Old Saint Basil's Cathedral in MoscowJohnson's Russia List title and scenes of Saint Petersburg
Excerpts from the JRL E-Mail Community :: Founded and Edited by David Johnson

the eXile
December 13, 2001
Operation Enduring Sovok
By Matt Taibbi (taibbi@exile.ru)

While researching this story last week, the eXile made an important scientific discovery. We found out why God made Russia cold.

Two of our operatives had stationed themselves outside the outdoor take-out booth at the McDonald’s at Novokuznetskaya. This was their post in our paper’s Operation Enduring Sovok— a vast effort aimed at measuring the distance of cultural erosion since the end of the Soviet era.

The specific mission of the staffers at the McDonald’s take-out window was to record the number of instances of a certain kind of conversation, a conversation only possible in Russia— the old Russia, anyway. It takes place when a middle-aged and usually overweight person makes his way to the front of a long line at McDonald’s. The person has had as long as five full minutes to read the menu before getting to the front of the line, but he’s waited until he actually reaches the front to do so. Now that he is at the front of the line, and six or seven people are safely camped behind him in impatient agony, he squints up at the menu, scanning the letters some 4-6 minutes longer than it is physically possible to actually read the information. From there, he starts asking questions of the cashier:

“A Royal Cheeseburger, what’s that?”

“Which is the sandwich that comes with tomatoes and horseradish?”

“Why should I order the meal if it’s not cheaper than ordering the items separately?”

“Can I get an extra box with the McNuggets?”

And so on, and so on. There is no way to stop such a person, no way to make the process go faster. He is progressing at maximum speed. Any attempt to speed him up will only cause behavioral spillage in any number of new and ugly directions. You are at his mercy.

Our operatives had been standing outside in the snow, in temperatures nearing -16, for almost thirty minutes. Not one such conversation had taken place. One man stood outside the line and scanned the menu for at least three minutes longer than it was possible to read it, and then, after checking his pocket and discovering only twenty rubles, walked away— but this was a minor incident. The real sovki were staying away. One Russian after the other made his way to the front of the line, mumbled curt one or two-word orders, and dutifully forked over his money.

That’s when it hit us.

Cold deters sovok.

When people are very cold, even Russian people, they do not like to linger. They don’t like to waste time.

God covered Russia in snow and ice for one reason. He did it to get Russians to shut the fuck up. And it works. Against all odds— it works. It’s about the only thing that does.

Or is it? Is sovok under siege? When the West fell in love with President Vladimir Putin last month, it occurred to us to ask: is this country’s leader a traitor? Because what America calls reasonable and Western-looking also very frequently means, precisely, not a zanuda and not sovok. What the West praises in Putin is the quantity of anti-sovok in him. And on the surface, there seems to be a lot of it. Is it an act, or the real thing? Is there a real rollback underway, or is it just another Potemkin job? We set out last week to found out.


Sovok— literally a dustpan or a little shovel, figuratively something much more involved— is one of the hardest concepts to explain to the new visitor to Russia. Sovok itself makes sovok hard to explain. One of the key aspects of the Soviet mindset, which is roughly but not exactly the definition of sovok, is the instinct to volubly offer a totally unsubstantiated opinion or fanciful historical analysis on any and every given subject. Therefore there are scores of different opinions and theories about the origins of sovok.

Some people say it’s just a play on words, a funny-sounding noun form of the adjective sovietsky.

Others say that it comes from Trotsky’s famous phrase about the Mensheviks being “consigned to the dustbin of history.”

Here’s an explanation we like. This one comes from an internet diarist named “Grisha” who dedicated several pages of his site (www.grisha.ru) to sovok. His version of the origins of sovok goes like this:

“They say that there was a Soviet film director in the seventies who made a movie. They paid him an honorarium for his work. A big one, a government one. He and his friends bought some expensive cognac, and went looking for a place to drink it. This was taking place on a Sunday, when everything was closed. Finally they went into a children’s playground and sat on the edge of a sandbox. There, in the sand, they found a set of children’s toys, a little shovel and a bunch of pails of various sizes... And they started to drink the expensive cognac out of the various items in the set. The director got the little shovel. He drank and drank, and finally suddenly said, ‘But in fact, guys, we all live v sovke [in a little shovel].’ The director himself told this story on television. I don’t remember his name.”

