Abstract. This article traces the evolution of attitudes toward the psychological characteristics of the “Soviet man” in Russian socio-humanitarian science. The author identifies three positions on the issue. The first one dates back to the time when it was impossible to write about the negative qualities of the Soviet personality, and only the positive qualities could be singled out. The second, characteristic of the time when “repentance” was in vogue, focused on the negative qualities. The third, more objective position, which has asserted itself in recent years, is that the Soviet man had both positive and negative properties. The author draws a distinction between the early Soviet “hard” totalitarian regime and the late Soviet “softened” one, demonstrating, in particular, that the split personality of the Soviet man in the late Soviet period was a product of that era. An attempt is made to single out the subtypes of the late Soviet man, covering such categories as “orthodox,” “cosmopolitan” and “detached,” the relationship between which served as the psychological basis of what happened during our reforms.
The Soviet Man as an Object of Study
The demise of the USSR, and with it of the whole socialist system 30 years ago put an end to the experiment of molding the new Soviet man (homo soveticus) and his advanced version, homo communisticus, the latter usually associated with Yury Gagarin . Thirty years is enough time to form a calm attitude to this signal phenomenon unencumbered by personal involvement rather than in the light of emotionally charged positions that presented homo soveticus either as a totally positive or totally negative product of history. The Soviet period, of course, is receding into the past with great difficulty, leaving behind it a trail of nostalgia for people’s youth and all that is associated with it. The Soviet times had generated in Soviet scholars a “non-ontological” style of thinking that can be expressed in the formula: “If the claims of social scientists contradict reality, so much the worse for reality.” In the 1990s, even divorces in this country were sometimes politically motivated, much to the surprise of foreigners: he is for the liberals and she for the conservatives (the terms designating these political poles have since changed). Today, of course, things are not the same, but even now, different attitudes toward the same political realities may cause considerable problems. Russian scholarship has a penchant for avoiding such problems choosing, among a multitude of topics, ones that are far less significant than our past psychology, which has not yet sunk into oblivion. However, to cite Vladimir Lenin (a now forgotten Soviet habit), sidestepping essential problems due to considerations of expediency constantly leads to such problems cropping up in various aspects of reality. The 1989 collection of sociological articles titled Comprehension, in which perestroika was the key term (think of the attempt to use it to rescue socialism), has the following words: “The host of new problems is a natural consequence of decades of silence. By refusing to see problems, the nation did not get rid of them, but shoved them under the rug, as problems proliferated, giving rise to social diseases” [10, p. 5]. This is arguably the problem with Soviet psychology, which exerts a great influence on our vision of the reality around us.
Lenin, Trotsky, Bukharin, Bogdanov and others who initiated programs of creating a new Soviet man were very mindful of the fact that socialism needed a psychological prop in the shape of a new socialist type of personality. These people were naturally unconstrained in their choice of methods of education and they went a long way toward achieving their goal. At any rate, even among emigres, who formally “turned their backs on their motherland,” there was an established perception of the qualities of the Soviet man and “the idea of homo soveticus has had a strong appeal since the October Revolution” [1, p. 75].
However, the mentality of the Soviet man has evolved both “horizontally” and “vertically.” Generations of Soviet people, for example, can be divided into early Soviet ones, who had experienced all the “blessings” of War Communism, and late Soviet ones, who lived in conditions of “softened” socialism.1 There were also differences in the mentality of peoples and social groups, which had grown up under significantly different socio-cultural and psychological conditions. Some other psychological differences between Soviet people can also be identified. Therefore, the discussion of the psychology of the Soviet man requires an abstraction, “a modal personality” , whose key features are determined by the Soviet system, while individual differences are ignored. Of course, no one can embrace everything and give an account of all the attributes of Soviet psychology or even the most essential of them. However, we can single out the key factors that influenced their formation while allowing that other factors may have been at work as well. I submit that the main factors that played a significant role in the shaping of Soviet mentality were as follows: (1) perception of Russian history, (2) Soviet ideology, and (3) Soviet reality.
