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International Socialism, Autumn 1967


Ivan Ivanov

Getting Ahead in the Soviet Union: Education


From International Socialism (1st series), No.30, Autumn 1967, pp.27-30.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Historically, post-revolutionary society in the USSR has been through a series of upheavals which have allowed many people to improve their social positions, to be socially mobile. Rapid industrialisation opened up wide fields for most members of the society. For some, of course, this meant snow-covered Siberia for their failures to please their superiors. The continuing purges of people accused of political – as opposed to economic – crimes also ensured that the political leadership had constantly to be recruited from below. The second world war extended the period of rapid economic expansion beyond that which otherwise would have been the case. The death of Stalin meant the end of the purges but it also allowed far greater relaxation; in particular, in education – the abolition of fees – and in work – a greater turnover of workers and narrower wage differentials – both of which tended to promote rather than retard mobility. The increased incentives to industry and agriculture paid off until roughly the late fifties. Since then, the rate of growth has remained lower than that in the fifties, reaching a nadir of 3½ per cent in 1963. Although the rate of growth has picked up in the past few years, it is still not of the same order as in previous periods.

Thus, getting into the Soviet leadership for an outsider has become correspondingly more difficult than in earlier years. Higher educational facilities are not keeping pace with the increase in the output of the schools. Education is, as will be suggested below, all important as a means to mobility so that there is increasing dissatisfaction at the contradiction between hopes engendered earlier and reality. The reasons for the slowdown are probably economic, and the elite would not deliberately court dissatisfaction if there were alternatives. Social stratification has therefore become much more rigid than in former times.

Before looking at the means of mobility in the Soviet Union, it is useful to lay out some scheme of the organisation of Russian society:

Soviet Stratification by occupation, control and status





Mainly male


Mainly female

Elite (Party committee and higher apparatus men; managers of big factories and higher planners; generals and colonels of the army; of secret police; celebrities, writers, artists, film stars; professors, academicians etc.)

Wives of the elite



Elite (Chairmen of State and Collective farms)

Intelligentsia ←
(agronomists, book-keepers, doctors, teachers, etc.)

Intelligentsia (university and research workers; technologists, engineers, economists, lawyers etc.)

Intelligentsia (non-specialist doctors, teachers, translators etc.)




White collar workers: technicians (nurses, teachers, librarians)
skilled workers (in textiles, food, light services, retailing)

Team Leaders and Skilled Workers (tractor drivers, repair and maintenance men)

Skilled workers


Unskilled Workers

Unskilled (as for skilled especially shop assistants, waitresses, janitors etc.)





Women are concentrated at the bottom of this scale (in the villages).

Movement from village to town in the same occupation is
a step up the social ladder.

This scheme does not differ in the basis of its divisions from that used in the Soviet Union of late. [1] The chief addition is the use of the word elite. The 1959 census does, however, have a separate category for those persons who are termed leaders – all 1½-2 million of them. The figure presumably leaves out the army, secret police, celebrities and intellectuals who are also in the highest status group in Soviet society. Nonetheless it is clear that the census takers do recognise the existence of such a section of the population. [2] The division between town and country and consequent lower status of the latter is implicitly recognised in articles on the sociology of the Russian countryside. The separation of the male and female ladders is, it is true, not customary in a country where there is supposed to be complete equality of opportunity. Statistics produced, however, clearly show the predominance of men in the higher occupations. To cite the most glaring example: 6 per cent of directors of enterprises are women. [3] Even the Supreme Soviet which is not known as a powerful institution has 28 per cent women. [4] The disparity is even more glaring when the considerable excess of females over males in the middle age groups is allowed for. Women have the right to work in the Soviet Union but men work better. Anyone who wants something from a Government office takes it for granted that he must never get fobbed off with a woman official.

Money still serves in the West as an important method of moving up or maintaining one’s position in the social scale but in the Soviet Union today more cash means one can buy only non-durable consumer goods (foodstuffs, clothes etc). Durable consumer goods are rationed or of poor quality, so that money is of less importance than a good position in the hierarchy which allows the holder to obtain better quality goods or services at cheaper prices. Although private wealth is not of great importance as a base for getting ahead, a high income can be of considerable importance to parents who want to ensure that their children obtain a good education. Private tutors who often turn out to be examiners are an invaluable aid when trying to enter an institution of higher education. The usefulness of lubricating the rigid bureaucratic machine in this way is not to be underestimated. Changing one’s residence which, because of the hierarchical system of towns in the Soviet Union, is often a way of bettering one’s position, can be arranged for a fee if the town is not Moscow where the price is no doubt exorbitant. There, however, by paying a suitable Muscovite girl, a man might arrange a fictitious marriage. If we exclude corruption, the most important use of income or inheritance lies in its use as a supplement to the State grants to students which, with a few exceptions, are so small that they are ludicrous. Students receiving 20 to 40 rubles require to make up their stipends to from 60 to 90 rubles simply to exist. Since part-time work is not easy to come by, especially as classes take up practically the whole day for most students, workers’ children do not find it very easy to enter universities, particularly if they have to go to another town. The abolition of fees was, therefore, only a very limited concession.

