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

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