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Who Is “Soviet Man” Today? An Interview with Levada Center’s Lev Gudkov

Maxim Trudolyubov
Photo of Lev Gudkov from a 2016 Wilson Center event


For the Russian-language version of the interview, please follow here. The English-language version has been slightly edited for length.

Russia’s independent public sphere has been awash with heated discussion of Russian society’s alleged Stalinism. The country’s only remaining reputable polling organization, the Levada Center, recently reported a record-high approval rating for Joseph Stalin in Russia. Some observers disagreed, pointing to analytical flaws in the center’s survey questions, while others singled out the pollsters’ ongoing reliance on the “Soviet man”—Homo sovieticus, “Sovietsky chelovek”—idea dating from the late 1980s. The argument, in effect, is about Russia’s future and Russian society’s political agency. Does the “Soviet man” supposedly hiding in every Russian perpetuate the country’s authoritarian model, or is this personality type just a dated concept that should be put to rest? The Russia Filehas published a critique of the Levada Center’s work by the political scientist Gulnaz Sharafutdinova. We then spoke with the director of the Levada Center, Lev Gudkov, and discussed his understanding of the Soviet man concept and his vision for Russia’s political future.

Maxim Trudolyubov: What came first? Was fieldwork followed by theory, or the other way around?

Lev Gudkov: In the beginning there was Yuri Levada’s theoretical work. He studied the concept of the human being in various thought systems, including different religions, the classical economists, and Marx. He was interested in the cultural context of Homo economicus and Johan Huizinga’s Homo ludens, in Talcott Parsons’s understanding of man in his structural functionalism, even Shakespeare’s man. Levada’s hypothesis, which preceded his empirical work, was that the Soviet regime rested on a type of person who had been formed by the entire system of Soviet institutions, the Soviet man.

When, for demographic reasons, the generation that was born roughly between 1917 and 1928 started to die off, the regime began gaping at the seams. Levada believed that this personality type, with its adaptive techniques, life strategies, and ways of socialization, would not be passed on to the next generation. Young people growing up during the period of stagnation [the 1970s and early 1980s—MT] and ideological demobilization would have different demands, he thought, and the totalitarian system would therefore fall apart. We started fieldwork as soon as it became possible [in the late 1980s, when the authorities lifted restrictions on Levada’s work and allowed the creation of the Russian Public Opinion Research Center, or VTsIOM, of which Levada was one of the founding members and quickly became director—MT]. We conducted our surveys in February 1989, and in 1993 we summarized the results in the book “The Simple Soviet Man.”

MT: Whom do you mean when you say “Soviet man” today? Is it a way to define Russia’s majority?

LG: It is not an ethnic characterization, which is very important. No real man or woman exists that would exactly fit Levada’s description in the way that an ideal gas, a hypothetical gas, would obey the gas laws exactly. Such a person does not exist. Rather, Soviet man is a construct, a generalized type that incorporates the characteristics of many real people. It is a loadbearing structure for the entire system, but there are other personality types, too. It roughly corresponds to about 30 to 40 percent of the population, while certain of its features, according to our studies, might be found in 60 percent. The post-totalitarian social body includes other types. It is the composition of the types that is important. Each epoch produces its own composition and its dominant type.

MT: Can you name similar studies from other totalitarian societies?

LG: The Nazi government went to considerable effort to create a “Nazi man,” of course, but totalitarian rule in Germany lasted only twelve years. There simply was not enough time for a full generation to form. The same applies to the Italian fascists.

We know similar studies from the socialist countries. Here the work of the Polish sociologist Jerzy Mackow, conducted in Poland and East Germany before the collapse of the Soviet system, should be mentioned. He, too, found a scheming, hypocritical, frustrated man formed by the institutions of the totalitarian state. This, by the way, is further evidence of the fact that this phenomenon has nothing to do with ethnicity. One can find the Soviet man in Ukraine, Poland, and other former communist nations.

MT: How does your theoretical construct influence the way you phrase your survey questions and the way you analyze the answers? 