Moving house is significant as a means of mobility in two ways: the movement from country to town and from towns of lower status to those of more importance. The internal Soviet passport is all powerful in this regard. It contains a residence permit allowing the holder to live in a particular town. Since peasants do not possess passports, they cannot – theoretically – move to a town at all. In fact, by becoming construction workers, entering the army, continuing their education or working in towns close by, this barrier can be overcome. The difficulties involved, however, are sufficient to prevent the less enterprising from shifting to the towns. This problem of migration to the towns and the sharp difference in standard of living, culture, and education is, of course, common to all developing countries. In the Soviet Union it appears to be far sharper for the simple reason that the exploitation of the countryside operates to depress to the minimum the standard of living there. The high rate of industrialisation has been at the expense of the peasant who has had to be almost tied to the land to make the system work. Today the post-Krushchev reforms in agriculture have eased the peasant’s position while slowing down the growth of heavy industry. This has not however made the village any more attractive vis-à-vis the town, though it has marginally narrowed the gap.

Movement from towns of smaller size to bigger towns is typical of all countries. The Soviet Union, however, has concentrated its elite in Moscow to a greater extent than elsewhere. The standard of living is highest in Moscow in terms of availability of products and opportunities for lucrative employment. Educational opportunities are greater as the most prestigious institutions are there. Again this is no accident. The elite have to look after themselves in a highly centralised system where the economic surplus is limited. Then, too, a workers’ aristocracy has been formed on a geographical basis. The Moscow workers know well their privileges and are loath to lose them by striking and consequently finding themselves endorsed out of the city. The strategic importance of the major cities is at least one lesson learnt from the October Revolution. The privileges of Moscow, Leningrad, Kiev etc, mean that there is tremendous pressure to enter these towns and only by the use of police methods – e.g., the residence permit – has it been possible to restrict the flow. Movement to a bigger city at one and the same time confers a higher standard of living, status as well as greater proximity to the centres of power and consequently better opportunities for rising up the social scale.

A third and very important means of mobility has acquired the dignity of a special Russian colloquial term: blatt or contacts. What this boils down to is that the individual’s circle of acquaintances determines his future career. The primary circle is the family. It is no accident that in the Soviet Union the family has grown stronger over the years rather than following the opposite tendency as in most industrialised countries. The atomisation of a society where no one trusts anyone else has stopped at the family as the primary unit. In order to survive, the family has had to operate its own division of labour in spying out ways of acquiring needed goods or means of advancement. A second reason may be found in the lack of goods and consequent lack of value of money. The quid pro quo is the doing of a favour. Clearly this system tends to support those already in good positions. A member of the intelligentsia can arrange for an easy examination for his offspring in entering the university more easily than could an unskilled worker,except in the exceptional circumstance that the latter was able to supply some definite product or other from his factory. Contacts, as in other countries (the old boy network), are made through schools, universities, army and jobs but any two persons who recognise that they could be mutually useful at some time or other, wherever they might meet, succeed in establishing this form of relationship and bettering their own positions or that of their children. It is particularly important for the elite who ensure in this way that their children enter the best educational institutions and then obtain elite jobs.

A special form of blatt is that of nationality where those of special nationalities tend to help each other but this is much more of a reaction to the negative side of the Soviet nationalities policy. Since it is necessary to exclude a proportion of the intelligentsia from entering the elite, certain ethnic groups find it more difficult to get into universities and specialised institutions. This applies particularly to Jews. There is little statistical evidence on this problem which cannot be challenged. It is visible that there are few Jews at the top of Soviet Society – in contrast to the 1920s. The occasional newspaper article or book reveals the tip of the iceberg. The anti-semitism of the elite has communicated itself to a large section of the intelligentsia around it so that whereas Western intellectuals tend to be less anti-semitic than other groups, in the Soviet Union the intelligentsia leads the country in its prejudice. In part it is probably due to competition in obtaining education and jobs.

