Russia 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
Dec 10th 2011 | *MOSCOW *| from the print edition
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
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
– The Kremlin
– European politics
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
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
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
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.
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
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
*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.