From Russia with a Psychology Lesson

Maria (Masha) Krylova
January 18, 2021
We have fallen a long way since the day, seemingly lifetimes ago, when “The End of History” and the global triumph of liberal democracy were considered plausible political predictions. Today a bellicose Russia is still tormenting its neighbours, China is on a global rampage and democracy itself is looking beaten-up. Why is this happening? Maria Krylova believes that totalitarianism derives much of its momentum and longevity from the human psyche itself. In this essay drawing on her understanding of Russian history and literature, her formal education and her burning belief in freedom, the adoptive Canadian issues an eloquent warning that no society is truly immune.

From Russia with a Psychology Lesson

Maria (Masha) Krylova
January 18, 2021
We have fallen a long way since the day, seemingly lifetimes ago, when “The End of History” and the global triumph of liberal democracy were considered plausible political predictions. Today a bellicose Russia is still tormenting its neighbours, China is on a global rampage and democracy itself is looking beaten-up. Why is this happening? Maria Krylova believes that totalitarianism derives much of its momentum and longevity from the human psyche itself. In this essay drawing on her understanding of Russian history and literature, her formal education and her burning belief in freedom, the adoptive Canadian issues an eloquent warning that no society is truly immune.
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Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies…Those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience. — C.S. Lewis

In March 1953 came the death of one of the most tyrannical dictators in history – Joseph V. Stalin. The reader might assume that the Soviet people, being finally liberated from their oppressor, would respond to the news with a sense of joy or, at least, relief. But that was not the general reaction. Most of what was then known as the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was sincerely grieving. There are several accounts from individuals who witnessed out-of-control crowds, pouring down the jam-packed streets of Moscow on their way to see Stalin’s coffin, weeping and screaming in mournful, hysterical despair.

The crying of these crowds, “monstrous whirlpools” in the words of contemporary observer and participant Evgenii Evtushenko, would drown out the sound of the “cracking…brittle bones…broken on the traffic light” as those crowds marched over the bodies of their fellow citizens. It remains undisclosed how many people, many of whom were young children, died in this mania, but the estimates range from several dozen to several thousand.

Despite the industrial-scale atrocities he had instigated, Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin was sincerely and even hysterically mourned by many Russians when he finally died in 1953. Photo courtesy of the Everett Collection.

But why were the Russian people even mourning? Had they forgotten whom they were burying? It seemed as if the entire nation, after decades of being suppressed, starved and tortured, with millions of innocents killed or worked to death, suddenly lost its collective memory. But perhaps it was not a mere instant of oblivion that accounted for their doleful reaction. Perhaps it was something much, much worse.

In The Slave Soul of Russia: Moral Masochism and the Cult of Suffering, Daniel Rancour-Laferriere, Professor Emeritus at the University of California, makes a compelling argument that the collective psychology of Russians is essentially slavish. Rancour-Laferriere postulates that this tendency helped enable two totalitarian regimes spanning many hundreds of years. First came the absolute monarchy of the Tsars, lasting from the Middle Ages until the 1917 Revolution. That was immediately followed by Soviet Communism, which was only toppled in the early 1990s. All told, tyranny dominated Russia for more than 1,000 years.

Tsars Ivan IV (left) and Peter I (right) committed unspeakable crimes against their own people – each of them also murdered their own sons – yet both are still respected or even revered in Russia.

Many historians have attributed Russians’ continuous suffering to the perpetuation of tyrannical rule. But Nikolas Vakar, an American writer of Belarusian descent, foreshadowed Rancour-Laferriere in his 1961 book The Taproot of Soviet Society, stating that “Russian habits of obedience have been the cause, not the result, of political autocracy.” While this will strike many as unduly harsh, both Rancour-Laferriere and Vakar provide a startling insight into the Russian collective psychology and help us better understand why so many Russians in the 1950s felt genuinely distressed over the death of their tyrant. These writers’ analyses have implications reaching far beyond Russia, not only geographically but in time as well, echoing eerily and with foreboding to recent events.

