Being a man in the Soviet Union

Choose your favourite stereotype: leather-coated commissar; overweight bureaucrat; heroic warrior against the Nazis; indolent drunk; well-paid miner with no interest in housework. The Soviet Union, like all societies, generated various masculinities.

Mukhina image

1988 stamp of Vera Mukhina’s 1937 statue, Male Factory Worker and Female Collective Farm Worker (Wikipedia Commons)

Historians of the USSR have analysed masculinity in specific locations: the automobile, the army, even the bathhouse. They have dissected its representation and construction in film, painting, and sculpture. And they have reminded us of a basic conflict. Men in the Soviet Union were powerful, but they were also weak.

Nowhere was this paradox more visible than in the rooms in which welfare was dispensed. Fiery disputes were played out in housing departments; complex claims were debated in pensions offices. And there was a high probability that a man with a housing problem or an unpaid pension would find himself on the opposite side of the desk from a woman.

True, many senior welfare officials were men. But the professionalization of social administration during the later Soviet period was also a process of feminization. Ever more often, it was women who interpreted the welfare regulations as they pertained to a particular case, making decisions that had a fundamental impact on the lives of men.

This was even true immediately after 1945, when major demands were made on the welfare system. Even then, the Soviet welfare apparatus was much more ambitious than in capitalist societies. It organized (haphazardly) crucial aspects of the lives of nearly everyone, and not only at moments of vulnerability. So all sorts of men – the weak and the strong – walked into welfare departments: both the war veteran, aware of his rights and supported by a social network, and the layabout.

In 1951, the head of one of Moscow’s social security districts complained about the type who ‘is always drunk, terrorizes his family, and [nevertheless] receives monthly extraordinary assistance’. She wanted to deny him benefits and arrange work for him instead. ‘The district would set up any kind of job for him, but he doesn’t want to work.’ But the rules prevented her from forcing the issue. The welfare system perpetuated the performance of a certain form of masculinity.

And so in ways that were unique to a would-be communist society, and in ways that can be found in all modern countries, masculinity was constructed not just on the battlefield and in the factory, but also in the welfare office.

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