To the old popular proverb, “The only good communist is a dead communist,” we should perhaps now add: “Once a communist, forever a communist.” Although as a muscled ideology communism is dead, as a way of life it is still very much alive. Similar to any other past and present mass belief or theology, communism in Eastern Europe and Russia also managed to create distinct social species whose behavior radically differs from liberal species in the West. History may tell us soon whether homo sovieticus has been a more durable species than his mollified Western counterpart, known as homo economicus.

Although the communist monolith has been replaced in Eastern Europe and Russia by democratic legal structures, and despite incessant anticommunist rhetoric from the new political elites, communist culture continues to hold a firm grip over a large number of officials and ordinary people. Sure, the old communist iconography, such as the hammer and sickle, accompanied by the ever-present red star, have been replaced by new nationalist symbols, but the substance of the old communist culture in day-to-day life remains shockingly the same.

What strikes a Western visitor during his sojourn in Eastern Europe is that citizens continue to behave and respond to the new noncommunist social environment in the same old “communistic” way. Words like “democracy,” “tolerance,” “pluralism,” “parliamentarianism” are endlessly regurgitated on all wavelengths, but in most eases these words amount to empty rhetoric which in no way reflects substantive change in popular and political behavior. A good observer quickly notices that citizens in postcommunist Dresden, Zagreb, Bucharest, Prague, or Moscow display the same old behavioral traits that they inherited from their respective communist systems. In short, despite the political collapse of communism, citizens in postcommunist Eastern Europe and Russia cling to old defensive mechanisms that now prevent them from coping with the challenge of democracy.

It cannot be denied that mass terror, which not long ago took its tremendous toll in communist states, led to the destruction of individuals who would now be indispensable for leadership and the upholding of new noncommunist social and ethical values. The decades-long terror, accompanied by the social and cultural leveling of the masses, resulted in the physical removal of a number of gifted individuals, and in the subsequent imposition of the culture of mendacity and social mediocrity. Alexander Zinoviev, a respected Russian author who still lives in German exile, accurately predicted that communism, as a system of perfect democratic pathology, will live on, Gorbachev, Yeltsin and company notwithstanding.

Western observers committed a grave mistake by attributing communist terror only to a small bunch of apparatchiks, who entered Western textbooks by the name of “red nomenklatura.” In reality, however, mass terror was a way of life which enlisted broad popular support and in which almost every citizen living in a communist country indulged—of course, within his sphere of social influence and his position in the social hierarchy. Thus, absenteeism and shoddy work was considered morally acceptable by simple factory workers, and embezzlement on a large scale was viewed as perfectly legal by high-ranking communist hacks. Paradoxically, the communist elites had to allow noncommunist employees and workers to pilfer in order to legitimize their own grand-scale theft. “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs,” wrote Karl Marx. Contrary to some assumptions, communism in Eastern Europe and Russia was not an illicit departure from the Marxist credo, but its full implementation.

As communist systems consolidated during the Cold War, the masses in Eastern Europe and Russia learned little by little how to cultivate their lowest instincts of survivability. “Nobody can pay me as little as little I can work” became the unwritten slogan of millions of ordinary citizens from the Baltics to the Balkans, leading, predictably, 50 years later, to the political entropy of the system and its subsequent legal demise. Yet this slogan and its biological carrier homo sovieticus still live on with surprising tenacity.

Undoubtedly, despite demonstrable economic and political inefficiency and daily drudgery, former communist countries, unlike the unpredictable market-oriented West, offered psychological security and economic predictability to their citizens—albeit security and predictability of a very Spartan and frugal kind. But who cares about the philosophical meaning of liberty, as long as social survivability can be guaranteed in a mass society of scarce means? It must, therefore, not come as a surprise that citizens in today’s postcommunist Eastern Europe and Russia find it difficult to cope with the Western capitalist ethos of responsibility, commitment, and cutthroat work. There is a widespread belief among many Eastern Europeans today that democracy means only lots of leisure, lots of money, and little work.