LG: We pose a lot of questions to our respondents. During our thirty years of work we have conducted some 4,500 to 5,000 polls, averaging about a hundred questions each. We therefore have about 40,000 or more answers to all those questions. We thus have a huge experience in understanding how various wordings work and how people from different social strata understand those questions. We base our theoretical conclusions on this material. When people who have nothing to do with sociology start instructing us in how to phrase questions, it is not even funny; it borders on arrogance. It is a symptom of inverted values in a post-totalitarian society, a kind of populism or ochlocracy—mob rule.

MT: In your recent poll on Russians’ attitudes toward Stalin, there was a question that caused a lot of controversy. Essentially, you suggested that your respondents weigh “achievements, attained in the shortest possible time” against the suffering of the Soviet regime’s victims….

LG: I should note first that we pose dozens of questions on Stalin. This was just one of many. Second, some of the respondents were presented with this same question in a wording that omitted “achievements.” And yet statistically, it did not make any difference: the answers to both questions were the same.

The questions are meant to measure collective beliefs, and such nuances do not affect the results. The reason why some of our data are not accepted has nothing to do with our methodology. A new generation has arrived that wants to treat itself just like all other people in “normal” countries. They dress as Europeans do, they speak foreign languages, their lifestyles (in fact, their consumer behavior) resemble those of the Western middle class.

But members of this generation do not want to assume any responsibility for the past. They demand the respect they believe they deserve, and when we put a mirror in front of them it angers them. Any therapy that touches on internal complexes and psychological traumas causes painful emotions and aggression. To alleviate such frustration, people often try to discredit the source of those unpleasant signals. That is why they attribute ideological tendencies to us researchers. What we do is show the extent of the restoration of Soviet practices, a process that has been initiated from the top down. We are not the ones driving this recidivism! People who say these things simply do not understand sociological work.

MT: Seventy percent of those polled said Stalin played a positive role in Russia’s history; 51 percent “respect” or “admire” him, a recent Levada poll says. What do people even mean by checking those boxes?

LG: We are talking about a myth created by the educational system, a myth that is designed to imbue consistent collective beliefs. People cannot just abandon those views because they are unable to work out their view of the past on their own. For that, they depend on the institutions that manufacture and transmit certain collective beliefs—the media, schools, popular culture, the politicians, the military.

This is not an easy problem to solve. We have not come to grips with the Soviet past, with its system of state violence and ideological coercion. Interpretations of history that run counter to those promoted by the state are excluded, which means that the reasons for the persistence of totalitarian thinking in society are not sufficiently understood or investigated. Let us put Stalin aside for a moment. Five years ago, we all saw with our own eyes the euphoria in Russia caused by the annexation of Crimea. Ten years ago we saw the euphoria, though of lesser intensity, caused by the war with Georgia. We have not sufficiently thought through those cases, and for the most part they are forgotten already. This is an “imperial” mechanism of social cohesion. Stalin is a part of it: his image serves the purpose of providing solidarity in rallying around the political power.

MT: But people conform to prevailing views everywhere. It is a norm rather than an exception, isn’t it? Mass polling techniques are unlikely to catch those few who go against the tide….

LG: This is not entirely true. Appearances may look similar. The mass person is indeed both conformist and authoritarian. But the reasons for that conformism and the mechanisms by which it is achieved are different in different societies. We would not get far in our explanations if we just said, “It’s like this everywhere.” Apart from this conformist type, there are other types evident in Western societies, and they become more influential, more efficient, which results in a different constellation of human types. The characteristics of those personality types include responsibility, political participation, and a solidarity that is not imposed from the top but grows from the bottom up. Look at the Nordic countries: they exemplify a very different personality type. Of course, there are conformists there too. But a different composition of institutions provides for a different composition of human types.

The number of those ready to go out and protest in Russia rarely exceeds 25,000. I am leaving out the two Bolotnaya demonstrations, when more than 100,000 showed up; those were outliers. In Rome or Paris up to half a million people can take to the streets to express their views. In London recently we saw a march of over a million people against Brexit.

MT: But given our laws, it is a miracle that people show up in the tens of thousands. That is a lot. Protesting in the streets is practically a pastime in France, but it is dangerous in Russia. People are, rightly, afraid.

