Homo Sovieticus in modern Russia, and the War in Ukraine

People in the Soviet Union watching Mikhail Gorbachev announcing his resignation on December 25, 1991.
People in the Soviet Union watching Mikhail Gorbachev announcing his resignation on December 25, 1991. Source: SCANPIX/AP Photo/Sergei Kharpukhin, File

Svetlana Štšur writes about how the mentality of Homo Sovieticus and the inertia of old mindsets continue to shape Russians' attitudes, including towards the war in Ukraine.

If you are familiar with the phrase "what a disgusting thing your jellied fish is" (from Eldar Resanov's iconic movie "The Irony of Fate, or Enjoy Your Bath"), you probably know who Andrey Myagkov or Barbara Brylska are. If you lost count of how many times you watched "Ivan Vasilievich Changes Profession'' with Yuri Yakovlev or "Operation Y" starring Yuri Nikulin and Alexander Demyanenko on New Year's Eve, there is a good chance that you grew up in the Soviet Union or were born to a Russian-speaking family in any of the former Soviet republics.

The Soviet regime's legacy is still a highly divisive subject in many post-Soviet countries, creating political tensions, straining relationships between ethnic communities and even within families. Despite all of this, the love for Soviet cinema unites many. There are at least a dozen Soviet movies that have become timeless classics and are a must-see especially during the winter holidays, accompanied by the famous Olivier salad, meat jelly, herring under a coat, champagne, and other relics of the Soviet family festive table.

It's heart-breaking to realize that just a year ago millions of people in Ukraine and Russia gathered for holidays with their inner circle to watch the same old movies, laugh at their favorite jokes by their favorite Soviet actors and share the feast during the winter celebrations.

Of course, things were not the same after the Russian occupation of Crimea in 2014 and the lengthy military conflict in the Donbas region, steered and fed by the Russian authorities enabling local separatist forces. Yet, a year ago on New Year's Eve and Christmas, no one among us commoners could have imagined the hell Ukraine and the rest of Europe were about to enter in 2022.

The aforementioned New Year Eve's sentiments are familiar to many people in Eastern Europe, including Estonia, but it is vital to keep in mind that these celebration styles in the post-Soviet societies are directly linked to Russian imperialism, which in addition to exporting Russian language and culture and creating unifying traditions within the Russian Empire and later the Soviet Union, subjected Ukraine, and many other nations to waves of russification, deportations, and other forms of oppression. There is no great movie that can compensate for the crimes of the imperialist regimes, which have been attempting to destroy the cultural heritage and sometimes even the physical presence of smaller nations.

What is particularly tragic is that despite shared religion, cultural features, and common traditions, for the last 10 months, millions of Russians have been watching the suffering of Ukrainians (who dress similarly to them, live in similar panelka neighborhoods, many of whom speak Russian as their first language) while expressing no regret or much empathy for the victims.

The bodies lying on the streets of Bucha, Mariupol being destroyed, theaters and even maternity wards blown up, millions of innocent civilians fleeing the country searching for safety and shelter – all of it is ridiculed and overturned by Russian propaganda and served to the millions of Russians who behave like in one of Alexander Pushkin's famous poems: "Ah, it is not difficult to deceive me, I am happy to be deceived."

Of course, there are millions of people in Russia who are against the war. They participate in protests and support opposition to Putin's regime regardless of the risks to their freedom and even their lives. Clearly, it is different to protest in a democratic country vs in authoritarian/totalitarian regimes. We have seen it in Belarus and Russia for many years.

Nevertheless, there is a significant number of people in Russia who show a lack of empathy or any sign of disapproval regarding the war. They continue to support Putin's regime despite the deaths of thousands of Russian soldiers, Western sanctions, and Russia's growing international isolation.

What makes so many Russians numb to the suffering of Ukrainians or even their own hardships emerging because of the war?

I believe that there has been a virus-like intervention in the social genome of the Russian nation, a product not from American laboratories, but a result of the mixing of Russian imperialism and the new Soviet man ideas in the 20th century.

The virus is called "Homo Sovieticus," and it has been present in Russian society's core system for almost a century now, despite the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Soviet Man vs Homo Sovieticus

The historian Klaus Gestwa traces the origins of the concept of Homo Sovieticus, a new man, to the 1930s. Initially Homo Sovieticus contained both the idea of the classical Marxist image of the victorious proletariat and the belief in the supreme historical destiny of the Russian nation. Like many other myths, the new Soviet Man had a grandiose mission to make the world a better place – he was destined to end any exploitation and oppression under the Sun and finally realize the revolutionary ideal of equality and fraternity.

Russian sociologist Lev Gudkov, former director of the Analytical Center Levada, describes the makings of a "Soviet Man" as a lifelong socialization process, accompanied by a powerful propaganda machine, highly ideological education system, supported by a powerful apparatus of political repression, as well as various forms of social control, including neighbors, colleagues, or even family members.

According to research carried out by Yuri Levada and his team (including Lev Gudkov) in 1989-2003, an oppressive socioeconomic environment resulted in generations of mistrustful and cynical citizens, largely dependent on the overbearing care of the State; normalizing doing the bare minimum at work and stealing from the workplace; developing a self-destructive drinking habit; avoiding taking personal responsibility and demonstrating a generally low level of ambition.

Gudkov also highlighted that even though the Soviet people were conscious of their so-called great historical mission (read: imperial superiority with flavors of militarism), demonstrating loyalty and support for the regime, in everyday life, in the safety of their own kitchens and narrow circle of trusted people, a clear disrespect and even contempt for the authorities was shown and shared. Eventually, the global socialist order was the last thing on the average person's mind. It all came down to personal survival, getting ahead of others if needed at work, in line for bread, medications, or an apartment.

