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Particularities of contemporary Russian society can be traced both to history and Russia’s oral culture

Russia’s political and social behaviour can seem surprising. It is like there always is, despite a relatively highly educated population and access to western, liberal ideas, a return to archaic, paternalistic, antagonistic and violent structures and behaviours. Can this be due to a combination of traditional family structures, late development of literacy, and relative isolation, rendered possible by a certain economic and political autarchy? Were the changes of the early 1990s illusory, carried by groups and people whose influence was only accidental and now the old structures return?

July 20, 2023 - David Hallbeck - Analysis

People walk along Moscow's famous Old Arbat street in July 2019. Photo: aarows / Shutterstock

The French demographer and historian Emmanuel Todd has suggested a system according to which family structures, including distribution of heritage and cohabitation but also the status of women, influence the political choices and structures of nations long after they are abandoned as legally and practically applied systems. Family systems influence political choices, but also economic development and the structure of religion, at least if literacy arrives early enough for religion to assume an ideological character, as was the case in large parts of Central Europe. The influence on thinking is very subtle, however the large picture of which structures correlate with which political structures is not very complicated in Todd’s system. Emmanuel Todd for example described how Dutch theology in the 17th century is influenced by certain, very special family structures. This seems reasonable if one accepts Emmanuel Todd’s assumption that doctrines are only explicit expressions of a mentality already present in the population. Todd also seems to contend that the culture of the elites corresponds with implicit demands of the masses.

Family structures constitute a residue which continue to have a significant effect on political and ideological choices, according to Todd. This is a controversial interpretation, but the correlation seems striking, both when it comes to the political choices of populations and to the development of literacy. The patriarchal communal family (predominant for example in Russia, Serbia, Central Italy or Southern Portugal) often implies a strong communist vote as well as authoritarian and simultaneously egalitarian tendencies. That is, there is a relatively egalitarian vision of society under a strong leader, be it one person or a party. Interestingly, in contemporary Europe both Hungary and Slovakia manifest a certain support for Russia. Those countries have historical family systems, which are similar to Russia’s, and also a similar history of literacy.

Family systems also influence the development of literacy. The communal, patrilineal family system predominant in Russia and in parts of southern Europe caused a relatively late general development of literacy. Portugal is probably the most extreme example, with 30 to 40 per cent illiteracy around 1980. Russia and Italy also feature, in comparison to Central and northern Europe and also France, very late general development of literacy. According to Carlo M. Cipolla, the level of illiteracy in the Russian Empire in 1897 was 79 per cent for those aged above 10 years old, men and women included. In Saint Petersburg, the level was 31 per cent , which shows the enormous regional differences.

By comparison, the number of illiterates was 38 per cent in Italy in 1911, also according to Cipolla. Russia then, in 1913, arrives at a degree of literacy among recruits of 68 per cent.

Family systems certainly also influence the development of literacy and its ideological and political implications long after a high degree of elementary literacy is reached. It seems very likely that the ways of thinking of completely or partially illiterate societies persist long after general literacy is attained. The permanence of pre-literate or oral ways of thinking during a few generations after the introduction of literacy has been studied by the American scholar Walter J. Ong (1912-2003) under the label residual orality. This concept of Ong’s plays an important role in this essay, although its main theme a rather sociological study of the power of groups with different types and degrees of literacy in the Soviet Union and contemporary Russia and how they influenced and continue to influence general political tendencies.

Firstly, it is important to state what the process of alphabetisation implies during a few generations. The first effect of literacy is not to create an analytical approach to things, but to create what Todd calls the magic of writing. When literacy starts to spread, but is still the prerogative of the relatively few, writing is seen as the background of speech, and books containing common places and quotations are copied or printed in order to help enrich speech. Printing increases the number of manuals about the art of memory. It takes long before it makes the art of memory irrelevant. The analytical approach, whereby a text has different components, which can be perceived abstractly and visually, appears only gradually. The text is a tool for making a speech. The words in such a text are perceived as things with an essence which has to be interpreted and not just as something that arbitrarily represents things. This will be very important for the concepts and slogans which are at the centre of ideology when the ideological battles start.

A text is also a tool for learning things by heart. In the Soviet Union, highly literate people knew things by heart. A book remains, for long, a speech, and not a collection of facts which you can perceive of as a spatial structure. This is what always seems to happen in societies in transition from a totally or mainly oral structure to one based on writing. In the beginning, as Mary Carruthers has pointed out in The Book of Memory, the most literate people (and that means the most well-read) are the most oral — that is the ones mostly capable of speaking in exquisite language with a plethora of references. This period is characterised by the continuation of the presence of repetitive formulaic expressions, which influence both speech and thinking. This is the phenomenon Walter J. Ong refers to as to residual orality. Societies close to illiteracy perceive of life and society in simplified formulas, not in analytical categories which can be adapted to very many concrete situations. They have stereotypical perceptions of society, of character and are often relatively agonistic and confrontational, both in personal and political relations.

