The Soviet Union collapsed over 30 years ago. But, to this day, many people still defend the socialist regime and continue to propagate myths, often contaminated with a certain nostalgia, which ignore unfortunate, controversial, and terrible facts about the Soviet past.
In this first piece of a series addressing myths about the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), we will focus on the issues of poverty, inequality, and quality of life.
Social inequality in the Soviet Union
Behind the facade of the Soviet Union’s proclaimed mission to eliminate inequality and establish a classless society, a stark reality lay hidden. The promises of equal opportunities and shared prosperity crumbled under the weight of systemic disparities and inherent contradictions. In the words of Victor Zaslavsky, a professor of Political Sociology, writing in 1980,
“The Original Marxist aim – the elimination of inequality, the eradication of all causes of man’s alienation, the creation of a classless society – had not been achieved. On the contrary, in the USSR there has emerged a system of entrenched economic and social inequality.”
Article 19 of the Soviet Union’s 1977 Constitution stated that:
“The social basis of the USSR is the unbreakable alliance of the workers, peasants, and intelligentsia.
The state helps enhance the social homogeneity of society, namely the elimination of class differences and of the essential distinctions between town and country and between mental and physical labor, and the all-round development and drawing together of all the nations and nationalities of the USSR.”
This directly contradicts another Soviet constitution, from 1936, which determined that the Soviet population was divided into two major classes, the working class and peasantry, and a third group, the intelligentsia. Each of these divisions was called a stratum.
In the context of Soviet social hierarchy, the intelligentsia can be categorized into the following four groups:
1. The ruling elite — which included high-ranking officials in the Party, government, economy, and military, as well as certain influential scientists, artists, and writers.
2. The superior intelligentsia — consisting of intermediate individuals from the aforementioned categories, along with important technical specialists.
3. The general intelligentsia — which encompassed various professional groups, mid-level bureaucrats, small business managers, junior military officers, and technicians.
4. The white-collar group — which refers to employees including petty bureaucrats, accountants, bookkeepers, clerks, and office workers.
The working class
The Soviet working class can be categorized into three groups.
The first group consisted of highly skilled and productive workers, who formed a sort of “aristocracy” within the working class.
The second group included the majority of workers, with varying skill levels, earning slightly above or below the average wage.
The third group comprised disadvantaged workers, estimated to have represented around a quarter of the Soviet labor force, who had low levels of skill, productivity, and initiative, resulting in them earning close to the minimum wage.
As such, especially given the significant differences between each of these groups, we cannot say that there was no social inequality in the USSR. Some individuals were clearly privileged compared to others..
But did anything change between 1936 and 1977, between the two contradictory constitutions?
The workers vs the elite
“From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” was a slogan popularized by Karl Marx and widely propagated during the early years of the USSR. Yet, right from the start, social disparity was plainly obvious.
Communists were initially viewed as the most dedicated, active, and unwavering members of Soviet society. They fully embraced the principles of Soviet ideology and were willing to defend these ideals at any cost. However, starting from the 1970s, many observers doubted the level of ideological commitment among members of the Communist Party.
In the post-World War II era, we can identify three main motivations for joining the party:
1. Compulsory membership for sensitive job positions to avoid repression.
2. The pursuit of professional and social advancement.
3. A desire to enhance one’s personal life.
Even buying a car or a piece of furniture could involve years spent on a waiting list — that is if you even had the money. And only high-ranking party officials enjoyed some level of luxury.
Furthermore, there was a noticeable disparity in living standards between white-collar and blue-collar workers in the Soviet Union. Surprisingly, unskilled workers spent a larger portion of their income on consumer goods and services compared to skilled workers. Additionally, the intelligentsia, despite relatively small differences in family income, were able to consume more than would have been expected.
Compared to other socialist nations, the Soviet Union exhibited a greater divide between the intelligentsia and the working class. The divergence in the availability of goods and services cannot be explained solely by monetary factors. It also reflects state-driven expectations of certain living standards. Indeed, overall, the intelligentsia expressed greater dissatisfaction with their material well-being compared to other groups.
Although the USSR made strides in reducing inequality and poverty compared to pre-revolutionary times, it fell far short of completely eradicating these issues. While it achieved a level of economic equality comparable to Nordic social democracies, poverty persisted, as did disparities between republics or between urban and rural areas.