Bullshit? Clearly. But it’s a good story. Ironically, this removes it from the sovok tradition. A sovok story would be bullshit and a bad story. And it would have taken four times as long to tell it. Sometimes it’s hard to keep tabs on all the nuances of sovok— but once you get it, you’ve got it. It’s like riding a bicycle.

In brief, here are some of the primary characteristics of sovok:

1) Advice-giving

The concept of sovok goes hand-in-hand with another famous Soviet play on words— strana sovetov (“Country of Soviets” and “country of advice”). Actually, the tendency to express oneself in semi-self-derisive popular expressions is, itself, very sovok. The gangster character in the maroon sportcoat in Brat 1, who expressed himself entirely in proverbs, was one of the very first post-sovki: as a brutally successful arch-capitalist who traded in violent deeds instead of words he was, by definition, an anti-sovok (a sovok being a market-averse talker), but his sarcastic use of pogovorki was an ironic dig at the culture his type of person was replacing. Anyone who has lived in this country for any length of time knows this phenomenon. Mention Bulgaria, and the sovok immediately reminds you that a chicken is not a bird, and Bulgaria is not abroad. Hesitate before you drink, and some off-duty petty bureaucrat relaxing at home in Chinese knock-off Adidas sweatpants, a man who has never had an original or truly risky thought in his entire life, will remind you quickly that “He who does not risk, does not drink champagne.” Don’t feel like working? Work isn’t a wolf— it won’t run into the woods. You can see it coming from a mile away, but you can never get out of the way.

Strana sovetov is self-explanatory and everyone who has lived here longer than ten minutes knows it in his bones. Sit on the ground and without fail, someone will come and tell you that you will catch cold, cancer, or render yourself infertile. Try to unobtrusively take out an aspirin or drink a cup of Theraflu on your own time, in your own space, and someone in this country will inevitably rush up to you, ask you what you’re sick with and what medicine it is that you’re taking, and then explain to you why you’re doing yourself harm and what remedy you ought to be taking (mustard in your socks, vodka on your back, etc.). You didn’t ask for that advice; you got it. This is the essence of sovok. Again, this is closely related to yet another expression: what’s mine is mine, and what’s yours is also mine. Your own space, your own body, your own decisions all belong, in the sovok’s mind, to the sovok himself as much as they do to you. At least partly.

This is one of those aspects of sovok that has a direct explanation. In a culture where whole families frequently lived crammed into one room, husbands and wives with children and smelly grandparents, all peering out at each others’ beds at night from different walls, fighting tooth and nail over twenty centimeters of space in which to store a pair of slippers, and so on, it was pretty easy to lose one’s grasp on the distinctions between your own business and someone else’s.

People still live like this all over Russia, and this is why sovok is surviving. But in places like the center of Moscow and St. Petersburg, in the apartments of the “emerging middle class” and the upper strata, there is a growing population of people who sleep in their own rooms and do not share bathrooms with strangers or the elderly. There are young Russian children, in fact, who have lived their entire lives without the benefit of this experience. When these children grow up, they will not know the necessity of accosting the person in the next seat over on an airplane— they may even genuinely want to read or sleep instead. These children are a threat to sovok, because by definition they will be likely to belong to the ruling class, a class which will mistakenly focus on things like macroeconomics as opposed to things that really matter to the sovok segment, things like worthless tin medals and special discounts on trips to shitty crumbling resorts in Bulgaria.

Which brings us to Putin. Putin is a very different creature than the other recent Russian rulers, all of whom grew up in extreme sovok conditions. Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin both knew all about sharing little corners of shacks and dormitory rooms with ten other people and fighting, literally fighting, over scraps. Both came from villages and moved to big cities only very late in life. Putin grew up walking the same streets as Karenin and Onegin. He had his own car by the time he was nineteen. He not only went overseas, he lived there— and not in Angola or Romania, but Germany. There’s no sovok proverb that applies: a chicken isn’t a bird, but Germany, even East Germany, sure as hell was overseas.