Many foreign observers who visit Eastern Europe complain about the impossibility of communicating with local citizens. This communication breakdown is primarily due to the fact that Eastern Europeans assign different meanings to social concepts. Undoubtedly, millions of them are well aware of the Gulag legacy and the mandatory “wooden language” that they were forced to use. Yet, it must not be forgotten that masses in Eastern Europe today are oblivious to this legacy, preferring instead to think about the rise of their living standard, which is, alas, nowhere in sight. Hence this unusual nostalgia about the recent communist past, which recently manifested itself in the recent political success of neocommunists in Lithuania, Poland, and Hungary.

As a perfect form of totalitarian democracy, communist terror essentially operated according to the unwritten laws of dispersed egalitarian guilt in which all citizens actively participated. Thus it is impossible today to try former communist bosses without also bringing to trial their hidden helpers. As Mikhail Heller and Robert Conquest noted, communist terror essentially borrowed from the little tyrant who lies in every human being, thereby setting one person against the other, creating a quasi state of nature, in which low-key total war of all against all constantly and brutally raged. Under communism the majority oppressed the minority, and not the other way around; everybody tried to outfox and outsmart everybody else, or prove that he can better pilfer or cut corners than his comrade coworker in arms. Clearly, Stalin, Tito, Ceausescu, Kadar, and other communist tyrants would never have been able to carry out large-scale massacres and decades-long repression without the hidden help of millions of unknown little “Stalins.” Was this not the perfect outcome of democracy, brought to its egalitarian pinnacle?

Absolute servility toward communist superiors was another unwritten rule for everybody, so that everyone, according to his hierarchical spot, could exercise his own “bossism” toward his inferiors. Every citizen, within his sphere of life and social influence, played a little Jekyll and Hyde; everybody spied on each other; everybody played a game of make-believe; and everybody took advantage of each other’s personal weaknesses. Upon joining a “workers’ collective,” each person became a transparent being, with no privacy, and was closely scrutinized by his coworkers, yet at the same time he enjoyed total communal protection in case of professional mistakes, absenteeism, or shoddy work. This is something unimaginable in the capitalist West.

The tragic side of postcommunist Eastern Europe is that many of its citizens are unable to shed the inherited communist culture, despite the fact that many of them identify themselves as ardent anticommunists. Life in the new noncommunist Eastern Europe, which requires risk and imposes competition, is hard for many natives to swallow. Wide segments of the population continue to display the same old servility toward their democratically elected or chosen superiors. The old communist practice of double deals and paranoid fear that everybody is plotting against everybody, and that one may become the target of the government’s wrath, is widespread. Conspiracy theories abound; there are unofficial rumors about dark and hidden forces—perhaps involving some inexplicable foreign fifth column or a proverbial “Jew”—which are responsible for the economic hardships. It should not come as a surprise that such a conspiracy-prone environment is suitable for obscure Western organizations, such as the Schiller Institute or the Unification Church, which seem to be quite active in this part of the disabused and disenchanted Europe.

The lack of self-confidence and initiative seem to be another aspect of the Eastern European drama. In new institutions and political life similar to the old communist ones, everything must be approved by superiors, every minor detail needs to have a stamp by a high government official. Also, the newly established party pluralism frequently borders on the grotesque, because the multitude of newly emerged political parties, in their passionate drive to imitate the West, often strive to prove that they know more about democracy and free markets than Westerners themselves.

Growing economic hardship, coupled with the uncertain geopolitical situation which is being rocked by ethnic turmoil, actually provides many Eastern Europeans with an excuse for their own incompetence and psychological paralysis. Undoubtedly, citizens in Eastern Europe enjoy today a great deal of media freedom, probably more so than the “politically correct” and self-censored liberal West, but their mindset and patterns of communication remain the same as under communism. Small wonder that the loss of security and economic predictability that accompanied the demise of communism and the rise of privatization and the free market is creating a dangerous psychological void, which will most likely, in the very near future, result in yet another totalitarian temptation.

Metaphorically speaking, citizens in Eastern Europe wish to retain the inherited communist laziness and graft onto it the liberal glitter of the Western shopping malls. The communist spirit, as a perfect incarnation of democratic totalitarianism, has not lost much of its psychological attractiveness. homo sovieticus clearly lives on.