While the minimum monthly budget for an urban worker’s family was about 70 rubles (and for peasants, a mere 28 rubles!), the elite of Soviet workers, the intelligentsia (state officials, marshalls, directors of academic research institutes, factory managers) received monthly salaries of 450 rubles or more.
Income distribution and benefits access
In a socialist economy, the primary objective is economic equality, but in the Soviet model, the emphasis on maximizing industrial growth superseded egalitarian goals. Additionally, the state’s inefficiency in allocating manpower and providing incentives contributed to income disparities.
Income inequalities within the socialist framework can also be attributed to the ideological bias of the regime towards different social classes. Manual labor was highly esteemed, while the peasantry received less recognition, resulting in differing income levels. These divisions within the communist power structure influenced the distribution of wealth.
Monetary income in Soviet society exhibited disparities, with salary differences acting as incentives in factories and varying across regions. However, more significant sources of inequality stemmed from non-monetary benefits enjoyed by some citizens.
The scarcity of consumer goods played a significant role, as earning a certain amount of money did not guarantee access to desired goods and services.
Instead, two systems contributed to further disparities: the government’s creation of privileges for specific regions, sectors, and individuals, and the emergence of a shadow economy that provided access to goods outside the official channels. These factors undermined the notion of economic equality within Soviet society.
Poverty in the Soviet Union
Despite the Soviet Union’s typical portrayal as a socialist welfare state, a significant portion of its population lived in poverty.
Surveys conducted in the 1960s indicated that a substantial percentage of the urban working class, ranging from a quarter to a third, lived below the poverty line. Considering lower rural wages and the significant rural population, it is estimated that around 40 percent of the entire Soviet population was classified as “poor.”
In Alastair McAuley’s 1977 article, an examination of earnings and income distribution in the Soviet Union revealed significant levels of poverty. McAuley utilized government subsidies introduced in 1974 for families earning under 50 rubles per month to estimate poverty rates in 1967. The findings were striking, suggesting that around 40 percent of the population in 1967 would be considered poor according to the standards set in 1974.
Subsequent studies by Soviet economists, using a poverty threshold of 60 rubles in 1978, indicated that 23 percent of the population fell below the poverty line based on a sample size of 62,000 family budgets. In Moscow, data from 1977 and 1979 showed poverty rates of 12 to 15 percent for couples, while in Estonia, an affluent republic, 18 percent of families with children were classified as poor.
Moreover, higher poverty rates were observed in the Tuvan Autonomous Republic, predominantly inhabited by the Tuvan people, a Turkic ethnic group, as well as in Novosibirsk. These findings shed light on the extent of poverty within different regions and demographic groups in the Soviet Union.
In 1990, The Washington Post reported that:
“Soviet poverty more broadly defined reaches well beyond the broke and the lost. It is a state of being for tens of millions of people and is reflected less in salary levels than in daily, unending shortages of meat and apartments, medicines and vegetables, soap and shoes. […]
On Nikolai Ostrovsky Lane, the airy pre-revolutionary apartments of merchants and artists long ago were divided into communal flats. Five or six families, most of them with regular salaries or pensions, share a toilet and a kitchen and take turns complaining to blank-eyed local officials about the rusted pipes, the cascade of plaster. Evenings after work, they stand endlessly in lines, hunting for milk, oatmeal, toilet paper, whatever can be found.
Poverty in the Soviet Union is not bloated bellies and famine, but rather a common condition of need that seems only to widen and grow worse with every month. Just as dangerous, it haunts the heart as well as the stomach.”
Poverty and censorship
The existence of poverty in the Soviet Union was effectively concealed by the government, as Joseph Stalin suppressed the publication of data on negative social phenomena. This practice continued under Nikita Khrushchev’s rule, with the term “poor” remaining prohibited in official Soviet publications to describe any social group. The absence of comprehensive data on wage and income distribution makes it difficult to determine the exact number of impoverished individuals among the 270 million inhabitants.
Despite a modest increase in real consumption per capita between 1950 and 1985, Soviet living standards remained relatively low compared to Western and Eastern European countries. Disparities were evident even in the statistics published by Soviet authorities.
For instance, in 1981, only 65 percent of Soviet households had refrigerators, while the U.S. and Spain boasted figures exceeding 90 percent and 85 percent, respectively. Similarly, 55 percent of households had washing machines, while the U.S. had 74 percent and Italy had 90 percent.