The prestige of knowing things by heart, natural in oral cultures and very present in today’s Russia, survives for a few generations after the introduction of writing. The social structure promotes this approach. The elites can remain elites only by pushing oral literacy to the extreme. Only slowly appears a community of people who have an analytical approach to words and concepts. When they arrive at a certain intellectual level and at a certain number, the structure of society as a whole probably changes. This would be the progression of things one could theoretically expect, although it is very rarely possible to observe in a pure form since the process is so often intertwined with external influences. Russia is, however, one example of a relatively isolated process. The fact that Russia, compared to other countries with a similar family structure and literacy process, is geographically isolated from Central Europe and that it is very strong in absolute numbers probably implies that those factors have acted more independently in Russia than for example in Italy or Portugal.

Deviation of last 30 years

I will describe here the short deviation that we have seen over the last 30 years from much that has been characteristic for Russia. I will look at why it was a deviation from the rule and not a radical and intrinsic change, and also why change is not impossible.

Many people expected, in the 1990s, Russia to change rapidly as soon as the entire structure of the Soviet Union disappeared. Here, many would think of Fukuyama’s idea of the end of history, however Fukuyama very well understood and explicitly stated that if any country would threaten the victory of his last man and the end of history, that country would be Russia.

The problem with this approach is that it perceives of the Soviet Union as only a political and economic system which was imposed either from outside or by a small clique obsessed with ideology. But what if it was only the expression of a deeper structure of Russian society? Analytically-minded people tend to ascribe too much importance to a political or economic system that can be expressed in the form of a written constitution, or in the rendering of the content of an ideology. If this allegedly absurd system, which can be described in writing and analysed disappeared, then it would be normal if everything changed, one can suppose.

However, I will argue that the deeper structures remained and that the very temporal changes occurred mostly because of the strengthening of a very small and marginal part of the population which ceased to be residually oral like the masses and the really influential Soviet elites. This class is what the poet and revolutionary Eduard Limonov (1943-2020), indeed full of ressentiment, described as the Soviet bourgeoisie, its capital being analytical, technical knowledge. Its victory was short-lived and mostly illusory, but a certain international political configuration allowed its rise in influence before everything returned to the deeper structures which had formerly ruled.

Context of the 1917 Revolution

The October Revolution took place in a context of social crisis. However, the circumstances present around 1917 are not that unique. There had been the famine of 1891, Bloody Sunday in 1905 and many other events that could have provoked a revolution. However, from the end of the 19th century, Russia went through an extremely fast process of increasing literacy. In 1917 the masses were sufficiently sensitive to revolutionary slogans for the revolution to succeed. The revolution was the work of a small elite of professional revolutionaries. However, the masses decide which kind of elites will be successful and which degree of orality and literacy they will possess and have to be able to apply. The Leninist revolutionaries provided what the masses in a society of transition from orality to residual orality asked for. As long as the masses preserved this kind of residual orality — which in Russia essentially continues to the present day — the elites will have a certain character, one which they must maintain if they want to preserve their position.

The creation of the Soviet elites under Lenin and even more under Stalin’s reign is an interesting test of whether residually oral elites just perpetuate a tradition from generation to generation, or if they arise in a certain form in a certain society when certain circumstances are present, independently of personal continuity. The personal continuity of the elites of imperial Russia was to a large extent broken under Stalin and new elites were created. They recreated the same formulaic, stereotypical thinking that the old elites had had, expressed among others in Stalin’s Short course about the history of the communist party. The ostentatious feudal lifestyle also remained.

Effects of late development of literacy

Although the Soviet Union developed a considerable, and in many respects successful, scientific intelligentsia, one has to take into account that this intelligentsia lived in a country where mass literacy was attained quite late. In 1920 the level of literacy in Soviet Russia was 50.6 per cent, in 1939 it was 84 per cent and in 1959 it reached 98.2 per cent. This is indeed very rapid development, but it means that for a long time the majority of the Soviet population probably remained strongly residually oral. Richard Pipes quotes statistics from a Russian historian according to which 92.7 per cent of the members of the communist party in 1920 were functionally semiliterate and 4.7 were completely illiterate. The speech of Soviet political elites, obsessed by pompous Marxist and Leninist formulas and quotes, is easily perceived as a kind of atavism in a country with rapidly developing education. However, a residually oral society demands exactly this kind of elite. The obsession with quotations and formulas was not much different from that of the elites of the European early modern times. In Russia history is generally an eternal present where every historical example is relevant without any understanding of the structural changes of society. What once was a part of the Empire always must be. This is also characteristic of residually oral societies.

