those who oppose the policies of the ruling elite in Russia. However, to qualify for FP’s list, you must “matter,” and because there is NO SOVIET UNION, Russian “dissidents” carry about as much influence at home as, oh, say, American “dissidents.” Someone want to tell me who really has one foot -hell, both feet- stuck in the past, trapped in a sadistic Cold War mindset? If you guessed Foreign Policy magazine, give yourself a pony.

All that said -it had to be said- I did not set out to write about how irrational the editors of Foreign Policy magazine appear, or to take too seriously a quickly forgettable year-end list. For all its faults, the FP list did get me thinking about the marketplace of ideas as it relates to Russia. Someone asked me what Russian thinker I would include on the list. …Uhm… Well, it’s a valid question.

Who Are Russia’s Top Thinkers?

Or two questions, to be precise. What Russians could be on a list using FP’s bizarro criteria? The other, far more interesting question, who are Russia’s leading intellectuals? The answers are not obvious to me; I rely on journalists like those at Foreign Policy to tell me these things! Also, being an American, living in America, I can’t pretend to have any special insight about the intellectual movers and shakers in a far away land. Although I suppose the fact gives me a clearer grasp of their global influence than their compatriots might have. I’ll give it is a go.

Sergei Lavrov/Dmitri Rogozin/Vitaly Churkin: When people say, “Russia demands a seat at the table,” these are the guys at that table. They are fierce and unapologetic, yet surprisingly reasonable. Respectively, they have a household name, an Internet phenom and serious Charlie Rose credentials.

Alexander Dugin: I don’t know if his terrifying and crazy nationalist philosophy is a reflection of or an influence on the current Russian Zeitgeist that has the rest of the world worried, but it appears indicative of it.

Mikhail Gorbachev: He’s the only person I know of who can effectively address US-Russian relations without being dismissed as being in the pockets of either the Kremlin or D.C. And sharp as tacs, I tell ya.

Mikhail Khodorkovsky: Well, c’mon FP, here’s your persecuted dissident. He’s arguably the one of the most influential individuals when it comes to Russian foreign relations, since a meeting can’t be held without an obligatory mention of his imprisonment. All he has to do is sit in a cell. Instead, he’s writing manifestos about social democracy.

Andrey Kurkov: Brilliant Ukrainian-Russian novelist with a cult following in the West. He’s a thinker, and one of the few who have successfully broken the barrier between contemporary Russian lit and the West.

Dmitry Medvedev: Not just because he’s a leader or cerebral. Because of things like this. If his big ideas don’t bring about real change, it’s only because the rest of the world is stuck in a rut. Influence is questionable.

Nikita Mikhalkov: He’s not just a film-maker. He’s an propagandist/psychoanalyst/nationalist historian filmmaker who has a working relationship with the Kremlin and an Oscar. After the Island and Tsar, Pavel Lungine may also qualify.

Oleg Orlov: Head of Memorial, the organization devoted to documenting the atrocities in the USSR and in Chechnya, championing human rights and democracy, despite the very real danger it places them in. Memorial was this year’s winner of the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought.

Other Russia/Solidarnost (Kapsarov, Limonov, Kasyanov, Nemtsov…take yer pick): Does your political rabblerouser fringy write-in candidate and organizer of political protests have a column in the WSJ? Does the outcome of your local mayoral election cause international outrage? Is a person’s interest in your political career inversely proportionate to their proximity to your country, and hence possibility of being represented by you? These guys are the Russian political David Hasselhoffs.

Lilia Shevtsova: A critic of Putin and senior associate at the Carnegie Moscow Center, people in the West seem to actually listen to her. If her ideas, like that a relationship between the US and Russia based on “common interests and common threats” would constitute objectionable realpolitik (here), are not big enough to be influential, she’s only herself to blame.

Vladimir Sorokin: Sorokin is the kind of bad boy the next fellow on this list wishes he were. Another Russian literary author who has broken through in translation, he is postmodern, dark, depraved, grotesque (for those who watched it at my urging, he wrote the script to “4”), he’s pretty talented too. He’s been targeted by the authorities in the way any dangerous intellectual should be. Every society needs a Sorokin.

Vladislav Surkov: Managed democracy. Sovereign democracy. Tandemocracy. This man has come up with at least 3 new political systems in less than a decade and no one is convinced he’s finished. And you say there are no big ideas in Russia! As the Kremlin’s “grey cardinal” and creator of Nashi, he also wields crazy influence. In his spare time, he writes. Thoughts, ideas, influence. I think he has his bases covered.

I am aware that FP’s list is for the Top Thinkers of 2009, and that some of the figures mentioned above may be more notable for, say, what they did in 2008. For 2009, FP lists Vaclav Havel at #23 for the reason that he “remains fiercely engaged in political debates.” (Impressive. By that standard I should be on the list.) So I’m not terribly worried about it.

What do you think?

I’d love to hear your nominations, for both the global heavyweight-type thinkers and the regional intelligentsiia. The latter of which I know positively nothing about. Enlighten me.

Who should we be listening to? Who is shaping the world? What is the state of the intelligentsiia today? Who are the Sakharovs or Solzhenitsyns? Or more interestingly, the Mayakovskys and Trotskys? Is is that they exist, but are kept from our eyes bye nefarious powers-that-be (you know, Putin), or are they just too boring to compete for attention in capitalist Russia? Or are the Russian people just rather sick of all the big ideas and the suffering each new one seems to invite?

What’s the real reason there are no Russians on FP’s list? And which Russian “thinkers” would you put in it?

[Update] Burreid in the comments, Scowspi has left a link to an article at OpenDemocracy: “Who is Russia’s top intellectual?” Excerpt:

Culture portal Openspace.ru has recently concluded an internet poll, grandly titled “Russia’s most influential intellectual”. For a project of its kind, the public interest was high. Some 42,000 votes were cast and the site recorded some 120,000 new page impressions.

The top ten according to the voting results was as follows:

Viktor Pelevin, writer — 2133 votes

Daniil Shepovalov, blogger — 1908 votes

Leonid Parfyonov, journalist and broadcaster — 1296 votes (83)

Mikhail Khodorkovsky, ex-businessman and publicist — 1274 votes

Konstantin Krylov, journalist and writer — 1267 votes

Patriarch Kirill — 1208 votes

Sergei Kapitsa, physicist and broadcaster — 1048 votes

Alexander Gordon, writer and broadcaster — 1042 votes

Boris Strugatsky, writer — 1023 votes

Eduard Limonov, writer and politician — 917 votes

Pelevin, Khodorkovsky & Limonov made our list, with you contributing the former.

I know nothing about Daniil Shepovalov, Konstantin Krylov, Sergei Kapitsa or Alexander Gordon and will now go educate myself.

Patriarch Kirill is an intellectual? YMMV.

Boris Strugatsky, I suppose, falls into our debate about relevance.

