AK: This is a guest post from a friend of mine who… let’s just say has spent a lot of time in both Russia and the United States. I can personally vouch for almost of all of these observations.
Sovieticus Nincompoopus (Or The IYI, Russian-Style)
Scholars variously assign responsibility for the political demise of the Soviet Union to different world leaders, low oil prices, a corrupted ideology or even the arms race. I blame an entire generation. Here’s why this is relevant to America today.
All anecdotes in this article were observed personally by the author. For obvious reasons, the identities of the individuals are concealed. Links have been provided in English in as many cases as possible.
As late as the 1970s things were looking upbeat for the Soviet Union and its Communist experiment: It was generally acknowledged that it had played a central role in defeating Nazism in Europe, it de facto controlled half of Europe, it had sent the first human being into space, economic growth rates exceeded those of many Western countries, massive urbanization had brought the amenities of city life – such as indoor plumbing and electricity – to major segments of the population for the first time, education and literacy rates had surpassed those of many developed countries, quality of life was rapidly converging with Western Europe and it was one of the two superpowers on the planet.
Meanwhile the United States grappled with fuel shortages, impeachments, unemployment, hyperinflation, race riots, political assassinations and the Vietnam War. Ghosts from its civil war remained salient as major news outlets predicted the country’s internal divisions could break it apart politically once again. Several leading publications wrote fawningly of the alternate world model offered to the world by the USSR.
Less than a generation later – Humpty Dumpty had a great fall, and we haven’t been able to put him back together again. What happened? Instead of analyzing the usual culprits – from state actors to economic policy – I propose a different malefactor: ordinary people.
[For those who do not understand satire or humor – I am NOT actually characterizing anyone alive during said time period as the title of this article].
The late comedian George Carlin did a great skit about how people love to blame politicians for all of their society’s problems, pointing out that the error of this logic lies in ignoring the origins of those very politicians. They are generally products of the same system as everybody else. In the case of the USSR, the apparatchiki of the 1980s and 1990s came from Soviet families, went to Soviet schools, were indoctrinated with Soviet propaganda, graduated from Soviet universities and lived and worked in Soviet communities. In Carlin’s words, “if you have selfish, ignorant citizens, you are going to get selfish, ignorant leaders.”
Rather than blaming Mikhail Gorbachev or Ronald Reagan, it’s more fun to point the finger at an entire generation of people who were clearly unfit to inherit the reigns of a global superpower. Let’s examine this cohort of Soviet people born between the 1940s and 1970s who were coming into positions of power around the time of the country’s demise. Collectively – based on personal observation – I refer to them as Sovieticus Nincompoopus, and their imprint on Russia’s image around the world remains highly potent to this day (to say nothing of their influence domestically). So who is the Soviet Nincompoop?
Side note: I am not in any way an apologist for the Soviet Union. That said, from a global balance of power perspective, clearly we Russians are the losers and other countries – such as the United States and China, which went through no less dramatic transitions in the same time period – are the winners. Russia’s transition to a free market could have, and should have, been done differently. This article is my attempt at a creative answer as to where we went wrong.
In a 1974 essay titled Obrazovanshchina (translated variously into English as educaties and smatterers), dissident writer and Nobel Prize laureate Alexander Solzhenitsyn derided the formation in the Soviet Union of an entire class of people whose “elite” status depended on holding a higher education but who were otherwise devoid of the culture and ethical values of a true intelligentsia. In other words – the village idiot (or IYI) with a degree from Harvard. As earlier mentioned, this was a generation that had inherited all of the best accomplishments their parents had worked hard and died for and, apparently, whose sense of entitlement and selfishness led them to take that completely for granted. Sound familiar? Therein lie the origins of Sovieticus Nincompoopus.
Mysticism and Conspiracies
During a trip across Route 66 a few years ago, I visited a novelty store in Oklahoma run by a musician in overalls, whio proudly referred to himself as a hillbilly and his town as the redneck capital of the world. Say what you want, but this was a man of high principles: “I don’t take no help from the government,” he proudly told me (a phrase I’ve heard from numerous Americans). He’ll pay his taxes honestly, but he won’t tolerate government healthcare, small business credits, or any other form of dependency on the state.
The Sovieticus Nincompoopus is the polar opposite of this: a man (or woman) who will take advantage (even feel entitled to) any and all state benefits without feeling obliged to pay taxes or contribute to the society providing them in any way. This is a person of no principles, and not even the ability to understand the hypocrisy or irony of his (her) actions.
Case in point: I’ve had numerous friends in Russia proudly explain to me their tax avoidance schemes. Barely a moment will go by that s/he will move on to deriding the poor state of public roads and hospitals. At work, the first ten things colleagues would think of upon the announcement of a tender is how to personally steal money from the transaction; the following day they’d be out in the streets in a March Against Corruption.
