‘On second thoughts, many of those who feel nostalgia for the USSR don’t want to return to these times’
Political ethnographer Emil Pain on contemporary mythology and real traditions
“We laugh at claims of representatives of the American Democratic Party that it was Russia that made Trump the US president. I think one should feel the same about a symmetrically similar myth about the powerful influence of our ‘western partners’ to Russia’s domestic policy. A state consolidation of the people in fear of the image of the enemy is the most ancient form of consolidation, and this consolidation works in our country,” considers political expert, Professor at HSE NRU, one of the founders of Ethnic Political Studies in Russia Emil Pain. In an interview with Realnoe Vremya, he talked about an invented myth about nostalgia for the Soviet Union, the degree of religiousness of different religious groups in Russia and Indian experience of building a civic nation.
“Almost a third of the respondents in Russia who call themselves Orthodox claimed they doubt the existence of God”
Mr Pain, do you think that we are witnessing that Russian society’s cultural identity is blurring? I mean extinction of traditions, dissolution in the Western countries, destruction of the family institution. If so, what can become an impulse for this society’s development? Is it a new ideology, a new religion?
Some cultural traditions in Russia, undoubtedly, are fading away, like in any other society, but we live in an era of the next renascence of traditional culture. The “cultural paradox of globalisation” became more and more noticeable by the middle of the 1990s, that’s to say: its development strengthens contrary processes of recurrent growth of interest in one’s ethnic, national and religious identity. If sociologists and anthropologists in the 1990s considered that renascence of traditional culture is characteristic of just countries that were outsiders falling back in social and economic development, such processes in the early 2000s already began to be manifested in both the most developed European and American states. Klaus Segbers noted in 2019: “People in many countries are starting to think about what they name ‘politicians of identity’ — they consider them more important than economic policy”.
I want to stress that globalisation reinforced people’s aspiration everywhere to not only revive cultural traditions but demonstrate their identity, which opposes processes of cultural unification. Nowadays people in most countries don’t want “dissolution”, as you said, of their traditional culture in others’ culture.
Examples of ethnic and religious renascence appeared in Russia too. Research done by the Institute of Sociology of the Russian Academy of Sciences from the 1990s till today shows that all studied groups in the North Caucasus, Volga region and Siberia demonstrate greater interest in their ethnicity. Russians’ ethnic consciousness was weakly demonstrated both in the Soviet Union and is now than other studied ethnicities, but it began to grow precisely in the post-Soviet era. The most intensive growth of the number of people calling themselves believers began to increase in Russia among Russian Orthodox Christians at the same time. First of all, it is a result of compensation for those restrictions that believers experienced during the Soviet era.
Moreover, state atheism in the USSR had greater influence on Orthodox Christians than representatives of the second biggest religion — Islam, the degree of religiousness of them was much higher than the one of Orthodox Christian even in the Soviet era. At least, in the late 80s, when the first sociological research on religiousness began to be done, the degree of Muslims in Volga republics turned out to be at 60-70%, and the one of North Caucasus Muslims was much higher — it exceeded 90%. The degree of religiousness of Orthodox Christians in all Russian regions was a bit more than 30% of the respondents. However, the share of people calling themselves Orthodox Christians exceeds two-thirds, like the share of Muslims in Tatarstan.
Forced growth of religiousness brings to just external, superficial understanding. For instance, the majority in Russia, Bulgaria and Serbia aren’t parishioners but are those who enter churches rarely
But religiousness can be different. Comparative research of religiousness in the countries of the former Socialistic block done in 2016 by a famous sociological service Pew Research Center showed two important features. Firstly, during the years of “construction of socialism” state atheism in countries with a majority of Orthodox population (in the USSR, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia) was stronger, and religion was suppressed more than in Catholic countries — in Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia. Secondly, when all state restrictions on religious life were lifted in the 1990s, moreover, authorities in all the named countries began to flirt with the church, two different tendencies were outlined. A rapid growth religiousness was noted in Orthodox countries or, more precisely, a growth of the share of people who began to call themselves Orthodox (up to 71% in Russia, 75% in Bulgaria, 78% in Serbia), while there was seen a decline of the share of people who called themselves believers in Catholic countries, for instance, in Poland from 96% in 1991 to 87% in 2017, while in Hungary it fell from 63% to 58% during the same period.
