Russians’ (supposed) ‘polycentric relativism’: Levada’s legacy and the sociology of Homo Soveticus (Part II)

Is bydlo the bridge from sovok?

My own initiation into the meaning of Homo Soveticus was via literary sources – from A. Zinoviev’s Yawning Heights and other works. Zinoviev, for example, talks about how living in an ideological society does not allow one to become a ‘genuine man’, but instead “learn to cleverly grab all that one can, to be evasive and shrewd in order not to get hurt” (1983) – a kind of social maladaption is described.

But the canonical Homo Soveticus surely emerges from Yuri Levada’s longitudinal studies – mainly survey data on attitudes and social behaviours. With my students each year we read the English translation of a 2000 article Homo Post-Soveticus, Working out of a functionalist tradition of studying human socialization, Levada is obsessed with (mal)adaptation to Soviet rule. For example: like Zinoviev, he believes that inevitably, in a society characterized by informal and incomplete ‘deals’ with Soviet state, individuals are subject to ‘moral corruption’, ‘acceptance of sham’… ‘bribery and doublethink’. Loyalty only emerges through fear of punishment.  At the same time, these forms of adaptation mean that Soviet man is ill prepared for the collapse of the Soviet system.

The ‘comfort’ for those who lived under the protective social paternalist ‘roof’ of the Soviet system is removed in 1991. Some – particularly the educated, adapt to the new reality, but most resent ‘being forced to hustle’ [приходится вертеться]. This peculiar phrase is given a lot of attention. One might note that it’s the sociologist’s imposed criteria – not an ‘emic’ term’ (as far as I can tell). It seems to express the new reality. Now everyone has to take individual responsibility for one’s social and economic position in society. However, Levada extends this finding into a quite partial portrait where implied laziness, timidity, anti-entreneurialism, generalized dissatisfaction tending to nihilism reign supreme. I recall one student remarking – “if one looks at the raw survey data, it looks quite different from the general story Levada tells”. And to be fair he does mention “upward adaptation” for those finding new opportunities, but one would struggle to find an adequate reflection in his commentary of the fact that 89% of his respondents “find new opportunities” because of the enterprise society that emerged after perestroika.

Levada segues from generalized dissatisfaction to the easy manipulation by elites of homo post-soveticus via populism and the selection of external enemies. Enter Putin, and the stage is set for a mature phase of ‘polycentric relativism’ where one can justify ignoring any social or juridical prohibitions based on contingencies. But by falling into the little deceptions that ‘everyone commits’ – whether lying or ignoring traffic laws, one is deceiving oneself. Deceptive double-think, moral and social degradation are the current result as the Russian cycle (in its market-capital iteration) repeats itself. Overall though, it’s striking that Levada’s project as a whole sees ‘adaptability-as-expediency’ приспособленчество – as a vice, but ‘adaptability’ that of becoming “неприспособляемых”, as a rational, cognitive choice and step, to make the best of opportunity as a virtue [thanks to Denys Gorbach on clarifying this]. At no point does he reflect on this irony.

Revisiting Levada – two critiques from Greene and Sharafutdinova, and the need to study vernacular knowledge

In my classes, after Levada, we turn to two contemporary critics of his homo post-soveticus: Gulnaz Sharafutdinova (2019) and Samuel Greene (2019). Greene contextualises Levada in a broad intervention about the need to pay closer attention to “common-sense, locally grounded, defensive, and slowly changing guideposts for navigating uncertainty” among Russian citizens. His text connects to Aronoff and Kubik’s critique of the term homo soveticus, and Greene reanalyses Levada’s material to note the development (or maintainance?) of strong prohibitions against breaches of interpersonal trust in contrast to breaches of impersonal, generalized trust. In conclusion – strategic, non-atomised/anomie social action is possible in Russia, but is local. Citizenship exists, but we need to be sensitive social scientists in uncovering it.

Sharafutdinova, in a blog post based on a substantive article underlines the outdated functionalism of Levada’s portrait, with its roots in what is now personality psychology (for an important inside critique of personality psychologies methodological and theoretical approaches see here).

“Instead of promoting human agency and revealing political potential at the individual level, the Levada Center’s analysis blames (if indirectly) the Russian people for the reemergence of authoritarianism. It thereby provides a blueprint for domestic “othering”: Russian intellectuals who disagree with the current political system “other” the Russian masses in the way they apply the construct Homo sovieticus. Instead of building political bridges and coalitions, intellectuals frequently end up blaming the masses, without whom long-term political change is impossible.” 