LG: And this is what I am talking about. Russia has repressive laws, but people accept them and follow them. It is a certain type of consciousness. You cannot explain it away as the result of fear alone. It is not that people are saying, “If I join a demonstration, they will hit me on the head with a truncheon.” To keep clear of politics is a norm that has been burned into the Russian consciousness. It is a strong social reflex, a taboo. We listen to our respondents’ interviews and we see these deep structures of thinking, not fear of direct personal harm.

MT: So this is not your typical human conformism. But the term itself, the term Soviet man, is scary. When we call some phenomenon a “man,” it sounds as though we are separating one kind of human being from the other kind. We create the possibility for othering the “masses.” My feeling is that the Kremlin uses a similar scheme in its self-exculpation: “Our masses are unenlightened, we alone know the way, we will civilize them….”

LG: No, that is wrong. Our powers that be are typical Soviets [sovkí]. When I hear those arguments that you have reproduced, I ask one question: Why did Russia fail to build a democracy? We are evading this question. Why in the moment of deep crisis of the Soviet system, when all the law enforcement structures were paralyzed, did a democratic system fail to materialize? We are busy trying to find an answer to this question. Answering that is as important as understanding why the Nazi regime emerged.

MT: Doesn’t it trouble you that the term Soviet man might be used as a way of othering, of separating one part of society from other parts?

LG: It is you who say that it is a “way of othering.” I am not separating myself from others, I have no need for that. I am not running away from the difficult questions by saying that it is all about “them,” an enslaved people, occupied by some external force. I am trying to see Soviet man in myself, in my immediate circle. I want to understand where the boundaries of this type are, what can produce a different understanding of society, a different relation to self. I do not think, as you say, that there is some “different part of society,” apparently liberal in its outlook, that is distinctive from “the people” [narod]. We had an experiment: democrats were in power in Russia, though for a short time. It was they who paved the way for Putin.

In my view, social change starts when new institutions emerge and a new personality type forms. This new type, too, would be a generalized image, a construct. A new personality type emerging would mean that social change is happening. 

For now, we do not see any change. What we see is a return of totalitarianism. Putin is consciously using this resource, the restoration of Soviet beliefs. No new moral beliefs or ideas have transpired so far. For a long time, the idea of a self-propelling transition was the only show in town: it was enough, many thought, to unleash market forces and make some reforms for everything to fall into place. But the Russian elites proved a lot more cynical and adaptive than we expected, and the reformers lost. Where are other forces today?

The concept of a transition dominated thinking in the 1980s and 1990s. It was very common to think that totalitarian regimes would fall apart as soon as market reforms were introduced. The consumer society, once it set in, would destroy the repressive system. But it does not work this way.

MT: But Putin simply loves to highlight all things Soviet. That is one of his political tools. He is organizing military parades and fighting America. But Russia’s economy is a shadow of its former Soviet self, and the Russian state cannot control the larger part of Russian society the way the Soviet state could. The Russian state is weak.

LG: What we are seeing is a totalitarian system in decay. The decay stage might take a long time. It was not possible to pack an entire social transformation, let alone cultural transformation, into the five years following 1991. It will take generations. One of sociology’s most important charges is to observe and describe this process.

The social and political sciences do not give us a good answer as to how a totalitarian system really ends. The two most important totalitarian regimes collapsed as the result of a military defeat. In Russia, we see only piecemeal change to a totalitarian institutional system.

Putin is a man for whom the late Brezhnev years were formative. He emerged from the most conservative institutional background, the secret political police, and he has a mind-set formed in that environment. His propaganda has produced no new ideas. All the arguments of the Kremlin ideologues and propagandists date to the Cold War era or even earlier. The arguments used to justify the annexation of Crimea go back to the arguments used to start the Winter War [the 1939–1940 war between the Soviet Union and Finland, which started with a Soviet invasion—MT].

MT: An argument that has totalitarian institutions and Soviet man supporting each other sounds circular. Is there a way out of this?

