Pick from the Past
Natural History, September 1951

What Makes the Soviet Character?

Margaret Mead

Margaret Mead

Photo by Ken Heyman
ODAY the safety of all civilization may hinge upon our ability to develop ways through which the behavior of the members of any large modern society can be made intelligible to the members of other societies. At the present time when nations want to agree on a course of action—in problems as varied as the establishment of an international control system for rare metals or the training of reliable civil aeronautical pilots—there is no assurance that the representative of any one country will communicate what they mean to communicate to the representatives of any other country.

During World War II, we learned to try every method, however unlikely, to find a solution to problems that might mean the difference between survival and annihilation. Embryologists were set to stopping submarine warfare, crystallographers to discussing national policy. Now in this uneasy peacetime, most scientists have been sent back to their traditional tasks, and the intellectual ferment that occurs when an old problem is tackled in a new way has been allowed to subside.

But not altogether, for during the last three years the American Museum of Natural History has been taking part in research on the contemporary character and culture of the Soviet Union, which might at first seem almost

Today the safety of all civilization may hinge upon our ability to develop ways through which the behavior of the members of any large modern society can be made intelligible to the members of other societies.
as fantastic a venture as having an expert on biochemistry devise methods for classifying Oriental philosophies. If we say that the essence of the natural-history approach is first-hand observation of living creatures in their natural settings, it would seem that any attempt to come to conclusions about conditions behind the Iron Curtain is ill-placed in a natural history museum. Surely this is a task for those who work not with living things, but with the traces modern man leaves on paper—government documents, production figures, ideological manifestoes. The museum scientist studying a primitive people is accustomed to noting the way the wrists of a hunter become taut on his bow or the way a native woman keeps her balance when her punting pole catches in the weeds. What bearing have these techniques of direct observation on the study of the effect on young Soviet citizens of an official statement that the Soviet Union has just “invented” an exact replica of some American machine, or with the meaning of a trial in which, when the accused refuses to confess, the trial is interrupted and is resumed only with his full confession to all the charges? How can the behavior of members of a modern society with a long history be illuminated by any method except the time-honored one of simply referring everything that is being done today to past historical events?

Assuming that the anthropologist trained to study primitive man by direct observation could learn something about modern Russians if he looked, he can’t go and look. He can’t stand beside agricultural workers as they donate, under compulsion, a piece of “voluntary” Sunday work to keep the costs down. He can’t mingle with a group on a railroad train who are busily exchanging rumors that there will or will not be more bread. What, then, has a natural history museum been doing in the field of Soviet culture?

Anthropologists bring to such an activity their own body of theory and their own tools. They assume that all human beings—of all races and languages, with and without writing—are the same order of creature with the same range

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.”
of capacities. Regardless of the descriptive tags that people have invented in thinking about themselves or others, as when they speak of “Slavic souls,” “Western genius for organization,” or “Oriental mysticism”—anthropologists place man in nature among all living creatures and see him as a special kind of living creature born with definite potentialities and vulnerabilities. And anthropologists view all the differences—in language, in ability to think scientifically, in food habits and philosophy—as differences learned after birth. If a hundred Russian babies chosen at random were exchanged for a hundred American babies chosen at random, we assume that the Soviet-born babies would grow up to be indistinguishable from other children reared in the United States, and the American-born babies would be indistinguishable from other Soviet-reared children. So, while the differences in what Soviet parents teach their children and what American parents teach their children are to be explained by their disparate pasts, the question the anthropologist asks is: Given the context, given Marxism-Leninism-Stalinism, and given our American doctrines of the Rights of Man, how does a human infant, equally capable of becoming a believer in American democracy or in Soviet communism, learn to become one or the other? And just because anthropologists are trained in natural-history methods, they are not content with the kind of answer that says children reared in America become Americans by “imitation,” by “habit.” That’s the sort of loose explanation once used to explain that a male bird knew that another bird was a female by “instinct.” The Department of Animal Behavior at this Museum has spent two decades showing that the “instinctive” male response to a female can be analyzed into responses to very small details of clues given by color, movement, relative size, or degree of mobility, and even these clues have to be at least partly learned.

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.

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,

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.
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.

When we studied how infants born in Russia were reared so that they represented this Great Russian character, instead of taking on some quite different character, certain aspects of their child rearing practices

The Bolshevik educator wishes to substitute a character structure in which each achievement induces an accompanying discontent, forcing the individual on to greater effort.
were particularly illuminating. The Russian baby was swaddled, as were most of the infants of Eastern peoples and as Western European infants used to be, but they were swaddled tighter and longer than were, for example, their neighbors, the Poles. 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. Day and night presented little contrast. Hands that were tightly bound inside the swaddling bands could not explore. During the first year of life the swaddled child, cared for by an old woman or a child nurse, was carried about, experiencing but never touching the teeming, vivid, highly charged world around it, being in it, but not of it. The Russian proverb says: “The eye sees but the tooth can not reach.” This early period seems to have left a stronger impression on Russian character than the same period of learning does for members of many other societies in which the parents are more preoccupied with teaching skills appropriate to later stages of development, as Americans, for example, are preoccupied with teaching self-control, cleanliness, and autonomy.

