SECTION 4: SOCIETY. Chapter 15: Social Mores


…the Russians are very gregarious and hate being alone anywhere. Their idea of enjoyment is a crowd.
(Grove in Dobson, Grove, Stewart, p.170; 1913)

A Russian Tea house c.1910 (From Dobson, Grove, Stewart)

Many of the quotations in this collection illustrate how little Russia and Russians have changed in many ways, despite living through a century of some of the most brutal upheavals which mankind has ever inflicted upon itself. H M Grove’s words from a hundred years ago are still true: Russians enjoy being in a crowd. Ironically, this helped establish the Soviet system after the October Revolution of 1917: the emphasis on “the collective”, rather than the individual was already second nature to many Russians. In small localities in Tsarist times decisions were taken by the obshchina (община) or mir (мир), both words for local communities.

Did Tolstoy really mean
War and Peace?
There is a theory that the English title of Leo Tolstoy’s novel, War and Peace, is actually a mistranslation. The Russian title is Voyna i mir (Война и мир); but did Tolstoy have in mind “War and the local community”, rather than the apparently obvious juxtaposition of two opposites: “war” and “peace”?

The consistency of this desire to live in a communal way was remarked on by both Theodore Dreiser in 1927, ten years after the Bolshevik Revolution, and Laurens van der Post in 1965, as the USSR was preparing to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Revolution.

There was but one bathroom to each section, that is, one bath to 40 persons, and each entitled to only 2 hours per week! It is proposed to keep these bathrooms only for the children and build steam baths (banya) in the courtyards, because, so they say, Russians prefer them!
  I can never understand that – the herd instinct in these people – but it is true. They appear to have to work and live in groups. Their village, factory and apartment life is communal.
(Dreiser, p.150, 28 Nov 1927)

The Russians are naturally a communal people because they are basically a primitive people: and primitive man is naturally collective. I know a dozen or so tribes in Africa who without the technological dress of Soviet Russia, practice in essence a Soviet system, because it is their natural, primitive way. The collective value evoked in prolonged conditions of great danger is entrusted to a powerful central tribal authority who discharges it with a strange mixture of absolutism and deference to popular feeling, which it continually tests and consults without necessarily obeying it – just as in the Soviet Union… So, far from being the highly evolved concept of society that it claims to be, the Soviet system struck me as extremely archaic and committed inevitably more and more to far-reaching change within itself if it is to survive in the emerging world.
(van der Post, pp.272-273; 1965)

Something else which is constant throughout the whole period under discussion (and would go back well before that, too) is Russian hospitality. Hugh Stewart’s comment on this might be considered as damning with faint praise:

Life in the prosperous commercial families is marked by extreme hospitality and unsophisticated material comfort, but by homeliness of manners and sterility of thought and conversation.
(Stewart in Dobson, Grove, Stewart, p.393; 1913)

Russian hospitality is as generous as ever

The words of Stewart’s colleague, H M Grove, however, will strike a chord with many who have enjoyed Russian hospitality in recent time. It is very un-English simply to drop in on someone unannounced, but Russians welcome it.

…if you have an introduction to a Russian house, you will be asked to call any evening. When you arrive you will be entertained with fruit, tea, sweets and cigarettes galore. After staying an hour or so you rise to leave, but your host will not hear of it – you must stay to supper. Supper may last any time, but you need not to expect to get away before 2 to 3 am. If you insist on leaving earlier your host will be very disappointed and somewhat hurt, as is also the case if you do not eat heartily of all the numerous and excellent dishes they press on you.
(Grove in Dobson, Grove, Stewart, pp.171-172; 1913)

Perhaps this helps to explain how the following saying became popular:

“There are two ways to say goodbye: the English way, where you leave without saying goodbye; and the Russian way, where you say goodbye but you don’t leave!”
(Dalziel, popular Russian saying)

Being unable to leave (some might say “escape”) from Russian hospitality is well known. Some maintain that Russian hospitality is taken to extremes at times:

“Stephen, did you know that if you were staying with a traditional Chukchi family in the far north-east of Russia, the Chukchi would give you his wife to warm your bed. I am very happy to have you stay here. But I am not a Chukchi.”
(Dalziel, as said to me by a Russian friend)

In fact, rather than being merely extreme hospitality the thinking behind having a visitor sleep with a Chukchi woman was that this could bring new blood into the often isolated tribe, which otherwise became a victim of in-breeding.

Social divisions can be witnessed in any nation, and, revolution or not, Russia has not been an exception to this.

