This is the twenty-second entry of Russia’s Alien Nations: The Secret Identities of Post-Socialism, an ongoing feature on All the Russias, as well as the ninth entry of Chapter 1. It can also be found at russiasaliennations.org. You can also find all the previous entries here.
The first problem with defining a sovok is that it is actually three things at once: an object (a dustpan), a person, and an entire country. The object is the easiest part, but it is worth noting that there is something appropriate about the fact that a largely derogatory term pertaining to the Soviet Union conjures up images of trash and abandonment, particularly once the Soviet Union was no longer a going concern.
Nowadays “sovok” as slang for “Soviet” is probably used most often to describe the Soviet Union and the Soviet way of life. When I searched the Universal Database of Russian newspapers, the term unsurprisingly declined in use in the past decade or so, and when it did appear, it was almost always in relation to the country and system, and not as a description of a person. This makes a great deal of sense when you consider that one of the more prominent concerns of Late Putinism is whether or not the Russian Federation, out of nostalgia or geopolitical scheming, is sliding back to Soviet ways (and whether or not that is a good thing). In other words, are the leaders of Russia trying to “drag us back to sovok” or “revive sovok”? Posing the question in this way encodes an attitude towards the outcome; if asked unironically, it assumes that going back to sovok is a bad thing. The object of anxiety, then, is the country, not individual people.
But before we get to people, we should acknowledge an intermediate use for the term, somewhere between people and place. In the 1990s, “sovok” could be used as an explanatory shorthand for why something is poorly run, or why a person behaves badly. Here, “sovok” describes an ongoing, systemic condition that has an impact on daily life. Detached from a specific object, “Sovok” becomes a diagnosis of a familiar, lamentable condition.
In all these cases (“sovok” as dustpan, as USSR, and as referent to systemic dysfunction), the word requires little by way fo specification. People may argue vehemently about how appropriate it is to call the Soviet Union “sovok,” as the writer Zakhar Prilepin did in a Facebook post generating hundreds of comments. When conservatives and nationalists rage against “sovok,” it’s only a matter of a very short time before the victory over the Nazis is deployed as a rhetorical cudgel against those who would dare be dismissive of Soviet accomplishments.
But the rejection of the word is about pride and moral oneupmanship, not about the definition of the term itself. Prilepin (and the numerous Zavtra columnists who make the same point) wants to cancel out the “sovok,” eclipsing it with the Great Victory and the very real sacrifices made by generations of Soviet citizens. These are competing narratives, but they are not arguments on substance. When the Soviet Union is called “sovok,” everyone knows what this means: economic deprivation, administrative incompetence, defective consumer technology, an intrusive public culture, bombastic rhetoric that is easily ignored, and widespread hypocrisy. Of course this is not the entire story of the Soviet Union; neither is the Soviet victory in World War II.
Calling someone a sovok is another matter entirely. After all, one could theoretically live in a system one despises while rising above its flaws. But the polyvalence of sovok suggests the hegemonic power of the system, and its inseparability from the people who are its product. It is now a truism that, on the whole, Brezhnev-era dissidents were fundamentally Soviet in their anti-Soviet opposition (reliant on the same binary oppositions that operated in the Soviet system, and often just as categorical as the people they opposed). “Sovok” in its various definitions and manifestations did not describe dissidents per se, but it did recognize the difficulty of escaping “Sovietness” through simple rejection.
The paradox of the New Man was his dependence on the system to produce him: how could the “Old Men” create a world that would give rise to “New Men.” In the late Soviet era, that same paradox reproduced itself, but in reverse: how could the product of the Soviet system reject not only its values, but the ways in which this system produced the very people who would oppose it? “Sovok” answers this question in the negative: it is simply not possible.