At the same time, this research illustrated that forced growth of religiousness brings to just external, superficial understanding. For instance, the majority in Russia, Bulgaria and Serbia aren’t parishioners but are those who enter churches rarely. Here the share of people who go to church at least three times a week is stably at 5-6%, while this share in the countries in which religious life hasn’t been suppressed in the recent past as dramatically as in the above-mentioned countries is many times higher: twice in Catholic Hungary (12%), three times in Orthodox Greece (17%), 8-9 times in Poland (45%).
At least 10% of the respondents in countries with forced growth of religiousness including Russia are familiar with the content of the Bible and Gospel. Almost a third of the respondents in Russia who call themselves Orthodox claimed they doubt the existence of God. It is a manifestation of so-called “nominal religiousness” as fashion or a way of demonstration of their identity. Aleksandr Lukashenko has a famous statement in this respect: “I am an Orthodox atheist” doesn’t look like something ridiculous, on the contrary, it is a typical manifestation of that nominal religiousness.
“The same people who insist on restricting migration from Central Asian and Caucasus states advocate the revival of the USSR”
Can nominal religiousness influence the change of stereotypes of social behaviour, for instance, stimulate a rise in the birth rate?
The world experience shows that real religiousness significantly influences the birth rate. For instance, in Bosnia where Orthodox temples are one of the key centres uniting the Orthodox minority of this country, it demonstrates a high level of real, not ostentatious, religiousness, and local Serbian women’s natality as well as the average number of children per Serbian Orthodox family is higher than among Bosnian Muslims.
But the situation in Russia is different. The growth of nominal religiousness during the period between the last Russian censuses (2002-2010) was very high, and the birth rate among Russian women at fertile age during this period kept reducing. While it went up among women from ethnic communities linked with Islam (for instance, among Balkar and Ingush women) or Buddhism (Tuva women). I want to note that apart from nominal religiousness we can also speak about nominal, ostentatious traditionalism. I am not speaking about only everyday traditionalism, which has plenty of examples, but also cultural and political traditionalism, first of all, a return to traditional stereotypes of the Soviet mass consciousness and nostalgia for the USSR among contemporary Russians.
Apart from nominal religiousness, we can also speak about nominal, ostentatious traditionalism. I am not speaking about only everyday traditionalism, which has plenty of examples, but also cultural and political traditionalism, first of all, a return to traditional stereotypes of the Soviet mass consciousness and nostalgia for the USSR among contemporary Russians
It is clear that nostalgia for the past is a natural process among aged people. Nostalgic memories of the times of “construction of communism” are also understandable in the era of historic changes and tough adaptation to new economic and social conditions, this is why part of the population in all former post-socialistic countries that feel nostalgia for the times of free health care and education, cheap utility bills and guaranteed job. However, (I stress that in all post-socialistic countries) this group is an absolute minority, in any case, it has not gone up as much anywhere as in contemporary Russia.
I won’t be comparing Russia with those countries of the former socialistic bloc that became NATO and EU members but I will be comparing it with Serbia, a neutral state that is friendly to Russia. It is alike Russia more than any country else because Serbians as well as Russians consider the dissolution of the big country painfully. Serbians in Yugoslavia as well as Russians in the USSR were an ethnic majority. However, the share of people who want to go back to the era of Yugoslavia among Serbians is not more than 15%, while 52% of Serbians surveyed by Gallup in January 2018 claimed their readiness to see the republic part of the EU if the referendum was the following day. Levada-Center conducted a survey in Russia in the same year that showed that 66% of Russians would like the USSR to come back. It is much more than what surveys in the 1990s showed. What explains the growth of nostalgia for Soviet times since then?
In my opinion, all this is a result of creating a myth not only about the perfect Soviet Union but also that nostalgia for it. On second thoughts, many of those who support this idea wouldn’t like to return to the USSR. This is why, for instance, the same people who insist on restricting migration from Central Asian and Caucasus states and introducing a strict, interstate visa regime between them advocate the revival of the Soviet Union. People demonstrating all signs of abstract individualism dream about Soviet collectivism. The state information system has created a myth about nostalgia for the USSR in the early 2000s when the dissolution of the USSR was officially declared as “the biggest geopolitical catastrophe” and has been actively using it. It was created because information about not only forced collectivisation, Gulag and ethnic purges but also a routine of the Soviet everyday life gradually faded away in the press, on TV (and now on the Internet) controlled by the state: about queues, the total deficit, a higher death rate than now and shorter life expectancy.