“Over his relatively short history ‘the Soviet man,’ homo soveticus, say the authors of the book The Soviet Common Man, has been repeatedly mythologized and demythologized in the political, Utopian, and dystopian literature and propaganda.” Yury Levada and his co-authors refer to it as a “socio-anthropological type” or a “socio-cultural type” [6, p. 6]. Lev Gudkov writes: “Each of the aforementioned properties and characteristics (the mentality of the Soviet man – A. Yu.) is a compressed or condensed expression of the history of institutionalized practices and ideological transformations in the period beginning from at least the 1920s, although some of them have a much longer history and are rooted in the traditions of Russian political and social serfdom” . According to his data, 35% to 40% of the population in those years exhibited the whole range of qualities of the Soviet man, although it is not quite clear how these data have been obtained and how matters stood with the remaining 60% to 65%. Levada and his co-authors consider the 1930s and 1940s to be the “mature, classical” period of the Soviet man. Before that time, this man had not been formed or had not been formed fully, and after that period, he had undergone some changes, although his main features remained intact. Even so, this is only one step away from recognizing historical varieties of the Soviet man, for example, the early Soviet and late Soviet man that differed from his forerunner, say, in that they had a double morality. “The use of a collective notion [the Soviet man] always poses a problem for the historian, since it hides the diversity, fluidity, and openness of social development. No matter how well-founded empirically and expressively in literary form the studies of homo sovieticus may have been, the associated concept of society and the image of man is reductionist and deterministic,” writes Klaus Gestwa [1, p. 75].
Under the “hard” Soviet totalitarianism, mentioning negative qualities of the Soviet man was forbidden, and under the “softened” version that followed, it was undesirable. Therefore, the studies of that period are devoted exclusively to positive characteristics.
Characteristics of the “Advanced” Soviet Man
Boris Teplov, one of the most highly regarded Soviet psychologists, described by Mikhail Yaroshevsky as “a man of fiendish intelligence,” identified the following attributes of the advanced Soviet man: (1) ideological commitment and sense of purpose, (2) Soviet patriotism, (3) collectivism, (4) socialist humanism, (5) communist attitude to work, (6) a sense of duty and responsibility, (7) readiness to overcome difficulties, (8) fortitude, (9) initiative, (10) modesty, (11) cheerfulness, self-confidence, and optimism. The scholar sums up the list of the key features of the Soviet man with this quotation from Maxim Gorky: “It is a joy to live and struggle in a country where the great wisdom of the party and the iron will of its leader, Joseph Stalin, forever liberate people from the accursed habits and prejudices of the past.” And he adds that the Soviet people have the great luck of being the first people in human history to whom it fell to be the builders of communist society. Granted, B. Teplov speaks about the advanced Soviet man, apparently implying that there are also other individuals in Soviet societies who are not advanced .
Fyodor Gonobolin, author of the textbook Psychology, published in 1973, when discussing the negative qualities of the Soviet personality, which was already allowed, albeit frowned upon, lists the following key personal characteristics of the Soviet man that are consciously fostered by society and family: (1) ideological commitment and sense of purpose, as manifested in readiness to contribute actively to the building of communism in our country; (2) Soviet patriotism and proletarian internationalism, which are alien to racial and ethnic prejudice and which do not set different peoples against each other but unite them in one common and closely knit family; (3) communist attitude to work; (4) collectivism and socialist humanism, i.e., attachment to the collective in which one lives and to the whole Soviet people, awareness of common and not only personal interests, friendship with and care for other people. The author concludes in the spirit of the time: “The Soviet man is a harmoniously developed individual who combines spiritual depth, moral purity, and physical perfection” .
Georgy Smirnov in his book “addressed to the broad circles of ideological workers”  also marks out mainly the positive qualities of the Soviet man. Smirnov, incidentally, was considered among Soviet social scientists to be one of the more decent official philosophers.
Other frequently mentioned features of the Soviet man are: internationalism; the habit of not “sticking one’s neck out”; the wish to make a difference (people wrote to newspapers and party bodies); confidence that the authorities should heed what people say and help them; commitment to equality; faith in love and friendship; the conviction that people should have spiritual values and be creative as opposed to pursing material gain and creature comforts; faith in science and its ability to make new discoveries; preference for collective activities; faith in justice, in the state and its efficiency, in the law and information in the mass media. “In general, the Soviet man was too good for this world. That is what let him down: his credulity, faith in justice, and the feeling that the future can only be good. Why Soviet people have been trampled down for almost 30 years is also clear. What the powers that be fear most of all is a repeat of the 1917 events, and they will do anything to prevent it,” the author concludes .
