11 — Daily life in Stalin’s USSR

Study Overview

  1. The state of the USSR in 1924: the power struggle after Lenin’s death, and Stalin’s victory
  2. Economic policies: collectivisation and the Five Year Plans
  3. State control: the purges and the cult of personality
  4. Daily life in Stalin’s USSR
  5. The Soviet experience of WW2, and how it shaped the USSR after the war

Daily Life in Stalin’s USSR

In this unit

  1. Living conditions in the USSR, rural and urban
  2. Living and working conditions for women
  3. Stalin’s treatment of ethnic minorities
  4. Stalin’s education and religious policies

Questions to ask yourself

  1. Did the realities of life under Stalin measure up to the propaganda?
  2. How far were Stalin’s policies on women, ethnic minorities, and education a clean break from those of Lenin?
  3. How far had living and working conditions for women improved between 1917 and 1939?


“A record of over-staffing, overplanning and complete incompetence at the centre; of human misery, starvation, death and disease among the peasantry… the only creatures who have any life at all in the districts visited are boars, pigs and other swine. Men, women, and children, horses and other workers are left to die in order that the Five Year Plan shall at least succeed on paper.”
— British Embassy report, 1932

Soviet atheist poster, c. 1930. The caption reads: “Religion is poison, protect the children.” The sign on the right reads ‘School’.

Soviet poster, c. 1930. The woman on the left is wearing work clothes.
“In its day to day work with women, the Party constantly implements the instructions of Lenin “to bring women into public and productive work and to pull them out of ‘domestic slavery’ by freeing them from subordination to the humiliation of forever being responsible for cooking and taking care of the children.” But officials of the Party collective and of the factory committee and the directors of timber mill No. 23 still have not understood this objective… [efforts must be made] so that Mariia Semenovna and all the other housewives of the factory may be liberated from the absurd lines and kitchen fumes which wash away all the strength of women, isolate them from production and cultural activities, and undermine the completion of the production plan.As before, Semenovna spends her days standing in line for bread, herrings, and milk, and as before she rushes around the kitchen preparing supper for her kids. She tries with all her might to get away from this vicious cycle, but she cannot. She tried to work at the factory, but had to quit work after ten days, because the horrible work of the childcare center left her children going hungry and without supervision. As a result, her youngest son became sick, and this tied the hands of Semenovna. The medical assistance was also quite poor. Neither the Party collective nor the factory committee have lifted a finger to improve any of these awful conditions and they have also made no effort to keep Semenovna at work in the factory.”
— adapted from a Soviet newspaper article, 1932

Soviet poster, c. 1930, demonstrating the correct and incorrect ways to hold an infant

Living conditions in Stalin’s USSR, rural and urban

A key question to consider is how closely did the reality of life under Stalin in the 1930s match the utopia shown in Soviet propaganda?

Housing and amenitiesThe government provided residential flats, but these were often quite small, and many were subdivided to keep up with rapid urbanisation. Homelessless was a common problem, while those waiting for their own flats often had to put up with very inadequate temporary housing (sometimes even sheds).
New towns such as Magnitogorsk grew quickly, but residents had to live in rudimentary huts or even tents. Living conditions in such towns could be unhygienic and even dangerous — lack of law enforcement and public amenities such as streetlights in these new towns meant violent crime was quite common.
Collectivisation had not improved the lot of the peasantry much. Most still lived in traditional wooden huts, while water would be provided by a communal well.
The Five Year Plans might have done wonders in certain cities, but much rural infrastructure remained underdeveloped, eg many country roads were unpaved. This only made it more difficult for peasants to travel to town to buy food, particularly onerous during the hungry years of the 1930s.
Working conditions
Workplace safety and workers’ rights were often lacking, while the progressive piecework system meant wages were unequal in the supposed socialist utopia.
Meanwhile internal passports meant travel between cities was restricted, while the 1940 Labor Code resulted in increased workload.
During the hungry years of the early 1930s, food rationing and food shortages were common.
Many peasants resented collectivisation for taking away their land, and often viewed the kolkhoz and motor tractor station bosses (usually Communist Party members) with suspicion. Wages were low since their sole customer was the government, which set grain prices at a fixed rate (lower than market price) — though simply requisitioning produce was not uncommon, especially during the early 1930s.
Travelling to cities and towns required official permission, further increasing rural resentment.
Access to goods (food, consumer goods, etc)While starvation did not occur, food shortages and food rationing was a reality for many. The state-directed economy was also occupied with quickly building up infrastructure and heavy industry, resulting in a shortage of consumer goods. Wages were often too low to pay for these anyway.During the early 1930s starvation was a very real problem for many peasants, especially in the Ukraine and Kazakhstan.
Otherwise food often had to be bought in towns because of scarcity in the countryside. Many peasants would have to travel long distances on unpaved roads. Water was accessed through communal wells.
Leisure and entertainmentMany towns had leisure facilities such as sports stadiums and parks. Magnitogorsk could boast a large cinema (as well as holding its own annual ‘Mini Olympics’), while Moscow was home to Gorky Park, featuring gardens, and sports and dancing areas.People in rural areas had far fewer leisure opportunities than people in urban areas. The countryside received less investment than the towns and cities, and most entertainment was through traditional means, such as folk music and dances, though travelling theatre groups (many featuring communist propaganda) were enjoyed by many.

