The Village Children by Vladimir Makovsky
Russian society has its roots in peasant culture. Many Russians like to describe themselves as a “simple people.” One Russian historian told the New York Times, “In Russia, the system is still in its very beginnings.. You think Russia is its intelligencia, its Dostoyesky, its Pushkin. But that is a very narrow part. It’s about villages. It’s peasants.”

Society has traditionally been divided into an upper class and a lower class. The middle class was never very developed in Russia or the Soviet Union. In the czarist era there was an aristocracy and serfs. In the Communist era, there were the Communist Party elite and everybody else. In the 18th and 19th centuries, among both serfs and aristocrats, the basic Russian social unit was based in bilateral kindred (the practice of tracing descent on both the male and female lines).

Since the break up of the Soviet Union, Russian society has experienced a wrenching transition from a totalitarian structure to a protodemocracy of unknown character. Post-Soviet Russia is slowly striving to create a civil society and restore the family and other basic institutions as functional units within the society. In the mid-1990s, habits of trust, personal responsibility, community service, and citizen cooperation remained unformed in much of Russia's society, as the social attitudes of previous decades remained intact. Those holding such attitudes envisioned little between the extremes of totalitarianism and social anarchy; having moved away from the simplistic guidance of the former, much of society was strongly tempted to embrace the latter. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996]

A number of useful monographs published in the 1990s include discussion of various aspects of Russia's social conditions. In “Redefining Russian Society and Polity,” Mary Buckley discusses major changes in housing, health care, and social expectations, with substantial background on the Soviet period.

See Separate Article on Communist Society

Boyars and Russian Society in the 18th Centuries

Russian society in the 18th century was largely organized along military lines, with the upper classes as the officers and serfs as the enlisted men and grunts. Society was "structured for the service of the state." The government had "patrimonial outlook" and people were "completely at the disposal" of the ruler.

In the time of Peter the Great and Catherine the Great's about 99 percent of all Russians were illiterate, including judges and army officers. Women who did not do as they were told were often forced into convents. In the tsarist era, many children were deposited at foundling hospitals in Moscow and St. Petersburg where they had a very good chance of dying.

There was a great deal of industrial growth in the 18th century. Mines and factories were opened. Cottage industries produced a large number of goods that were exported. Steam power wars harnessed, especially in the textile industry in the early 19th century.

The “Boyars” were the old Russian nobility—usually landlords with estates and privileges. They were often involved in commercial activities. The Russian aristocracy included grand dukes, dukes, princes, counts and barons and great families like the Yusupovs, the Shuvalovs, Sheremetevs.

Lifestyles of the Rich in the Nineteenth Century

The Russian aristocracy enjoyed social gatherings at their estates, picnics in the country and trips to the seashore. The sometimes escaped the Russian winter by heading to warm climates in Venice, the Crimea and southern France. Noblemen that were unable to make a sufficient living from the land became imperial bureaucrats and military officers.

The richest and most famous of the Russian aristocratic families was the Strogonovs. They owned huge swaths of land and ran large salt and iron mines. The were so rich they built that rivaled those of the tsars. Their grandest palace in St. Petersburg has been turned into the Russian Museum. They commissioned so many icons they had an icon school named after them.

The spa of Baden Baden in Germany became popular with rich and influential Russians after the czarina Elizabeth took regular vacations there with her huge entourage. Tolstoy liked to visit there. Turgenev carried on a not-so-secret affair with a Spanish diva in his mansion there. Dostoevsky gambled away the money he obtained from pawning his wife’s wedding ring and recounted his experience in the novel “The Gambler”.

Today, some former aristocrats are trying to claim their old family properties without much success.

Book: “Life on the Russia Country Estate: A Social and Cultural History” by Priscilla Roosevelt (Yale, 1995).

Russian Serfdom

Serfs were defined as peasant farmers who paid "soul tax" to the tsar. Those who didn't pay the tax were conscripted into the army for terms of 20 years, a fate that was equated with a sentence of death.

