Evolution of the Homo Sovieticus

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The concept of the mysterious Russian soul has been around at least since the middle of the 19th century. Generally perceived as the antipode of the capitalist and rational West, the Russian soul embodied such traits as altruism, openness, spirituality, generosity, conscientiousness, willingness to sacrifice a personality for the community, the ultimate search for a universal truth and indifference toward wealth.

Events of the 20th Сentury Have Greatly Influenced the Russian Soul

RussiaProfile.Org, an online publication providing in-depth analysis of business, politics, current affairs and culture in Russia, has published an unusual Special Report on the mysterious "Russian soul". Fifteen articles by both Russian and foreign contributors examine this concept, which has been used by Russia watchers for some 150 years, from a contemporary perspective. The following article is part of this collection.

The concept of the mysterious Russian soul has been around at least since the middle of the 19th century. Both foreign and Russian writers, philosophers and political thinkers, from the Marquis de Custine and Fyodor Dostoevsky to Nikolai Berdyaev and Alexander Solzhenitsyn expressed their views on the Russian national character. Generally perceived as the antipode of the capitalist and rational West, the Russian soul embodied such traits as altruism, openness, spirituality, generosity, conscientiousness, willingness to sacrifice a personality for the community, the ultimate search for a universal truth and indifference toward wealth.

The 20th century forced many changes upon the Russian soul. The Soviet ideological machine put much effort into the gigantic experiment in social anthropology called “the new Soviet man” or the “Homo Sovieticus,” whose soul and nature were supposed to become even better. In the mid 1970s “The Russians,” a famous book by the American journalist Hedrick Smith, gave a vivid description of the Russians living in the Soviet Union as generous, mystical, emotional, and essentially irrational and impulsive, despite the constant ideological pressure “the builder of the communist society” was subjected to.

In addition to the traditional merits assigned to the Russian soul, this special breed of man was believed to be hard-working, collectivistic, and patriotic. He could live on very basic things and forego comfort as one of the negative manifestations of a bourgeois society. The concept of “the new Soviet man” disappeared together with its epoch, but some of its notions remain firmly rooted in the minds of contemporary Russians. “Back in 2004, one fourth of the population called themselves Soviet people. Now this figure does not exceed 12 to 13 percent. But even if people stopped labeling themselves as ‘Soviet,’ this does not mean that the Soviet mentality no longer exists,” said Boris Dubin, a leading sociologist and the head of social and political research at the independent Levada Analytical Center. The phenomenon of the Russian soul outlived the empire that perished in 1991 and took on a new life in the new times.

A psychological study called the “Russian Character and Personality Survey” was an international research project initiated by the University of Tartu in Estonia in collaboration with some 40 Russian universities. The results of the poll, conducted in 34 of Russia’s regions, found that 76 percent of those polled are fully convinced that Russians have a unique national character that can’t be compared to any other. The image of Russia and its dwellers as unique is still actively retranslated in the West, especially at times when no other explanation is available for the paradoxes and nuances of Russian life and politics.

It is important to emphasize, though, that studies are often conducted on different levels. Sociologists mostly deal with values and cultural practices that change much faster, while psychologists focus on the “super values” and personality characteristics that morph very slowly. In the latter case the differences are mostly noted when comparing generations. “When speaking about the Russian national personality traits from a psychological viewpoint, we need to draw a line between different generations. They vary too much to generalize,” said Olga Makhovskaya, a psychologist and a senior research fellow at the Institute of Psychology at the Russian Academy of Sciences.

All experts agree that the past 20 years have influenced the Russian cultural milieu and lifestyle patterns no less than the previous 70 years of socialism. The transformations of the post-communist era have had a profound impact on the Russian soul, so when researchers study the current generation of Russians, they find the opposite of the values and traits they expected.

The collective individual

In any society, individualism and collectivism are the two opposite ends of the same spectrum that bears special significance due to its pivotal role in social and political discourse. Collectivism takes its roots in the communal living of the old Rus and the orthodox moral values (such as “sobornost,” or “community spirit”), as opposed to the individualism of protestants. In Soviet times, collectivism had institutionalized forms such as collective farms or communal apartments.

