Staunton, May 25 – Sociologist Lev Gudkov says that when he began to investigate homo soveticus in 1989, he had a very different and what has now been shown to be a mistaken view of what this category of people consisted of, how it was produced, and how it would pass from the scene.
In a presentation to a meeting at Moscow’s Jewish Museum, the Levada Center director says he and his colleagues initially assumed that homo soveticus was a personality type that arose in Soviet times in response to extreme repression and that it would disappear when that generation died out (lenta.ru/articles/2019/05/24/homo_soveticus/).
“Our hypothesis,” he continues, was partially confirmed by the events of the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the individuals of this kind were passing from the scene along with the Soviet Union. Such individuals were “adapted to a repressive state and had learned to live with it.”
But what became obvious with each passing year, Gudkov says, is that the values of homo soveticus were reproducing themselves in new generations and in new circumstances because those new circumstances were not as completely new as many assumed and because especially after 2000 many of the old circumstances were being recreated.
Homo soveticus both Soviet and post-Soviet, he says, identified and identify “themselves with the state and empire but at the same time understand that the government always deceives them and will exploit them. They recognize that this is a system based on force and therefore they always seek to get out from under its control.”
They were and are clever and duplicitous and “extraordinarily cautious because this system affected their entire lives” and was quite capable of destroying them. Thus, the homo soveticus was and is “quite cynical, trusted only those near him … feared everything new and at the same time was internally aggressive.”
Among the chief values of this kind of person, Gudkov continues, are “the unity of the powers and the people and the priority of state interests. As a result, the powers are not responsible to the population or represent his interests; they are concerned [only] about the greatness of the state.”
That leads to “a devaluation of individual life,” to the promotion of self-sacrifice, asceticism, devote and a special kind of spirituality, but spirituality is needed here in order to justify this self-sacrifice in the name of the state or of some fictional values,” the sociologist says.
That is why the state inevitably appeals to “’the bright past’” because it legitimates the current powers that be and the existence of a society under their control. And this in turn means that any self-assertiveness or claims of rights is viewed as an unacceptable challenge not only to the state but to the society of homo soveticus.
Gudkov stresses that “the Soviet man was not an ethnic characteristic.” People in the non-Russian republics and the Eastern European countries display these as well. But – and this is a point often neglected – “all the same there are certain distinctions” between the Russian case and the others.
“Even in certain parts of Western Ukraine which were under the control of the Russian Empire, everything is arranged somewhat differently; and the same thing is true in the Baltics as well.” From this it follows that homo soveticus has its roots in the Russian model of statehood long before 1917 – and it is no surprise that it has continued and reemerged since 1991.
In his remarks, Gudkov makes three additional important points. First, the sociologist says, this pattern has left Russian society far more fragmented, atomized and distrusting than others and left the society far less capable of organizing itself to defend its rights especially against the deified state.
Second, has meant that even now Russians find it difficult if not impossible to honestly evaluate the past of their country. The reaction to Stalin and his crimes highlights this. Russians can’t deny that he killed millions of people, but they can’t admit it fully either because that undermines “the sacred nature of the state.”
As a result, most Russians want to avoid focusing on this issue because when they do, they feel a sense of “intellectual prostration.” And when they are forced to consider the issues involved, they typically choose to minimize the size and scope of Stalin’s actions and the number of his victims.
And third – and this may be the most fundamental observation he makes in this context – the end of one aspect of the Soviet system did not mean that everything changed. Much has “remained practically unchanged, and this gives stability and guarantees a certain continuity and reproduction of ideological stereotypes and repressive and legal practices.”
To say as many often do that at certain moment everything changed was and is “an intellectual error.” The continuing vitality of homo soveticus is clear evidence of that.