Some Russian estates had hundreds of thousands of serfs. These estates often were not just agricultural enterprises. Some aristocrats set up serf-run factories that produced porcelain, glass, linen, paper, alcoholic beverages, upholstery fabrics, shawls, furniture, watches and clocks.

The horses of a royal family were often treated much better than their servants and serfs. At the Czarkoye Tsel—the main summer residence of the czars—there is a graveyards with some quite elaborate marble tombstones for horses owned by the czars and the families but nothing remotely like them for servants or serfs. There was also retirement stables for horses that featured low, arched windows that gave elderly horses a pleasant view of the fields and forests outside their stable.

History of Russian Serfdom

Serfdom began in the medieval period and has its roots in the rule of Ivan III. When he captured Novgorod in 1478 he threw out West-leaning governors and closed Russia's "Window to the West." He replaced the traditional patrimonial system (“votchina”), in which noblemen had absolute control over their land and people, with a new system of land tenure (“pomestie”, or "estate"), in which noblemen had to answer Ivan III. Those that didn't go along had their land confiscated.

The move was mainly political: to keep the princes from acting too independently and rebelling and causing trouble. The new system changed society. The new landowners were often little more than administrative civil servants, mostly interested in maintaining in control. Before 1500, peasants often had a fair amount of freedom. After meeting the needs of their landowner, they were free to work for themselves and even change their masters. The new system tied them to the land.

During a bitter famine in the 16th century and the Time of Trouble, many peasants began abandoning their landlords and heading to Siberia and the open steppe where there were no landlords. Some joined the Cossack. The exodus hurt the landlords as productive agricultural land was left lie fallow as there were no serfs to till the land.

Boris Godonov (ruled 1598-1605) created more stringent rules that formally bound all serfs to their land. This is regarded as the formal beginning of serfdom. In 1646, the tsar government passed laws that prohibited peasant from moving freely. In 1649 serfdom was fully established by law. In 1675 serfs lost all claims to land. Serfdom reached its nadir in the 18th century when Aleksandr Radishchev’s “A Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow” revealed horrible abuses.

Under Catherine the Great (ruled1762-1796) the number of serfs increased dramatically to around 18 million at the time of her death. The serfs had no rights and their survival was often based on the whims of their masters. One noblewoman in Catherine's time commented, "What is the use of the nobility being free if we are not free to bet our serfs?" By the mid 19th century there were 30 million serfs in Russia, about one third of the population.

In 1861, Alexander II (ruled 1855-1881) signed a proclamation freeing all of Russia's 20 to 30 million serfs, who by then made up a third of Russia. Of the land worked by serfs, about a third was given to landlords and the rest went to village communes, worked by former serfs who were required to pay their ex-landlords "redemption payments" as compensation to the landlords for the land they lost. Historians regard the freeing of the serfs as only a "partial emancipation" because according to its terms serfs allowed to purchase land had to pay huge taxes.

The regime had envisioned that the 50,000 landlords who possessed estates of more than 110 hectares would thrive without serfs and would continue to provide loyal political and administrative leadership in the countryside. The government also had expected that peasants would produce sufficient crops for their own consumption and for export sales, thereby helping to finance most of the government's expenses, imports, and foreign debt. Neither of the government's expectations was realistic, however, and emancipation left both former serfs and their former owners dissatisfied. The new peasants soon fell behind in their payments to the government because the land they had received was poor and because Russian agricultural methods were inadequate. The former owners often had to sell their lands to remain solvent because most of them could neither farm nor manage estates without their former serfs. In addition, the value of their government bonds fell as the peasants failed to make their redemption payments. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Russian Society After the Collapse of the Soviet Union

For many, the collapse of Communism has been linked with a decrease in manners and civility and an increase in moral decadence. A sense of “provincial resentment” and “mass insult and humiliation”, it has been said, has developed after break up of the Soviet Union.

