Putin’s iron grip on Russia is a legacy of empire
Special to The Washington Post June 15, 2022
Russian President Vladimir Putin last week praised Peter the Great’s expansionary goals, with a nod to Russian imperial nostalgia. The concept of restoring Russia’s imperial legacy has figured prominently in Putin’s justification for his war on Ukraine.
But the legacy of Russia’s imperial period is critical for Putin’s war effort in other ways, as well. Weighing how Russians view the war, Putin can count on societal divides that have been around since the Czarist era. These are divides that not even the Soviet regime, hard as it tried, could break down. And these divides explain Putin’s pro-war majority, but also help explain the stiff antiwar resistance among Russia’s urban intelligentsia.
What does history tell us?
Present-day social divisions in Russia go back to the Czarist era, which divided society into groups called sosloviya or “estates.” These social partitions survived the communist experiment and help explain why only a small minority of Russians are now in a position to challenge Putin and the war.
In Czarist Russia, most citizens were ascribed to an estate by birth, through service to the state, or through marriage - giving them different rights. Hereditary aristocrats and other nobles, who made up just 1.5% of the population, enjoyed rights superior to those of other groups. The next category of relatively free citizens, comprising 0.5% of the population, was the clergy. Residents of Russia’s towns and cities made up another roughly 11% of the population. Wealthy merchants were at the top of the urban hierarchy. There were also urbanites called meshchane who primarily engaged in small trades or occupied middling professions - and in practice remained poor.
Imperial Russia was a very unequal society. Those formally classed as peasants, nearly 80% of the population, remained at the very bottom of the social hierarchy. Serfs in particular were deprived of many rights of citizenship that others enjoyed, such as the right to own property and trade in towns, and access to credit - and exemption from corporal punishment.
Why these divisions continue to matter
On the eve of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, most peasants remained illiterate, and secondary schools were expensive and out of reach. While Russia embarked on progressive changes during the second-half of the 19th century that finally freed serfs - years after feudalism had ended in Europe - these improvements did not include universal public schooling.
As late as 1917, literacy statistics mirrored the hierarchy of the sosloviya. Among nobles, 90% were literate, as were 95% of Russia’s clergy. Of the merchants and other urbanites, 64% were literate. The literacy rate of Russian peasants stood at 32%. Schools training jurists, doctors, teachers and engineers continued to focus on educating the sons and daughters of aristocrats, the clergy and the urban bourgeoisie.
The myth of Soviet equality
Contrary to its propaganda, the Soviet Union preserved the deep divisions in Czarist society. The Soviet regime even inadvertently consolidated the chasm between the highly educated classes and illiterate peasantry by relying on those educated in the imperial period to advance toward the goal of rapid economic modernization.
When Joseph Stalin ordered a census in 1937, the results pertaining to demography and education, among other revelations, shocked Soviet leaders. After hectic discussions about falsifying the data, the Kremlin classified the census as “top secret.”
Widespread illiteracy - and the failure of Soviet education policy - was the big secret. For instance, the census revealed that nearly half of women ages 40 to 44 were illiterate; only 4.3% of the population had completed high school, and only 0.6% held a university degree.
The Soviets conserved czarist social divisions in other ways. Agricultural collectivization forced peasants to flee to cities in the 1930s. To stem the exodus, the Soviets imposed restrictions on population movement. In a form of neo-serfdom, collective farmworkers needed special permission to move to cities. Many joined the factory workforce when restrictions on movement eased in the 1960s but kept one foot in villages, much like seasonal peasant laborers did under the czars.
Even as urbanization soared, reaching 66% by 1990, demographer Anatoliy Vishnevskiy argues, “one could not contend that Soviet society became a solidly and overwhelmingly urban society.” Among those 60, only 15 to 17% had been born in cities.
It’s true that many peasants joined the ranks of white-collar employees during the Soviet period. But these new urbanites often attended un-prestigious teacher training or nursing colleges and joined low-paid occupations. Industrial and workplace dependencies made people vulnerable to political pressures to conform with the communist system.
These historical divisions explain patterns of support for Putin’s war in Ukraine
That political pressure still exists. Russia’s dynastic intelligentsia - that is, Russians who can trace their roots to more privileged estates during Czarist times - continue to colonize elite professions that give more autonomy. Meanwhile, Russians from villages and small towns have far fewer opportunities to gain upward mobility.
Many join the public-sector workforce. Their reliance on government jobs, in turn, makes them less likely to challenge the regime, as political scientist Bryn Rosenfeld writes. And since the invasion of Ukraine, public employees have faced sharp pressures to conform and mobilize other Russians to support the war. This group has featured prominently in Putin’s pro-war rallies.
Enablers of autocracies hail from a variety of backgrounds. But Russian localities that before the 1917 Russian Revolution had a higher share of educated estates, and especially educated urbanites engaged in trades and occupying the modern professions, are more likely to feature active citizenry who also demand free media today, my research with Alexander Libman shows.
Thanks to these historical legacies, few Russians have both the professional autonomy to challenge the regime and the intellectual training to scrutinize the Kremlin’s false propaganda narratives. But as in Czarist times, a sizable minority of engaged citizens continues to challenge the war and autocracy, whether as emigres abroad, or risking their lives in Russia. These educated professionals, artists, writers and other intelligentsia are often the descendants of Russia’s educated estates.