The poll conducted on Openspace.ru invites a couple of interesting observations. First, there are no women in the top 10. Did the cache of the female Russian intellectual die with Communism? Secondly, this is at the very least the 3rd such inquiry within as many months, including mine and FP’s. Is it some meme riding the waves of our interwebs, or is there something about this question that demands to be asked right now? Anyway, all very interesting… And now this post feels more legitimate, having the opinions of actual Russians taken into account! 🙂 [End of Update]

Nominations from the comments:
Boris Akunin, Alexei Arbatov, Dmitry Bykov, Igor Chubais, Viktor Erofeev, Boris Grebenshchikov, Boris Kagarlitsky, Sergei Kara-Murza, Sergei Karaganov,Oleg Khlevniuk,Andrei Korotayev, Olga Kryshtanovskaya, Yulia Latynina, Eddie Limonov, Roy Medvedev,Sergei Nefedov, (cliodynamics guy), Dmitry Orlov, Elena Osokina, Serguei Alex Oushakine, Gleb Pavlovsky, Viktor Pelevin, Aleksandr Prokhanov, Arseny Roginsky (Memorial), Valery Tishkov, Tatyana Tolstaya, Peter Turchin, Mikhail Veller, Alexei Yurchak, Igor Yurgens


  1. In my tweet on the matter, I wrote “FP’s Top 100 “Global Thinkers”… usual list, tho good they have Kurzweil, Cascio, Bostrom, McKibben, Buiter, Kennedy”. Though, all the thinkers that are both worthwhile & little-recognized appear towards the end…

    As for FP, what do you expect? It is the magazine of the Western policy-making elites, who happen to like conflating themselves with “the world”. They are beigeocrats. I agree with your list on Russia. In particular, Surkov is a no-brainer. It would also be nice for them to mention some resource-depletion / kollapsnik thinkers like Deffeyes, Tainter, or the Russian kollapsnik – Dmitry Orlov, whom I see you have on your blogroll. And the people at the eXiled Online are more interesting and original thinkers than 75% of that list. But I’m rambling now.

    Comment by Sublime Oblivion — December 3, 2009 @ 5:58 PM | Reply

    • Oh you know I’d love to put Ames on the list, but alas, he is not Russian! What’s Yasha Levine’s story? Though, like Alexander Zaitchik, he writes about America, I think.

      Dmitry Orlov is a cult celebrity in some circles! We even created an “Orlov’s Law” at European Tribune, which states that, as time passes at ET, the probability of someone mentioning the “Collapse Gap” approaches one. Is he influential? I don’t know. But yes, let’s add him as well.

      As for what I would expect from FP, well, I like to hold everyone to the same high standards.

      Comment by poemless — December 3, 2009 @ 6:11 PM | Reply

  2. Mikhalkov isn’t such a “propagandist.” I can understand why sovok and anti-Russian types don’t like him.

    Limonov is a kook and Shevtsova comes across as a bit of a propagandist for neoliberal interests.

    Comment by confidential — December 3, 2009 @ 9:30 PM | Reply

    • Mikhalkov. I don’t necessarily think being a “propagandist” is a bad thing, but I do think he is one. As I wrote here:

      The Traditionalists. Making films of artistic genius is a fine, fine tradition to carry on. Being a self-appointed moral authority, less so, yet it also seems a tough habit to quit. As tradition has it, I’m sure it remains an effective way to ingratiate yourself with those who control the state coffers. Adherents to this school are also ideological descendants of the Slavophile strain of Russian intellectuals that dates back before the invention of film. The Island is an archetypal film of this genre. And while Mikhalkov’s films contain many of the elements of Hollywood filmmaking, ideologically, I’d put him in this camp too.

      Limonov might be insane -ok, is insane- but he’s also talented, fascinating, and has a cult following in the West.

      Shevtsova is a neo-liberal hack, from what I can tell. But the kind of people who read FP also seem to think her big ideas matter.

      Comment by poemless — December 4, 2009 @ 11:50 AM | Reply

      • I know a number of avid and intelligent foreign policy observers who think that Shevtsova is an over-rated hack.

        IMO, Mikhalkov being called a propagandist is along the lines of saying the same of Burns and Spielberg.

        Comment by confidential — December 4, 2009 @ 4:39 PM | Reply

        • Spielberg is also propagandist. But I like the ideas Nikita propagates a hell of lot more.

          Too many people conflate the word “propaganda” with “lies” and deny having any agenda. However, this is not really the case regarding Russian filmmaking (and should not be the case for any self-respecting filmmaker). In particular, the dissemination of ideology, the shaping of national (or Soviet) identity, the formalizing of history were all considered not just admirable but responsibilities, and not just handed down from the state. Since the advent of film, Russia has consciously used the medium to define itself. If you think Mikhalkov doesn’t see himself as the heir to throne of that legacy, think again.

          I hope you are not under the impression I am criticizing him. I really like him quite a lot! OTOH, Spielberg makes me vomit.

          Comment by poemless — December 4, 2009 @ 5:01 PM | Reply

          • Okay.

            In Soviet times, it was brought to my attention how the word propaganda has a somewhat different connotation among different languages/cultures.

            Mikhalkov has done a good deal to adjust some of the past views on topics like Stalin and the Russian Civil War period Whites. Mikhalkov has been negatively misrepresented by RFE/RL and Russia Profile, in a way that’s indictive of the flawed biases, which linger on.

            Comment by confidential — December 4, 2009 @ 5:33 PM | Reply

            • Just about anyone remotely connected to Putin or supportive of his administration has been negatively misrepresented by RFE/RL and countless other pro-Western media outlets. I’m acutely aware of the bias out there. It’s why I created this blog. 🙂

              Comment by poemless — December 4, 2009 @ 5:51 PM | Reply

              • With Mikhalov, the negativity against him is underscored by his patriotic Russian views, which are noticeably anti-Communist.

                Some have gone as far as to essentially say that they’re anti-Russian (albeit in a coded way), while not being so anti-Communist, with others holding anti-Communist and anti-Russian views.

                There’s some really good media follow-up of the status quo, which doesn’t get the open recognition it otherwise deserves.

                Comment by confidential — December 4, 2009 @ 9:20 PM | Reply

                • I probably shouldn’t waste my time with this, but I thought it would be fun to analyze the above post:

                  “With Mikhalov, the negativity against him is underscored by his patriotic Russian views, which are noticeably anti-Communist.”

                  How do views “underscore” negativity? What does this mean in plain English?

                  “Some have gone as far as to essentially say that they’re anti-Russian (albeit in a coded way), while not being so anti-Communist, with others holding anti-Communist and anti-Russian views.”

                  Who’s this vague “some”? And what is being “anti-Russian” in this sentence: the “some” or the “views”? And how can you (or your views) be anti-Russian “in a coded way”? And who are these “others” holding anti-Communist and anti-Russian views, and what is their relation to the rest of the post?

                  “There’s some really good media follow-up of the status quo, which doesn’t get the open recognition it otherwise deserves.”

                  What is “media follow-up”? Do you mean criticism, or analysis? If yes, please say so. And are you saying the “follow-up” doesn’t get recognition, or the “status quo” doesn’t?

                  So many questions, so little clarity.

