Later this week I’m taking part in a discussion with Gulnaz Sharafutdinova, King’s College London, Ronald Grigor Suny, University of Michigan, Greg Yudin, Moscow School of Social and Economic Sciences / National Research University Higher School of Economics
In the spring of 2019, Russian Internet exploded with a debate on the perceived prevalence of totalitarian attitudes among the Russian masses. The controversy was sparked by the Levada Centre data on the approval of Stalin, but involved other issues including the concept of Homo Sovieticus. The theoretical paradigm that explains the failure of the “transition to democracy” by referring to the alleged resilience of the Soviet totalitarian personality underlies a large number of academic studies and popular accounts of Russian politics, many of which (e.g. Masha Gessen’s recent book ‘The Future Is History’) have a tangible impact on the public attitudes and policy-making in the West. Participants of this roundtable will explore the reasons for the revived appeal of this concept, its theoretical assumptions, empirical foundations and political consequences, and argue that it is time to lay the notion of Homo Sovieticus to rest. The arguments include: (1) that the concept of Homo Sovieticus builds on the idealized, abstract image of a “liberal self” and market democracy; (2) that, empirically, the concept promotes the study of the Soviet Union, contemporary Russia and other East European societies as deviant and pathological, instead of looking at the actually existing mechanisms of social and cultural reproduction; (3) that, politically, by presenting the common person as an inner barbarian, the concept works to legitimize the exclusion of the masses from politics and ultimately leads to the endorsement of “the strong hand,” whose mission is to discipline and civilize the unruly native population.
Those that follow this blog or my other writing will recognize that I frequently make reference to emerging class relations in Russia. Unlike researchers like Simon Kordonsky, I don’t make a distinction between a service class and others, but instead I focus more on the gap between a small and emerging middle class – in terms of income and assets – and the majority – broadly a dispossessed group living precariously. While I’m not always successful, it’s this material basis of differentiation that I find most useful in understanding differences in attitudes, differences in the way people go about building and maintaining their lifeworlds, intentionally or unintentionally. And in this sense, though I am occasionally accused on romanticizing the lives of the people among whom I do research, my main aim is not to say that these dispossessed Russians are somehow different, but more to draw attention to how their situation is simply a more extreme condition that many in the global north and the global inbetween (those countries caught in the middle-income trap) find themselves.
Bydlo as the Sovok of our times
How does this relate to Homo (post) Soveticus? My first point is a long-standing observation. This is how the idea of a deficient person specific to Russia is transformed from sovok (the often derogatory term for person with a Soviet outlook) to ‘Cattle’: lit. bydlo. Like sovok this term bydlo gains wide currency (indeed its use goes back to serfdom. Ushakov’s definition is, “used to denote stupid, weak-willed people, submissive to violence.”).
By its nature (denoting the crowd, mindless, content with chewing on the cud, requiring little to no stimulus) this term is laden with class distinction. There is us – we might be politically liberal, we might be politically conservative, but we are the thinking reeds (to use the metaphor from Pascal beloved of Russian intellectuals) and then there are the cattle. My mention of the Pascal metaphor is to underline that while few people nowadays would call themselves ‘intelligentsia’ the mental division of ‘us’ and ‘them’ is, ironically more tangible within Russia itself than the current elite-projected division of Russians=god-bearing people v. decadent westerners, about which I wrote here. It’s interesting to me that people don’t make more of this irony. My views on this grew out of similar observations, in the West, popularized by Owen Jones’ book Chavs: the demonization of the working-class, and the work of Don Kalb and Brian Fabo on Central Europe. Fabo shows how in Slovakia a similar discursive exclusion to that of Russia is visible:
“The underprivileged […] are usually portrayed as myopic actors, incapable of recognizing their true interests, keen on pursuing narrow personal gain at the expense of the whole society. This approach offers no ground on which it is acceptable for the poor even to voice their grievances”
Winiecki on Poland:
“they haven’t learned how to work and after the dissolution of these deficient creations they have no place now from where they can steal…. The problem of Poland is the Poles themselves who wait for a manna
from heaven and think that they deserve everything without work and commitment. It is the passive part of society that is at fault”
The last quote, from a prominent liberal economist, comes from a book by Aronoff and Kubik (2013: 242-3). Based on such pathologisations, they define Homo sovieticus: people who were socialized under state socialism who cannot “properly” function in a new system built around the precepts of capitalism. They dismiss this characterisation of sections of postcommunist societies as ‘civilisationally incompetent’ (P. Sztompka’s term) and I agree with them. However, it’s interesting that we can identify more specific characteristics from these critical accounts. Namely: immaturity/infantility. In turn, this manifests itself in economic and social incompetence. In particular there is a strong and highly unsociological attribution of ethical or moral shortcomings which are immutable (because of socialisation, what?). Avarice, selfishness, petty stupidity, social and political atomisation, or, as is frequently heard in Russian context: ‘social nihilism’.
