Understanding The Soviets

Moving beyond propaganda and misperceptions

One of the articles in USSR/USA (IC#15)
Originally published in Winter 1987 on page 6
Copyright (c)1987, 1997 by Context Institute

Irina is right, of course, but how can we overcome our ignorance about the Soviets and their country? Many of the articles that follow provide steps in this direction, yet each is just a piece, a facet. Before we can understand these specifics, we need at least some sense of the big picture.

Getting this picture begins by looking at ourselves, with realizing that we Americans are, in general, ignorant about, not just the USSR, but the whole rest of the world. Dominating the North American continent, surrounded by oceans or friendly neighbors, convinced that we are "where it’s at," we are probably the most mono-lingual and self-absorbed major country in the world. What we do know of the rest of the world, we have mostly gained through the news media (especially TV), so our perceptions are dominated by those things that "make news" – disasters and power struggles. (And as for literature, we don’t even read our own!)

This general tendency to form distorted images of other countries has been further accentuated in the case of the Soviet Union since it is "the other superpower," our rival, and to many people, our enemy. Given this climate, it is not surprising that many Americans, when they go to the Soviet Union, discover that they have much to unlearn as well as learn. Joel Schatz describes this insight in the following way:

I came to realize that over the years Americans have deprived themselves of direct access to reality in the Soviet Union to the point where we have developed and reinforced impressions of that culture which are very limited. Somehow they’ve been portrayed as a culture oppressed to the point of not smiling, of not falling in love, not raising families, not enjoying themselves on picnics, not bicycling in the countryside, not pursuing careers that excite them. It’s a different culture, totally different from ours, but the spirit of the ordinary people, their warmth and love, is as great as anywhere on the planet.

We need to somehow look at the Soviets with fresh eyes, to see them as they are without constantly filtering everything about them through our images of the "East-West" power struggle. The picture that emerges is neither all black nor all white – neither our propaganda image or theirs – for we are, after all, dealing with real people. To get a handle on this, I’ve pulled together those essential aspects and insights that have most helped me in understanding the Soviet people. I hope you will find it useful.


Like many countries, the Soviet Union has its share of paradoxes. To begin with, it is not really a single "country" at all, but a close-knit amalgam of 15 republics, most of whom were part of the old Russian Empire. It has, on paper, a federal structure, but it is unlike the US in that the republics are based on old ethnic and national boundaries, giving them a more "nation-like" distinctness than, say, Iowa and Colorado. Within the borders of the USSR, there are more than 100 ethnic groups speaking more than 75 different languages in addition to Russian, the official national tongue. The nationalities range from the western European people of the Baltic States (Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia) to the central Asian Uzbeks to the Eskimos of Siberia. One of these republics, however, the Russian S.F.S.R., dominates the rest with most of the land area, 52% of the population, and most of the political power. Nevertheless, it is as incorrect to equate "Soviet" with "Russian" as it would be to equate "American" with "Californian" or "White."

Territorially, the USSR is huge. It is the world’s largest political entity, covering 1/6 of the Earth’s land and spanning 11 time zones. Yet at the same time, most of this area is monotonously flat, changing only gradually in vegetation and climate (like Canada’s prairie provinces) as one moves from the Black Sea to the Arctic Ocean. Speaking of water, the USSR has a long coastline, but most of it is either in the far north or the sparsely populated Pacific coast. Its two western port areas, on the Baltic and the Black Seas, open out to waters easily controlled by other nations. The result has been an orientation to land rather than sea.


This vast, flat, northern landscape, which offers few barriers to would-be invaders, has done much to shape the history of the region, and together, geography and history do much to shape the people of the USSR today. Because the USSR is made up of many nationalities, strictly speaking, there are many threads to its history; however, because of the Russian dominance within the USSR, we will focus on the Russian thread.

As part of Eurasia, the lands that are now the USSR have had human occupants for a very long time. Indeed, the area between the Black and Caspian Seas, on the southern border of the USSR, may well have been the "homeland" 45,000 years ago of the original "modern" humans (see page 19 in issue #12).

For most of the tens of thousands of years since then, the region has been sparsely inhabited, and has served as a vast thoroughfare across which many tribes have migrated in wave after wave from central Asia into Europe, and occasionally back again, as well as through Siberia and Alaska into North America. (If you go back far enough, both American Indians and many Europeans are the descendants of "Russian" emigrants.)

Along the way, some of these wanderers settled, and the population gradually increased, with villages developing near rivers and in other desirable locations. Yet it is not until about a thousand years ago that this vast region began to develop a cultural identity, and what we would call a history.