The secret police still continue to exert a powerful influence over the whole of society in modern Russia. Although it is not a small employer of labour it also requires a large number of part-time helpers to inform on their mates or to perform certain tasks. Rewards of these ‘volunteers’ can take the form of assistance in their careers by allowing them to enter universities or placing them in better jobs than might otherwise have been obtainable. In this way it is possible for anyone to rise from the lowest ranks and reach even the elite. A similar method is used by the Party to obtain information or influence. A zealous Party member could, by always following the line and showing some organisational ability, rise from being an unskilled worker to a member of the elite but he would also probably have to go to some higher educational institution somewhere along the line. Perhaps the most interesting feature of the educational system is the change which has come over it in the past two decades. Whereas in 1950, 290,000 finished school and 349,000 entered universities or other higher educational institutions, by 1970 it is expected that four million will finish and 940,000 will enter higher education. [5] This latter figure includes part-timers who will probably make up about half the total to judge by present day figures. (Part-time education in the Soviet Union is generally admitted to be unsatisfactory and consequently if the student is lucky enough to finish his course he will be considered to have a lower degree than a full-timer.) Competition to enter has therefore become much more acute. As a consequence all the other factors discussed above have become of much greater importance than previously. In contrast with Britain the vast majority of school students wish to stay on to go to university, etc. [6] That is to say, there is not much difference in motivation between working class and other groups. What then weeds out the working class boys and girls? Two factors: performance in town schools is best for children of the intelligentsia and worst for unskilled workers, with the other groups in between. [7] Peasants’ children fare still worse. Secondly, parental command over money, contacts, etc, determines opportunities. Interestingly the difference already shows itself in proportions of social groups in classes 8 and 10 as shown by a survey done in the Urals where there was a decline from 60 per cent working class in the 8th to 40 per cent in class 10. [8] This is not different from Western countries and yet one might have expected the fact that children go to State nursery schools from an early age to have some sort of equalising effect. The nursery schools as well as all other schools are assigned pupils according to residence in the area. Since, as in Britain, areas differ in their social make-up, there is a tendency for better schools to flourish in the better-off areas. Hence it is not simply parental background which gives elite and intelligentsia children better opportunities for the State itself connives at this. Motivation has already begun to be affected as school children lose all hope, and the standard of education begins to drop. The recent teachers’ pay increase might have been expected to have offset this tendency if only it had been a genuine increase. In fact since there was a re-adjustment of responsibility and increment payments, many older teachers had their salaries cut by substantial amounts. To make up for it, they were allowed to work two shifts. The result is to increase the importance of the better regional schools and of extra-school tuition for those who can afford it.

Workers-to-be, on leaving school, enter factories where the majority of them receive their training at the plant itself. Training is not satisfactory as complaints have shown and the effect is to delay the time when the worker is considered fully skilled. He could go on from there to further education at specialist courses. Some do and join the stream of those who do vocational technical training. They can become foremen but there is no incentive to do so, since pay hardly differs (or rather ‘differed’ since the economic reforms envisage raising foremen’s pay). Even if he does become a foreman, that ends his career unless he acquires higher education. By the time he has reached this point he is likely to have passed his educational peak and to have a family. The latter is to be considered an educational disaster since student grants or accommodation do not take any account of families. Since they are niggardly anyway it is very difficult to continue education.

To turn to the village, a recent survey showed that in one village the majority of peasants had not gone beyond primary school while the top group had on average not completed higher education. [9] This is in contrast with the situation where the town elite tend to have university education and some of the upper members higher degrees. This suggests something of the greater difficulty for the peasant seeking to rise outside the village where he tends to become an unskilled worker, and the lesser role of education in the village as a barrier to promotion.

The difficulties increasingly met with by some members of the working class in trying to enter higher educational institutions is likely to generate greater discontent – the myth propagated by the official ideology that anyone can rise from factory worker to general secretary becomes increasingly unreal. It is clear that the fundamental method of getting ahead – through education – can be itself obtained and influenced by largely non-educational criteria. This will tend to promote a generalised feeling of group exploitation, even if this antagonism towards those who perpetuate their own privileges has no obvious forum. Industrial militancy, opposition to the plant managers, is difficult to generate since the enterprise plan has not hitherto been the work of the plant managers but is imposed from above, from the organs of the State. The wages fund and hours of work are not determined by the enterprise. Nor can enterprise managers declare a proportion of workers redundant without finding them other jobs. The economic reforms will increase the power of the managers, raise the pay of technicians and make life easier for the intelligentsia, at the same time as tending to increase unemployment and speed-up, but this process has a long way to go before it begins to generate a working-class consciousness. Thus, the type of strikes which have occurred are more a protest against shortages of essential goods in a town or region, and take the form of stay-at-homes rather than shop-floor militancy. Again, there is thus not much room for local factory victories in this context: concessions can only meaningfully be made by the State. At the moment, if industrial militancy on the shop floor is low, political working-class consciousness is very embryonic. Nationalism, and thus identification with the elite against Soviet enemies still predominates. Regional nationalism and anti-semitism are still important.

Thus, in the one area of education, one of the promises of the regime seems unlikely to be sustained in the future, and this fact, along with the course of the wider economy, could be one of the factors precipitating a new movement of working-class radicalism in the future.

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1. See for instance, V.N. Shubkin, Youth Enters Life, Voprosy Filosofii, No.5, p.65, or I.M. Musatov, On the reproduction of labour power, Izvestiya Sibirskogo Otdelenlya Akademiinauk, No.9, Dec. 1965, p.58.

2. Naradnoe Khuzyaistvo,1960, pp.33 and 37.

3. Vestnik Statistiki, 1965, No.2, p.93.

4. Ibid., 1967, No.1, p.84.

5. Aitov, The influence of the general (school) educational level of workers on their productive activity, Voprosy Filosofii, No.11, 1966, p.23.

6. Shubkin, op. cit.

7. Musatov, op. cit.

8. Enseignement comme facteur de la Routquevitch: Mobilité sociale en URSS, p.22, Rapport au VI Congrès Socioiogique Internationale, Moscou 1966.

9. Yu.V. Arutiunian, The Social Structure of the Village, Voprosy Filosofii, No.5, 1966, p.58.

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