                  Comment by Scowspi — December 7, 2009 @ 6:07 AM | Reply

          • poemless, you make a very good point here. In Russia it’s quite accepted, amongst many people, to make statements such as “we should propagandize the ills of non-smoking” (or drugs or corruption or etc), but is much less accepted in the West where “propaganda” has decidedly negative connotations.

            Comment by Sublime Oblivion — December 4, 2009 @ 6:18 PM | Reply

            • That should be “ills of smoking”.

              Comment by Sublime Oblivion — December 4, 2009 @ 6:19 PM | Reply

              • Oh it was much funnier the first time!

                Comment by poemless — December 4, 2009 @ 6:24 PM | Reply

            • I admit to being a propagandist (I’ll probably be quoted on that too…). I never intentionally mislead or deceive anyone. But I’ll confess that I regularly intentionally try to alter the way people view the world.

              Comment by poemless — December 4, 2009 @ 6:23 PM | Reply

              • Everyone is a propagandist.

                (That’s basically what I say in Siberian Light’s interview, which is coming out this Monday).

                Comment by Sublime Oblivion — December 4, 2009 @ 6:27 PM | Reply

              • “Regularly intentionally try(ing) to alter the way people view the world” is not being a propagandist — it’s trying to be a thinker. Unless you’re really, really obvious and simple-minded about it. Then you become Spielberg.

                Comment by EdgewaterJoe — December 4, 2009 @ 8:31 PM | Reply

            • Up until 1947, the Department of Defense was known as the Department of War. Goebbels’ title was Minister of Propaganda.

              Back then, things were a bit more straight forward.

              Nowadays, a slight slip of tongue or prose can spell disaster.

              Comment by confidential — December 5, 2009 @ 12:00 AM | Reply

  3. Come to think of it, Alexi Arbatov noticeably ahead of Shevtsova, Levine, Zaitchik.

    Comment by confidential — December 3, 2009 @ 11:53 PM | Reply

  4. While I like both Sorokin and Kurkov as novelists (and hey, add Pelevin too), they are primarily creative writers, not “thinkers” in the philosophical/ political/ economic etc. sense. Few novelists combine the two in a serious way. In Russian history, you could point to Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy and Solzhenitsyn as having done so. But few others, I think.

    Also, Kurkov’s Ukrainian. To me at least, that disqualifies him.

    One writer who may fit the criterion: Mikhail Veller. But he is little known outside the Russosphere. And another: Limonov. But how many people take him seriously?

    Comment by Scowspi — December 4, 2009 @ 1:39 AM | Reply

    • Clarification: My list was for the FP suggestions, not the intellectuals. Meaning that they had to have “big ideas” and a global audience. And all good writers are THINKERS!

      I would not have included Kurkov but for “Good angel of death” which deals with nationalist philosophy and post-Soviet identity. And he qualifies in my book because he’s from Russia and writes in Russian and is really ambivalent about having to take a side in the matter. Sorokin’s combined talent, provocations and global audience makes him more than your run of the mill novelist. Especially in the context of current state of Russian lit.

      Mikhail Veller. I’ve never read him, but will take your word for it. Clearly one for the “intelligentsia” list, as opposed to the FP list.

      Limonov. If I were God I’d put him on both lists. 🙂

      BTW, asking someone to live up to the standards set by Dostoyevsky is almost as unfair as asking that they be victims of persecution. OTOH, I ask the whole world to live up to the standards set by Dostoyevsky as a rule.

      Comment by poemless — December 4, 2009 @ 12:19 PM | Reply

  5. I would say that Arseny Roginsky clearly should be on the list of Russian thinkers along the lines of Sakharov. I would also say that Oleg Khelvniuk should be on the list if for nothing else so that we have one more historian in the world represented. Valery Tishkov, although not an historian is a first rate academic writer and definitely deserves to be on the list.

    Comment by J. Otto Pohl — December 4, 2009 @ 6:43 AM | Reply

    • Thanks for names! Acc’d. to google: Arseny Roginsky, a founder of Memorial. Oleg Khlevniuk, historian concentrating on Stalin, Gulag… Valery Tishkov, anthropologist, ethnologist. Ok, since I clearly know nothing about them, a few questions: What are their ideas, why are they important? And how well known or influential are they within Russia?

      Comment by poemless — December 4, 2009 @ 12:42 PM | Reply

    • Not a big fan of Khelvniuk, but I would include him on the list also. As well as Elena Osokina and Vladimir Kozlov. I would also include Olga Kryshtanovskaya (she’s written some good stuff on the Russian elite).

      I would also include Dugin, if anything because he’s interesting. As as much as I hate to admit it Vladislav Surkov. After all, he is the ideological architect of Putinism, that is if one can say there is an ideology. Nevertheless he is a political mover and shaker that has survived quite well.

      Unfortunately, I think the main problem of coming up with names is that Russian intellectual life is a difficult one. Little money and little prestige unless you have the right connections. Plus very few Russians break outside of Russia. Plus most Russian intellectual thought is particular to Russia (though I did spot a few books on globalization etc at the bookstore yesterday.)

      One more thing about the bookstore and intellectuals. Again I was struck by the sheer amount of Western Philosophy being translated, especially Marxian/pomo/psycho stuff like Adorno, Lacan, Foucault, Althusser. The philosophy section was packed with it. I didn’t spot any Zizek, but I bet there is some there too.

      Comment by Sean — December 5, 2009 @ 5:14 AM | Reply

      • “As as much as I hate to admit it Vladislav Surkov.”

        Why do you hate to admit it?

        “Unfortunately, I think the main problem of coming up with names is that Russian intellectual life is a difficult one. Little money and little prestige unless you have the right connections.”

        How is that different from America?

        “Plus most Russian intellectual thought is particular to Russia”

        Very good point! I think this gets to the crux of the matter.

        Comment by poemless — December 5, 2009 @ 3:28 PM | Reply

        • Why do you hate to admit it?

          Because I’m not a supporter of Surkov. I’m a socialist, remember.

          How is that different from America?

          Connections do matter in America, but not in the same ways. Plus American academics get raises and promotions based on publications. The Russian academics I know make little for teaching and nothing for publishing. Academia is really a labor of love here. There is one political scientist I recently met has a full position at MGGU is moonlighting at a few other places. Only part-timers do this in the States. Russian academics don’t have academic freedom in the sense that if you are low on the totem pole in a department or institute, your research topics are basically hostage to your superiors. This isn’t the case in American social science and humanities departments (I can’t speak about the hard sciences. Once you have tenure, no one can tell you anything. The Russian academic system is quite a medieval with patrons, clients and ranks, though with some exceptions. From my understanding, the Russian academic system is closer to the German one.

          Comment by Sean — December 6, 2009 @ 2:19 AM | Reply

          • So you don’t think Surkov promotes any real ideology but you oppose him based on the grounds that you are a Socialist? I mean, he def. has a record of involvement in free-market enterprise. But he also has a record of throwing people in jail for their involvement in free-market enterprise. (Hey, all property is theft in my book.) All I mean is that, it seems to me, that Surkov is an opportunist and I dare say pragmatist. So opposing him because of ideology seems strange.

