What Sovok Is About

February 27, 2014
Alexander Zinoviev's satirical theory of Homo Sovieticus (or "sovok") is captured in pictorial artworks such as this one.

I had not been in Moscow for a year. The last time I came I was with the French president’s pool and so I could not investigate and take notes on how my city had changed. For a year, I waited to find its new energy. On the plane I was already upset when it was confirmed that it’s really tough to change a Russian.

They never say “thank you,” “please” and “would you mind?” “Welcome home,” I said to myself.  In Sheremetievo-2, where we landed, I saw the same gloomy faces on the border. No “hello, how are you” at the passport control. You just silently stand, passport in hand. They snatch your documents, check for a few minutes and then, after this operation, without a word still, with just a nod, they indicate that you can go.  Thank you. In response to your greeting, they just puff. “And what did you expect? This is Sovok [what we used to call Soviet-minded people],” remarked my friend. ”And even if we get rid of Putin, we will have to spend much more time than even all of Putin’s terms to getting rid of the Sovok.” I cannot stand it, and I answer him : “But do you know how I left France? The French customs officer told me: ‘Have a good trip … eh .. Elena, is that Russian, right? And come back home soon, we will be waiting for you. And take care there, by the way.’”

His “take care” made me feel that my trip to Moscow would be strange.

Less than a day later I was already surrounded by fellow journalists and friends standing in the center of Moscow, near Manezhnaya Square. People came out because they considered that the sentence handed down on the Bolotnaya prisoners was unjust. Next to me, no one shouted “Russia without Putin,” like in the summer of 2012. Nobody was waving signs, and there were no posters. Just a handful of people reclining against the wall close to the Ritz Hotel. A woman not much older than forty was approached by a group of riot police, OMON. As always they started by saying :  “Don’t block other citizen’s way.”  But she was not blocking anyone. The woman was not frightened, but instead she explained why she came today: “I know that I do good to others. And you, what are you doing here? It is much easier to stand with this bludgeon in the street than having a job that requires brain power and to contribute to the economy. It is much easier for you to grab unarmed people”.

I stand in silence and have my recorder on. A few people were shooting with their camera. It is easy to guess that with so many journalists, this woman was not apprehended by the police. A few minutes later, when all the cameras and recorders were turned off, a young policeman came back to the woman and shouted: “You have no man, that’s why you’re standing here tonight.”

It is one of the most common insults to women in Russia. In this “you have no man” is the essence of the riot police is revealed. I did not feel any anger towards them, rather, pity. These are people who never studied; their families never taught them how behave at the dinner table and how to use a knife and fork, and that, when a woman enters a room, men and even little boys have to get up, as our parents did with us. So that’s why yesterday for them  it was so easy to detain casual passersby who just happened to be on Tverskaya. “Hey, what are you doing ? Why don’t you just grab someone standing next to you” — that’s how young OMON guys get advice from their older colleagues.

With each new person detained, the crowd was shouting “Shame!” to the police officers. But no one was expecting them to be ashamed in the slightest. And the people in the crowd knew that they could not be blamed for anything. “I just could not sit at home when innocent people get sentenced a real prison term,” said a woman of about 50 in a red jacket. It is noteworthy that this evening at Tverskaya I saw not only those who went to the March of Millions in Moscow, but those who came for the very first time: “Sovok infected me,” they said. And Sovok infected them not only in the government, but also on the street, in the stores, in the Kremlin, in the clinics, they said. Yes, and even at the airport, when you cross the border you immediately feel its smell, even if, on the TV monitors you can see athletes with gold medals, and Sochi, according to Russian commentators, satisfies the highest western standards.

I do not believe this line today. Because of my neighbors who have rusty water, because of my sidewalk where a huge SUV is parked and I cannot get out of the house (and what if I had a baby stroller?), because of the store clerk who does not respond to my “good morning,” but screams hysterically: “Speak fast, I’m busy.” As for me, I have no time to explain that the customer is king. And I quietly swallow it and then on my way out I am not mad at her, but at myself for not correcting her. And this is Sovok also.

On Tverskaya they grab people, shove them in the police van. But just 10 meters further, there is a Bosco store which sells clothing with the colors of the Russian Olympic team which is supposed to give you a sense of pride for your country.

My phone battery was dead. I recharged it in the Bosco shop, and through the window I saw another person detained. I was there with my friend who said aloud in the store that she could not bear it anymore. A young salesperson turned to us and said: “I don’t understand why they’re doing it. For me the prisoners of Bolotnaya, Putin, Navalny – they are all the same. I would put them all in prison. They piss me off.”  My friend congratulated him ironically. And she starting explaining that, in her opinion, in Russia, you should fight for your rights. The guy was listening to her in silence and quietly asked us: “Can you explain what is the Bolotnya case about  and who are these people and why they got a prison term? Frankly speaking, I don’t know anything about that.” You see, he does not know!

Rather than advising him to go out of this Olympic Bosco store into the street, my friend started to explain everything from the very beginning, starting at May 6, 2012. “And do you know something about punitive psychiatry in the Soviet times?” I asked, “So it’s back.” He tells me: ”No, nothing, I was not yet born.”  He’s in his mid-20’s, just a little bit younger than I am, but we’re from the same generation. After 15 minutes my friend and I were back on Tverskaya. We counted how many people OMOM was detaining, and the guy was still behind the window maybe counting how many Olympic t-shirts he had sold today.

And our different worlds would never have collided had my phone battery not died, just like they will not collide with those in the police van and those who shouted “You have no man!” They will not collide either with those who were detained for 10 days as Boris Nemtsov and those who made decisions like Judge Krivoruchko from the Magnitsky list. We can dream, just like I can do also that one day, leaving Moscow, the border officer will tell me, as in Paris: “Come home soon, we will be waiting for you.”