As with other aspects of Stalin’s USSR that we’ve looked at so far, living conditions must be seen in their historical context: many of the worst aspects of living in the 1930s USSR were a direct result of Stalin’s push for rapid industrialisation (resulting in the Five Year Plans and collectivisation); the resulting need for control of the population also created many of the more restrictive policies on women and ethnic minorities (as we shall see later). 

Stalin’s communist utopia also ironically saw much inequality: the rural-urban gap was quite serious, while the nomenklatura (a new elite of Party and state officials) could enjoy perks and privileges that the common people could not (eg access to special shops); finally the Stakhanovites and shock workers could enjoy privileges that ordinary workers could not.

At the same time one should not dismiss the benefits of living in the USSR: while most of the world struggled with massive unemployment brought about by the Great Depression, everyone in the USSR had a job — even the prisoners! The state also provided many services such as childcare and free healthcare, though of variable quality.

Living and working conditions for women

Life for women had been tough throughout Russian history: Russian society was overall very patriarchal, and most women had to put up with heavy burdens of homemaking and motherhood (which meant dim job prospects); domestic violence was quite common. 

The Bolsheviks had tried to create a new world when they seized power in 1917, and began a radical social experiment in sexual equality:

  • Marriage was weakened, since the Bolsheviks saw it as a kind of slavery: use of wedding rings was discouraged, church weddings were abolished and replaced with civil unions, which could be more easily ended with divorce; women were also allowed to keep their maiden names upon marriage
  • Women could take up jobs without their husbands’ permission; they were to receive equal pay and chances for promotion 
  • Abortion was made legal for any and all circumstances in 1920, to give women more control over the childbirth process; the USSR became the first country in the world to legalise abortion
  • Nudism was promoted across Russia, in defiance of bourgeois prudishness — “Down with shame!” was the rallying cry
  • Political rights: women were given equal political rights as men, including the right the stand for and vote in Party elections; the Zhenotdel was set up within the Party to work on women’s affairs, and was run by women (eg Alexandra Kollontai)

This utopian experiment however yielded some very unpleasant results:

Birth rates fell to worrying lows; by the late 1920s abortions outnumbered live births by three to one, and hospitals often became congested because of abortion proceduresFamily life deteriorated as divorce rates increased through the 1920s. By the end of the 1920s, about half of marriages ended in divorce, resulting in many broken homes and single mothers; gangs of street children became a common sight as many of them had been abandoned at birthThe breakdown of traditional sexual morals led to an upsurge in STDs. During the 1920s rape also became a major social issue as sexual morals were relaxed, but also as working- class males targeted former noblewomen and bourgeois women as a kind of ‘class revenge’

In addition, though the 1920s saw a rise in women in the workforce, it was not by a large margin, and often in low-paying jobs. Female participation in the Party was also limited despite a handful of outstanding examples; the Party remained overwhelmingly male-dominated

Even by 1924, Soviet officials were trying hard to rein in the changes: thinkers were urging the citizenry to abandon free love, while the government passed laws to regulate abortion. Then along came Stalin.

It’s worth noting that while Stalin reversed many earlier Soviet policies on women, he was often building on a trend that had started in the mid 1920s. It’s also worth noting why he reversed them, again noting the context: Stalin wanted both stability and productivity in his society, to power his vision for rapid industrialisation, and to counterbalance the social disruptions caused by rapid industrialisation. This would mould the experience of Soviet women in the 1930s and 1940s. How did Stalin change living and working conditions for women? 

Family and home lifeTraditional family values, particularly motherhood, were emphasised once again, summed up by his slogan: “A poor husband and father, a poor wife and mother, cannot be good citizens.” The 1936 Family Code also laid out Stalin’s vision for family and home life: 
– Abortion and homosexuality were outlawed 
– The nuclear family was held up as the cornerstone of society:
– Unregistered marriages were no longer valid
– Divorce was made more difficult 
– Men who left their families had to pay them financial support
– Women were incentivised to give birth: six or more children meant state aid
Work lifeWomen were encouraged to enter the workforce, to meet the manpower and production requirements of the Five Year Plans. The state promised equal pay and state childcare services to entice them; the state also held up female Stakhanovites such as Pasha Angelina as role models, in order to encourage and inspire more women to join the workforce. 
Political participationThe Zhenotdel was closed down in 1930, since Stalin had decided that its mission of achieving sexual equality was complete — after all, women now enjoyed equal political rights. In 1936 Stalin supported the creation of the Housewives Movement, which though staffed by the wives of Party men and industrial bosses, had little political role. Instead it focused on charity work, and tried to improve conditions for workers. 

