Russian history and culture, from a historian in Cambridge
The industrial revolution created the welfare state, the wide-reaching and impersonal bureaucracy that keeps people’s heads above water, or launches them upwards. Why? Because the bosses had to keep the workers going. There came a point at which industry could not function if workers did not receive some form of social benefits when they were sick, workless, giving birth. The personal basis of mutual support in the Russian village commune or the localized assistance of the English Poor Law were not feasible on the large urban scale. State and industry had to invest in workers beyond their wage packets if the industrial economy were to function.
And this meant that it was cities, not villages, that became the primary arena of the welfare state. Welfare was a core component of Soviet urban civilization. But despite the misery and then neglect which the Soviet system wreaked upon the countryside, the Soviet Union would in time feature not just a cityscape of welfare, but a landscape of welfare too.
Even in cities, though, and on either side of the Iron Curtain, it would only be after the Second World War that social rights would fundamentally become established, and that welfare states would become extensive and powerful. If the industrial revolution caused the welfare state, then, the two phenomena did not exactly coexist. After 1945, in all modern societies, a cityscape of welfare rolled out across cities: benefits offices, pensions centres, maternity clinics, hospitals, nurseries, playgrounds, community centres, social housing estates. In cash transfers and physical infrastructure alike, villages were always behind. Nowhere was that truer than in the Soviet Union, where collective farm labourers were not even added to the pensions roll until 1964. But conditions in the Soviet countryside started to change in the 1950s. When the village prose writer Vladimir Soloukhin spent the summer of 1956 walking around his native countryside, a hundred miles or so from Moscow but seeming so much further away, he was also, incidentally, walking across a landscape of welfare.
He wanted to get off the beaten track, but he saw Pioneer camps, rest houses and old people’s homes. These were rural outposts of the giant Soviet welfare system. Fitting logically if not always beautifully into the Soviet conception of the countryside, they provided summer childcare and ideological instruction, health-focused holidays dispensed by trade unions, and state-run accommodation and care for relatively small numbers of elderly people. One might see this as the Soviet state writ large: Soviet welfare even in the middle of nowhere.
But Soloukhin’s book is really about the survival of old ways, even when they come face to face with the Soviet order. One hot day in the middle of his epic walk he met by chance a Supreme Soviet deputy who was well versed in dealing with the welfare problems of her constituents. She told him that the very first petitioner who came to the small stone house where she held her constituency ‘surgeries’ was a grandmother whose daughter had just died. She risked losing her home and her grandchildren, who were threatened with institutionalization. But the deputy, who herself had been an orphan, agreed that the family was the best place to bring up the children, and, while nervous and unsure of her authority, promised to try to resolve the case in the old woman’s favour.
The absence of politics and official ideology from his account is striking. Soloukhin writes archly about propaganda: ‘it is hard to imagine a kolkhoz lad, having read such a slogan, would snatch up his cap and hurry away to take part in socialist competition.’ And yet by the end of the book, the elephant in the room is back in focus, and compositional order has been restored. ‘The attention which the Party has paid to the countryside has warmed and given new life to my native Vladimir,’ he writes, ‘as well as to the villages near Moscow, in the Ukraine and in Siberia.’ But there is not really any contradiction: post-Stalin Soviet civilization, and not least its welfare system, rested upon a sustainable and dynamic encounter between the official and the unofficial, the state and the individual.