Nomenklatura historians, dissident scientists

It is interesting to note that historical faculties were channels for recruiting nomenklatura in the Soviet Union, whereas dissidents often had a scientific background. Education in Soviet history was very much based on slogans, characteristic of a residually oral society. Those faculties probably helped perpetuate a certain way of thinking among the politically influential. The scientific and cultural intelligentsia was not a very broad category in Soviet society. It consisted, in 1959 of perhaps 5.3 million persons (of course with huge reservations about what this figure includes), against a Soviet population of approximately 210 million in 1960.

The people who were promoted to positions of modest influence by Andropov and then surrounded and heavily influenced Gorbachev were those with an education in government, history, economics and pure science and often created and led, obviously with the acceptance of the party, institutes of social and economic research. These institutes slowly began to understand and analyse the deficiencies and structural problems of the Soviet planned economy and to propose solutions, often based on computerised planning and adaptations similar to the NEP, the New Economic Policy of the 1920s. They thus suggested an approach substantially different from the formulaic conception of society developed by the elites which had been recruited and educated under Stalin.

This type of intelligentsia influenced what Gorbachev himself referred to as “new” thinking. It is, however, important not to overestimate the radicality of the reforms Gorbachev envisioned. He strove towards NEP-like reforms within the Soviet system, never abandoning the Leninist langue de bois and probably not understanding the consequences of what he set in motion. He also strongly opposed the idea of suppressing the famous paragraph 6 of the Soviet constitution, establishing the exclusive power of the communist party. Those who did abandon the Leninist discourse were those researchers and analytics who to some extent influenced Gorbachev, the most famous being probably the director of the USA and Canada institute Grigorij Arbatov. They were also a part of the party hierarchy, but they had a certain independence thanks to the various research institutes which were created around the country and which also, in spite of regular purges, offered an elementary level of protection to the bearers of a certain scientific way of thinking.

Example of Zaslavskaya

An important centre was the Novosibirsk Institute of Economics and Industrial Organisation, which employed among others the famous economist and sociologist Tatyana Zaslavskaya (who had begun her academic career studying physics). An important result of Zaslavskaya’s research and reflection was the so-called Novosibirsk Manifesto which was strictly censored, but which is a quite good expression of the tendencies which later became influential around Gorbachev. It is interesting that, at least according to her own statements, Zaslavskaya was like Gorbachev only striving for reform within the system of the Soviet state. Perhaps she even sought to preserve the principles of Leninism, although it is hard to say if Zaslavskaya was as attached to these kind of concepts as was Gorbachev.

Zaslavskaya describes, in purely Marxist language, a change in the “production forces”, and concludes that the contemporary economy (1983) did not fulfil the demands arising because of those changes. What she is speaking about is, however, a human resources problem, as many people would call it in the contemporary West. It is interesting that the theme of her doctoral dissertation was the material interest of the workers on Soviet collective farms. She says that the workforce had evolved since the days of the early Soviet Union and that it was not any more possible to steer it by force, but that it had to be materially interested in the work itself. Zaslavskaya analyses how reforms are prevented by the system being so constructed that there are very strong layers of society for which the system is profitable and which are reluctant to allow any change. She openly says that the theory of a particular character of socialist economic relations is harmful to Soviet society.

Essentially, she is proposing a liberal program, but the most interesting thing from the point of view I am here applying is perhaps that she is deviating from the Soviet conception of a society of estates, whereby there are workers, the intelligentsia and the leading party members. She perceives of intellectual development within the classes as something that must change the structure of the system, and the result becomes a kind of liberal social democracy. The question is if Zaslavskaya did not overestimate the changes she considers so essential. One thing she didn’t overestimate was the increase in pure formal knowledge. It was enormous during the lifespan of the Soviet Union. However, this does not mean that the conceptions of society, the perception of work and authority substantially changed during the same period. In those domains there indeed seems to have been a long time lag in all societies which go through increasing literacy, and from this point of view the existence of the Soviet Union was very short.

It is perhaps thus not fair to say that the preservation of formulaic, simplified and authoritarian ways of thinking was due only to a deficiency of the Soviet System. It was not Communism that created the prestige of writing, letters and writers — those factors which to a large extent made a highly ideological system possible. Those ways of thinking naturally persist for a few generations after general literacy is achieved. Soviet education was an expression of this, not the cause. Richard Pipes describes how for the early Soviet communists, individuals were not individuals, but “specimens of their class”. The question is, however, if this is not the case in all residually oral societies, with their stereotypical, formulaic way of thinking.. Then it does not matter whether the classes are called “estates” or classes.

