Promoting Russia's new psychology

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By Alexander Astafyev

As far as psychologists go, professor Igor Kon, 71, is a household name in Russia. Not only is he a full member of the Russian Academy of Education and the International Academy of Sexology, but he is also an honorary professor of Cornell University in the U.S.

Currently he is employed as a lead researcher at the Russian Academy of Sciences' Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology and is recognized as one of Russia's top experts in ethnic psychology.

A s winds of change gained momentum in Russia, Kon emerged to become the first psychologist to publicly raise the issue of sexuality, which was all but totally forbidden during the Soviet era. His first books – Sexual Culture in Russia: Strawberry on the Birch (1997) and Moonlight at the Dawn: Images and Masks of Homosexuality (1998) – immediately became bestsellers.


LifeStyle: Is there such a thing such as a Russian national psychology?

Igor Kon: "There is no such thing at all. Any ideas concerning national character implies comparison. For example, the inference that the Russians lack punctuality would be correct in comparison with the Germans but would be totally wrong in comparison with the Latin Americans. However, Russian psychology in general is more collective than the Western one, which is more individualistic. If we conducted a poll today asking Russians what they want more – social guarantees or higher wages – the majority would choose social guarantees."

What do you think about the term‘homo soveticus?' Do you believe in such a concept?

"Yes. A ‘homo soveticus' is first of all a collectivist and does not like to assume any individual responsibilities.

I believe that the characteristics attributed to this kind of person have graphically manifested themselves during perestroika and contributed to its failure."

Can you comment on the popular belief that Russians lack a sense of individual responsibility?

"The lack of individual responsibility is a product of decades of living under limited freedom. People get used to oppression. This has always happened with totalitarian regimes. I remember, I was greatly surprised to meet people with a similar mentality in East Germany, a country that has always been very different from Russia.This happened during the unification of the East and West Germany. I saw fright in the eyes of the East Germans, the same reaction as I see here in Russia – people do not know what to do. There is a psychological term for this – the acquired helplessness syndrome. The syndrome is usually manifested in social pessimism and lack of self-confidence. The acquired helplessness syndrome is the main feature of Soviet mentality and unfortunately it is prevalent among senior citizens."

Nevertheless, we are witnessing changes in society in general.

"Yes, several years of reforms have created noticeable stratification in our society."

What has changed in gender relations?

"We are undergoing the same processes as other nations have been, however with a lag. I am talking about the feminization of men and masculinization of women. We conducted an experiment recently whereby we went to a factory and asked the male and female employees to show how much cash they had on them. It turned out that most of the men did not have more than 50 rubles while the women carried up to several thousand. This graphically indicates who is the master in a typical Russian family.

The traditional hegemony of the male sex is becoming a thing of the past. By the way, Russian character has always been feminine. None of the Western mythologies has such a character as Vasilisa the Wisest. They have amazons, however. Vasilisa the Wisest takes power not by force but by her intellect and kindness."

What do you think about the younger generation?

"The younger generation has changed greatly. Today's teenagers are extremely pragmatic and unsentimental. During the Soviet era they only wanted to acquire things without making any effort. Nowadays, they understand that they can no longer count on the government or their parents. They've quit waiting for somebody to give them something and learned to earn money."

And how about altruism?

"Many Russians think: ‘I'm better than my neighbor and I will never allow him to live better than I do.' Our people are prone to think that the amount of available wealth is limited and therefore if somebody has acquired something he has taken it from the others. The most terrible thing in this world is when people are unable to love their neighbors. It's often easier to love somebody who is very far away, a person they know nothing about."

But isn't a free market gradually creating a different mentality?

"In general this is true. This is particularly true for the western world. However, people are envious everywhere. The thought that ‘I'm better than my neighbor' is pervasive. The difference is that people in the western world understand that it is possible to get rich not by robbing one's neighbor but by working. For example, Bill Gates did not rob anybody. Private property and entrepreneurship work to destroy the Soviet mentality. Many Russians who have started their own business have healed themselves from the acquired helplessness syndrome."

Do you think the change is good for us?

"Our liberalization has acquired a very odd and ugly individualism, which is not present in the United States. American society is extremely individualistic and there is very tough competition. Yet, if an American finds it possible to help somebody without hurting himself he does it."

Maybe we should return to the values of the past?

"These values are gone and it is senseless to try to revive them. After all, they had lost their meaning even before the system has collapsed. The moral code of a communism builder was hypocrisy. While communists declared the priority of humanitarian values, actual life was often severely inhumane. Our country has always survived thanks to the heritage of the past and the seven decades of Soviet power were a graphic example – the country lived off the heritage of the old, pre-revolutionary Russia. Do you remember Solzhenitsyn's Matryona's Yard? I mean, the country kept on running precisely thanks to such matryonas. While some people played their games, matryonas worked hard and thus the country kept on running. And now we are living off the heritage of the Soviet era. I cannot imagine how the next generation will live when it receives the legacy of the modern epoch. At the same time I'm absolutely certain that if there were law and order, new values would begin to emerge."

Many pin hopes on the so-called new Russians. What do you think about that?

"Who is a new Russian? A bandit? A mediocre businessman? Would you call the late Artyom Borovik a new Russian? He was a prosperous young businessman and probably he was quite intelligent. But he had personal bodyguards and he was tough. ‘New Russian' is a bad cliche, a kind of a meaningless stereotype."

How do you see Russia's future?

"Our society is so amorphous and humbled today that it has no energy to fight for better changes. It is only looking for an idol, a new father-tsar. The fact is that our society cannot exist without strong state power."