MOSCOW — ASKED to explain the cause of Russia's political crisis, some liberal legislators are giving a one-word answer: "sovok."
The word's dictionary definition is "a spade." But in slang, the word, which some say originated in the Siberian gulags, implies primitive labor and is used in a derogatory way to describe the "Soviet mentality."
"It is a special mentality brought up by the Soviet system with all its anti-intellectualism, xenophobia, traditionalism, and conservatism," said centrist legislator Oleg Rumyantsev at a recent news conference.
It has been more than a year since the Soviet Union broke up, but the sovok attitude is still entrenched in Russian society as the nation tries to build a functioning market economy, the liberals say.
"This is the reality," Mr. Rumyantsev said. "This is the cultural environment of the majority of the people."
But use the word in public here and many people bristle with anger. "Liberals may think it's fine to use this word, but the majority of Russians consider it an insult!" says one Army major, when asked to define sovok.
Nevertheless, some liberal parliament members, such as Pyotr Filipov, go so far as to say the sovok mentality dominates the Congress of People's Deputies, the Soviet-era body that is constitutionally the highest organ of power.
The Congress has been the chief forum for the bitter power struggle between President Boris Yeltsin and his parliamentary opponents, led by Speaker Ruslan Khasbulatov. The most recent Congress session in early March - during which deputies voted to greatly diminish Mr. Yeltsin's powers - accelerated the chain of events leading to the current constitutional quagmire that has some warning of civil war.
But according to Rumyantsev, the battle between the executive and legislative branches revolves more around economics than around politics. Many conservative legislators cannot accept the need for Yeltsin's radical economic reforms, considering them a destructive force rather than necessary to build a better life.
"We are not facing a revival of the Communist Party, or a Communist takeover," Rumyantsev said. "We are facing the return of `the Soviet mentality,' a return to the mentality of the sovok."
"The political crisis has been aggravated because the conflict between the radical and liberal reforms, on the one side, and the culture and psychology of a sovok has aggravated," Rumyantsev said.
Some political observers say that it will not be easy to reconcile the two viewpoints because of several fundamental differences.
Mr. Filipov explains the dilemma facing the sovok mind-set, saying, "The majority are for private property and a market, but they are against free prices and competition.
"People aren't used to risk and they don't want to risk," he added. "They feel they deserve to be paid just for showing up to work."
Russia has made great strides over the last few years - since former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev launched his policy of openness, known as glasnost - in replacing old attitudes with a new more market-oriented outlook, Filipov stresses. But people here still have a long way to go before they get rid of the sovok mentality completely, Filipov says. And until that happens, the country will be vulnerable to demagoguery, because the sovok mentality "gave hope for some mythical, paternalistic state," he
Given the current economic collapse and political chaos, Filipov expresses concern that a populist, using slogans that appeal to the sovok mentality, could come to power in Russia.
"But the populist parties can offer society nothing but backwardness - an economic policy creating a Latin American style of backwardness."