For whatever reason, a single subject keeps cropping up in my readings of late – the alleged psychological deviance of the Russian people. I’m not quite sure how to thread it all together, so I plan just to ramble through some of the things I’ve come across, and hope that something coherent comes out of it.
A while back the journal Russian Review asked me to review a book by Moscow academic Sergei Medvedev entitled The Return of the Russian Leviathan. The review appeared in print this week. Medvedev is an outspoken critic of the ‘Putin regime’ and, as one might expect, his book – which is actually a collection of op-ed articles – is relentlessly negative in its depiction of Russia. This is clear from the very first essay which tells readers that, ‘All around there are ever more dead villages … The people you come across are increasingly wretched. They wander aimlessly along the roadside … with a look of hopelessness … everything is dissolving into oblivion.’ That’s modern Russia for you! Everything is ‘hopeless’. As you can see, Medvedev isn’t exactly even-handed in his approach, although it must be said that he does write extremely well. I note in my review that, ‘As op-eds go, those in this book are exemplary – colourful, hard-hitting, and penetrating.’ ‘But’, as I also say, ‘an op-ed is not a work of scientific research, and readers should treat Medvedev’s arguments with caution.’
If there is a single argument running through Medvedev’s book it is this: that there’s something deeply wrong with the Russian psyche. Medvedev writes of the ‘mass infantilization of public consciousness’, an ‘embittered, alienated and provincial consciousness’, ‘an undeveloped mass consciousness’, and the ‘archaic, pre-rational and mystical condition of our national consciousness’. Russia, he says, is ‘a society mired in lies, cynicism and lack of trust, having lost all hope for the future.’ Its defining characteristics are the ‘syndrome of trained helplessness’ and the ‘condition of resentment,’ defined as ‘the moral of slaves.’ You get the theme: Russia as a whole, says Medvedev, ‘is in desperate need of collective therapy.’
It turns out, though, that he’s not the only one saying this. If you go the book section of the latest edition of the Russian Review, just above my review of The Return of the Russian Leviathan you’ll find a review of Andrei Kovalev’s memoir Russia’s Dead End: An Insider’s Testimony from Gorbachev to Putin. Reading it, I had an odd sense of déjà vu, as all the same criticisms as I had made of Medvedev popped up again. Kovalev is a retired Soviet/Russian diplomat of what one might call ‘liberal’ inclinations, who like Medvedev is keen to expose the evils of modern Russia. In the process, comments reviewer Robert English, he ‘engages in some questionable psychiatry of his own’. English cites Kovalev as saying that, ‘Russia is sick. Its illness is complex and psychosomatic in character. This presents itself, among other ways, as manic-depressive psychosis accompanied by acute megalomania, persecution complex, and kleptomania, all compounded by dystrophy.’ Kovalev’s position, according to English, is that ‘The opinion of most of the population is irrelevant since their “slave psychology” makes them easy to brainwash and everything is decided by the KGB-silovik elite in any event’. ‘It would make any but the most extreme Russophobes blush’, English concludes.
What Medvedev and Kovalev have in common is their belief that Russians have ‘the moral of slaves’ (as Medvedev puts it) or the ‘slave psychology’ (in Kovalev’s words). This is a centuries-old trope, dating back at least as far as the sixteenth century writings of Sigismund von Herberstein, but as I found out in something else I read this week, the idea got a more general boost from the infamous Frankfurt School of scholars, which came up with the concept of ‘The Authoritarian Personality’.
This was the title of a book published in 1950 in the United States on the basis of research originally conducted in Germany in the 1930s before the School’s members fled from the Nazis. Supposedly, the authoritarian personality reflects ‘personal insecurities which result in the superego adhering to externally imposed conventional norms, and unquestioning obedience to the authorities who impose and administer the social norms of society (authoritarian submission).’ From this theory emerged the ‘F-Test’, which supposedly reveals how disposed one is towards fascism. Unfortunately, when the F-Test was tried out on Nazi war criminals, they didn’t score particularly highly, but that rather significant snag didn’t stop it having some influence, and the idea spread that authoritarianism could be explained by a certain personality type.
