Society and Culture in Stalin's Russia


Were people better off in the 1930s?

  • Workers
    • In 1931 wage differentials had been sharply increased and many worker were paid on the basis of piecework, that is how much work they produced
    • Jasny's estimates of real wages (what wages could buy) is that they fell by over a half during the 5 year plan, and only rose to 56% of their 1920 level by 1940
    • There were perpetual shortages in the State shops, and this meant endless queueing and a culture of 'in case' string bags
    • Bread consumption was down by 50% compared to 1900
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Were people better off in the 1930s?

  • Quality of life
    •  The whole urban and rural environment also deteriorated.
    • Paint was impossible to find, unless you had the right contacts, so repair and maintenance of homes was very difficult
    • Overcrowding, as we have seen, was a terrible problem for almost all families in towns and cities
    • The government saw its first priority as the building of industrial plant rather than accommodation, which would divert scarce resources
    • The only clothes the poor could obtain were drab and identical to those worn by millions of others. They were also shoddily made, and thread to repair them was virtually impossible to buy.
    • The government also put a large emphasis on the health of its citizens.
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Were people better off in the 1930s?

  • Farmers
    • Saw a collapse in their living standards.
    • Collectivization caused the terrible famine which killed millions of farmers in the richest farming regions.
    • By the end of the 1930s the farmers' lot had improved considerably, because they were allowed their own plots on which to grow food for themselves or to sell on the open market
    • Mechanization at last did begin to make some impact on their working lives, but still the grain harvest in 1940 at best only equalled that of 1913
  • New opportunities
    • In the cities and new industrial areas some saw their life chances transformed
    • Industrialization created literally millions of opportunities for those with the education, skills, drive, or, perhaps most important, the connections to take advantage of them.
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Religion in Stalin's Russia


  • All Bolsheviks believed that religion was an invention to distract the poor and oppressed from trying to remedy their situation on earth  by offering them the prospect of perfect happiness after death
  • The attack on religion had begun under Lenin and it continued throughout the 1920s. Lenin had ordered the execution of several bishops, ostensibly because they refused to sell church gold and silver to help those affected by the famine in 1922, but as the NEP developed it saw a decline in religious persecution, especially of some of the non-orthodox congregations
  • 117 out of 160 orthodox bishops had been arrested during this period of relative toleration, which ended dramatically with the first 5 year plan
  • The collectivization of villages was accompanied by widespread attacks on religion
  • Many churches were closed and their priests were deported. Church buildings were either pulled down or converted to secular purposes, as barns, schools etc. In 1930 there 30,00 orthodox congregations, but by 1939 only 1 in 40 churches were still functioning and only seven bishops were still active in the whole of the Soviet Union
  • Worships could only take place in licensed premises by congregations registered with the government.
  • In Moscow church buildings suffered even more. Churches, such as the famous chapel of the Iberian virgin by red square, were knocked down around the Kremlin to allow the passage of parades of armed vehicles
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Religion in Stalin's Russia

  • In the old capital, St Petersburg, which was now known as Leningrad, the authorities seemed to have a macabre sense of humour.
  • The famous Kazan cathedral was converted into a museum of atheism, while the Monastery, of Alexander Nevsky, where formerly famous Russians musicians were buried, became the place of burial for prominent anti-religious figures
  • The communists also attacked Islam, the second largest religious community in the USSR. Only 1300 mosques were still operating in 1941 as against 26,000 in 1917
  • Many congregations continued to meet in private houses. Despite the lack of ordained priests to take services. The party tried to prevent the observance of religious holy days, but was singularly un-successful. Some Kolkhoz chairmen complained to their bosses that peasants were observing even more religious holidays than before collectivization. Perhaps religion here was a good excuse to resist demands of the hated Kolkhoz. Apparently some kolkhoz chairmen later in the 1930s were actually churchwardens
  • The 1937 census showed that despite the official campaigns and activities of the league of the militant godless, 57% of Russians said they were still believers. The percentage was even higher for the older generation. Clearly the regime had not managed to dislodge religious belief and the view of the world which it represented amongst the majority of Russians.
  • In fact the tide seemed to be turning in the opposite direction. The league of militant Godless lost three-quarters of its members between 1932 and 1938. Its Leningrad branch was closed down for lack of members in 1936.
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Sports in Stalin's Russia

The Soviet Government set a high value on shared social and cultural activities. Stadia were built in all the large towns and cities to accommodate ice hockey, athletics and football. Teams were supported by government funds, and matches attracted large crowds of spectators.

Chess players and gymnasts were given considerable State support and coaching. They were also given a high public profile. Russian grandmasters dominated the world chess scene, much as they still do today. Physical exercise was emphasized in the schools and mass displays were a feature of the rituals of Soviet life.

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Culture in Stalin's Russia

The government's attempts to win the hearts and minds of the Soviet people knew no limits. By the 1930s the radio occupied an increasingly important place in everyday life. Though there were only 3.5 million radios in the country, loudspeakers were set up about towns and cities so government announcements could be heard by the urban population. A minority of villages was linked to an electricity supply before WW2. A cinema, as in Europe and the USA, was becoming, in the cities at least, the most popular form of entertainment. The themes of the films reflected the concerns of the regime. By the later 1930s, as Nazi Germany threatened, films were increasingly patriotic in tone, and based on real historical figures, such as Ivan the Terrible. In all the arts the government looked for Soviet stars, instead of the bourgeois figures of the past. The 1920s had seen experimentation in art, music and literature. Marxist theory said that a socialist economic system would produce socialist art.

Literature also served the needs of the regime. Stalin called on writers to be 'engineers of human souls'. Mayakovsky, once the leader of the avant-garde, wrote propaganda pieces, such as The March of the Shock Brigades to inspire readers to create even greater efforts. However, he also wrote plays, like The Bath House, which criticized the callous behaviour of Stalinist Bureaucrats. After his suicide in 1930, caused by the hounding of The Russian Association of Proletarain Writers for his play The Bedbug, he was honoured by the communist party, which he had once supported. A Moscow Metro station was named after him. The regime needed its new stars, even if it had to distort reality to create them.

'Socialist realism' became the new approved way of writing.

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Culture in Stalin's Russia

Novels during the First five year plan glorified the ordinary worker, under the lead of the Russian Association of Proletarian Writers (RAPP). Production was what mattered and it was the job of literature to support this drive. RAPP launched an appeal for 'shock worker writer', for shock workers to try their hand at writing. The result was 5 million roubles spent on commissioning books, but almost all were so poor as to be unprintable!

In June 1931, Stalin made a dramatic keynote speech. 'New circumstances and new tasks'. 'Bourgeois specialists' were rehabilitated, to restore some order to the chaos into which the Plans had thrown the country. He called for an end to the attack on experts, just because of their class background. Immediately writers felt the change; the approved heroes were now skilled engineers. Time Forward was criticized for its 'concrete hysteria', production at all costs. RAPP was broken up and all writers joined the Union of Russian Writers. It was not managed to persuade playwright Maxim Gorky, a former critical friend of Lenin, to return to the USSR to head this organization. Propaganda coups like this helped to bolster the image of the regime.

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