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“Most Soviet citizens were politically apathetic.” Discuss.

“Most Soviet citizens were politically apathetic.” Discuss.

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An essay for the 2012 Undergraduate Awards (International Programme) Competition by Sean McArdell. Originally submitted for Soviet Socialism in the Cold War: The USSR 1945-1991 at Durham University, with lecturer Dr Sarah Davies in the category of Historical Studies & Archaeology
An essay for the 2012 Undergraduate Awards (International Programme) Competition by Sean McArdell. Originally submitted for Soviet Socialism in the Cold War: The USSR 1945-1991 at Durham University, with lecturer Dr Sarah Davies in the category of Historical Studies & Archaeology

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Published by: Undergraduate Awards on Aug 31, 2012
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05/13/2014

 
1
“Most Soviet citizens were politically apathetic.” Discuss.
 Abstract
This essay explores notions of what it was to be politically active in the Soviet Union. As citizens lived under an essentially politicized regime, this argument examines the paradox that the people under this regime were politically isolated. The maincontention is that through their increasing lack of political involvement and interest,Soviet citizens were making a political choice and abstaining from a regime that relied on their s
upport. The regime was founded on efforts to barter its citizen’s
support through economic means as well as through repression, which becameincreasingly strained and draining. Increasingly the bargain between state and citizenwas tilted in the civilians interest and enabled them to evade political control in theinterest of improving their daily existence. Efforts to this end manifested in theextensive use of the Black Market, religion and apolitical social groups. EssentiallySoviet citizens were politically active in their efforts were attempts to actively avoid  politics in a way similar to the way a voter might spoil their ballot in a democracy.
Keywords: Disaffection, choice, dissent, religion, civilian contract.
 
2
Soviet citizens endured a lot in the twentieth century. Millions died infamines, were incarcerated in the gulag and faced the constant risk of being arbitrarilydragged away screaming in the night. Faced with such peril, people become reluctantto engage in politics and families become more important as shelter to weather thestorm. It is tempting to argue that the legacy of the Terror made people apathetic topolitics and more interested in issues that affected them on a daily basis. Only a smallpercentage of people were involved in open dissent, to their peril, and unrest waschiefly concerned with immediate economic and social issues. However to bepolitically active is not to be constantly in opposition or constantly activist. Apathyimplies a lack of interest and disengagement from politics and, if Lenin and Stalin leftanything behind, they left a society unable to escape interaction with the CPSU.Whether in the workplace, in economic issues, in school, in church or in the media,Party politics were present. Soviet citizens were nothing if not aware. The question isthen whether they cared. Aleksandr Yakovlev, the chief of party ideology underGorbachev
, claimed that society was “more inert, indifferent and d
ependant than [he]
every imagined”.
1
Whilst “inert” and “dependant” may well be
true, Soviet society didnot have to advocate change to be apathetic. Dissent, for instance, does not have to beopposition. Rather, dissent can be progressive or conservative within the system.Soviet citizens were far more the latter. Continuing government force and memories
from the past ensured society’s priorities were firmly set in maintaining peace andsecurity for themselves and their closest. After the horrors of Stalin’s regime, t
headvent of Khrushchev offered a chance for citizens to negotiate a deal with thegovernment, a compromise between party ideological expectation and the realities of the Soviet system; a kind of social contract. Defense of this contract is a politicalaction and the majority of the population in Soviet Russia were involved in this actionon a daily basis, through the social groups they belonged to, the economic choicesthey made and the religious denominations they belonged to. Initially the populationspriorities lay in defending the terms of this contract for the sake of safety and security,but as time passed, conditions improved and people felt constrained by this safeexistence, expectations rose and demand for more and better grew. Citizens in SovietRussia might have been appeared apathetic by Western standards where apathy can begauged using voter turnouts and polls. Soviet Russia also depended on popularinvolvement, which it increasingly ceased to get. Initially citizens showed theirpolitical activism in revolts on specific issues and later they chose to evadeinvolvement. In a state where political conformity is morally the norm, evasion is astrong political action, similar to spoiling the ballot paper in the West.The majority of Soviet citizens were peasants and manual workers, soexamining this group
’s cont
ract first is the logical step towards examining thecitizenry as a whole. Manual workers made up about 50% of the population by 1959and had grown to 59.8% by 1972.
2
Added to the 1972 peasant population, this groupmade up just under 80% of the population.
3
As the group who suffered most underStalin, this group was less demanding, but more defensive. As such although workerswere paid poorly and endured inadequate working conditions, their work wasundemanding and discipline lax. This is seen in the chronically low productivity
1
Archie Brown,
Seven Years that Changed the World 
(Oxford, 2007), p.13.
2
Jeffery
W. Hahn, “Stability and Change in the Soviet Union”,
Polity
10 (1978),p.555.
3
Ibid., p.555.
 
