From Politburo to peasant: five rank's of society and privilege

Square and bulky, her head wrapped in a black scarf against a biting wind, the old woman paused and leaned on the long-handled metal hoe she was using to chip ice from the sidewalk.

She was tough -- a survivor of war, of Stalin, of long winters and dusty summers. This winter she chipped ice every day, part of a small army of elderly people who prefer to do some work, however menial, to eke out low pensions and to pass the time.

As she resumed her chipping, a convoy of power and rank rushed toward her, out in the center lane of the wide highway, the lane reserved for official cars. First came two gray- and-blue militia (police) cars, sirens shrieking, burly policemen in gray coats and fur hats leaning out of the windows, their arms flailing black-and-white night sticks as though they could clear the road with sticks alone.

Metallic voices blared through loudspeakers on the car roofs. Behind them rolled a long, black, ponderous Zil limousine reserve for the elite, a revolving red light on its roof, carrying plainclothes men with square shoulders and gray fedora hats. Next came another Zil, traveling about 70 miles an hour and swaying like a ship, its gleaming black length striped and accented with polished chrome.

On the thickly upholstered rear seat, face impassive, eyes straight ahead, was the general secretary of the Soviet Communist Party and chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR, commander of the Soviet armed forces, the fourth leader of the country in the last 63 years, Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev.

Behind him, a third colossus of a Zil; and behind that, a final police car. The earsplitting noise, the shouts, the loudspeakers, the speed, the power, moved the old woman not at all. Head down against the wind and a sudden flurry of snow, she kept on chipping ice, she in her world, Mr. Brezhnev in his.

Mr. Brezhnev sits at the pinnacle of Soviet society. The old woman is close to the bottom. In all, I have identified five major ranks in Soviet society, each containing a number of substrata: the top rank, military rank, rising rank, urban rank, and rural rank.

It is a society of privilege and status, just as czarist Russia was before it. Those closest to power -- the center being the top of the 17 million-member Communist Party itself -- have the most rank and privilege. Those at the bottom have least. The gaps between top and bottom, and especially between the substrata in each rank, are astonishingly large for a society that aims ultimately to eliminate class differences. It resembles the social structure of a developing society rather than of a Western superpower.

The party's ideology recognizes that some social differences will remain in the ideal communist society, but it is clear that Soviet society has become one of the most stratified and privilege-conscious in the world, instead of one of the least.

The word "rank" is more appropriate than the word "class" for several reasons. It has a more military ring to it -- and Soviet society is regimented and organized along lines that lend themselves to comparison with a military barracks. One central authority hands out rank and privilege. In a society of perpetual consumer shortages, privilege is thirsted after with fierce intensity.

The word "rank" also conveys a different image from "class" -- and this is a different society from the West in atmosphere, operation, and history.

In a recent study sociologists Richard F. Coleman and Lee Rainwater identified seven layers of class in the United States: the old rich, new rich, college-educated professionals and managers, comfortable Middle America, less-well-off Middle America, the working poor, the unemployed welfare class. Their main criterion was money, but they also used family background, education, and type of job.

No such equivalent divisions exist in the Soviet Union. Money means far less than privilege:

* The privilege to buy a well-tailored, dark blue, pinstriped wool suit from a party tailor for 50 rubles ($75), while the average Russian tramps from shop to shop, tailor to tailor, trying to find inferior clothes at twice the price and six times the wait.

* The privilege to use special party or government food stores, stocked with fresh meat and imported goods, while the rest of the population stands in line to enter dingy, grimy shops. The Kremlin food store is on quiet Granovsky Street two blocks north; if you didn't know where to look, you would drive right past it (which is typical of most of the special shops here). The tip-off is not the small sign on the wall saying "Bureau of Passes" but the black official cars parked on both sides of the street, drivers waiting for smartly dressed women to emerge. Prices are said to be as low as the quality is high.

* The privilege to live in spacious, well-built apartments and to import Western gadgets and consumer goods. I know of some senior party officials who sit at night watching "Jesus Christ Superstar" and "Grease" and more recent Broadway shows on video players flown in from New York. Some Western businessmen compete to do favors for Soviet contacts, arranging deliveries of everything from cars, stereos, and video-cassettes to beer, sausages, and cigarettes.

* The privilege to travel abroad and earn foreign currency that can then be turned into privileges here at home.For most travelers, though, passports are issued only for single trips. They must be deposited with the nearest Soviet embassy while the citizen is abroad, and given back to the government on return home.

It's not so much the privileges themselves that struck me, as the differences between them and the crowded and shabby and shortage-ridden shops and apartments most of the populace experiences.

"When you are promoted through party ranks," one Moscow intellectuals says, "you are also promoted to a new set of documents allowing you to shop in better stores, have a better dacha, and so on.Sometimes officials say they are comfortable with the privileges they have already, but they must accept the new ones."

