Cats and Theories
a blog by coticheque
a blog by coticheque

Structural marginality and the damage of socialist revolutions

This post probably won’t resonate with many people living in Western Europe or the US. Neither it would find much understanding in Russia. But I have decided to take advantage of being overly-sensitive and uhm… socially-conscious (turn your weaknesses into strengths, they say), so let me rant about some stuff that has been bothering me for a while.

For the past few years I happen to live in Eastern Europe, in the Czech Republic – a country that was influenced by the Soviet regime (rather severely). Since the fall of the Soviet Union, many things have been successfully rebuilt: political system now works remarkably well (and democracy seems to function in a remarkably efficient way), and the economic development is outpacing Western Europe. Same can be said about public transit, urbanism, local businesses, etc. However, one thing seems to be particularly hard to repair over the time-frame of a few generations. The behavior of people.

This is not just a rant of a resentful or chauvinistic migrant who tends to find flaws in anything foreign (you know these people complaining how dirty Paris is, or how much Venice stinks). Oh no, over my life I lived in 6 different countries outside of Russia. I’m not overly critical of anything foreign (and I’m not patriotic of my home country either). Yet, in none of these countries, I faced any problems with a social / cultural fit, that I experience here. Living in Germany, Italy, UK or the US, I could never even think that cultural fit could ever even become a problem.

Yet, it did. The habits of common people, how they behave, speak, dress. Let me enumerate a few of examples.

— Perhaps the most intolerable thing is a universal denial of the idea of personal space. For instance, here it’s socially acceptable to walk behind someone on a sidewalk, keeping a distance of 20 cm behind. Same in public transport: it’s okay to bump and push someone with a shoulder. Even in countries like Spain, where people are particularly well-known for being overly tactile and touchy, everyone easily respects a distance of at least a couple of meters. It’s considered to be a common decency. Perhaps it’s too audacious to expect this decency to be universal.

— Another disturbing thing is loudness and general shamelessness. Being in restaurants is often insufferable, as it feels like being on a villagy market with people shouting at each other. Every(!) train ride is accompanied by someone playing YouTube videos on the phone with sound on, even in the first class. Public space is considered a mere continuation of one’s private realm, and it’s okay to shout at people on the other side of the street, or yell at children playing 50 meters away in the park. And of course it’s socially acceptable, even encouraged, to shout in one’s ear, when you walk as close as 20 cm from another person on a street. This feature was driving me crazy, making me feel like I’m intolerant to any level of noise, so I started to pay attention to how people speak in other countries. Well, they speak normally: in transport, restaurants, in the parks – in Italy, Germany, and Spain. And Japan is a heaven on Earth in this sense (if you happen to be in Tokyo’s Narita airport, pay attention how it’s the quietest airport in the world).

— Blowing nose in public is another thing which is hard to get used to. I know that in many countries blowing nose is considered to be something natural, and not shameful at all – definitely not something uncivilized to do in public. Perhaps it’s socially unacceptable only in Russia. But the extent to which people do it here is incomprehensible. Imagine a girl on the metro wearing an elegant evening dress and heels. Possibly with her date sitting next to her. Then she would take a napkin and blow her nose for 5 min straight with the most vigorous effort possible. People feel especially proud when they can blow nose in public, showing off the power and loudness put into this act. Preferable looking at others straight in the eyes. I cannot but think it might be a subconscious act of trying to establish a higher social status in a social group – like animals using poop or urine to establish their status on a certain territory.

And I’m not even talking about the way people dress. Think of the style of residents of a provincial Russian town as of 20 years ago. If you don’t believe me, just go to Prague’s Hradčanská metro station.

I guess all these features can be classified as the lack of etiquette, or the absence of cultural awareness and common decency. It’s not just an annoying feature of a few uncivilized people – the problem is structural / systemic, and spread across all social classes (think of the people riding the first class). So the appropriate term to characterize such general lack of civilizedness would be a systemic marginality*, a structural barbarianism. And the worst feature of it is its proud shamelessness. Of course, it doesn’t apply to 100% of population (for instance, people I work with are all very nice and cultured), but nothing ever does. Still, I have discussed the issue even with local people, and they agree that the extent of local marginality is concerningly high compared to other countries.

