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Soviet Union

Chapter 5. Social Structure

SINCE 1917 THE SOVIET UNION has transformed itself from a predominantly agricultural, rural, and developing-capitalist society into an industrial, urban, socialist (see Glossary) society. Its social structure developed from the imposition of a centralist, Marxist state on a geographically, ethnically, and culturally diverse population.

Western sociologists generally categorized Soviet society into four major socio-occupational groupings: the political-governmental elite and cultural and scientific intelligentsia; white-collar workers; blue-collar workers; and peasants and other agricultural workers. Soviet ideology held that Soviet society consisted solely of two nonantagonistic classes--workers and peasants. Those engaged in nonmanual labor (from bookkeepers to party functionaries) formed strata in both classes.

Social position was determined not only by occupation but also by education, party membership, place of residence, and even nationality. Membership in the ruling group, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), aided career advancement. Those who worked full time for the party received political power, special privileges, and financial benefits. Social status increased the higher one was promoted in the party, but this power was derived from position and could neither be inherited from nor be bequeathed to relatives.

Unlike in the West, private property played no role in social stratification, and income generally was a consequence of social position, not its determinant. In general, the higher the social position, the greater the pay, benefits, access to scarce goods and services, and prestige. The Soviet regime glorified manual labor and often paid higher wages to certain types of skilled laborers than to many white-collar workers, including physicians, engineers, and teachers. These professionals, however, enjoyed higher social prestige than the better-paid laborers. Considerable differences existed among the country's various social and economic groups. Soviet statistics showed that the income for many occupations was not sufficient to support a family, even if both spouses worked. These statistics on income, however, did not take into account money or benefits derived from the unofficial economy, that is, the black market in goods and services.

The social structure of the Soviet Union has shown some signs of immobility and self-perpetuation. Children of the political elite, intelligentsia, and white-collar workers had a better chance to receive university educations than those of unskilled laborers and agricultural workers. Most children of agricultural workers began their careers without higher education and remained at the same socio-occupational level as their parents.

The largest official social organizations, such as the trade unions, youth organizations, and sports organizations, were tightly controlled by the state. Unofficial organizations, once banned, were becoming increasingly evident in the late 1980s.

Under the Soviet Constitution, women possessed equal rights with men and were granted special benefits, such as paid maternity leave for child-bearing. At the same time, women as a group were overrepresented in the lower-paid occupations and underrepresented in high positions in the economy, government, and the party. If married, they performed most of the homemaking chores in addition to their work outside the home. This overwork, coupled with crowded housing conditions, contributed to a high rate of divorce and abortion, which was higher in the European part of the country than in the Asian past.

Families in the southern and Islamic parts of the country were larger than those in the northern and non-Islamic sections. The increased size reflected the more traditional Islamic cultural norms and the inclusion of other relatives, particularly grandparents, in families.

Data as of May 1989