Soviet Society Today

Review by Metta Spencer in Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology 28:1, February, 1991.
Michael Rywkin, Soviet Society Today. Armonk, N.Y. and London, England: M.E. Sharpe, Inc., 1989, pp. 243, hardcover.

‘The good news is, your new book has just rolled off the press. The bad news is, it’s obsolete.’

Poor Michael Rywkin! Like every author of a new book on the Soviet Union, he must often hear such messages. (Even this review may be obsolete by the time it is printed.) Yet Rywkin’s book holds up better than most, since it focusses more on historical and structural background factors (e.g., demography, housing, education, social classes, the military, etc.) than on the political and economic institutions that are in such a state of flux.

It is an engaging book: non-polemical in tone, written with a nice journalistic flair, yet substantial enough to assign as a textbook. It is more descriptive than analytical. Apart from a short (five-page) chapter on Marxist ideology and an even shorter postscript appraising the prospects for perestroika, it does not delve deeply into ideological debates. This is both its shortcoming and its saving grace (shortcoming in that its analysis of the current revolution is superficial, saving grace in that the debate shifts so quickly that any such analysis would have been overtaken by events).

The book has six major sections: the background (i.e. the Russian tradition and Soviet ideology); the system (with chapters on the economy, party, bureaucracy, KGB, military, nationalities); the social (i.e. class) structure; the standard of living; the way of life (workplace, women’s roles, youth, fashion, sports, and alcohol and drugs); and unity and diversity (culture, media, dissent, emigration).

From all this, one gets a sense of the forces opposing perestroika: the scale of the bureaucracy (18 million people are employed in the command-control system and there are few jobs elsewhere for them to enter), the privileged status of the nomenklatura (about the top one-fortieth of the bureaucracy), and a population inured to economic stagnation. No special rhetoric is required to convince the reader of the urgent need for reform.

One also gains another important insight from the book: that the Soviet Union cannot remain stable anyway, because of the magnitude of inexorable demographic factors. Only half the Soviet population is ethnically Russian, though the imperial annexation of many neighboring nations far pre-dates the Bolshevik Revolution. The U.S.S.R. comprises more than 100 nationalities, whose differential reproductive habits and longevity have astonishing implications. Thus in 1939, the Russians accounted for 58 per cent of the Soviet population. After the war, which claimed far more lives than the usual estimate of 20 million (possibly as many as 50 million, counting concentration camp deaths), the Russians nevertheless still constituted 55 per cent of the total and the Muslims only 11 per cent. But there are striking trends for children under ten: the Muslim children in that age group moved from 9 per cent in 1959 to 18 per cent in 1970 and 30 per cent in 1979. By the year 2000, (on the unlikely assumption that no republics actually secede) almost half the children born in the U.S.S.R. may be born of Muslim parents. The present Russian-centred character of Soviet society will be changed by demography, if not by politics.

Many facts speak for themselves, and Rywkin lets them do so without editorializing. However, one of his chapters deals with a long-standing Russian attitude — suspicion of foreigners — and he vents his frustration over the excessive visas, the guards at Intourist hotels, the refusal of phone information to give out the numbers of foreigners, and numerous other impediments to personal contact. Anyone lodging a foreigner, even for one night, is required to report ‘the event’ to the police. Tourists from abroad travelling in their own cars must state their itineraries and not deviate from them. For the average citizen, writes Rywkin, to socialize with a foreigner beyond a single unplanned meeting still presents a risk — not of being arrested, but of obstacles, say, to promotion.

In view of glasnost, I thought Rywkin might have been exaggerating, so I mailed copies of the questionable pages to a friend in the Ukraine. He replied, ‘The author knows very well what he is writing about. Now it’s changing, but it’ll certainly take some time for normal human feelings to take the upper hand’.

So, even though the political and economic analyses in this book are obsolete, its social insights are not. Read it as a thoughtful travel guide.

Metta Spencer, University of Toronto

The Russian Quest for Peace and Democracy, by Metta Spencer, published by Lexington Books