What Makes the Soviet Character?

The anthropologist analyzes a modern culture

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 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.)

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.

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, 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.

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