In his opinion, the berating of all things Soviet began in 1987. A boy who was 10 years old at the time would never grow up to be a Soviet man. The 1970s generation is fiercely anti-Soviet (with some exceptions, of course). Meanwhile all the negative features of the Soviet man came to be attributed to the Russian man, an achievement on which the author congratulated the “anti-Sovieteers” .
Later studies carried out by Vlada Pishchik’s team discovered that the Soviet man who lived in an atmosphere of collectivism embraced such cultural values as adherence to tradition, openness, kindness, discipline, and respect for power .
Negative View of the Soviet Man
Soviet dissidents, unsurprisingly, saw the Soviet personality in a very different light. Aleksandr Zinoviev, for example, listed the following characteristics of homo soveticus: opportunism, whining and cynicism, corruption, immorality, intransigence, sycophancy, intolerance, arrogance, resilience, etc. In his social behavior, the Soviet man is guided largely not by conviction or enthusiasm, but by self-interest, which ultimately leads him to “self-enslavement” .
With the advent of the “craze for repentance,” the focus turned to the negative features instilled by the Soviet system. “In the snowballing process of humiliation and frustration, homo soveticus mutated into sovok (a derogatory term – A. Yu.),” writes K. Gestwa. And he goes on to add: “Subsequently, the Soviet man lost his heroic-collectivist image marked by self-sacrifice and enthusiasm and started becoming a consumer-oriented opportunist” [1, pp. 69, 75].
The authors of the book The Soviet Common Man, published in 1993, when Soviet society or at least a sizeable part of it developed an allergy toward all Soviet things and were euphoric about the replacement of the Soviet man with a post-Soviet one, proceeding from a massive study conducted by the Public Opinion Research center (VCIOM), attribute the following basic characteristics to the Soviet man:
(1) the notion of own uniqueness: Soviets are special;
(2) state-paternalist orientation, with normative social feeling of involvement in state affairs going hand-in-hand with the expectation that the state will show fatherly concern for its subjects;
(3) inner acceptance of the hierarchical world combined with manifest egalitarianism;
(4) imperial character. “The core of the Soviet man, the authors write, is universal simplicity. It is commitment to the universal average (‘to be like everyone else’), but also the simple wish to survive and be content with little joys. Such a social character needs no more than simple state control and management. The link between the simple person and simple power – social-group identifications, i.e., essentially civil society – disappears, as it were” [6, p. 63]. Yury Levada’s associate, Lev Gudkov, analyzed the changes in the Soviet person that took place since.
(1) He is everyman (seeking “to be like everyone else”) suspicious of everything new and original. Being typical and average is for the Soviet man a very important element of self-identification and self-regulation.
(2) He has adapted himself to the existing social order, partly by lowering his ambitions and demands.
(3) He is undemanding and parochial (intellectually, ethically and symbolically), and knows of no other models and ways of life because he lives in an isolated and repressive society.
(4) He respects the hierarchy because he is aware that not only economic and social goods (living standards, consumption, rights and freedoms) but also human rights, dignity, respect, “honor,” recognition of the value of one’s life, notions of what is permissible, ethical norms, intellectual characteristics and abilities, aspirations, needs, and self-esteem are distributed in accordance with social status and position in power structures.
(5) He is perpetually unhappy because he feels he is not getting what everyone is entitled to and is therefore disappointed, envious, and frustrated, because he feels that “life” has shortchanged him.
(6) He is sly, thinks he has the right to cheat everyone he deals with: the boss, the government, and those close to him.
(7) He is never sure of his ground because (due to undeveloped, undifferentiated, and unspecialized institutions) he can never rely on the rules of formal state institutions and hence can never expect legal and social protection, stability, and predictability of existence amid pervasive administrative and social arbitrariness.
(8) At the same time, his disenchantment and sense of inferiority are offset by a sense of (mass, collective) exclusiveness and superiority (being part of something “special,” “super-important,” “supra-individual,” such as a great power, empire, and people).
(9) The harshness of the normative requirements and rules he must comply with is mitigated not only by double-think and cunning, but also by corruption .
