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Sightings of Homo Sovieticus

A species once thought extinct turns out to be very much alive.

by Martin Ehl 30 July 2013

A report in the Polish newspaper Rzeczpospolita – that the Poles, according to sales figures, no longer enjoy their traditional drink, pure vodka – could have been just an anecdote. But anyone who has recently visited Poland knows that the Poles are becoming a nation of beer drinkers and, in this respect, are similar to other Central Europeans.


Coincidentally, I recently attended the traditional Visegrad Summer School in Krakow, where participants took a full day in the course of the two-week program to discuss the ties that bind Central Europeans – even if plenty of other things keep them apart. The popularity of beer is one of them, but don’t remind the Poles that the Pilsner Urquell sold in their country was produced in the Silesian city of Tychy until the production license was revoked for poor quality in 2011. Thanks to the Polish-Swedish sociologist Barbara Tornquist-Plewa and a debate with other experts, we didn't just stop at beverages and food but could discuss deeper bonds.


Despite joining the European Union, NATO, and other organizations, Central and Eastern Europe still lag behind the West because of the common bonds of belated modernization and the peculiarities that marked their journey from vassals to nation states, all underscored by the dual destructive experiences of the world wars and the subsequent government of communist totalitarianism.


It is precisely because of this common heritage that Central Europe is, in pan-European debates, seen as a rather gloomy place. Take, for example, the name of the excellent book by the American historian Timothy Snyder, Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, or Brussels’ aversion to any proposals from the new member countries trying to limit the political and economic influence of Russia in Europe.


Given the current political and social situation in the Czech Republic, it was interesting when Tornquist-Pleva pulled out the old concept of “Soviet man” or homo sovieticus. She wanted to show the commonalities of Central European nations, which otherwise see themselves quite differently and have better road and rail links with the West than with each other.


So to recap, what were (are?) the behavioral patterns for the species known as homo sovieticus, according to Tornquist-Pleva:


  • moral relativism
  • learned passivity, helplessness, and the acceptance of state paternalism
  • the demand for egalitarian distribution as opposed to a merit-based system
  • blaming the system for personal failures and laying various claims at the foot of the state, as opposed to relying on one’s self
  • an emphasis on security as opposed to a willingness to take risks.


That list, based on a study of socialist states from the time of Soviet rule, describes surprisingly well the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary. The victors in elections are those parties that promise a strong role for the state in taking care of citizens from cradle to grave. The legacy of socialism is thus stronger than it might seem.


Even Poland, where the government of Prime Minister Donald Tusk is nominally liberal, isn't much of an exception to the homo sovieticus rule. Government efforts to limit the privileges of various social or occupational groups there dramatically fell off after encountering fierce resistance. And the conservative Law and Justice Party, which advocates a strong state role in the economy and society, is now beating Tusk's Civic Platform in opinion polls.


The economic crisis after 2008 showed how weak the institutions of a democratic liberal state are. These were built in the post-communist countries after 1989 with a view to the region extricating itself from the heritage of war and Soviet rule by entering into the Western community.


But perhaps only in Poland is there still a genuine effort to continue the geopolitical journey from East to West. It manifests itself in the pro-European speeches of Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski and in the pressure to pump in the largest amount of European funds. In the midst of a precarious economic situation, these funds have become a main source of economic growth and a means to improve infrastructure from Eastern to Western standards.


In the rest of the Visegrad countries due to the failure (and incapacity) of pro-Western politicians to overcome the effects of the crisis and bad governance – including corruption in the highest places – homo sovieticus in various forms has returned with new strength.  The possibility that Central Europe might not become part of the West has thus dramatically increased.

Martin Ehl
 is the foreign editor of the Czech daily Hospodarske noviny, where this column originally appeared. He tweets at @MartinCZV4EU.
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