So we find in traditional Russian character elaborated forms of these very early learnings. There is a tendency to confuse thought and action, a capacity for impersonal anger as at the constriction of the swaddling bands, but also for great warmth and outgoingness to individual human beings, a tendency to feel that all behavior is reversible—as the child who destroys his mother in his imagination can reconstruct her again in an instant. There is a low interest in reality in the sense that Americans think of the real world of measurable, ponderable objects, and a high interest in abstractions like truth or mathematics. There was too a concentration on the way one felt and less interest in the other person, although a high dependence upon being one of a group or a mass. (This does not mean that swaddling infants in a different culture would produce any of these effects. We are discussing here how Russians, with their traditional attitudes toward human beings as strong, full-passioned creatures needing external control, communicated with their young children so that their young children grew up to share these values.)

The Bolshevik leadership revolted against this vague, diffuse, mystical attitude, against hope without substance and dreams without effort. They wanted to forge a society that would use all the methods and tools of modern Western science,

Where the old Russian had loved and hated the same person, fluctuatingly, concurrently, the new Soviet man must learn to focus hate continuously on the enemy, and love—absolute, undeviating, complete—on the Soviet State.
in which disciplined, purposeful, forceful, externally oriented people would forge forward relentlessly, tirelessly, toward a goal. Concretely, they wanted a people who would get to work on time, who would subject themselves to the one-way discipline of the machine, who would come to think in minutes instead of days. In place of the vague, diffuse family and village relationships that allowed the growing child to choose among half-a-dozen contradictory adult models of possible behavior, they wanted to substitute single consistent models, so that parents, teachers, and youth leaders would all present the same undeviating behavior lesson. In place of the old permissiveness for a child to live up to its strength and rest content, the Bolshevik educator wishes to substitute a character structure in which each achievement induces an accompanying discontent, forcing the individual on to greater effort. Where the old Russian had been tolerant, the new Soviet man must be intolerant of himself and of others. Where the old Russian had loved and hated the same person, fluctuatingly, concurrently, the new Soviet man must learn to focus hate continuously on the enemy, and love—absolute, undeviating, complete—on the Soviet State. Under the old system children had been ignored and subdued after they had learned to walk, with very little attention having been given to them. The sharp learnings of the first year remained the mold into which later impressions were fitted. The new child-rearing stressed early habit training, starting as early as three months, by exercise, discipline, activity, and emphasis on testing reality by action and manipulation. Instead of the old vagueness about the difference between thought and action, there was to be no thought that was not welded into action, no image in the mind that was not a counterpart of external reality.

But most of the Bolshevik leaders were, after all, Great Russians themselves. Their emphasis on action, on focus, on control was not the same as American emphasis on action, on purposefulness, on autonomy. American children learn to value autonomy and manipulative skill because they have always been rewarded for attaining it. Mothers and fathers who are not sure how strong and assertive their children really are urge and reward activity, planning, and autonomy. But the Bolshevik leader, in valuing these same goals, was reacting against a society in which these goals were not valued. He came to glorify this reaction, to insist that character could only be formed by “swimming against the stream.” He fought down in others and in himself any temptation to express either the old patient endurance of life (which came to be identified politically with Right deviationism), or any wild, enthusiastic, unthinking pursuit of romantic dreams (which came to be identified as Left deviationism). Instead, all behavior must be exactly focused, not by some compromise between different positions, but by being exactly right, in a position in comparison with which all other positions are out of focus. (Politically this position is called the “Party Line,” which may change abruptly, may appear contradictory, but which at the moment when it is promulgated by a leadership whose claim to leadership is just their ability to perceive the exactly correct line of conduct, to “hear the grass growing under the ground,” is conceived as the correct and only possible course of action.)

This focus must be maintained by absolute control, by ceaseless vigilance over the self, by the new kind of consciousness that was being developed. (Politically, the counterpart of this untiring watchfulness is the omniscience of Stalin, who is represented in Soviet poetry as standing on the Kremlin with a spyglass in his hand, seeing all that goes on in the land, and by an omnipresent secret police.) The control over the self must be matched with control over others, over their every act, their every thought, their every impulse. If the external world did not match the expectation of the leadership, it must be made to do so. Novelists who represented life in the Soviet Union as contrary to what life should be in a communist state were condemned as political traitors. Individuals who were believed to feel hostile toward the regime were given trials that were essentially dramatizations of crimes they might have committed, had they followed their feelings, for which they could then be sentenced to ten years’ hard labor.

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

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.
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.

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