            Also, are you not conflating “intellectual” with “academic”? Granted, there is overlap, but they’re not completely the same, I don’t think.

            Comment by poemless — December 7, 2009 @ 3:18 PM | Reply

      • Oh yes, and add a few cliodynamics people like Andrei Korotayev, Sergei Nefedov, and / or Peter Turchin.

        Comment by Sublime Oblivion — December 5, 2009 @ 3:47 PM | Reply

      • Who is Vladimir Kozlov?

        Comment by poemless — December 7, 2009 @ 4:57 PM | Reply

  6. […] Russian intellectuals. […]

    Pingback by Friday Highlights | Pseudo-Polymath — December 4, 2009 @ 9:39 AM | Reply

  7. […] Russian intellectuals. […]

    Pingback by Stones Cry Out - If they keep silent… » Things Heard: e95v5 — December 4, 2009 @ 9:40 AM | Reply

  8. Here’s a name: Roy Medvedev (he was still alive last I looked). He had “dissident cred” back in Brezhnev’s time. But his books haven’t been translated in ages, and I suspect his pro-Putinism has something to do with that.

    Another creative writer-pontificator type: Dmitry Bykov. But like Veller, he isn’t known outside the Russophone world. Perhaps Tatyana Tolstaya might have qualified too, back when she was writing for NYRoB and other such publications.

    Comment by Scowspi — December 4, 2009 @ 12:18 PM | Reply

    • Roy Medvedev. Is he still writing or anything?

      Dmitry Bykov. Awesome. Adding to my “to read” list.

      Tatyana Tolstaya. I would not include her based on her creative writing alone, but, according to wikipedia, is now “the co-host of a very successful Russian TV show The School for Scandal (Школа злословия), where she interviews representatives of Russian culture and politics.”

      What about Viktor Erofeev?

      Comment by poemless — December 4, 2009 @ 12:55 PM | Reply

  9. According to DOOM!, “Public intellectuals would be Dugin, Prokhanov, Kara-Murza, Chubais’ brother Igor.”

    Dugin’s on my list. By Kara-Murza I assume Sergei. Prokhanov I had to look up and am kind of sorry I did. I didn’t know Chubais had a brother Igor but I think it is funny.

    Comment by poemless — December 4, 2009 @ 1:03 PM | Reply

  10. “Roy Medvedev. Is he still writing or anything?”

    He’s published several books in the last decade, I think. Pretty impressive for a guy well over 80.

    Comment by Scowspi — December 4, 2009 @ 1:17 PM | Reply

  11. Jesus, what a list. Apparently being a “thinker” doesn’t mean you have to be CORRECT about things according to these people — and not only that, but too damn many of these people (Cheney, Friedman, Bernanke and, on certain economic and regulatory issues, Bill Clinton for starters) not only have been catastrophically wrong with their “thinking” but actually continue to defend those wrong beliefs. And for that they are placed fairly high on that list! Shouldn’t good thinking be rewarded in these things?

    As for who we should be listening to, I’ll observe what a couple of others have noticed: the most depressing thing about that list is the lack of creative minds on it. There was a time that novelists and playwrights and directors were included on these lists because, well, that is one theory of what the best art is. That this list only includes Havel (whose time has past, much as I love him), Llosa (who wouldn’t be on my list of Latin American novelists I’d include as thinkers — I’ll take Carlos Fuentes or Isabel Allende, to name two) and Ehrenrich (who I don’t think you can classify as creative in that sense) is disheartening. Or maybe just shows a total lack of imagination on the part of the list makers. Now maybe the addition of so many Internet people on this list is an attempt to make up for the lack of a literati or that people online and conceptualizing our online lives are the new literati (hello, poemless?!) — but Bill Gates as a “thinker?” Give me an effin’ break.

    Certainly, as has been pointed out, in Russian history there is a proud tradition of such minds — Eisenstein, Stanislavsky, Dostoyevsky, and Solzhenitsyn — as there have been throughout history. Who is writing about and exploring what the post-USSR world looks like in a way that even those of us I would also love to see and hear what kind of creative types are flowing in Russia that are pushing people’s minds one way or another — that is, people who are writing and creating books or web sites or ideas that’ll force me to rethink and re-see what I see. I’d love to find a few more of those writers and artists, no matter what language.

    That’s how I define “thinking” in the context of this article and your question. Am I wrong or just repeating the obvious?

    Comment by EdgewaterJoe — December 4, 2009 @ 5:59 PM | Reply

    • Repeating the obvious. But clearly it needs to be done.

      Comment by poemless — December 4, 2009 @ 6:25 PM | Reply

    • poemless for Top 100 Thinkers List! bump Hillary out of the way to make way for her. Sean can take Bill Gates’ place, Doss will replace Cheney, and I’ll humbly assume Bernanke’s throne.

      Comment by Sublime Oblivion — December 4, 2009 @ 6:26 PM | Reply

    • Don’t forget Aslund and Kuzio. Friedman applies to Tom and George.

      Comment by confidential — December 5, 2009 @ 11:15 AM | Reply

  12. As to your other question why there are no Russians on the FT list, there’s an obvious answer: given the weight of economists and Westerners on the list, I suspect a few people who think of themselves as being in the world intelligentsia are still of the belief that, since Russia’s general worldview as represented by the USSR “lost”, that nobody in those worlds feel it’s even worth looking towards Russia for any ideas.

    The real question for those of you that keep up with Russian thinkers may be how Russia can catch enough attention from the Western intelligentsia to give their ideas a chance to live in the proverbial marketplace of ideas …

    Comment by EdgewaterJoe — December 4, 2009 @ 8:40 PM | Reply

    • Beyond this blog, of course.

      Comment by EdgewaterJoe — December 4, 2009 @ 8:41 PM | Reply

    • “since Russia’s general worldview as represented by the USSR “lost”, that nobody in those worlds feel it’s even worth looking towards Russia for any ideas”

      But the question remains, what ARE the ideas coming out of Russia? What are the ideas that are not focused simply on Russia, that transcend the unique problems facing that region today?

      “how Russia can catch enough attention from the Western intelligentsia to give their ideas a chance to live in the proverbial marketplace of ideas”

      I think the language barrier is significant. But this is a very good question. If I had to venture a guess, I’d say it is a combination of 1) the West’s perception that Russia is full of “backward” thinking and 2) a recent backlash in Russia against needing to feel loved by the West.

      Comment by poemless — December 5, 2009 @ 3:18 PM | Reply

      • ” … a recent backlash in Russia against needing to feel loved by the West.”

        Huh. What’s your theory about this? Anti-Bush residue? Obama not weaving his magical web past what used to be the Iron Curtain? Or a Russian tendency to be contrarian for the sake of it (which, as someone who apparently has some Ukranian somewhere in his lineage, can attest to as being very real and, truth be told, fun to exercise)?

        Comment by EdgewaterJoe — December 7, 2009 @ 5:31 PM | Reply

        • I gotta go (you know where!) but I’ll respond later.

