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Natasha Tamruchi Juvenile Soldier
It is common knowledge (at least in Russia) that this country has its special path. It makes not sense arguing with the concept especially when it applied to the past (in the present, however, it’d be nice to take a path less special). The Russian male has been shaped up by our special history, both as a flesh-and-blood human being and as a mental construct. While the country hold on to its heroes, and its tyrants, the male remains more firmly rooted in the past than one would expect.
So let’s start at that poignant point in history when the special path clearly defined itself.
Immediately after the 1917 Revolution the eminent women’s rights advocate, professor A.G. Goikhbarg was engaged to draft the new government’s ground-breaking Decrees. They were to overturn the traditional views on gender roles in the family and society. Goikhbarg’s political convictions (he was a Menshevik) were no impediment for serving the Bolsheviks. His innovative ideas had their culmination in the Family Code of 1918. The Code confirmed gender equality, facilitated divorce procedures and annulled adoption. What did it mean?
It meant that the man legally lost his dominant role in the family, and was relieved of his role of sole guardian, protector and breadwinner. It was a timely adjustment indeed.
The new centralized economic system introduced by the Bolsheviks left the old head of the house without any opportunity for financial initiative. Nominally the Soviet people collectively owned everything in the country, but an individual was not viewed as a stakeholder in the commonwealth. Quite the contrary – he was viewed as owning nothing, and was not supposed to engage in any independent economic activity. Under the new laws it would be a serious crime, and severely punished. Businessmen as a class were not to be, and even in the late 1980ies directors of “underground” factories and other members of the so called shadow economy were given capital punishment.
The State did not permit any private economic initiative and did allow its working citizens a role in the distribution of produced wealth. Agendas of the Politburo meetings included not only such items as projections for the new sewing season, or setting retail prices for bread and milk, but remarkably, things like ‘uses of leftover dry bread”, “purchase of rice and herring”, “castration of bulls in kolkhozes” and other equally odd discussion topics. An obsessive desire to protect the citizens from making decisions even about the smallest of matters can only mean one thing: the government viewed the population as either “lunatics and mentally deranged” or, at best, as minors who needed protection and guidance. The State positioned itself as legal guardian to this poor wretch who as a consequence practically lost his right of responsible action.
It was only logical that the Soviet Law would relieve its defective male of normal adult responsibility towards his family: the burden of supporting a household became too heavy for him. No other country in the world had divorce laws as lenient as the ones of the early Soviet State. It can be easily guessed that the duties of a former husband towards his estranged family were even more nebulous, than those of his still married counterpart. Richard Stites, a recognized scholar of Russian history, suggests that it was practically impossible to collect alimony from runaway husbands. Few women managed to do so, as the men were too poor, too sick, too unavailable, and too irresponsible. Stites’ adds some amazing quotes from sociological studies done in the 1920ies. According to those studies, a quarter of all divorces in the Soviet Russia happened for a hard-to-believe reason of the wife’s pregnancy. Young husbands complained that having a child would put a cap on their freedom.
Those were hard times for the family (the institution and the people), and it was the woman who made sure it survived. In the absence of a male head, she became the head and the breadwinner. Whether the husband was present or absent did not make a dramatic difference. In any case the woman was now in charge. It was she who managed the family budget; she who kept track of everybody’s needs. That included the needs of her economically incapable immature mate.
Gender roles changed.
The newly liberated woman played the role that in the old days was reserved for a widow with children. Emancipation gave her the role of an eternal widow! The man at best was there to assist, he was “the older boy” who dutifully brought his salary “to Mom”, but who was also prone to display his immaturity in deviant behavior, mostly alcohol abuse. His transgressions did not always go unpunished: the so called “Women’s Committees” had to processes a fair number of complaints from husbands who had been beat up by their wives.
Heavy drinking had been viewed in old Russia rather as a sorry exception. In the Soviet times it became the norm and any “real man”, was expected to be a drinker. Quite possibly this expectation was a psychological trick that translated the man’s legal incapacity into an understandable physical weakness, temporary and accidental. The man was off the hook; he was always presently drunk and incapable of action. This would explain why Soviet males as a whole avoided sobriety at all costs.
The connection between the Soviet political regime and widespread alcohol addiction deserved a separate study. It seems like the universal inebriation was critical for the regime’s survival. Many hold that the demise of the system was largely due to Andropov’s anti-alcohol campaign. Conversely, the system flourished when it encouraged alcohol consumption. At the zenith of Bolshevik power, Stalin wrote to Molotov: «I think we need to increase the production of vodka as much as possible. We should get rid of false shame and openly, unabashedly go for maximum production of vodka in the interest of this country’s efficient defense» . It is quite symptomatic that the army reform was implemented by Stalin with revenues from selling vodka. It had been conceived and financed that way from the start.
Did the Soviet male have any means to defend his downtrodden masculinity, unrealizable in his civil and private life?
