The Soviet regime’s proclaimed goal was to forge the classless, communist society that German political theorist Karl Marx had sketched in the 19th century. The Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) pledged in its 1961 program to attain full-fledged communism within a generation. The target proved unrealizable. CPSU theory classified the Soviet Union as a socialist society in which three main groups—the working class (proletariat), peasantry, and white-collar intelligentsia—coexisted harmoniously and selflessly laid the foundations of the coming communist utopia. In reality, social structure was more complicated than the theory allowed, and the ruling party worried more about perpetuating its power and privileges than about advancing popular well-being or preparing for the future.
Many personal freedoms were drastically curtailed in the Soviet Union. In the Stalin era, employees needed the permission of management to change jobs and could face criminal prosecution for tardiness or absenteeism. These cruel penalties were abandoned in the 1950s; most other restrictions were not. Soviet citizens continued to be subject to surveillance and interference by the political police. They could join only associations approved by the CPSU.
They could not set up businesses or sell their individual services, save for a few minor fields such as tutoring and baby-sitting. State-imposed regulations on personal mobility required residents to carry internal passports and to have them stamped by the police before changing locale; travel abroad was possible only with special authorization. Military service was compulsory and graduates from higher education had to accept work assignments, sometimes in undesirable locations, the first few years after acquiring their diplomas. Able-bodied adults who did not hold a job were condemned as “social parasites”, and evicted from the big cities.
Average living conditions deteriorated between the 1917 revolution and Stalin’s death in 1953, depressed by social upheaval, warfare, and planners’ bias toward military and industrial spending.
Progress at last came about under Khrushchev and Brezhnev in boosting the supply of foodstuffs, consumer goods, and housing. Even at that, the standard of living lagged far behind the affluent West. The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) estimated Soviet national output in 1991 to be about $9100 per capita, compared with $15,000 per capita in the United Kingdom and $21,800 in the United States. In the neglected consumer realm, Soviet backwardness was greater than overall figures might suggest. Some Western and Russian experts judged per capita purchasing power to be about one-quarter to one-third of the U.S. norm in the 1980s. In the housing realm, for example, 15 percent of families lived in a single room in 1989 and 47 percent in two rooms.
Waiting times for government-funded apartments, which rented for tiny sums once allocated, were ten or more years long in some cities. Sixty-three percent of Soviet households did not have a telephone. Housing construction fell far short of demand after the mid-1970s, as only six or seven apartments were built for every ten new households formed. Home appliances and other consumer durables were widespread, yet quality was shabby, assortment limited, and repair facilities scarce. Chronic shortages forced people to spend hours in line at state stores and to hoard items, thereby aggravating the shortages. Disparities between official and black-market prices bred corruption among sales personnel.
The regime’s egalitarian ideals often clashed with its desire to spur productivity and loyalty by differentiating the rewards people received. Inequality of income and social status was pervasive under Stalin and persevered afterward, despite efforts to improve the lot of the poorest segments of the population. Average earnings of the best-paid 10 percent of the labor force were more than three times those of the worst-paid 10 percent in 1976. Members of the CPSU apparatus, senior economic managers, and other favored groups enjoyed not only higher salaries but also more comfortable apartments, better recreational opportunities, access to luxury goods, and foreign travel. Public services to some degree offset low incomes. A point of pride was the government’s free provision of health care, education, and social-security benefits. Even here, though, problems of quality, availability, and equity simmered beneath the surface. Hospital treatment may have been without charge, but it was revealed in the 1980s that only every second hospital had an X-ray machine and only 20 percent of rural hospitals and clinics had hot running water. The sick often had to purchase therapy and medication through illegal gratuities. The Soviet elite, by contrast, received superior medical care in secret facilities closed to the masses. Underfunding of welfare programs, growing stress and alcohol consumption, and a worsening of environmental pollution caused a noticeable deterioration in health indicators in the late Soviet era. The infant mortality rate, which had plunged from 80.7 per 1000 live births in 1950 to 22.9 per 1000 in 1971, rose to 27.3 per 1000 in 1980, dropping somewhat to 25.4 per 1000 in 1987. Life expectancy for men, 66 years in the mid-1960s, sagged to 62 years by the early 1980s. "USSR" © Emmanuel BUCHOT, Encarta, Wikipedia.
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