R.I.P “Soviet Man”: Scrapping Homo Sovieticus in the Spirit of Yuri Levada

Vintage photo of a Soviet school holiday scene in Leningrad, USSR. Source: Shutterstock.

BY GULNAZ SHARAFUTDINOVA

“Soviet man is a servile double-thinker with no morality.” “Soviet man is being reproduced in modern-day Russia.” These two messages have occupied a prime position in the Levada Center’s communications over the past two decades or so.

Their urgency and resonance, coming as they do from the only remaining reputable polling organization in Russia, reached a new high following the 2014 annexation of Crimea, which cast into sharp relief the differences between Russia’s and Western countries’ perceptions of geopolitical realities. Masha Gessen’s 2017 The Future Is History has helped popularize these messages in the West.

They came to the forefront following the Levada Center’s most recent opinion polls, which show a record-high approval for Joseph Stalin in Russia. The polls have ignited a debate among independent observers and social scientists in Russia as to the meaning of the survey findings. A group of scholars and analysts in Russia have pointed out analytical flaws that may have skewed the center’s conclusions, attributing them, in part, to its ongoing reliance on the “Soviet man” concept. 

The stakes in this debate are high. They concern Russia’s future, the country’s potential for change, and the political agency needed to bring about the changes desired by those who do not believe in Putin’s leadership. According to the deeply conservative logic of the “Soviet man” concept, a special kind of human being is created by the system and the system is then perpetuated by that new being. Such a view fails to show what needs to happen for the system to change.

However, that view provided the frame within which the Levada Center’s sociologists designed their survey questions and interpreted the findings. Russian social scientists have expressed concerns about it (for example, here and here). I argue below that the composite parts of this framework are outdated in the context of changing debates in social psychology, sociology, and political science and need rethinking. 

Totalitarianism and Individual Agency

The Levada Center, which began as the Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VTsIOM), conducted its first opinion survey on the “simple Soviet man” in November 1989. This project, the brainchild of Yuri Levada, one of Russia’s most prominent sociologists, prepared the ground for the subsequent emergence of the discursive construction of Homo sovieticus—a human species presumed to have been irreparably damaged by the Soviet system.

The idea that a totalitarian system leaves indelible marks on society was not new in 1989. A few dissident writers in the socialist bloc countries and the Soviet Union wrote about the impact of the communist system on individual consciousness, character, and social practices.

The Russian émigré scholar Alexander Zinoviev (who later returned to Moscow State University) in the 1980s advanced a cultural-philosophical analysis of Homo sovieticus that relied on literary tools and personal observations. Earlier, Georgi Markov and Assen Ignatow, both dissident writers who fled socialist Bulgaria, had developed influential ideas about the impact of communism on society and people. Still earlier, in 1953, the Polish émigré writer and Nobel laureate Czesław Miłosz wrote The Captive Mind, about the impact of Stalinism on individuals.

These writers’ role as keepers of the moral compass is indisputable. Their choice of emigration over trying to live and work within communism’s narrow constraints is testament to their integrity. Their writings are valuable because they expose the moral compromises the communist system imposed on individuals and urge individuals to withstand the pressures originating in the system.

Václav Havel’s iconic 1978 essay “The Power of the Powerless” and its demand to “live in truth” is perhaps the best literary example exhibiting both an understanding of the moral compromises with which people living under communism struggle and faith in human agency and its potential to overcome the system. Let me emphasize that Havel’s analysis was driven by a belief that humans retained individual agency under communism. An individual was responsible for the choices he or she made, and could choose to resist or submit to the system’s expectations and controls.

Levada’s Revision

Yuri Levada’s project, though in some ways driven by similar concepts and ideas, conveyed a radically different meaning. Empirically grounded and methodologically robust, it was a scientific project that claimed to explain social reality. Like any scientific endeavor conceived in a positivist tradition, it sought to be ideologically neutral, and derived its authority and legitimacy from that alleged neutrality.