The author of “Twelve Attributes of the Soviet Man,” comparing them with the symptoms of … pregnancy singles out the following: certainty that the state must take care of his personal well-being; sloth; smoking and drinking; the tendency to pilfer; lack of faith in God while regularly going to church; adherence to the principle of justice; lack of interest in politics; the notion that trade unions are necessary; a penchant for freeloading; keeping law and life apart; the habit of leaning on the person in front of one in a queue; the habit of cheating on weight and change in a store; the tendency to take the side of the shop assistant, cashier, or manager in conflicts with customers in a queue; reluctance to stand up for oneself in booking offices and agencies . Let us note parenthetically that the physical parameter in this ironic and disparaging image – the tendency to press against the person in front of you in a queue – had a rationale in the queues for alcohol in the late Soviet period, though it did not entirely prevent queue-jumpers (dushmans in the slang of the period) from squeezing in edgewise.
Our colleague Aleksandr Asmolov singles out three main characteristics (peculiarities) of the Soviet mentality: the belief that there exists a Center, which is omniscient and all-powerful and can solve all your problems for you, and constant search of an enemy and flight from freedom .
Remigijus Bistrickas and Rimantas Kochunas note the following characteristics of Soviet mentality: a person is not a goal but a means; schizoid personality split (social and personal); total absence of a sense of security; constant fear and a sense of vulnerability; totalitarian thinking in conflict with common sense (for example, when people condemned films no one had seen and articles no one had read) .
The authors of the internet publication “Soviet Union syndrome” write: “Metaphorically speaking, it is a package of features characteristic of a person living in the Soviet and post-Soviet period. Such features can be instilled in a child through education by parents who had lived in those times. It is hard to say whether these were bad or good periods, as everything is relative.” But they add that “the main negative traits of a person from the USSR that are still encountered among citizens of the Russian Federation have long been revealed.” And they catalog such characteristics as total indifference to work performance; lack of initiative; fear of responsibility; fear of standing out from the crowd; an “ordinary person” with limited ambitions (intellectual, symbolic, ethical, etc.); the belief that being primitive and poor is a virtue to be proud of; perpetual grumbling; the cult of power and submission to any authorities and fulfillment of even the most immoral orders; suggestibility; hatred of everything that “is not ours,” suspiciousness; drunkenness. These are traits we would be better off without; and to get rid of them, it would help to go on a holiday abroad at least once a year and become immersed in another culture and try to put oneself in place of the local people, to study foreign languages, read more general knowledge literature, and look after oneself .
Attention is paid to the appearance of the typical Soviet man, such as slouching and drab skin, bad teeth, slovenly clothes, footwear, and accessories, and general shabbiness. “And now we come to the main thing,” the author writes, “that marks the average Soviet man. To all the above, we should add general submissiveness and timidity. The average Soviet man has always been afraid of the boss, trying not to attract attention and to merge with the crowd. A crumpled mousegray ill-fitting ready-made suit, a slightly rumpled shirt yellowish from repeated washings, a chapped leather belt, a watch with an oxidized bracelet, horn-rimmed glasses, and worn and dusty shoes.” And the author concludes: “All this would have been funny if it were not so sinister. Such an outward appearance of the Soviet man was a result, first, of the really low living standards in the USSR and, second, the genetic memory of Stalin’s repressions when those who were in some way outstanding and eye-catching were destroyed” .
The contrast between posters showing robust, cheerful, and happy people and photographs of the time is paralleled by the contrast between ideological clichés and reality. Although Soviet athletes, cosmonauts, and members of well-to-do social groups hardly fitted the above clichés, such types could easily be found in Soviet society. Having said that, such types can easily be found in any society, and it is doubtful that they fit the portrait of the typical Soviet man. But it is hard to deny that what Soviet power did to the economy was in most cases a rape of the economy, and the economy had much to do with what people looked like. A Moscow citizen looked different from inhabitants of provincial cities, and farmers aged much earlier than their counterparts in European countries, etc.
Positive and Negative Qualities of the Soviet Man
At the same time, more objective assessments began to appear which recognized both positive and negative features.