The previous Russian leaders all resembled pigs late in life mainly because, well, they had lived like pigs. Putin is thinner than your average pig. The animal he most closely resembles is a weasel or a jackal. Not a sty animal. A forest animal. Putin’s vision of an ideal world, like that of some Germans we know, is an endless series of landscapes without people, birch trees and snowy plains, maybe with the sound of high-grade crude gurgling up a well far off in the distance... Because he grew up with space, Putin clearly values it. Any psychologist will tell you that the opposite urge is at work with the sovok: having grown up living in a pile of people, he will for the rest of his life be drawn to human piles, no matter how much inner rage and incoherence this costs him.

The sovok gives you advice because he wants to be given advice. And then he wants to hate you for giving it to him, and give you more advice back. From there the cycle begins all over again.

This is why the sovok cannot be prevented from giving advice. There is no place to stop in a circle.

Some other characteristics of sovok:

2) Inexplicability and intractability.

The sovok is an animal that can annoy you with a dizzying array of weapons: envy, nosiness, verbal restlessness, exaggerated hospitality. But his lead punch is his inexplicability. You can combat what you can explain, but the sovok eludes counterattack because he very often makes no sense at all— and then won’t budge from his spot no matter how hard you push.

The best place to see this is in the area of sovok architecture and interior design. This is the best place because these professions put the sovok’s premeditated illogic on display.

Take the classic design of the Soviet food produce store, with its attendant kassa system. Taken separately, each of the characteristics of the system make a kind of sense. All the food products are behind counters, inaccessible to the shopper, because they might be stolen otherwise. The cash registers for each section are kept separate so that it is easier to keep track of sales in each section. Then the cash registers are kept separate from the sections they belong to, to make theft on the part of the staff more difficult— theoretically. Whatever the rationale behind all of this, the result is a system in which you must make six or seven separate purchases in each trip to the store, keeping complex sets of figures in your head in between trips to each counter and cashier, inciting rage and impatience from the always-overweight salesladies at each step— all of which certainly cost the state and even the store network system itself more in aggravation and man-hours than it could ever have possibly lost due to theft.

There is no place in Russia that sets off the sovok Geiger counter more reliably than the area around a free-standing kassa in a food produce store. Some of the world’s purest human hatred and incoherence is on display every single day in the earshot range around these little misery-cages containing the cashiers.

“Girl, give me 120 rubles at section five.”

“For what?”

“Doctorskaya Kielbasa.”

“Doktorskaya Kielbasa is section four. Next kassa.”

“But it’s under the sign for section fiv—”


The kassa system does not make logical sense, but it does make sense in terms of sovok. The sovok will go to a 7th Continent and sincerely miss the Meat-Fish kassa-hell-hole on his corner on Kashirskoye Shosse. He’ll look at the pre-sliced shrink-wrapped meats and think to himself that fat-fisted Svetlana Viktorevna of section 6 (meat), who he was loudly calling a suka yebuchaya just that morning, makes the cleanest cuts of steak in the entire world, that nothing beats a Svetlana Viktorevna steak.

Life to the sovok is emptier without the intense human interaction around the kassa. This is why modern check-out counters seem inhuman to him.

Vladimir Putin’s Moscow is steadily filling up with Western-style check out counters. It is easier to imagine him shopping at one of those than at Meat-Fish #6.

3) Filth

There’s something about sovok: it can never quite get clean. When it polishes and lacquers a wood floor, it always leaves bubbles and skewed angles. Its hair is always disheveled. It decorates itself in the colors of dirt and seaweed.

This is another striking anti-sovok characteristic of Vladimir Putin. He is obviously a naturally clean person. He exudes fastidiousness and hygiene. In this he is, again, set apart from Russia’s former leaders.

In all of Russia’s history since the revolution there has only been one leader who approached Putin’s level of personal cleanliness: Vladimir Lenin. But Lenin was a bourgeois pre-sovok. He took hikes in mountains and felt at home in Switzerland. He didn’t have the chance to really live in the sovok world he created, and it certainly didn’t affect his upbringing.