          Comment by poemless — December 7, 2009 @ 5:46 PM | Reply

          • As if anyone is still keeping track… This is a conversation for another day (and another post.)

            Comment by poemless — December 9, 2009 @ 2:44 PM | Reply

            • Okey-doke!

              Comment by EdgewaterJoe — December 9, 2009 @ 11:41 PM | Reply

  13. My favourite Russian thinker for the moment is Victor Pelevin.

    (For those of you who don’t know Pelevin, he wrote a great book about wolves).

    And all the kids/teenagers/adults who have come from Russia to America.

    (I won’t mention names here).

    Comment by Adelaide — December 4, 2009 @ 10:24 PM | Reply

    • Oh, now, you have to name names…

      Comment by poemless — December 5, 2009 @ 3:07 PM | Reply

  14. By the way – if you’re interested in the current condition of Russian literature, you might enjoy this quasi-symposium, from Ekspert magazine (in English):


    Comment by Scowspi — December 5, 2009 @ 5:47 AM | Reply

    • Thanks – I will have a look. However, my job is such that I see A LOT of current Russian lit. I might be getting a scewed view of it, but it seems there is A LOT of pulp, sci-fi, cheesy romance, and pseudo-historical fiction out there.

      Comment by poemless — December 5, 2009 @ 3:09 PM | Reply

      • “pulp, sci-fi, cheesy romance, and pseudo-historical fiction”

        In other words – current Russian lit is just like any other current lit. The output of commercial trash far exceeds that of “quality” writing. (Note: I don’t believe that genre writing is inherently inferior – figures like Akunin and Marinina may actually be really good at what they do. But the amount of this stuff makes it difficult to separate good from bad.)

        Comment by Scowspi — December 5, 2009 @ 3:15 PM | Reply

        • Indeed. While Communism stifled creativity when it was dangerous, Capitalism stifles creativity when it isn’t profitable.

          Comment by poemless — December 5, 2009 @ 3:23 PM | Reply

          • Capitalism (the way it is usually practised and not in a libertarian dream from America) also stifles creativity when it is dangerous.

            So too did Zola have the police on him, and was dropped from publishers, many times. Hugo before him in exile much of his adult life. Colette and Wilde had their share of troubles, to say the least.

            And those were profitable ones, as authors.

            Not to mention the most “capitalist” country in the West, America, has had a long history of book bannings and censorship.

            Comment by John Redmond — December 6, 2009 @ 4:46 PM | Reply

            • Too true…

              Comment by poemless — December 7, 2009 @ 3:10 PM | Reply

  15. I really like this post, poemless, thank you. (though I think I am many days late in reading it).

    First of all, I think that’s these kinds of lists are just nonsense, and I don’t think anybody should take FP’s list too seriously. I also don’t think this is really cause for the battle cry of the MSM’s antagonism toward Russia (though I don’t think that’s what you were doing). Let’s recall Putin and the Time Magazine Person of the Year, etc.

    As for nominations – yes, both Lavrov and Churkin are serious … but Rogozin? You have the Rodina racist mastermind nominated as the most modern mind the wonderful country has to offer us?

    My favorites would be Khodorkovsky (not just because we are involved), Sorokin, Shevtsova, Akunin, and perhaps Medvedev (though the clock is ticking for him to do something besides just talk – but what words!).

    One glaring ommission: Igor Yurgens.

    Comment by James — December 6, 2009 @ 11:15 AM | Reply

    • “I also don’t think this is really cause for the battle cry of the MSM’s antagonism toward Russia (though I don’t think that’s what you were doing”

      No, I was. But in response to Naim’s article, not the list per se.

      “You have the Rodina racist mastermind nominated as the most modern mind the wonderful country has to offer us?”

      Who said anything about “modern?” I was using FP’s criteria of “big ideas” and people who “matter.” I chose Rogozin because he is part of Russia’s foreign policy PR triumvirate along with Churkin and of course Lavrov. He is in the media a lot and I do think his position on NATO is very forward thinking.

      “Igor Yurgens”

      Thanks. This is quite in keeping with the spirit of the FP list.

      Thanks for stopping by & apologies that your comment was trapped in moderation for a while.

      Comment by poemless — December 7, 2009 @ 10:31 AM | Reply

    • Among others, a JRL piece is of the opinion that Rogozin isn’t a bigot.

      Never mind how some who negatively label Rogozin suggestively give credence to a certain anonymous source, who (in the reasonable opinion of others) comes across as a bigot.

      Khodorkovsky belongs more in the crook category than intellect.

      Comment by confidential — December 7, 2009 @ 10:57 AM | Reply

  16. Excellent review of the list, and a good list of alternates. I think Edward Limonov should definitely rank up there – he has genuinely original thoughts and he’s not afraid to stand for his ideas, even if some of these might sound nutty or odious to many.

    And what about Yulia Latynina? – I mean, if Thomas Friedman is in there, she’s way better in that pundit category.

    Comment by Jerome — December 6, 2009 @ 3:07 PM | Reply

    • I’ll take Friedman over Latynina any day.

      Comment by Sublime Oblivion — December 6, 2009 @ 4:32 PM | Reply

      • Niether of them for moi.

        Comment by confidential — December 6, 2009 @ 10:55 PM | Reply

    • And incidentally, I am no fan of Tom either. That said, vapidity is preferable to invective.

      Comment by Sublime Oblivion — December 6, 2009 @ 4:34 PM | Reply

    • Thanks! I agree with you re: Limonov (not news to you). And that said, if we’re allowing completely insane people on the list, what the heck, put Latynina on it.

      Comment by poemless — December 7, 2009 @ 10:33 AM | Reply

  17. Thanks for the excellent survey, Poemless! Quite an enjoyable read and reference point to go on to read more.

    Comment by John Redmond — December 6, 2009 @ 4:29 PM | Reply

    • Merci!

      Comment by poemless — December 7, 2009 @ 10:33 AM | Reply

  18. Then there’s the Friedman with a G, who offers a tabloid take on realism.

    On some other points:

    – The simultaneous admiration for Mikhalkov and Limonov/eXile is an interesting mix, given how the latter has ragged on the former. An example of how it isn’t out of the realm to find admiring qualities among two groupings which might be in general disagreement with each other.

    – The Moscow Times influenced Russia Profile has a not so complimentary biography on Mikhalkov, which includes the standard anti-Serb BS which Latynina has parrotted.

    – Whether in Russia or America, some “academics” (who at times carry on in a not so academic way) resort to sucking up to an imperfect status quo, in a pandering attempt at personal advancement.

    Comment by confidential — December 7, 2009 @ 3:04 AM | Reply

    • – I like to keep things interesting.

      – I find some Russia Profile stuff enlightening.

      – This was my point re: Sean’s description of the plight of Russian intellectuals. Though he is better equipped to compare the two systems than I.

      Comment by poemless — December 7, 2009 @ 10:36 AM | Reply

      • RP’s Panel of Experts offers a healthy enough differential of views.

        For qualitative purposes, one of its regular panelists should’ve been long caned off that stage some time ago.

