A Haunting Concept: Coming to Grips With the Levada Center's "Soviet Man" in the 21st Century

By
Maria Lipman & Maxim Trudolyubov
29 May 2019


 A Levada Center poll on the perception of Stalin taken in April has created an emotionally charged public debate. Maria Lipman discusses the causes and substance of the controversy surrounding the Center's survey with Maxim Trudolyubov, Kennan Institute senior advisor and Vedomosti Daily editor-at-large.


According to this Levada Center report, a “positive assessment [of Stalin] reached the highest level ever registered during the years of Levada center surveys.” For instance, 70 percent of the Russian public said that Stalin played a “positive,” or a “rather positive,” role in the life of the country. The polling results, as well as their interpretation, have been criticized by both professional sociologists and lay thinkers. This debate appears to go way beyond the perception of Stalin. While professional criticism of the Levada results was focused on the wording of the questions used by the pollsters, their methods and the conclusions they drew from the answers, some journalists and intellectuals to voiced their exasperation over the excessively negative portrayal of Russian society that emerged from the Center's publications, media interviews, and public lectures on the topic. 

Levada's staunch adherence to the high principles of professional independence has long gained it respect among liberal Russian circles. In recent years sympathy was added to respect, as the center fell under government pressure and persecution. But, in my view, Levada senior associates’ comments on Russian society not infrequently sound too judgmental and moralistic. They barely try to hide their disappointment with, even resentment for, their fellow citizens’ attitudes and mindset. This judgmental tone may be one of the reasons why liberal commentators have come to challenge Levada's results and interpretations. — Maria Lipman


Maria Lipman: What is your general impression of this debate? Do you agree with my impression that Levada Center senior associates tend to become too judgmental in their public statements?

Maxim Trudolyubov: This conversation is super important and it is also a difficult one because the Levada Center is basically a national treasure. We have only one truly reputable national polling organization in Russia that has been with us throughout the whole journey from the Soviet Union’s twilight days to the present. [It was originally the Russian Public Opinion Research Center or VTsIOM.] In today’s Russia, Levada is a respected institution that has to cope with a constant state of harassment that includes a formal legal charge that the firm is a “foreign agent.”

And of course, the Levada Center has been enormously influential. Its role in reporting on Russia’s political and social life is so large that I, for one, am not even sure if I can fully separate my own memories and perceptions of political events from Levada's polling data and interpretations. Some of their results have become memes, such as the famous “86 percent” approval rate for President Vladimir Putin. It was in 2014, but it kind of stuck forever. The Levada Center’s conclusions drawn from their polls that they have conducted month after month and year after year have gained a lot of traction too, and those conclusions often include Russian society’s doublethink, opportunism, and a lack of morality.

"Creating a portrait of Russian society leaving behind the totalitarian period in Russia’s history and heading toward democracy was Yuri Levada’s, the firm’s founder and director until his death, signature project."

Levada experts see the events of the past 30 years as a story of an aborted transition. A 2011 book by Lev Gudkov, the Levada Center’s director, summarizing his years of research is titled, Abortive Modernization. Creating a portrait of Russian society leaving behind the totalitarian period in Russia’s history, essentially parting with Stalinism, and heading toward democracy was Yuri Levada’s, the firm’s founder and director until his death, signature project. That point of departure is still very vivid in the eyes of Levada’s leading thinkers. This project creates an image of a society that is all the more disappointing because it has fallen far short of their expectations.

That is probably why, when explaining things, the Levada experts would pick morally-charged terms, such as hypocrisy or callousness where others might just say “carelessness.” Or they would see an always-ready-to-conform and scheming “personality type” where others might just see normal self-interest in average people.

Many of the Levada Center’s critics may have different ideas about the end point of the journey or the entire concept of transition. Its beginning is far behind, its end is unseen, so why get so upset about it? Some may think that "transition" is not even the most important story here. They feel quite normal and want to express themselves without shuddering at the horrors of the past. Often such perceptions are found among younger generations.

Levada Center Director Lev Gudkov.

Lev Gudkov has a message for people like that, and not a particularly conciliatory one. “The reason why some of our data are not accepted has nothing to do with our methodology,” Gudkov recently told me in an interview. “A new generation has arrived that wants to treat itself just like all other people in normal countries,” he said. They dress as Europeans do, they speak foreign languages, their lifestyles, 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.

