During most of the Soviet era, society was atomized, so that the communist regime and its "transmission belts" (officially sanctioned organizations and institutions of every kind, from trade unions to youth groups) could fully monitor and control each individual. Civil society was nonexistent. The lines of control ran from the top down, through a rigid hierarchy constructed and staffed by the ruling Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU). [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]
Communist society was not a classless society. It was essentially divided into three tiers: the privileged elite that ran the country; the urban, educated professional class; and blue-collar industrial workers and farmers. The most basic social divisions were between the peasants, mostly subsistence farmer bound to the land, and urban people who worked in factories and in the bureaucracy
When asked how his country functioned under communism, a Hungarian sociologist said, "A kind of game is played. Everyone knows the rules, what he can do, what he can accept for what. And this is more or less working...There are special interest groups...and they have a number of ways of protecting their interests. All behind the scenes."* Connections could get you a car, building materials, food; anything that was poorly distributed or hard to find.
On a local level the Communist Party bureaucracy has been made up of millions of neighborhood committees which have to answer to the next level up, the street or village committees. In the cities, several street committees make up a district committee which in turn are under the jurisdiction of the Municipal People's government or the Regional People's government. All of these committees follow guidelines laid out by the national government. To keep their members in line, the local committees often use social pressure in the form of face-losing criticism.
Neighborhood committees in urban areas have made sure the poor are fed, the elderly are looked after, petty crimes are brought to justice, one-child polices are adhered to, and family disputes---mostly between wives and mothers-in-laws---are settled. For the most part the streets in cities are safe. Some residents feel so safe they bring their beds outdoors in the summer.
A typical neighborhood committee controls three blocks and contains about 1,000 households. The leader and his or 30 or so "group leaders" are in charge of hanging party propaganda posters, leading weekly meetings of the local party cell, where new polices and rules are announced. Retired women often hold the job. They are sometimes called "bound feet detectives" because of their shuffling feet and busybody attitude. [Source: Wall Street Journal]
Neighborhoods are kept in line with “building bosses” and their helpers, “door watchers," who keep an eye on what is going on in almost every house. Informers are everywhere. In China one Communist-era proverb went: "One Chinese watches a thousand; a thousand Chinese watch one."
Most people in Communist society also have had to answer to "community units" or "work units" in their place of work, whether it be a factory, hospital, commune or public works project. In the old days, these organizations exerted control on almost every aspect of an individual's life: they gave out ration cards, arranged day care, supplied train tickets, chose which doctors and hospitals people wented to, decided who gets housing, set salaries and recruited party members. The lives of some people are still controlled by work units but not as many as before.
Work units were often the main channels for distributing social benefits and exerting social control. Even today they keep files on their members and often have to be consulted about personal matters such as travel or children, and are able to pressure people by reducing wages and bonuses, by denying promotions and transfers, or by taking away the job completely.
In the old days, work units and neighborhood committees controlled marriages, divorces, pregnancies and birth control. To get married, a couple needed permission from a local board and a letter from an employer stating that a person was single. In some cases, employers would use their authority to solicit a bribe or demand some concession before the form was submitted. In most cases the employers provided the paper work but the couples felt inconvenienced and embarrassed asking for permission.
Neighborhood committees and work units no longer exist or exert the control on people's lives they once did. Their powers began to diminish in the 1980s in rural areas with the rapid collapse of communes and the giving of land and decision-making power to farmers. Work units began collapsing in the cities in the 1990s as state-owned industries began going bankrupt or were shut down or restructured.
Where neighborhood committees still exist, cadres are paid around $250 a month and perform duties like helping the unemployed find jobs, organizing anti-crime efforts, keeping track of childbearing women, and helping married couples stay together. In some places there is now some discussion about making the neighborhood committees small welfare agencies and hiring college graduates instead of retired women.
Security, Lack of Responsibility and Going Through the Motions
Everything was guaranteed in the Communist system. Everyone had a job and access to social services, child care, adult education and even lunch. One woman told National Geographic, "We had our jobs, a home, and food. What bothered us was being shut in and not being able to speak our minds freely.”
The government regulated everything from the content of newspapers to the production of toothpaste and made almost all economic decisions. Some people went through their whole lives without having to make a major decision about the lives or their future. "In the old days everything was decided for us," one man told the Washington Post. "It was easy because we did not have to choose. Now we find we have make decisions on our own; and freedom of opinion brings along a lot more responsibility."
"You learn at an early age," one man told National Geographic, "that in many instances absolutely nobody believes what the government is saying. At a political meeting a party member will talk. He'll know what he's saying is nonsense. And he'll know that you know.
Equal in Poverty and Social Obligations
Nobel Prize winning poet Joseph Brodsky described life in the Communist era as "equal in poverty". There the was no private property, inherited wealth, or great income disparities.
