Vladimir Shlapentokh

Август 22, 2010

The role of the totalitarian experience for an American sociologist: the impertinent declaration of an emigrant from the USSR

Filed under: Uncategorized — shlapentokh @ 4:37 пп

The role of the totalitarian experience for an American sociologist: the impertinent declaration of an emigrant from the USSR

In my piece on Ayn Rand, which I posted on my blog, I pointed out the influence that life in Soviet Russia had on the works of this author, and noted: «something similar happened with many immigrants of all three waves from Russia… Several opinion polls, which questioned refugees of
1950s and emigrants of 1970s, showed this clearly.» After having read the text, some of my readers—not without a hidden irony—asked me if this statement also applied to me; whether I am also influenced by my totalitarian past. They asked this with some doubts that I would be ready to recognize that my mind had been shaped under the impact of that horrible society. In fact, I take this challenge with great pleasure being sure that outsider’s perspective is always fruitful for analysis . Here is my reaction to those who believed that I would categorically deny the influence that the society created by Lenin and Stalin had on me.

1. The totalitarian society helped me to understand the role of political power much better than my American colleagues, who often show their naiveté on this issue.

2. I understand, better than many people, the positive potential of the authoritarian model and its advantages over the liberal model under some conditions, particularly if the security of society is at stake. With my Soviet experience, the lamentations about the limitations of freedom under Bush seemed ridiculous.

3. I better understand the role of order in society and the necessity of making different sacrifices for its maintenance.

4. I understand, 1000 times better, the role of fear in society—its positive and negative roles.

5. I came to the conclusion that the majority of American intellectuals, unlike my Soviet colleagues, did not fully appreciate Orwell as the author who deeply penetrated the essence of totalitarian society. Only people with the Soviet experience were able to understand the highest Orwellian discovery—the love of Big Brother (or a superior of any level) as the major factor of social life everywhere, in any organization.

6. I was perplexed when I found that the absolute majority of American sociologists believed in the honesty of their respondents. None of the good Soviet sociologists were so hopelessly naive.

7. Soviet life taught me, and my Soviet friends, to take a critical attitude toward any data,  especially official data.

8. Because of my totalitarian past, I better understand what the foreign danger means to the existence of the nation, America  and in particularly Israel.

9. I understand American bureaucracy better; how it works and what its problems are.
10. I better understand, with my Soviet experience, that an affirmative action policy (even if it has serious positive aspects) diminishes the level of education and science in this country.
11. I better understand the elitist tendency in this country, with its self-perpetuating political elites.
12. I am better prepared for the analysis of the advantages and disadvantages of centralization and decentralization in each sphere of life, such as education.
13. Because of my totalitarian experience, I understand, much better than my colleagues, the role of ideology and its almost total command over the intellect and empirical research.

14. The Soviet experience taught me to make the distinction between public ideology, which is the stuff of media and speeches, and elitist ideology, which is shared by those who rule society and who rarely disclosed their genuine views on many sensitive political issues. 

15 Having been surrounded with various dogmas all my Soviet life, I was able to figure out, quite quickly, several dogmas that were deeply embedded in the minds of those who, in Russia, would have been labeled as intellectuals. For instance, an American social scientist would hardly even dare to discuss the negative consequences of de-colonization in some African countries. Only recently, the dogma about democracy as a “radiant future”—the full equivalent of the Soviet belief about the Communist future of the world—began to have cracks in the mind of some daredevils.

16. With my Soviet experience, I was not amazed to see how quickly Americans adjust to the demands of the dominant ideology and then, almost instantaneously (just as it happened in my motherland), change their views. Graduate students in the USA are even more afraid of violating the ideological rules than my students in Moscow and Novosibirsk were in the 1960-70s.      
17.  It was not difficult for me, even for a second, to understand the relativism of post modernism—a variation of the Soviet «class approach,» with its negation of “truth.” In both cases, the term “objectivism” was declared to be pernicious and meaningless.

18. The rewriting of history from various new perspectives (feministic, Afro-American, native residents, and so on), which is going on in America, is so familiar to me that I was amazed at how some Americans are perplexed by this process.    

19. It is for me easy to understand, with my past, the role played by political correctness in American society, and how this ideology can  even turn smart people into morons who refuse to recognize elementary facts.

20. I better understand what propaganda means, and the cult of leaders.

 21. The same experience inculcated me with a suspicion of any authorities and an abhorrence of fawning on a leader of any type. 

22. Of course, it is amusing for me, with my life in a society with a cult of planning, to observe how Americans compose millions of plans, most of which will never be fulfilled.

 23. Thanks to the cult of science in the Soviet Union, it made me sad to discover the very modest social status of American scientists and professors, even at leading universities.  

24. The Soviet experience, with its strong state and popular anti Semitism, made me much more sensitive toward the Jewish issue and toward Israel than most of my American friends of that same origin. The feeling of mortal danger that hovers over the Jewish people (I could easily be in Kiev’s Babyi Yar in September 1941) never abandons me, while most American Jews were never even close to this abyss.

25.For the same reason, I am much more concerned about the security of Israel (as well as of the United States) than most of my American-born Jewish friends.  I am also more sensitive than they are toward the spread of leftist anti-Semitism (usually under the guise of a critique of the Israeli government), particularly in England.

26. Because of my Soviet experiences, I better understand, the difference between mass and elitist cultures.

27. The Soviet system taught me the art of heuristic, or between lines, analysis, or how to decode the text of novels and movies. One of the surprises here was the discovery that many  people  here actually have little idea how to figure out the subtle (not those which are presented à la Oliver Stone or Michael Moore) ideological messages in the movies, treating them—if they are not rude leftists—only as a source of entertainment.

28. My knowledge of socialist realism, which was demanded of screenwriters and novelists to justify the dominant ideology, helped me to instantly understand the formula used by Hollywood—keeping the necessary proportion of people with different skin colors and different sexual orientations. Socialist realism will, of course, be in total agreement with the happy endings and the support of all of the major values of official ideology.


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