What Makes the Soviet Character?

The anthropologist analyzes a modern culture

The young Soviet citizen will have some of the traditional fear of his own ungoverned impulses and the corresponding belief in the importance of a strong state authority, reinforced by modern Bolshevik training in the value and importance of control.

But the Bolshevik leadership, although some of its aims were new, still had a great deal of the old Great Russian character structure. As they fought against their own traditional character, the defenses that they erected partook of the characteristics against which they fought. As they tried to substitute reality for the old, idle dreaming omnipotence of thought, a new kind of omnipotence of thought that made them believe they could manipulate reality in any way they liked took its place. As the old Russian atoned in his mind for a daydream of burning a man’s hay-rick by a daydream of saving that man’s cow until the whole took on the structure of reality for which he must later become answerable to God, the Bolshevik insists that the outer reality fit his diagnosis of the historical process. Thus he insists that there must be hunger and poverty in capitalist countries and relatively great wealth and prosperity in the Soviet Union. Later the regime maintained this reality by “re-educating those unfortunate occupation troops who had witnessed the higher standard of living in the “capitalist countries”” of Central Europe. The stronger the demand for control grew, the more it generated a fear of the least freedom in themselves or in anyone else, and the stronger the correctives had to become, the more searching the police vigilance.

Now what of the new young Soviet citizens, either those trained for leadership in the Party or the “non-Party” people—schoolboys, soldiers, technicians, writers—who have been reared in an atmosphere where Bolshevik leadership, endlessly suspicious and fearful, was attempting to force on the children of the Soviet Union a new character structure appropriate for a new kind of world. This is what we need to know most, and about it we have only the very scrappiest evidence—from films, from literature, from the defectors among the Soviet occupation troops who fall in love with a German girl and make a break for the American zone.

Young Soviet citizens will dream of throwing off the Soviet yoke, but only in order to establish some other absolute form.

We know something of how they are reared and how the battle of the regime against swaddling failed, so that the bulk of Soviet children are still swaddled, though probably not as tightly or for as long a period. We know that, although the official literature disapproves of grandparents and extols as ideal a family containing only parents and children, the old country-bred grandparents are still a factor. Under the crowded housing conditions, the large group still exists to accustom a child to the presence and the voices of many persons, as did the communal life of the village. We know that there is official pressure to train children early, to teach them to use their hands, to insist upon punctuality, neatness, order. On the basis of our knowledge of the way human children develop and of the way the old culture fitted together, we may expect that the young Soviet citizen will have some of the traditional fear of his own ungoverned impulses and the corresponding belief in the importance of a strong state authority, reinforced by modern Bolshevik training in the value and importance of control. (“In the Soviet Union,” said a recent anti-Soviet DP, “it is impermissible to think ‘shut-up,’” and this was said in disapproval of the freer ways of modern American children.) We may expect that there will be a strong potential revolt against authority and a corresponding demand for authority, so that young Soviet citizens will dream of throwing off the Soviet yoke, but only in order to establish some other absolute form. We may expect that the training they have been given in accepting a reality that includes not only tractors and machine combines but also a variety of “well-known” dogmas about capitalism and communism, will make it very difficult for them to accept evidence that conflicts with their rigid beliefs. Nor may we expect them to adapt flexibly to the demands of mass production, but they will have an enormous capacity to bring all their energies to bear on any given activity. We may expect this capacity to be dependent upon their belief in the strength and omniscence of the system, a belief that, in turn, will act as a stimulus to the continuance of the control by a secret police system. We may expect everything we do to look different to them from the way it looks to us. For example, in the picketing incident outside the Russian delegation’s UN headquarters, last July, the leader of the anti-Soviet pickets “declared the police had been notified in advance... and permission to picket had been granted. After the demonstration, he said, police officials had complimented the group on its orderliness.” This compliance with American requirements of law and order showed the Soviet Government, however, “That the assemblage of hooligan mobs before the building of the Soviet delegation to the United Nations was known [and therefore, of course, approved!] earlier to the American authorities, because a squad of police arrived at the building of the representatives from fifteen to twenty minutes before the appearance of the above-mentioned group.”

In communicating with people who think as differently as this, successful plans either for limited co-operation in the attainment of partial world goals or for active opposition depend upon our getting an accurate estimate of what the Soviet people of today are like. We must know just what the differences in their thinking and feeling are—not because they are basically different from Americans, not because they have one jot less of native intelligence, sensitivity, and potential desire for freedom—but because they have been reared within a system whose leaders, themselves rebelling against a centuries-old tyranny, incorporated in their new political system a tyranny more effective, more ruthless than the one against which they fought.

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