First, however, let us go back in history to explore the proposition that Russians have always had an unusually submissive, indeed downright slavish, affinity towards their rulers. Russians became notorious for enduring gruesome and rarely paralleled abuse under their sovereigns. In the 16th century, Ivan IV, the first absolute monarch of Russia, became known as “Ivan the Terrible” for sadistically torturing and murdering his servants.

Despite the massive casualties Tsar Peter I caused in the building of the city named after himself, painter Alexandre Benois still depicted him as heroic in Peter the Great Meditating the Idea of building St. Petersburg.

Similarly, the self-proclaimed “Emperor of All Russia,” Tsar Peter I, was a ruthless and violent monarch who had no concern for human life. The building under his direction of what became St. Petersburg, in an environment completely unsuited for the city’s construction, caused the death of untold thousands. Under Peter I, later hailed as “Peter the Great,” in under 40 years Russia lost nearly one-fourth of her population. Notably, both Ivan and Peter murdered their own sons. Nonetheless, both have been praised for their authoritative leadership. Even today, their legacy is cherished and the monuments in their honour tower over many city squares in modern-day Russia.

While the 1917 October Revolution may be regarded as the only time the Russians threw off their oppressors, it only led to a new form of oppression.

In 1917 the monarchy was overthrown by the Bolsheviks, initiating the era of Soviet hegemony. This period undoubtedly brought the nadir of the nation’s agony and exploitation. In only 70 years the Communist regime orchestrated the torture and slaughter of at least 20 million citizens, according to a number of sources including Robert Conquest’s The Great Terror (1968), Anton Antonov-Ovseyenko’s The Time of Stalin (1981) and Gill Elliot’s Twentieth Century Book of the Dead (1972). Rancour-Laferriere acknowledges that the degree of unjust suffering is nearly incomprehensible for a Western mind. People were degraded to “cogs,” to quote the historian Mikhail Heller, or “zeros,” as the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky put it.

Lenin (at left) and Stalin led a regime whose ideological proponents would write, “The individual is nonsense, the individual is zero,” yet they are still regarded favourably by many Russians and some Western thinkers.

But like the Russian royals, Soviet-era leaders including Joseph Stalin and Vladimir Lenin continue to receive national-scale accolades. A recent national poll suggested that between 65 percent and 75 percent of Russians regret the collapse of the Soviet Union. In fact, they feel nostalgic about their country’s ostensibly glorious past. Stalin is continuously extolled as “an effective manager” and, even in the eyes of some Western thinkers, he was “a leader of exceptional talent.”

This short excursion into Russian history bolsters Rancour-Laferriere’s argument – as harsh as it may initially seem – that worshipping those who torture them is ingrained in Russians’ psychology. These examples also allow us to presume that the long-lasting bloodstained Communist regime was not simply a random event in Russian history; it was not a tragic historical accident, or mockery of fate. Russian Communism was founded on well-primed soil: the “land of slaves” in the words of the renowned early 19th century writer Mikhail Lermontov.

“Land of slaves”? Results from polling of Russians in late 2019 and early 2020 by the Levada-Center in Moscow.

Similar to Lermontov, many other Russian writers of that era penned extensive commentaries on the Russian predilection for slavishness. We must note clearly that all of these writers are describing a collective psychological condition caused by cultural and historical factors. They are not implying a genetic or racial cause, which would be monstrous.

“Everything in Russia bears the stamp of slavery – customs, aspirations, enlightenment, and freedom itself, if such can even exist in this environment,” wrote Pyotr Chaadaev. A serf who freezes to death obeying his master’s word to wait for him on the street; an idealist revolutionary and self-proclaimed public servant who sleeps on a bed of nails; a monk who physically punishes himself and unduly fasts, being glorified for his asceticism; or a rebellious intellectual who destroys himself with alcohol and ruthless acts. All these archetypes engaging in masochistic self-destruction have imbued Russia throughout its often-dismal history and, particularly, during the Soviet epoch.

