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Beyond Homo Sovieticus: Soviet identity as a weapon of mass deconstruction

For decades, the idea of Homo Sovieticus dwelled in the imaginaries of people both east and west of the iron curtain. In the USSR, it was both a theoretical concept and a bright vision of the present and of the future, a cosmopolitan supra-national building project that was supposed to bring about a superior form of human existence, one in which true commitment to the Soviet cause would have led to untold Communist bounty.

September 5, 2017 - Michael Gentile and Dmytro Potekhin - Articles and Commentary

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Meanwhile, west of the iron curtain, homo sovieticus was sweepingly and derogatively projected upon the Second World, referring to the particular mindset of the passive, apathetic and lazy individuals that constituted its population. This is the interpretation that has survived to date, with homo sovieticus referring to a group of societally irrelevant individuals facing future extinction as a result of their inability to thrive and reproduce in contemporary society. Homines Sovietici represent, to put it differently, the human left-overs of socialism.

An alternative non-ideological interpretation of homines sovietici is that they are individuals who responded in different ways to the rules and norms of the system which they were forced to navigate, just like in any other society. Rather than reducing homo sovieticus to an amorphous gray Communist mass, such an interpretation stresses heterogeneity, motivating the plural form of the concept. Yet, the very idea of homo sovieticus, by virtue of its latinisation, carries a sense of biological predestination and inevitability, whereas in reality what we are talking about boils down to questions of identity.

Thus, what we have are rather former Soviet citizens who, in view of their very diverse characteristics, encounter the new realities in myriad ways. Within this diverse group, there are those who disapprove of or reject the systemic changes that took place in the 1990s and onwards. These are groups who typically had little to gain and much to lose from the demise of the Soviet behemoth, groups whose core identity centres on values glorified before 1991, and who are likely to consider this event as an imposition of capitalism and of alien values and norms. The Russian sovietskiy chelovek (Soviet person), rather than the pseudo-biological homo sovieticus, captures the core of this identity more accurately. A sovietskiy chelovek is a person who identifies him/herself as Soviet, explicitly or implicitly.

For the reasons charted above, we do not see much value in the alternative notion of homo postsovieticus either. Such an idea would have to come to terms with the aforementioned diversity of its conceptual ancestor, as well as with the diverse paths of transition and transformation that have characterised it. There would have to be a clear and causal link between the past(s) and the present(s), one that goes beyond simple historical succession or evolution. In other words, when faced with the new (non-Soviet) conditions, homo post-sovieticus would have to differ from homo sovieticus, but at the same time, s/he would have to react in a different way than other (non-“post-Soviet”) people facing those same conditions. These conditions are practically impossible to fulfill, and consequently, homo post-sovieticus falls short of meeting the stringency requirements needed to gain any wider theoretical currency.

Unlike the homines sovietici or the even more obscure homines postsovietici, the contours of sovietskiy chelovek are somewhat easier to discern, appeal to, and manipulate, particularly in countries that did not come to terms with the full spectrum of historical facts concerning the Soviet Union (most notably Russia and Belarus, but also to a lesser extent Ukraine and Kazakhstan, which have been hesitant from the start). Over 15 years ago, Swedish economist Anders Åslund warned of the risks associated with gradual transition: it is not convincingly irreversible, and it does not foster an appropriate mindset change. Indeed, during the course of the new millennium, opportunistic politicians have patiently worked on re-introducing and re-branding crucial elements of the Soviet mindset.

In Ukraine, the Party of Regions, co-founded back in 1997 by the current Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko among others, did this with such success that it even managed to subtract most voters from the Ukrainian Communist Party’s electoral base. The disillusionment with Communist ideology was so widespread in the 1990s that it made little sense for the rising oligarchy of owners of privatised factories to mobilise voters around it – a different approach was needed and, as elsewhere across the former Soviet republics, superficial nationalist narratives emerged as the first option at hand. This did not even require much of a change among the political cadres: Petro Poroshenko was not the first president with an amazing career development; the first president of independent Ukraine, Leonid Kravchuk, was the former head of the agitprop department of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Ukraine, where he learned the nationalist style of communication while fighting it in the western Ukrainian city of Chernivtsi.

Since the communist propagandists-turned-nationalists proved unable to reform Soviet Ukraine into a modern state providing efficient governmental services and economic growth, the voters got disillusioned with them too. As a result, sovietskiy chelovek got tired of “ex-communist” Leonid Kravchuk, who appeared to be “too nationalistic”, and after his single term in office s/he voted in favour of “industrialist” Leonid Kuchma – twice – backed by the new eastern Ukrainian (Soviet) factory-owners, whom many were dependent on for their livelihoods. Incidentally, this meant that they were supporting the rent-seeking and often criminal-leaning practices of former Komsomol leaders and/or local bosses, as well as their anti-nationalist and even anti-civic sentiments and rhetoric.