Not only do these people not realize the ridiculousness of their positions, they wrap them up in a cloak of morality and sanctimony. Look no further than the boss at work who will deride his employees for adding personal days onto a business trip and preach corporate ethics while simultaneously pilfering money from his own organization. Or the lady who throws her own kin into a state nursing home lecture others about the morality of legally earning a high salary while others are poor.
The list goes on. A smoker friend of mine would puff away on his cigarettes while simultaneously decrying the country’s low life expectancy and the lack of state programs to promote healthy lifestyles. A neighbor likes to throw his cigarette butts off the balcony and occasionally leaves his garbage at the building entrance while simultaneously decrying Putin for the poor condition of our courtyard. That’s right – the fact that he has the hygiene and manners of a barnyard animal does not cross his mind as the reason for the state of our surroundings. It’s all Putin’s fault! Walk into any crowd of decent size in Moscow or (probably) any other Russian city in the summer and you’ll get the distinct impression that most people haven’t yet heard of deodorant. Putin’s fault as well! From my own experiences, pointing any of these things out to said persons results in defensiveness, anger or outright confusion.
And they say that we are swine…
This is a cohort of people mentally unable to connect actions with consequences, take responsibility for anything or think strategically. In public discourse and the media, the void left by these inabilities is naturally occupied by mysticism and conspiracy theories. The quality of analysis in many leading Russian news outlets wouldn’t pass muster as a term paper at an American high school due to vast simplifications, generalizations, assumptions and general lack of thorough research on any given topic. This is a direct reflection of the way many people think.
An acquaintance of mine who works at a major government regulator and was formerly a journalist at a top business publication here has repeatedly insisted to me that Putin’s approval ratings are fake. “The authorities would never allow the real figures to get out because there would be a revolution!” My numerous attempts to point out the very thorough research into this done by outlets like The Washington Post (whose editorial room are not fans of the current Russian President, to put it mildly) and the fact that anyone is free to conduct such polls has gone to no avail. It’s all a big conspiracy. As was the moon landing.
At a meeting with colleagues (all professionals in their mid- to late-30s) we were once tasked with designing a contest whereby the winner would get a free trip and do a day-by-day blog. People began by just blurting out proposals: “Let’s do a photo contest! Let’s do a crossword!” I pointed out that we should begin by thinking of the type of person we would like to attract, e.g. if he’s going to be blogging, we probably want a contest that could reflect writing skills. Crickets. “Let’s do a video! Let’s do a puzzle!” Obviously a contest is just something that falls out of the sky and need not be thought out or analyzed.
In personal life this has often translated into a worship of mythological entities like Zodiac signs (I once worked at an organization where the Head of HR relied on them to make hiring decisions). In healthcare – to the attitude that getting genetically tested for cancer risk is pointless because God has already determined your fate. Childhood cancer? Let’s pretend it doesn’t exist and not talk about it – too evil. Got a wart? Tie a string around your finger (or better yet – try to carve it out with a kitchen knife at home).
None of these cases is novel to Russia. The caveat is that these examples, without exception, are coming from people living in Moscow (or abroad) with degrees from “elite” institutions and often working at centers of influence and power. There you have your “elite” obrazovanshchina, Sovieticus Nincompoopus or IYI running the country (with all the unspoken consequences).
This was on full display during this year’s Presidential debates (in which the winner took no part). One candidate yelling “whore, idiot, faggot!” at all the others. Another bursts into tears because she says she was interrupted and runs off the stage. And these are the people asking for the keys to the nuclear codes. Pathetic.
Side note: I must qualify my observation with two important points about modern Russia:
- Part of this mysticism and simplicity comes from the general opaqueness with which decisions in Russia are still made. I’ve been employed by both major Western organizations and Russian ones, and the difference in how management interacts with employees cannot be overstated. Ironically, the U.S. got its own dose of Russian-style management when Trump initially announced his travel ban at the start of 2017. A major policy change comes as a complete surprise to everyone; plans are disrupted; people are harmed; nobody knows what’s going on (including those in charge of enforcing said policy). This is what we in Russia often face. In the absence of verifiable information, myths, rumors and conspiracies abound.
- I’ve yet to encounter an individual in any country who lives completely without an element of mythology and faith. Some of the most fanatically ideological people I’ve met are, in fact, American liberals (more on that later).
Self-Hatred and West-Worship
Somewhat ironically, in terms of international politics the Sovieticus Nincompoopus leans toward foreign- and, usually, West-worship. For him (her) self-hatred, cynicism and West-worship are the inalienable traits of an “intellectual.” Kudos to late Russian dissident and “liberal” Valeriya Novodvorskaya for putting it succinctly: if America bombs a country – good; if Russia’s doing it – bad! Hence her appeal in 2001 for the United States to conduct nuclear strikes on Russia.
