The Rhetoric and Practice of Modernisation: Soviet Social Policy, 1917-1930s
Free education, public heath care and social benefits that had been a fact of life for decades in the Soviet Union have now become an object of deep nostalgia for many people, especially the elderly. Social services enveloped Soviet society, controlling the activity and thoughts of people for more than 70 years. The state and its various agents carried out this double-faced task of care and control at all levels of social life, moving gradually from tough and selective schemes of social security and insurance to the “bright future” of a communist welfare state. The development of Soviet social policy followed the ideological formulae common in many industrial countries during the modernisation period. Our aim in this study was to use the forms taken by everyday life and the modern subject in the Soviet Union as a way to call into question our own certainty about how these phenomena work. Social care and social control practices were carried out by different professional and quasi-professional assistants—educators in youth and children’s cultural centres and clubs, activists in women’s organisations and trade unions, teachers at schools and educators in kindergartens and orphanages, nurses and visiting nurses at polyclinics, and officials of domestic affairs departments. The population viewed the government and its agents as the source of both well-being and trouble. This article focuses on social policy during the first decades of the “Republic of Labour” when the ideology of care and control was established in accordance with the demands of industrial growth, formulating particular definitions of normality and deviance. In this quest for normality, classifications of worthy and unworthy behaviour and activities were established, and the rhetoric distinguishing “us” and “them” intensified. We show how egalitarian social and democratic principles existed alongside conservative stratification guidelines without contradiction, and how the rhetoric of social care varied dramatically from its practical implementation.