Dmitri Shalin's Comments on Firsov's "Russian Mentality"

May 19-22, 2006

Greetings, Boris Maximovich:

Just as I was getting on with my notes, I received your letter of May 19, 2006.  Glad to hear my article on emotionally intelligent democracy makes sense.  I look forward to having your treatise on the history of Russian sociology and posting it on our web site.  

As for Parygin’s piece, it is not an article but an interview he published in the magazine “Ochen” where he offers a controversial account of Soviet sociology and his place in it. Igor Kon seems to have located Parygin’s interview.  Now we have to figure out the way to scan or xerox it.   

I have read your proposal, and it gives me a clear idea of the project you undertake and the expert advice you seek.  Not sure if I qualify as an expert in this area, though.  For more than half of my life I lived outside Russia, and the last time I visited my old shores was eight years ago.  It is hard for me to judge what Russians value these days or how they envision their future.    

A potentially more serious problem is the notion of “Russian mentality” with which you work.  Its explanatory and predictive power is unclear to me, and so, my take on how best to conceptualize Russian mentality might be at odds with your agenda.  Perhaps you will find answers to some of your queries in my piece on emotionally intelligent democracy.  What I will try to do here is to offer a few thoughts on the theoretical and methodological issues you raise and suggest alternative ways of getting a handle on the present Russian conditions. 

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The term mentality appears in your proposal in various contexts, qualified by numerous adjectives and freighted with different agendas.  You speak about Russian mentality and mentality of Russian citizens (rossiiskaya mentalnost), Soviet and post-Soviet mentality, contemporary and past mentality, individual and group mentality, conscious and unconscious mentality, hybrid and pure mentality, generational and cross-generational mentality.  Mentality can be settled and unsettled, advanced and backward, simulated and genuine, enigmatic and straight, many-layered and single-stranded.  Then, there is religious mentality, national mentality, nomenklatura mentality, totalitarian mentality, servile mentality, scientistic mentality, plus unspecified “other mentalities” (p. 12).  Mentality is a mode of thinking, a way of feeling, and a pattern of conduct distinguishing a given population (this is, by the way, how Durkheim defines “social fact”), yet it is not identical with any of these.  As we learn from a key passage,

. . . мышление, мнения,  чувства,   поведение, не тождественны ментальности, но в значительной мере от нее зависят. Сама ментальность  не структурирована, она расплывчата, точнее сказать – флюидна, она есть предрасположенность определенным образом мыслить, эмоционально воспринимать мир, совершать поступки. Потому она  «материализуется» в мыслях, чувствах и поступках, но на экранах символических и иных практик исследователь увидит ее проекции. Ее можно называть соединительной тканью человеческого духа (своеобразным сплавом материальных условий, повседневного быта, прижизненного мироощущения, архаики, устной культуры), которая не оставляет «письменных свидетельств и улик». (pp. 6-7).

Mentality appears to be a master concept in your text, a deep structure that persists over time, more or less subconsciously, and guides the nation’s historical development.  The phenomenon is accessible to scholars who use it to explain the continuity and change in a group living under the sway of a given mentality.  According to one definition you cite,  

Это - в принципе неисчерпаемая картина мира в голове человека: «вселенная» представлений о личности и социуме, о свободе, равенстве, добре и зле, о власти и правителях, праве и труде, о семье и сексуальных отношениях, о ходе истории и ценности времени, о смерти и душе, своем и чужом, насилии и чести. Именно она (многомерная картина), будучи унаследованной от предшествующих поколений и непременно изменяющейся в процессе общественной практики, программирует человеческое поведение (p. 12).

You mention several authors who variously identified Russian mentality with pessimism, formlessness, irrationality, collectivism, compassion, contradictoriness, messianic longing, cultural eclecticism, vacillation between the extremes, weak legal consciousness, propensity for destroying the established and starting everything from scratch.  Speaking of our times, you single out three basic forms in which contemporary Russian mentality (RM) manifests itself:  (1) National-patriotic, (2) Socialist-modernist, and (3) Western-liberal.  I will refer to these three types as RM1, RM2, and RM3.

The concept strikes me as overbroad for a traditional empirical investigation.  With the conceptual net cast so widely, there is hardly anything that does not come under its sway.  This is a catch-all category to be filled with specific meanings depending on the context and the purpose at hand.  But then, pretty much the same can be said about kindred notions such as “national character,” “national identity,” “modal personality,” or for that matter “culture.”  They are all exceedingly broad conceptual devices designed to reduce complexity and articulate inchoate experience, which did not prevent keen writers from using these terms with insight and profit.  I am sure your approach will generate surplus meaning and engender a useful line of research.