A long-term study titled “The Soviet Person” conducted by the Levada Center between 1989 and 2009, in five “waves” of different surveys, and the so-called longitudinal studies of public opinion, looked at the main trends in the social development of Russian society and the current generation of Russians. “Russian collectivism is often labeled as a very special Russian personality trait and social dimension. On the contrary, our studies find that modern Russia is a highly atomized society with a high degree of mistrust: three quarters of Russians do not trust each other and say that they can rely only on family members or close relatives. Only personal or family ties matter,” said Dubin. “Our society is fragmented into very small groups that are linked by very traditional personal or family relations. It lacks modern institutionalized forms that unite people in other societies. Russians are united only in the collective self-representation expressed by the abstract word ‘we’.”

Comparative studies of modern Russia and other European countries carried out by Alexander Demidov of GfK RUS, a global market research organization, also attest to the fact that contemporary Russia is one of the most atomized societies in Europe, with an obvious lack of “super ideas” or “super values” able to unite or motivate society.

Mythically simple

When talking about themselves Russians claim that they are open, friendly, and simple-minded, as opposed to the cold, calculating Germans, the cunning Uzbeks, reserved Englishmen or shrewd Jews. But the discrepancy between this myth and reality is most obvious to researchers in the “openness” category. An average Russian is traditionally believed to be more open-minded than citizens of many other nations. But in the course of the study conducted by Tartu University, over 3,700 participants in various Russian regions were asked to fill out a questionnaire and rate Russians’ personality traits using a 30-item National Character Survey (NCS), especially designed for this study. In the end, the average “openness” of Russians was assessed below the cross-cultural average of auto stereotypes across 49 nations.

Another trait that is most often referred to as typically Russian is simple-mindedness, as opposed to complicated personality types of other nations.

“Russians are hardly simple,” said Makhovskaya. “Simple-mindedness is explained differently by psychologists, as a mechanism to cover aggression. It’s convenient to always be able to say that ‘we are simple and were fooled.’ Russians are unpredictable and irrational, rather than simple-minded, and can outsmart many. Simplicity is part of the national mythology.” The majority of answers that sociologists get in the course of opinion polls emphasize simplicity and openness in the Russian character. “Those are hardly psychological characteristics of Russians or of theimindset, but a very deep Russian modus of relationship with the state and power. It is very convenient for authorities to operate with society members when they follow this track. In this regard, today is no different from the 19th century or the Soviet times. It’s a matter of national propaganda to translate these self-characteristics and dependence on them into national pride. At this stage we see how this grows into the general myth about the ‘special Russian way’,” said Dubin.

A spacious pocket

The generosity of the Russian character often comes as a surprise to foreigners. The phrase, a “wide soul,” has become a platitude, but its meaning is not so easy to define. On a pedestrian level generosity, as opposed to greed, is still part of the Russian nature. Russians are still fond of making handsome gestures and surprising friends with generous gifts. Dividing up expenses at a meeting between friends or checking the bill at a restaurant is regarded as petty. The so-called “new Russians,” who flocked to European resorts in the past decade, have become renowned for leaving enormous tips.

But the Russian character is made up of both coldness and warmth. The notion of solidarity applies to those close and dear, but it’s hardly a social phenomenon. The social indifference that characterizes modern Russia is not so much a matter of generosity, but a consequence of mistrust toward all government and even non-governmental institutions. Even if the average Russian wants to help somebody it is through donating to the closest parish or giving something directly to a poor relative. Russian attitudes toward charity are incomparable with those of the world’s richest countries—the recent catastrophic earthquake in Haiti and the Russians’ response to it clearly illustrates the situation.

A wave of compassion rolled through the world and people of various nationalities donated to various charitable organizations. During one evening organized by ZDF television and Bild, the Germans managed to collect € 20 million ($ 24.6 million). The Swedes transferred € 5 million ($ 6.1 million) in aid in the very first days after the disaster. Needless to say, the United States, where 90 percent of the population is involved in some kind of charity, topped the donor list. On the state level Russia also granted approximately € 13 million ($ 16 million) via the UN and dispatched a mobile hospital and a team of doctors, but this was hardly a consequence of the “Russians’ eternal compassion,” as Dostoevsky put it. Most Russians remained indifferent toward the initiatives of the Russian Red Cross. At the end of January it was reported that Russians had not collected any private donations for Haiti.

