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The spectre of Homo post-Sovieticus

Homo post-Sovieticus is a permanent fixture of the post-communist landscape: resentful, frustrated, angry – and retroactively clairvoyant. As long as HPS exists, communism endures: it is the ancient regime that provides the interpretative templates which many citizens of post-communist countries use to interpret the world that surrounds them.

October 19, 2017 - Venelin I. Ganev - Stories and ideas

Post-communism is a diverse political habitat populated by many interesting species, but the term Homo post-Sovieticus (or HPS) should be attached only to some of them: those who are obsessively nostalgic about the communist past. They continue to interpret all facets of their existence through the prism of a then-vs-now juxtaposition – and invariably reach the conclusion that the lives they enjoyed then are vastly superior to the fate they have to put up with now.

The sudden implosion of Marxist dictatorships undermined the certainties around which HPS’s survival strategies revolved – his once-valuable skills were no longer useful, the feeling that he fits in was replaced by acute status anxiety, and he grew increasingly convinced that the world is at present dominated by the hostile forces from which the party-state once protected him.

HPS’s sullen presence is easy to detect in any post-communist country, but the consequences of this presence are sometimes hard to predict: as HPS continues to refract his personal traumas through the lenses of his past-oriented fixations, his allegiances and enthusiasms sometimes shift in unpredictable ways, and his political interventions frequently make already unsettled environments even more volatile.

Difficult transition

The key biographical fact about HPS is that he is a former Homo Sovieticus whose un-civic competence was rendered obsolete.

As Alexander Zinoviev explained in his eponymous book, Homo Sovieticus was a competent individual: he believed himself to be “psychologically and intellectually plastic, supple and adaptive.” He had cultivated the talents that allowed him to acquire scarce commodities: he knew what needs to be done in order to obtain a larger refrigerator, bananas for Christmas, or a colour TV. He did not particularly like the muddy waters of everyday life under communism, but he was able to navigate them – and this competence enhanced his sense of self-esteem.

It bears emphasising, however, that this competence was un-civic. In order to get what he wanted, Homo Sovieticus did not follow formal rules – he broke them. If and when he pleaded his personal case, he never invoked general norms applicable to all citizens – he activated ties with powerful patrons. And he had never made an effort to coordinate his activities with other citizens in pursuit of a worthy cause – his preferred modus operandi was engaging in personalistic quid-pro-quos with strategically located acquaintances.

When the Soviet-era habitat was destroyed and Homo Sovieticus was forced to metamorphose into HPS, his un-civic competence was rapidly devalued. The kinds of things he knew how to procure were no longer scarce; and with new, hitherto unknown scarcities – such as those of money and jobs – he did not know how to cope. Some of his patrons lost their power, while others were empowered in novel ways: they were too busy with corrupt privatisations and the looting of state assets and therefore had no reason to return the phone calls of a distraught former client. HPS was no longer a person who could count on special relationships in order to solve predictable problems. He was now a tiny constitutive part of a demos whose fate was shaped by either by the impersonal rules of market competition or by the capacity to mobilise successfully for collective action and demand certain policies from popularly elected politicians. About market competition HPS knew nothing; a collective effort to promote a common interest was something he had never practised before.

Deprived of his un-civic competence HPS is plagued by the feeling that he lives in a disorderly political universe and craves the restoration of some kind of order. But his agenda is in fact very different from that usually associated with demands for “law and order.” HPS has no interest in the effective enforcement of laws – he knows for a fact that his past successes were due entirely to his capacity to subvert legal rules, not follow them. What he wants is the restoration of a regime grounded in informalities – a regime where off-the-record exchanges with those with power make the lives of loyal supplicants easier. And HPS does not necessarily favour a rule by a strong hand – his idea of a decent polity is one where a multiplicity of public officials’ hands give him what he wants as a personal favour.

In sum, while the kind of un-civic-ness to which HPS was accustomed was eclipsed by new forms of corrupt and illegal behaviour, he also had to come to grips with the fact that success in a social milieu increasingly dominated by markets and laws requires competencies he was ill-prepared to acquire.

The lost status

In addition to feeling culturally incapacitated, HPS is also a creature wrecked by status anxiety.

Before the collapse of communism, HPS had a status – he was a “proletarian.” This label had long since lost its original meaning and was used not to designate a particular class but those who were relatively well integrated into the existing political system. To be sure, within this system there were privileged groups that stood above any proletarian: nomenklatura cadres enjoyed a higher status to which he could not realistically aspire. But he had good reasons to feel that he could count himself among the insiders – and the best reason to feel that way is because he knew that the regime had designated others as outsiders: members of “the former classes,” bearded dissidents, English-speaking teenagers idolizing rock and punk stars, admirers of things Western. Compared to them, the proletarian was clearly someone who enjoyed a “special place”: he was comfortably nestled within the enduring structures of the status hierarchy under communism.