By about 700 AD, the Vikings, those adventurous raiders and traders from Scandinavia, had figured out that the rivers in Russia and the Ukraine provide a good trade route down to Constantinople. As this trade developed, so did various towns along the way. During the next few hundred years, some of the Viking warriors established themselves as "lords" over the local Slavic tribesmen (just as other "northmen" took over northern coastal France, becoming the Normans, who then conquered Britain). Between 860 and 880, a few of these Viking lords were able to consolidate their holdings into the first "Russian" state based primarily on the cities of Novgorod and Kiev.

During the next hundred years, the Viking rulers further expanded their power, settling into Kiev as their capital and devoting most of their energy to warfare and trade, primarily with Constantinople. This contact brought in, among other things, the influence of Eastern Orthodox Christianity, and in 988 (1000 years ago next year), Vladimir I, grand duke of Kiev and ruler of Russia, adopted Christianity as the official religion. The church thus established held essentially undisputed sway for more than 900 years.

The level of political, religious and social development in Russia at this time was roughly comparable to what was going on in much of Europe – especially those northern and central regions that had not been part of the Roman Empire. Without interference, Russia might have kept pace with its western neighbors, although it did have some handicaps in terms of climate and distance from major cultural centers.

But such was not to be its fate. The period from 1000 to 1240 was largely wasted in squabbles among the nobility, making the region easy prey for the central Asian Tartars (Mongols), who imposed their brutal rule from 1240 until 1480 when Ivan III, grand duke of Muscovy finally drove them out.

Being conquered is rarely much fun, but some societies have at least benefited from the new ideas, techniques, and institutions introduced by their conquerors. In the case of the Tartars, however, the Russians had no such luck. Pushkin has described them as "Arabs without Aristotle or algebra". They delighted in wholesale slaughter, heavy taxation, and draftees, and offered essentially nothing in return. They were, however, often content to let the Russian princes serve as their tax collectors and local governors, so some of the nobility did have a chance to build their power. The church was also tolerated, and its influence grew considerably during this time. The Tartars did expose Russians to the cultures of the East but only slightly, and this was more than balanced out by their blocking of contacts with the rest of Europe and Constantinople.

Other events also added to their isolation. In 1054, less than 70 years after the "conversion" of Russia, the Catholic (western) and Orthodox (eastern) branches of Christianity split with the usual bitterness that all too often characterizes religious disputes. In the following centuries, Poland, Lithuania, Germany, and Sweden all occupied portions of what had been western Russia, sometimes using religious differences as a pretext for attack. And then in 1453, Constantinople – the model and "mother church" for Russia – finally fell to the Turks, leaving the Russians as the only significant independent nation of Orthodox believers.

During the period from 1000 to 1500, throughout most of Europe, kings and princes were also consolidating their power over the lesser nobility, but merchants and townspeople had emerged as a major new class, and the condition of the peasants was in general improving. New forms and increased amounts of travel and communications were exposing people to a new level of cultural diversity. Power was being spread in important ways throughout the society, preparing the way for the Renaissance (which emphasized individual creativity) and the Reformation (which eventually led to tolerance of religious diversity) – two great European cultural milestones that Russia never experienced.


The end of Tartar rule and the rise of Moscow as the new center of power marks the beginning of the "modern" Russian state – born in isolation, under oppressive conditions, with a major focus on the need for simple survival. Under these conditions, the grand dukes of Moscovy consolidated their power by reducing the independence of the nobility and adopting policies that increasingly bound the peasants to the land as serfs. The one exceptional center of trade and industry during the Tartar period – Novgorod – was subjugated and brought to ruin. Within 70 years of the expulsion of the Tartars, Ivan the Terrible had become "Tsar," absolute ruler (complete with his own secret police) of a serf-based agricultural society.

For the four centuries from 1480 to 1917, Russian society retained the same basic structure:

  • The vast bulk of the population worked the land as serfs (or serf-like peasants), living in villages, with many communal customs that are deeply rooted in Slavic culture. The village, or "mir," paid taxes as a unit, controlled land-use among its members, and in some cases even enforced crop rotation. Under this system, survival came to be associated with collective strength, rather than making it on your own. The strong (those in good health or with good crops) sheltered the weak from the demands of the stronger (be they Tartar or Tsar). The importance of this village cohesiveness is emphasize by the fact that, in Slavic languages, "mir" also means both "peace" and "world."
  • Above the serfs were the landholders – generally nobility, church or government officials of some kind – who lived richly but had little power independent of the central government.
  • And at the top, with incredible wealth and power, was the Tsar.

