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Feature Story December 13, 2001
 
Operation Enduring Sovok
By Matt Taibbi Browse author
 
Page 3 of 7
 
Strana sovetov is self-explanatory and everyone who has lived here longer than ten minutes knows it in his bones. Sit on the ground and without fail, someone will come and tell you that you will catch cold, cancer, or render yourself infertile. Try to unobtrusively take out an aspirin or drink a cup of Theraflu on your own time, in your own space, and someone in this country will inevitably rush up to you, ask you what you're sick with and what medicine it is that you're taking, and then explain to you why you're doing yourself harm and what remedy you ought to be taking (mustard in your socks, vodka on your back, etc.). You didn't ask for that advice; you got it. This is the essence of sovok. Again, this is closely related to yet another expression: what's mine is mine, and what's yours is also mine. Your own space, your own body, your own decisions all belong, in the sovok's mind, to the sovok himself as much as they do to you. At least partly.

This is one of those aspects of sovok that has a direct explanation. In a culture where whole families frequently lived crammed into one room, husbands and wives with children and smelly grandparents, all peering out at each others' beds at night from different walls, fighting tooth and nail over twenty centimeters of space in which to store a pair of slippers, and so on, it was pretty easy to lose one's grasp on the distinctions between your own business and someone else's.

People still live like this all over Russia, and this is why sovok is surviving. But in places like the center of Moscow and St. Petersburg, in the apartments of the "emerging middle class" and the upper strata, there is a growing population of people who sleep in their own rooms and do not share bathrooms with strangers or the elderly. There are young Russian children, in fact, who have lived their entire lives without the benefit of this experience. When these children grow up, they will not know the necessity of accosting the person in the next seat over on an airplane -- they may even genuinely want to read or sleep instead. These children are a threat to sovok, because by definition they will be likely to belong to the ruling class, a class which will mistakenly focus on things like macroeconomics as opposed to things that really matter to the sovok segment, things like worthless tin medals and special discounts on trips to shitty crumbling resorts in Bulgaria.

Which brings us to Putin. Putin is a very different creature than the other recent Russian rulers, all of whom grew up in extreme sovok conditions. Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin both knew all about sharing little corners of shacks and dormitory rooms with ten other people and fighting, literally fighting, over scraps. Both came from villages and moved to big cities only very late in life. Putin grew up walking the same streets as Karenin and Onegin. He had his own car by the time he was nineteen. He not only went overseas, he lived there -- and not in Angola or Romania, but Germany. There's no sovok proverb that applies: a chicken isn't a bird, but Germany, even East Germany, sure as hell was overseas.

The previous Russian leaders all resembled pigs late in life mainly because, well, they had lived like pigs. Putin is thinner than your average pig. The animal he most closely resembles is a weasel or a jackal. Not a sty animal. A forest animal. Putin's vision of an ideal world, like that of some Germans we know, is an endless series of landscapes without people, birch trees and snowy plains, maybe with the sound of high-grade crude gurgling up a well far off in the distance... Because he grew up with space, Putin clearly values it. Any psychologist will tell you that the opposite urge is at work with the sovok: having grown up living in a pile of people, he will for the rest of his life be drawn to human piles, no matter how much inner rage and incoherence this costs him.

The sovok gives you advice because he wants to be given advice. And then he wants to hate you for giving it to him, and give you more advice back. From there the cycle begins all over again.


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