Staunton, October 14 – Lev Gudkov, the head of the Levada Center polling agency, says that Russians have evolved from Homo Sovieticus to Putin Men, changing in certain fundamental ways as a result of Vladimir Putin’s rule but retaining many of the features from the Soviet past.
The longtime sociologist says that a Soviet man was archetypically “a person born in and shaped by a totalitarian regime. Life in repressive conditions [made] him crafty and skilled at doublethink. He [knew] how to bypass the authorities’ demands while simultaneously maintaining informal and corrupt relations with them” (themoscowtimes.com/articles/the-evolution-of-homo-sovieticus-to-putins-man-59189).
“They pretend to pay us, we pretend to work,” is his motto, Gudkov says. “They pretend to care for us, we pretend to respect them. Soviet man demonstrates his loyalty to the authorities through collective symbolism and performance. But his real values and interests are in the private sphere — his home and family.”
The Soviet man “has few demands: he knows he has little to no power and deeply mistrusts everyone but those closest to him, expecting nothing good from anyone else. After living through countless restrictions — the traumas of war, collectivization, modernization, miniscule salaries, residence permits — he just wants one thing: to survive.”
While shaken by the transformations of the 1990s, transformations in which Russians “lost their sense of self-respect and dignity,” the sociologist say, they retained many of these qualities; and then Vladimir Putin arose and added some new dimensions by arguing that “there’s nothing to be ashamed of” and that it was time to “turn a new page in our history.”
“With that came the conviction that Russia had a right to use force, especially on its borders. Russians’ pride was hurt when former Soviet republics changed alliances. When they had color revolutions or moved to integrate with the West, aggressive feelings spiked, fueled by state propaganda,” the pollster continues.
And attitudes toward the rest of the world changed as well. “Today in polls, Russians describe the West as coldhearted, lacking in spiritual values, extremely formal and aggressive. Russians no longer believe the Western model is for them — their country has its own ‘special’ path.”
As a result, Gudkov argues, “a national inferiority complex” was covered by “imperial arrogance” to form a mechanism which “allows Russians to come to terms with their lowered status following the collapse of the Soviet Union.” But this aggressive stance toward others has “serious limits.”
“Only around seven percent of Russians say they’re prepared to make a personal sacrifice to advance the country’s interests abroad,” an attitude that reflects the fact that “because people feel they have no decision-making power, they don’t feel responsible for the outcome” or show much willingness to support it beyond words.
Moreover, Gudkov says, “under Putin, the state has largely returned to its previous role as a paternalistic caretaker with the redistribution of resources as its main function. ‘Putin takes care of us’ is a frequently-heard response in polls. [And] human rights and individual freedoms are just words for the majority of the population.”
“At the same time, attitudes towards repression have softened. Josef Stalin, whose popularity is steadily rising even among those who suffered most under him, is seen as an effective manager who deserves respect. This return to the Soviet concept of governance is most common among the elderly who live in the countryside.”
In Russia today, only about 15 percent of the population are politically active in support of any position. “The vast majority is completely uninterested in political life. Asked whether they want to be more involved, 85 percent of people say no. Politics, they feel, has nothing to do with them.”
“After the protests of 2011, religious conservatism was presented as a counterpoint to demand for reform and political opposition. Being Russian has become synonymous with being an Orthodox Christian. As with most ideologies, this belief is superficial. … 40 percent out of those ‘religious people’ say they don’t believe in God.”
Thus, the Soviet man of a generation ago “has somewhat changed: He’s been fed, he’s changed his clothes, he’s bought a car and owns a home. But he still feels insecure and vulnerable. And he’s just as aggressive towards his neighbor because there are no institutions that have laid down rules that people follow,” the sociologist says polls show.
“Today the average Russian expects a minimum living standard — work, a home, and some social rights. Private property is valued, but no one expects any guarantees. People know that the government can take away everything they have at any moment and for any reason.”
Moreover, they say “the government represents the interests of the security services, oligarchs and bureaucracy — but not the interests of ordinary people. And they believe this cannot be changed. So, in Soviet fashion, they adapt and make deals with the authorities. Corruption is perceived as both serious and commonplace.”
At the same time, Gudkov says, “the theory that Russians are somehow not prepared for a liberal democracy is false. Russians today simply reflect and respond to their circumstances. In a different situation they’d behave differently. Now there is no desire for change. The idealism and romanticism of the perestroika era has evaporated.”
The young supporting Navalny “are an exception to this rule,” Gudkov concludes, “but the narrative that a new generation will bring change is a false one. Today, Russia’s Soviet-era institutions stamp out any idealism. It will take more than one generation to change that.”