Saturday, August 11, 2018

Fear and Loathing among Russians Chief Inheritance of Soviet Past, Roshchin Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, August 10 – “The fear of ordinary people of those with power in Russia serves as a favorable basis for all kinds of prejudices and stereotypes,” Aleksey Roshchin says. This arose already in the Soviet Union with its ironclad power vertical and is linked with trained unanimity, the enormous size of the country, and even with oil and gas under the earth.”

            Roshchin, a social psychologist who specializes in the continuing impact of the Soviet period on Russian life, tells Vladimir Shumakov of the Lenta news agency that many fears Russians have are rooted in the enormous size of the country, the weak links of its various regions to each other, and worries that any loosening of control will lead to its disintegration.

            When the communist system arose, he continues, “all the very worst aspects of the Russian Empire manifested themselves many times over, with the very same super-centralization and complete denial of democracy” and any autonomy for territories or organizations not created by the state (

                Distant part of the country “should have been autonomy and in the final analysis certain of them should have been separated from the metropolitan center. That scenario was foreseen and in fact has always been a source of fear.” The collapse of 1991 only intensified that fear and made the demand for central control even greater, Roshchin argues.

            But this obsession with central control has not been limited to territorial units, he continues. It extends to any efforts by people to organize themselves in ways independent of the state, an attitude that reflects the view that in Russia there must be only a power vertical of the state and “an amorphous mass of people around it.”

            In Soviet times and again now, Roshchin says, any organization of people from below including even stamp collecting is “a terrible threat to the state.” If they appear, they must be absorbed by the state and their leaderships must be in Moscow. A classic example of this is that even now “there are no independent unions.” Russians must feel they are part of a hierarchy.

            All this has two consequences, the social psychologist says. On the one hand, Russians are kept in a state of constant stress “because you are defenseless;” and on the other, a second paradoxical consequence arises: your only hope is the state, the very same institution which you are afraid of.”

            To make this system work, the Soviet state suppressed empathy among Russians.  Any concern for others, even those who are weak and obviously need help, Roshchin says, has been viewed as a manifestation of weakness and therefore something that ordinary people should avoid at all costs, unless ordered to do otherwise.

            This in turn leads to a demand for unity in all things. In the Duma now as in the Supreme Soviet earlier, deputies take decisions “practically unanimously even if they could pass with many fewer votes, Roshchin says. The main thing is that “everyone be involved” so that anyone thinking about dissenting will be marginalized. 

            “Unanimity is in fact very important” in Russian culture, he argue. “It exerts a subjective influence on people. If everyone says one and the same thing, the individual will agree with it no matter how horrific. But if he hears the voice of even a small minority, which says something else, he is freed” from that discipline.

            According to Roshchin, “people fear the power standing behind officials, not the officials themselves. The power and the bureaucrats are different things, but we view them as a single whole.” But since 1991, Russian fears have multiplied because there have appeared “additional threats to the ordinary person” in the form of the newly wealthy.

            “The official is dangerous because he is from the state vertical which is always over the ordinary person; the bourgeois is dangerous because he has money and with that he can buy officials, hire bandits and so on, and national minorities [including diasporas and migrants] are always a threat” because they have a built-in form of solidarity.

            But behind all of these is the fear that any loosening of the bindings holding things together will mean that things will begin once again to fall apart. Hence the attraction of and demand for stability above everything else. And indeed, because this system is inherently unstable, Russia would fall apart except for one thing.

            And that is its possession of enormous natural resources which belong to the center.  That allows Moscow to pay off the population and thus keep it in line.  But there is “a danger” in this, one that involves not running out of these resources but “a serious vacillation in their prices,” something which will complicate the center’s control.

            Russians are “accustomed to political infantilism and it is extraordinary developed.” They generally accept what those above them say and do what those above them tell them to do.  “And at the basis of this infantilism is fear,” Roshchin says.  And that fear will continue as long as they believe and the state encourages them to believe that the country could fall apart at any moment.

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