Bryan Caplan  

The Russian Soul

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I came across these interesting thoughts from Soviet emigre Jamie Glazov in FrontPage magazine:

[T]he governments of a people are a result of the neuroses of the people they rule.

I was born in the Soviet Union. While I cherish many aspects of Russian culture, there are several aspects I am very happy to have escaped from and I now live my life very consciously trying to be as far away from those aspects as possible. For instance, in Russia, the boundaries between what is your business and other peoples’ business are always very blurry at best and non-existent at worst. The idea of an old lady approaching a person in North America to chastise him about his appearance or something he has done wrong (i.e. keeping his shoes on a park bench) is next to impossible, but in Russia, as many of us know, it is a common and everyday thing.

What I love about my life in North America is that, if it is cold and I do not want to wear a hat, a person might make a suggestion for me to wear one, but, if I don’t want to wear one, there is not much at stake. If I decide to go outside without a hat, there might, at most, be a chuckle or a shrug from the advice-giver and the event is over. Among Russians, it is very probable that you could be surrounded by a large group of people who simply will not allow you to leave the house if you do not put your hat on. And the articulated fear of you "catching cold" is, as we all know, a fictitious cover-up and lie, because there is something much more at stake. And part of it is that, because of the powerlessness that is felt in almost all other areas of life, these individuals attempt to insert control over realms where they can find a modicum of control and, in so doing, hopefully control others.

It is a mentality that I have been exposed to throughout my life among Russians and, aside from my love of my people, who I think are, on some levels of the human soul, among the most beautiful people in the world, it is something that I cannot talk about too long without getting very angry and my blood pressure rising to very unhealthy levels. So I desist. . . .


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COMMENTS (6 to date)
Barkley Rosser writes:

Hmmm. I do not know Jamie Glazov and probably should not comment on his personal perceptions, but as someone like Tyler Cowen who is married to someone who used to live in Mother Russia, I think there is a slightly different spin that can/should be put on these observations.

In particular, I would like to contest that this tendency for people to tell people to put their hats on in the cold is a matter of people asserting power over others because they feel powerless. It is more a matter of a deeply entrenched communalist attitude in Russia arising from the nature of its agricultural past. Anglo-American culture is simply far more individualistic and always has been than Russian.

The traditional agriculture of Russia was of the obshchina and mir, communalized farming systems, in contrast with the individual farms one found from a relatively early period in most of northwestern Europe and certainly in the island of Britain. This was also associated with a repressive feudalism that lasted far into the nineteenth century. It is a poorly kept secret that the collective farms of Stalin (kolkhoz) were in many places resurrections of the communalized feudal estates that had existed prior to the liberation of the serfs under Tsar Aleksandr II in 1861.

Now, part of that communalism was indeed a familistic treatment of those living near one, traditionally carried out by the older women, the grandmothers, or "babushki." I do not think this is some reaction to powerlessness by them at all, but something much deeper, mama telling you what you should do for your own good and the good of the community in Mother Russia (Rodina). After all, if you get a cold, you can spread it to others.

I would note that for all our traditions of individualism, even now in smaller towns in the US, people will often feel that they can tell their neighbors what they should do in areas of conduct where arguably they should not be doing so. This is even carried out by levels of government, encouraged by people who claim to support individual liberties (hack, cough... ).

Bud1 writes:

I don't like to wear a hat either. Perhaps the continuing pressure to wear hats explains the rampant corruption and alcoholism as well.

Paul N writes:

Sounds like Russians are closer to the "Envy Trap" than Americans are.

Daniel Klein writes:

Glazov says governments reflect the people's neuroses. Let me give an example of the obvious point that causality here is two way.

I just moved to Virginia from California. In California it is legal for motorcyclists to "lane split," that is, drive between the cars. California motorists are accustomed to motorcyclists doing so, and don't mind it.

In Virginia the motorists often reacted in a hostile manner. Here in VA it is against the law. Why are they upset? The motorcyclist doesn't get in their way. In fact, positional considerations and envy aside ("he didn't have to wait in line like the rest of us"), motorists are probably better off than when motorcycles have to stand in the regular lane queue (elongating the queue).

Sometimes laws turn people into busybodies.

Barkley Rosser writes:

In light of Dan Klein's comment allow me to note that there are probably at least three distinct phenomena at work here.

1) The envy trap. This is known to be a worse problem in Russia than in many other countries, and I have little doubt that Glazov has observed it. I remember reading some time ago of the Russian farmer who built a barn and started making money from raising pigs. One night his neighbors burned down his barn. Clearly this sort of thing does not assist economic growth.
However, I doubt that in the particular example of the hat that this was playing much of a role. Were the people envious of Glazov that he could go around in cold weather without a hat?

2) The frustrated powerlessness theme. This is what Glazov emphasized, and although I downplayed it, I cannot say it was not present in the motives of those giving Glazov a hard time about his hat. Certainly this is and has been a problem in Russia historically, dating way back.
I would note, however, that this is a widespread problem visible even in the US also. Almost any organization of any size develops inefficiency-inducing "mid-level losers" who are disrespected by their colleagues and assert themselves by throwing roadblocks to the best of their ability in the paths of those who are trying to accomplish something worthwhile. Arguably there may be fewer of these in Wal Mart or other profit-making enterprises than in organizations with greater job security such as government civil service or tenured academia.

3) Communalism. I already noted this in my previous comment. I suspect it is more important for the initial comments by the babushka while some of the other motives may be more important for the additional people who "pile on," although that could be a matter of mob psychology. Again, while such comnunalism can be officiously annoying, it may also have some positive aspects.

rafinlay writes:

My goodness, is everyone here too young/urban to recognize small-town/rural behavior? The women (and men) of a small town (used to) feel free to criticize and enforce behavior inconsistent with community norms (they disapproved of). The "communal" model is more appropriate than the historical/cultural models, I think.

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