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Soviet Union


From 1861 to early 1917, the population of Russia officially consisted of six social categories: the nobility, clergy, distinguished citizens (professionals), merchants, townspeople (a catchall term for city artisans, clerks, and workers not included in the other groups), and peasants. The intelligentsia, consisting of those who created and disseminated culture and often served as social critics, was not considered a separate class but rather, as one scholar put it, "a state of mind."

The upper level of the nobility and military officers were further hierarchically ordered according to the Table of Ranks issued by Peter the Great in 1722, which based rank on service to the tsar rather than on birth or seniority. This table continued in use, with some modifications, until abolished in 1917. The tsar was at the apex of this system, from which Jews, Muslims, and many of the smaller non-Russian nationalities were excluded.

The peasants, who were liberated in 1861 from serfdom and obligatory service on private or government lands, were at the bottom of the pre-1917 social pyramid. Before 1905 the government required peasants to obtain permission from the local peasant community--the mir (see Glossary)--before leaving the land. Although much of the peasant migration before the Bolshevik Revolution was seasonal, some permanent migration into the cities did occur, especially during the 1890s and after 1906, when the peasants were freed from obligations to the mir. The move from village to city was naturally accompanied by the move from farm to factory. Between 1895 and 1917, the factory labor force tripled to more than 3 million as Russia began to industrialize. The urban population of Russia increased from 9 percent in 1860 to 16 percent in 1910. Traditionally, urban life in Russia had been connected with government administration; but at the turn of the century, it began to be tied to industry.

The revolutions of 1917 overturned the old social order. In that year, the new Bolshevik (see Glossary) government nationalized private estates and church lands, and it abolished class distinctions and privileges. Workers' councils ( soviets--see Glossary) took over the operation of factories and were given the right to set production goals and remuneration levels. Banking was declared a state monopoly. Thus, the economic foundations of the old social order crumbled. The new ruling elite, the BolshevikMarxist intelligentsia, drew its support from what it called the proletariat--workers, landless peasants, and employees--while the formerly privileged--the clergy, nobility, high-ranking civil servants, and merchants--found themselves stripped of their property and even hindered in obtaining housing, education, and jobs. The Bolsheviks lifted some of the restrictions a short while later when they realized that they needed the professional knowledge and skills of some former members of the elite to operate the government and the economy. Yet the children of the formerly privileged were barred from educational and career opportunities for nearly two decades after the Bolshevik Revolution.

Vladimir I. Lenin's nationalization of the land, factories, and financial institutions destroyed the prerevolutionary social system. In turn, Joseph V. Stalin's forced collectivization of agriculture, which began in 1929, annihilated the more prosperous peasantry during the early 1930s, while his industrialization program destroyed the new elite class that had developed as a result of Lenin's New Economic Policy ( NEP--see Glossary). Seeking political scapegoats in the 1930s, the government directed widespread purges against the technical experts operating fledgling industries. In the late 1930s, Stalin's purges also destroyed much of the military and party elite.

During the 1930s, the social system adapted to the industrializing economy. Stalin ended the official leveling of incomes in 1931, when he announced that needed increases in production could only be effected by paying more to skilled workers and the intelligentsia. The new system provided incentives for workers and partly ended legal discrimination against some of the former privileged classes. Official discrimination against the former "exploiting classes" (nobles, priests, and capitalists) was abolished by the 1936 constitution.

Other events at that time reflected Stalin's move away from the egalitarian ideas that the regime had promoted during its first decade. In 1934 egalitarianism itself was repudiated, in 1935 military ranks were introduced, and in 1939 the Stalin Prize was created to reward favored artists. In 1940 school fees were reestablished for the final year of secondary school and for universities, and in 1943 and 1945 inheritance laws were made more favorable to inheritors.

From Stalin's death in 1953 to the late 1970s, an expanding Soviet economy continued to provide ample opportunity for career and social advancement. The state increased incomes of and benefits for the lowest-paid strata of society while providing more privileges for the elite. Beginning in the 1960s, however, access to higher education became increasingly restricted, thus impeding social advancement by this means. In the early 1980s, a stagnant economy reduced overall social mobility, a situation that highlighted differences among social groups.

In 1989 Marxism-Leninism, the official Soviet ideology, held that social classes have been historically defined by their relationship to the means of production, i.e., land and factories. The official view was that Soviet society represented "a new and distinctly different human community, free from traditional class antagonisms and contradictions." Soviet society supposedly consisted of two classes, workers and peasants, with those who engaged in nonmanual or intellectual labor forming a stratum within both (see table 17, Appendix A). These two classes were considered to be nonantagonistic because neither exploited the other and because they jointly owned the means of production.

Stratification in the Soviet Union, according to Soviet officials, was based only on merit and not on the ownership of private property. Privilege proceeded from one's position in society and not the reverse. Soviet ideology held that this stratification would disappear in the future as Soviet society progressed from socialism to communism. In contrast, capitalist society, according to Soviet ideology, was torn by class conflict between the capitalists, or those who owned the means of production, and the workers. The capitalists ruthlessly exploited the workers, who had only their labor to sell. This exploitation, Marxist-Leninists believed, created class antagonisms and inevitable conflict.

The official ideology ignored some very profound cleavages in Soviet society, and it created some that, in fact, had not existed. For example, despite overwhelming similarities in income, lifestyle , education, and other determinants of social position, only those employed in agricultural work on a collective farm (see Glossary) were considered to be peasants, while those employed in agriculture on a state farm (see Glossary) were called workers. Moreover, a bookkeeper on a collective farm, a schoolteacher, and an armed forces general, all of whom performed mental labor, were considered to belong to the nonmanual labor strata, often and imprecisely called the intelligentsia. This classification also failed to take into account the role political power and party membership played in social stratification within a one-party state. If under capitalism power flows from ownership, then under communism power confers the effect of ownership because political power in the Soviet Union determined who controlled collective property.

Data as of May 1989

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