This is the thirtieth entry of Russia’s Alien Nations: The Secret Identities of Post-Socialism, an ongoing feature on All the Russias, as well as the seventeenth entry of Chapter 1. It can also be found at russiasaliennations.org. You can also find all the previous entries here.
To the extent that the sovok is defined in terms of taste, consumer culture, and inability or lack of desire to adapt to market economics, the phenomenon could not be expected to have a very long shelf life, at least in metropolitan areas. The homogenization of global capitalism takes its inevitable toll on local style, and the variety of consumer goods can only remain shocking for so long. As I mentioned in the beginning of this chapter, my search for references to “sovok” in the Universal Database of Russian newspapers yielded were results in the last decade than it did in the 1990s, and the majority of hits referred to sovok-the-country rather than sovok-the-person.
Instead, the sovok starts to lose his specifically Soviet flavor, dissolving into the more generalized category of bydlo. “Bydlo” is a Polish and Ukrainian word that originally referred to cattle, but in Russian refers to the brainless, unwashed masses who follow the crowd, believe what they are told, and, of course, have terrible taste. Compared to bydlo, the concept of sovok is practically optimistic: Soviet holdovers will inevitably pass, but stupidity is forever.
As an insult, bydlo functions multidirectionally: one might hear a (possibly liberal) snob dismiss, say, Putin’s supporters as “bydlo,” but one might just as easily hear someone who claims to represent the common people attacking the elites, saying, “They think we’re all bydlo.” Indeed, even though the word “sovok” has its roots in words related to politics, it is bydlo that has the stronger political component (along with its obvious concerns for social class). Sovok, we recall, implicated everyone who came of age in the USSR, to one degree or another. As an attempt at alienating the negative from one’s concept of the collective self, sovok could never be an unqualified success. Bydlo, on the other hand, is an ideal tool for alienation. Moreover, it is universal: every culture can have bydlo, but only some can have sovki.
The decline of sovok and the persistence of bydlo puts sovok in context. Like many countries, Russia has a long history of alienation between the elites and the masses (terms that should really be put in scare quotes, since their definition is both provisional and malleable), traceable in no small part to the long serfdom of the majority of the ethnic Russian population before 1861. In Pushkin’s time, this was expressed in disdain for the unwashed “chern;’”(from the word “black,” it connoted more of an intellectual than physical darkness). In the last six decades of the nineteenth century, the common people (“narod”) were fetishized across the Russian political spectrum, from the Slavophiles (who saw the peasants as the bearers of true Russian values) to the Populists (whose movement to “go to the people” was a dismal failure) to the varieties of Marxists (who saw the future in the proletariat).
In 1908, the Symbolist poet Aleksandr Blok wrote his famous essay, “The People and the Intelligentsia,” lamenting the naive one-sidedness of the intellgientsia’s infatuation with the common folk:
But from the other side-ever the same faintly ironical smile, the knowing silence, the gratitude for “instruction” and apologies for “ignorance,” with an undertone of “for the present, till our time comes.” A dreadful laziness and dreadful torpor, it always seemed to us; or else the slow awakening of a giant, as it seems to us more and more. A giant waking with a singular smile on his lips. No intelligent smiles like that; one would think we knew all the ways of laughing there are, but in face of the muzhik’s smile-which has nothing in common with the irony that Heine and the Jews have taught us, or with Gogol’s laughter through tears, or with [Vladimir] Solov’ev’s loud laughter-all our laughing instantly dies; we are troubled and afraid.
For him, the people and intelligentsia might as well be warring nations: “Between the two camps-the people and the intelligentsia-there is a line at which they can meet and agree. No such uniting line existed between the Russians and the Tatars in their frankly hostile camps.” Blok sees in this conflict an oncoming disaster, borrowing from the metaphor of Gogol’s troika at the end of Dead Souls, and suggesting that the Russian troika might be on the verge of trampling the intelligentsia beneath its hooves. A hostile interpretation of the Russian Revolution would hold that Blok was prophetic.
But Blok’s giant muzhik or runaway troika are, like the sovok, the historically-contingent, and ultimately short-term metaphorical manifestation of a centuries-old problem that is not going away. In Blok’s time, this split between the elites and the common folk is appropriately framed in terms of impending catastrophe, while the late- and post-Soviet sovok is an image of inexorable decline. When each moment passes, we are left with something that is, at least structurally, the same gap as before (at least when we do not include the intelligentsia in the sovok category, as do Pelevin and Bykov). It is an algebraic formula, with one variable representing some notion of the elite, and the other standing in for some notion of the common.
As the post-Soviet period wears on, we start to see a possible de-ideologization of this gap, starting in the late 1990s, when the bydlo can be merely crass, and coming to an abrupt halt in Putin’s third term.
Next: Watching the Defectives
For more on bydlo, see Anne Marie Deviln’s excellent article, “Lard-Easters, Gay-ropeans, Sheeple and Prepositions: Lexical and Syntactical Devices Employed to Position the Other in Russian Online Political Forums.” Russian Journal of Communication 9.1 (2017): 53-70.