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So far as I can tell, the term follows the train of thought originating in Kant who searched for a priori structures native to the human mind and found there transcendental categories that inform our perception and generate meaningful, lawful realty in the process.  Psychology owed much to Kantianism, and so did Volk psychology, social psychology, cultural anthropology, and sociology.  There is an important difference here between Kant and his successors:  Whereas Kant thought that the transcendental mind frames are the same everywhere, that they transcend time and place, his successors saw such a priori mental structures as historically emergent and socially conditioned.  Neo-Kantian thinkers presumed that there was something inherent in the mind (spirit, psyche, personality, ego) that informs the world around us and that must be grasped before we can understand the individual and society. 

To the extent that “mentality” belongs to this tradition, it is akin to concepts like values, attitudes, and stereotypes, all of which rest on the assumption that our actions are driven from within, even though things found inside human psyche are not necessarily psycho-logical since their origins are to be found in society.  This is what you seem to be saying when you write: 

В наиболее общем случае под ментальностью понимают некоторую интегральную  характеристику, психологическую доминанту людей, принадлежащих к определенной культуре. «Склад мышления, опосредованный волей космоса матери-Родины» – такое или иное образное начало будет, по всей видимости, основой любой ментальности (p. 5).

Looked at from this angle, humans appear as agents endowed by society with cognitive maps and mental attributes that compel individuals to act in a patterned way and produce predictable behavioral outcomes.  Researchers working in this tradition look for historically evolving and socially determined mental structures which codify society and perpetuate social institutions.  Powerful and pervasive though the RM might be, humans are supposed to have enough free agency to overcome the inertia of the obsolete mentalities and embrace the new ones.  The critical thrust of this reasoning is that we must become aware of our mental a priori and reevaluate old values before we can effect meaningful social change.  

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The problem with this view is that it is hard to reconcile with observable behavior, which rarely falls squarely under any given mentality.  Efforts to link observable actions with values, attitudes, stereotypes, and such like dispositional variables have generated correlations on the order of .20-.30, and this means that attitudes account for about 10% of the variance in overt conduct.  Human behavior is highly situational, and when we can predict it s tochnostiu do naoborot, we have a problem.  Indeed, how useful this Kennan’s generalization about Russia is for an empirically minded researcher:

«В противоречиях – сущность России. Запад и Восток, Тихий океан и Атлантика, Арктика и тропики, экстремальный холод и экстремальная жара, невозмутимая лень и внезапные приливы энергии, непомерная жестокость и излишняя доброта, тяга к изобилию и унылая нищета, разрушительная ксенофобия и ничем не сдерживаемое устремление к контактам с внешним миром, безграничная власть и рабство до унижения, одновременно любовь и ненависть к одним и тем же объектам…Русский человек не станет отрицать эти противоречия. Они для него – острый вкус жизни» (p. 20).

Weber, whose sociological imagination was informed by the Kantian paradigm, offered a sensible solution to this predicament when he called his sociological concepts “ideal types.”  Formed through one-sided emphasis and an arbitrary elevation of some elements at the expense of other, these concepts do not pretend to “mirror” reality out there, to represent an “average” for a given population, or be the “only possible” accounts for a given phenomenon.  Marx offered one ideal typical descriptions of occidental capitalism, Sombart another, Weber the third, and none of these is truer than the other.  Ultimately, researchers choose ideal types that are closest to their own values, that meet certain societal needs as the scholar understands those.  An ideal typical construct which engenders the most fruitful, or at least most popular, line of inquiry, emerges as a reigning paradigm. 

Scholars are not the only ones with a penchant for articulating ideal types.  Priests, bureaucrats, intellectuals try their hand at framing the public agenda, proffering definitive accounts that purport to tell the rest of society what things are like and where society is heading.  Upon closer examination, however, such definitive accounts turn out to be ideal types, approximations, and self-serving ones at that.  To the extent that these formulations spread throughout society, they may influence its course, generate a social movement pushing society in a certain direction.  The intelligentsia is particularly good at seizing upon an ideal type and turning it into a Zeitgeist, which may then come true as a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Following this Weberian tradition, you can proclaim Russian mentality to be an ideal type, look for particulars that support your views, and, without denying alternative ways of constructing Russianness, carry on your inquiry.  You will need to be self-reflexive if you follow this path, spell out the values fueling your sociological imagination, offer a vision of Russia you wish to come true, and be cautious about appealing to the “historically inevitable changes” (p. 15) – Weberian sociologists speak about probable or possible historical developments, not inexorable ones.  Once you commit yourself to the RM1, RM2, RM3, or an alternative construct, you will proceed to amass the evidence supporting your favored vision of Russia’s future while acknowledging alternative historical scenarios.  You can use polling data or other empirical findings if you follow this path, but your conclusions will be speculative in nature, as befits a sociologist studying cultural types in the Weberian tradition.