Archaic orality and blat

This type of research, quantitatively speaking very marginal and written in relatively plain prose, took place against the background of a formulaic and bombastic official language that penetrated the whole of society. Meanwhile, this society was driven by a feudal economy based on personal relations called blat. It is rarely pointed out how blat was accompanied by, and probably also made possible by, the survival of archaic orality. The huge presence of proverbs surrounding the practices of blat has been pointed out by Ledeneva. The blatmeisteri, who were people essentially professionally engaged in blat, often seem to have been characterised by rhetorical talent and the ability to tell anecdotes, a very special Russian genre. This might seem to be just a presence of jokes and almost sketch-like ways of handling a social practice in which it was impossible not to partake. The question is, however, if this is not the essence of the phenomenon.

Indeed, blat survived due to scarcity, but all oral and residually oral societies are societies of general scarcity. Oral societies transmit their essential knowledge by proverbs, catch phrases and stereotypical anecdotes. This is what Eric A. Havelock referred to as a tribal encyclopaedia. Structurally, they need this encyclopaedia to transmit approaches and knowledge which make the system work. And this is the point: societies which transmit their knowledge in this way will have a personal and corruption-based economy, not built on written and internalised rules but built on personal and semi-feudal relationships. This, much more than scarcity, was the essence of blat.

This general orality of the guardians of access to resources correlates with the formulaic and bombastic rhetoric of the elites based on abstract and often repeated notions. Characteristically for a residually oral society, these notions are bearers of meaning in themselves and constantly new definitions for them are searched for, however their intrinsic heuristic force cannot be doubted. The term communism, often associated with “scientific”, is perhaps the best example. It is interesting how the oral skills of the blatmeisteri and the generally historical and perhaps philological education of the Komsomol and party members correspond with the bardic and poetical capacities of Andropov. A similar situation is the attempts, retold by Arbatov, to make the relatively good storyteller Brezhnev a story writer, whose ghost-written and, seen as modern literature, mediocre book was praised by the official press. This might also be seen as a misunderstanding of the differences between oral and written discourse.

Rise of analytical thinking and decline of the Soviet system

One can object, of course, that this kind of rhetoric was only imposed from above. However, it correlates with a general residual orality of Russian society and this type of elite was able to stay in power for very long. I am here not claiming that the Soviet Union fell only because of the rise to power of a more analytically-minded class of experts and similar. Nonetheless, one can perhaps observe a certain decline in the feudal, deeply personal approach to the economy and blat during the last years of the Soviet government, at least in Moscow. This is important, as it seems to have been the case among a small segment of the Soviet population.

It is also interesting that infant mortality was rising in the last decades of the Soviet Union, which was the main factor that allowed Emmanuel Todd to predict its end in La chute finale (1976). It is not unlikely that the highly analytical, scientific layers of society react more than the rest of the population to the discrepancy of a relatively highly developed country not being able to combat infant mortality. The enormous economic and structural problems of the late Soviet Union were probably an important reason for the high status of the representatives of the so called “new” thinking because they were expected to solve the increasingly urgent economic problems by almost magical means. This is how literate people are perceived in a residually oral culture.

Glasnost and the structural, semi-democratic reforms brought about by Gorbachev did indeed play a role in the dissolution of the Soviet Union, but their superficiality and their non-correspondence with the wishes of the population in general is well shown by the structure of the elites which soon thereafter came to power. The scientific intelligentsia was in power for a short period, promoted by Gorbachev and indirectly by Andropov and its prestige and influence was certainly due more to external factors such as economic and military competition with the West and the economic problems caused by this than with deeper changes in mentality. It is interesting that Zaslavskaya quite soon left her position as an advisor to Boris Yeltsin.

It is also striking how the early 1990s were characterised by mass meetings in Moscow and elsewhere in Russia, with charismatic political orators like the communist Anpilov. The changes of the early 1990s were not characterised by rhetoric; rhetorical were those who opposed them. Both those who made the speeches and those who listened to them were literate, in some cases highly literate, but the speeches had the formulaic character of a residually oral culture, abounding in simplified, essentialised slogans. Those were the people that Limonov praised, characterising their way of thinking perhaps more profoundly than he understood himself, saying that those were the naïve patriots to whom Honour, Fatherland, the State and Russia were sacred words (my italics). Such phenomena exist also in the West, but what is interesting here is the frequency.