When the homogenizing Marxist project came to a halt and the frozen cultural landscapes maintained by one-party dictatorships began to thaw, HPS found himself amidst a cacophonic pluralism. The very criteria underpinning status hierarchies were now suddenly open to reinterpretation and hitherto unquestioned notions about what constitutes reward-worthy behaviour were aggressively challenged. In a post-communist context HPS’s default options did not bring him any tangible benefits: the willingness to “stay out of trouble” no longer ensured the tranquillity of his everyday existence, and conformism no longer guaranteed an insider status. In fact, critiques of Marxism, previously confined to undergrounds which HPS had no interest in exploring, now circulated freely – and such critiques HPS perceived as an effort to diminish his prestige as a proletarian, the captivatingly important protagonist of Marxist political thinking. HPS’s “special place” was no longer propagandistically sanctioned: the ideology whose simple messages of reaffirmation he was accustomed to hearing lost its hegemonic position.

HPS is thus someone who found himself on a lower rung: he experienced downward social mobility. But this is only one of the reasons why he is wrecked by status anxiety – the other is that now he could witness the upward social mobility of those previously marginalised. Former pariahs – whose inferiority HPS never doubted and whose political downgrading validated his insider status – were now visibly successful: members of the former classes reclaimed their social standing (and sometimes even their property), bearded intellectuals began to appear on TV, English-speaking teenagers were paid obscenely high salaries by foreign companies, and admirers of things Western were fȇted as champions of democracy. HPS’s interpretation of his own life trajectory is thus permeated by the gloominess which all of us experience when we contemplate the achievements of those who were worse off than us before but have now accomplished much more.

With the status certainties of the ancien regime gone, HPS began to feel permanently sidelined. The new system arrived with the promise that each individual is free to recreate and reinvent himself – a promise HPS never found particularly appealing. If given a choice, he would rather live under the old system – in an ideological environment where he was celebrated for who he was, a member of the proletariat.

Mental maps

HPS is someone who thinks of himself as a politically literate being: he does not like what happened after the collapse of communism, but he is convinced that he can explain it.

Knowledgeable communist propagandists had made it clear to him that there exist evil forces that are conspiring to hurt us: greedy capitalists concocting exploitative schemes, unscrupulous imperialists threatening national sovereignty, decadent foreigners engaged in acts of cultural sabotage undermining the moral fundament of life as we know it. HPS was told practically every day that these forces emanate from the West – and that is why he is instinctively anti-Western. His political imagination is rigidly structured and he uses this imagination to work through the implications of the unfortunate fact that the wrong side won the Cold War.

As already mentioned, he does not perceive dislocations associated with downward and upward social mobility as a mysterious drama featuring previously unknown characters and unheard-of plots: from his vantage point, what transpired was the redistribution of relatively well-known roles and the reversal of familiar scenarios. Once communism ended, the West started rewarding its local lackeys and humiliating its former opponents. More generally, HPS is over-prepared to attribute any troublesome development to Western influences. Ultimately the obsolescence of his skills occurred because post-communist reforms served Western interests. Decent people were marginalised because they could not compete in the rat race unleashed by foreign profiteers. Standards of living deteriorated because highfaluting talk about Western “values” such as liberal democracy, individual rights, and the rule of law obscured what HPS believed to be the central fact about politics, namely that the government must assume the role of a pater who takes care of all basic needs of the loyal members of the community. Just like it did under communism.

HPS is thus a political creature that is frequently disappointed but never really surprised. Seemingly novel developments only validate the knowledge he already possesses. He rather effortlessly situates seemingly confusing developments within the mental maps for decoding the world with which he is already equipped – mental maps he learned how to use under communism and now refuses to redraw.

Unpredictable Futures

So here he is, Homo post-Sovieticus, a permanent fixture of the post-communist landscape: resentful, frustrated, angry – and retroactively clairvoyant. How does his presence shape the course of post-communist politics? This question is a difficult one.

HPS frequently switches sides. His quest for political saviours prompts him to embark upon unpredictable partisan journeys. And at time his knowledge motivates him to get actively involved in politics – and at other times paralyses him.

From the fact that HPS’s skills have been devalued nothing predictable follows. He may choose to electorally support former communists who promise to recreate a version of the good old times – or local mafias who seek to restore the centrality of informal quid-pro-quos. His status anxiety might be alleviated by politicians who enchant him with new grand projects (resurrecting national grandeur, for example) – or by left-of-center parties that portray him as a deserving recipient of welfare benefits. His firm conviction that he understands what is really going on might push him to get involved in politics – or trigger a fatalistic withdrawal from the public sphere.

The fact of the matter is that as long as HPS exists, communism endures: it is the ancient regime that provides the interpretative templates which many citizens of post-communist countries use to interpret the world that surrounds them. Will these templates be passed on to the next generation – and if so, how and why? That is the main question which the very notion of HPS challenges us to think about.

Venelin I. Ganev is a professor of political science and a faculty associate of the Havighurst Center for Russian and Post-Soviet Studies at Miami University of Ohio. His book, Preying on the State: The Transformation of Postcommunist Bulgaria was published in 2007 by Cornell University Press. His publications have appeared several collected volumes published by Oxford University Press, Central European University Press and Ashgate, and in a number of scholarly journals.

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