The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), also known as the Soviet Union, was officially established in 1922 in the aftermath of the Russian Civil War. During its foundation, the world’s first socialist government was created in Russia in 1917, and was later expanded into the present-day Baltic states, Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, the Caucus States, and the Central Asian States. Despite this diversity of cultures across the largest country the world had ever seen, Russia was the largest of the republics and ethnic Russians made up the majority of the population. Executive power was also centered in Russia, under the control of the Communist Party.
For the general population, the first few decades of Soviet demographic development were characterized by conflict, famine, recovery, and industrialization. The World Wars, Revolution, and the famines of the 1920s and 1930s devastated the Soviet population, and there is still no scholarly consensus on total death tolls or their effect on the population, although combined estimates are in the tens of millions. The disruption and overlap of destructive events, poor data collection methods of the time, and the system of confidentiality maintained by Stalin’s government make estimates such as these difficult. Even for later years, statistical data for the Soviet Union is often lacking as much of the “declassified” information released since dissolution has painted an incomplete or inaccurate picture of Soviet life.
Working life in the Soviet Union
The major economic difference between the Soviet Union and western countries was the implementation of the command economy. Under government leadership, industrialization was prioritized, and much of the population moved to urban centers to meet the labor demands of manufacturing industries; this led to significant economic growth in the 1930s, as many other countries dealt with the fallout from the Great Depression. Agriculture also became collectivized under government control, however the reallocation of labor outpaced technological advancement, and mismanagement saw food shortages repeatedly hinder Soviet development, even leading to famine.
One aim of communism was to achieve full employment, and official policy was designed with this in mind. As the Russian Revolution was instigated by labor unions (the term ‘Soviet’ is derived from these workers’ councils), the USSR had a strong commitment to workers’ rights. Jobs were allocated by the state, and citizens could apply for certain positions, but had little choice of where they would eventually be allocated as economic demand was the driving force behind this. In comparison to U.S. averages, work weeks were much shorter and retirement ages were much lower in the Soviet Union. The command economy, when compared with western capitalism, meant that personal finances and material goods had a much lower influence on daily life, and issues such as income inequality or personal debt were less prevalent (the standardization of items such as furniture or cars helped in this regard). For reasons such as this, many people in former-Soviet states, particularly the older generations, regret dissolution. Additionally, accommodation was provided by the state, as were cars, appliances, and even holidays. Similarly to jobs, citizens had little control over what was given to them, and corruption and nepotism were rife. The quality of housing, vehicles, and appliances were also much lower than those manufactured in the west (western imports were generally banned or very difficult to come by) and waiting lists for items such as cars could take up to ten years to process. Along with workers rights, the Soviet government also promoted healthy lifestyles and a great value was placed on physical activity and recreational time. As it was rare for citizens to travel abroad, holidays within the Soviet Union became commonplace, particularly around the Black Sea in areas such as Sochi or the Crimean Peninsula, and by dissolution it was estimated that roughly a quarter of Soviet families owned a holiday home (known as a 'dacha').
Gender equality was at the foundation of Soviet ideology, although the official stance was often at odds with reality. In early years, Soviet employment policy radically changed the social structure of the USSR, and Soviet women became the most economically active in the world for most of the 1900s. At home, however, Soviet women were still expected to perform traditional domestic and maternal duties alongside their vocational responsibilities. Early divorce laws were among the most progressive in the world, granting women the opportunity to end marriage, but they also allowed men to leave their families with no alimony commitments. Divorce laws became more stringent after the Second World War, however, and were designed to maintain traditional family structures. Apart from a brief period under Stalin, Soviet abortion rates were also the highest in the world throughout the 1900s; the government promoted abortion over the use of contraception, as they believed the side effects of abortion to be less-dangerous to long-term health and fertility than hormonal regulation from the pill. Even when the later governments reversed this stance, the poor quality and supply of contraceptives in post-Soviet states reinforced these former perceptions, and in 2018, of the five countries with the highest abortion rates in Europe, three were former-Soviet states.
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