The problems of post-Soviet Russia also are based directly in economic circumstances. Some of the reasons for Russia's uneven progress are found in the legacy of the Soviet era, others in post-Soviet economic policies. For the majority of Russian citizens, the ballyhooed economic reforms of the 1990s did not improve the quality of life; indeed, in 1996 the "shock" of Russia's transition to a free-enterprise system seemed to be intensifying rather than subsiding, as unemployment figures rose and more Russians slipped below the official poverty line. In the first half of 1996, the number of registered unemployed workers increased by 16 percent, totaling 2.7 million — but a much higher number of Russians remained unemployed and failed to register for meager state benefits. According to an official report, average real incomes decreased by about 40 percent between 1991 and October 1996. [Source: Glenn E. Curtis, Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Russia's society has become increasingly divided according to economic categories. As the majority of Russian citizens struggle to remain above the poverty line, a small minority have prospered through high-risk economic ventures that often involve connections with the mafiya, Russia's pervasive network of organized criminal organizations. Members of the successful minority increasingly are distinguished from the majority of society by conspicuous consumption, which has engendered strong feelings of resentment. Another type of post-Soviet success story is demonstrated by former members of the Soviet official elite, the nomenklatura, who have used Soviet-era connections to gain access to financial resources and influential enterprise positions in the new system. By 1997 experts had identified a new oligarchy — the post-Soviet entrepreneurs who have built personal empires and strong ties with the government at the expense of their fellow Russians. Russian society also is increasingly divided by generations. Older Russians have found adapting to the complexities and challenges of post-Soviet society much more difficult than have their younger compatriots, so the former often preserve as much as possible of their former lives, garnished with nostalgia for an idealized Soviet past.*

Moscow has become the center of Russia's economic activity, both personal and corporate, far outstripping St. Petersburg, which in the Soviet era was the more cosmopolitan city. Many foreign investors have concentrated their activity in Moscow, where all of Russia's large banks are headquartered and where the energetic Mayor Yuriy Luzhkov has fostered rapid commercial expansion with active government participation. Meanwhile, the luxurious life of the new Moscow upper class has spread very little to the hinterlands.*

The increasing availability of land and materials has enabled some individuals to escape dependency on the old housing subsidy system (which nevertheless remained active in 1997). In the transition to a fully privatized housing system that began in 1992, the scarcity of resources and high inflation drove private housing prices beyond the reach of most Russians; in the mid-1990s, the slow, uneven progress of housing reform meant the continued existence of long waiting lists and very crowded housing conditions, especially in the cities.*

See Everyday Life

Whittling Down of Soviet-Era Benefits

The demise of the Soviet Union in 1991 brought a measure of freedom to Russia's people, but at the same time this change removed or severely weakened certain elements of the social safety net, which for many years had included a guarantee of employment, basic medical care, and government subsidies for food, clothing, shelter, and transportation. For the average citizen, social and economic conditions worsened considerably in the early postcommunist era. Although some components of state support remained close to their Soviet-era levels, the government lacked the resources to compensate Russia's citizens for the stresses of the transition period. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

The end of the Soviet Union meant the disappearance of a reliable, if mediocre, set of social expectations for every Russian. Lacking such guidance, various elements of Russian society moved in very different directions. A small segment took immediate action — both legal and illegal — to make the most of its newfound range of opportunities for self-expression and economic advancement. Although few such adventurers found success, those who did coalesced into a new class of wealthy Russians independent of the government. The vast majority, however, met the prospect of reduced predictability in their lives with suspicion, confusion, or resentment. Remembering the security of Soviet life, many clung to symbolic or real remnants of that life, particularly in the workplace.

As the economic controls of centralized government were eased, prices for basic necessities rose — sometimes precipitously — and society was buffeted by marked increases in crime, infectious diseases, drug addiction, homelessness, and suicide. Growing pollution and other environmental hazards added to the malaise.