The results were mixed: while birth rates were successfully raised and divorce rates lowered, and female participation throughout the workforce greatly increased, it is hard to say that conditions for women noticeably improved. 

The emphasis on both work and motherhood meant that women often did double duty, resulting in a great social burden. At the same time they were overall paid less than men, while facing prejudice and discrimination; women overall also received fewer chances for promotion, though with a few exceptions such as Angelina. Female political participation was also discouraged (though their equal political rights still existed on paper), made abundantly clear with the closure of Zhenotdel.

Stalin’s treatment of ethnic minorities

Stalin’s treatment of ethnic minorities also saw a reversal of earlier Soviet policy, though the reversal was much more blatant.

Why was the USSR prepared to tolerate ethnic diversity in the 1920s?

To distance herself from Tsarist RussiaWhere Russia under the Tsars had always pursued russification, the USSR advertised a new start through the 1917 Declaration of the Rights of the Peoples of Russia, promising equal treatment, self-rule, and respect for different cultures and languages among all the different people groups of the USSR. This would hopefully win the loyalty and support of all these different people groups which found themselves still answering to Moscow (even though the Tsar was supposedly gone) — this had been sorely tested during the Russian Civil War as different groups sought independence from Russia, though most had brought back into the fold by 1923
To promote the spread of the revolutionMany non-Russian people groups living in the USSR had ties to neighbouring countries (eg Finns, Swedes, and Germans); by winning their loyalty, not only could the USSR secure herself, she might even spread communist ideas to the home countries of these groups, and foment world revolution (which would also further secure the USSR)

Stalin quite abruptly reversed this tolerant policy, though perhaps it was simply a different approach to securing the support of non-Russian people groups: where previous policy regarding ethnic minorities had been a mix of carrot and stick, Stalin’s policy was mostly stick; where the Soviets had tried to win their loyalty in the 1920s, they now enforced their obedience through terror. 

Again context is important: collectivisation had shown Stalin that the differing people groups might resist Moscow’s orders, the Ukrainians peasants being particularly strong opponents; and the rise of fiercely anti-communist regimes in neighbouring Germany and Japan in the early 1930s brought up the old fear of non-Russians sabotaging the USSR to help a foreign enemy. So what did Stalin do to ethnic minorities in the USSR during the 1930s?

Stalin once more pursued russification: the language and culture of Russia was promoted above all others (eg. all schools had to teach Russian as a second language), and open celebration of non-Russian culture was seen as subversiveStalin deported ethnic minorities whom he suspected of acting as foreign agents: nearly 200,000 Koreans were deported to Central Asia in 1937 (Stalin feared they might act for Japan), while during WW2 Stalin deported Finns, Poles, and Germans, fearing they might aid the USSR’s enemies. Many of these deportees died on the journey, or died of malnutrition in their new homesStalin heavily targeted ethnic minority groups during the Great Purge: these comprised about 36% of the Great Purge’s victims, though only comprising less than 2% of the USSR’s population. NKVD methods ranged from targeting specific leaders to simply looking for non-Russian names in phone books to fill arrest quotas 

Some scholars would even argue that the Holodomor (the Great Famine in the Ukraine) was a deliberate act of genocide, punishing the Ukrainians for defying Moscow during collectivisation, crushing any hopes for Ukrainian independence. 

Overall, while Stalin’s heavy-handed policies may have secured the obedience of ethnic minorities during the 1930s and 1940s (notwithstanding some collaboration with the Germans during WW2), it created lasting resentment against Soviet rule among the USSR’s different people groups and her many republics.

Stalin’s policies on education and religion

Stalin’s policies on education again seemed to be an abrupt reversal of policies during the 1920s; though this time more abrupt of a change than with policies on sexual equality, and aiming at quite different goals, unlike the change in policies on ethnic minorities.