If we come back to ‘bydlo’ for a moment, we can note that despite ideas in the West about Russian media as carefully state-curated to serve the narrow aims of the elite, there is a recurring trope of the stupid mass that is raised again and again by so-called liberal-oppositional figures. Indeed the term itself is associated with a particular use of it by the prominent writer/publicist Yu. Latynina. She is a frequent contributor to Echo of Moscow radio station (owned by Gazprom, don’t forget). Common tropes she and others recycle are the dangers of the populus/demos (толпа, народ). For example in a long monologue from the station she provides a reading of the contemporary relevance of the Shakespeare play Coriolanus. We can detect the inheritance of H-S in her use of ‘bydlo’ – the Russian voters expect paternalism, they are ‘khalyavshiki’ who do not pay taxes, I.e. they are socially and politically infantile. Similarly, Latynina’s use of the word (which is often accompanied by the term ‘lumpen’) emphasises moral shortcomings I’ve already mentioned: sloth and avarice – habitual disinclination to work leading to a miserly desire for gain without effort: e.g. among those willing to attend pro-Putin rallies for 500 roubles. At the same time, these people are contrasted to the ‘working Muscovite’ who even if unsuccessful, is hard-working and earns their crust. Then she makes a transition to those that participated in anti-Putin rallies in 2011: “они что-то из себя представляли” – lit. ‘made something of themselves’. They are self-made, like those millionaire acquaintances Latynina takes the time to tell us about, who would not be seen dead in the company of pro-regime bydlo. Ironically for someone condemning avarice, material wealth is something of an obsession of hers.
It’s unfair to focus on a freak like Latynina, I know.1 To you and me her views might seem unhinged, projection, but I assure you I meet carbon-copies of her rantings all too frequently in my research when I talk to people who ‘fit the profile’, so-to-speak. However, for balance, allow me a short note about celeb poet/writer D. Bykov. Bykov is a more acceptable2 face of anti-regime intellectualism – Bykov’s most famous pronouncement about the 2011-12 protests were that those participating wanted to show each other that they were not bydlo and that to consider one’s fellow citizens bydlo is dangerous. In a follow up ‘Treatise’ entitled “Народническое” (Populism) Bykov goes into detail about the term ‘bydlo’. The bydlo is not the ‘people’, i.e. the narod.3 The narod is active, creative, productive. However he warns, increasingly the cattle call themselves ‘the simple folk’, but are passive, prone to rumour, basely cunning and immune to notions of what is noble in life. Behind Bykov’s characteristically shock and awe use of the Russian language is a similar rather hackneyed notion of social hierarchy, containing both politically conservative fantasies of the peasant/craftman populus-plēbēs and Soviet tropes of moral worth through labour. Bykov represents a kind of Arendtian liberalism: where the focus is on liberty through the active vita. As many have pointed out this account of the person-in-society remains stunted sociologically because its logic derives from Greek models of the individual inscribed within the private household and is structurally naive. Indeed, some argue that this Arendtian approach is actually closer to forms of conservatism than liberalism.4
Why rake over the ravings of a peculiar journalist and writer – surely this is setting up a straw man or other logical fallacy? Two reasons: Latyninism exists on the airwaves for a reason – it reflects a broad logic of classist disgust I encounter all the time in my research (I’ll come back to this later). Secondly, as I have started to argue, there is overlap/affinity with H-S. I’m not saying that one is the direct inheritor of the other, because of course the circumstances that generated the idea of H-S were different. Nonetheless, liberal-intellectual disappointment with the ‘common man’ and the perception of his moral failings, political shortsightedness, and immersion in his own petty cares and worries to the detriment of the greater good are obvious carry-overs. But as usual I’ve got ahead of myself. Let’s roll back to H-S in its true sociological element – Yuri Levada and co. More to follow in the next post.
(Posting on state capitalism will resume later this summer/early autumn).
- I don’t really think it’s unfair – she has an outsized influence on metropolitan liberal opinion, takes the Kremlin’s shilling, yet does not live in Russia (yes, I know that’s complicated). See the various wiki-parody sites devoting pages to Ms L. E.g. on Lurkmore.
- That Dmitry Lvovich is the ‘acceptable’ face of morally upright intellectual opposition is itself a grimly funny indictment of liberal double standards.
- Interestingly, ‘narod’, is such a problematic term as in any iteration it too appears as an example of lazy, essentialising thinking. I was rightly called out for it the other day on Twitter, although in my defence I was quoting a conversation.
- Greg Yudin wrote about conservatism masking as liberalism among Russian intellectuals here: https://lefteast.org/scratch-a-russian-liberal-and-youll-find-an-educated-conservative-an-interview-with-sociologist-greg-yudin/