Social Stratification in the Post- Soviet Era

Perhaps the most significant fact about Russia's social structure is that ideology no longer determines social status. Postcommunist society is characterized by a wide disparity in wealth and privilege. Although there is no rigid class structure, social stratification based on wealth is evident and growing. The nomenklatura as it existed in Soviet times disappeared with the demise of the CPSU (Communist Party of the Soviet Union) , but many of its members used their continuing connections with industry and finance to enrich themselves in the emerging capitalist system. [Source: Library of Congress, 1996 *]

According to a 1995 study conducted by the Russian Academy of Sciences, more than 60 percent of Russia's wealthiest millionaires, and 75 percent of the new political elite, are former members of the communist nomenklatura , and 38 percent of Russia's businesspeople held economic positions in the CPSU. The wealth of the new capitalists, who constitute 1 to 2 percent of the population, derives from the ownership of private property, which was prohibited under the communist regime; from former black-market transactions that now are pursued legally; and from repatriation of funds that were secretly transferred abroad during the Soviet era. Entrepreneurs have purchased former state-owned enterprises privatized by the government (often using connections with government authorities to gain favorable treatment) and have opened banks, stock exchanges, and other ventures typical of a market economy. By the mid-1990s, Russia had by no means established a full-fledged market economy, but the era of capitalism, which the Bolshevik Revolution had cut short, was ascendant. *

The most successful of the new capitalists practice conspicuous consumption on an extravagant scale, driving flashy Western cars, sporting expensive clothing and jewelry, and frequenting stylish restaurants and clubs that are far beyond the reach of ordinary Russians. Russian biznesmeny with cash-filled briefcases purchase expensive real estate in exclusive areas of Western Europe and the United States. Other areas of the world, such as the city of Limassol, Cyprus, have been transformed into virtual Russian enclaves where illicit commercial transactions help fuel the economy. Russian capitalists attempting to achieve at a high level using legitimate means must nonetheless pay protection money to criminal groups, especially in the larger cities.

Income Gap in Russia

Distribution of family income - Gini index:42 (2012); 41.7 (2011), country comparison to the world: 50. [Source: CIA World Factbook =]

By some measures Russian society is comprised of a small group of rich and lots of people struggling to make ends meet. The is a big gap between rich and poor, young and old, New Russians and Old Russians, Moscow dwellers and people from the provinces. In 1996, the richest one-tenth earned 14 times more than the lowest tenth. It is estimated that the top 10 percent possess 50 percent of the country's wealth and the lowest 40 percent own less than 20 percent.

In the first half of the 1990s, the gap between the richest and poorest citizens of Russia grew steadily, and it became a source of social alienation because newly successful Russians are resented and often are assumed to have criminal connections. In 1995 the World Bank ranked Russia's dichotomy between the highest and lowest economic echelons on a par with the wide gaps between rich and poor in Argentina and Turkey. However, by 1996 the gap had decreased slightly. According to the State Committee for Statistics (Goskomstat), in 1995 the wealthiest 10 percent of Russians earned 13.5 times as much as the poorest 10 percent. In 1996 the ratio had shrunk to 12.8 percent, suggesting that more people were sharing in the wealth. According to reports in 1996, the flaunting of luxurious automobiles, clothing, and other forms of material wealth became less prevalent in Russia's largest cities, especially Moscow, which is the center of the nouveau riche population. [Source: Library of Congress, 1996 *]

Nonreporting of incomes by the highest socioeconomic level likely makes the real gap wider than the official statistics indicate. The overall decline in living standards in 1995 is revealed by an 8 percent decrease in retail trade and by opinion surveys. For instance, in early 1995 some 56 percent of respondents said that their material situation had declined, and 17 percent said that it had improved. Another survey identified 68 percent of respondents claiming to live below the poverty line in 1995, compared with 56 percent the previous year. Such self-perceptions of victimization promote the platforms of antireform political parties that promise a return to the guaranteed well-being of the Soviet era. *

A subclass of young businesspeople, mainly bankers and stockbrokers, runs the new trading and investment markets in Moscow and St. Petersburg, remaining aloof from the tangled, state-dominated manufacturing sector. This group, a very visible part of life in the larger cities in the mid-1990s, has profited from the youthful flexibility that enabled it to embrace an entirely new set of rules for economic success, while Russia's older generations — with the exception of the astute nomenklatura members who became part of the nouveau riche — were much less able to adapt to the post-Soviet world. *