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My theoretical commitments have been shaped by pragmatism – an influential current in American philosophy and sociology that builds on German idealism, especially on its view of human agency as constitutive-transformative rather than passive-reflective, but that identifies as its primary form not cognitive-mental activity but practical-embodied conduct.  Pragmatists differ from Kant and most of his successors in yet another way:  they view human activity as social through and through rather than private in its origins.  With this paradigmatic shift, attention is refocused on the flesh and blood agents, on human body in all its corporeal manifestations – neurochemical, somatic-affective, and behavioral-performative.  Discursive-symbolic forms of human agency are taken into account, but they are not privileged in pragmatist-interactionist accounts as they are in the sociological traditions tracing their roots to Kant.  There is nothing in the agents’ makeup that chains them to a particular perspective, no value system or worldview that predetermines their conduct, no self-identity that foretells the individual’s moods across space and time.  In any given situation, humans can invoke a particular rationale to legitimize their action, to ground a self that suits the moment.  These selves are multiple, and so are the rationales we bring up to back our stance, just as proverbs we invoke on various occasions may harbor incompatible precepts (ne imei sto rublei, a tabachok vroz).

The RM1 enthusiasts swear allegiance to the Russian orthodox religion but their hatred for people with the wrong skin color or ethnic origins runs contrary to the gospel of Jesus, just as their demand to merge religion and the state violates certain Christian precepts.  Those enamored with socialism (RM2) loath to come to grips with the millions of people who fell victims to the Soviet regime, nor are they quick to acknowledge the inequality, corruption, wastefulness, and environmental disasters that communist regimes have left in their wake.  The RM3 style liberals preach tolerance but can be surprisingly intolerant to dissident in their own midst, and for all their commitment to popular sovereignty, Yeltsin democrats did not hesitate to use force when they had lost popular support and parliamentary backing.  Whatever the mentality, its proponents are likely to be caught in a performative contradiction – denying in the flesh what they profess in words and affirming in deeds what they frown upon in theory. 

Polling people’s favorite ideologies and value preferences is helpful, but it does not tell us much about the chaotic world out there.  Rather than focusing on the popular values and favored brands in the marketplace of ideas, pragmatists choose to triangulate between the things people say, the way they act, and the manner they emote on various occasions.  As I argue in my piece on pragmatist hermeneutics, pragmatists focus on the word-body-action nexus:  the way we talk the talk, walk the walk, and rock the rock.   It is not so much “discourse” that pragmatists are after as “discursivity,” not “affect” but “affectivity,” not “conduct” but “conductivity” that situates the individual on the intersection of overlapping social currents and meaning fields from which the agent can borrow symbols, behavioral gambits, or emotional stratagems best suited for the situation at hand. 

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Looked at from this angle, society transpires as a semi-ordered chaos continuously generating unanticipated consequences, while democracy shows itself as a historically specific mode of managing uncertainty marked by a tolerant attitude toward indeterminacy.  The democratic form of government resists any monopoly on the terminological means of production of social reality as objective and meaningful.  It places terminological tools in as many hands as possible, encouraging citizens to reshape the established terminologies, substitute new identities for the old ones, and experiment with new ways of terminating indeterminacy.
Democracies also put stock in building civil society and cultivating a democratic temperament.  The two are actually different sides of the same process.  The civil society perspective focuses attention on the emotional underpinning of democracy, the affective equivalents of democratic ethos, and the nondiscursive properties of civil discourse.  Trust, tolerance, prudence, compassion, humor – these are the somatic-affective conditions of possibility for a society striving to be democratic.  With civic virtues bread into their bones, democratic citizenry will keep the torch of liberty lit even when the substantive consensus on the burning issues of the day proves to be elusive. 

Civic virtues do not spring to life in a vacuum; they require a constitutional framework of liberties, a political system of empowerment, and an economic structure of opportunities that give every citizen a meaningful chance to participate in society’s affairs and share in its reaches.  Civil virtues thrive in societies where these historical conditions have been largely met.  But the reverse is also true:  civility promotes legal, political, and economic changes conducive to democracy and market economy.  There is something of a circle here, which can be rather vicious:  Civic virtues thrive under particular socio-economic conditions while these conditions depend on civic discourse.  Herein, it seems to me, lies the predicament that many fledgling democracies face. 

