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11 October, 2019  ▪  Maksym Vikhrov

The evolution of homo sovieticus

Why is it so much harder than anyone expected to break ties with the soviet past?

There’s a widespread stereotype that nostalgia for the USSR is something typical of the elderly who yearn for their own  youth. But the further Ukraine goes, the less persuasive this interpretation seems. Primeval homo sovieticus – sovok in Ukrainian and Russian – as produced by the Communist Party of Ukraine with its mohair berets and steeped in komsomol traditions is indeed a thing of the past. In part, purely objective factors are contributing to this: sociologists polling public opinion have concluded that the soviet virus infected mostly the poor and the elderly, mostly in southern and eastern Ukraine, who are slowly giving way to a new, younger generation. The immunity of this newer generation is far stronger but, it turns out, this body politic is also infected with the sovieticus virus in a new, more dangerous mutation.

Between Volodymyr Zelenskiy and Petro Symonenko, the perennial communist leader, there is a huge political gap, but they both believe that WWII “burst into our home” on June 22, 1941. Zelenskiy’s party Sluha Narodu may declare itself libertarian or even Thatcherite, but its name was not invented by the 95 Kvartal team, but was a well-known stalinist aphorism. Sluha Narodu MP Maksym Buzhanskiy may not bear any resemblance to the “mohair berets,” but that hasn’t stopped him from repeating the perennial soviet lie that the Galicia Division was tried by the Nuremburg tribunal. How many more surprises the July election’s winners have up their sleeves and where it will all end, Ukrainians will soon see. In the meantime, it makes sense to figure out where this “Sovok 2.0” comes from and what dangers it represents.

The previous generation of homo sovieticus, represented by politicians like Petro Symonenko, Natalia Vitrenko and Oleksandr Moroz, clung to soviet paradigms because they were incapable of adapting to the new reality – economically, culturally, and even technologically. This led to a powerful impulse to escapism and in their political dreams they fled to the only place that was familiar to them: back to the USSR, where people “had everything,” where there was “law and order,” and, most importantly, where they understood how everything worked.

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By contrast, the new generation of sovok stake full advantage of everything that contemporary markets can offer, from gadgets to visa-free travel and democracy. Because of their age, most of these Ukrainians never really were steeped in soviet realities. Where Symonenko had already risen to the post of Second Secretary of the Donetsk Oblast Committee of the CPU by the time the Soviet Union collapsed, 13-year old Zelenskiy was only going into Grade 7. Ukrainians in their 30s and 40s today either were not touched at all by the totalitarian brainwashing machine, or barely felt it. Where the older generation was comfortably accustomed to the world of shortages, queues and equalized pay, the new sovoks were children of the capitalist era and expected reality to meet “European” conditions. Breaking their backs on “grand construction projects” and marching endlessly are not part of their life plans, as they have grown used to a qualitatively different life.

The new homo sovieticushas broken through social barriers to join the middle class and even higher. Yet all these people, sometimes to their own great surprise, find themselves in the same uniform and marching in line with the lumpenized “mohair berets.” Even if their political preferences are very different, they are all carrying out one historic task: preserving the ideological remnants of the Soviet Union and preventing Ukraine from escaping the soviet environment once and for all.

This seems like a paradox, because the younger generation of sovoks seems interested in the exact opposite, based on all the social indicators – to get access to all the benefits of contemporary civilization as quickly as possible, moreover not anywhere else but here in Ukraine. But, in fact, there’s no paradox in this at all. To be drawn to the lures of the western world and to perceive yourself as part of that world are very different things. The older generation of sovoks looked at the “goodies” offered by the modern world, from jeans and smartphones to democracy and free speech with unconcealed contempt, as junk that the devious West was trying to seduce soviet people with. Younger sovoks are more than happy to make use of all this as trophies without associating themselves with the civilization that made it possible for all of it to be invented and become widely available. This kind of individual can fly to Vienna for coffee every weekend but their mentality always treats Europe as “other” and they never identify themselves with Europe and its achievements. The civilizational homeland of these neo-sovoks is the post-soviet space, crippled as they are by post-totalitarian, post-communist and post-colonial syndromes. For this very reason, the best litmus paper is their attitude towards decommunization. Because for both older and younger sovoks, the soviet world is at the foundation of their identity, the language in which their cultural code has been written.

