What Makes the Soviet Character?

The anthropologist analyzes a modern culture

Soviet boys

A breakfast in the Suvorov School, where Soviet boys are trained to become army officers

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. 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.

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.

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 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?

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 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 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.

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