Sovok really began with Stalin. Stalin’s outward appearance was manicured, but one gets the impression of barely-restrained odors and hairs. That helmet of waxed hair must have raised the surface temperature of his scalp to uncomfortable levels. His mustache undoubtedly stank. And Stalin’s survived to an age and a level of relative leisure in which his inner corruption began to pollute his appearance. Lenin never had that luxury: he died before he rotted from within.

After Stalin comes a series of leaders with a nearly identical inability to wear a suit: Khruschev, Brezhnyev, Andropov, Chernenko. There is a brief interruption with Gorbachev, and then the trend continued with Yeltsin, who looked uncomfortably simian and poorly-fit in the most expensive suits money could buy.

Gorbachev could wear a suit. And he looked clean. And yet, even here, in the area of hygiene, Gorbachev was far more sovok than Putin. Gorbachev’s flair for expensive foreign suits was, even more than Yeltsin’s, a symptom of another extreme form of sovok, the grasping Europe-envy sovok. Sovok in the old days occasionally sold “German beer”— not German light beer or German dark beer, just “German beer”, because the only thing that mattered was that it was German. Gorbachev with his palaces on the Black Sea and his furs for Raisa and his Italian and French suits was pathologically sovok. In his student years, Mikhail Sergeyevich might have committed murder to shop at a store called “Finnskaya Mebel’”. Yeltsin would not have. The effort it would have taken to get into one would have cut into his drinking time.

Putin, on the other hand, was clean and comfortable in Soviet suits back in the day, and clean and comfortable in Italian suits now. There is nothing grasping about his look. His suits do not appear to be suffering on his body. This might be because he has class— or it might be because he is not wholly human or even warm-blooded. A cobra would look good in a suit as well. Whatever it is, it isn’t sovok.

4) Blabbering.

You hail down a taxi and get inside. The driver asks you the address. You tell him and tell him which way you want to go. He tells you you’ve chosen the wrong way, and that he knows a short-cut.

“Why would you want to go that way?” he asks. “That’s ridiculous. Along the boulevard. Why, you can go through Lubyanka!”

Now, you know that it’s actually faster to take the Boulevard, because, unlike the driver, you’ve taken this same route to your office a hundred times. So you try to insist once. The driver replies angrily: “I’ve been a taxi driver in this city for fifteen years. I know this city, after all.”

So you decide to let is slide and go his way, so as to avoid argument.

Here is where sovok really kicks in. As soon as you concede in your argument about the route, a silence will fall over the car. But it is a false silence. Because sovok dictates that once an argument is over, it must necessarily be revisited later on. A minute, two minutes, three minutes pass. You are watching the driver out of the corner of your eye. Finally he turns to you and says:

“Because the problem with the Boulevard is that there’s traffic. Now, if I go through Lubyanka, there’s no traffic...”

This is another aspect of Sovok that has a direct explanation. In Soviet times whole ranges of conversational subjects were taboo. The only thing to talk about was nothing. Worse, silence actually was an indicator of private inquiry and examination. If you were intermittently quiet, it mean you were occasionally taking real stock of the situation. This was dangerous during lengthy stretches of the Soviet period. It was safer to show absolute cooperation out loud at all times by always talking— about nothing.

This is why Russian television is filled with shows that feature a single person sitting in front of the camera talking open-endedly about some idiotic topic, or reminiscing about some forgotten matter that was not particularly interesting even to contemporaneous observers. “My Conversations with Paustovsky” is the kind of thing that makes good television in Russia.

Sovok is found in great breadth and volume in the printed work of twentieth-century Russian writers and scholars. A Soviet professor never wrote, V mire (In the world)... He always wrote v nastoyashyem mire (In the current or real world)... The pages of Russian books are littered with utterly meaningless filler phrases: kak govoritstya, v obshei slozhnosti, tak skazhem, v dannom momente, etc., etc. This tradition of verbal diarrhea, so familiar to foreigners who have worked hard to grow accustomed to it, was what caused such freakish phenomena as the anchorman Yevgeny Kisyelov, a man physically incapable of speaking a simple declarative sentence.

