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Soviet Union

Chapter 6. Education, Health, and Welfare

THE SOVIET CONSTITUTION GUARANTEES to Soviet citizens free, universal, and multilingual education; free, qualified medical care provided by state health institutions; provision for old age, sickness, and disability; and maternity allowances and subsidies to families with many children. In quantitative terms, Soviet regimes have made impressive strides in these areas since 1917. The quality of the education and care, however, often fell below standards achieved in the West.

Before the Bolshevik Revolution, education was available to only an elite minority, consisting largely of the aristocratic upper class; tsarist Russia's literacy rate was barely 25 percent. By the mid-1980s, more than 110 million students--about 40 percent of the population--were enrolled in the Soviet Union's governmentcontrolled coeducational schools, universities, and institutes. The nation's literacy rate reached nearly 100 percent--proclaimed by Soviet officials as the highest in the world. Western authorities stressed, however, that the quality of Soviet education often lagged behind that of the West, in large measure because of the high degree of centralization and standardization of Soviet schools, the emphasis on political indoctrination, and the reliance on learning by rote and memorization.

On the eve of the Bolshevik Revolution, medical care was available to only a minority of the population, made up largely of aristocrats and upper-level civil servants. The annual death toll from epidemics and famine was in the millions. By the mid-1980s, the Soviet Union had the world's highest ratio of physicians and hospital beds per inhabitant, and basic medical care was available to the large majority of the Soviet population, although the quality of health care, in general, was considered low by Western standards.

Apart from limited assistance provided by private and church-run charitable organizations, no nationwide welfare programs provided for the needs of the old, disabled, and poor before the Soviet era began. In the 1980s, social security and welfare programs were providing modest support to over 56 million veterans and old-age pensioners, millions of invalids and disabled children and adults, expectant mothers, and multichildren families.

During the regimes of Joseph V. Stalin and Nikita S. Khrushchev, Soviet authorities established the underlying principles and basic organization of education, health care, and welfare programs. The common denominator linking these programs was the country's concern with establishing a technically skilled, well-indoctrinated, and healthy labor force. A hallmark of Soviet education was its primary political function, originally enunciated by Vladimir I. Lenin, as a tool for remaking society. Political indoctrination--the inculcation of Marxist-Leninist (see Glossary) ideals--thus remained a constant throughout the uneven, decades-long process of educational expansion and reform, and it set the Soviet system of schooling apart from contemporary Western models.

With the coming to power of General Secretary Mikhail S. Gorbachev in 1985 and the introduction of his policy of glasnost' (see Glossary), the achievements made in education, health, and welfare since 1917 were being increasingly overshadowed by open criticism and even growing alarm over serious failures in these spheres. By the mid-1980s, the Soviet leadership and public alike finally acknowledged what Western observers had been noting for some time, namely, that the decades-long emphasis on quantitative expansion had come at the expense of quality. Schools were failing to develop the technically skilled work force needed to achieve the goals of perestroika (see Glossary) and to create a modern and technologically developed economic system on a par with the advanced economies of the Western world.

The situation in Soviet health care was even more serious. In the 1970s and 1980s, significant increases in infant mortality and considerable declines in life expectancy accompanied an alarming deterioration in the quality of health care. Pension and welfare programs were also failing to provide adequate protection, as evidenced by the large segment of the population living at the poverty threshold. In the mid-1980s, Soviet leaders openly acknowledged these problems and introduced a number of reforms in an effort to rectify them.

Data as of May 1989

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