Thursday, December 30, 2021

As an Aging 'Homo Sovieticus,' Putin Seeks to Create an ‘Improved Version’ of USSR, Gontmakher Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, Nov. 8 – Vladimir Putin and his team are people of the unique species, homo Sovieticus, Yevgeny Gontmakher says; and they are trying to create a new and improved version of the USSR, one in which the fundamental arrangements will be the same but in which unlike in the past these arrangements will work because of computerization and effective management.

            The Moscow economist says that “the Soviet past continues to influence what is occurring in contemporary Russia” because Putin and his entourage make decisions on the basis of the way they grew up and were socialized in Soviet times (

            In a new collection of articles, Dismantling Communism. Thirty Years Later (in Russian, Moscow, 2021), Gontmakher discusses in detail the phenomenon of the Soviet man, homo Sovieticus, and uses that discussion as the basis for an analysis of why Putin thinks as he does and has taken the steps that he has.

            “The predecessor of the USSR, the Russian Empire, never set itself the task of creating some kind of unified historical community of the type of ‘a Russian imperial man.’” Only the Soviets tried to create such an individual but even then they retained some aspects of national cultures.

            According to Gontmakher, “the Soviet melting pot existed only in part of the USSR,” mostly the RSFSR with the exception of the North Caucasus, Tyva, Mountainous Altai, Sakha, as well as Ukraine and Belarus, with the exceptions of their Western portions “and possibly part of Moldova.”

            The new Soviet man who became homo sovieticus was defined by the dominance of the Russian language and the destruction of religious roots, the Moscow economist continues. Now, this “’soviet community’ lies at the basis of the so-called ‘Russian world’” that Putin is doing so much to promote.

            Thirty years ago, he says, Russians suffered under the illusion that with communism overthrow, they could move quickly toward “classical liberal democracy, a market economy and rapidly become genuinely European.” But over the last three decades, they have been disappointed in all three areas.

            In part, this reflected something many do not want to admit to: “At the end of the Soviet era, in Brezhnev’s time, there occurred the self-destruction of human capital: educated and intelligent people did not see any prospects and became depressed … alcoholism and drug use spread … and homo sovieticus, deprived of energy, was passive and an indifferent conformist.”

            According to Gontmakher, “Gorbachev’s perestroika in fact inspired a very small circle of people, the active but small part of the intelligentsia. As a result, when the Soviet flag was replaced by a new Russian one over the Kremlin … no one, not in Moscow or anywhere else” came to the defense of the system. They simply went on with their lives.  

            At the end of Soviet times, he continues, “people were not simply apolitical but nihilistic: they didn’t trust the powers that be and they looked at the state as an enemy [but] they did not intend to struggle against it.” In fact, the situation today is even worse: education and any hope for the future have been destroyed and “kvas nationalism” is spreading.

            In such a situation, there is no room for protest; and almost everyone is obsessed with stability lest things get still worse. Putin, as a homo sovieticus himself, understands this. And he also understands something else: “now in Russia there is no mechanism for the evolutionary transfer of power.”

            Putin’s “main idea which he, I think, carried with him from the late Soviet period is this: all around is chaos and order must be imposed,” Gontmakher says. And as a technocrat, the Kremlin leader believes that the only way out is through tight central control from the top to the bottom of society.

            He is not prepared to allow the emergence of a genuine market economy but instead wants a new and effective Gosplan and believes that giant projects like a new BAM effort ca solve everything. Economists recognize this is nonsense. But from Putin’s point of view and that of those around him of the same generation, all this makes sense.

            They believe they can “create an improved version of the USSR, and then everything will work.” He will allow a small private sector and controlled opposition parties. After all, he saw that in the GDR where he worked as a KGB operative and thinks that is all that is necessary to keep the system on an even keel.

            But such people are fundamentally wrong, and what is more, Gontmakher says, they are passing from the scene. Their children don’t think the same way; and the entire country faces problems which this recipe won’t solve. They know that, and it is likely that Putin and his team understand at some level that what they are doing will only hold together for their lifetimes.

            Gontmakher concludes by suggesting that a transition to something else will take place at the municipal level. There, ever more often young and independent candidates are winning. If such voting were to become truly open and free, “we will get a completely different quality of local power.”

            And then this will spread first to the regions and then to the center. All this is only “a matter of time. Some 20 years from now, the phenomenon of the Soviet man as a mass phenomenon will disappear forever,” the economist says.

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