In The Lower Depths, a famous play by the Soviet realist Maxim Gorky, the author depicts a group of self-destroying, hopeless people who are evidently not capable of cohabiting together but are doing so anyway. Among them are a crook, a thief, a drunk, a woman suffering from abuse by her sister and an actor who eventually commits suicide. These characters would essentially embody Russian society in the early 20th century.

The Lower Depths, a play by Maxim Gorky, illuminated the themes of Russian self-destruction

Following the USSR’s formation in 1922, many Russians continued to welcome their suffering. Forced labour in gulags became a way of life for millions. For Alexander Solzhenitsyn – probably the most renowned of all Soviet-era dissidents – prison actually became a sacred place. In Solzhenitsyn’s own words: “Bless you prison, bless you for being in my life.” And very likely, he was not the only person who felt this way.

Of course, it’s true that Solzhenitsyn greatly advanced the cause of freedom by bringing the horrors of Communism to light for hundreds of millions of people around the world. His voice helped to weaken the Soviet Union. But even he, so it appears, was not immune to the power of the slavish environment in which he lived. What we observe in Solzhenitsyn’s example is not predilection for mere submissiveness; it is glorification and even sanctification of enslavement and suffering. Clues as to how this could happen are provided in earlier Russian literature, clearly implying that the ground had been well-prepared.

Most of the famous Russian writers of earlier periods – including three giants of the 1800s, Ivan Turgenev, Fyodor Dostoevsky and Leo Tolstoy – had, in fact, linked suffering to holiness. Sacrificial self-destructive behaviour, in their eyes, would shape the path to God in resemblance to Christ’s suffering on the cross. This idea undoubtedly emanated from the teachings of the Russian Orthodox Church which, throughout her history, has offered rather pessimistic interpretations of God’s word that encourage self-belittling and rigid individual restrictions.

As their western contemporaries were writing The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Moby Dick, and The Count of Monte Cristo, books focusing on individualism, bravery and honour, 19th century Russian giants Tolstoy (left), Dostoevsky (centre) and Turgenev (right) all wrote about suffering and self-sacrifice.

Take one of the characters in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Sonechka Marmeladova. Sonechka is a prostitute earning a few rubles to support her younger siblings. At the same time, she is portrayed as an enlightened devout believer. For Dostoevsky, Sonechka is an ideal Christian whose life is meant to reflect her noble self-sacrificial nature. Notably, it is Sonechka who becomes instrumental in the redemption of the main male character, the murderer Rodion Raskolnikov.

In one night during the 1917 Revolution, the Orthodox Church was officially obliterated. It was replaced by the Bolshevik party, which took the role of the superior being capable of ruling, condemning and punishing and was later described by Cold War-era leader Leonid Brezhnev as “the mind, honor, and conscience of our [Russian] era.” Not surprisingly, sacrificing oneself for the sake of this greater “mind” – the state – became viewed as acceptable, necessary and even life-defining.

In the poem Cloud in Trousers by the famous early-Soviet writer Vladimir Mayakovsky, we detect strong idealization of such “meaningful” self-sacrifice. The narrator praises Russians for being able to bend and adapt, just like “the sky changes tone.” Mayakovsky believes in the magnificence of the Russian character: “I know the sun would dim seeing the golden sparkle of our souls!” He admits that people, even those who scorn him, are “closer and dearer than anything” to him because he, the narrator, is like “a dog licking the hand that whips it.” Filled with pride, he proclaims:

I am with you…
I am wherever there is pain,
I nail myself
to every tear…
And when
he arrives,
announced by rebellion,
and you greet your savior,
then I’ll
rip out my soul,
stamp on it
to make it big,
and hand it to you,
bloody, for a flag.