        Outside of the Panel of Experts, RP has exhibited bias with some of the content on issues dealing with Mikhalkov, Russo-Ukrainian relations and media.

        Comment by confidential — December 7, 2009 @ 11:02 AM | Reply

  19. [Comment Removed]

    Comment by DOOM!!!! — December 7, 2009 @ 5:28 AM | Reply

    • [Comment Removed]

      Comment by confidential — December 7, 2009 @ 9:11 AM | Reply

  20. Really, I think this kind of thing can’t really cross cultural boundaries. When Forbes or whoever mean somebody is a “Great Thinker,” that means the person in question says stuff that interests Westerners, stuff Westerners (specifically those people who writes the lists) think is great. Zizek is a “great thinker,” as opposed to a billion other Eastern European intellectuals, because he quotes Lacan and writes about Iraq and Hollywood and stuff like that. If he quoted Gumiliev and wrote about Slovene literature, nobody outside of Slovenia except for a few foreign specialists would ever have heard of him. (This is not a knock on Zizek.) An intellectual in Iran is probably a theologian. Somebody in China will care and write about stuff that is important to China.

    PS. What about Dugin is “terrifying”? I think he’s hilarious.

    Comment by DOOM!!!! — December 7, 2009 @ 5:28 AM | Reply

    • You make a very good point in the first paragraph.

      I think the only Dugin I have read is what you’ve shown me. Something denying the existence of lesbians, IIRC. He’s also an overt imperialist, correct?

      Comment by poemless — December 7, 2009 @ 10:57 AM | Reply

      • I showed you one of his articles for Rolling Stone, about Tatu.

        He thinks there is a separate Eurasian civilization of which Russia is the natural leader by virtue of its bigness. You can interpret that as imperialism if you want.

        Comment by DOOM!!!! — December 8, 2009 @ 3:59 PM | Reply

      • Dugin’s foundational work is “Foundations of Geopolitics” (IIRC).

        Yeah, he’s an imperialist in every sense. Even a chiliastic racialist in a few places.

        Comment by Sublime Oblivion — December 9, 2009 @ 9:42 AM | Reply

        • Dugin is an intellectual performance artist. This is a guy who writes long essays about the cabbalistic significance of David Bowie and Japanese horror movies. He doesn’t write serious philosophical works; he writes Boschian phantasmogoria. Which is why he is so awesome. 🙂

          Comment by DOOM!!!! — December 9, 2009 @ 12:24 PM | Reply

  21. “political David Hasselhoffs” is fucking genius.

    Comment by bandarlogician — December 7, 2009 @ 7:06 AM | Reply

    • Thanks.

      Comment by poemless — December 7, 2009 @ 10:40 AM | Reply

  22. At this thread which has stressed foreign policy, Latynina has been mentioned over Kagarlitsky, Pavlovsky, Karaganov and Markov.

    This is said without being so in awe of the four gentlemen.

    Comment by confidential — December 7, 2009 @ 9:50 AM | Reply

    • Tack on Lukyanov to the four.

      Comment by confidential — December 7, 2009 @ 10:12 AM | Reply

  23. Latynina is not an intellectual. She writes crime novels.

    Comment by DOOM!!!! — December 7, 2009 @ 9:52 AM | Reply

    • I think the nomination of Latynina is based on the wacky FP criteria, not her actual intellectual prowess.

      Comment by poemless — December 7, 2009 @ 10:39 AM | Reply

      • There has been a definite Wonk Factor Syndrome (WFS) that extends to some non-academic journalists, who dabble in foreign policy.

        BTW, I thought one of the promoted Russian liberal elitny is being pathetic with his claim that biased Western policies have made him into a kind of Russian Norman Podhoretz. Podhoretz (who I’m not an admirer of) said that the left’s policies became so untenable that it moved him to a more rightist position. The mentioned Russian claims that his breaking point is the general Western position to last years’ war in the Caucasus.


        Comment by confidential — December 7, 2009 @ 11:14 AM | Reply

  24. Given some of the mentioned names, why not:


    Comment by confidential — December 7, 2009 @ 12:07 PM | Reply

  25. I have added Yurchak and Oushakine. Russian, but in the US.

    Comment by poemless — December 7, 2009 @ 5:17 PM | Reply

  26. Is needing to be loved by the West supposed to be some kind of natural state, and departure from this in need of explanation?

    Comment by DOOM!!!! — December 7, 2009 @ 6:14 PM | Reply

    • Gah! What exactly do you have against the “reply” button? I’m going to ignore your posts until you start posting correctly.

      Comment by poemless — December 8, 2009 @ 2:17 PM | Reply

      • Your comments section is counterintuitive, and I am only now getting the hang of it.

        Comment by DOOM!!!! — December 8, 2009 @ 4:01 PM | Reply

        • It’s just not what you are used to. It’s intuitive to me because the previous blog I wrote at had threaded comments (reply buttons.) Anyway, I’m using a WP template so I couldn’t change it if I wanted to. Which I don’t. I find it easier to follow this way.

          Comment by poemless — December 8, 2009 @ 4:05 PM | Reply

          • Though it occurs to me that it may display differently for you.

            Comment by poemless — December 8, 2009 @ 4:06 PM | Reply

          • I use threaded comments as well. It really is easier. Though on my theme I do get the option to turn them off, but as poemless correctly points out, there is no point to that.

            Comment by Sublime Oblivion — December 9, 2009 @ 9:44 AM | Reply

  27. An example of the kind of commentary which establishment neolib/neocon leaning Western elitny shun:


    Can’t say that I agree with all of it as well.

    Regarding the earlier mention of Khodorkovsky, I don’t think that he’s more of an intellect than the not mentioned Pozner.

    Comment by confidential — December 7, 2009 @ 9:14 PM | Reply

    • I think you’ve misunderstood the point of this post, which is not to rank people’s intellects (or post incredibly off-topic things. Please don’t do that again.)

      I’ve never suggested that Khodorkovsky is an intellectual, but he “matters” and has an ideological agenda. I suspect he also fancies himself a latter day Sakharov, etc…

      Comment by poemless — December 8, 2009 @ 2:37 PM | Reply

      • I didn’t say that you suggested that “Khodorkovsky is an intellectual.” I was responding to someone else who brought up his name at this thread as a prominent Rusisan thinker.

        I share the view that Khodorkovsky “matters” as (among other things) a newsworthy topic – but not so much in the form of an intellect.

        My reference of Pozner is that he comes across as being more of an intellect than Khodorkovsky.

        The Sakharov-Khodorkovsky analogy has been made. Besides myself, some others find this comparison to be a bit of a stretch (put mildly).

        Comment by confidential — December 8, 2009 @ 3:57 PM | Reply

  28. So, surveying this thread, I come to the following conclusions:

    1. There is no consensus as to who are the leading Russian thinkers;

    2. If we have to name the likes of Latynina and occasional obscure bloggers (like the “mat rodina” guy) as leading thinkers, then either (a) Russian intellectual life is in deep trouble, or (b) we don’t really know enough to evaluate it sufficiently;

    3. Any Russian who wants to become known in the West as a “leading thinker” should write about stuff that’s of concern in the West, such as Hollywood movies, Internet porn, and religious extremism. Thoughts on “Russia’s destiny” are of interest only to Russians and to the limited number of foreigners who take a serious interest in the place.