Conditions for the working class and the peasants are sharply at variance with those of the new capitalist class. Political repression has eased, but economic privations have increased. Although more goods are available, they are often beyond the means of the average worker. Full employment, the virtually guaranteed basis of survival under communism, no longer is the norm. At the lower end of the social scale, the "working poor" toil predominantly in agriculture, education, culture, science, and health, most of which are considered middle-class fields of employment in the West. State employees, who suffer especially from inflation because of infrequent wage adjustments, often fall below the official poverty line. *

Young parents with little work experience and more than one child are especially likely to be members of the working poor. In 1993 some 57 percent of families classified as poor by the World Bank had one or more children, and 86 percent of families with three or more children were classified in the lowest income group. Most single-parent families also belonged to this group. In the lower- income groups, people with relatives generally fare better than those with none (especially single pensioners), as the informal subsistence networks formed during the Soviet era continue to provide support to a substantial segment of society. [Source: Library of Congress, 1996 *]

Social Organizations in Russia

Major Soviet organizations included: the Octobrists, the Young Pioneers, women’s organizations and labor unions.

There is a lack of civil institutions in Russia. In the mid-1990s, the structure of Russia's civil society was still in flux, but by that time the country had developed a large and growing network of social organizations, including trade unions, professional societies, veterans' groups, youth organizations, sports clubs, women's associations, and a variety of support groups. Whereas all types of organization during the Soviet era functioned as "transmission belts" for the communist party, in the years that followed the emergence of a large number of diverse, autonomous nongovernmental groups was an important aspect of the growth of civil society. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

The Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Russia (Federatsiya nezavisimykh profsoyuzov Rossii — FNPR) is one of the largest trade union organizations. Created as the official trade union movement was reconstituted following the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the federation includes thirty-six unions — many of them quite small in the mid-1990s — grouped by type of occupation. Among the FNPR's activities is the collection of contributions to the Social Insurance Fund by Russia's enterprises, each of which is required to earmark 4.5 percent of its total payroll for the fund. *

Breaking the legal stranglehold of the Soviet-era trade union structure on the provision of social security benefits was a complicated but essential stage in enabling new unions to gain legitimacy in the eyes of workers. In the early 1990s, most workers saw the FNPR as representing the interests of management and the government, so they relied more heavily on unofficial, independent unions and a variety of worker-oriented organizations. However, in 1995 and early 1996 the FNPR, now a partner with top businesspeople in an umbrella party called Trade Unions and Industrialists of Russia, played a central role in organizing large-scale rallies and picketing actions to protest chronic late wage payments by enterprises all over the Russian Federation. *

In the 1990s, substantial independent union activity has also occurred in the coal industry. There, the Independent Miners' Union (Nezavisimyy profsoyuz gornyakov — NPG) and the Independent Trade Union of Workers in the Coal-Mining Industry (Nezavisimyy profsoyuz rabochikh ugol'noy promyshlennosti — NPRUP), a reformed version of the official Soviet-era trade union, share power and have organized large-scale strikes. *

In the 1990s, independent individuals and groups have begun establishing professional, research, educational, and cultural organizations. This activity has included a substantial upswing in the number of voluntary charitable and philanthropic organizations. In 1995 about 5,000 nonprofit organizations and 550 formal charities were operating in Russia. In Moscow more than 10,000 volunteers worked for these organizations in 1996. These numbers are low by Western standards, and a legal framework for the existence of charities and nonprofit organizations still did not exist as of mid-1996. However, the starting point in 1992 was nearly zero in both categories. *

A significant token of citizen awareness is the proliferation of local and regional ecological and environmental cleanup groups throughout the Russian Federation (see Environmental Problems). For example, Epitsentr, an umbrella organization in St. Petersburg, has spawned numerous smaller groups that focus on controlling pollution in the city's water supply, stopping the construction of a controversial dam in the Gulf of Finland, and preserving St. Petersburg's historic buildings and cultural monuments. Students at Moscow State University and other educational institutions have played an important role in directing public attention to the massive environmental degradation that plagues Russia. The Socio-Ecological Union, which was founded at Moscow State University in 1988, has become one of the Russian Federation's most influential umbrella organizations committed to environmental protection. *

Image Sources:

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.

Last updated May 2016

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