There is a special group of people in Moscow who know nothing about art, are not interested in architecture, and do not like historical monuments. These people visit museums solely because they are housed in splendid buildings. These people stroll through the dazzling rooms, look enviously at the frescoes, touch the things they are requested not to touch, and mutter continually:
  “My, how they used to live!”
(Ilf and Petrov, p.121; 1928)

The trouble with these people is that they seemed convinced that in changing a form of government they are changing humanity. But right here in Moscow…I see sufficient to convince me that in no way has humanity changed. It is dreaming a new dream.
(Dreiser, p.86, 11 Nov 1927)

But the fact that serfdom was abolished in Russia only in 1861 and that the country remained predominantly rural until well into the twentieth century has meant that these divisions were and still are acutely felt in Russia. If in England many city-dwellers choose to up-sticks, live in the country and commute to work, for Russians the idea of “the countryside”, деревня (derevnya), conjures up images of backwardness, ignorance – and dirt. This is partly due to a significantly lower level of education in the countryside, and also because there are often no metalled roads. And when you are moving in vehicles or on foot on dirt roads (which become very muddy and often impassable in the spring and autumn), the villages become cut off and very dirty. Indeed, Dreiser, writing in 1927, felt that the general Russian attitude to cleanliness left a lot to be desired.

A typical road in a Russian village;
a photo taken in 2009
Once you know Russia as it is today, at least and if you are of a sanitary turn of mind, you will always resent the dirt – the underlying, nagging thought that never leaves you (once you are in the country) that there may be bed-bugs or a cockroach in the soup – or something unclean about the bedding or the water – or what you will. And it is always amazing to me that a nation – 150,000,000 strong, could have come along with modern Europe next door & not have developed a disgust for uncleanliness.
(Dreiser, p.181, 3 Dec 1927)

Less than 20 years later, however, the anonymous author of A Woman in Berlin, who was trying to come to terms with the excesses of Soviet soldiers in the German capital at the very end of the War, drew on her experience of Moscow before the War to note that some success was being achieved in educating people to pay more attention to cleanliness:

Meanwhile two Russians have come in, boots gleaming, their freshly pressed uniforms richly decorated. Being washed and groomed is a mark of kultura for them, a sign of a higher level of humanity. I still remember all the posters I saw hanging in offices and trams throughout Moscow: “Wash your face and hands every day, and your hair at least once a month” with cute little illustrations of splashing and blowing and rinsing in washbasins. A religion of cleanliness. Polished boots are also part of the same kultura, so I’m not surprised by how eager the men are to shine them up whenever possible.
(Anonymous, p.216; 1945)

These instructions also hint that divisions in Russian society are deep-rooted. This mock conversation conducted by Empress Catherine the Great with the French philosopher, Denis Diderot, in Malcolm Bradbury’s highly amusing novel, To the Hermitage, gives some insight as to just how deep the roots of adversity between the different elements of Russian society go. Somehow, Russians seem to be able to take rivalry to extremes.

“Don’t you know in Russia the serfs hate the kulaks, the kulaks hate the landowners, the landowners hate the provincial governors, the governors hate the nobles? The nobles hate the generals, the generals hate the bureaucrats. There are thirteen levels in the table of ranks, and each rank hates all the other twelve. The church hates the army. The army hates the navy. The infantry hates the cavalry. Every regiment hates every other. Everyone spies on everyone else…”
(Bradbury, p.301)

Even the socialist system did not prevent the desire not only to keep up with the Joneses (or perhaps that should be the Ivanovs) but to do better than they do.

The new bourgeois of the USSR are often envious of their friends and neighbours, perhaps more so than the middle classes that emerged before them in the West. Rising Class Russians study each other strenuously for status symbols that might have to be equalled. One army officer became annoyed when a relative acquired a small chandelier, since he and his wife considered it an affront to their own status. Several weeks later he tracked down a larger chandelier and had it hung where it could be seen from the front door. But his sense of achievement was short-lived: his relative’s wife visited them one night wearing an imported sheepskin coat, and the officer was forced to spend more time scouring the black market until he had acquired a similar prize.
(Willis, p.42; 1985)

This was partly because when it becomes the norm that there are shortages of even basic goods, the desire grows strong to show that you have connections or simply the ability to obtain something no-one else has. But the effort which is put in to obtain such goods tells on people’s behaviour.

Russians are fiercely and deliberately rude to each other in public … Gentle, kind Russians can become ferocious combatants on the street, trading insult for insult with shop attendants, pushing and shoving with the worst bullies in lines and on crowded subways.
(Kaiser, p.63; 1976)

Especially in Soviet times, Russians earned the reputation for being incredibly rude to each other; and it was a deserved reputation. The modern-day hero of Bradbury’s novel (which switches between the time of Catherine the Great and today) is on a ferry, travelling from Sweden to Russia, and makes the following comment as the vessel is coming into dock in St Petersburg:

Lively stewards have turned into drab resentful hotel waiters, spry stewardesses into invisible chambermaids, as if the very fact of being in Russia has reminded them that a sullen hostility is the proper way of life.
(Bradbury, p.342)

To this rudeness is added a feeling of envy towards people who succeed in what they do. As Dmitry Zakharov said to Hedrick Smith, there does seem to be something peculiarly Russian in the intensity with which this is felt.