Orality of Russian elites

After the fall of the Soviet Union personalities like the erudite orator Zhirinovsky soon appeared. When analysing and describing the orality of Russian elites, one has to take into consideration that there is not always a personal continuity among the Russian political elites — they might not have been born into the political elite. A good example is the spin doctor and presidential advisor Vladislav Surkov. This underlines the fact that their elite residual orality is not something that is perpetuated from generation to generation as a tradition, but something for which there is a societal demand.

Example of Zhirinovsky

Zhirinovsky is often perceived of as a clown, and his own constant allegations that he was a representative of the real opposition only strengthened this impression. He was a central figure who often appeared close to Putin and his rhetoric had a very interesting structure, which becomes visible only if one compares his public, very buffoonish appearances with his more academic ones. His public appearances might seem even strange in their radicality, but as many sociological polls show, the Russian population is radical in many questions in comparison to western Europe. However, it is worth noting that all the phenomena which are striking in Russia exist also in western European countries, where they are nonetheless marginal. In Russia they are central.

Zhirinovsky was an erudite person, with a background in law and oriental languages and had, in his academic appearances as a professor at the MGU, a way of speaking which paid considerable attention to words, whether they were Latin or Russian and how they were used in different contexts, not unlike the school masters the Italian futurists ridiculed but were so close to. The most important question when it comes to the presence of the formulaic and the attention to words, and concerning Zhirinovsky, that still remains to be studied, is whether in his rhetoric words were just devices used to render certain facts, or whether they were, as in all residually oral cultures, things which had an essence which slowly had to be interpreted and understood.

Being close to power, although he always denied this, Zhirinovsky probably provided Russian power with the elitist residual orality for which there was a demand in Russian society and which Putin is not very good at providing.

Residual orality did not disappear over the last 30 years

The essential residual orality of Russian elites and Russian society thus did not disappear during the last thirty years. The approaches linked with it were just slightly marginalised for a few years, mostly due to external and economic influences. Here it must be said again that it is not a tradition which for enigmatic reasons disappears and then reappears. On the contrary, it perfectly correlates with the general degree of educational development of the population.

An article in Foreign Affairs showed recently how natural residual orality was for the Russian diplomatic corps.

The former diplomat Boris Bondarev, who left service after the beginning of the war in February 2022, has furnished an interesting account of the development of the corps during his time in Foreign Affairs November/December 2022. This is of course a very personal document and can as such not be taken to prove much, but compared to other factors it seems to give, unconsciously, a reliable account of changes in Russian society during the last decade and the strengthening of residually oral elites reflecting Russian society in its totality much more than the author himself realises.

Bondarev claims that diplomatic officials increasingly furnished the news the leaders wanted to hear. He describes how, after a Russian resolution was voted down before the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons the delegates described the course of the summit as if they had defeated the western states and in cables “the fact that Russia’s resolution had been defeated was often reduced to a sentence”. If the author is right in his claims that the Russian leadership was indeed not fully aware of what was happening in the world, this could be explained by a sensibility to bombastic language, about which the author often speaks.

To residually oral persons a text is a speech. What matters are not the facts conveyed, which in this case could probably have been rendered very shortly, but the rhetorical bravado and the presence of easy identifiable formulas resonating with associations. The fact that the resolution was voted down is a detail, and one of the least important. It was probably not rendered through any formulas which implied any wide-spread associations to the Russian elites. This does not mean, of course, that they did not understand the content of the cables, it only means that the lasting impression was another than one could expect. As the author says, the diplomats were expected to “embrace bombastic rhetoric” towards other states, but “the target audience … was our own leadership”, as much as other states, he says very precisely.


It is natural that the importance of bombastic rhetoric increases during a war. However, populations have different degrees of sensitivity to this kind of rhetoric depending on the development of literacy, and its proximity or its distance. It is also not obvious that a population has elites able to furnish this essentially oral rhetoric. The people susceptible to asking for a structural change of the present regime are too few for any radical change to take place very soon. Most Russians are very literate, but close to orality and ask for residually oral elites. Those are the elites they currently have, and which will probably stay in place for a long time. The scientific, analytical intelligentsia, which had a certain influence under Gorbachev, is now also to a certain extent fleeing Russia, although it is still hard to say to which extent, this being both a question of collecting pure facts and of applying definitions. Russia is, as all other countries, not condemned to maintaining a certain structure forever. However, changes usually happen slowly, and the residual influence both of the late development of literacy and the communal family structures characteristic of Russia not so long ago imply that a rapid change is not very likely.

David Hallbeck (LLM) is a former scholar of the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris, currently working for Accenture. A political scientist and philologist, he is preparing a book about residual orality in contemporary Russia.

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