Publications

"Orphanhood, Propaganda, and the Communist Dream"

April 2024

Throughout the week, social media has been buzzing about the film "Traitors" by Alexei Navalny's associates, dedicated to the events of the 1990s and the circumstances leading to Vladimir Putin's rise to power. By the end of the week, the film had garnered nearly 3.5 million views. Essentially, it has evolved from the ideas presented in Navalny's latest programmatic publication. Its main thesis posits that the Putin era is a direct continuation of the turbulent 90s, placing responsibility for Russia's loss of a historical opportunity squarely on the "reformers" led by Boris Yeltsin. Psychotherapist Olga Movchan, in her column for The Bell, looks at the same issue but from a completely different angle, analyzing how and why our society behaves in the complex historical context.

The Origin of Learned Helplessness

From 2016 to 2019, I conducted a hundred interviews with people of various professions living in Moscow. They were vastly different individuals, and the interviews yielded diverse insights. However, there were several commonalities, one of which was the pervasive sense of inability to influence life within the country or effect any change. My small-scale study is supported by Levada Center's data, which in 2016 published the results of their survey stating, "73% of citizens are convinced they cannot influence the situation in the state."

This phenomenon—certainty in one's powerlessness—was first described by American psychologists Martin Seligman and Steven Meyer in 1967 and termed "Learned Helplessness" by them. Seligman outlined learned helplessness (LH) based on experiments with dogs. He believed that animals are born active, and through repeated encounters with insurmountable situations where attempts to effect change prove futile or punishable, they learn to be powerless. Subsequent research not only demonstrated that individuals placed in situations where they cannot influence reality carry this negative experience into life in general but also significantly expanded the understanding of LH manifestations.

LH manifests across several spheres of human life—behavioral, cognitive, and emotional. Symptoms include not only passivity and reluctance to attempt problem-solving or societal influence but also depression, decreased motivation overall, and difficulties in taking responsibility. Individuals with LH also exhibit reduced creativity, struggle to complete tasks, inability to accurately assess their capabilities and take reasonable risks, harbor fears of the future and catastrophic expectations, lack self-belief, and rely on someone strong who they believe will improve their lives. The consequence of LH is increased vulnerability in stressful situations, reluctance to make efforts to acquire information, and diminished analytical abilities.

In 2000, Meyer suggested that Seligman misinterpreted the results of his experiments. According to Meyer, living beings are born helpless (what doesn't need to be learned), and the skills to overcome difficulties and the ability to influence reality are acquired through development and upbringing. It is the environment that plays a crucial role in determining whether a person will be capable of controlling reality and changing their life or will abstain from such attempts. In this sense, LH according to Meyer is the absence of the acquired skill of not losing hope.

Regardless of who is right, Meyer or Seligman, traumatic events associated with experiencing powerlessness can trigger LH. However, if a person grew up and was raised in an environment where they were able to learn to influence reality and take responsibility, the likelihood of developing this condition is lower.

Unfortunately, the society in which my generation and several generations of my ancestors grew up—the Soviet society—and even modern Russian society in a macrosociological sense, seem almost intentionally tailored to cultivate LH.

The main factors leading to the emergence of LH can be loosely divided into three groups, each of which I (like most of my peers) encountered in my childhood.

  • The first group includes recurring unsuccessful attempts to influence reality so that your desires and requests are heard, recognized as important, and receive sufficient support to be satisfied. In societies where the notion of "public over personal" predominates, where individuality is suppressed by the group, and there is a risk of punishment or rejection for expressing alternative opinions or being different, especially when combined with a lack of emotional and other support, as well as the normalization of humiliation and cruelty (whether it's the repeal of the domestic violence law or the cutting off of an ear of a presumed criminal), excellent conditions are created for the development of learned helplessness.

The above picture was characteristic of the USSR and, it seems, with a short break in the 90s, has again become very typical for various social institutions and age groups in Russia. I remember, in the kindergarten I attended from the age of three, if a child ate slowly, the caregiver would mix the soup with the "second course," and you had to eat that mess to "not hold back the group." All of this was accompanied by emotional deprivation. If a child cried, they were shamed. In our group, two people cried most often—myself and a boy. The caregiver would bring us a bucket, in which they washed the floor cloth, so we could "cry some more." Such sympathy.