The Bolsheviks had done much to change the education system after seizing power in 1917. To many Bolshevik education officials, the old Tsarist educational system had been a tool of the capitalists to exploit students and to train the next generation of exploiters. It had also failed to educate the masses: by 1897 Russia’s literacy rate was only slightly more than 25%. To remedy this, Soviet education policy in the 1920s:

  • Aimed to vastly increase literacy rates through compulsory school for all children, and literacy classes for adults
  • Distanced itself from the old Tsarist way of education. 
    • Schools throughout the USSR were allowed to teach in native, non-Russian languages to lower the barriers to education, and as a way to avoid russification 
    • Traditional subject-based school curricula (eg based on Math, Literature, Science, etc) were often dropped as well, and a new ‘project method’ was taken up. These focused on training students to become productive communist citizens, sending them out to factories and farms for observation and hands-on experience. Classroom teaching focused on topics such as labour and class struggle
  • Allowed university education to wither, since universities were seen as elitist institutions that discriminated against the working class. Many professors and academics were forced from their jobs, and those that remained found themselves teaching practical subjects to mostly working-class students, since middle-class students were often given low priority for admission

As with early Soviet policies on sexual equality, these education policies achieved some success but also created a lot of problems:

Poor discipline became a major problem as teachers lost authority over students. It was hard for students to learn effectively in such an environmentDespite the drive to literacy, Soviet education in the 1920s remained under-resourced: there were simply not enough schools and not enough funding for teachers. Teachers were also often poorly trained and poorly motivated, while many rural children still did not go to schoolThe ‘project method’ failed to produce independent and motivated students; in fact students in workplaces were often exploited as child labour

Stalin reversed this new style of education policy, replacing it with something much more uniform, standardised, disciplined, and far less egalitarian — something much like the old Tsarist model. Again it is important to remember the context of these education changes: Stalin was trying to rapidly industrialise the USSR, and so needed the coming generations to be technically skilled, diligent, disciplined, and unquestioning of the Soviet worldview.

Think of how the following characteristics of Soviet schooling from 1928 would suit Stalin’s goal of quickly industrialising and modernising the USSR:

The ‘project method’ was abandoned in 1928 and replaced with more a conventional curriculum: Reading and writing, Geography, History, the sciences, Russian language, and communist ideology (with a big emphasis on the last three)
Russification once again became a cornerstone of education: 
– History classes glorified the great Russian leaders of the past (eg Ivan the Terrible, Alexander Nevsky) 
– All schools in the non-Russian republics had to teach Russian as a second language
Discipline and standardisation was emphasised:
– School was mandatory for all children until the age of 15
– School uniforms were mandatory (including mandatory pigtails for girls)
– Learning focused on rote learning of facts, taught from state-approved textbooks. This helped create a much more unified way of thinking among students
– Classroom discipline became much stricter
The state was much more concerned with producing technically skilled, capable graduates:
– The final three years of secondary school were not free, resulting in only the best and brightest (and richest) being able to attend higher secondary school; less academically-capable students could graduate early and work in more labour-intensive jobs
– Universities now held competitive entrance exams, and now discriminated far less against middle-class students during admission
– University education focused heavily on mathematics and science

Stalin’s policy on religion similarly focused on control: on the one hand he persecuted traditional religious institutions, but on the other hand he exploited the religious mindset of many Soviet people through promoting his cult of personality — in many ways he had not destroyed religion, merely substituting it with reverence of Stalin and the Communist Party.

When Germany invaded the USSR in 1941, Stalin’s fierce persecution of the Russian Orthodox Church turned into tolerance, as Stalin wanted to exploit its ability to create a sense of unity and patriotism; this grudging tolerance continued after the end of the war, though the Church remained firmly under the thumb of the state.

Why did Stalin fiercely suppress religion in the 1930s?

Stalin was merely continuing policy as set by Lenin. By the early 1920s Marxism- Leninism had become the state ideology of the USSR, and it was firmly atheisticSuppression of religion became entangled with collectivisation and dekulakisation, as Stalin tried to break the traditional institutions, mindsets, and patterns of the countryside. Those who resisted his rural anti-religion campaigns (and there were many who firmly did so) could be accused of resisting collectivisation, or of being kulaks, and arrested or shotReligious loyalty became a source of suspicion during the Great Purge, and an excuse for Stalin to crack down on potential sources of opposition. During the late 1930s some 4000 priests were arrested, along with thousands of worshipers. By 1940, only about 500 churches were open for worship in the USSR, 1% of the figure in 1917This could pave the way for the promotion of his own cult of personality, which co-opted and absorbed many traditional religious practices: Orthodox icons were swapped for paintings of Stalin, religious holidays for Soviet holidays, and the promise of a heavenly utopia for a communist utopia

While during fiercer moments of persecution clergy and worshipers might be arrested or even shot, daily persecution was more along the lines of open ridicule and harassment, while Church property might be confiscated and church buildings shut down. 

It was a supremely cynical move then when Stalin reopened churches, freed imprisoned clergy, and encouraged the celebration of religious ceremonies as Nazi armies rampaged through the USSR. But he got what he wanted: the Church proved to be a useful supporter of the war effort. And in return Stalin eased the persecution of the Church. 

Against holidays, absenteeism and drunkenness. For the rapid pace of work.

Women! Break religious bonds. Build socialism.

Cross and Tractor

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