The term "Homo Sovieticus" was popularized with a negative connotation by Soviet writer and dissident Alexander Zinovyev, who wrote in his eponymous satirical novel-confession (1982): "In the west, smart and educated people call us Homo Sovieticus. They take pride in discovering this human subspecies and the beautiful name that they came up with."

Zinovyev explains that Westerners use "Homo Sovieticus" in a sarcastic way and reinforces it by adding his own description of the Soviet Man: "Look at this (Soviet Man)! He is smart and educated. Nobody fooled him, intimidated him, or corrupted him. Rather, on the contrary, he himself did this to other people, who, however, do not consider themselves fooled, intimidated, or corrupted. In general, there is no need to subject Soviet people to such treatment, since they themselves are capable of fooling, intimidating, and corrupting anyone."

Homo Sovieticus in Modern Russia

Yuri Levada and his research team initially were leaning towards a theory that the Soviet person or Homo Sovieticus is a dying social archetype. However, they changed their position in the early 2000s and argued that the Soviet person continues to live on in modern Russian society. In other words, the Soviet man did not disappear but evolved into an "adaptable" Putin's man with equally twisted beliefs about social reality and their place in it.

The dissolution of the Soviet Union was a shocking and traumatic experience for Russia, which resulted in the collapse of its socioeconomic system, the loss of status as a key player in global politics, and a severe wounding of the national identity for Russians. As a result, many Russian people felt fooled and humiliated throughout the 90s, as their world fell completely apart: skyrocketing inflation, huge unemployment, a blossoming criminal scene, and an overwhelming sense of insecurity regarding the future. This kind of uncertainty was not something that the average Soviet person was prepared for, coming from a stagnant system like the Soviet Union.

Since the late 1980s, there have been quite a few ethical dilemmas in the air, like who to hold responsible for the various crimes committed by the Soviet regime. Public calls for collective repentance went unanswered during Perestroika or the 1990s and basically sank in the information noise, failing to reach the masses. Lev Gudkov explained Russia's inability to do historical homework by referring to the relatively late abolishment of serfdom in Russia in 1861. This was followed by several revolutions, world wars and the Soviet regime which corrupted both the concept of morality and collective responsibility.

Upon arrival on Russia's political scene, Vladimir Putin made it seem as if there was nothing wrong with being Russian or a former Soviet citizen. Furthermore, Putin validated early on the feelings of millions of people who regarded the dissolution of the Soviet Union to be one of "the greatest geopolitical catastrophes of the century". The following strengthening of the power vertical and the State becoming again a paternalist caretaker of its citizens under Putin's rule just hit home for most of the Russian population who did not know any better.

Putin's coming to power coincided with a drastic increase in oil prices. This led the country to recover from the 90s and pushed Russia towards the relative prosperity of the early 2000s. The average Russian family was finally able to afford a home and a car, maybe even two cars, while the deficit on the shelves of grocery shops became a cautionary tale from the past. (The deficit is back now as Western sanctions, a reaction to Russia's aggression in Ukraine, are undermining the Russian economy).

With the improved socioeconomic situation, the Russian people were ready to ignore the gradual decline in human rights and growing oppression of opposition under Putin's rule, also turning a blind eye to major crimes of the regime, including the war in Georgia in 2008 and now the war in Ukraine.  In other words, it seems that the average Russian person has happily disassociated themselves from the acts of Putin's regime. As long as men in uniform do not directly knock on their doors... Ironically, this has been a real possibility since the beginning of war, followed by waves of mass mobilizations.

In closing

The latest Levada polls demonstrate that the number of supporters of the war in Ukraine come to around 70 percent. Mr. Putin continues to be the most popular political figure after all that has happened. Meanwhile, 59 percent of respondents think that they do not bear any personal responsibility for the destruction and civilians' suffering in Ukraine.

In my opinion, this is how a Homo Sovieticus-dominated society's attitudes will look like.

Some may argue, that Levada's reports cannot be trusted now, given the lack of freedom of speech in Russia, as well as other risks for Russian people who dare to express any form of disagreement or disapproval of the regime's actions.

It is also worth noting that Levada interpretation of the Soviet Man concept is far from being politically unbiased. Clearly Levada and his circle are the proponents of liberalism.

Nevertheless, I believe that Homo Sovieticus explains a lot about Putin's rule as well as why the war in Ukraine was made possible in the first place and was not strongly opposed by Russian people.

Moreover, understanding the dysfunctional dynamic of Russian society, it would be possible to prevent major geopolitical tragedies as the one in Ukraine, after the war and Putin's regime come to an end.

It is also worth mentioning that Homo Sovieticus can be found outside Russia in the former Soviet Republics. Estonia is no exception. Estonian Soviet Man became particularly active during the coronavirus period, when the amount of distrust towards vaccines and state instructions in general peaked in some layers of Estonian society, accompanied by numerous conspiracy theories and dangerous myths about health and the virus. This phenomenon was not present only in Russian-speaking communities.

Some readers would be surprised to find out that there are some Putin lovers and admirers of his imperial politics among Estonians too (take a look at the Neeme Lall YouTube channel if you have some Estonian or Russian). Most of us would find such people and their behavior crazy or eccentric so they are not usually taken seriously. Nevertheless, it would be an interesting subject to explore in the future.

For a final note, here is a citation from Mark Zakharov's film "To kill a Dragon" (1988) based on the play of Yevgeny Schwartz: "What are you? … You are free people! Get up! You are slaves! /…/ I will now make everyone understand this and kill the Dragon in themselves! IN YOURSELF, do you understand that?"


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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