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Feature Story December 13, 2001
 
Operation Enduring Sovok
By Matt Taibbi Browse author
 
Page 2 of 7
 

When people are very cold, even Russian people, they do not like to linger. They don't like to waste time.

God covered Russia in snow and ice for one reason. He did it to get Russians to shut the fuck up. And it works. Against all odds -- it works. It's about the only thing that does.

Or is it? Is sovok under siege? When the West fell in love with President Vladimir Putin last month, it occurred to us to ask: is this country's leader a traitor? Because what America calls reasonable and Western-looking also very frequently means, precisely, not a zanuda and not sovok. What the West praises in Putin is the quantity of anti-sovok in him. And on the surface, there seems to be a lot of it. Is it an act, or the real thing? Is there a real rollback underway, or is it just another Potemkin job? We set out last week to found out.

 

WHAT IS SOVOK?

Sovok -- literally a dustpan or a little shovel, figuratively something much more involved -- is one of the hardest concepts to explain to the new visitor to Russia. Sovok itself makes sovok hard to explain. One of the key aspects of the Soviet mindset, which is roughly but not exactly the definition of sovok, is the instinct to volubly offer a totally unsubstantiated opinion or fanciful historical analysis on any and every given subject. Therefore there are scores of different opinions and theories about the origins of sovok.

Some people say it's just a play on words, a funny-sounding noun form of the adjective sovietsky.

Others say that it comes from Trotsky's famous phrase about the Mensheviks being "consigned to the dustbin of history."

Here's an explanation we like. This one comes from an internet diarist named "Grisha" who dedicated several pages of his site (www.grisha.ru) to sovok. His version of the origins of sovok goes like this:

"They say that there was a Soviet film director in the seventies who made a movie. They paid him an honorarium for his work. A big one, a government one. He and his friends bought some expensive cognac, and went looking for a place to drink it. This was taking place on a Sunday, when everything was closed. Finally they went into a children's playground and sat on the edge of a sandbox. There, in the sand, they found a set of children's toys, a little shovel and a bunch of pails of various sizes... And they started to drink the expensive cognac out of the various items in the set. The director got the little shovel. He drank and drank, and finally suddenly said, 'But in fact, guys, we all live v sovke [in a little shovel].' The director himself told this story on television. I don't remember his name."

Bullshit? Clearly. But it's a good story. Ironically, this removes it from the sovok tradition. A sovok story would be bullshit and a bad story. And it would have taken four times as long to tell it. Sometimes it's hard to keep tabs on all the nuances of sovok -- but once you get it, you've got it. It's like riding a bicycle.

In brief, here are some of the primary characteristics of sovok:

1) Advice-giving

The concept of sovok goes hand-in-hand with another famous Soviet play on words -- strana sovetov ("Country of Soviets" and "country of advice"). Actually, the tendency to express oneself in semi-self-derisive popular expressions is, itself, very sovok. The gangster character in the maroon sportcoat in Brat 1, who expressed himself entirely in proverbs, was one of the very first post-sovki: as a brutally successful arch-capitalist who traded in violent deeds instead of words he was, by definition, an anti-sovok (a sovok being a market-averse talker), but his sarcastic use of pogovorki was an ironic dig at the culture his type of person was replacing. Anyone who has lived in this country for any length of time knows this phenomenon. Mention Bulgaria, and the sovok immediately reminds you that a chicken is not a bird, and Bulgaria is not abroad. Hesitate before you drink, and some off-duty petty bureaucrat relaxing at home in Chinese knock-off Adidas sweatpants, a man who has never had an original or truly risky thought in his entire life, will remind you quickly that "He who does not risk, does not drink champagne." Don't feel like working? Work isn't a wolf -- it won't run into the woods. You can see it coming from a mile away, but you can never get out of the way.


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