It is clear that there is a discussion of a myth that most Russians understand that a real comeback to the Soviet Union now is impossible because there might be numerous wars with independent states whose national holiday is the Independence Day. Even a micromodel of the former state in the form of a real allied state of Russia and Belarus doesn’t work.
Why is it necessary to idealise the USSR? In my opinion, this myth is used as one of the manmade “spiritual values” with which contemporary powerful elites want to bring Russian society together. What is the result? Even with today’s great support of the goal “back to the USSR”, the share of respondents who are decisively against the return to the past grows too. Their number in a 2018 survey as high as never before — 25% (there was growth because of a fall in the number of people who didn’t know what to say).
A fourth of the population is much, it is evidence of ideological polarisation of society. It is clear that there are not only liberals among opponents of Soviet restoration. A big part of spirituality, including Orthodox, criticises the Soviet era for aggressive atheism, destruction of churches and church life too, millions of descendants of people who were subject to Stalinist repressions, representatives of peoples who survived deportation, and simply sensible people wish good to their country and are against the repetition of the Soviet experiment. Many of them are indignant about mass information manipulation of minds and memory of their compatriots infected with the mythology of repeated Sovietisation.
This is why, for instance, the same people who insist on restricting migration from Central Asian and Caucasus states and introducing a strict, interstate visa regime between them advocate the revival of the Soviet Union
“Over 200 ethnic groups of India can be named a united civil nation easier than the same number of peoples of Russia”
But not only the state manipulates people, but many individuals and organisations also try to impose them their ideas and tenets, force them to serve their interests or simply coax money out of them. How to protect from it? What depends on an ordinary person?
Who will question it when there are thousands of deceived depositors, investors, shareholders. We can’t even measure in thousands when millions of people who tried to charge water to treat all diseases or take courses of all-union hypnosis were cheated. But this problem is clear, and ways of solving it are obvious.
Protection of people from private manipulators, first of all, depends on two factors. Firstly, from a person’s growth of experience and knowledge, and here we can feel pride for ourselves as Russians who are in the leading group of the world societies in speed and scale of familiarisation with the Internet as well as legal and economic knowledge. Secondly, it is linked with how successfully Russian authorities learn how to protect citizens from crooks and manipulators, including by applying world experience. So the system of public deposit insurance exists in more than a hundred countries of the world, it appeared first in the USA in 1933, after the Great Depression, and in Russia, it appeared 70 years later, in 2003. The introduction of this novelty reduced the problem of deceived depositors many times with no loss of the national identity. There are positive changes in the protection of Russian citizens from individual manipulators and in some other economic spheres and when using public television. Today federal channels will unlikely allow an individual to make millions of TV viewers believe the benefit of water that was mentally charged. Another thing is that inculcation of mistrust of our Ukrainian “partners” into fans of political talk shows: this activity has been encouraged on television for many years already.
The state is obliged to protect its citizens from individual manipulators and can do a lot in this respect, but who will protect citizens from the state’s manipulation? The answer to this has been known for centuries already and is hidden in the concept of “civil society”. It is a horizontal network of citizens that can equalise and control the vertical of power. At the same time, I am sure that civil society isn’t an enemy to the state (relations of power), as anarchists and some anarchical liberals think, but an important part of the united political system if it is based on democracy. Precisely civil society can consolidate, unite a multi-ethnic civic nation.
A lot of philosophers specified and complemented the concept of civil society in the 20th century, but it became clear at the same time that apart from real civil society there might a nominal one, and then democracy becomes nominal or imitational too and just hides behind the people, society, national. The idea of the leading role of the Russian people in the political system, popular sovereignty is included to the current Constitution of Russia, and I don’t doubt that in the current correction of the main law the principle “People is Source of Power” will stay… in the text, but how will it be manifested in life?
