How the Soviet man still shapes today's Russia?
December 27, 2022
  • Alexei Makarkin

    First vice-president, Center for Political Technologies 
Alexei Makarkin writes about features of the Soviet perception that still persist among older generations of Russians and how they help us understand attitudes toward the conflict in today's Russia. 
To interpret the reaction of Russian society to the ongoing socio-political challenges (both internal and external), it is important to understand three significant features of the Soviet person, i.e. the many Russian citizens who were educated in the USSR and accepted the Soviet system of values.

Incomplete adaptation to the market

The first feature is related to the fact that though most Soviet people adapted to the new realities of a market economy, adaptation also has a flip side. Note that most of those who could not adapt at all either belonged to the older generations, who almost completely passed away over the last three decades or (if they are younger) do not show any social and political activity. Among them absenteeism is common, while many are indifferent to all elections, as they are busy just getting by.

The flip side of adaptation lies in its forced nature for most of the people doing the adapting. Nobody asked people in the 1990s if they were ready to move from an industry- to a service-based economy – in other words, to go from being an engineer to a cashier in a supermarket, or from an army officer to a security guard at the same place. Moreover, when planning their lives, people often proceeded from the fact that after the turbulence of the 1990s they would be able to return to “their” factory floor or department at the scientific institute. But relatively few managed to do that due to deindustrialization and the accompanying decline of industrial science. 
"Unlike Central Europe, they received no moral compensation from the ideas of 'national liberation' and 'a return to Europe' – Russia has no one to 'liberate itself' from and nowhere to 'return'."
Moreover, even many successful Russians who went into business and made immeasurably more money than they could have during the Soviet era are disappointed at the fact that they “deviated” from their true profession, which had been chosen back in childhood (the choice was often determined by the parents along hierarchal lines). A rocket engineer having to do banking operations, or an officer having to sell diapers, is perceived as evidence that things are not right.

Of course, this does not mean that people are ready to give up the assets they have accumulated over the years, but it does explain why the ideas of geopolitical revanche are common even among well-off Russians – along with the fact that many of them are either officially employed by or affiliated with the state.
In 1956, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev launched the dismantling of Stalin's cult of personality at the 20th Congress of the CPSU. Source: Wiki Commons
The state as a threat and a support

The second feature is the simultaneous fear of the state and the feeling that one cannot live without it. The Russian state has not been sacred since before the Revolution. At that time, the sacredness of the monarchy was undermined by rapid modernization (modernity can be seen in respect for the service of a particular monarch – for what the Belgian King Albert I did in World War I or the British King George VI in World War II – but it is not about the sacrality of the institution). In addition, the sad story of the “magician” and healer Grigory Rasputin, who public opinion held to have major influence over the royal family, contributed to the desacralization. The figures of Lenin and Stalin had aspects of sacredness, but that did not prevent the rapid – and perhaps irreversible – desacralization of the former in the early 1990s and the rapid dismantling of the latter’s cult of personality after the 20th Congress of the CPSU. There were efforts to endow the party as an institution with sacrality, inserting a mention of it into the last version of the Soviet anthem – right when the moral crisis of the system had deepened sharply.

In the value system of the Soviet person, the state is both a threat and a support. A threat because at any time the state could use coercion without determining who was right and wrong; a support because of the fear of being left without it. Moreover, when the fear of war is permanent (the “June 22 syndrome,” named after the day that Nazi Germany attacked the USSR in 1941), the state is not only a defender but also the exclusive distributor of resources. Its execution of these functions might leave much to be desired, yet there is no alternative. Public and private charity were liquidated shortly after the Bolshevik Revolution – for example, the committee created by members of the intelligentsia in 1921 to help starving people was quickly abolished by the authorities.

Many horizontal ties were destroyed with the Civil War, mass movements of peoples in the 20th century, the liquidation of the system of professional corporations (e.g. engineering and medical) and the displacement of the extended family by the nuclear family confined to an apartment in a multi-story building.
"The building of such horizontal ties is obstructed by the total distrust between people – despite its proclaimed collectivism, Soviet society was actually atomized."
People brought up in the post-Soviet era are better with trust, though they are relatively few in an aging society. Meanwhile, older generations see their "grandchildren" as foolish and unreliable.

The priming effect

The third important psychological feature of Soviet people is the priming effect – the unconscious "remembering" of events that taints their interpretation of current news. For example, when a person hears the word "fascism," he does not reach for the encyclopedia; instead, he immediately imagines the horrors of war, tortured people, burned cities and villages, the tragedy of concentration camp prisoners – everything that he ever saw in movies, read in books, heard from elders. Thus, they immediately have a negative reaction, even if there was no additional information in the news.

Soviet priming is associated mainly with childhood and adolescent memories, while the process was not linear. The study at school of standard Soviet ideological works like The Young Guard and A Story About a Real Man, excursions to places of military glory and military-patriotic museums, class hours about the war – all this was often perceived as routine and boring. Semi-underground rock music and jeans were much more interesting.

Thus, all the more dubious was the application of rigorous wartime principles – such as readiness for self-sacrifice and the rigid dichotomy of friend versus foe – to modern human relations. Certain messages were still perceived subconsciously, though the effect was minimal at the time. And when the USSR collapsed, few people came to its defense. However, this was largely due to the feeling that it was all "pretend" and in a few years at least the Slavic countries would get back together again in some format.

As time went on, rock music and jeans became routine, like many previously forbidden fruits. At the same time, the subconscious “remembering” of childhood messages increased, combined with the blooming of nostalgia for the bygone era and the growing understanding that the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 was for real. Now, many former neformali (“nonconformists”) of 35 years ago yearn for the times when a schoolteacher told them about heroes of the Great Patriotic War like Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya and Alexander Matrosov. They remember their parents who fought and are no longer with them and worry that they listened to them too little. The loss in 1991 of the territories for which fierce battles were fought during the Great Patriotic War intensifies the feeling of guilt.

The attitude of older generations to the special military operation is based precisely on the association with the Great Patriotic War, the perception of which was cast in their school years and remains normative for them. Bringing The Young Guard back into schools is about this. Today's schoolchildren and young people in general have a different perception of these events – the entire 20th century is history to them, but older Russians’ attitudes cannot be dismissed. It is older generations’ psychological legacies, sentiments and judgments that help us understand today's Russia.
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