Thus, M. Popov believes that “the problem of the essence of the Soviet man as a socio-cultural type of personality” lies in “the underlying contradiction between individual self-consciousness, social and cultural creativity, enthusiasm, self-improvement, romantic faith in the future, optimism, mutual help, rejection of greed and consumerism, on the one hand, and collectivist identity, submission to the system in exchange for social guarantees, conformism, ‘fear of looking at social life objectively’ (A. Zinoviev), social passivity, and suppression of personal freedom, on the other hand” .
Yury Boldyrev, co-founder of the Yabloko party with Grigory Yavlinsky and Vladimir Lukin, wrote this about the problem of the Soviet mentality: “The Soviet times produced a special type of thinking and world view of the Soviet man. The cohesion of the people during the war and post-war economic recovery effort completed the formation and strengthening of this type of world view, instilling it in the vast majority of Soviet citizens.” He singles out the following features of the Soviet man: while considering himself in most cases to be an atheist, he nevertheless tried to live strictly according to Christian commandments; he respected all work and despised ill-gotten gains, he was very warm-hearted; he valued only achievements gained through his own work; he did not shirk difficulties and instilled this attitude in his children from the time they were Young Pioneers; he welcomed modesty and was ashamed of bragging; he respected elders, he was brought up that way from childhood. But Soviet education had its down side, which came to the surface with the collapse of the system. It turned out that the Soviet man trusted his state unreservedly and overlooked instances when the state betrayed him. Trust in the state went hand-in-hand with another shortcoming that was actively exploited by “Yeltsinoids,” to use the author’s word, in the early years after the break-up of the Soviet Union, and that is trust in the mass media. On the whole, though, Soviet education, in Boldyrev’s opinion, was not so bad, and when meeting a person who has preserved this way of thinking, does not live by illusions and has not sunk into dotage, he is very pleasant to deal with. He is open, honest, and does not show off, does not try to put himself above others, does not carry unnecessary negatives and is always ready to help. Unfortunately, there are few such people left, the 1990s having run like a steamroller over their consciousness . In spite of the features that are negative or are passed off as negative, the image is on the whole very likeable, giving rise to the impression, which not all would agree with, that the “worse” the totalitarian social system, the “better,” or at least more naive and pleasant toward the people around them, are its representatives, and vice versa.
The authors of the “Soviet Man” entry in Wikipedia divide his qualities into positive and negative ones. The positive ones are selfless love of country, the Motherland; unshakeable confidence in tomorrow; striving toward the “bright future”; optimism moderated by realism based on common sense and scientific Marxism; a deep sense of belonging to a great community of Soviet people like himself; a keen sense of justice; absolute honesty; humaneness; rejection of vanity; decent behavior in the family and the work collective; courage, inborn or acquired through professional activity; revolutionary daring; unconquerable fortitude; a work enthusiasm unknown to the Western man; a readiness for great epoch-making accomplishments; tolerance of fellow citizens and foreign citizens of the socialist camp (for some reason, only of them – A. Yu.). The following fall in the category of negative features of the Soviet man: a measure of skepticism with regard to the authorities (practically every General Secretary of the CC CPSU was the butt of numerous jokes); awareness of some restrictions of freedom under the Soviet regime and a wish to be rid of them, yet at the same time inability to avail himself of the freedoms granted after the collapse of the USSR; indifference to his work performance (expressed in the saying, “They pretend to be paying us and we pretend to be working”) and lack of initiative; indifference to his own property, pilfering, rejection of opinions differing from the official one; fear of sticking one’s neck out and not being like all the others .
Three Types of the Soviet Man
Russian psychological science in search of subtypes of the Soviet man builds typologies of individuals in general and professional types. However, it can be said a priori that historical and individual differences among the Soviet people man produced subtypes within the single historical-cultural type of the Soviet man.
This writer would not hazard to build typologies of the Soviet man in this context except noting that historical development (degradation) of the Soviet state was accompanied by the loosening of state control over the individual and gradual loss of faith initially in communism2 and then in socialism. The split of the Soviet personality into two subpersonalities, one for official and the other for unofficial situations, stemmed from the fact that a sizeable proportion of Soviets had lost faith in the ideals of socialism.
