Sociologist Yevhen Holovakha: “30 years is a minimum term for a change in values”
In his interview for The Ukrainian Week, sociologist Yevhen Holovakha discusses ways used to install Soviet values, explains why nostalgia about the USSR and argues that one efficient way to de-Sovietize society is to dispel the myth about the high standard of social care under the Bolsheviks
U.W.: There are many people in Ukraine whose young years were spent under Leonid Brezhnev. They are still nostalgic about cheap Soviet sausage and now vote for parties that promise either a return to the past or the cherished stability. Who are these people from a sociological viewpoint?
Those who lived in these circumstances have certain notions about the USSR, such as equality, no outrageous differentiation between people, free healthcare, education and sports and so on.
However, there are nuances regarding generation change. For example, many old people in Western Ukraine remember and have passed on to their children the facts about what the red “liberators” actually did. There is a tradition, a mental attitude that does not permit the Soviet stereotype about equality and free-of-charge satisfaction of basic needs to prevail. If, however, you look at regions where there was no autochthonous Ukrainian population, such as cities in the Donbas (Ukrainians still populate the countryside there), many of the locals went, as Komsomol members, to work at large construction sites and have fond memories about those young years. This is coupled with respect for the workers in the heavy industry, which was the number one industry in the Soviet Union – they were treated with special reference. Moreover, these people have strong familial, cultural and other connections to Russia. That is why the Soviet-Russian stereotype is very strong among them. Anyway, we are talking about two-thirds of the Donbas population here. But this does not mean that all of them would want to be in the Soviet Union or the Russian Federation. They simply have the sentiments they have. If we are to continue living together with the Donbas, we need to take this into account.
The first generation is the most conservative and most susceptible to nostalgia about the past. The NANU Institute for Sociology carried out surveys for several years, asking, in particular, whether people felt they lived better under the Soviets or at present. Nearly 60 per cent of the middle-aged population believed that life was indeed better in the Soviet Union. This nostalgia is very strong in the old generation. Back then, they were calm and their life was steady. They had confidence that they would have a pension, if only a small one. This is longing for certainty. To most people, with the exception of the most mobile or adventurous individuals, stability and certainty are very important values. But to many people, the fact that everyday life was, as they believed, better in Soviet times did not mean that they had to reject their country and its European future. People simply stated that they were having some very hard times.
U.W.: Today, people with Soviet mentality are often seen as old and infirm, but it is precisely because of their weakness and malice that they become aggressive. How should society handle them?
Any people with Soviet mentality, pro-Russian jingoists and street thugs are part of the culture in which people were known by their nicknames rather than surnames. Entire social groups were given names based on this principle: otshchepentsy (renegades), kulaks, etc. The same practice is prevalent now. If we were at a different cultural level, we would find a different designation.
They need to be pitied in any case. They don’t see any prospects for themselves in the new world; they live in the past and are indeed angry at the present. They cannot be ignored politically, because they will always vote for the past. If we had sufficiently powerful propaganda, such as Russia has domestically and in the Donbas, I think they would calmly accept our reality. If we could provide them with stable means of existence (they habitually live in poverty) and convince them that they will have a calm life in Ukraine, they could be transformed – if not into liberal-democratic forces, then at least into neutral voters who would not stand in the way of more politically advanced citizens trying to build a new world. We do not have a system for accomplishing that, because it involves not only propaganda but also social work, i.e., instilling confidence that they will not be abandoned – similarly to the way they think they were treated back in Soviet times.
However, they were, in fact, abandoned in even crueller ways than today. I know very well what kind of life people who were unable to take care of themselves had in Soviet Union. It was horrible. We need to speak more about this, but we have mistakenly decided that the Soviet past should be forgotten. We must remember about its atrocities – not only the physical destruction of millions of people, such as during the Holodomor, but also about everyday situations. If we reject the past and forget about it, it will come back and serve us a reminder in the form of a tragedy like the one we are now facing in Ukraine. We need to undermine the myth about the high standard of social care in the Soviet Union and instead tell the truth about how entire categories of people lived in inhuman conditions, etc. This is not propaganda – rather, it is a candid talk about the past.
U.W.: What social work do you have in mind when you speak about adapting Homo sovieticus?
This should be real targeted assistance to people that are indeed underprivileged. As they receive assistance, they will be thankful to the state of Ukraine just like they were thankful to those who handed out packages of buckwheat before elections and for whom they sincerely voted. I saw how this could be done in Great Britain in the early 1990s, and it seemed to me back then that it was the British, not us, who lived in communist society. This will be especially hard to do in the Donbas, because people are in dire straits there. The infrastructure has been destroyed – it is a nightmare for the old, the infirm, children, etc.
U.W.: The Brezhnev period is sometimes referred to as the time of satiety and stability, something people are nostalgic about. Was there something worthy to long for?
It was a very interesting period. I call it the age of privatizing personal lives. Both under Stalin and Khrushchev, ideology reigned supreme, and people considered personal things secondary to ideology. This was imposed in a very strict manner. Under Brezhnev, however, citizens began to live their own lives, while ideology became secondary. That was a time of changes after which the Soviet repressive machine was never restored. The perestroika was a consequence of this period.