The top rank consists of an inner top I estimate to include just 49 men -- the 14-man ruling Politburo led by Mr. Brezhnev, and 35 other nonvoting Politburo members, party Central Committee officials and members, and senior military men. These people wield the real political power in the country.

The outer top is about 25,000 officials (some 100,000 in all, when families are included). They include Central Committee members and the top 66 oblast,m or regional, party first secretaries, the men with local authority on whom much depends; top achievers such as scientists, singers, ballet stars, writers, and artists, together with the party and government watchdogs who supervise them.

The party and government lay down their pecking orders by means of nomenklaturam lists. These say which official ranks qualify for what privileges, much as Peter the Great set out in his famous Table of Ranks at the end of the 17th century.

"The nomenklaturam are the vertical lines which run up and down the elite," Dr. Alexander Zinoviev, an author, mathematician, and former professor, told me before he emigrated two years ago.

"You Westerners don't understand us at all. You can't use terms like 'upper class' and 'middle class' here. Everything depends on the status of the organization that appoints you. The Academy of Sciences nomenklaturam are good, but the party's is better."

The party Central Committee has its own Fourth Department which controls a network of exclusive polyclinics, hospitals, and health resorts. "The ordinary person never sees this network," a well-placed Russian told me." the buildings might be old, but the service is excellent. It's rather like living in the West , only you're still here."

At the Black Sea resort of Sochi, another source pointed from our small ferry to a long, low, white resort building to the left of the city center. "For the party," he said. "I've been there. What a place. . . ." i asked our party guide later what the building was. "I don't know," he replied.

Musicians, ballet dancers, scientists, writers, moviemakers, and journalists all have their own clubs and apartments, their own access to special food, and other perquisites.

Beribboned and bemedaled, marshals and generals at the top of the military rank ride in black limousines and earn up to 8 or 10 times the average wage. Defense Ministry speeches begin with an exhortation that gives the overall divisions: "Comrade marshals and generals! Comrade officers! Comrade sergeants! Comrade privates!"

Officers and some noncommissioned officers are career soldiers; almost all privates and other ranks are young men serving their two-year, compulsory national-service duty.

On the rare occasions Westerners peek inside a Soviet camp, beds seem pushed together closer and conditions seem more Spartan than in the West -- and Westerners only see showplaces such as the crack Taman Division outside Moscow. Training is rigorous. Leave amounts to only 10 days a year, and is often canceled for disciplinary infractions.

Officers enjoy more privileges. I stood beside one on a bus the other day, studying the way his well-cut uniform contrasted with the serviceable but inferior clothes of the civilians around him. His wool greatcoat with its two shiny rows of bright metal buttons down the front, its big lapels, its good stitching, its belted back; his blue-gray winter fur hat, the quality of his officers' brown shoes . . . all indicated Kremlin care for its military elite.

Officers can retire earlier than people in other professions, and keep their salaries as well as their pensions. Already carefully screened by the party before being commissioned, they readily find civilian work in personnel offices or in the countrywide, "volunteer," semicivilian agencies that introduce schoolchildren into military ways and athletic training.

The Air Force seems to have a more glamorous reputation than the other services, because of its cosmonauts and test pilots. Navy service is three years instead of two and offers the chance to see parts of the world previous generations could not visit. Naval strength and reach are steadily growing.

The party keeps control of the military forces in many ways and at all levels of command, so the possibility of a military uprising against the Kremlin is considered almost nil. Some Western experts wonder if Soviet commanders would show flexibility and initiative in time of war, but few want to find out. All stress the volume of Soviet arms building, from conventional planes and tanks to strategic missiles targeted on the United States and Europe.

The rising rank consists of about 23 million workers: middle-and lower-level party and government officials; specialists in industry; middle- and lower-level trade-union officials, doctors, dentists, teachers, scientists, writers, performing artists; the directors and white-collar staff who run the country's 18,000 state farms (with an average size of 40,000 acres) and 29,000 collective farms (with an average size of 13,000 acres).

Intellectual dissidents often come from this rank; so do students at universities and institutes.

And, shifting the criterion to money, so do most workers out in Siberia, who receive special privileges and bonuses for being in such a hostile climate. so does the legion of speculators and "fixers" who make money (and buy privileges with it) by cutting through red tape or supplying needs the state cannot meet, such as fresh vegetables and fruit, or windshield wipers and oil filters for cars.

The rising rank's standard of living is lower than that of the middle class of the West. So is its ability to rise through the system. There is some mobility: from countryside to city; within factories and institutes as skilled workers rise to fill millions of new managerial and white-collar jobs opened up by rapid industrialization since 1959; marriage into higher subranks.

