Who is Russia's top intellectual?

Throughout Russian and Soviet history, the intellectual has played a central and hugely influential role in society. Today, that has changed. A recent internet vote on the country’s most influential intellectual saw instead postmodern ambiguity emerge victorious, writes Lyubov Borusyak
Lyubov Borusyak
4 February 2010

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. People seemed to be drawn to the vote for one of two reasons: either out of curiosity as to what others were thinking, or in an attempt to show themselves off (by inference, only those who are themselves members of the thinking elite can vote on the most influential intellectual).

Internet voting in Russia

In recent years, a reduction in the number of live broadcasts has meant that TV surveys and phone-in voting — once an important form of popular feedback — have almost completely disappeared. Internet voting, on the other hand, has become somewhat of a growth industry. Today, people vote on any number of issues: for songs and artists, for politicians, for the topic of the next broadcast. Frequently, social networks provide a platform for this voting. Here, if an issue touches a nerve among network participants, it can quickly reach critical mass and become an important event.  

Online petitions have also become a defining feature of the Russian Internet. Just recently, we have seen petitions in support of the European University in St Petersburg, Yukos executive Svetlana Bakhmina and the building of the Gazprom tower in St Petersburg.   Of course, very often, perhaps on a parallel portal, another petition might collect signatures with the opposite goals: say anti-European University, anti-Bakhmina or anti-Gazprom tower.  What is important here is not who started what, who is for and who is against. The real interest is that such petitions allow both sides of a debate the opportunity to express themselves, to vote. This parity is characteristic of the Russian Internet — much more so than it is for other, more traditional media.

The most significant Internet poll that Russia has witnessed to date was for “Name of Russia”, the TV show commissioned by Rossiya Channel. This project invited the public to nominate “great” Russian historical figures, and fifty million members of the public did just that. With the nature of the poll, many people were able to vote more than once (and even organise flash-mob-style voting). Nonetheless, the poll actually proved to be representative, with its top-10 coinciding with weighted, nationwide sociological surveys. Evidently, the attitude of the public towards historical figures is something set in the mass conscience (by school, media or other institution). Support for the entire range of historical figures — including some very disputed ones (for example, Stalin) — seemed to be replicated across all segments of the population.

Do intellectuals still influence the people?

Throughout the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth century, Russia was, as elsewhere in Western Europe, a place where intellectuals were free to present ideas to the people. These ideas were sometimes enormously influential. To switch to the language used in Soviet times, they frequently “captured the masses”. Intellectuals themselves were variously referred to as “rulers of minds” or “the conscience of the nation”.

Writing in 1967, the poet Andrei Voznesensky contended:  

There is a Russian intelligentsia

You thought not? There is.

No indifferent mass

But the country’s conscience and honour

As the 1960s passed and the 1968 revolutions faded in the imagination, so too did the era when intellectuals could be considered popular idols. In its place came an new era of the post-modern, which blurred, scattered and dispersed the influence of this former elite. In Russia, some figures such as Dmitry Likhachov continued to be discussed in lofty terms well into the 1990s: a survey conducted in post-Soviet St Petersburg named him the most influential resident in the city (beating pop-musician Igor Kornelyuk into third place). All the same, the process of smashing down Russian intellectual figureheads was by that point already well underway.

Today, Russian society no longer reveres its intellectual elite.  But perhaps there are still figures around which intellectuals themselves could unite? An elite for the elite, so to speak? This is the kind of thing that this Internet poll could reveal.

The intellectual elite of 2009

The first stage of the project sought to identify 100 leading intellectuals in Russia today. In contemporary, post-modern Russian society, there is not — nor can there be — a clearly and narrowly defined intellectual community. Organisers recognised this; and for this reason did not seek to hide the accidental nature of the selection: they simply included any intellectual of influence that came to mind. Voting participants were, however, also given the opportunity to add their own candidates to the list. Not only did this ensure there were no important omissions; it also helped to increase the interactive and gaming element of the poll.

While I think this was the right thing to do, this decision did have the direct consequence of shooting an improbable entrant to prominence. Thus Danil Shepovalov — a name unknown to highbrow intellectuals and better known elsewhere under his blogger pseudonym of dryan (=‘rubbish’) — was unexpectedly voted into the leader spots. I’m sure the organisers were constantly asked why they included some people in the list and excluded others.

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

The poll served as a reminder that Russians still hold literature in high regard. Cult writer Viktor Pelevin won by a small margin, and his colleagues collectively made up half of the top ten: from writer-politician Eduard Limonov to classic fantasy writers Boris Strugatsky and Konstantin Krylov.  Krylov, who is also editor of the odious Russian March newsletter and a member of the nationalist Congress of Russian Communities, has recently found considerable success writing under the pseudonym Kharitonov. He was recommended to Moscow publishers AST by author of the Hollywood-adapted bestsellers Night Watch and Day WatchSergei Lukyanenko, who discovered his manuscripts on the web.

As perhaps could be expected from society of television viewers, three broadcasters also made it into the top 10. One of them, a respected professor and son of a Nobel laureate, Sergei Kapitsa, has been a key ingredient of the Russian intellectual cocktail for some time. His programme “Obvious—Incredible” has a fixture of Russian television since 1973 (indeed, the undisputed king of intellectual-idols Vladimir Vysotsky wrote a memorable song about it some thirty years ago). 

Today’s mix also has a place for Patriarch Kirill and former-oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who received an almost identical number of votes.

Reflection on the voters’ final choices brings me on to two points. The first is that we see all kinds of professions among these leaders: from respected professors (Kapitsa) through 1960s firebrands (Limonov) to Internet bloggers (Shepovalov). What we don’t see in this list are prominent academics working in the humanities. This is no coincidence: today, their voices are neither heard in society nor reckoned with in the intellectual community.

The second point concerns the eventual winner, Victor Pelevin: the most typical and conspicuous representative of the post-modern in Russia today. In truth, it seems odd that Pelevin be nominated as the most “influential” intellectual of the day, given that the traditional understanding of “influence” requires a discernible ideological platform. Pelevin’s very idea lies in the absence of such a platform. The writer himself is almost non-existent, a phantom who says nothing about himself, what he likes or does not like. He rarely expresses himself directly or promotes his books and makes a point of avoiding writers’ and academic conferences. Many of his readers doubt whether he is a living person, so pure and distilled a symbol he has become.

Pelevin has become a symbol of the era because today, the absence of words sounds much louder than words. That said, Pelevin cannot be classed not an “influential” intellectual figure. Today, these simply do not exist.

The author is a sociologist, and lecturer at the Higher School of Economics

This article originally appeared on www.openspace.ru

The results of the vote (in Russian) can be found here

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