I wasn’t previously aware of this, and it goes some way towards explaining the logic of Yuri Levada and his research into the ‘Soviet man’ (Homo sovieticus), which is a sort of social scientific effort to measure the allegedly authoritarian personality and ‘slave mentality’ of the Russian people. Levada died in 2006, but the research centre which bears his name continues his work, and this week it issued a new survey as part of its ‘Soviet man’ project, with results which are either somewhat encouraging or somewhat alarming, depending on your point of view.
According to the latest survey, Russians have become more tolerant toward groups such as gays, prostitutes, and feminists, but less tolerant toward religious sects such as Jehovah’s Witnesses. On the one hand, only 32% of respondents said that gays and lesbians should be ‘isolated from society’ compared with 37% five years ago, thus giving rise to the headline of ‘increased tolerance’ (although it should be pointed out that another 18% think that gays and lesbians should be ‘liquidated’). On the other hand, 41% think that members of religious sects should be ‘isolated from society’ and another 21% think that they should be ‘liquidated’, an increase since the previous survey.
All this talk of ‘liquidation’ and ‘isolation from society’ doesn’t suggest a very liberal state of mind among the Russian people (75% think paedophiles should be ‘liquidated’, 9% think the same of feminists!). If you take this survey at face value, it’s more than a little scary. The question therefore arises of whether one should take it at face value. As I mentioned in a previous post, Levada’s methodology has been criticized as ‘colored by a critical and even moralizing stance that resulted in accentuating the attitudes and predispositions of the survey designer’. Unfortunately, I’m not qualified to say how true that it is, but one does wonder what Russians think they are saying when they reply that they want to ‘liquidate’ people, and one also has to wonder whether 21% of them really would want to ‘liquidate’ Jehovah’s Witnesses if some survey didn’t ask them to consider it. It could be that their attitudes really are quite scary. Or then again maybe not. I’m not sure.
In an article in Kommersant, political scientist Aleksei Makarkin commented that the language and practice of isolation and liquidation comes from Soviet times, but a really interesting book I read last week suggests an even earlier, and perhaps more surprising source, positing that the Soviets got the language from pre-revolutionary liberal psychiatrists and sociologists. In short all this talk of ‘isolating’ people has its origins in the liberal human sciences.
In Renovating Russia: The Human Sciences and the Fate of Liberal Modernity, 1880-1930, Daniel Beer examines how late Imperial liberal intellectuals took on board Social Darwinist ideas of ‘degeneration’ and argued for the need for drastic measures to restore the health (ozdorovlenie) of the Russian people. According to their logic, social conditions had the effect of producing forms of social deviancy (crime, alcoholism, laziness, etc), which were then reproduced in offspring (through a Lamarckian system of biological evolution), leading to the gradual degeneration of the nation over several generations. This process applied to the richer classes (whose privileged lives produced degenerate people) as well as to the poor. Making matters worse, a process of ‘moral contagion’ meant that the degenerate morals of the deviant tended to spread to the healthy elements of the population, gradually infecting all. The only solutions were a) a radical altering of the social and economic system, and b) measures to ‘isolate’ the morally degenerate in ‘special institutions’ in a type of ‘indefinite preventive detention’. In this way, liberals became supporters of decidedly authoritarian measures. According to Beer, the Soviet regime then picked up on these theories and ‘began to universalize the principle of social defense’, in which society defended itself by isolating ‘corruptive elements’ from the rest of society.
Thus, concludes Beer, ‘Russian liberalism … proved to be the unwitting architect of significant features of the project that triumphed over it.’ If so, it may not have been a coincidence. As Isaiah Berlin argued in his famous essay ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’, if you take the line that people can’t be free because they’re not able to reason properly, then you can justify all sorts of repressive measures. In this way, the pursuit of liberty leads to its destruction. It’s an irony worth bearing in mind whenever the talk turns to the moral failings of the people.