One intellectual told National Geographic, "There was a uniformity to life. Everyone was more or less equal. Everyone lived more or less OK, or equally badly, but no one was rich. Everyone dreamed about freedom, and this united them. People could recognize each other, who they were, with just a couple of words. This created a certain ambiance, a quality of human relations. It wasn't wonderful, but it was familiar."
Even today many would rather see everyone poor than see a few lucky rich ones who make everyone else jealous.* Alessandra Stanley wrote in the New York Times, "There was no shame in poverty when only criminals and party officials were rich. Obscurity was noble when professional achievement was bound up with political compromise.
Life was also shaped by social obligations. Many people have bad memories of working for voluntary work patrols in which they were forced to participate. Students and soldiers helped in harvest. In some places, one day every year people help sweep up the city for no money.
Social Stratification in the Soviet Era
During the Soviet era, membership in the CPSU (Communist Party of the Soviet Union) was the surest path to career advancement and wealth. Political decisions rather than market forces determined social status. Despite Marxist-Leninist notions of a classless society, the Soviet Union had a powerful ruling class, the nomenklatura , which consisted of party officials and key personnel in the government and other important sectors such as heavy industry. This class enjoyed privileges such as roomy apartments, country dachas, and access to special stores, schools, medical facilities, and recreational sites. The social status and income of members of the nomenklatura increased as they were promoted to higher positions in the party. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]
The social structure of the Soviet Union was characterized by self-perpetuation and limited mobility. Access to higher education, a prerequisite to political and social advancement, was steadily constrained in the postwar decades. The so-called period of stagnation that coincided with the long tenure of CPSU chief Leonid I. Brezhnev (in office 1964-82) had social as well as political connotations. Moreover, the sluggish economy of that period reduced opportunities for social mobility, thus accentuating differences among social groups and further widening the gap between the nomenklatura and the rest of society.
Members of the urban working class (proletariat), in whose name the party purported to rule, generally lived in cramped apartment complexes, spent hours each day standing in line to buy food and other necessities, and attended frequent obligatory sessions of political indoctrination. Similarly, the peasantry eked out a meager existence, with little opportunity for relief. Agricultural workers constituted the bottom layer of Soviet society, receiving the least pay, the least opportunity for social advancement, and the least representation in the nominally all-inclusive CPSU leadership.
Communist Party Privileged Class
The privileged elite was made up members of the Politburo, their staff and about 600,000 technocrats, bureaucrats, engineers, athletes and lawyers. About one third were Communist Party members and many had peasant origins. Heros were Olympic athletes, and model miners and railway workers. The two million or so members of the professional class included writers, artists, senior professors, scientists and doctors. They had university or technical school degrees.
Communist party elite enjoyed access to special restaurant, hospitals, vacation homes, and consumer goods. Perks included highest paying jobs, first dibs on cars, dachas and mountain villas, money, travel privileges, limousines, special stores, private clinics, fresh fruit and choice cuts of meat unavailable to ordinary people. Their children and grandchildren were admitted to universities without having to take the difficult entrance exams.
Technocrats and factory bosses sometimes lived in palatial homes. Describing the life of Politburo privilege the son of Stalin's English translator, Victor Erofeyev, wrote in the New Yorker, "Our life was in every way a privilege: each year a new suit, cut from imported English cloth, was given to Papa free of charge; our building and hallways were always clean and safe...when were ill, we went to a clinic run by smiling doctors; we received tickets to any theatrical performance we wanted; at New Year's we attended parties at the Kremlin; and at the select Novodevichy Cemetery there were even plots reserved in our names."
Foreigners were a privileged class. They owned cars and apartments and enjoyed food and luxuries that no ordinary Russian could afford.
The members of the professional class included writers, artists, senior professors, scientists and doctors. They had university or technical school degrees.
Nostalgia for the Communist Era
A lot of ordinary Russians say the break up of the Soviet Union, and the reforms of Gorbachev and Yeltsin were mistakes. But if you the ask the same people if they want to go back to the way things were in the Communist era they will say no. Most Russians want to keep their freedoms and fear returning to the way things were before.
Since the collapse of Communism, there has been a lot of nostalgia for life under Soviet rule. Impoverished Russians speak of the good old days of subsidized meat, free rent and a guaranteed joba. Old Communist-era movies are popular. There are special clubs that cater to people with nostalgia for the Communist era. They are decorated with old Communist party stickers, statues of Lenin and photographs of Brezhnev. Some old-timers have Marx, Engles, Lenin and Stalin tattooed on their chest.
Souvenir shops sell McLenin T-shirts, with Lenin's profile in front of the golden arches. Describing the reaction of his children to stories about the old days, a Russian businessman said, "They just look at me as if I'm describing an alien land. I am.”
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated May 2016