In delivering this willingness to sacrifice himself, Mayakovsky calls for similar acts from all Russians. Indeed, many fellow citizens would identify themselves with his poem’s character and would be ready to sacrifice their lives in the name of the Revolution, the Party and the greater common good – one of the key Soviet principles. Notably, Mayakovsky was not called upon to make good on his ideas for, being known for his volatile character, he committed suicide at the young age of 36.

Mayakovsky’s contemporary, the symbolist poet Viachelsav Ivanov, described it thus: “Russians do not merely suffer; they have concerted for themselves a veritable cult of suffering.” And under the Soviet oppressors, this cult became perfectly, morally justified. “The individual is nonsense, the individual is zero,” are the words from another Mayakovsky poem, this one dedicated to the head of the Bolshevik Party and the Soviet Union’s first dictator, Vladimir Lenin. By embracing this perspective, Russians evidently agreed to disown their human nature as individuals in favour of the collective.

Two key questions arise. The first: Why are Russians like this? The second: Is the Russian psyche unique? Answering the first is well outside the scope of this article. As to the second, if the answer were “Yes,” one might well conclude that this uniqueness essentially immunizes all other societies against Communism. If people are not intrinsically prone to slavishness, it is difficult to see how they would fall to a totalitarian movement driven by a relatively small number of fanatics. Yet the sheer number of socialist or communist dictatorships that over the decades took power across – so far – four continents suggests a contrary answer.

The acutely collective, anti-individual and self-immolating mentality of Russians makes a sharp contrast to the Western individualistic mindset. Canadians know little about masochism. Even Russian immigrants eventually discard and forget about their national psychological disposition. In this country, people see themselves as being free, and they value their individual liberties. Most of us also have a basic understanding that first comes the individual and that, generally, no collective good can be achieved at the expense of the individual.

This was my understanding of Canadian society when, 10 years ago, I left a small industrial Russian city for Canada in pursuit of self-actualization, freedom and personal happiness. Despite the heartbreak over splitting our family in two, it was clear to my parents that even the post-Communist Russia had little to offer a young person like me. Nearly every domain of social life was stained with stagnation and corruption. No profession was sufficiently compensated for well-educated people to live comfortably. Even important careers such as medical doctor, public school teacher or social worker had low social standings and were undervalued by the state.

The quality of university education was poor and students could be all-but certain that after graduating they would not land careers related to their degree. Many students also knew that to be able to earn a decent living, they would need to work in a bureaucratic department where corruption was rampant. It was an unwritten rule that no paper could be signed and no project be completed without bribing at least one, and more often several, bureaucrats. Feelings of hopelessness and despair hung heavy in the air, and I could see how many other young people were already sinking into drinking, drug abuse and self-sabotage. This was the Russian reality during much of its history, which today, unfortunately, has not changed much.

In modern post-Communist Russia there are, of course, no Gulags, and most common citizens are not prosecuted for opposing the governing party. Russians, like most people in other parts of the world, can access alternative news on the internet, and those who can afford it can travel abroad and purchase imported goods. There are no longer empty shelves in grocery stores nor any of the infamous “bread lines” as during the hungry years.

But there is no doubt either that the nation is still greatly suffering. Political and economic freedoms in Russia today are virtually non-existent, alcoholism and crime are pervasive, and poverty and personal degradation are ubiquitous. People, especially young people, are demoralized with little to look forward to in their future.

Canada historically has been a society in which the person’s worth is celebrated and the individual’s rights and life are not sacrificed on the altar of ostensible collective need.

Note, however, the suffering of Russians today is different from that of their Soviet ancestors because the current generation of Russians no longer has an external moral justification for their misery. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, there is no strong ideology that would demand extraordinary self-sacrifice from the people. And even the Russian Orthodox Church, while having recovered some of its lost status, has not attracted enough followers to fill the existential void within most Russians.

