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The Way It Was

A grey shadow of Soviet Man - part 2
The study “Soviet Man, 1989-2009”, as discussed in the August 2010 issue of PASSPORT, was conducted by the Levada Analytical Centre and painted a broad sociological picture of post-Soviet social reality. Along with revealing Soviet-era personality traits that have made it possible to resurrect archaic political mechanisms, the study also noted a growth in professed religion. This second article explores whether the population of Russia really has become as religious as figures from the Levada study say, and explains why those young people who never lived in the USSR often demonstrate standards and stereotypes inherited from their parents, who did.
Elena Rubinova

Orthodoxy in post-Soviet times

major factor that determined the social and psychological evolution of post-Soviet society was a cognitive vacuum. One of the few parameters that radically changed in the course of the Levada Centre study “Soviet Man, 1989-2009” was people’s faith and religious identification. However, quantitative statistics are not the same thing as qualitative changes in mass consciousness.

“In 1988-89 approximately 65% of those polled openly said that they were atheists, only 20-23% called themselves believers, and the rest hesitated in answering. In 2008 the pyramid turned upside down, with 70% claiming that they were Orthodox. But in fact this religious belonging is a symptom of a different social phenomenon. When other symbols of Russianness are not clear, Orthodoxy tends to substitute for other ways of national self–identification,” says Boris Dubin, the Head of Social and Political Research at the Levada Analytical Center.

This, according to Dubin, has very little in common with faith. Only 3% of those who claim to be Orthodox are regular church-goers and only 8% occasionally participate in parish life. Thus self-identification as Orthodox becomes closely linked to the mythology of “a special way for Russia”, [as discussed in the August article], which has been actively resurrected in the past decade. Fully in compliance with this State-supported trend, religious education has become a mandatory discipline in the secondary school curriculum. The most recent initiative by Patriarch Kyrill to set up a system of special secular “Общая лексика” coaches who will be responsible for moulding religious and patriotic young souls in parishes is reminiscent of measures taken in the Chinese Cultural Revolution.

How different are the young?

The Levada report stresses that new conditions in which young people are growing up, emphasize individual survival. Young people have had to adapt to the post-socialist world. The result is, apparently, that many refused to conform to the norms of the older generations. For the majority of young Russians aged 18-25, it is vitally important to realise their aspirations for a prosperous life and established patterns of social success.

“Young people are pragmatic, but at the same time have high levels of anxiety and conformism,” says psychologist Olga Makhovskaya, Senior Research Fellow of the Institute of Psychology at the Russian Academy of Science. “They live day-to-day without high ideas or convictions, they value education mostly judging by the dividends it can bring, they are very individualistic and this defines their lifestyle. It’s a kind of short-term type of consciousness and suits rather shallow and small-scale personality types. In former times, this kind of person would be called a Philistine.”

It goes without saying that young active people exhibit more courage, business initiative and adventurism than was usual with Homo Sovieticus. However, they are more like Soviets than perhaps meets the eye. Very often, young people’s individualism is geared towards adaptive and asocial individualism of the late Soviet times, mainly oriented towards a quest for an optimal niche in the system of statuses supported by the bureaucratic state.

Sociologists notice another trait in the young generation of Russians. Unlike other categories of the population, young Russians are open to social contacts and intensive networking, they are more cosmopolitan, but only if the situation is stable. If something extraordinary happens, the compensatory mechanism that justifies the special “Russian way” kicks in, even with younger people.

“Despite the fact that young people are heavy consumers of Western culture and products, once it becomes necessary, the young join up with the standards and stereotypes of the majority,” explains Boris Dubin. “In a very simple situation, for example when a Russian team is winning or defeated at some sports competition, young people are just as intolerant or even xenophobic as the rest of the population. The majority of young people share views on the exclusiveness of Russia and Russians and general animosity to the outer world.”

For them, freedom has become synonymous with living securely and stably, to have a lot of free time and to consume as much as possible. In numerous surveys, after expressing their conviction that individual freedom is a priority, practically in the same breath, young people supported the idea of “restoring order” used a lot in government rhetoric of the past decade. Very few young Russians comprehend and support freedom as understood in Western culture where it is not only a value, but also an institutionalized phenomenon.

Deep-seated authoritarian tendencies, which are hallmarks of Russia’s post-Soviet rulers, quite naturally spread their influence on youth. Elena Volkova, a professor of comparative literature and culture at Moscow State University, is convinced that “…in the last 20 years we have been trying to revive different historical patterns, but have been able to restore only communist ones. Whatever we try to restore takes the shape and the sense of communist Russia. They [political leaders] can only copy old patterns which are dear to them, but cannot create anything new.”

No wonder that even those who were born after the USSR imploded have become easy targets for pro-Kremlin political movements like “Nashi” rather than joining anti-globalization organizations, ecological movements or other youth organizations that have very limited support amongst Russian youth.


When I was writing this article, an inscription appeared overnight in the lift of our apartment house in the very centre of Moscow. It said: “Other countries are created for those who are not strong enough to be Russian.” Besides the obvious nationalistic connotations of this notion, it implies that being Russian still exists in people’s minds as something very special, and perhaps has the unintentional effect of glorifying Russian suffering and hardship as a unifying national trait and source of pride. How long will this continue to be an excuse for justifying everything that does not fit into the general perception of universal human existence?

Not all changes in the young generation are negative. The growth of individualism and self-sufficiency may be a step in the development of interpersonal trust and social solidarity. Maybe the next generation of Russians will eventually part with the myth of “a special way” and the conceit associated with it. Only if they do so will they become simply people, and citizens of their own civilized country.

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