Lipman: To the Levada Center, the concept of the “Soviet man,” which was designed by Yuri Levada three decades ago and used by the Center ever since, is the cornerstone, the “single true” prism, through which post-Soviet Russian society must be observed. Attempts to question this concept and the methods of analysis based on it have been strongly rejected by Levada associates. In a recent lecture, Gudkov cites one of his critics, Vadim Radaev, a sociologist and First Vice-Rector at the Higher School of Economics: 

"What are we being criticized for? Radaev says: you are selling pessimism, you wouldn't see how the [social] relations have changed... [Radaev] is strongly critical of the concept of the 'Soviet man.' He says: people know foreign languages, they use mobile phones, they live in social networks. This is an entirely different environment, entirely different peopleif we don't consider the perception of politics…"

Apparently, to Gudkov, a look at society “outside of” or “separate from” the attitude to politics is a wrong, even an inadmissible approach. What do you make of the “Soviet man” concept? Do you agree that there can be other prisms, and if so, what is your approach as you look at Russian society? 

 

Trudolyubov: Yuri Levada believed that the institutions of the state produced a certain personality type and this type, the "Soviet man," was what the Soviet regime rested upon. According to Gudkov himself, these kinds of theoretical constructs go back to the times of the studies of "the average man" in the 1930s and 1940s; they evoke Johan Huizinga’s "Homo ludens," Talcott Parsons’s social systems theory, and Seymour Martin Lipset’s Political Man.

Attempts to find a direct linkage between the individual self and society, however, are no longer at the focus of modern sociological debates, as social scientist Gulnaz Sharafutdinova recently pointed out. “The psychology of personality has moved away from its emphasis on systemic influences and toward appreciating the importance of context, human reflexivity, and agency,” she wrote.

Whatever the scholarly merits of the “Soviet man” concept, it does require a lot of explaining in today’s Russia, let alone internationally. There is little context for it in today’s science and scholarship. It certainly does need explaining as long as the language used by the Levada Center to describe the personality type includes characterizations, such as "adaptive," "opportunistic," "hypocritical," "subservient," or able to "play up to the state." In today’s Russia, with its highly individualistic outlook, some of those features may actually sound almost commendable, while others sound offensive, and none evokes the kind of moral indignation that is probably intended by Levada’s use of those words. The "Soviet man" concept was born in the context of the dissident anti-Soviet movements in the Soviet Union and in Central and Eastern Europe, but that context is long gone. Levada and other founding figures of the organization were themselves members of the Soviet Union’s elite dissident circles, and this may color their vision of Russian society.

"The 'Soviet Man' may thus be easily turned into an instrument of othering the 'masses.' To be sure, this or other similar effects are unintended by Levada associates, but they matter nonetheless."

The "Soviet man" concept also needs much explaining because since it is commonly cited in Latin as Homo sovieticus, it sounds like a special kind of human being. The "Soviet man" may thus be easily turned into an instrument of othering the “masses.” To be sure, this or other similar effects are unintended by Levada associates, but they matter nonetheless.

The extent to which the Levada theory influences the design of their surveys remains a question and a very important one. Levada's sociologists dismiss those charges as unprofessional (examples here and here). The issue is hard to address for ethical reasons, because, as mentioned above, in recent years the Levada Center has been persecuted by the state.

Lipman: In one of your recent comments you recalled a much earlier academic debate between two groups of scholars engaged in Soviet studies: Sovietologists and Revisionists.

As you mentioned, Gudkov tends to refer to today’s Russian society as “totalitarian.” Interestingly, even as far back as three or four decades ago when Sovietologists firmly adhered to the totalitarian description, the observers who managed to take a closer look at Soviet life rejected the “totalitarian” approach and pointed out that there may be, and should be, alternative prisms more appropriate for understanding Soviet society. Just like Vadim Radaev is suggesting today, some observers of the 1970s and 1980s ignored the straightforward political aspect and looked instead at people’s lives, ways, and habits. Their descriptions and conclusions belied the “totalitarian” framework. 

One such observer is Hedrick Smith, author of The Russians, which is probably the most insightful English-language book about Soviet society of the 1970s. He wrote that “the model of the totalitarian state entirely omits the fascinating eccentricities of life beneath the surface.” Smith also pointed out that “the notion of totalitarian state, perhaps useful for political scientists … misses the human quotient.” 

