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Knights of the Vine RUSSIA


A grey shadow of Soviet Man
A recent study by an American watchdog organisation, Freedom House, showed that in the past decade, no country in Europe has undergone a sharper decline in democracy than Russia. This might be a surprise to some, but not to sociologists at the Levada Analytical Centre. Their study "Soviet Man, 1989-2009", concluded that the regeneration of archaic political mechanisms is possible in Russia because Soviet-era personality traits persist in the current generation of Russians.
By Elena Rubinova

When Gorbachev’s reforms were in full swing, a new society was emerging from the ashes of the gigantic Soviet experiment in social engineering. In 1989 Yuri Levada, a prominent sociologist, formed his Levada Analytical Centre, and initiated a unique large-scale study titled “Soviet Man”. The mythical anthropological species “Homo Sovieticus” seemed to have become extinct at the end of the 1980s, but today we realise what an enduring legacy he has bequeathed us. Levada was the first pollster in Russia to conduct “longitudinal” studies of public opinion, in which the same 200-300 questions were asked in five surveys between 1989 and 2009 to identify the dynamics of social development.

Painting: Ulitsa Shvernika 1987 by John Harrison


The first wave of studies reflected the advanced state of decay of Soviet Man over the decades before the collapse of communism. By the late 1970s or so, the creative potential of socialist ideas had been exhausted. Instead of the declarative if largely mythological traits such as altruism, patriotism, collectivism, spirituality and indifference to wealth that were obligatory for Soviet Man, the real citizen demonstrated a capacity for submission, enslavement, aggression, asocial individualism and double standards in everyday life. Principles of equality had not produced solidarity, but rather a group egoism which was a cover-up for unlimited private interest rationalised in terms of the public good. In those days, propaganda stressed that “Soviet Man” possessed an exceptional character; that he was special and superior to lesser mortals of other societies. The imperial consciousness divided the world into “us” and “them”, “national” and “alien”. Soviet Man had a mindset that implied state paternalism reciprocated by unwavering loyalty to the state. But already by 1993, Levada could identify qualities such as “the ability to be dependent on the social system and regime without actually doing anything to support it”.

What do Russians think of themselves today?

In his 2005 essay, Censorship and Self-Alienation in Russia, a UK-based Russian writer, Zinovy Zinik wrote, “The entire communist universe, like a Soviet Atlantis, sank into oblivion. We are no longer sure what country under the name of Russia we are dealing with”.

Searching for a new identity has continued for over a decade, but nostalgic feelings towards the Soviet past have been gradually fading. In 2008, 40% of adults polled by Levada did not think that life in Russia before 1985 was any better than in 2008, and 36% did not regret the collapse of the USSR at all.

“Our 2008 studies showed that people stopped labelling themselves Soviet, down from 25% to 12% in four years”, said Boris Dubin, Head of Social and Political Research at the Centre. “But that does not mean that the remnants of Soviet mentality ceased to exist.”

When talking about themselves, many Russians are self-critical. When asked about the heritage of the Soviet mentality they most often identify traits such as intolerance, hostility to the West, belief that problems can be resolved only by force, aggressiveness, the cult of the state, lack of respect for the law and envy of the rich. Not only negative points appear in this part of the survey. Russians also believe that some of the best qualities are also inherited from the socialist times, such as self-dignity, readiness to help, peacefulness and patience.

The Soviet Man study shows that real changes in public consciousness are very slow. Soviet era signs and markers are devoid of surface external symbols and are found only when delving into the depths of consciousness.

Back to The Empire

According to the fifth wave of studies, in 2008, “social identification of being Russian is turning back to the Soviet past and the imperial glory of Russia in pre-revolutionary times. These two eras are becoming fused in public consciousness, but totalitarian factors such as purges or the stagnation of Brezhnev times are somehow erased”, explained Boris Dubin.

The ideas of Russia’s greatness and its destined superpower status have been used as a centrepiece of the seemingly continuous Russian identity. The notions of derzhava and gosudarstvennost (a powerful, established country, and statehood) associated with strong statehood and great power, match this prevailing view.

“In 2009, answering the question whether you would prefer to live in a huge country that is feared and respected or in a small, cosy country that cannot do any harm, 75% of Russians chose the first variant,” he continued.

Sly Man v State Games Continue

In Soviet times, there was a popular saying: “We pretend to work, and the State pretends to pay us.” The economy has changed in 20 years, but “sly state–citizen games”, as Yuri Levada called them in the early 1990s, continue. One can hardly be surprised that civil society did not see any rapid development in Russia: relationships where citizens do not feel responsible and alienate themselves from the state have been re-established. If in 1989, “absolute responsibility for their government’s action” was recognized by 22% of the over 55s and by 11% of the youngest respondents, by 2003, the respective figures were only 13 and 9 percent. In 2008, 91% of those polled said that they could not influence what was happening in their country.

As in pre-Gorbachev times it is again the norm to dissociate oneself from power structures. An ever growing number of Russians consider it right not to fulfil their responsibilities to the state. In recent years, according to Levada Centre statistics, half of those polled saw little wrong in dodging military service, while the concealment of income to avoid taxes was defended by 46%. Then there are common compromises with one’s conscience such as riding on a bus without a ticket or not paying alimony after a divorce.

Mythology of “A Special Way”

“In Russia the myth of a special way does not disappear, but resurfaces at every new stage” said Boris Dubin. “When we started our study in 1989 there was no ‘mythology of a special way’ in public discourse. On the contrary, the general viewpoint was that Russia finally had a selection of choices of which way to go. The idea of belonging to a Soviet-type civilization was like a stigma, a spell that brought the country to a disaster. Then, the image of an external enemy ceased to exist and up to 50% of people in the study blamed their own leaders for mistakes, not other countries.”

As described by Levada, from 1998 the thesis that there is a special quality of Russian/Soviet man was heavily used to promote policies of Russian exclusiveness and international isolation and to rebuild the spectre of an external enemy. Thus by 2009, 39% believed that their country needs “a special breed of democracy”, while 26% were convinced that democracy is not suitable at all for Russia.

(to be continued)

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