New spiritual wealth

Maybe the Russian soul is still searching for truth and eternal values, but nowadays this translates into the triumph of a consumer culture at various levels—from the super rich to the lower middle class. Rene Descartes’ famous phrase “I think, therefore I am” can in today’s Russia easily be twisted into “I consume, therefore I am,” to express the so-called “conspicuous consumption.”

Back in 2004, according to R-TGI Market Research, over 57 percent of Russians said that they had enough money not only to look after everyday needs, but to enjoy shopping for pleasure. Avid consumers flocked to malls and chain stores as fast as developers could build them. From 2000 to 2007, consumer demand in Russia grew by 20 to 30 percent annually. Despite the economic crisis, 28 percent of families took out consumer loans over the past two years, a poll conducted by the Levada Center in 2009 found.

Psychologists, however, see this radiant phenomenon from an unusual angle, and point out the Russian flavor of this consumer feast: “Even Western psychoanalysts confirm that suffering is one of the psychological norms of existence for Russians, from the time of Dostoevsky and even earlier. It is very deep in the back of their minds. So even the consumer culture that is trying to instil a penchant for life and joy sometimes looks a bit like a sad clown,” said Makhovskaya. The Levada Center also performed a special survey among wealthy urban Russians who represent the upper middle class.

“Up to 60 to 70 percent of the respondents were convinced that in Russia, they can lose everything for various reasons, and do not evaluate their position as stable. They were not sure that their children would be able to inherit their wealth. This is the main reason to spend everything today, and get whatever this money can buy,” said Dubin.

Molding the young

For vigorous supporters of capitalism, work and careers remain the main reference points in life. For the majority of Russians aged 18 to 25 the primary goal has been realizing their aspirations to a prosperous life and imitating the established patterns of social success. This is often defined as an “identity crisis” rather than going back to national traditions or archaic patterns. “Young people are pragmatic but at the same time have a high level of anxiety and conformism. They live by the necessities of the day without greater ideas or convictions. They evaluate education mostly according to the dividends it can bring. They are very individualistic and this defines their lifestyle. It’s a kind of short-term type of consciousness, and a rather shallow personality type. In former times this would be called philistine,” said Mahovskaya.

The majority of young people, as the most dynamic part of society, understood their newly-acquired freedom not as an opportunity to build a civil society, but primarily as a chance to live securely and to consume as much as possible. “Until recently, the majority of Russian youth was very conformist, it did not have its counterculture that would be opposed to consumerism. Everybody including the young was struggling for access to the consumer market. Quite recently, though, we have seen gradual shifts,” said Karin Kleman, a French sociologist who has been studying Russian youth culture.

So far there is very little room in Russia for the anti-globalist movement, groups of ethical consumers or environmentally-friendly youth—all widespread phenomena among young people in the West. Sociologists also note another trait of the young generation of Russians who did not live in the Soviet Union. Unlike other segments of the population, young Russians are open to social networking, they are more cosmopolitan—but only if the situation is stable. If something extraordinary happens, the compensatory mechanism which justifies a special “Russian way” switches on even for young people. “Despite the fact that young people are heavy consumers of Western culture and products, once it’s necessary to make a choice, the young adopt the standards and stereotypes of the majority. In a very simple situation, when a Russian team wins or loses in some sports competition, young people are just as intolerant or even xenophobic as the rest. The majority share views on the exclusivity of Russia and the Russians and animosity toward the outer world,” said Dubin.

Change, however, is coming, albeit slowly. In the past three to four years, sociologists have finally begun talking about an independent youth culture in Russia. “It is mainly, but not exclusively, growing on the Internet, used by one third of the population in 2008, where this emerging culture has rich forms,” said Alexei Levinson, the head of the Social Research Department at the Levada Center.

By Elena Rubinova
Special to Russia Profile

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