Violence – discursive, affective, behavioral – that has been bred into our bones for generations breed suspicion, hatred, vanity, cruelty, and sarcasm.  To ameliorate the affective-somatic environment in which nondemocratic polities thrive, you need to change its political, economic, and social institutions.  But to change these institutions you will have to rely on the civil process.  There is no easy way out of this circle.  You work on every front possible – legal, political, economic, cultural, social, religious, with special attention paid to the pragmatic-discursive misalignment and the conflicting ways in which democracy signs itself – in the flesh, in deeds, and in symbols.  For democracy is an embodied as well as an indeeded phenomenon, whose symbolic tokens help us see how far its affective markers and behavioral renderings stray from what democracy aspires to be. 

You’ve got to start with you yourself to further the process of democratic transformation.  Chekhov was exactly right when he called on his contemporaries to grapple with their own deformities fostered by the old regime and cultivate habits that engender a more humane world.  To overcome an obsolete mentality, Russian or otherwise, is about as easy as to overcome entrenched alcoholism or recover from years of abuse.  This can be done but with great difficulty, for the habits formed over the course of years are singed in our flesh, carved in the neuro-pathways of our abused bodymind.  There is no way around this process, for reforms make their way into reality through embodied agents, and they remain chiefly a “mentality” until they become the habit of the heart.

Significant social change starts on the micro level – with fresh religious stirrings among early Christians, ethical strictures of protestant reformers, or passionate beliefs of Young Turks.  It is moral imagination, emotional offerings, and behavioral commitments that pave the way to the future.  Indeed, it is easier to change the world than to reform yourself.  Too many revolutionaries fail to realize this, as they litter their path with intolerance, violence, and terror.  The change they effect proves to be illusive, for violent revolutionaries reproduce the new world in their own image, with all their vices bred into the new social order.  This is why my hopes lie not with inventing clever slogans, updating the Russian idea, or organizing a party where every member marches in lockstep.  Important though such efforts are, they fall short of the formidable task.  True agents of change are flesh and blood individuals who become strange attractors around which new affective-behavioral fields are formed, whose civic virtues serve as a democratic beacon to their fellow citizens.  Acting as a party of one, a strange attractor can do more to foster change than intellectuals and politicians who say one thing, do another, and emote something altogether different.  Democratic transformation is akin to osmosis, it works one individual at a time, and its agent is something of a pravednik (rather than just a propovednik) who models democratic virtues in the flesh.

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I doubt my musings will be especially helpful, Boris Maximovich.  But then, the theoretical-methodological options discussed above are not the only possible.  You might well chose to continue along the path you have outlined in your proposal, which calls for an extensive use of polling data, surveying the Russian respondents’ reaction to different political agendas, searching for the historical roots of current mentalities, pinpointing the vacillation between conflicting scenarios, and so on.  No matter which conceptual net you use, you are bound to catch some fish.  Even if you choose to follow your original blueprint, however, you might want to consider my misgivings and see if they can be taken into account.

To conclude, I want to mention a few sources you might want to consult as you continue work on your project.  

You have seen my article on the emotionally intelligent democracy and my letter to Daniil Dondurei where I discuss the discourse and body language of reform.  I understand that you have a volume that I edited for the Westview Press, Russian Culture at the Crossroads.  Paradoxes of Postcommunist Consciousness.  I particularly urge you to check the chapters by Kon and Etkind in this book.  The former enumerates key features of Soviet mentality, the latter talks about raising the New Soviet Man.  You might also want to look up Paramonov’s chapter on “Historical Culture” where he searches for recurrent patterns in Russian history, as well as my essay on “Intellectual Culture” where I attend to the historical neuroses of the Russian intelligentsia.

If you are interested in pragmatist sociology and its theoretical/methodological underpinnings, you can look up the “Pragmatism” page on the CDC web site where you will find a few key studies in this tradition.  I also want to mention my article in Zvezda (1995, No. 6, pp. 192-198) titled “Skazkobyl:  On the Recessive Genes in Russian Culture” that might be of interest to you.  Finally, I am attaching my recent article on legal pragmatism and fully embodied democratic process that discusses the interplay between law and emotions and the role each play in building a viable democracy. 

With warm wishes,

Dmitri Shalin

Tel. 702-895-0259
Fax 702-895-4800
Email:  shalin@unlv.nevada,edu