But it was not neutral. It combined a specific view of what human beings were about with a historically contingent theory of how the communist system operated and a vision of how the two, the individual and the system, were interconnected.

At its inception, this scholarly project appeared socially and politically progressive. It was intended to study and draw a portrait of that “disappearing species,” late Soviet man.

However, one of the central expectations of the project—that Soviet man would disappear along with the system that gave rise to him—was not realized in line with the Levada sociologists’ expectations. Yuri Levada himself openly admitted as much. But instead of questioning the assumptions and what might have been off with their approach in the first place, they decided to stick to their analytical guns.

As a result, three decades after the first appearance of the “simple Soviet man,” the project’s fundamental message is quite orthogonal to the spirit of Havel’s “The Power of the Powerless.”

Instead of promoting human agency and revealing political potential at the individual level, the Levada Center’s analysis blames (if indirectly) the Russian people for the reemergence of authoritarianism. It thereby provides a blueprint for domestic “othering”: Russian intellectuals who disagree with the current political system “other” the Russian masses in the way they apply the construct Homo sovieticus. Instead of building political bridges and coalitions, intellectuals frequently end up blaming the masses, without whom long-term political change is impossible. 

Fault Lines in Levada’s Project

The critical starting point in Levada’s project was the assumption that the Soviet system produced a different human species. Granted, this was a theoretically grounded assumption. Talcott Parsons’s social systems theory, which dominated Western sociological debates in the 1950s and 1960s, was one of the two central analytical pillars Yuri Levada relied on. Parsons’s grand theory was to provide the foundation for a specific vision of personality psychology that postulated a direct linkage between the individual self and society.

According to this view, the structure of human personality was a function of the social system. In the process of socialization, individuals internalized the values, symbols, and relationships defining the overall system, which enabled the system to persist. Hence the view of what the system was about presupposed its product: a specific type of human personality; and vice versa: the view of its product presupposed maintenance of the system itself.

In the late 1980s Levada became a dominant figure in Soviet sociology. The simple Soviet man project became the source and centerpiece of great scholarly fulfillment for him. Another important source of Levada’s thinking, totalitarianism theory, produced in its classic version by Carl Friedrich and Zbigniew Brzezinski in the 1950s, could finally be discussed and referred to openly. As the Soviet Union moved ever closer to imploding, the appeal of that theory was arguably at its apex on both sides of the Iron Curtain.

Refreshing the View of Personality

Scholarly understandings evolve, however, and today both analytical pillars of Yuri Levada’s simple Soviet man project have long been rejected by mainstream sociology, personality psychology, and even much of political science; they have receded into the history of these disciplines. Parsonian social systems theory is long in abeyance. The psychology of personality has also moved away from its emphasis on systemic influences and toward appreciating the importance of context, human reflexivity, and agency. Studies of totalitarianism have been enriched by a more nuanced take on the interactions of state and society, one that retains concepts of both social and individual agency and rejects the notion of monolithic control exercised by the party-state as postulated by classic theories of totalitarianism—even at the height of Stalinism.

Use of the outdated Homo sovieticus construct to interpret present-day Russia is politically troubling. Such interpretations engage a circular logic of codetermination of Russia’s authoritarian regime and the human material that allows the system to exist in the first place. The circular method of argumentation absolves Russia’s political and economic elites of any responsibility for the condition of Russia’s state institutions, society, or economy. Nor does it provide any clues as to where and how political change might occur.

If Havel’s call for human dignity and political agency empowered people, the “Soviet man” concept promotes hopelessness and despair. This is not in the spirit in which Yuri Levada conceived and advanced his project. The Levada Center sociologists need to rearm themselves with new concepts and ideas, tapping into the more recent theoretical work in sociology and personality psychology.

The empirical work the Levada Center has been conducting need not be wasted. But their theory needs a radical shakeup. Being true to the spirit and intentions of the founder of the Levada Center is more important than clinging to old ideas that once inspired others in an era long over.

Gulnaz Sharafutdinova is a Reader at King's Russia Institute (King's College London). 
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