Since the earliest forms of democracy, public intellectuals have been playing a crucial role in the state political life: constructing ideologies, advising politicians,influencing public opinion. As noted specialists in a particular field of knowledge, well-known members of academia or think tanks, the role of public intellectuals is to provide wider public with knowledge to make informed decisions on governance and to keep the authorities accountable for their activities. However, with Vladimir Putin rise in power in today’s Russia, a number of prominent Russian intellectuals have become subservient to the Kremlin, providing ideological rationale for the country’s rising authoritarianism; only few intellectuals voiced their criticisms and warned of the dangers of an undemocratic path. This paper will explore a diverse group of Russian public intellectuals (focusing on think tanks and popular political commentators—from conservatives to liberals), the ideas that they put forward and their role in the country’s democratic rollback.


We are living in the postindustrial society, which is essentially a knowledge-based and ideas-based society. The second half of the 20th century was marked not only by a great economic transformation, but also by political transformation. In 1989, Francis Fukuyama published his essay in National Interest, in which he proclaimed the end of the Cold War and “the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”
25 years later, the debate on whether democracy is the final form of government or not still continues, as new hybrid authoritarian regimes (Russia, Syria, Turkey, et al.) rise into power. The debate is rendered by the new authoritarian leaders who aspire to justify their modus operandi and challenge the ideas of liberal democracy. Their claims are often supported by certain groups of intellectuals in the respective countries. While the rationale behind the politicians’ stance is more or less transparent—it’s a fight for power—it remains unclear why intellectuals would take part in undermining democratic ideas.
The fact that intellectuals played a crucial role in the history of the mankind, including in political sphere, economy, social development, international relations, art, sciences, is hardly a point for discussion. The very term “intellectual” pertains a positive connotation. However, under a close scrutiny, it becomes clear that intellectuals are not only responsible for the most brilliant breakthroughs, but also for some of the most horrible mistakes in history.
25 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, which came, according to many researchers, as a result of the courageous efforts on behalf of the public intellectuals on both sides of the wall—Western and Eastern European—Russia, the largest country of the former Soviet bloc, remains just as far (if not farther) away from being a democracy as it was in 1989. Since intellectuals were the “dealers of ideas” and the spearheads of the dissident movement in the Soviet Union, who eventually brought the wall down, and with it—the whole Soviet system and the communist ideology in general,—the question is: why didn’t they push the matter through? Why has Russia lost its way in democratic transition? And why the critical voice of the Russian intellectuals is hardly ever heard in the public political discourse?
The issue of responsibility of intellectuals has been addressed and studied a lot. In his classic work titled “The Treason of Intellectual” (1927) French thinker Julien Benda argues that intellectuals abandoned their mission of speaking up for justice, liberty and the truth, becoming subservient to certain ideologies or even political classes. Almost 100 years later, many issues raised in the book are still relevant to nowadays’ political realities. This paper will examine the role that intellectuals play in the political process in Western democracies and in closed regimes, such as Russia, where the democratic rollback in recent decades has been unprecedented.