The Pessimistic Citizen

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Subject essay: Lewis Siegelbaum

The political turbulence, economic devastation, and social flux that Russia has experienced since the collapse of the Soviet Union has inspired a good deal of nostalgia for an earlier time of political stability and economic predictability. Despite the association of the Brezhnev administration with “stagnation,” a term that was frequently invoked by Mikhail Gorbachev to justify his program of reforms, many Russians cite the 1970s as a period of domestic tranquility. Yet, it was precisely during the early 1970s that the first signs of pessimism and even cynicism emerged about the Soviet system’s ability to sustain economic growth and provide its citizens with the conditions for meaningful lives.

Gauging public moods is never easy, leastwise in Soviet-type societies. Nevertheless, in lieu of more reliable public opinion data, one can point to such phenomena as the retreat into the private, the popularity of books, films and songs about lonely heroes who seem out of step with the canons of approved behavior, the proliferation of anekdoty (jokes) about the absurdity of official claims to the supremacy of the Soviet system and the hypocrisy of Soviet officialdom, and invidious comparisons with life in the “West” and (perhaps even more significantly given the similarity of systems) with the relatively prosperous if prosaic life in East European capital cities to which Soviet citizens traveled in increasing numbers as tourists.

These signs were most evident among white-collar professionals, whose numbers expanded from 3.3 to 21.4 million between 1950 and 1974, representing an increase from five to eighteen percent of the entire Soviet work force. Contributing factors to this change of outlook included the exaggerated expectations of material abundance that had been fostered under Khrushchev, the secular decline in Soviet economic performance from one five-year plan to the next, and the ubiquity of black- and gray-market transactions, which, while hardly new, were increasingly tolerated by the authorities. It should be stressed that the pessimistic Soviet citizen of the early 1970s was rarely a political dissident. This was not an overtly political phenomenon, but it did have political consequences of far-reaching magnitude.

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