3
figures.
4
Partly this was a fault in the centrally planned economy, which wasinefficient at a local level, but in an economy where there was no de facto strike dueto government repression, freedom lay in lax work discipline.
5
Herein lies theeconomic contract that workers made with the government. Although compliancewith this deal meant that unrest was curbed, it does not imply political apathy. Byignoring government slogans trumpeting hard work and socialist discipline, workersmade a political decision to ignore party slogans. Additionally, workers were wary topolitical shifts and well aware of what they thought their position in relation togovernment was. There were multiple periods of unrest sparked off when thegovernment was considered to have acted unacceptably. These were generallyspontaneously started and in response to specific economic situations. Novocherkassk in 1962, is the prominent example, in response to raised food prices.
6
The revolt inthis case provoked unease in the authorities for it was not a confined issue, but rathermany areas in the Soviet Union were stirring and the political temperature of thecountry as a whole had risen.
7
However, a clearer example is the revolt at Kemerovo
in 1955, where the date of the Trust 96’s industrial conscripts
decommission was setback for six months.
8
Here is a specific example of the government reneging on acommitment and the workforce rebelling because of it. The contract had been broken.Under Brezhnev these types of unrest became less common under a stricterregime because
the administration started to “bribe” the masses into behaving, using
wage increases and consumer investment.
9
Partly the motives behind these economicmeasures were to compete with American standards of living, but mostly they were tostabilize the masses after the somewhat unsteady Khrushchev years. The stateimproved the terms of the contract. Managers gained more decentralized power toincentivize workers, to little avail economically as productivity remained low.
10
 
Private plots and a huge “second economy” were tacitly permitted to cover the
shortfalls of the centrally planned economy.
11
However, the regime was more stable,as it was conservative in essence and the attitudes to the workers relied much more onthe carrot rather than the stick. The new regime did feature very definite elements of 
“the stick”, as the state began again to rely on the secret police
 
and the gulag’s
population doubled back to over a million.
12
However under Khrushchev life was far
more vulnerable to economic uncertainty and the country’s history was being rapidly
tarnished. Under Khrushchev
Stalin’s personality cult
was vigorously attacked, whichbegan to erode
the reasons for which Russia’s millions died in the Great Patriotic
4
Archie Brown,
Seven Years that Changed the World 
, p.4.
5
Geoffrey Hosking,
 A History of the Soviet Union
(London, 1985), p.387.
6
Eric Kulavig,
Dissent in the Years of Khrushchev 
(London, 2002), p.129.
 
7
Vladimir A. Kozlov,
Mass Uprisings in the USSR
(London, 2002), p.226.
8
Eric Kulavig,
Dissent in the Years of Khrushchev 
, p.123.
9
Vladimir A. Kozlov,
Mass Uprisings in the USSR
, p.308.
10
Karl V. Ryavec,
Implementation of Soviet Economic Reforms
(New York, 1975),p.214.
11
 
Lewis H. Seigelbaum, “Cars, Cars, and More Cars: The Faustian Bargain of theBrezhnev Era”, in Lewis H. Siegelbaum (ed.),
Borders of Socialism : PrivateSpheres of Soviet Russia
(New York, 2006), p.97.
12
 
Miram Dobson, “Contesting the Paradigms of De
-Stalinization: Readers
Responses to “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich””,
Slavic Review 
v.64(2005), p.594.

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