The long life of Homo sovieticus



This week’s elections and upheavals in Russia show how hard it is, 20 years after the system collapsed, for the country to put away its Soviet past


TWENTY years to the month since the Soviet Union fell apart, crowds of angry young people have taken to the streets of Moscow, protesting against the ruling United Russia Party (“the party of crooks and thieves”) and chanting “Russia without Putin!” Hundreds have been detained, and the army has been brought into the centre of Moscow “to provide security”. Although the numbers are a far cry from the half-million who thronged the streets to bury the USSR, these were the biggest protests in recent years. The immediate trigger for this crisis was the rigging of the parliamentary elections on December 4th (see article). But the causes lie far deeper.
The ruling regime started to lose its legitimacy just as Vladimir Putin, Russia’s prime minister, declared a final victory for “stability”, promised to return to the Kremlin as president and pledged to rebuild a Eurasian Union with former Soviet republics. The Soviet flavour of all this had been underscored at United Russia’s party congress at the end of November, where Mr Putin was nominated for the presidency. “We need a strong, brave and able leader …And we have such a man: it is Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin,” enthused a film director. A steelworker told the congress how Mr Putin had “lifted our factory from its knees” and supported it “with his wise advice”. A single mother with 19 children thanked Mr Putin for a “bright future”.

Such parallels with the now idealised late Soviet era were supposed to be one of Mr Putin’s selling points. No tiresome political debate, fairly broad personal freedoms, shops full of food: wasn’t that what people wanted? Instead, unthinkably, Mr Putin has been booed: first by an audience at a martial-arts event on November 20th, then at many polling stations, and now on the streets. The Soviet rhetoric conjured an anti-Soviet response.

According to Lev Gudkov of the Levada Centre, an independent polling-research organisation, this reaction against the monopolistic, corrupt and authoritarian regime is itself part of a Soviet legacy. It is driven by the lack of alternatives rather than a common vision for change. For Russia is still a hybrid state. It is smaller, more consumerist and less collective than the Soviet Union. But while the ideology has gone, the mechanism for sustaining political power remains. Key institutions, including courts, police and security services, television and education, are used by bureaucrats to maintain their own power and wealth. The presidential administration, an unelected body, still occupies the building (and place) of the Central Committee of the Communist Party.

More important, the Soviet mental software has proved much more durable than the ideology itself. When, in 1989, a group of sociologists led by Yuri Levada began to study what they called Soviet Man, an artificial construct of doublethink, paternalism, suspicion and isolationism, they thought he was vanishing. Over the next 20 years they realised that Homo sovieticus had mutated and reproduced, acquiring, along the way, new characteristics such as cynicism and aggression. This is not some genetic legacy, but the result of institutional restrictions and the skewed economic and moral stimuli propagated by the Kremlin.

This mental software was not a generational feature, as the Levada group at first suspected. The elections were rigged in Moscow not only by middle-aged people with Soviet memories, but by thousands of pro-Kremlin younger folk gathered from across the country and dispatched to cast multiple ballots around the city. Symbolically, they made their camp in an empty pavilion of the Stalinist Exhibition of People’s Achievements. Most of them had no memories of the Soviet Union; they were born after it had ceased to exist.

Yet the election results also revealed the reluctance of a large part of Russian society to carry on with the present system. Thousands of indignant men and women, young and old, tried to stop the fraud and protect their rights. One election monitor, who was thrown out of the polling station, wrote in his blog that “I thought I would die of shame…I did not manage to save your votes…forgive me.” Such voices may still be a minority, but the clash between these two groups was essentially a clash of civilisations—and a sign that the process of dismantling the Soviet system, which started 20 years ago, is far from over.

A moral vacuum

When the Communist regime collapsed in 1991 there was an expectation, both in the West and in Russia, that the country would embrace Western values and join the civilised world. It took no account of a ruined economy, depleted and exhausted human capital and the mental and moral dent made by 70 years of Soviet rule. Nobody knew what kind of country would succeed the Soviet Union, or what being Russian really meant. The removal of ideological and geographical constraints did not add moral clarity.

In particular, the intelligentsia—the engine of Soviet collapse—was caught unprepared. When their “hopeless cause” became reality, it quickly transpired that the country lacked a responsible elite able and willing to create new institutions. The Soviet past and its institutions were never properly examined; instead, everything Soviet became a subject of ridicule. The very word “Soviet” was shortened to sovok, which in Russian means “dustpan”. In fact, says Mr Gudkov of Levada, this self-mockery was not a reasoned rejection of the Soviet system; it was playful and flippant. Sidelined by years of state paternalism and excluded from politics, most people did not want to take responsibility for the country’s affairs.

