M. Lebskij: Rabočij klass SSSR [Arbeiterklasse der UdSSR]

Rabočij klass SSSR [Arbeiterklasse der UdSSR]. Žizn‘ v uslovijach promyšlennogo paternalizma

Lebskij, Maksim
Moskau 2021: Gorizontal'
Anzahl Seiten
250 S.
Rub. 642
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Alexandra Oberländer, Max-Planck-Institut für Bildungsforschung, Berlin

Whenever historians write about the end of the Soviet Union, they rarely agree on why it eventually collapsed. Reasons are plenty: the de-integration of the Soviet Empire, the weak and globally not competitive economy, political leaders (their age, alternatively their stubbornness), or the fact that socialism per se supposedly could not function are prevalent.1 What is rarely heard, however, is that the “working class” itself is responsible. Such a critique is even less heard from the political left, which usually tends to subscribe to the antithetical idea that the “working class” has been betrayed from the very beginning in 1917 – if not earlier. However, Maksim Lebskii, a young Marx-influenced historian, takes issues with Soviet workers when asking why the Soviet “working class” did not defend the Soviet Union in its final years. Although framing a question in such a way one might assume that Lebskii finds something to defend in the first place, this is not his position.

For him it is one of the ironies of Soviet history that the moment workers finally received political rights (he refers to the cooperative decision-making introduced in the final Gorbachev years), the system outright collapsed. Even if one does not agree with his explanation of the collapse, the book has a lot to offer for everyone even remotely interested in economic and labor history. Lebskii draws to a large degree on published material from the classic Soviet sociological studies (ranging from Ovsei Shkaratan to V.A. Iadov), the current Russian as well as Western historiography (most prominently Donald Filtzer) interspersed with archival sources, interestingly often from the 1990s.2 Although his main interest lays in the mid-1960s as the alleged beginning of the Soviet Union’s collapse almost every chapter strolls back to the 1920s or 1930s as well. His main argument at least for the economic side of his story is that the Soviet Union collapsed due to the many contradictions it has put into effect itself. Here he draws on the “usual suspects” – from repressed inflation to the disbalance between sector A and B. Echoing many economic and labor historians, Lebskii attributes an enormous role for the collapse to the failure of increasing labor productivity after the late 1950s and claims that the reason for such failure was paternalism.

Lebskii’s analysis of the “working class” circulates around the notion of paternalism as the crucial and fundamentally qualifying category of Soviet society – a category which among scholars has received a lot of appreciative attention lately. In order to explain the longevity of the Soviet Union historiography has moved from a totalitarian model to a framework of social contract with the post-Stalin years in particular being understood in the terms of what James Millar has called “the little deal”.3 Quite often, such approaches are characterized by the attempt to provide a more nuanced picture of the Soviet Union by explaining what people might have actually gained in this system (usually consumption is referenced), yet it often ends with something like a disenchantment in the sense that people let themselves being bought (and thus pacified). A similar contention is also present in Lebskii’s book, this time with “people” being explicitly workers.

Analyzing the paternalistic structure of Soviet society Lebskii focuses in particular on the role of the enterprise as the nucleus of the Soviet society since the Kosygin reforms in the mid-1960s. Other kinds of paternalism, e.g. between the political elite and the population – a common topic among those scholars working with complaints – are entirely ignored in his book.4 Lebskii details enterprises’ role and function in economy and social politics as the main key for understanding both the alleged passivity of Soviet workers as well as Soviet society as such. Such a narrow focus certainly makes sense once one assumes that the enterprise (and not the family) was the nucleus of the Soviet state. Indeed, enterprises were meant to accompany workers from the cradle to the grave, enterprises catered for workers’ everyday needs from apartment to dairy to clothing to underwear (sic!). The political implications of such paternalist notions are rarely spelled out – and this is where Lebskii is not shy. Rather than describing this kind of “care” as a service to the workers, Lebskii explicitly refers to Engels and thus frames it as a form of serfdom. The provision of crucial aspects of everyday needs through the factories essentially tranquillized and sedated workers, such is Lebskii’s claim. Quite often the emergence of such a paternalist structure is linked to the Kosygin reforms in the mid-1960s and its creation of a special fond within the enterprises which is reserved for workers consumption (read: apartments). Lebskii however contends that such a policy developed much earlier (end of the 1920s/beginning of the 1930s), in other words long before the economic reforms.

Two more observations in his book were particularly striking given the current discussions in the field about consumerism and housing. Lebskii locates a shift that took place at some point after the Second World War when enterprises and not City Soviets were the main financers of housing. The huge labor turnover (tekuchest’) in Soviet enterprises threatened not only plan-fulfillment but the entire production. Enterprises were so dependent on workers that they essentially paid them wages, but bought them with apartments, schooling and consumer products. According to Lebskii this shift from municipal to enterprise funding was a symbol of a general transformation within Soviet society which encouraged the individual and autonomous interest of enterprises (and their according ministries) rather than a union-wide perspective of something like a common good. According to Lebskii workers developed a factory patriotism since their well-being indeed depended on the services provided by the factory, however, this reliance on enterprises and their services destroyed Soviet patriotism since the Soviet state (i.e. bureaucracy) was perceived mostly as an obstacle – to the interests of the enterprise and thus the individual worker. For Lebskii the de-throning of GOSPLAN, the Soviet planning agency, in the 1960s already before the Kosygin reforms is one outcome of a polity that privileged enterprises and their limited short-term interests and thus ultimately contributed to the collapse in 1991. A second curious insight of this book is that Khrushchev himself was not too big a fan of this shift of enterprises taking care about their workers’ needs, especially in housing politics. He rather condemned that valuable financial resources were spent on workers rather than for re-investing in and developing productivity and production.

As much as this book touches upon almost any ongoing discussion about the economic history of the Soviet Union, the actual conditions of life for Soviet workers remain neglected. In this sense it is much more an economic than a social or labor history. The everyday life of the worker is not Lebskii’s subject in this book although the title promises that. Nevertheless, this has been an inspirational and provocative read since it among many other things demonstrates to which extent “Western” and “Post-Soviet” interests in Soviet History have managed to learn from each other and to some degree even merged in recent years. This rapprochement is one of the past. The publishing house Gorizontal’ has left Russia, the fate of its authors unclear. A book like Lebskii’s won’t be published in Russia anymore – at least not in a foreseeable future which threatens to have become a lot shorter than we used to think.

1 Chris Miller, The Struggle to Save the Soviet Economy: Mikhail Gorbachev and the Collapse of the USSR, Chapel Hill 2016; Serhii Plokhy, The Last Empire: The Final Days of the Soviet Union, New York 2014; Stephen Kotkin, Armageddon Averted: The Soviet Collapse, 1970–2000, Oxford 2008.
2 On Shkaratan see the recent article by James Allen Nealey, Jr., Ovsei Shkaratan and Soviet Social Structure after Stalin, in: Kritika: Exploration in Russian and Eurasian History 23 (2022), 1, pp. 77–102.
3 James R. Millar, The Little Deal: Brezhnev’s Contribution to Aquisitive Socialism, in: Slavic Review 44 (1985), 4, pp. 694–706.
4 Elena Bogdanova, Complaints to the Authorities in Russia: A Trap Between Tradition and Legal Modernization, London 2021.

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