Russian history and culture, from a historian in Cambridge
Who can doubt that social welfare was at the heart of late Soviet citizenship? Being a Soviet citizen was partly defined by the unique web of benefits to which one had the right, never more so than in the 1970s and ’80s. But it was in the late Brezhnev era that the Soviet welfare system came under pressure. The most obvious cracks were in healthcare, marked by drug shortages and dropping life expectancy (for men).
Nevertheless, the welfare system was resilient. Gorbachev’s economic reforms stopped short of directly targeting social provision. Pensions and other entitlements continued to pay out. Trade unions expressed their anxieties; the right to work, the centre of the entire Soviet welfare project, seemed under attack from 1987. But with the collapse of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991, the welfare system as a whole was ripped apart, a way of life was eliminated, and citizenship was completely recast.
Or was it quite that simple?
Mikhail Gorbachev, 1987 (RIA Novosti, Wikipedia Commons)
In real terms, cash benefits were in 1992 worth 52 per cent of their 1991 value. Even this is an optimistic view. Throughout the early 1990s, pensions were devastated by inflation. Any visitor saw elderly men and women selling their possessions on the street. If social welfare was at the heart of late Soviet citizenship, then post-Soviet citizenship was surely defined by its absence.
But much of the framework of the welfare system survived 1991, even if its cash value had been siphoned off. Some functions assumed a desperate feel, but remained entirely in place: across Russia, there were slightly more homes for the elderly and for disabled adults in 1992 than in 1991, and more in 1993 than in 1992 (though the number of residents was static).
And then there was the company town: the industrial enterprise, which might be one’s source of work, housing, and healthcare, a provider of leisure facilities, kindergartens and vouchers for sanatoria and summer camps. It was a key location in which citizenship was forged and understood. And very many of the old Soviet company towns, often robbed of their economic sense, rusty and gutted, continued to exist and to dispense welfare across Russia after the Soviet Union itself had gone. In such a way, the shadow of the old Soviet social citizenship flickered across a new cityscape of the most dramatic inequality.