What Makes the Soviet Character?

The anthropologist analyzes a modern culture

The idea that people grow up to be like the other members of their society because of vague concepts called “history” and “habit” is an explanation just as unsatisfactory and out-of-date as the idea that a male frog recognizes a female simply by “instinct.” Anthropologists by using careful natural-history methods in simple societies have learned to study the ways in which human babies learn to be “Eskimos” or “Samoans”—just what the mother does, just how the infant responds, and just how the infant’s response stimulates the mother to the next “traditional” piece of behavior. From studies of such things as the role played by the ways a child is carried and the way he is hushed to sleep or left to cry it out, we have built a theory of cultural learning. So we bring to the study of the unobservable new Soviet character a theory (one that has stood a good deal of testing) of the psychic unity of mankind and a theory of cultural learning.

A Russian swaddled baby was as stiff as “a sawed-off segment of a telegraph pole”—as one American historian of Russia described it to me recently—and they were swaddled day and night, only being undone to be fed, bathed, or changed.

Anthropologists, furthermore, are accustomed to relate each bit of the behavior of the peoples they study to all the rest of their behavior. When, as is the case with Soviet material, we have only very partial information (we have, for example, films the Soviet Government has permitted to be made, but we have no information about how the people laugh or weep when they see them), anthropologists have methods for making estimates of behavior about which we have no information from direct observation. Although such estimates are less accurate than the results of an on-the-spot study, they are a great deal better than nothing at all. They might be compared with the estimates of paleontologists who construct a complete model of an extinct animal when they actually have only part of its skeleton. They can do this because they know something about the way whole animals are put together, what spinal columns are like, how jaw bones fit. In the same way, the anthropologist who has studied small primitive societies knows something about how whole cultures fit together, and his knowledge can be used to interpret the kind of partial material we get from the Soviet Union.

With this set of anthropological theories and skills, we went about constructing a model of Soviet character today. First we built up teams of social scientists—specialists in Russian history, Russian literature, Communist Party history, and so on—who were to work with anthropologists and psychologists who knew something about cultural behavior and individual psychology. Then we took the following steps: First, we constructed a model of the national character before the Revolution—of the people of the area known as Great Russia. We did this by using interviews with old Russian émigrés and analyzing written sources, searching behind them for the living human beings who had written and believed them. Second, we constructed a model of the Russian intelligentsia, especially of the Bolsheviks, the group within the old intelligentsia who came into power at the time of the revolution. Third, we studied the official utterances of the Soviet regime—its theories of child care, pedagogy, and industrial organization; the films it permitted to be made and the novels it permitted to be published; the new folklore about Lenin and Stalin that it built up synthetically in the old poetic forms. When we had these three sets of materials—what the old Russians were like, what the new group who wished to change them was like, and what methods the new ruling group was using to produce the changes—we asked questions: What will happen to children of people like the old Great Russians if they are exposed to the conditions the Bolshevik leadership has set up? Judging by our knowledge of human cultures and individual human behavior, what can we expect?

When the Bolshevik leadership took power, they had control of a sort over a vast country, mainly inhabited by peasants, who had for centuries been subjected to the demands of an arbitrary and alien authority, which they had learned to circumvent and sabotage in a thousand adroit ways. The Russians were a people subject to extreme swings of mood and bound in close emotional dependence on a large group of people rather than tied closely to individual parents. They were a people with extraordinarily little interest in material things. They displayed an unusual tolerance of the evil in others, feeling that each human being had a right to live and to search for truth and that all human beings shared in the sins of others, but also that each human being was human and was to be treated accordingly. Characteristically, when political exiles were sent away, chained, to Siberia, crowds turned out to give them gifts of food and to grieve for their sorrows. When prisoners escaped, the people hid them, saying, “Why do they need this one when another, or two others, will do as well.” They had great endurance in carrying rather than lifting; once a load was laid on his shoulders, a man could carry it a long way. They had great zest for life, and when there was an opportunity for dancing or drinking or feasting, they went about it with a vigor that was tiring even to watch if you came from another national background and had a lesser store of optimism. Although people were very poor, still it was believed that somehow, somewhere, there was enough for all. Speech and thought were studded with rapid kaleidoscopic visual images, and what was thought was felt to be as real as what was said or done. What was done might be undone—a friend could become an enemy and again a friend, or be both simultaneously—the borders between the thought and the deed, the loved and the hated, were rapidly shifting and uncertain. Hatred in particular was difficult to keep focused on a given individual, and anger could be dissolved by love into pity—the emotion that was valued above all others among those educated Russians who discussed such matters articulately. Time was unimportant; appointments could be kept hours late, meals waited for those who returned, what happened today was no earnest of what would happen tomorrow, but a new token of faith or friendship would be exacted.

The Bolshevik educator wishes to substitute a character structure in which each achievement induces an accompanying discontent, forcing the individual on to greater effort.

view counter

Recent Stories

Elephant populations continue to dwindle in Tanzania.

With proper safeguards, water currents can be harnessed out of sight.

Barely pulled back from the brink of extinction, California condors are still being poisoned by lead-based ammunition.

Vulnerable everywhere in the wild, lions already face regional extinction.