Due to deprivation and lack of attention to personal needs, the learned helplessness syndrome often arises in orphans and their children, who inherit behavioral and parenting styles. Since there is no attentive adult ready to perceive the child's needs, negative events are experienced as uncontrollable. Orphans lose faith that their efforts are worthwhile and can lead to a change in the situation or problem resolution. Other people's (as well as their own) experiences cease to be perceived as important, so their own sensitivity and empathy are diminished. However, there remains a wild dream of some mythical adult, strong and big, who will take responsibility and help arrange life. It is this archetypal adult that the ability to act is projected onto. They can do what orphans cannot. And then joining the "strong adult" is almost the only way to exist in society.

Returning to my generation, I sadly realize that many of us were raised by orphans—post-war orphans and children of enemies of the people or social orphans (when children, despite having living parents, are left to fend for themselves and lack necessary support). This is my experience too. My mother lost her father when she was three years old; he was repressed and died in a labor camp. My father lost his mother and became an orphan at the end of the war; he was raised by his aunt. The traits of this orphaned life still largely influence Russians both within and outside Russia. Hence the talk of a "strong hand" and reverence for authority, the hope for a "father tsar" or "father of the nations," and the dream of a superpower.

  • The second group of factors contributing to the development of learned helplessness is related to creating an atmosphere of fear. Intimidation, fostering catastrophic expectations, feelings of danger emanating from "strangers," external and internal enemies, or supernatural forces often form the core of the ideology imposed on society and can be a means of control by the authorities. Both in Soviet and modern Russian society, the propaganda machine excels at this, creating an image of the enemy, a sense of uncontrollable danger, and vulnerability to a major threat. Considering that with learned helplessness, motivation to critically assess received information decreases, let alone to conduct any independent analysis ("they know better," "they'll sort it out upstairs"), people become particularly susceptible to media manipulation.

It must be said that modern Russian propaganda seems to have become more sophisticated compared to Soviet times. Successfully transmitting narratives that trigger learned helplessness, it simultaneously imposes an illusion of independence and choice on citizens. Today, a Russian is prohibited from going out with a sign saying "I'm for peace," but is allowed to choose a president from four "very different" candidates participating in the so-called presidential race. Not like in Soviet times when there was only one candidate. This illusion of choice contributes to learned helplessness even more than its absence because it creates an imitation of responsible behavior, which is actually completely controlled and has no impact whatsoever.

Furthermore, whereas information used to be scarce (when one could listen to "Voice of America" or "German Wave from Cologne," people felt like possessors of a rare treasure—independent information), nowadays, in the era of "post-truth," we are inundated with an incredibly contradictory amount of information. It's very difficult to make sense of it and come to any definite opinion. Therefore, many prefer to find someone to believe in (sometimes choosing, not always consciously, someone who fits the recipient's preferences—someone it's convenient or profitable to believe in. Again, someone "smarter" or more mature.

  • The third group of factors contributing to the formation of learned helplessness is the lack of connection between efforts made and results obtained. In this sense, the popular idea of communist redistribution in Soviet times— "from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs"—greatly contributes to learned helplessness, as does the practical implementation of the socialist principle "to each according to their labor," in which income and well-being did not depend on input but rather on what was assigned by planning specialists. Generations raised in the Soviet Union could count not only on fairly standardized salaries and pensions (the range was relatively small). Actually, there wasn't much choice. Houses had similar layouts, furniture, even books were the same. (You didn't necessarily have to get drunk like Zhenya Lukashin; you could mix up things sober). Shortages standardized dreams, even "New Year's orders" didn't differ much (maybe higher-ups got a jar of caviar, but a blue chicken was given to both a university professor and a worker at the "Dynamo" factory).

