Eesti Elu
The Russian ‘soul’, myth or reality?
Arvamus 02 Jul 2010  Eesti Elu
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It’s been a topic of conversation for years – the contradictory nature of the Russia psyche. On the one hand tolerating the brutalities and spirit breaking indignities of Joseph Stalin’s regime and on the other hand holding literature, art, music as the highest form of national expression.

No contradiction there it’s said, the Russian’s have soul. It’s something that experimental psychologists at Tartu University decided to research.

“Authors such as Dostojesvsky and Berdajev have written about the immeasurable and contradictory Russian soul,” said experimental psychologist Jüri Allik. Allik points to the fact that the legend of the Russian soul has spread so far and wide that it is used as a plausible excuse as to why it’s impossible to establish Western style democracy in the country.

Joining Allik were, Anu Realo, René Mõttus, Helle Pullmann and Anastasia Terifonova in finding an explanation for the fact that since at least the 19th century Russian writing has touted the existence of the famous Russian ‘soul’.

They used a psychological scale of individual characteristics and searched literature for descriptions of individuals identified as having the Russian ‘soul’ and placed these descriptions on the scale.

Allik remarked that “Oblomov lies lethargically in bed for the first 150 pages of the book and totally lacks any initiative”, in reference to Ivan Goncharov’s famous book “Oblomov”.

The Russian personality should also be represented by much neuroticism the experimenters said. Characters in literature suffer greatly from pangs of guilt and suspicion. “At the same time they are open, not very active, self sacrificing, with low self-discipline and acute depression,” Allik stated.

The collective portrait of the typical protagonist from literature they compared with current descriptions of the ‘typical’ Russian they got from a selection of individuals. From tens of Russian universities they got complete questionnaires from 7000 Russian students who described an acquaintance. The subjects had to be either the age of a student or at least 50 years old.

The contrast between characters in literature and ‘everyday’ Russians was huge. Literary figures are thought to be disorderly while Russians describe themselves are orderly. According to literary characters Russians are supposed to be very open, but in reality, compared to people worldwide, they display less openness.

“The generalized Russian profile does not vary much from that created from data compiled from 50 countries”, said Allik. Therefore one cannot refer to the uniqueness of the Russian soul, and political governance in Russia must take note, Allik suggested.

Allik continued: “Russian politicians love to speak that the personality is so different from the west, therefore not suitable for Western democracy. Actually, Russians consider themselves to be very religious, with 71% stating they are Russian Orthodox.”

This research is one of many that Tartu University has conducted to study Russian stereotypes. During periods of conflict, governments typically act on their perception of national stereotypes. That’s why these studies have important applications.
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