Much of Russian society remains feudal, with a landed nobility and a peasant class struggling for complete emancipation. The demand for workers' rights and a political voice has sparked increasing strikes and protests. The growth of industrial towns has led to urban migration and major social stress, as the old order with its traditional culture centered on the church undergoes dramatic change.
The tide of workers and peasants' protests escalates. During World War I, conscription, heavy loss of life, and hyperinflation lead to terrible social distress. As a result of Prime Minister Piotr Stolypin's earlier agrarian reforms, which freed peasant land from the village commune's control, some 2.5 million households have received title deeds to their land by 1916.
Lenin begins to reconstruct almost every aspect of Russian life. The Bolsheviks' secret police, the Cheka (an acronym for All-Russian Extraordinary Commission for Combating Counterrevolution and Sabotage) work zealously to strike down "class" enemies, attacking civil institutions and shutting down nonsocialist newspapers. Private landownership is abolished, as are any privileged-class distinctions.
The civil war causes a massive breakdown of all the normal ties that link different groups of society. Merciless conscription, famine, and death complete the work of the 1917 revolution, shattering the old institutions and social classes. Traditional Russian society is virtually destroyed, providing a blank slate on which the new institutions of a new Soviet society are created.
A cultural revolution completes Russia's Sovietization. The Russian Orthodox religion is attacked: The state expropriates church land and property and outlaws religious education and most forms of religious activity. In 1925 it establishes the League of Godless to spread atheism. A new art style develops and becomes popular as part of the recasting of culture.
Stalin continues the cultural revolution, denying peasants internal passports and forcing them to endure a virtual second serfdom on new collective farms. The state casts the industrial worker in the heroic image of the new Soviet man. It steps up its attack on the church, purges undesirable intellectuals, and expands education to teach all Soviet citizens to read and write.
World War II sees a surge of patriotism. Stalin reopens churches in his drive to rally the faithful, calling for the defense of Holy Russia. Laws are enacted to mobilize labor, institute rationing, lengthen the working day, and criminalize absenteeism. During and after the war, as part of a Soviet nationality policy, millions of the country's smaller nationalities are deported to Siberia.
The loss of some 25 million people, especially young men, during the war, has profound social implications. In 1946 Stalin launches a policy of zhdanovschina, a cultural war against innovation, modernism, and Western sympathies. This severe disciplining of the intelligentsia against any deviation from the Soviet patriotic line helps produce its own cultural Cold War.
After a religious revival, Khrushchev resumes the attack on the church. Anti-religious propaganda intensifies, and huge numbers of churches are closed. But the general climate of fear is lightened, and Stalin's draconian labor laws are repealed. An informal social contract emerges, with workers accepting low pay and no right to strike for cheap food, social benefits, and more lenient work practices.
Brezhnev's rule is a time of relative plenty. The minimum wage is raised, and the standard of living improves significantly. The five-day work week is introduced and basic holiday entitlement raised. The 1977 constitution enshrines the right to a private land plot. Church closures and imprisonments cease. But compared with the West, living standards remain markedly low.
Gorbachev's reforms shatter the norms of Soviet society. For the first time in their lives, the Soviet people find themselves living without the threat of censorship and the secret police, but economic collapse leads to widespread protests for better pay and conditions, and the majority of the population sees its social benefits erode. Nationalist sentiment grows in the republics of the USSR.
The end of the USSR and Communist rule offers hope, freedom, and opportunity. For many, though, it means acute uncertainty. As prices skyrocket and welfare collapses, the number of Russians living in poverty soars. Illness, alcoholism, and mortality and suicide rates rise sharply. Russians are forced to find new ways of living and making money. Those that succeed find themselves much better off.
Continuing economic distress and a series of corruption scandals within the government lead to disappointment with the new system. Many blame democracy and market capitalism for the new inequality and the dramatic drop in living standards. The rebuilding of the Cathedral of Christ the Redeemer in Moscow, demolished by Stalin, epitomizes a revival in the church.
The 1998 default wipes out the savings of Russia's new middle class. Real wages fall by 40 percent, and the number living below the poverty line rises from 20 to 35 percent. The newfound freedoms and opportunities contrast with high inequalities, spiraling rates of drug use and HIV/AIDS, and ongoing corruption. But market economics and the cultural changes it has wrought appear firmly rooted.
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