The State offered its citizens a limited range of options: 1) be part of an indiscriminate mass where an individual is not his own person and has no responsibility for himself, but lives as a some kind of an infant, supported by the government and fully obedient to it (it is no accident that in every case of political persecution investigators looked for accomplices: unaided individual was not supposed to be capable of any action, not even criminal one); 2) join in with other Soviet prisoners (not a voluntary choice, of course), and 3) become a soldier. Even though all three options were extremely limiting in terms of personal freedoms, the last one was the most attractive.
In the Soviet epoch, especially during Stalin’s leadership, the military were a privileged group, a higher caste, and until the summer of 1941 the army as a whole seemed indomitable. Its numbers were known to have reached five million even in peaceful times.
This would seem to mean that the army was an ideal place where the Soviet man could at last be needed and appreciated, complete and fulfilled. It would seem like a place where he would at last be a strong and able adult, capable of action.
It wasn’t all that simple.
The barracks are a quite a special place. On the one hand, all things masculine are found there in high concentration, magnified and accentuated. On the other, it’s a bit like a scout camp, an isle of adolescents, separated from the outside world and unburdened by domestic responsibility generally bourn by husbands and fathers. All they are asked to do is follow instructions from their superiors. Otherwise they are expected to compete with each other in strength and agility. The historian Dimitri Mikhel studied transformations of the warrior image through time. His conclusion is that in popular perception the Soviet soldier is always a youth who hasn’t reached maturity. The image widely circulated on posters, in films, and poetry of the 1940ies shows a young draftee who clearly hasn’t yet started his own family and who, the historian writes: “embodies the concept that a citizen-soldier, protector of the homeland is the best son of his people”.
The mind’s eye readily offers us a matching poster image – that of the female figure of the Motherland. She appeals to the nation, and our juvenile soldier is, of course, her son. Notably, the picture leaves no space for the father-figure, the “Mother’s” husband. The Motherland is obviously a widow, and everyone understands that she has single-handedly brought up her soldier sons. She is like millions of other Soviet “widows”, whether bereaved or abandoned, whose have no option of a different role in life.
The more one thinks, the more one is bothered with an uncomfortable question. This ever-youthful son of the sacrificing Mother, this lad who is forever nineteen and forever unburdened with family ties and responsibilities - can he truly be the model male – the hero we were looking for?
As the artist of the fast-forgotten Soviet times once were, today’s media artists, writers and film-makers are in search of a “model male”. This search has caused noticeable excitement in the artistic milieu and one has to concede, it did produce a sort of winning image - a character that stand out and is immediately noticed wherever he goes. This character has become a staple of every other film. His vividly masculine features are concentrated to an extent inconceivable in a real human being.
All the more astonishing to run into this mythical creature in real life! Sometimes one feels like pinching oneself when suddenly faced with this walking daydream. There is no question, it’s HIM indeed: he takes up more space than a regular human. He bulges out: his original physique is too small for him. The Terminator would envy these shapely biceps, this bull neck, these square shoulders. Such grotesque features may occasionally be omitted if there is commensurate external appendage - most often a huge SUV. In that case the car serves more as an artificial body part than a means of transportation.
No one feels peering inside this fearsome wrapping. The wrapping is what’s important, and the rest is of no consequence. Is this person a Special Forces officer? Is he a bandit? Or maybe he is a government official? The question may not be easily answerable, and it may be better not to ask. One thing is clear: the bearer of exaggerated masculinity, like any proper heroic movie-character, is endowed with superior powers. These may be displayed differently: as excellence in martial arts, as a private weapons collection, as important connections in the government, or in the criminal world. Our superman is by no means discrete about his special status. Quite the contrary, he is flogging it: he puts a gumball machine on top of his car, gets special license plates, or simply looks like he owns this world. He doesn’t notice his willing or unwilling audience, and he sometimes rolls over them in his SUV. He seems to be separated from the outside world by a glass wall and responds only to those who are “winners” like himself. These people’s mode of behavior is dangerously asocial: they want to separate themselves from the mass of humanity in such a definitive way as not to be bothered by any residual memory of the existence of others – even a memory hanging around the edges of their consciousness. They don’t want to know about those others, nor want them to have any influence on their own lives. Their only focus is on preserving whatever elevated status they had wrestled for themselves, and on exploring the opportunities this status offers. Needless to say, status is the thing they are ready to defend to their last breath.
Constant readiness for defense or offense is part of the skill set required by their rigid closed-in world and violence is not foreign to them. These new superheroes seem to have gone back to the infancy of civilization, to the times when harmonious pleasures of quiet construction and thrills of cultural evolution were still unknown. To quote Bataev, they exist among us as destructive “extraneous bodies” and there is reason to fear that their goals and aspirations may prove quite different than the ones shared by the rest of humanity.