The capitalist model with private property, a free market, and competition, which may seem less attractive from an ethical point of view, is undoubtedly healthier in terms of learned helplessness—until, under the guise of "social protection," it begins to extract a large part of the created value in the form of taxes, proclaiming the primacy of public territories and transportation, etc.

How Society Defends Against Learned Helplessness

Learned helplessness comes with a whole host of psychological defenses that undoubtedly influence social interactions. Many of these are highly recognizable.

The most common defense mechanisms include:

Regression: resorting to more primitive forms of behavior and thinking, as well as more childish ways of coping with difficulties, shifting responsibility for one's actions to other people or external factors. "We were forced," "we were provoked." Relying on another strong and responsible person, to whom control and decision-making are delegated.

Denial: refusing to acknowledge the painful reality and associated difficult emotions, objective facts, one's role in events. "Russia only shoots at military targets."

Compensation: unbearable emotions or obvious shortcomings are replaced by an imaginary feeling or attribute that elicits positive feelings. "I don't know of any other country where people breathe so freely," wrote Lebedev-Kumach in 1936, in the midst of Stalinist repressions. Instead of feeling ashamed of the repression of its own citizens or aggressive actions against other countries, a person begins to feel pride and declares the country as rising from its knees.

Projection: what one does not want to accept within oneself or associate with one's society is projected outward. Personal aggression is not acknowledged, the world is perceived as hostile and dangerous, conspiratorial theories from the "Rockefeller and Rothschild conspiracy" to the "desire of Anglo-Saxons to seize Russia" are discussed.

Displacement (deflection): expressing emotions not to whom they are addressed, but to someone else. Angry at the boss, but kicking the cat. Or in rage at Putin, we lash out at former compatriots—some who left, some who stayed.

Dissociation: reality begins to be perceived as happening to someone else, not to me, or it breaks down into several existing parallel realities that are difficult to reconcile. Dissociation helps survive in an unbearable situation, as if hiding in a parallel reality. It was this mechanism that allowed many (including myself) to not fully notice what was happening in the world over the past decade.

Intellectualization: reasoning, logical constructions, and moralizing instead of experiencing help reduce the significance of complex feelings. In a sense, writing this article is a way to protect oneself from a sense of helplessness. Conversations in Soviet kitchens and the incredible popularity of literature—signs of my Soviet childhood and youth. Words replaced reality and distracted from the impossibility of changing it.

Cynicism: treating one's own and others' feelings as unimportant, and the world as wrong, grim, dishonest, where everyone is out for themselves, allows ignoring others and feeling more control over one's own life.

Usually, we deal with several defense mechanisms simultaneously. For example, the theory of "small deeds" turns out to be both compensation (helps compensate for heavy feelings and move away from helplessness) and intellectualization (often accompanied by long explanations of why in the current situation this is the only way out).

It would seem that the theory of small deeds is a way to overcome learned helplessness. But this greatly depends on the context. On one hand, small but regular achievements and recognition of their value can improve motivation to act. On the other hand, easily achieved success without real effort does not increase confidence in one's abilities, does not provide a sense of ability to control reality, but, on the contrary, increases the risk of developing learned helplessness.

There is another aspect of learned helplessness. It is more likely to occur if a person refuses to notice their contradictory needs—the desire to take risks and change life and to remain safe, to express disagreement and maintain belongingness, etc.

If only one of these contradictory needs is realized, coping with learned helplessness is unlikely. In the absence of understanding of needs and the emotions associated with them, a person is much more influenced by the environment (fields) and agrees to the uncontrollability of the situation while giving up their freedom. At the same time, none of the needs is fully satisfied, leading to the accumulation of tension, dissatisfaction, and the feeling that nothing can be changed.

An ideology aimed at supporting learned helplessness requires its members to be extremely certain, creating as examples to follow the images of "flat" heroes—those who do not doubt, who belong 100%, who follow simple rules. This forces people to ignore the presence of contradictions, which are generally inherent in living people.

Self-awareness and awareness of one's desires, including contradictory ones, are the first necessary steps to overcome helplessness. This gives a person the basis to seek support and manifest their own will.