The mythology and simplistic generalizations of this cohort leads them to divide the world into good and bad, angels and demons, etc. Depending on which subgroup s/he occupies, the Sovieticus Nincompoopus may hold certain groups (usually citizens of other former Soviet republics and people of darker skin color) below his own and then proceed to deride them to preserve some sense of tribal pride. Or s/he may have adopted the minority worship currently popular among Western liberals and superficially embrace people of different ethnic backgrounds. The cluelessness and superficiality of the position comes out eventually: examples include the late “liberal” idol and journalist Anton Nosik supporting the killing of Syrian women, children and old people as long as it helps the state of Israel, and eco- and human rights-crusader Yevgeniya Chirikova following up her statement that war under any circumstances is wrong with support for an American campaign against Syria.
What unites these various persons under the Sovieticus Nincompoopus term is a fundamental lack of any principles beyond personal interest and a village-like perception of the world divided into castes of masters and slaves (and an underlying boorishness that doesn’t take very long to reveal). Lying and stealing are normal, intimidation and fear the only way to govern…and none of these perceptions prevents the Sovieticus Nincompoopus from judging others from thinking exactly the same way (or considering him/herself above others). Look no further than the political fortunes of Russia’s so-called “liberals” and to whom they assign blame for their dismal prospects. That this worldview goes inherently against Western principles and ideology is completely missed by the Soviet Nincompoop (and usually ignored by sanctimonious Westerners).
Servility Instead of Communication
The Sovieticus Nincompoopus is, at his/her core, a servile individual (occasional lash-outs and hysteria notwithstanding), as a visit to a state institution of any kind will demonstrate. Here the Soviet nincompoop will grovel before any low-level bureaucrat in seeking the simplest of procedures – a court document, a change in address, a property ownership certificate. Examples include excessive, hurried politeness and verbose compliments. Occasionally the most insignificant trinkets on hand will be offered in the form of a tribute: a cigarette lighter, a pen, office stationery. You would think the person on the other side of the desk was deciding whether or not to hang the Soviet nincompoop.
Or the Sovieticus Nincompoopus may take the direct opposite approach: shouting, screaming, threatening and making demands before any civilized conversation could conceivably begin. I once got trapped in an elevator at a major event in Sochi with a colleague and a handful of such people. The person on the emergency line said they had an engineer nearby and we’d soon be rescued. End of conversation, right? Wrong! “I know Valery Petrovich!” shouts one overweight lady in her 50s. “I know somebody with the phone number of the mayor of Sochi!” shouts another. “Oh my God! I can’t breathe!!!!” screams another (the doors had been pried open for the purposes of ventilation by this point). The simplest and most mundane of procedures sends these people into a counterproductive hysterical frenzy. The irony of the situation was that we got stuck in the elevator in the first place because three of those people had rammed themselves in at the last moment against the advice of event organizers and overstrained the elevator’s weight limitations. When we were let out five minutes later, as promised, my colleague joked that the only pleasure I’d have had from dying in there was knowing that all of those people would have probably died too. I grinned in agreement.
Neither approach (servile or hysterical) is conducive to the business at hand, and this is completely missed by the Sovieticus Nincompoopus. “Damn Putin!” he or she will should, and not “I wish I didn’t have the communication abilities of a five year old child.” This approach is complemented with feelings of extreme self-pity and an inherent belief that our own personal fates are the worst in the world. “We live worse than in Africa!” quipped a cab driver to me once. No, sir; I’ve traveled extensively through Africa (and many other places) and we’re definitely better off than most. You, sir, are clueless and whiny.
Ever wonder why Russia’s international reputation is so dismal (perhaps the only country with a worse one is North Korea)? I place most of the blame squarely on the Soviet Nincompoops who churn out servile, self-hating content in the hopes of being accepted by Westerners as civilized people. Look no further than the byline of many of the most Russophobic articles in the Anglophone media and you will often discover Sovieticus Nincompoopus.
One final personal example of note involves a US-based couple who left Russia in the 1990s and now claims a deep patriotic attachment to the country. At the same time, these people vacation exclusively abroad, only invest their money into US properties, and actively discourage their curious daughter from having any connection to the homeland they supposedly love. Is it any wonder the USSR fell apart?
The only generation I find more juvenile, entitled and ridiculous than the Sovieticus Nincompoopus is a cohort known as the millennials in the United States (the details will have to be left for another article). At least the former knew how to have a good time and procreate, instead of emojiing their way out of existence.
Despite the title of this article, a casual reading of Gogol’s Dead Souls or some of Chekhov’s short stories will demonstrate that many of the aforementioned traits predate the Soviet Union by at least several generations. The biggest question for me is how much has changed among the young generation in Russia. People currently in their 20s and 30s are clearly less isolated from the outside world than their parents, and less dependent on state handouts and nepotism in their personal lives. Many run their own businesses. On the other hand, psychology transcends generations.
The good news is that while America seems to be descending down the road of blind ideological posturing, we may finally be coming out of it (at least policy-wise). Here in Russia, the Sovieticus Nincompoopus is going the way of the dodo (generationally). Good luck to the both of us.