There are two other groups worth mentioning: There were, of course, shopkeepers, merchants, and small manufacturers of various kinds, but as a group they never played the kind of major role that this class did in Europe. And then there were the "intelligentsia" – scholars, artists, poets, and professionals of various kinds. Though few in number and usually dependent on the system for their support, many of them did "world-class" creative work (think, for example of Tolstoy, Tchaikovsky, Dostoevsky, Stravinsky, and Mendeleev), and some of them devoted their lives to "speaking for the people."

The more notable Tsars – Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great, and Catherine the Great – all had three major concerns: consolidating their power, expanding the empire, and catching up (in selected ways) with western Europe. Their great wealth enabled them to support prestigious cultural activities like the ballet and to buy the best that Europe had to offer (as the enormous art collection in the Hermitage illustrates), but their insistence on centralized control prevented the development of the kind of cultural vitality and diversity that made western Europe such a fountain of innovation.

The other major power in Russian society, the church, supported the Tsar in most areas, but strongly opposed "westernization." The church reinforced in the minds of the people the idea that outside influences were evil, to be avoided at all costs. The weaker Tsars acquiesced to the church on this issue, and thus produced a zig-zag policy towards relations with the West.

During the first three centuries of this tsarist period, Russian society, while somewhat more autocratic, centralized and agricultural, was not all that different from countries in Europe. There were intermittent peasant revolts, just as in Europe, with varying responses from the Tsars, but peasant illiteracy and difficulties of transportation and communication prevented the kind of organizing necessary for effective revolt. But during the 19th century the contrast between Russia and the West grew stronger. The American, French, and industrial revolutions all moved away from the agricultural/monarchical model, and fired the imaginations and impatience of many in Russia, especially among the intelligentsia.

In response, the Tsarist government attempted to "change without changing." In 1861 (two years before Lincoln freed the American slaves) Tsar Alexander emancipated the serfs, but quickly made this nearly meaningless by refusing to give them land. As in the post-emancipation American South of the same period, without land, freedom meant very little. In the compromise which was worked out, peasants received some land (about half the amount which they were accustomed to living on) usually of the poorest quality, and were expected to pay a lump sum ransom to the nobleman who did "own" the land they had previously farmed. That debt was virtually impossible to fulfill. To survive, the peasant was often forced to tenant farm for the landlord, using his own meager tools and seed and paying the landlord exorbitant rental fees. The emancipation created conditions in which even the beneficial power of the village (mir)was almost completely undercut. The mir became a part of the peasant’s oppression, as it took over tax collection for the Tsar under these unjust conditions and became the symbol of being bound to hopelessness.

The Tsarist order thus gradually lost its legitimacy among both the peasantry and the intelligentsia, and at the same time, it fell behind in its ability to compete economically and militarily with the countries around it. Russia’s defeat in 1905 by Japan was an omen; World War I provoked the final collapse.


There were two revolutions in 1917. The first, in February, replaced the Tsarist government with middle-class liberals who wanted a western-style parliamentary government. They turned out, however, to be too timid and too unrepresentative. The country was in the midst of a disastrous war, undergoing internal collapse, and had little experience with constitutional government, the rule of law, civil rights, etc. The people had much more immediate needs on their minds – peace and land. As the year progressed, it became clear that the new government was not going to provide these quickly, and its support rapidly dwindled.

Into this power vacuum stepped the Marxist Bolsheviks led by Lenin. They had a strong vision of where they wanted to go, were willing to offer peace and land to the masses, and were willing to use familiar Russian techniques – centralization, dictatorship, and a religious fervor of dedication to ideals. They toppled the liberal government in October with hardly a shot. The radical intelligentsia was finally in power.

They moved quickly, but so did events. No sooner had they pulled out of the war with Germany than Civil War broke out. The "Whites," soon extensively aided by French, English, American, and Japanese military forces, tried to dislodge the Bolshevik "Reds," but they never succeeded in capturing the imagination of the people. By 1920, when the foreign powers withdrew their support, the Reds were firmly established. Yet this was hardly the end of their troubles, for the country was in ruin, and 1920 through 1922 were years of devastating famine.

In the midst of all this, Lenin’s government attempted to consolidate its power, fulfill its Marxist ideological vision, and rebuild the country – aims that were at times contradictory. The Lenin period (until his death in 1924) was, like many revolutionary beginnings, both desperate and heady. Art and social experimentation flourished, yet the peasants grew disillusioned as they discovered that the Bolshevik idea of land reform was state ownership of everything. From 1921 to about 1925, an economic compromise, the New Economic Policy, eased off on Marxist rigidity by allowing more private economic initiative. In 1922, the territories of the old Russian Empire were re-constituted as the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.


