October 15, 2014

Russian Exceptionalism According to Boris Dubin

Russian Exceptionalism According to Boris Dubin

You have surely heard of American exceptionalism – but did you know America is not so exceptional in thinking it is? According to the late sociologist (and literary translator) Boris Dubin, Russians think their country is exceptional, too.


From “Narcissism as an Escape from Freedom,” Vedomosti, August 28, 2014

So what do people who hold this opinion think constitutes Russian exceptionalism? Having sifted out the data, we can isolate several points.

1. A sense that the state is special. It is a social state, one that cares for its subjects.


2. A special nature of authority and of interactions with authority: those in power are infinitely far from the people, but perform the role of a strict father, one who protects, punishes, and encourages. Without him, there could be no order in this large family.


3. An intermediate position between Europe and Asia.


4. A very important understanding of Russians as a special type of community. A mass community, where by custom all decisions are made collectively, where someone who tries to do something just for themselves gets weird looks. “We do not strive for achievements and wealth, what matters to us is that we are all in this together” reflects the amorphous, mass nature of the Russian community, and feeds into the interpretation of the country’s exceptional status.


5. Another important point is the tautological and semantically empty claim that Russians have Russian values, while the West has Western values. Few can explain what traditional Russian values are. But what matters is the affirmation that these values exist and that they are Russian.

Dubin is not making this up – he’s drawing conclusions from surveys conducted by the Levada Center. Having defined Russian exceptionalism – according to those who believe in it – Dubin goes on to reason out the source of this self-image, and its potential dangers.

Let’s get back to Russia. Here, the patriarchal world reigns supreme. Not in the sense that we live like our forefathers, but in the sense that this world is one of stable statuses. If you are a father, you act like a father. If you are a boss, you act like a boss. If you are the head of state, you act like the head of state. In a world of firmly established statuses, no one has to run their decisions by anyone else.


This is a world of reputations. Your typical Russian does, of course, take into consideration the existence of other people. But they are only of interest to him in terms of how much stronger or weaker they are, or whether they have something he doesn’t have, but might need. This is the basis for social comparison and envy. In a world of reputation and prestige, this is how others are perceived in the collective consciousness. In Levada Center surveys, two thirds of respondents think they earn less than they deserve and than others doing the same work. Of course, you all understand this is statistically impossible! But a sense of a majority that earns less than it deserves – that does exist, and is successfully sustained.

Dubin’s antidote? For once, Russians – and their national leaders – need to seriously consider others: other people, other states, other possibilities. And in doing so, to dare to become something new, something better.

Translation: Eugenia Sokolskaya

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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