    Comment by Scowspi — December 8, 2009 @ 2:41 AM | Reply

    • 1. Do you think there would be a consensus as to who are the leading American thinkers? I suspect these things are informed by one’s field of expertise, political leanings, etc.

      2. Or commenters also have their own bizarro standards. I won’t dismiss the entire post by concluding we don’t know enough to answer the original question. I think this exercise is def. a step in the right direction.

      3. Soglasna.

      Comment by poemless — December 8, 2009 @ 2:26 PM | Reply

  29. The Beetles mightily contributed to the demise of the USSR:


    Comment by confidential — December 8, 2009 @ 3:04 AM | Reply

    • I watched this last week. It’s decent though horribly romantic. I’ll probably show it in a Russian history class some day if only to give students a taste of Soviet culture in that period.

      Since we’ve been debating Russian intellectuals, one way to interpret the FP post that poemless springs off of is that Russian intellectual life has suffered since the end of the USSR (at least the kind of intelligentsy the West likes). This is implied in the question: Where are the Sakharovs and Solzhenitsyns?

      Can something similar be said of Russian rock?

      Comment by Sean — December 8, 2009 @ 9:51 AM | Reply

      • That’s it, I’m adding BG to the list.

        Has Russian intellectual life really suffered since the demise of the USSR? Do we have any evidence for this besides FP’s opinion?

        Comment by poemless — December 8, 2009 @ 2:15 PM | Reply

        • Boris Grebenshikov?

          Science has suffered post-USSR due to lack of money. I don’t know if this translates into decline in intellectual life. It’s not like scientists ever get on these lists anyway unless they’re Steven Hawking.

          Comment by DOOM!!!! — December 8, 2009 @ 4:04 PM | Reply

          • Re:BG: Compared to some of the people mentioned so far, I really don’t think it is so crazy.

            Re:Russian scientists: I think the guys who got the cockroaches to mate in space should definitely be on the FP list! 😉

            Comment by poemless — December 8, 2009 @ 5:45 PM | Reply

        • I think it is hard to say which is why I pose the question. It might depend what we mean by intellectual life–living standards, quality of work, community, etc. It also depends on what intellectual circle you run in. I’ve heard some people decry the loss of intellectualism for the desire for money, especially among the youth. I’ve also heard and seen some good works being published, good art, music, etc.

          The problem is that the issue is terribly subjective. For example, the Soviet 1970s is known as stagnation and ideological rigidity, and the Thaw of the late 1950s as golden. But one Russian lit scholar who works in the states recently told me that 1970s produced great culture, especially popular culture while the Thaw years was over hyped shit. I would agree with him on Solzhenitsyn. One Day in the Life is total shit but was one of those right time books.

          Comment by Sean — December 9, 2009 @ 1:18 AM | Reply

          • First Circle was great, though I think Solzhenitsyn is quite overrated in general for political reasons.

            All the great cartoons are Brezhnev-era! 🙂

            Comment by DOOM!!!! — December 9, 2009 @ 2:54 AM | Reply

          • I tend to agree that the Brezhnev era was more culturally interesting than the Khruschev era. The “stagnant” 60s-70s produced some great cinema (Tarkovsky, Parajanov, the “Georgian school”), music (Schnittke, Gubaidulina, Pärt, Silvestrov; various rock groups), theatre (Lyubimov et al.), although it was a bit thin on the literary front (probably because writers just got harassed and censored more).

            I think the Thaw retains its golden glow in the imagination because 1) anything coming after Stalin would look liberal and relaxed, and 2) the people I named above got their start during the Thaw, hence they tended to romanticize it.

            Comment by Scowspi — December 9, 2009 @ 3:08 AM | Reply

            • The Stalin era itself (while weak on great thinkers) was no slouch as far as music and literature were concerned. Sholokov (OK his main work was pre-Stalin), Shostakovich, Eisenstein. This idea that “liberalism is good for art” has to be questioned. It’s part of the “liberalism is good for everything that is good” ideology that is held by people who are, well, liberals (in a loose sense of the term). 🙂

              Comment by DOOM!!!! — December 9, 2009 @ 3:17 AM | Reply

              • After some deep thinking, I have come to the somewhat reluctant conclusion that artists do their best work under conditions of moderate repression. A certain degree of restriction forces them to be more creative, and also intensifies the relationship between artists and the public (they are taken more seriously than in conditions of great freedom).

                I once saw a documentary (in the 80s) on some Russian intellectuals and writers who had emigrated to America. Upon being told that at least he was free, one said something like “Yes, I’m so free nobody wants me! In Russia, I was important – after all, the KGB read my books!”

                On the opposite side, it goes without saying that extreme repression is also deadly for intellectual & artistic life.

                Comment by Scowspi — December 9, 2009 @ 3:50 AM | Reply

                • “A certain degree of restriction forces them to be more creative, and also intensifies the relationship between artists and the public (they are taken more seriously than in conditions of great freedom).”

                  Tweaking the meaning of “restrictive forces” a bit, ok quite a bit, this was considered a truism before around 1780. The whole point of the form of a sonnet is to restrict you. The idea that art has to do with pure self-expression (in some essential way) is very new, starting with Kant and Goethe and Beethoven, as far as I know. Before that the artist was viewed as a craftsman.

                  Comment by DOOM!!!! — December 9, 2009 @ 3:56 AM | Reply

                  • “The whole point of the form of a sonnet is to restrict you.”

                    Yes, in fact I thought of precisely this example when writing my post. The same of course is true for the other poetic, musical and artistic forms.

                    The other point about “old” art is that it was typically commissioned by someone (usually church or court; sometimes merchant or guild). The idea that you become an artist to “express yourself” would have been incomprehensible to someone like Rembrandt or JS Bach. As you say, the artist was a craftsman, like an architect or mason. (Although literature seems to be somewhat an exception to this.)

                    Comment by Scowspi — December 9, 2009 @ 4:36 AM | Reply

                    • There are exceptions — Dante springs to mind, partially. Were the Canterbury Tales commissioned? I really don’t know. And if you go way back, who knows how the Iliad and Odyssey got composed, and there is the whole concept of art-as-divine-inspiration, the Muse singing through me.

                      But generally, yeah.

                      Comment by DOOM!!! — December 9, 2009 @ 5:00 AM

                    • By the way, have you read the Critique of Judgment? (My favorite of Kant’s books.) It’s really the origin of the whole modern, still dominant, notion of art as the product of the Genius unfolding his or her Great Ideas.

                      Comment by DOOM!!! — December 9, 2009 @ 5:07 AM

      • The one just before this is in reply to 12/8 @ 9:51 AM.


        Comment by confidential — December 9, 2009 @ 4:01 AM | Reply

  30. Well, minus Kino most of the perestroika-era rock bands are still around (kick-ass song by Zvuki Mu here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FyCsJAj69sc ). But Westerners aren’t interested in Russian rock music and intellectuals for their own sake anyway, only insofar as they reinforce Western self-regard.