If the average Soviet citizen’s living standards lagged behind their American counterparts by several decades, it can be assumed that the situation for the Soviet poor was even more dire.
The limited available evidence suggests a significant gap between the proclaimed ideals of the Soviet regime and the harsh reality experienced by many Soviet citizens.
Homelessness in the Soviet Union
The presence of homeless individuals on the streets of Moscow was extremely rare, but this was largely due to the efforts of the police.
Homeless people, often referred to as “Moscow bomzhi,” meaning “without definite residence,” aimed to remain invisible and found shelter in various locations such as cemeteries, railway stations, construction sites, and basements. They often sought refuge on the vacant top floors of Moscow high-rises, among ventilation pipes and heating ducts.
Quality of life in the Soviet Union
Despite the Soviet Union’s claims of prosperity and economic superiority, the standard of living throughout the country consistently fell below Western and even broader Eastern European levels.
In 1976, the Soviet standard of living was only a third of the American level and less than half of that in France and West Germany. This disparity can be attributed to the Soviet government’s lower expenditure on consumption compared to most Western and Eastern European nations.
In addition to limited access to consumer goods, housing was also limited, and stratified. The government determined who lived where, for how long, and with whom.
Soviet goods and housing quality
The quality of goods provided by the Soviet state was moderate at best — with significant deficiencies. For instance, inspections revealed that a large proportion of bicycles and furniture did not meet quality standards. Shortages of essential items, such as cheese, sausages, meat, and clothing, were widespread, especially outside of major cities.
Consumer goods remained scarce, making it challenging for people to purchase desired items regardless of their disposable income. Overall, the quality of consumer goods in the Soviet Union was considered vastly inferior by Western standards.
The Soviet Union not only faced shortages but also struggled to provide adequate services to its citizens. Despite taxpayers indirectly covering nearly half of the “free” services through taxes and hidden charges, the existing supply fell short of meeting the demand.
The focus of Soviet investment prioritized heavy industry and defense, neglecting the infrastructure of consumer services. This resulted in inefficiencies, with significant amounts of food, like milk, going to waste due to packaging issues. Employment in the consumer services sector initially grew but later stagnated, with only a small percentage of the workforce engaged in retail trade and food service.
Expenditures on state-provided services, including education, declined over time, indicating a reduction in resources allocated to improving their quality and accessibility. Although there was some employment growth in the social services sector, overall investment and development were limited. The combination of scarcity in consumer goods and a decline in service quality contributed to a lower standard of living for Soviet citizens compared to their Western counterparts.
Cost of living
The inadequate payment in the Soviet Union led to many elderly citizens taking on jobs even after retiring, a practice actively promoted by the authorities. Alternatively, some relied on pooling resources with their children to make ends meet.
Access to clothing was a challenging issue, particularly for average workers in Moscow, as buying clothes was costly.
In the 1970s, the Soviet Union still had a significant number of impoverished families who, for the most part, had to allocate a large portion of their earnings to meeting basic needs such as food and clothing.
Between 1929 and 1939, approximately 20 million Soviet citizens migrated from rural areas to urban centers as part of the government’s rapid industrialization initiative. Despite this substantial urbanization, the country remained primarily agricultural.
The Soviet Union stood out for its vast rural population, surpassing that of any other nation, and a significant portion of its workforce was engaged in the agricultural sector.
However, in line with its neglect of investment in the consumer sector, the Soviet Union also failed to foster the cultural development of its rural inhabitants. While consumer goods like televisions were prevalent in the countryside, a distinct rural culture failed to emerge among the peasant classes.
Seven-day work weeks
For a span of 11 years, the Soviet Union did away with weekends. Under the leadership of Joseph Stalin, the government viewed Sundays as a hindrance to industrial progress and implemented the nepreryvka, a continuous working week. This new system distributed days of rest throughout the week in an attempt to maintain constant productivity and discourage religious observance.
However, the nepreryvka failed to achieve its intended objectives and faced resistance from workers who felt isolated and unable to spend quality time with their families. The economic justifications for this shift overshadowed the unintended consequences of undermining family unity and social gatherings.
This calendar reform reflected a conventional Marxist disdain for the institution of the family and may have been a purposeful component of the government’s agenda. Ultimately, the nepreryvka was abandoned in 1940.
If you want to debunk more myths about the Soviet Union, be sure to check out our video below…
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