Sovietskie liudi (plur. of sovietskiy chelovek) consistently opposed the Orange and Euromaidan Revolutions. In the case of the Orange Revolution, their opposition was largely passive-aggressive. Sovietskie liudi were Viktor Yanukovych’s most reliable supporters, but they typically only let their word be heard during the elections. After the failure of the Yushchenko administration to reform the country, it was the sovietskiy chelovek who catapulted Viktor Yanukovych back into power, helping him stay in office and legitimising his presidency. In 2013-14, opposition to the EuroMaidan revolution was far more organised and militant than had been the case a decade earlier, care of the Russian Federation and of the recklessness of the PR’s identity politics, as well as of certain radical elements within the Maidan movement, who fueled the political and geopolitical binaries present in the imagination of the sovietskiy chelovek.

The Crimean annexation and the appearance of the Donetsk and Lugansk “People’s Republics” were facilitated by the myths and conspiracy theories upon which the Soviet mindset is built. For this reason, the residents of these regions responded to the rapidly unfolding developments with a mixture of apathy and opportunistic wait-and-seeism. The events were not impossible to stop, as the case of the rest of southeast Ukraine demonstrates, but they were met with relatively little resistance. Thus, what looked like a winning strategy on behalf of the PR to absorb the Communist Party voters escalated into war. In 2014, the Soviet narrative backed by Orthodox fundamentalists, commercial mercenaries and Putin’s armed forces “succeeded” in mobilising the sovietskiy chelovek far beyond anything envisaged by Yanukovych and his klepto-kakistocratic ruling gang.

Overall, the current upheaval along the geopolitical fault-lines surrounding Russia rests on the mobilisation of Soviet identity, reintroduced and redressed in somewhat revealing moral-cultural garments. Soviet identity emphasised collectivism, respect (and indeed veneration) of authorities, and the sense of a defensive mission against an encroaching and hostile capitalist outside. It was also deeply religious in the sense that it relied on a hierarchical polytheistic belief system with an immortal Lenin (and sometimes Stalin) at the top, a handful of resilient foreign or “branch” gods in the middle (Marx, Voroshilov, Ordzhonikidze, Sverdlov, Gorkiy, etc.) and a caste of replaceable or regional semi-divinities at the bottom (Trotskiy, Malenkov, Beria, Andropov, Khrushchëv, Comrade Artëm, etc.). This solid religious infrastructure explains how a formally atheist constituency was rapidly and widely able to embrace the regained authority, spiritual leadership, and dubious geopolitical jaunts of the Orthodox Church.

The overt political potential of sovietskiy chelovek had lost its appeal in the 1990s and early 2000s; Communist parties were expected to die out together with their ageing electorates, and they did not seem capable to resurrect. Yet there was plenty of hidden potential to be tapped into. The PR understood this well: rather than focusing on answering the question of “who are you?” (Ukrainian, European, Slavic, Soviet, etc.), they delivered by reformulating the question in a negative sense: “who are you not?”. It is easier to build consensus by defining a shared threat coming from the Other than by presenting a single coherent future path for the Self. Thus, the “Banderisation” of Western Ukraine, widespread skepticism towards the EU, and the demonisation of the US became defining characteristics of the regional identity fostered by the PR in south-east Ukraine.

In the process, the PR tried to amplify the gap between the Self and the Other, which is what the Kremlin had been doing for some time via its state-controlled media outlets, particularly following the Bolotnaya protests in Moscow in 2011-2012. For this purpose, the civilizational discourse re-launched by the Kremlin under the influence of such thinkers as Alexander Dugin might have become too much even for the PR, which relied on the Soviet mythologies surrounding the Great Patriotic War (the Second World War) and on the “Stakhanovite” labour efforts of its southeast Ukrainian electoral base as opposed to the Fascist-leaning lax and lazy western Ukrainians. Of course, the latter focus relies on decades of Soviet glorifying propaganda and idolatry, which enabled the development of a culture of glorification across the former Soviet territory (but less so in areas that were occupied by the USSR). However, in the illiberal (post-) Soviet contexts, personal glory is risky and very hard to achieve, leaving the field open for collective and, especially, historical glory.

