This is the twenty-third entry of Russia’s Alien Nations: The Secret Identities of Post-Socialism, an ongoing feature on All the Russias, as well as the tenth entry of Chapter 1. It can also be found at russiasaliennations.org. You can also find all the previous entries here.
Given the folkloric origins and unofficial dissemination of the term, it should come as no surprise that definitions of sovok vary from person to person. What all the definitions have in common is that they focus on whatever qualities the speaker identifies as specifically Soviet, and, more often than not, negative or embarrassing. Sovok does not exist in a vacuum; not only is his definition dependent on the attitude of the person using the term, he is also defined almost entirely in terms of his interactions with the world around him. This is why, despite the word’s apparent “anti-Soviet” flavor, it fits so poorly in terms of the Cold War paradigm that gave us Homo Sovieticus. Sovok is not brainwashed, nor is he a true believer who identifies entirely with the reigning ideology. Such ideas are not just simplistic, but they are too focused on interiority.
The natural habitat of the sovok (person) was the sovok (country), formed by and interacting with sovok (the phenomena of the broken systems in which he operated). So let us first look at sovok in terms of consumer culture. Here sovok starts out at a distinct disadvantage, for it is not, technically, the individual sovki who are to blame for the drabness and poverty of Soviet consumer life. But sovki seem to be both entirely at home in their Soviet garb and Soviet decor while also embarrassingly envious of anything perceived as better or finer.
The sovok-as-bad-consumer is by no means the only version of the phenomenon, but it is certainly the one most conducive to relatively good-natured humor. Naturally, such humor made its way to the Internet. For a brief, glorious time in the 2000s, a website established by three post-Soviet emigres devoted itself exclusively to the topic of sovok. Entitled “Sovok of the Week”, it was located at the now-defunct sovokoftheweek.com domain, which at this point is accessible only through the Wayback Machine. One of its creators, Vadim Jigoulov, wrote a book in 2014 called A Record of Interesting Choice: Tales of a Post-Soviet Man in the West, which ended by reproducing my favorite, iconic Sovok of the Week post: a Buzzfeed-style quiz to allow readers to asses their own levels of sovkovost’ (sovok-ness). As a compendium of sovok cliches, it’s invaluable, and so I reproduce it in its entirely:
Your wife’s relatives are coming over for dinner this evening and there are no potatoes in the house. What do you do?
- Don your Turkish-made Adidas knockoffs and head down to the market to buy a kilo of potatoes.
- Don your Turkish-made Adidas knockoffs and lecture your wife about the need to plan ahead for dinner guests before heading down to the market for a kilo of potatoes.
Once you’re at the market, you see two rival potato-sellers whose booths are side-by-side. What do you do?
- Compare prices and quality of goods and then make your purchase accordingly.
- Look to see which potato-seller will throw in a free onion to sweeten the deal.
A s the potato -seller is weighing your purchase on a set of rusted scales, her neighbor starts her sales pitch: ‘Young man! Young man! You should buy my potatoes, not hers. Mine are from Orel!’ What do you do?
- Smile and tell the old woman that next time you’ll be sure to buy her potatoes.
- Tell the woman bagging your potatoes to shove off, and go buy the rival’s potatoes. Potatoes from Orel always taste better. Everyone knows this.
Your wife has also asked you to pick up a little something from the market so she can make a salad tonight. What do you buy?
- What’s lettuce?
On the walk home you bump into your friend Viktor Andreevich, who starts telling you about the hockey game he went to last night. What do you do?
- Listen to his story and then ask polite follow-up questions about the score.
- Interrupt him with an anecdote about the time you almost got tickets to see the Czech national team play Spartak (a soccer team).
On Saturday afternoons you like to visit the public library. Why?
- To read current newspapers and keep up-to-date on politics and world events.
- ) To read back issues of “Sovetskii Sport” (“Soviet Sport,” a Soviet newspaper) from the 1980s and enjoy the 27 ruble kotlety (cutlets) in the state-subsidized cafeteria.
After a long night of drinking vodka, you wake up with a furious hangover. What do you do?
- Take a few aspirin, drink a glass of water, and take a hot shower.
- Drink beer.
While walking through the park on a crisp fall afternoon you spot an attractive young woman sitting on a bench. What do you do?
- Smile and strike up a conversation.
- Warn her that sitting on a concrete bench will make her sterile.
Your friends are sharing photographs from their recent vacation to Bulgaria. What do you do?
- Display interest in their stories and listen attentively.
- Break out the old Soviet proverb: ‘A chicken is not a bird and Bulgaria is not abroad.’
Your neighbor’s car won’t start and he’s late for work. What do you do?
- Offer to let him borrow your jumper cables.
- Start telling an endless story about the time your car broke down when you were driving your sister-in-law’s stepmother to the airport.
You’re about to dig into a big plate of pasta. What do you put on top?
- Grated cheese and marina sauce.
You’re riding on the bus when a ticket-collector starts waddling down the aisle collecting tickets. You, of course, don’t have one. What do you do?
- Pay the 25 cent fine and continue to your final destination.
- Get off at the next stop.
A legless war veteran is playing the accordion in a metro underpass. What do you do?
- Give him some spare change.
- Ask him if he knows Den’ Pobedy (“Victory Day”)
You are attending a free performance at the local House of Culture. When the piece concludes, what do you do?
- Wait for the conductor to put down his baton, and applaud politely while the orchestra takes its bow.
- Immediately start shouting ‘Bravo! Bravo!’ and rush down the aisle to throw flowers on stage pushing the innocents aside.
During the concert intermission , you and your date head to the buffet. What do you do?
- Buy two glasses of champagne and two red caviar sandwiches.
- Split a bottle of mineral water and take the salo-and-butter sandwiches out of your back pocket.
After the buffet , you and your date promenade around the foyer of the concert hall. What do you do?
- Discuss the first half of the performance in a quiet, conversational tone of voice.
- Loudly lecture your date on the architectural style of the concert hall.
While your date is powdering her nose, you wait for her in the smoking gallery near the restrooms. What do you do?
- Smoke a filtered Davidoff and wait quietly.
- Smoke a “Belomor Canal” (Soviet cigarette brand) and strike up a conversation about America with the foreigners standing nearby.
You need to go to the bathroom but your roommate is using it?
1. You patiently wait until he finishes.
2. You walk in the kitchen and utilize the sink according to your immediate needs.
Tally up your answers, and meet back here tomorrow.