Hence, it seems that having no justification for their misery, the great majority of Russians currently are not only “slave souls”; they are also lost souls. They are suffering deeply, perpetuating their self-sacrificial stance but, in contrast to their predecessors, they have no explicit motif for their suffering – no Tsar, no Church, no Party. Perhaps this explains why so many Russians are dreaming of returning to the “bright past” of the Soviet regime. Instead of trying to break the continuous circle of anguish and build a better future, they would rather continue enduring pain and abuse if given a reason for it, such as the pursuit of the alleged greater common good.

Today, while I continue observing political and social events in my motherland, my attention is primarily focused on my new home, Canada. In certain respects, unfortunately, some other immigrants who escaped Communism and I feel like we leaped out of the frying pan and into the fire. The restraint and destruction of our traditional freedoms in response to the Covid-19 outbreak is alarming in the extreme.

In Manitoba, where I lived until recently, small businesses were forced to close and their owners were fined if they chose to stay open. In December, even drive-in church services, in which parishioners tuned in to hear the service on their car radios, were banned, and transgressors were penalized. Visiting friends and family members continues to be restricted. In stores and shops, many of the “non-essential” items are removed from the shelves or roped-off so people cannot buy them, and these include non-winter clothes, toys and, of all things, books. Meanwhile, liquor and marijuana stores remain open as they evidently sell “essential” goods.

Recall that these shut-downs started last spring with people being told to wear masks and to distance themselves from each other in order to “flatten the curve,” thereby preventing the medical system from being overwhelmed. Initially we were told we must “save lives” at any cost. Even today, when that cost includes sacrificing the psychological well-being of people, their financial stability and even their physical health as many individuals have been denied necessary medical procedures, many Canadians do not ask questions. They blindly obey the state orders. To “flatten the curve” of Covid-19, Canadians agree to jeopardize their own livelihoods, their own health and freedom, while failing to realize that completely new “curves” of misery, ill-health and death are being created in the process.

My understanding of Russian history and the Russian “slave soul” gives me the audacity to ask: Have Canadians, similar to Russians, fallen into a self-deceiving psychological state in which they misapprehend a “necessary” self-sacrifice? And, once in this state of mind, will they too become impervious to reflection, reassessment and escape?

Are Canadians being manipulated into believing it is acceptable for a government to demand self-sacrifice to the point of widespread individual self-destruction?

It appears to me that Canadians, generally good-willed and generous people, are being manipulated to believe that, for some collective moral good, self-sacrifice is required, it is necessary to demand the same from your neighbour and it is acceptable, in the case of non-compliance, to implement oppressive measures against those who do not want to wear masks or to close down the businesses that feed their families. Canadians have been made to think that their current suffering is mandatory and morally justified – all in the name of the greater common good.

Perhaps Canadians have forgotten what it means to live in a free society. Perhaps they need an outsider to remind them that in this country, personal freedoms once held an absolute priority over collective objectives regardless of how moralistic and important the latter might appear. Canadians also seem to have forgotten that they should never silence a minority, at least not without an open debate and a fair and thorough legal process. Otherwise, it is a totalitarian act.

Russian history offers a unique lesson to Canada. In Russia, the individual life has never been valued. Instead, the suffering of people and even their death has been seen as a necessary means for building a “better” society. This way of thinking, wherein the state is seen as more important than the individual, became part of the Russian psychology centuries ago. It proved impossible to escape. It has profoundly influenced the country’s politics, allowing successive monarchical and ideological tyrannies to flourish. Except for the tiniest of reprieves just before and after the Communist era – mere months in the first case, a few years in the second – tyranny became the only form of governance known to Russians.

Now, the question is: Will Canada take a wrong turn by stepping onto a similar path of morally justified self-sacrifice and, from there, begin slipping down the slope towards voluntary servitude and tyranny? We all know where Russia ended up. I want to believe it is not yet too late to stop the annihilation of my adopted country.

Maria (Masha) V. Krylova is a Social Psychologist and writer based in Calgary, Alberta who has a particular interest in the role of psychological factors affecting the socio-political climate in Russia and Western countries.

Main Image:“Bread Line — No One Has Starved” by Thomas Hawk is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

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