LG: Sociology is not philosophy. It explains everything as an interplay of factors. One cannot tell what is the cause and what is the effect here. It is a social interaction that reproduces itself. The Soviet-type consciousness is becoming less dominant, but that does not mean that new types are emerging that can change the system. Some critics tell us that we do not see all the young people who are better educated, use modern gadgets, speak English, and travel more (which is debatable). True, these young people are different, but only if one excludes politics from the picture. But politics and morals—that is, political participation, responsibility, values—are absolutely essential.

MT: You are saying that while people’s consumer behavior has become westernized, their political behavior still follows that of Soviet man?

LG: Well, not absolutely, but largely yes. Nazism came to prominence in a society that was relatively developed and relatively prosperous. The general well-being did not hinder its rise to power. The important part was that the regime established an ideological dictatorship and a system of institutions that imposed a certain type of behavior and a certain view of the nation’s future.

MT: But there is all that space that evades the state’s oversight. We see lots of evidence of horizontal ties developing and the resulting social networks growing larger.

LG: This is absolutely true. We studied that phenomenon with Boris Dubin [1946–2014, the Russian literary critic, translator, and sociologist—MT] many years ago when we looked into the sociology of dissident underground publishing (samizdat). In the 1950s the samizdat-reading networks would have barely amounted to a few thousand people. In the 1970s and the early 1980s they were already millions strong. Samizdat itself changed, too: it spawned alternative social groupings and structures that helped dilute the totalitarian system. Today’s samizdat-equivalent is the internet, but it is not a substitute for a free press and free communication. It is a supplement and sometimes an imitation.

MT: But horizontal ties are highly developed. Tens of millions of people are in them. And yet you are saying this does not influence people’s thinking about the regime?

LG: It does influence their thinking, but not in the ways we thought it would. It does not complicate Russian society’s consciousness and structure. It is what Boris Dubin called bypass surgery on the communication system (comparing it to a cardiac bypass operation). The same clichés and stereotypes are flowing along those new channels of communication.

MT: And what about independent political projects? Protests?

LG: To notice the impulses of the new is very important. But they spark and then disappear because there is no recognition or follow-up. Alexei Navalny is a talented leader who has created an entire alternative system. But here is a simple example from our recent surveys: 90 percent of those polled were against the retirement age reform last year; 53 percent said they were ready to take to the streets in protest. But when the protests began, they were immediately sterilized. The organizers were arrested, and hundreds of volunteers in Navalny’s campaign headquarters across the country were detained. The protest lost its edge and dissipated. Today only about 25 percent say they are ready to go out and protest. The seedlings of alternative development are sprouting all the time but the authorities nip them in the bud.

MT: What is the way out, then?

LG: More than half of all societies are repressive. Democratic societies are unique cases that require a rare combination of circumstances to emerge. They are not the result of predetermined, rules-governed processes, as Samuel Huntington and Francis Fukuyama once thought. It is a dramatic turn of events. The political scientist Ivan Krastev suggested recently that the “velvet revolutions” in Europe were the kinds of national breakthroughs that were packaged as anti-Soviet and democratic revolutions. Today this insight might be confirmed by the cases of Hungary, Poland, and, partly, the Czech Republic. The fight against Sovietism took the form of a fight for democracy but was in fact driven by the fight to build an independent nation-state. Of course, pro-democracy movements were there too. We just need to recognize the contradictions in this process. Real change takes a long time. If we expect Russia to change in five to eight years, we will not see much happening. In a longer perspective, aggregate change might produce a radical push for a real transformation.

About the Author

Maxim Trudolyubov

Maxim Trudolyubov

Senior Advisor; Editor-in-Chief, Russia File;
Editor-at-Large, Meduza

Maxim Trudolyubov is a Senior Fellow at the Kennan Institute and the Editor-at-Large of Meduza. Mr. Trudolyubov was the editorial page editor of Vedomosti between 2003 and 2015. He has been a contributing opinion writer for The International New York Times since the fall of 2013. Mr. Trudolyubov writes The Russia File blog for the Kennan Institute and oversees special publications.

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Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier US center for advanced research on Russia and Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange.  Read more