“In the West, if an American sees someone on TV with a shiny new car, he will think, ‘Oh, maybe I can get that someday for myself.’ But if a Russian sees that, he will think, ‘This bastard with his car. I would like to kill him for living better than I do.’ When Russians see a cooperative where people make a lot of money, they ask angrily, ‘Why do those people make so much money?’ They do not ask, ‘Why does the state pay me so little?’ Instead of making an effort to raise their own incomes, they want to close down the cooperative.” (TV presenter Dmitry Zakharov, in conversation with Hedrick Smith.)
(Smith, The New Russians, pp.203-204; 1990)

This feeling of envy has not changed in the post-Soviet era (the final chapter, You’ll Die Laughing, will contain examples of how such people have become the butt of jokes). Bill Browder found that, even as a foreigner, he was subjected to this – and from a fabulously wealthy oligarch, Vladimir Potanin, who tried to issue a share deal in one of his companies where Browder had a stake, simply to make Browder’s stake worthless:

I couldn’t fathom why Potanin would do something like this. What was his purpose? Why dilute the value of our shares and create a scandal? … He still owned 86 per cent of the company… It didn’t make any financial sense.
  Then I remembered why he would do this: because it is the Russian thing to do.
  There’s a famous Russian proverb about this type of behaviour. One day, a poor villager happens upon a magic talking fish that is ready to grant him a single wish. Overjoyed, the villager weighs his options: “Maybe a castle? Or even better – a thousand bars of gold? Why not a ship to sail the world?” As the villager is about to make his decision, the fish interrupts him to say that there is one important caveat: whatever the villager gets, his neighbour will receive two of the same. Without skipping a beat, the villager says, “In that case, please poke one of my eyes out.”
(Browder, pp.149-150; 2015)

This fairy tale, and Zakharov’s comment above, help to explain why there was so little sympathy from ordinary Russians when Mikhail Khodorkovsky was arrested in 2003 on trumped-up and politically-motivated charges of tax evasion. Even though by the time of his arrest Khodorkovsky was using his wealth like a Western philanthropist to improve society, many Russians chose to ignore this, turning a blind eye also to the ludicrous nature of the charges and the outrageous way in which Khodorkovsky’s Yukos oil company was stolen by the state.

Even though a Communist Party official told Smith in 1977 that Russia was not “a one-dimensional state” –

“Beneath the flat surface of society in Russia, as presented by Pravda, a rich and complex life abounds but it totally lacks any means of communication. We are not a ‘one dimensional society’ as Westerners believe.” [Communist Party official]
(Smith, The Russians, p.11; 1977)

– the following quotations illustrate that despite the gregarious, open-hearted yet jealous nature of Russian society, the Soviet system did impose a straitjacket on that society which restricted development – and continues to restrict it a generation after the collapse of the USSR.

Russia rewards the man who operates from the shadows, the grey apparatchik, the master of the politique du couloir.
(Pomerantsev, p.159; 2015)

Early as it was the streets were full of people. It was clear that if solidarity was the purpose of the exercise we were going to experience it with a vengeance. All the grey walls of the great grey dripping buildings along the grey wet streets were covered with red bunting and streamers and banners bearing slogans in white and gold. Many Russians that I met loved to tell me how all foreigners commented with pleasure on the absence of advertisements in their cities and landscapes and I had accepted it unthinkingly as true. But now suddenly I saw through it. In Russia there is only one advertisement: the State. The State advertises itself, its service and products ceaselessly on the air and on the walls of buildings and station hoardings. From the moment one passes through the Berlin Wall and right on to the Pacific Ocean one is condemned to absorb the slogans and contents of the posters of the greatest advertising monopoly on earth. Never was I more aware of it than on this wet May Day morning.
(van der Post, pp.165-166; 1965)

In any place where dissent is banned, society fractures into three groups. One group is composed of those who remain committed to the prevailing order because they agree with it – the true believers. Another group is made up of those who are willing to defy the prevailing order despite the risk of punishment – the dissidents. For members of these two groups, there will be little or no gap between their private thoughts and public statements. Unlike true believers and dissidents, members of the third group do not say what they think. This group is comprised of people who no longer believe in the prevailing ideology, but who are afraid to accept the risks associated with dissent. They are the “doublethinkers”.
(Sharansky, pp.43-44; 2006)