The flippancy ended when the government abolished price regulation, revealing the worthlessness of Soviet savings, and Boris Yeltsin, faced with an armed rebellion, fired on the Soviet parliament in 1993. Soon the hope of a miracle was replaced by disillusion and nostalgia. As Mr Levada’s polling showed, it did not mean that most people wished to return to the Soviet past. But they longed for order and stability, which they associated with the army and security services rather than with politicians.


Enter the hero

Mr Putin—young, sober, blue-eyed and calm—was a perfect match for people’s expectations. Although picked by Yeltsin, he made a striking contrast with the ailing leader. Though he owed his career to the 1990s, he stressed that his own times were very different. Two factors made him popular: a growing economy, which allowed him to pay off salary and pension arrears, and the prosecution of a war in Chechnya. Both symbolised the return of the state.

In the absence of any new vision or identity, the contrast with the 1990s could only be achieved by appealing to a period that preceded it—the late Soviet Union. Yet although Mr Putin exploited the nostalgia for an idealised Soviet past and restored the Soviet anthem, he had no intention of rebuilding the Soviet Union either economically or geographically. As he said repeatedly, “One who does not regret the passing of the Soviet Union has no heart; one who wants to bring it back has no brain.”

As a KGB man, Mr Putin knew perfectly well that the state-controlled Soviet economy did not work and that the ideology was hollow. But also as a KGB man, he believed that democracy and civil society were simply an ideological cover-up adopted by the West. What mattered in the world—East or West—were money and power, and these were the things he set out to consolidate.

The country was tired of ideology, and he did not force it. All he promised (and largely delivered) was to raise incomes; to restore Soviet-era stability and a sense of worth; to provide more consumer goods; and to let people travel. Since these things satisfied most of the demands for “Freedom” that had been heard from the late 1980s onwards, the people happily agreed to his request that they should stay out of politics. Though Mr Putin was an authoritarian, he seemed “democratic” to them.

The ease with which Mr Putin eliminated all alternative sources of power was a testimony not to his strength but to Russia’s institutional weakness. Yeltsin, who hated communism, had refused to censor the media or interfere in the court system. Mr Putin had no such qualms. First he brought television under his control, then oil and gas. Igor Malashenko, who helped to establish NTV, the first private television channel in Russia, says he thought that “there would be enough young journalists who would not want to go back to the stables. I was wrong.”

Russia was much freer in the 1990s than it became under Mr Putin. But the change was gradual rather than sudden, and was based on a relationship between money and power inherited from a previous era. The privatisations of the 1990s put property in the hands of the Soviet officialdom and a small group of Russian oligarchs. As Kirill Rogov, a historian and analyst, has observed, the real problem was not that the accumulation of capital was unfair—it usually is—but that clear rules of competition and a mechanism for transferring property from less to more efficient owners were never established.

Under Yeltsin, the oligarchs were shielded from competition by their political clout. Mr Putin simply flipped the formula, turning owners into vassals who were allowed to keep their property at his discretion. From now on it was the power of the bureaucrat, not the wealth of the owner, that guaranteed the ownership of an asset. The nexus between political power and property was never broken—as it must be in a functioning democracy.

Monetising privilege

Under communism, the lack of private property was compensated for by power and status. A party boss did not own a factory personally—he could not even buy a flat—but his position in the party gave him access to the collective property of the state, including elite housing and special food parcels. The word “special” was a favourite one in the Soviet system, as in “special meeting”, “special departments” and “special regime”.

The Soviet system collapsed when top officials decided to “monetise” their privileges and turn them into property. The word “special” was also commercialised, to become eksklusivny (exclusive) and elitny (elite). It was used to market almost anything, from a house to a haircut. Under Mr Putin, “special” regained its Soviet meaning without losing its commercial value. A black Mercedes with a blue flashing light, ploughing its way through pedestrians, became the ultimate manifestation of power and money. It was also one of the symbols of injustice which helped to trigger the latest protests.

Stories of bureaucrats, and especially the security services, putting pressure on businesses are now common. The most famous example is that of Mikhail Khodorkovsky and the dismembering of the Yukos oil company. But there are thousands of others. The statistics are staggering: one in six businessmen in Russia has been prosecuted for an alleged economic crime over the past decade. Most of the cases have no plaintiff and the number of acquittals is close to zero, according to studies by Russia’s Centre of Legal and Economic Research. This means that the vast number of Russian businessmen in jail are victims of corrupt prosecutors, police and courts, which can expropriate a business with impunity.

