Friday, November 21, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Russians’ Experience with Soviet Lines Blocks Rise of Civil Society Today

Paul Goble

Kuressaare, November 21 – Standing in line, which Soviet citizens did from three to eight hours every day, formed “not only the worldview but the behavioral strategy” of Soviet citizens, and that socializing experience continues to shape the attitudes of post-Soviet Russians and thus make the emergence of a civil society there far more difficult.
In a remarkable article in this week’s “New Times” magazine, Vladimir Nikolayev examines an activity which he argues had such “a powerful socializing impact” on the Russian people that it continues to affect how they think and act even at a time when lines have become a less prominent feature in their lives (
Lines, the Moscow sociologist says, were where people “formed their ideas about the society in which they lived.” It was in them that “an individual understood what his compatriots though about themselves and how he (or she) played a role in this system.” And lines communicated to those in them just what kind of a struggle for existence they faced.
And perhaps especially important with regards to its continuing impact on the lives of Russians now, he continues, “standing in line was an activity whose outcome was unclear: the Soviet customer could not be certain than when his turn came there would be something left for him.”
But lines not only formed the worldview of those who stood in them, they also dictated “a behavioral strategy.” Those standing in line were compelled to use force against others in the line or engage in open deception. And every individual in line had to keep track of who was ahead of him and who was behind, lest his own position be threatened.
Such behavior strategies continue to function now, Nikolayev says, as anyone can see who looks at a line not waiting to buy sausages as in the past but to get a passport or a bus. Moreover, even those who were not born in Soviet times follow this pattern because “the older generation by its behavior gives the young a model for emulation.”
On the one hand, that means that the attitudes and behaviors learned in Soviet lines will not die out with the first generation or even the second or third. And on the other, these things helped to explain the specific nature of “’wild Russian capitalism,’” a phenomenon very different than its Western counterpart.
The difference between Russia and the West in this regard, the sociologist suggests, reflects the reality that people in Russia “simply do not know other means of living in a competitive milieu, and in this sense, contemporary Russian capitalism as a way of life is a Soviet and in no way a Western product.”
Lines, of course, are “a means of organizing the inter-relationship and interaction of people in concrete situations for deficit goods of a material or symbolic character. The main thing in these interrelationships is how people conduct themselves toward others and how they group themselves and with whom they stand up against competitors.”
In Soviet times, family members were terribly important because members of one family often had to stand together in order to be in a position to carry away whatever they hoped to get or alternatively to stand in more than one line for goods that the family need. Thus, lines at that time made the family especially important.
Now, Nikolayev writes, “the character of lines has changed because deficits have changed from something universal to something specific.” Consequently, people no longer stand in line for almost everything but rather for things like “heart transplants” or “obtaining a passport or a car.” And that has changed some things but far from all.
One thing it has not changed, the sociologist says, is the way in which people view the lines: they are “barricades, on one side of which stands a dependent population and on the others, sellers who [are in a position to] take decisions which are important for the buyers.”
In this arrangement, the sellers are hated by the buyers, but at the same time, in the Soviet period, “many wanted to become sellers in order to have the magical possibility of participating in the distribution of deficit goods.” Now, the same attitudes inform the Russian population with regard to members of the militia or the FSB.
Lines in Soviet times were thus “a wall which separated the people from the government and in this way defined the status of the individual in the state.” The only “path to goods and services for the majority of people lay through a single mechanism: the line,” and as a result, the line defined who an individual was.
According to Nikolayev, “the link between the line, the people and goods was so clear that a Soviet man, when seeing a line, would say: ‘the people are standing for something.’” That was all the more so because some groups – the party elite and its allies – did not have to stand in line because they got their goods via special stores.
“Soviet life was constructed so that the government [which consisted of these groups] and the people never came into contact,” Nikolayev writes. And “in this sense, little has changed.” The only difference is that those who did not have to wait in line in Soviet times were part of the nomenklatura, while those who do not have to do so now have money.
And another thing that has not changed, he insists, is the way in which those standing in lines feel toward others. They expend their energy “not in cooperation with one another but in a struggle with one another,” and that experience “interferes with the formation of the horizontal ties needed for the formation of civil society.”
Indeed, what the line taught in Soviet times and what it teaches now, Nikolayev concludes, is hatred of those in power, hatred of the successful, and the need to behave in whatever way it takes to achieve “egoistic goals.” In this sense, he says, “a large part of the Russian population remains Soviet consumers … with all the ensuing consequences.”

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