By the time Lenin died, the new regime was firmly established and the initial glamour of revolution was wearing off. The winner in the struggle to succeed Lenin was a Georgian who had taken on the name of Stalin ("steel") and who championed the policies of "building socialism first in the USSR" (rather than attempting immediate world-wide revolution, as advocated by Trotsky) and industrializing the country as rapidly as possible.

Stalin went about these goals in a way that blended Marxist ideology with traditional Russian governmental practice. In many ways, he was the last great Tsar whose most significant achievement – industrialization – destroyed the cultural basis – a homogeneous peasant society – required for his kind of dictatorship.

Starting in the late 1920s, economic activity became increasingly centralized and controlled, agriculture was collectivized, and opposition was systematically repressed. It is hard to know with any degree of certainty, but figures like 8 million are often mentioned for the number of peasants who either died or were sent to labor camps in the early 1930s as part of collectivization. Then later in that decade, Stalin initiated the Great Party Purges that probably took the lives of more millions. The top ranks of both the Party and the Army were decimated, including almost all of Lenin’s closest associates. The radical intelligentsia was no longer in power; it had been replaced by the obedient Party.

In the midst of all this upheaval and terror, industrialization proceeded at surprising speed. Western estimates give industrial growth rates of 12% and more during the early 1930s – while the rest of the world was bogged down in the Great Depression! All this was done by focusing investment on heavy industry, keeping consumption to a bare minimum, and by tapping their vast underused labor and material resources.

This headlong rush (and in many ways, forced march) was encouraged by Hitler’s growing power and expansive intent. After signing a nonaggression pact in September 1939, Germany invaded the USSR in June of 1941. The European part of what we call World War II and the Soviets call The Great Patriotic War was fought mostly between Germany and the USSR – about 75% of the troops and materials. The Soviets lost 20,000,000 people (about forty times the level of US casualties), plus much of the densely populated western part of their country was decimated – buildings all destroyed and fields burned. Every Soviet family suffered major losses.

The war was a desperate challenge for both the people and the government, and as outside threats often do, it helped to reunify the country. Many hard-line ideological restrictions, including those on religion, were relaxed. And in the end, they prevailed. The war and the eventual victory are epic events in the consciousness of the Soviet people.

After the war, the country turned to rebuilding. Stalin continued in his old ways until his death in 1953, but the people had changed. The war had given them both a new awareness of the rest of the world and a new confidence in their own abilities. The passing of Stalin presented the new leadership with a delicate challenge. On the one hand, there was deep opposition to continuing his more violent policies – as evidenced by Krushchev’s quick denunciation of Stalin – but on the other hand, almost everyone in major power positions had participated in those policies and did not want the past re-examined too closely – as evidenced by Krushchev’s removal. The new leadership, in general, moved to shift emphasis to more consumer production, to refine the process of industrialization, and to reduce the purges and police-state terror. The "forced march" life of the Stalin era did not return.

Indeed, the four decades since World War II have been so much more peaceful for the Soviets than the first half of the 20th century that it has been for them like a different world. On an even longer time scale, we could say that the largely rural peasantry of the 1920s had more in common with their forebears 400 years earlier than they do with their largely urban, industrialized, and educated grandchildren of today.


These deep cultural changes are starting to show their effects. There is a whole new post-war and post-Stalin generation moving into power in the USSR, and they have a new agenda. In a certain sense, they have to. Heidi and Alvin Toffler, who spent three hours talking to Gorbachev last fall, explain it this way (Christian Science Monitor, 1/5/1987, page 14):

The Soviet Union is now in danger of falling irreversibly behind the US, Japan, Western Europe, and perhaps even China, as they race to build ‘third wave’ economies.

The key reason for this is that the Soviet system was designed for the second wave. Despite Marxist rhetoric, the 1917 revolution was less a matter of communism or socialism than a revolution aimed at accelerating the industrialization of Russia. Lenin wanted to speed up the second wave of historical change in Russia, and every institution built since 1917, from the ossified central planning system to the schools, was designed for the single purpose of building a modern industrial society.

Russia’s problem now is that, by definition, industrial societies are no longer modern. In an increasingly post-industrial world, they are backward.

Whereas second-wave or industrial societies rely on mass production, third-wave societies engage in far more advanced "de-massified" or "short-run" production – the dialectical opposite of mass production. Whereas industrial societies are determinedly centralist, third-wave societies are increasingly decentralist.