So how to explain this lack of cultural consideration and common decency? Well, I find one of the factors offering a plausible explanation to be the harmful impact of the Soviet heritage: in particular, the impact of socialist revolution, and Soviet regime in general, on local social structures (the difference of the same impact affecting Russia will be analyzed later). I don’t want to believe that Czech Republic is culturally inferior to Italy or the Netherlands, so the Soviet influence would at least explain why this social phenomenon is present here, but absent in other countries from the list.

To make a long story short, the socialist revolutions (or the forceful seizure of power by communists) uproot the long-established social order that the societies were grounded on for centuries: most wealthy dynasties and social elites are overthrown in a matter of days. Many of these elites were related to the class of aristocracy: people who by definition were expected to exhibit the most refined cultural taste and highest standards of public behavior. I’m not saying that all economic elites were necessarily best-cultured and had the most sophisticated taste, but at least it’s a fact that families that have been wealthy for a few generations were ensuring the best education for their children. The cultural elites forming for centuries were overthrown in a matter of days, and who came to replace them was not particularly talented. It’s a well-known fact that the Soviet regime didn’t rely on meritocracy. Whoever was loyal to the party was easily promoted to the highest bureaucratic class, regardless of one’s own intellectual merit. Fast forward a few decades, when the Soviet Union falls, we find the society with a social structure turned upside down: there’s no aristocratic class whose code of behavior to follow, no legitimate cultural elite, no people with a particular merit occupying significant political roles.

In a few decades, when Eastern Europe has economically and politically recovered from the Soviet damage, becoming sufficiently wealthy and democratic, many people found themselves relatively affluent. And what came with it was the feeling of self-content, proudness, complacency, and a right for being respected. Their ways of behavior and their cultural tastes had to be recognized and honoured as anyone else’s. Democracy and egalitarianism merely ensured it.

There was no lack of poor and uneducated people in the past. The main difference is that they knew their place in the social structure. Peasants generally respected their kings and feudal lords, accepting the fact that they have a better education and merit to make educated judgements in various spheres: from the etiquette to economy and culture. Peasants had no claim to have an equal level of upbringing. This is obviously not the case anymore. Socialist revolutions have erased the impact of centuries of civilized development. The lines of cultural traditions were interrupted, and people from the lowest social classes became shameless at asserting their taste and judgement. In the most proud and daring way possible. Truly, the dismal prophecies from the books of José Ortega y Gasset.

How to fix these things? I don’t think the social conventions that were forming for centuries can be easily repaired. But at least we can ensure that meritocracy is the underlying principle of any public activity. Although aristocracy was annihilated a long time ago, it could perhaps be replaced with technocracy, even in the cultural sphere. For example, architects should have the authority to say what’s tasteful and what’s not, and veto tasteless projects. The vulgar stuff should be openly condemned. Instead of a democratic acceptance of all tastes and preferences, technocratic authority can be extended even to the realm of cultural sphere. If we no longer have positive examples coming from cultural elites, should the positive cultural influence be exercised though governmental paternalism? (On an ironic note, the project of libertarianism totally failed locally). Will such intervention from above make the taste and behavior of people more civilized? I don’t know. But any visible impact would definitely have to be awaited for the decades to follow.

Or, maybe I’m wrong and all my conclusions are too far-fetched, and the object of my rant is simply an inherent cultural peculiarity that cannot be eradicated – like defecation in public spaces common in some parts of Asia – and the best way to deal with it is to simply get it out of sight by moving away.

And what about Russia, you might ask – it would be hypocritical from my side to criticize a foreign society, having come from a country well-known for its poverty and gopniks. Well, the form of marginality prevailing in Russia is different – with the main difference that it’s not shameless, and it’s not manifested in public. Personal space is respected (people generally don’t trust one another and prefer to stay as far as possible from each other), everyone talks quietly for the same reasons (what if someone overhears your secrets?). And needless to say that the public nose-blowing is considered a social crime. To sum up, many Russian people are poor and not particularly sophisticated, but they seem to know their place in the social structure. They have never reached the same level of wealthiness as Eastern Europeans did, and thus never had a reason to become as self-content and proud as the latter ones. And I don’t have a problem with marginality per se, as long as it doesn’t dare to infiltrate into the wider social circles.

* As usual, I’m using the word marginal in the Russian meaning of it – that implies being both poor, uncivilized and uncultured.

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