    Comment by DOOM!!!! — December 8, 2009 @ 10:33 AM | Reply

  31. I’m out of touch with most of what’s going on in Russia, but I’m glad Arseny Roginsky was mentioned. To date myself, I met him in Moscow back in 1990, but have not seen him since that year. And to date myself further, I remember when Igor Chubais was better known than his younger brother.

    Comment by Kolya — December 8, 2009 @ 10:52 AM | Reply

  32. You know, to be honest, I think the world as a whole doesn’t have a whole lot of first-class thinkers today. If we mean Great Thinker in the superlative sense of the term, as opposed to “the least mediocre thinker,” there hasn’t really been one since Heidegger died over 30 years ago. I mean, who are the big thinkers in Europe? Habermas and Zizek and Badiou, probably. They’re not bad, but Immanuel Kant they are not. Who are the US’s big thinkers? I’m drawing a blank. John Searle? Rorty might have counted, but he’s dead now.

    Comment by DOOM!!!! — December 8, 2009 @ 6:01 PM | Reply

    • The US isn’t historically known for Great Thinkers. It’s all that damn pragmatism and empiricism.

      Comment by Sean — December 9, 2009 @ 1:21 AM | Reply

      • The US also has a strong irrationalist strain, as seen variously in people like Emerson and religious fundamentalism. (A case could be made that pragmatism and empiricism are themselves irrationalist.) Flannery O’Conner for instance. I think the issue is more one of anti-intellectualism. The closest the US has had to Great Thinkers is probably the classical pragmatists, Royce and Dewey and James (The Varieties of Religious Experience is one of my favorite books).

        Comment by DOOM!!!! — December 9, 2009 @ 2:19 AM | Reply

    • The real problem is that most (all?) of the really profound ideas have already been uncovered, and are all accessible thanks to the global trends towards socio-political liberalization. Without great struggles there can be no great ideas.

      Now all you’ve got left is citation, revision, derivation, etc… the nihilism of transparency, as Baudrillard so aptly described it.

      Comment by Sublime Oblivion — December 9, 2009 @ 9:55 AM | Reply

      • The last epoque that didn’t believe that all of the really profound ideas had been uncovered was pre-Christian Rome, so pardon me if I don’t believe that for a second. 🙂

        Comment by DOOM!!!! — December 9, 2009 @ 12:27 PM | Reply

  33. Regarding the mention of Shevtsova as a foreign policy thinker, I thought of some other Russians who IMO aren’t second fiddle to her:

    Vladimir Belaeff
    Alexei Pushkov
    Andrei Kortunov

    Comment by confidential — December 9, 2009 @ 3:00 AM | Reply

  34. I am afraid that almost nobody you mentioned qualify for the title of Great thinker or even simple thinker.

    I don’t know whether Jeffrey Sachs is there but he should be. On Russian side there are many wonderful thinkers, and what is better their books are freely available. For example the one guy whose opinion I particularly respect is Sergey Pereslegin. You can read his new book here –


    And there are many others influential and extraordinary thinkers but you can find them yourself.

    Comment by FarEasterner — December 22, 2009 @ 9:39 AM | Reply

    • Wow, I know I included some lunatics, but I wouldn’t say that none of them are even simple thinkers.

      I haven’t heard of Pereslegin, but he looks like someone another poster, Sublime Oblivion, would be into. (btw, what is up with the worms ads on that site?! gah!)

      “And there are many others influential and extraordinary thinkers but you can find them yourself.”

      Obviously I can’t find them myself. Otherwise they’d already be on my list! I’m genuinely interested to know who are these extraordinary thinkers you are referring to.

      Comment by poemless — December 22, 2009 @ 5:39 PM | Reply

      • Really the person you want to talk to is Mikhail Epstein at Emory. He’s a specialist in Russian philosophy. Home page here: http://old.russ.ru/antolog/intelnet/

        Comment by DOOM!!!! — December 22, 2009 @ 5:59 PM | Reply

        • Even his list of great Russian thinkers only goes to the end to the 20th Century.

          Why doesn’t Doom sleep?

          Comment by poemless — December 22, 2009 @ 11:08 PM | Reply

          • Doom works from home and therefore has no set hours.

            Epstein could probably tell you what Russian philosophers and suchlike are doing nowadays if you wrote him.

            Comment by DOOM!!!! — December 23, 2009 @ 9:32 AM | Reply

      • sublime oblivion, ha, ha, ha – wonderful description!

        no, he is quite famous in some academic circles. this history of WWII is unusual in a sense that he tries to apply to it his geopolitical theory (which was theory of system in the beginning). So even if you’re not interested in WWII itself you can proceed and read the last part of his book where there is good description of his theory.

        Comment by FarEasterner — December 23, 2009 @ 4:46 AM | Reply

  35. A follow-up on this topic:


    Note that the mentioned poll produced a Top 10 list, which contained some overlap with some of the names brought up here (as well as some people I’d never heard of).

    Comment by Scowspi — February 5, 2010 @ 3:56 AM | Reply

    • Oh thanks! Going to check it out now.

      Comment by poemless — February 5, 2010 @ 2:28 PM | Reply

    • Viktor Pelevin, writer — 2133 votes

      After having read a few of his books, I’m more irritated than impressed.

      Daniil Shepovalov, blogger — 1908 votes

      I think the only Russia “blogger” (as opposed to a person who has a blog but is known for other things) I know of is drugoi…

      Leonid Parfyonov, journalist and broadcaster — 1296 votes (83)

      name is vaguely familiar…

      Mikhail Khodorkovsky, ex-businessman and publicist — 1274 votes

      Ok – I feel like less of an idiot.

      Konstantin Krylov, journalist and writer — 1267 votes

      Don’t know him.

      Patriarch Kirill — 1208 votes


      Sergei Kapitsa, physicist and broadcaster — 1048 votes

      Don’t know him

      Alexander Gordon, writer and broadcaster — 1042 votes

      Don’t know him.

      Boris Strugatsky, writer — 1023 votes

      What’s he doing these days?

      Eduard Limonov, writer and politician — 917 votes


      Comment by poemless — February 5, 2010 @ 2:40 PM | Reply

  36. Regarding Boris Strugatsky. Just check the http://rusf.ru/abs/ . He is answering an ongoing mega-interview which comprises thousands of questions and lasts for years. He is a chief editor of a modern Russian literature magazine (“Полдень. ХХII век.”). Possibly, he is writing…

    Konstantin Krylov is an interesting figure, albeit some deal fringe. He is most known for 1995 publication entitled “Behaviour”: http://warrax.net/behavior/00.html I would best define the genre as “entertaining politically-sociological read”. It’s less popular than it could have been, because it’s too voluntary for science, too elaborate for entertainment, and is unlike everything else in politics. But that was the 1995. Right now Krylov is the outstanding figure in Russian ethnic nationalism.

    Comment by Evgeny — September 20, 2010 @ 5:35 PM | Reply

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