Above all, while industrial societies depend mainly on material resources, plus capital and labor, third-wave societies are heavily dependent on information, communications, and services. And while second-wave economies need lightly literate workers who act like interchangeable robotoids, third-wave economies need millions of educated workers who are highly individualized, innovative, entrepreneurial, anti-bureaucratic, and anti-authoritarian.

This is Gorbachev’s challenge. Historically, Russia’s first wave or agricultural era was dominated by the czars. If Lenin launched the second wave, it is Gorbachev’s destiny to transform the Soviet Union, kicking and screaming if necessary, into a third-wave or post-industrial nation – or to fail ingloriously in the attempt.

But it is not just that they have to; many, many of them want to. The big question is, will they be able to evolve their highly conservative system fast enough?


Today’s Soviets have inherited 1) a set of traits, 2) a set of values, and 3) a social process from their complex past. Given all their suffering, it is not surprising that they have developed endurance and patience. The miracle is that they have also developed a remarkably refined emotional intensity. This intensity is intertwined with the high value they put on shared survival. The lessons of the church, the experience of hard times, and the ideals of Marxism have blended into a powerful ethical opposition to greed, exploitation, and selfishness. Given the opportunity, they can be a very warm and caring people.

Their social process attempts to give expression to these traits and values. In many ways, they attempt to deal with the whole country as if it were one big family, with the Tsar and the Church or the Party and the State playing the role of parents and everyone else treated as children. These children are well taken care of when they are obedient. On the other hand, they are strictly disciplined (with little effective right of appeal) if the parent thinks they are misbehaving or embarrassing the parent.

We in the West give a lot of attention to the restrictive side of the Soviet system and often fail to see its more nurturing side. For example, for most Soviets, life is more relaxed, in a sense easier, than it is for most Americans. They have essentially no homeless, everyone is fed, and their education and health care are truly available to all. The crime rate is very low, and the streets and parks are safe day and night for everyone. Given the relative wealth of the two societies, they clearly have some aspects of life better covered than we do.

Another useful image is that Soviet society is like one mammoth corporation. The State bureaucracies control all major activities, and the Party controls the State. Like all such large bureaucracies, it can wield vast resources, but it is also cumbersome and clumsy. And like most corporations, it has both formal and informal decision-making systems.

As in any society, certain subjects are open to public debate while others are not. For example, Soviet environmentalists have stopped some major development projects in Siberia. Much of the public debate gets aired through the newspapers, especially in the letters to the editor. On the other hand, given the heritage of Stalin’s purges, it is not surprising that people are cautious about being publicly identified with the "wrong" side of an issue, especially more sensitive ones. But this doesn’t mean that no debate occurs on these topics or that the public has no power of influence on high level decision-makers. The Soviets have lots of informal networks of friends and connections, and it is within these networks that much real debate takes place. There are severe limitations to this kind of system since the message from the grassroots has to filter up through many layers – each with its own special interests – but the process is there and it often does have an impact.

One of the reasons the grassroots have impact is that the Soviet people are quite skilled in the art of foot dragging. Active, visible resistance to State policy is difficult, since it simply invokes the "parent" who first admonishes you and then "spanks" you. But the subtler forms of passive resistance are harder to control. The heavy-handed techniques of the Stalin era simply won’t work any more for a number of reasons: their industrial system has matured to the point where there is no more surplus labor pool – everyone is needed; and the complex workings of a post-industrial economy require the kind of initiative and creativity that is powered by enthusiasm and destroyed by coercion. While the leadership can afford to deal harshly with a few dissidents, it must gain the willing support and enthusiasm of the vast majority, or the society will stagnate.

Soviet society is no more stagnant than it is in large part because within it there are a surprising number of people who really do care, people who may be disillusioned with many of the institutions, but who believe in the more basic ideals of peace, cooperation and non-exploitation. These people are often adept at knowing how to bend the system, how to use connections, and how to clothe good ideas in the appropriate rhetoric. It is these Soviets who, today, offer their country its best hope. And it is their challenge to evolve, as quickly as possible, their system from a "parent to child" system into an "adult to adult" system that still preserves their fundamental values.

The Soviet past is very different from the American past. We have probably had one of the easiest histories of any major country, while they have had one of the hardest. Yet when we come together – as people – in the present and look toward the future, it is amazing how much we have in common. We are like siblings, separated and orphaned at birth, raised by very different foster parents, who are now rediscovering each other and finding that we have powerful bonds that transcend our separate pasts. We have much to learn from each other, if we will but listen.

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