As Yegor Gaidar, a prominent liberal economist, warned in 1994, “The carcass of a bureaucratic system can become the carcass of a mafia system, depending on its goals.” By the time his book appeared in 2009 his warning had become reality. In the past few years this “monstrous hybrid” has started to extend its tentacles into every sphere of public life where money can be made. Examples of violence against businessmen abound. This adds up to a Soviet-style policy of negative selection, where the best and most active are suppressed or eliminated while parasitic bureaucrats and law enforcers are rewarded. What Stalin wrought by repression and extermination, today’s Russia achieves by corruption and state violence.

The bureaucracy’s main resource is participation in the rent-distribution chain. While this allows it to channel money towards sensitive regions and factories, it also increases the country’s addiction to oil and gas and fans paternalism. Mr Putin has worked hard to build up the image of the state as the sole benefactor, taking credit for rising incomes generated by high oil prices. As he stressed at the United Russia congress, only the state and its ruling party are capable of sorting out people’s problems. “No one else is responsible for affairs in a village, town, city or region or the whole country. There is no such force.”

This idea was spread by local governors, who told their citizens before the elections that regional funding depended on voting for United Russia. “If we are responsible, we have no choice,” the governor of impoverished Udmurtia told his people. “We must go and vote for the [United Russia] party candidates 99.99%. This is how it was in Soviet times, and if we had not broken this order, we would still be living in the Soviet Union…much better than now.” In practice, critics say, the state has failed to perform many of its functions, such as providing adequate health care, education, security and justice. But in Russia words and symbols often count for more than experience.

A fortress mentality

Among Mr Putin’s rediscovered Soviet symbols, none is more important than that of Russia as a great power surrounded by enemies. Having promoted a version of history in which Stalin represents Russia’s greatness (his repressions just an unfortunate side-effect of a cold war forced upon him by America), Mr Putin has employed one of Stalinism’s favourite formulas: Russia as an isolated and besieged fortress.

Although Russia has no iron curtain and the internet is free, “it is as though an invisible wall still counterpoises everything that is ‘ours’ to everything ‘foreign’,” Mr Levada has written. Indeed his polling showed that, by 2004, the number of Russians who considered themselves no different from people in other countries had fallen, while the opinion that Russia is surrounded by enemies had grown stronger.

The recent parliamentary elections were accompanied by a heavy-handed propaganda campaign that portrayed America’s anti-missile system as an existential threat to Russia. Dmitry Medvedev, Russia’s president, made belligerent statements and state television showed lengthy footage of Russian missiles, radars and other threatening stuff, accompanied by a tense soundtrack. It was as though Russia was about to be attacked. The target of this campaign was not the West, where the Russian elite spends much of its time and money, but the domestic audience.

Anyone who criticises the government from within Russia gives aid to the enemy without. In his speech to the party congress Mr Putin particularly attacked NGOs which receive money from the West “to influence the course of the election campaign in our country”. The “so-called grant receivers” were like Judas, he said, ending his speech with a quote from Stalinist times: “Truth is on our side. Victory will be ours!” He conspicuously left out the third bit: “The enemy will be destroyed!” But no sooner had he spoken than Russia’s slavish television (which has shown none of the current protests) aired a propagandist film about Golos, a leading independent election monitor, trying to frame its staff as Western agents.

Such tactics, in which enemies are everywhere and no one is allowed a noble motive, breed a general cynicism. In this, post-Soviet Russia feels very different from the Soviet Union. Leaders then had values, not just interests. The Communist Party might have been sclerotic and repressive, but it was not called “a party of thieves and crooks”. Soviet leaders did not encourage cynicism: they took themselves and their words seriously. It would have been impossible, for example, for a chief Soviet ideologist to write an anonymous novel exposing the vices of the system he himself had created, as Vladislav Surkov, the chief Kremlin strategist, has just done.

Many Kremlin politicians in fact perceive themselves as progressive Westernisers struggling with a backward, inert population which has neither the taste nor the skill for democracy. They assume people will swallow anything as long as their incomes keep rising. But when Mr Putin said that his job swap with Mr Medvedev had been planned long ago, people felt duped. These blatant machinations, where everything was imitation and nothing was real, leached away support for United Russia even before the elections. When the Kremlin decided to rig the ballot openly, fury boiled over.

After a decade of “stability”, Russia now looks as vulnerable to shock as the Soviet Union was at the end of its days. The big difference, however, is that the Soviet Union had a clear structure and, in Mikhail Gorbachev, a leader who was not prepared to defend himself with force. Today’s circumstances are very different.

Mr Putin is unlikely to follow the advice of Mr Gorbachev and cancel the results of the rigged election. He may instead resort to more active repression, thereby making the country look a lot more Soviet. This would only make the crisis worse. How Mr Putin’s highly personalised power might be challenged, and what the consequences would be, remain unanswerable questions. But it is obvious that unless Russians create a system that promotes honesty, openness, tolerance and initiative, no change of leader will free their country from the Soviet grip.


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