Mark Twain once said that to read Fenimore Cooper’s books was to believe that people once lived in a world where words meant nothing at all, where four-foot pigs of thought were routinely pounded into twenty-foot rails of conversation... Twain never lived long enough to see the Soviet Union. He might have thought Cooper’s books more realistic.

This is one area in which Putin scores a mild Sovok rating. In most cases he’s an anti-Sovok even here: he usually speaks directly and to the point. The famous line about the Chechens— if they’re in the outhouse, we’ll whack them in the outhouse— was probably the bluntest sentence to come out of the mouth of a Russian leader since the Stalin era (and even Stalin’s utterances were usually fraught with ugly double and triple meanings). There was Khruschev’s “We will bury you” line, on the surface not sovok, but actually fairly sovok close-up, because he was just posturing. It’s a characteristic of sovok to make idle threats, boasts, and promises, and to do so confidently, precisely because they are meaningless. Putin, on the other hand, apparently actually meant it about whacking the Chechens.

However, Putin is guilty of one sovok verbiage crime: flattery. Whenever he talks about the “professionals” in the army or honors a famous artist or actress or singer, he reverts into streams of sickening, saccharine compliments. Compliments are very sovok. Though the sexual orientation of sovok is located squarely between the neuter and passive-homosexual poles, the sovok man prides himself on his compliments to women. He takes the female target by the hand, caresses her hand, gets on his knees, sings to her, calls her a queen and a princess, and so on and so on, before going to the banya or disappearing into his garage for ten long hours. Putin routinely indulges in this kind of behavior. His threadlike thin lips will sputter out endless paeans to minor bureaucrats and aristocrat Presidents of the United States alike. He gets carried away. It is one of the few worsening cosmetic tendencies of his Presidency. As Prime Minister, he was all business, all the time. Now he enjoys chairing celebrity panels and presenting things— bunches of flowers, plaques, medals. This is one of the few things about the Putin presidency that directly appeals to the sovok constituency.

It should be noted that sovok in general supports Putin— for now. Putin in many ways has been to sovok like the proverbial Svetlana Viktorevna steak that is second to none in the world. Sovok recently has gotten to watch Putin outmaneuver his Western counterparts and has been able to say to itself sincerely: we’re no worse than the Europeans. When Putin and Bush went to China for the Asian economic forum, Putin looked just as much and no more extremely foolish than did George Bush in those Chinese chamises— something sovok was undoubtedly proud of.

Sovok is always superficially nationalistic. U nas lusche (it’s better at home) is its official foreign policy. But sovok also secretly dreams of divorcing his wife, moving to America, and returning ten years later to show her how he’s “risen up” (podnyalsya). It likes to talk about the power of Russian industry, but it doesn’t want to work more than two hours a day. The first sovki were probably Gaev and Ranevskaya from The Cherry Orchard, who did a lot of talking in the provinces but panicked when the market invaded from the city. Sovok likes posturing. It is not particularly interested in actual conflict.

That is why Putin’s popularity in Russia may be fleeting. In the beginning, his thuggish KGB agent act just gave sovok a chance to thumb its nose at the West. But when it takes a closer look at what Putin’s all about, it might not like what it sees. The click of a leather heel on an uncarpeted hallway. Open spaces. “Professionals.” Circumspection. Goons at the door instead of babushkas. Procreation instead of compliments. Sobriety. Jogging. Hygiene. Moral fastidiousness. Viciously regressive labor attitudes. A rapidly-growing oil empire. Except for his height, Putin really has much more in common with John D. Rockefeller than he does with Yuri Nikulin.

If anyone was the ultimate anti-sovok, it was Rockefeller. The ruthless old miser even left behind a poem establishing the fact. Can anyone imagine a Russian over-reciting this little quatrain on the Kultura channel?

A wise old owl lived in an oak;

The more he saw the less he spoke;

The less he spoke the more he heard.

Why can’t we all be like the wise old bird?

Oaks. Owls (sova, not sovki). Silence. Oil. With every step Putin takes in their direction, a way of life fades further into the background. What a great punchline. Disappearing might be the first thing sovok has ever done quietly.

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