Today federal channels will unlikely allow an individual to make millions of TV viewers believe the benefit of water that mentally charged. Another thing is that inculcation of mistrust of our Ukrainian “partners” into fans of political talk shows: this activity has been encouraged on television for many years already
Sociological surveys conducted in the 1990s showed that over 60% of the respondents firmly noted that they “didn’t have any influence on political and economic life in the country or region”, while in the 2000s the share of such people only augmented and reached 87% during some years. This is proof of the weakening popular sovereignty and its formal character. Also, we can talk about civil society in Russia just as small islands, fragments of separate civic institutions, not an integral system that can be a balance for the vertical of power.
Civil society is hardly formulated in Russia also because of the so-called atomisation of society, that’s to say, its high disunity, strong manifestations of mutual horizontal mistrust.
What makes people a single whole in Western countries?
Such carelessly wide concepts as the West and East are, in my opinion, not informative and lose the meaning more, this is why I will talk about general tendencies of civic unity putting an example of India, and you will decide yourself if this country should be attributed to the West or East.
I think that over 200 ethnic groups of India can be named a united civic nation easier than the same number of peoples of Russia
Winston Churchill wrote in 1931: “India is a geographical term. It is no more a united nation than the equator”. Time passed by, and by 2019 India was in the top 10 biggest economies of the world, it is ahead of France and occupying the sixth position it can drive Great Britain out of its fifth place. Russia isn’t in the top 10 being just the 12th.
In its development, India uses the same resource that brought China to an economic success — a huge mass of cheap workforce, but unlike the PRC, it directs its unlimited demographic potential not only to the conveyor industry but also post-industrial information technologies ranking second in the world (after the USA) in number of people working in the IT sphere. So since 1947 when India obtained independence it has managed to prove its economic and political competence as a country saving and coping with plenty of problems at the same time. But is India’s population a united ethnic and political community?
1,3 billion people live in India divided by religious, ethnic and in some sphere still caste borders. However, I think that over 200 ethnic groups of India can be named a united civic nation easier than the same number of peoples of Russia. I will start with the simplest thing — the absence of an established self-definition of a united community in the Russian Federation. A big part of Russian people now question the word “Russians” who think that it is humiliating, while most of Tatars and Yakuts living in republics named after the name of their ethnos will unlikely call themselves Russian. While in India one name for citizens has established since the 13th century. The word “Hindu” determines that a person belongs to one of the religions — the biggest of the main six.
It is much more important that precisely India got recognition as the biggest democracy of the world, while conditions of political competition make that most citizens obtain dignity as citizens, be sure that really a lot depends on their will, that they form national interests, that they are the nation. India and its citizens have been accumulating a unique experience of participation in the election of legislative bodies of authority at different levels of the federation, states and settlements for over 70 years. And still, a local government is the key link in forming Indian civil society, first of all, rural local government — Panchayati raj that unites the experience of the contemporary legal system with national self-government traditions dating back to elders’ advice that established in Indian villages many centuries ago. The citizens’ public activity is manifested almost daily at this level, not once in four years when a voted is invited to vote to the federal parliament. We can say that India makes Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s dream a reality he offered in 2006 to improve Russia in some way: “A healthy democratic set-up can patiently come only from и, from local unions and stepwise connection with each other”.
I think that the gradual development of civil society and democracy simply don’t have an alternative, but this movement in Russia can’t begin with a rural community. Almost 9 out of 10 of all institutions of civil society are concentrated in million-cities
Is such a path possible in Russia?
I think that the gradual development of civil society and democracy simply don’t have an alternative, but this movement in Russia can’t begin with a rural community. Almost 70% of the population in India lives in the countryside, while Russia is one of the biggest urban countries of the world, we have almost 75% of the urban population, and what Solzhenitsyn called “local unions” develops more actively in cities, first of all, in the biggest cities. Almost 9 out of 10 of all institutions of civil society are concentrated in million-cities.
Within a research project on improvement of the national policy in the biggest cities I lead, we studied manifestations of traditional informal relations in three cities — Rostov, Ufa and Perm. And it turned out that each of them conserves their traditions of horizontal collectivity to a certain degree, which can be used when creating integral network-based civil societies.