The current weaponisation of cultural/religious values in Russia and among its proxies in the “people’s republics”, which includes the notable and intentional activation of previously dormant homophobic sentiments, reproduces the weaponisation of politico-ideological identity that characterised the Soviet Union. The role of the figure of authority has not changed much in the process, be it Lenin, the Church, Putin or, in the case of pre-Maidan Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych. This explains the seemingly incompatible narratives coexisting in contemporary Russia as well as in, not least, the new “people’s republics” in the Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts, which are interesting new hybrids that bring together Soviet storylines with a commitment to the incompatible values of the Russian Orthodox church (which, in turn, has fused with the Russian government, to paraphrase Nadia Tolokonnikova’s words at the show trial held against her and other members of her band, Pussy Riot, in 2012). Sovietskie liudi are able to circumvent this paradox, apparently defying rationality, by relying on selective memories and accounts of the past, combining them with partial representations of the present.

Soviet narratives dig into nostalgia by necessity, looking into the past to understand the present and to imagine the future. Even the figure of ousted president Viktor Yanukovych was reminiscent of Brezhnev – not only through the narratives he (re)presented, but also through his appearance – and many of his voters were actually voting for childhood and youth memories. Given a fair choice, homines sovietici might not have voted for him, but sovietskie liudi did (as well as some others), mainly opportunistically – his Party of Regions clearly favoured some regions over others – but also in the absence of the information needed to be able to take rational decisions.

Sovietskie liudi have a deep-rooted cultural inclination towards two very broad types of culture: the culture of toughness and sacrifice, and a popular culture that appeals to feelings. The toughness culture enables the acceptance of diverse expressions of it, ranging from Holy War to criminality, whereas the popular culture is able to welcome both folklore and western(ized) disco. To some extent, emotions and toughness are able to explain the successes of the revamped Soviet(-era) narratives. The wide heart and soul of the sovietskiy chelovek can take it all and combine anything, and when his or her limits are reached, media bubbles and Odnoklassniki do the rest.

The sovietskiy chelovek may solve conflicting narratives via two main mechanisms: by accommodating them through religion or religious sectarianism, or by self-enlightening. This means that s/he can turn both ways, and that the context and spectrum of opportunities and incentives available may ultimately determine the outcome. Since sovietskiy chelovek has long been spoon-fed simple answers to complex questions by the media (and sometimes complex answers to simple questions), the educational option is not the choice by default.

Soviet identities are often regional – and they are endemic in regions characterised by economic branches that were glorified during Soviet times, including most heavy industry and metallurgy. Because this regional (Soviet) identity builds more on Othering rather than on the self, it is more fragile and can easily break down. This is what happened in Dnipro (and maybe in Mariupol and Kharkiv). However, political risk entrepreneurs are also able to capitalise on the divisions it causes, which is what happened in the Donbas, where the “self” part of the regional identity was arguably even weaker, but also different, i.e., more urban and less Ukrainian (as many residents there are first, second or third generation migrants from other parts of the USSR).

In this Donbas, Soviet identity rapidly evolved from being a faint regional identity into becoming a weapon of mass deconstruction – of the Ukrainian national project, and of the lives and livelihoods of millions of people in the region. But those holding this weapon are not the sovietskie liudi themselves. They are the class of rent-seekers and political entrepreneurs acting upon opportunities presented to them. The sovietskie liudi are usually politically inactive or even apathetic, and it is this apathy that feeds the one main area of genuine post-Soviet continuity, i.e., the tendency within society to allow informality, blat – or just plainly, corruption – to take over the everyday lives of the denizens. This tendency has largely been “reformed away” in some countries of the former Soviet bloc, whereas it is alive and kicking, and perhaps even deepening, in others. In such places, the ruling elites have actually promoted the persistence and revival of the Soviet mindset. Perhaps, the emergence of a homo nonsovieticus – one who no longer identifies or feels the need to identify with the USSR – is contingent on the elimination of the culture of subservience vis-à-vis authorities that has been in place since the October Revolution. Ukraine should not have had to wait for the centennial anniversary of this event for this to start happening.

Image by Wojciech Koźmic

Michael Gentile is professor of human geography at the University of Oslo. His research foci include topics related to urban development and geopolitics in Central and Eastern Europe, and in Ukraine in particular. In 2001 he conducted some involuntary fieldwork hosted by the security services of an illiberal post-Soviet republic, deepening his understanding of the Soviet mindset.

Dmytro Potekhin is founder of the Nonviolent Solutions Agency and CEO of CivicOS.net. His background is in international relations, and he used to work as political analyst at the Embassy of Japan to Ukraine. He was one of the organisers of the 2004 Orange Revolution. In 2014, was abducted by the militia of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic and spent 48 days in one of the DPR’s concentration camps – an opportunity which he seized to speak with pro-Russian terrorists, aiming to understand the Soviet mindset.



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