As far as satiety is concerned, it was the other way around – precisely under Brezhnev, things began to gradually disappear. Just like we have a system of total corruption, there was a system ruled by personal connections – people obtained everything bypassing official sources and by trading services. Many of the problems we are facing now are rooted in that time. The system of backstairs influence gave rise to total corruption and other things.
Why are people so nostalgic for this period? It was a time of certainty and great stability. Let me repeat that to most people these were essentially priorities. When we carried out a Europe-wide survey, we learned that security and government were the two topmost values for Ukrainians but not for Western Europeans. Security in the sense of certainty is knowledge that you will not be repressed and an understanding of where you and your family will be one or two years later. These two things are the hallmarks of the Brezhnev period like no other. In fact, it was also a period when all of social life deteriorated. The majority lived in their own private world and did not care about social things. They began to care only when tectonic geopolitical changes were triggered and the USSR broke up. They started making comparisons and came to the conclusion they were nostalgic for Brezhnev times.
U.W.: Those who long for Soviet times are quite enthusiastic about the “Russian World”. This can be seen, in particular, in the Donbas where the separatist movement would not have received as much support if the locals rejected these imposed ideas. Most of them are not sexagenarians but are much younger. Why is that so?
These regions have lost their role on the national scale as the most respected industrial centres. Unemployment is rampant there. Moreover, propaganda has proved to be effective, especially propaganda spawned by Russian TV and Ukrainian TV channels that reflected the interests of the Party of Regions. Another factor is cultural, linguistic, familial and economic connections with Russia and contraband.
All of this, taken together, shaped pro-Russian, rather than pro-Western, interests in the Donbas. The elite has not been able to convince the Donbas population of the need to look in the opposite direction. Moreover, the elite exploited this state of affairs as it helped control the local people and promote own interests.
U.W.: Those who lean towards the USSR/Russia form a significant group even among young people. What kind of phenomenon is that? What are its causes?
This mechanism has been known for a long time now, because it is about translating values, biases and ideological convictions. Political sociology has proven that there is a large group of young people who uncritically replicate the ideology of their parents. If the parents are afraid of “Banderites”, their children will also be afraid of them. There are two explanations for this. One theory posits rational choice, while the other emphasizes unconscious factors in the formation of worldviews and attitudes. According to the rational choice theory, young people appear to be progressive, able to see the difference and make their choices, while as a matter of fact they unconsciously replicate the things instilled in them. These are individuals for whom their own critical reflection is of little value.
They need authoritative sources. Parents or grandparents are precisely such sources to a large part of the population, both in the Donbas and in Western Ukraine. In the latter, not everyone is a dyed-in-the-wool patriot. They uncritically reproduce what they have received from their parents and grandparents. When young people reject the ideological beliefs of the older family members, it triggers serious family conflicts. It is hard to live this way. Conformists do not want to have ideological conflicts with their close ones. The older generation does not change anymore, including in terms of its ideological preferences. Young people can change but do not want to, because it is easier to live like that.
U.W.: How can this trend be counteracted?
You cannot hide pro-Russian jingoists and Homo Sovieticus anywhere. They will not disappear on their own. We have not done much to change this situation. Young people should travel across the world and their own country. Then, they will feel more confident and start making comparisons. However, 70 per cent of the Donbas residents have never left their region. As they sit in one place like that, generation after generation, they replicate the received picture of the world. This is the reason why we need to promote constant migration from the regions where the threat of Soviet stereotypes is the highest. This can take the form of education exchanges between, for example, Donetsk and Luhansk on the one hand and Lviv and Ternopil on the other, or mobility for education, internship and foreign employment. This would permit changing the mechanisms of social inertia and translation of values. Otherwise, changes will not come any time soon.
If we had a normal social policy and the so-called political and economic elites were not as greedy and impudent as they are, we would not have this problem in the current form. It will take decades to change the status quo. Values take a long time to transform. If there were no war, Ukraine would need 30 years, but now it is hard to say how long it will take. Three decades is a minimum period for a shift in values to take place.
Let me say a few words about the factor of the present war. Many people who were nostalgic for the Soviet Union saw that the country they live in has an enemy, and this has made them change their minds. In the past six months, the level of patriotism, integration and national identity has soared. Perhaps, people had to experience the atrocities of war and foreign aggression to grasp that they live not in an imagined world but in a real one which they have to defend. There is an increasing number of people like that. For example, I saw how the Lenin monument, which stood by the former oblast party committee in Mykolaiv, disappeared, and I was struck by the fact that there was no resistance in the city! This is a true miracle, because we are speaking about a large industrial, ship-building centre where many people enjoyed respect in Soviet times and are now facing hardships instead.
In the past years, Ukraine has become much more polarized and the majority of its citizens have accepted the values of the European space, which is very important. Over 60% of Ukrainians now believe that their destination is Europe. Period. This is the choice of the country. Previously, we did not have it – we had a division instead.
Yevhen Holovakha, PhD in philosophical sciences, professor, is a Ukrainian psychologist, sociologist and public activist. He graduated from the Faculty of Psychology, Moscow State University. Since 1991, he has headed the Sector for Sociological Conflict Resolution Studies in the Department for Social Psychology and has been deputy director for scientific work in the NANU Institute for Sociology. Holovakha is a co-inventor of the causometry method which is used to study the subjective personal image of one’s life and psychological time. He has proposed a scholarly interpretation of a mass psychological phenomenon – the social ambivalence of Ukrainian society