Where the older generation of sovokssucked in the soviet system through the milk of their stepmother, the Communist Party, the neosovokis being fed from other sources. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the mechanisms of sovietization did not just disappear: the post-soviet culture is a direct descendant of the soviet culture. The main “dogwhistle” remains the cult of the “Great Patriotic War,” whose center of gravitation affects all post-soviet people and is the point around which they shape their common identity. But there are plenty of other socio-cultural threads like this. Some grew up on soviet film, others are growing up on its contemporary Russian remakes and serials about “valiant Chekists.” The older generation wallowed in its frustration through the underworld songs of Vladimir Vysotskiy, while their children moved to Russian chanson, and their grandchildren listen to Russian-language trash rap. KVN [1] and its clones have done far more to preserve the post-soviet pseudo-civilization than the Communist Parties of Ukraine and Russia put together.

The same can be said about Ukraine’s oligarch-owned television channels, which have flooded Ukraine with media sovoks for decades. After all, the majority of post-soviet mass entertainment has been created in Moscow with the idea that it would be distributed as is or follow Moscow’s “recipe.” In short, it’s thoroughly infected with sovietism because Moscow itself is infected with sovietism. Nothing much need be added about literature or the continuing links to soviet holidays. Of course, each of these threads is relatively thin, but together they are able to hobble a person’s consciousness and prepare them to be receptive to populist propaganda. 

This kind of soft, covert neosovietism is infinitely more dangerous. The brutal stalinism of the “mohair berets” no longer holds any sway. Instead, younger generations can easily be sold on the illusion that Europe can be constructed in Ukraine without actually becoming Europeans: without restoring their collective memory, without healing post-colonial traumas, and without building their own identity. In short, a naive belief that “Europe” just represents a certain level of consumption of tangible and intangible goodies, which can be reached without climbing out of the post-soviet swamp. Or a belief that it’s possible to climb out of this swamp by some easier path, avoiding the stage of developing a national state and decolonizing altogether.

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The nature of this kind of thinking is that same infantilism that leads people to believe that the way to end foreign aggression is to simply stop shooting. In the political arena, this has completely predictable consequences. Where the mohair berets insisted on “returning everything to the past,” the neosovokis prepared to support any political force, whether “strong managers” or “libertarians,” just as long as they don’t peddle the civilizational rehabilitation of Ukraine and didn’t disturb the post-soviet comfort zone. Moreover, the sovok’s defense can even be under patriotic slogans. For instance, “don’t break up the country during a war,” with reference to language, history and culture, “honor today’s heroes,” as opposed to heroes of the past, and so on.

This kind of rhetoric always finds its audience since, according to a Rating poll from 2018, nearly every third Ukrainian longs for the USSR. How many cling to the remnants of the sovokwithout realizing it is anybody’s guess. The only thing that can be done is to continue the detoxification process begun in 2014-2015. Getting rid of soviet monuments and cleaning up toponyms were major historical achievements, but the harder bit remains ahead: cleaning out the socio-cultural plane, which will last not phases but generations. Where the initial phase of decommunizing required the ability to work with ropes and sledgehammers, and then to draft bills of law, now it will involve working with meanings, cultural models and social habits. Most likely this will have to be undertaken for the next while without real support from the government, and possibly in the face of its indifference, if not resistance. But no one promised that this would be easy.



Translated by Lidia Wolanskyj

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[1] The Club of the Funny and Inventive, a soviet comedy show that was launched in 1961.

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