Soviet Union Table of Contents
Besides wages, citizens received two types of noncash benefits. The first, artificially low prices for food, transportation, and housing, amounted to approximately 42 percent of the average salary in 1986. These subsidies and other types of transfer payments were available to all and were not awarded according to status.
Other types of noncash benefits were allotted according to social position. For example, high-ranking party and government officials received such benefits as chauffeurs, domestic staff, living quarters (size and quality dependent on status), priority tickets for entertainment and travel, special waiting rooms at public places, and passes allowing them to jump lines to make purchases. As a rule, those receiving the least pay received the fewest noncash benefits. This group included unskilled workers, lower-level white-collar and service workers, farm workers, many pensioners, and the temporarily unemployed. Farm workers, who generally received the lowest pay, were able to supplement their incomes with the proceeds from their private agricultural plots.
Social position also determined access to goods and services, an important benefit in a country where, as Matthews has written, "Deprivation is a recognized but unpublicized feature of . . . life." Those in the party, military, security, and cultural elites had the right to shop at special restricted stores that required either foreign currency or so-called certificate rubles. In such stores, imported goods or goods not available in the public markets could be purchased. The average citizen, in contrast, was obligated to stand in line for hours at public markets where many goods, including clothing and foodstuffs, were either in short supply or unavailable. Some occupations, however, bestowed privileges that were not officially recognized or that offered opportunities for blat (see Glossary). For example, managers of businesses and business activities had higher standards of living than their positions implied because they could demand special favors in exchange for the scarce goods and services they controlled. In turn, shop personnel possessed low occupational prestige but enjoyed high, albeit unofficial and sometimes illegal, fringe benefits. In addition, some blue-collar occupations could be put into this group.
Social position also played a significant role in the allocation of living space. The perennial shortage of urban housing meant that insufficient individual apartments existed for those who desired them. Income played only a small role in housing distribution because the state owned most of the housing and charged artificially low rents. (A small number of cooperative apartments were sold, but these were beyond the means of most people.) The elite received the most spacious and best-quality housing, often as a job benefit. The elite also possessed more influential friends who could help them bypass the usually long waiting periods for apartments. The average family, in contrast, either shared an apartment with other families, using the bathroom and kitchen as common areas, or lived in a very small private apartment. A 1980 article in a prestigious Soviet journal on economics stated that about 20 percent of all urban families (53 percent in Leningrad) lived in shared apartments, although for the country as a whole this percentage was decreasing in the late 1980s. The housing situation for young unmarried, and often unskilled, workers was worse. They often could find living space only in a crowded hostel operated by the enterprise in which they worked or in the corner of a room in a shared apartment. Until they could find their own apartment, young married people often lived with one set of parents. Housing in rural areas was more spacious than that found in urban apartments, but it usually had few amenities.
Other forms of unequal access that favored those of higher social status included better holiday facilities, better medical care, and better education for children. The special schools that taught advanced languages, arts, and sciences were generally attended by the children of the privileged. Official state honors, both civilian and military, also brought benefits in the form of better travel, lodging, and holiday accommodations.
Data as of May 1989
Soviet Union Table of Contents