Building their typologies in any, including late Soviet, periods is possible on various grounds and in general may involve diverse types. However, three types stand out in bold relief:
(1) “orthodox” (holds socialist ideals sacred but does not think power in the USSR is quite well equipped to achieve them, is moderate in personal life, “Soviet means the best” for the individual, a patriot);
(2) “cosmopolitan” (pro-Western, sees the US as a model social system, for them, “Soviet is the worst,” permits himself to deviate from accepted moral rules in personal life, is not a patriot);
(3) “detached” (remote from politics, uses only a small part of the Russian vocabulary, mainly cuss words, among drinks prefers cheap vodka and port wine, his patriotism is dubious). The changes that befell the Soviet society were prepared and brought about by the second type, “cosmopolitans,” resisted by the “orthodox” Soviets, while “the detached” were mainly passive.
Has the man person receded into the past that brought him forth? The consensus among scholars is that he has not gone away, with some seeing it as the chief obstacle in the way of using the advantages of democracy and the market economy and others as the reason why we have retained some human features. We know the outcome. But “that is another story.”
(All cited sources published in Russian)
1. Gestwa K. The Soviet Man: A History of a Collective Concept. Vestnik obshchestvennogo mneniya (= Russian Public Opinion Herald). 2018. No. 1-2. pp. 58-75.
2. Gonobolin F. N. Psychology. Moscow: Prosveshchenie, 1973. Available at: http://www.biografia.ru/about/psihologia019.html.
3. Grushin B. A. Essays on Mass Consciousness of the Times of Khrushchev, Brezhnev, Gorbachev and Yeltsin. Moscow: Progress-Traditsiya, 2001.
4. Gudkov L. D. Conditions of the Reproduction of “the Soviet Man.” Vestnik obshchestvennogo mneniya. 2009. No. 2, pp. 8-37.
5. Kochetkov V. V. The Psychology of Inter-Cultural Differences. Moscow: Per Se, 2001.
6. Levada Yu. A. The Soviet Common Man: An Attempt to Draw a Social Portrait at the Turn of the 1990s. Moscow: Mirovoy okean, 1993.
7. Lourie S. V. Historical Ethnology. Moscow: Aspekt-Press, 1997.
8. Smirnov G. L. The Soviet Man: Formation of the Socialist Type of Personality. Moscow: Politizdat, 1973.
9. Teplov B. M. Psychology: Textbook for Secondary School. Available at: https://psy.wikireading.ru/24958.
10. Zavyalov A. N. (Ed.) Comprehension: Sociology. Social Politics. Economic Reform. Moscow: Progress, 1989.
11. Zinoviev A. Yawning Heights. Lausanne: L’Age d’Homme, 1976.
12. Anatomy of the Soviet man. August 17, 2016. Available at: https://uborshizzza.livejournal.com/4169284.html.
13. Asmolov A. G. The Soviet man has turned out to be a singularly strong structure. World Crisis. October 31, 2017. Available at: http://worldcrisis.ru/crisis/2848860.
14. Boldyrev Yu. The great and naive Soviet man. Fishki.net. July 31, 2015. Available at: http://fishki.net/1614095-vspominaem-sssr-preimuwestva-i-ned.
15. Gudkov L. D. Transformations of the Soviet man (A Levada Center project). Elima. Available at: https://root.elima.ru/texts/?id=502.
16. How has the psychology of the Soviet man changed. Gazeta.ru. November 1, 2018. Available at: https://zen.yandex.ru/media/gazeta/kak-izmenilas-psihologiia-sovetskogo-cheloveka-5bab799e25dbcd00aaf80745.
17. Mirovich M. Portrait of a typical Soviet man. June 26, 2019. Available at: https://mirovichmedia/514883.html.
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19. The Soviet man. Available at: http://cyclowiki.org/wiki/CoBeTCKHH_HejiOBeK.
20. Syndrome of the Soviet Union. Minimalwork. November 25, 2019. Available at: https://minimalwork.ru/sindrom-sovetskogo-soyuza.
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1 “Unlike his predecessors, Leonid Brezhnev, the Kremlin ruler from 1964 until 1982, was concerned not with the communist paradise, but with the well-being of people,” writes K. Gestwa [1, p. 66]. What Brezhnev was concerned about is hard to guess, but some loosening of the screws under him was evident. The same is true of his predecessor, Nikita Khrushchev.
2 The crucial error was probably committed by N. Khrushchev, who promised to build communism within 20 years and thus brought the ideal down to earth, something his smarter predecessors were afraid to do.