Normal or “Sovok”?

The fate of Russia lies in this choice

Paul Greenberg
3 min readMar 20, 2022

“Comrade Reenactors” by Mobilus In Mobili is marked with CC BY 2.0. To view the terms, visit

Empires fall, but cultures remain. One need only peruse the words and images coming out of the pro-war rally Russian president Vladimir Putin convened at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium last week to prove this hypothesis. The event summoned some 100,000+ attendees and featured a slate of state-sponsored performers interspersed with speech after spine-strengthening speech.

And while I took comfort in the assurances of Western journalists who asserted that a number of attendees had been bused in or came because their employers gave them a free day off work, the Sovietologist in me, the one that had lived and worked in Russia before and after the fall of the USSR, could not shake the suspicion that a lot of people at Luzhinski were there in earnest. They were there because they had chosen to be a sovok rather than a “normal person.”

Herein lies maybe a key for debunking the entire Putin project. Somehow, someway the war, the repression of independent media, the villainization of whole segments of Russian society has to be reframed

What is a sovok exactly? It’s a little hard to render in English since it is basically the word “Soviet” modified to include a patronizing diminutive. Stripped of its geographic and historical context the word “lunkhead” comes to mind as a suitable translation. But not quite. It was in Soviet times perfectly possible to ascend the highest reaches of academia and still be a sovok.

No, in order to really get at the meaning of sovok you have to consider its antonym. The opposite of a sovok is a normal’nyi chelovyek — a normal person. The tricky part in understanding this from a Western perspective is that being a truly normal person in the Soviet Union was hardly normal. To the contrary: normal people were brave exceptions. Whereas a sovok digests whatever nonsense is force fed from above and contorts his or her whole being to swallow it whole, the normal person steps back and says, “the very premise of this, all of this, is disgusting.” Normal people in Russia were the best people. The funniest people. The wittiest, wryest people.

Paul Greenberg

New York Times bestselling author of Four Fish as well as The Climate Diet and Goodbye Phone, Hello World