Over the years many issues have divided Russian conservatives and Russian radicals. One of these has been the relative importance of individuals and institutions. This is something of a simplification, but broadly speaking conservatives have tended to the view that individuals come first, while radicals have said that institutions do. In the eyes of conservatives, it is fatal to establish democratic or liberal institutions in a society where the people are uneducated, have a poorly developed legal consciousness, and the like. The first step in reform therefore has to be improving the people. The schema of the likes of Uvarov and Pobedonostsev, therefore, was a process of very gradual enlightenment, after which political reform might eventually be allowed. Until then, power would have to remain in the hands of those who were already enlightened – i.e. the aristocracy. The schema of the radicals, by contrast, was to smash existing institutions. Only then could decent people finally be created.
Despite these differences, conservatives and radicals have long had one thing in common – they hold the ‘people’ (narod) in low regard (as I say, this is a simplification; there are obvious exceptions). For the conservatives, the unenlightened nature of the people is an excuse not to surrender power; for the radicals, it is an excuse to destroy the hated system and to create a ‘new man’.
These attitudes prevail to this day. An example of the radical view comes in an article entitled ‘Russia’s Moral Disaster’ published on the website of the Estonian International Centre for Defence and Security by the Finnish writer Jukka Mallinen. Its basic theme can be deduced from the subtitle ‘Russians cannot tell good from evil.’ Mallinen notes that the patriotic resurgence in Russia following the 2014 annexation of Crimea ‘has made the intelligentsia take a new and deep look at morals and the Christian faith in Russia.’ He quotes the ‘poet and philologist Olga Sedakova’ as saying that the roots of Russia’s alleged moral crisis lie deep in the Russian personality. As Mallinen says, Sedakov ‘thinks that Russians have a special relationship with evil-the inability to tell it apart from good. In the West, the relationship with evil is unambiguous, but in Russia it’s vague: nothing is declared definitively evil. Complicated explanations lead to making friends with evil.’ Russians, in effect, can’t tell wrong from right.
The sense that Russians are morally deficient is commonly associated with the concept of the ‘Sovok’ – the Soviet personality, often also known by the phrase ‘Homo Sovieticus’. The idea that society could only progress by ‘smashing the Sovok’ was a popular theme in the rhetoric of pro-Maidan liberals in Ukraine in 2014. Smashing the Sovok required total de-communization, a renunciation of Ukraine’s Russian ties, and a complete reorientation of the country towards Europe. Through institutional revolution, a new Ukrainian person could be built, and the country could finally prosper.
The same idea is often to be found in discussions of modern Russia. In an article just published in the academic journal Slavic Review, Gulnaz Sharafutdinova of King’s College London notes that Homo Sovieticus is associated with a host of negative personality traits allegedly instilled in Russians by 70 years of Soviet rule. These supposedly include being excessively obedient to authority, lacking in choice and initiative, and duplicitous. The persistence of these negative traits explains why Russia has failed to transform into a ‘normal’ democratic society and to develop ‘the autonomous liberal self’ which supposedly characterizes the Western individual.
But is any of this true? In her article ‘Was There a “Simple Soviet” Person? Debating the Politics and Sociology of “Homo Sovieticus”,’ Sharafutdinova expresses scepticism. The popularity of the concept of Homo Sovieticus, she argues, owes much to the work of Russian sociologist Iury Levada and his successor as head of the Levada Centre, Lev Gudkov. Levada popularized the idea that there was a simple ‘Soviet type’ through a large survey project he conducted in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The problem, says Sharafutdinova, was that ‘the foundational assumptions of the project were deeply political’, and the survey methodology ‘was itself colored by a critical and even moralizing stance that resulted in accentuating the attitudes and predispositions of the survey designer.’ Levada’s survey was based on a totalitarian model long rejected by Western sociologists and assumed that the overarching political system was the single most important factor determining individual personality. ‘This approach did not allow for recognizing human (whether individual or collective) agency and reflexivity, and promoted a flat, mechanistic version of the individual.’ It also ‘identified exclusively negative features’ and was ‘coupled with a tendency to idealize western society’.
Much better, according to Sharafutdinova, was the work of a less well-known sociologist, Natalya Kozlova. Rather than use surveys, Kozlova made use of a ‘people’s archive’ consisting of documents such as ‘letters, postcards, memoirs, and personal journals of ordinary people’, in order to explore the realities of everyday life. Whereas Levada ‘viewed Soviet citizens as a brainwashed and corrupted emanation of the system (cogs), or its victims, Kozlova viewed individuals as actors involved in complex social games.’ In the process, she was able to determine the existence of values ‘such as altruism, compassion, and [a] sense of justice expressed in the “little” Soviet person’s everyday life.’ Her documents showed, for instance, how Soviet people reacted to problems such as shortages with strategies such as ‘exchange’ ‘based on the moral economy of selfless giving and obligation, on heartfelt closeness and ethical grounds.’ In short, the Soviet person was not as devoid of ethics as Levada claimed.
Overall, Sharafutdinova concludes, ‘the political nature of Levada’s project … stigmatized the Soviet man rather than explained him.’ A much more sophisticated understanding of personality is therefore needed. Unfortunately, ‘the model of the simple Soviet person seems to have acquired dominance as a frame of reference for Russian intellectuals’ who regard the ‘masses as slaves/sheep/bydlo’. Intellectuals thereby ‘lock Russia … into its present (and even past) condition’, arguing that democratic reform is impossible in Russia due to Homo Sovieticus. In this way, they have inadvertently ended up on the same side as the conservatives.
None of this is to say that the institutions have no effect on individual personality and that Russia’s imperial and Soviet pasts have not left some psychological legacy which in some way influences current developments. But Sharafutdinova’s article demonstrates clearly the need to avoid stereotypes, and acts as an excellent rejoinder to the kind of essentialism put forward by Mallinen and Sedakova. Simplistic slogans such as ‘Russians cannot tell good from evil’ hinder our understanding of current events far more than they assist them.