I think Sharafutdinova’s summary of Levada’s project is probably the most comprehensive and critically informed in English. It’s worth reproducing part of her article:

Levada’s “research project [was] entitled “the Soviet simple person” to study the ideal-typical features of the personality type developed during the Soviet Union that he thought might become a hindrance in the post-Soviet democratization process. Levada’s aim was to develop a list of mutually interdependent characteristics that linked the social system and the symbolic sphere: the commonly-shared thinking patterns, dispositions, attitudes, and values of Soviet people. The project was based on a massive representative survey of Soviet citizens across the USSR, with the sample of 2700 respondents, and its findings were summarized in Sovetskii prostoi chelovek (A Simple Soviet Man, Moscow 1993), which elaborated the key personality traits that could be viewed as specific to the Soviet system. The survey questions were very wide-ranging and explored, among other things, people’s salient identities (who do you feel yourself to proudly be?), attitudes towards the state, a sense of obligation to and expectations from the state, moral predispositions (should a person be responsible for. . .?), images of the nation, views of important historical events and prominent historical personalities, the balance of preferences on risk and stability, levels of tolerance, views of social stratification, professional and educational aspirations, a sense of social and political efficacy, and views about the Soviet collapse. The findings were both provocative and in line with the criticisms originating among educated groups in the society. Based on these surveys, sociologists from the Levada group suggested that the Soviet man was (a) simple and simplified (in a sense of being obedient to authorities, modest and satisfied with what he/she has, living as “everyone does,” not trying to stick out, not trying to be different from others), (b) isolated, (c) lacking choice, (d) mobilized, (e) hostage to the group, and (f) hierarchical. Furthermore, the fundamental features of homo sovieticus included a sense of exceptionalism, state paternalist orientations, and imperial character.”…” The analytical lens used to explore the massive empirical data collected through surveys—sometimes involving 200–300 questions—was itself colored by a critical and even moralizing stance that resulted in accentuating the attitudes and predispositions of the survey designer. This lens was maintained throughout the continuation of the Soviet man project in the 1990s and the 2000s, thereby constantly shaping data interpretation and highlighting Soviet legacy issues at the expense of situational factors.”

Back to Aronoff and Kubik. Towards the end of their book the authors make a lengthy critique of the charge of ‘civilizational incompetence’ against homo post-soveticus, as outlined in Polish sociologist Piotr Stompka’s work (1993). This is worth summarizing. Incompetence in Stompka’s view comes down to a number characteristics or tendencies: overly personalized trust leading to allergy to social engagement; past-orientation/nostalgia; fatalism due to learned helplessness in the face of punitive state; negative freedom (freedom from) leading to atomization, permissiveness, impotence; instrumentality of double-standards; susceptibility to mythical thinking.

Aronoff and Kubik comment: “Sztompka’s black and white logic is criticized for neatly allocating civilizational incompetence to one group or category of people, while there are others who are blessed with the required competence that allows them to become, rather effortlessly, the citizens of a democratic state equipped with a market economy. Buchowski offers an intriguing correction when he suggests that the “socialist” habitus diagnosed by Sztompka is not a dysfunctional relic reproduced by inertia, but rather a useful adaptive strategy to the shock caused by yet another “modernizing” project that shares with state socialism certain “logical and structural similarities,” at least in the experience of some actors.”

While this might sound like a partial justification of the adaptive spirit of homo sovieticus, later on Aronoff and Kubik provide a host of contradictory data, showing how in each of Stompka’s examples – for example, ‘past orientation’, it is easy to provide counter evidence, or, more likely, contradictory co-existence of tendencies, behaviours, beliefs. They conclude thus:

“People who experience an externally engineered social change are neither necessarily defensive nor incompetent; they often plot offensive actions. Such plotting usually occurs from within culturally constructed social worlds that are often local or regional. In order to explain and understand people’s actions, their conception of the world, and their life strategy, including economic choices and political sympathies, researchers need to study vernacular knowledge. They need to reconstruct locally developed cultural scenarios.”

In the next post I’ll try to triangulate all of the above in relation to my own research findings.

3 thoughts on “Russians’ (supposed) ‘polycentric relativism’: Levada’s legacy and the sociology of Homo Soveticus (Part II)

  1. Pingback: Homo (post) Soveticus Part III: Vernacular knowledge and responding to three accusations against the Russian majority | Postsocialism

  2. Pingback: Eclectica 4: The pen stops moving; the books keep coming – Russia Reviewed

  3. Pingback: A third of Russians feel they bear moral responsibility for aggression against Ukraine (Wtf!) | Postsocialism

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s