British historian Stephen Lovell, another keen observer of Russia, in The Soviet Union. A Short introduction, referred to totalitarian theory as “incomplete and intellectually limiting” and says that it tends to be judgmental, rather than explanatory, especially in later periods. 

Danish anthropologist Finn Nielssen, who authored The Eye of the Storm, a book about the USSR of the 1980s, also rejected the “totalitarian” description as “an artificial construct” and “a static abstraction,” while "the Soviet Union [was] a living social organism, a complex and subtle compound of life worlds, a social texture inhabited by real people with real lives to live."

Do you think there is indeed something in common between that debate and the current one in Russia?

Trudolyubov: This comparison, a bit far-fetched perhaps, struck me at some point as a useful insight into generational conflicts in scholarship. The earlier conflict involved in the West’s scholarship of the Soviet Union and in Russia’s modern-day sociology is generational. For the older generation of Western historians of the USSR, for Robert Conquest in particular, the “otherness” of the Soviet system was absolute. The Soviets led by Stalin were beings from some strange planet. Conquest wrote:

"A science-fiction attitude is a great help in understanding the Soviet Union. It isn’t so much whether they’re good or bad, exactly; they’re not bad or good as we’d be bad or good. It’s far better to look at them as Martians than as people like us."

Sheila Fitzpatrick who quotes this passage in her recent warm and conciliatory piece on Conquest was, of course, part of a younger generation of historians who took up Soviet history as a normal academic field and loathed preconceived opinions. And yet, Conquest's The Great Terror still largely stands, Fitzpatrick concedes. It is a shame Conquest could not read her piece.

"The earlier conflict involved in the West’s scholarship of the Soviet Union and in Russia’s modern-day sociology is generational. For the older generation of Western historians of the USSR, the 'otherness' of the Soviet system was absolute."

Despite the fact that Russia’s economy is a fraction of the Soviet Union’s, or that today’s state cannot exercise control over Russian society the way the Soviet state could, the idea of a totalitarian state is still paramount to Levada Center’s analyses. “What we are seeing is a totalitarian system in decay. The decay stage might take a long time,” Gudkov tells me. “It will take generations. One of sociology’s most important charges is to observe and describe this process.”

The centrality of the totalitarian state to Levada’s vision brings with it the centrality of the "Soviet man." It is apparently decaying, but it is still there, according to the Center’s thinking. As I understand it, this is the reason why most burgeoning civic activism, spontaneous protests, and all sorts of independent activities, including in the private sector and in Russia’s large informal economy, are seen by Levada analysts as bordering on irrelevant. They do see impulses of the new, but, in Levada'a view, the authorities’ skill of nipping those seedlings in the bud prevents them from growing into fully fledged institutions. And social change, according to Gudkov, is only happening “when new institutions emerge and a new personality type forms.”

Today’s Russia is a paradox. There is a lot of dependency on the state, but the state is nevertheless fading away. [Lipman: As remarked in a Point & Counterpoint interview: “The expectations that the state should assume responsibility for social protection are gigantic—as is the conviction that the state will not live up to these expectations.”] Russia’s working population and the country’s pensioners are heavily dependent on the public sector. Even relatively better-off groups, as World Bank studies showhave become more dependent on the government budget than they used to be five and ten years ago.

And yet people feel change and the centralized state’s impact on people’s lives is weakening. Sticking a cathedral in the middle of a Russian city’s green space would be much more difficult after the recent protests in Yekaterinburg. After several Kremlin-backed candidates failed to win gubernatorial elections in September last year, “electing” a politician just because he or she enjoys a Putin endorsement is no longer a given either. Even the project of coming to grips with the past that, in Levada’s thinking, is also deemed a necessary prerequisite for social development, is actually happening, if not on the kind of a grand scale some, including myself, might have envisioned. Social media projects are booming.

Such multiple initiatives and projects may not amount to new institutions, but they do make palpable marks on Russian society. The discussion triggered by the Levada poll about the perception of Stalin is fundamental. The argument is about what constitutes social change and about society’s agency. This conversation requires time and will benefit enormously from a conciliatory approach.


Maxim Trudolyubov is Senior Advisor at the Wilson Center's Kennan Institute and Editor-in-Chief of the Institute's The Russia File blog. He is also Editor-at-Large at Vedomosti Daily and a Contributing Opinion Writer for The International New York Times. His book, The Tragedy of Property: Private Life, Ownership and the Russian State, was published in 2018.