Always the passport, always the “Dokumenti!” You can get stopped and checked for papers at any moment. It might actually happen only once or maybe even twice a year, but you still have to stand in queues and knock on doors to obtain the whole library of little stamps, regulations, permits – the legal stipulations and requirements that are themselves always changing. A little trick to keep you always on tenterhooks, always patting your pockets for your papers, always waking up worried that you might have lost them in a bar. Over time you begin to pat for the passport instinctively, your hand going down unthinkingly to check your pocket so many times a day you don’t even notice any more. That’s true power – when it starts to influence the unconscious movements of your arms.
(Pomerantsev, p.137-138; 2015)

…everyone waiting to enter the grounds is rummaging in a pocket or handbag for his pass, a little cardboard folder with a photograph of the bearer and, of course, an official stamp. The rules are universal: passes required for entrance into the University, as for every office and institution of this People’s State; no citizen allowed where he doesn’t belong; old men or women camped inside every door in the socialist land, checking credentials and intentions. Citizens! Produce your passes!
(Feifer, pp.51-52; 1976)

But what happens if you cannot produce your documents? The simple answer was given by Mikhail Bulgakov in The Master and Margarita:


“Is this your case history?”
  “Yes…”
  Koroviev threw the case history into the fire. “Remove the document and you remove the man,” said Koroviev with satisfaction.
(Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita, p.306; 1938)

And despite the collapse of the Soviet Union and the development of a free market economy, Smith’s words about Russians not expecting their society to become more liberal and open have proved prophetic, 40 years after they were written.

Russians, unlike Americans and other Westerners, do not assume that progress toward a more liberal, open society is inevitable.
(Smith, The Russians, p.605; 1977)

Indeed, Russia in 2020 is a less liberal, less open society than it was in 1995, when there did seem to be hope for real change.

In 1965, Laurens van der Post foresaw what proved to be one of Russia’s greatest problems.

The Soviet Union is at the merest beginning of its industrial development. Yet even that slight beginning is vast enough to overawe one with its size. The smallest glimpse of the untapped natural resources of the Soviet world already harnessed to the task of industrialising Russia is something before which one’s imagination boggles. What will happen to the land in the process, and to the quality and texture of human society, what will be the price to be paid in the values and meaning of life is another matter.
(van der Post, p.180; 1965)

The vast supply of untapped natural resources, combined with the cynicism and lack of morality which the Soviet system engendered by the time it collapsed led directly to the crony capitalism of the 1990’s, where “freedom” was interpreted by some as the freedom to rob the state, kill anyone who got in their way and tread ordinary people into the dust. The ecological disasters which have ruined vast swathes of land in Russia began in Soviet times; the degeneration in human society and the devaluing of life and its meaning have followed in the post-Soviet wake. And, as Kaiser points out a decade after van der Post, the inefficiencies of the Soviet system, which laid the ground for what followed, were already there to see – for those with their eyes open.

If the object of human society is to organise man’s labour and leisure for his maximum benefit and fulfilment, then the Soviet Union is a most unsuccessful society. It is inefficient, stupidly managed, unproductive despite great wealth, stubbornly conservative and therefore disinclined to reform.
(Kaiser, p.419; 1976)

But as Smith and Martin Walker illustrate, in the twentieth century economically, socially and politically Russia not only had suffering inflicted upon it from outside during the War, but also inflicted huge suffering upon itself:

For decades, the mass output of the Soviet system, especially its concentration on military might and production, masked the inefficiencies of the system. The Stalinist command economy could concentrate enormous national resources on showpiece targets – huge hydroelectric dams spanning great rivers, massive steel plants, machine-tool factories that turned out tanks for the Soviet Army in World War II – all built at the cost of enormous sacrifices by the people. During the early Stalinist years, the masses were motivated by the romance of building a New World. Then the war against the Nazi invader summoned Russian workers to a great patriotic effort. Finally, the fear of a demonic dictator drove the people. But once Stalin was gone, and as the postwar years rolled by, the Soviet work force sagged into a now legendary pattern of sloth and shirking.
(Smith, The New Russians, pp.184-185; 1990)

The 1917 revolution beheaded the old ruling and administrative classes. Twenty years later, Stalin wiped out the new ruling and administrative class the Bolsheviks had put in their place. He wiped out the army’s officer corps and the literary intellectuals, and the more prosperous peasantry as well. This decimation of all the best educated and best trained in both the old Tsarist Russia and the new revolutionary Soviet Union was a sociological disaster that has no parallel in history. The population that survived was then subjected to a war which left 20 million dead. [NB: The generally-accepted figure for Soviet war dead is now 27 million – SD] Every tenth inhabitant of the Soviet Union died during the Second World War; of the male babies born from 1920 to 1925, the peak fighting generation, only 3 per cent survived.
(Walker, pp.xviii-xix; 1986)

And this seems to put into context Carl Joubert’s thought from 1904.

For my part, I am inclined to optimism, outside of Russia…
(Joubert, p.272; 1904)


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