Education, too, can hoist an individual upward. So can talent, though ideological orthodoxy is required at all levels. A performing artist without it either pays lip service or lives a difficult, tension-filled life. Insecurity is common here, even at senior levels. Mobility into the top rank comes within, the party -- and means a lifetime of loyalty and hard work.

It is out in Siberia that I had the sense of space, distance, and frontier living that only a big country can provide -- all shadowed by the knowledge of the Gulag archipelago, the prison camps, the internal exile, the virtual slave labor that built the first trans-Siberian railroad -- the "death and chains" Gorky wrote about.

I once stood beneath a 130-foot drilling tower on an endless plain of snow and ice near Surgut, north of Tyumen, and 1,600 miles northeast of Moscow, on the Fyodorovsk oil field, talking to a young foreman from sunny Bashkirya, 800 miles to the south.

This area of western Siberia is the site of the giant Samotlor field, which generates all the oil-production growth in the entire country. Foreman Alexander Kisilyev, an orange hard hat jammed over a winter fur hat, symbolized the benefits the state pays those who help the effort along: Working seven days a week, 12 hours a day, he earned up to $850 a month, more than three times the average wage. A Siberian bonus, based on length of stay, raised his basic salary 70 percent.

In 10 years he had put $23,000 in the bank and had bought a car. He drove south for two months of vacation every year and planned to move there one day.

The urban rank numbers about 73 million. In theory it runs the country, and the Communist Party works in its name. In fact, it does what it is told, as Russian workers have always done.

Officially, only two "friendly" classes exist in the country: the working class (including state farm workers) and the collective-farm peasantry. A separate substratum is acknowledged: "brain-workers" (intellectuals), said to number 37.5 million in 1977.

The intelligentsia, much of it in the rising-rank category, is now being intensively studied by Soviet sociologists including M. N. Rutkevich and F. R. Filippov, who also recognize a new substratum in the working class itself: those with some specialized knowledge who operate and maintain complex machines.

These "new" specialists are at the top of the urban rank; so are senior and skilled workers in the plants that turn out the steel and the other materials needed by the Soviet military-industrial complex. Their trade unions provide them with passes to resort hotels, permission to buy cars, decent apartments. Often they buy food through their factories, which order in bulk and wield considerable influence.

Yet workers in cities are closely controlled. The system has its loopholes, but the general rules are clear. Each person has a workbook retained by his factory or office. Any reprimand or change of job is recorded in it. Only employers may make entries. A false move at 19 years of age stays with a man for life.

At the lower end of the urban rank are the pensioners, the infirm, prisoners, and poorly educated workers in menial jobs.

The scourge of the urban rank (and others) is alcoholism, especially vodka ("the green snake"). Drunkenness lacks the social stigma it carries in other societies: A man is expected to drink and to get drunk, and he does. Alcoholism is a major cause of crime, of low worker productivity, as well as of divorce (1 marriage in 2 in the larger cities).

Communist Party lecturers are now telling people that the country has 22 million alcoholics. (The US, with a smaller population, has about 10 million.)

The elderly tend to live hard lives. The average pension here is less than 10 rubles ($15) a month. The maximum is only 120 rubles. millions live close to, or under, the minimum income level of 45 rubles a month; even senior economists now argue that the system must be overhauled. Like the US, the USSR is getting older. Almost 1 in every 5 citizens will be retired by the year 2000 .

The rural bank is made up of about 35 million workers and their families, a far larger percentage than in Western countries. Only in the last 40 years has the country ceased being predominantly rural. much of the urban rank is people fresh off the farm.

State policy is to turn farm life into city life as much as possible, with apartment blocks and five-day workweeks. The word "farmer" does not really fit the Russian context. Only a handful of men on each huge farm actually manages the activities, calculate the amount of feed given livestock, work out planting rotations, and so on. The bulk of the staff on a Soviet farm does one job, eight hours a day.

The Brezhnev years have seen massive investment in the rural sector to try to boost the annual harvest. The so-called "non-black-earth" zone of the Russian Federation (old Russia) -- sandy, acid soil covering an area 11 times the size of Oregon -- is slated for a soil transformation. A new plan calls for spending lagging. And enormous problems remain.

The most productive land is the tiny amount (1.5 percent of the total) that farmers (and city people) are allowed as private plots.Each less than an acre in size, these plots produce 60 percent of the country's potatoes as well as one- third of all the vegetables, meat, milk, and eggs. The party now encourages plots to help offset the poor harvests in recent years; local officials often balk, since the plots go against ideology and affirm the individual's interest in his own work.

The policy of creating citylike conditions in the country, however, has reduced the number of private plots (to about 37 million in 1974). Apartment dwellers tend not to want to keep a cow when they can buy milk in a store.

But the plots remain vital -- evidence that the state cannot solve its food and weather problems with its own socialized approach.

Next: Currents of dissent and nationalism beneath the crust of Soviet conformity.

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