The Soviet Middle Class

Maya Turovskaya examines what constituted the “Soviet middle class’s survival kit” in the Soviet Union: In a society in which even basic commodities had to secured through a series of complex and lengthy exchanges, not luxury goods but the enjoyment of culture was at the core of the middle class identity.

A conjecture about the existence of a Soviet “middle class” first came to me precisely 35 years ago, one fickle February, in that selfsame Munich where I am now.
Instead of racking my brains for a definition of the middle class, I will quote the Oxford English Dictionary: “Middle class – social class between the upper and the lower, including professional and business workers”. There is nothing to add or to delete here, except perhaps that in the post-Stalin USSR, the nomenklatura> may be likened to an “upper class”, while the “lower class” was made up of the so-called “people”. Business was illegal; more often than not, it was not so much a noun as an adjective, one more attribute of that same nomenklatura’s privileges.

Two Worlds, Two ShapirosA Soviet-time folklore expression ironically referring to the double standards applied by the Soviet leadership in its pronouncements on domestic and foreign policy; later it came to denote any perceived differences between Russia and the “West”. [Translator’s note]

In that memorable year of 1967, Mark Donskoy1 and myself were sent to the “far abroad” to show the film “Ordinary fascism”. The Central Committee sternly warned us about Nazi and Banderist plots2 in the Bavarian capital, but already at the airport we were greeted by multiple black-and-white reproductions of a portrait of Che Guevara. We had arrived at the height of the (as yet undeclared) “youth revolution”. In the club that had invited us, portraits of Stalin, Trotsky and Mao hung next to each other with a post-modern ease above an enormous samovar. The language of conversation was that of Marxism-Leninism – but one that had little to do with what was tested in the lifelong Soviet exam. The club’s director (I don’t know what line of work he was in when free from “voluntary work”) had a wife who worked at TV, which had not yet become the powerful medium that it is now. As much as we could, the two of us indulged in satisfying our mutual feminine curiosity about each other’s everyday life: “we” were just as exotic to them as “they” were to us.

Strange as it may seem, our “starting conditions” appeared almost symmetrical. Our German host treated us to a “reception” in a three-and-a-half room flat just like mine, in a similar style house. However, she had to heat an extra room for this: in winter, they huddled in just one room, since heating their stoves took time and effort. But their nicely located flat was spacious and inexpensive. She was impressed when I mentioned central heating, while we had not yet been sufficiently upset by dug-up sidewalks to question its profitability and see the advantages of autonomous boilers. (Now these Munich houses have been renovated and become expensive, though one still has to climb the beautiful wooden stairs on foot). Their son was with us at table: it turned out that our children were both of the same nursery school age. She complained that the kindergartens were only from 8 to 12, after which you had to tug your child around with you. My own nursery school – run by the municipal district, not the Writers’ Foundation – not only ran from 9 to 6; it even took the children to the Black Sea in the summer.

But then she had a marvellous, albeit second-hand Mercedes (cars were cheap in Germany then by today’s standards) the back seat of which was cluttered with enviable toys – it was used as a children’s room. As for me, I had been waiting for a Moskvich for years (and didn’t even have a Zhiguli).

“Where did you buy this elegant dress?”, she asked me once. I hadn’t bought it, I’d had it made by my tailor at the Writers’ Foundation. Blinded by the abundance of “Ladies’ Paradise” shop windows3 , I confessed this not without shame. “Are you saying you have a tailor of your own, and that this dress was made especially for you?” “Well, she doesn’t even cut out the clothes, she just pricks them.” “I know a tailor too, but who can afford this?” It wasn’t easy to explain to her that tailors and “commercial shops”4 were all we had (what modest socialist block lines of ready-made clothes there were to be, were only just starting to appear). But what she found even stranger was my request to be taken to “her” hairdresser’s to have my hair done (I was preparing for an important lecture on Russian drama at the university). “There’s no point in wasting your money”, she said sternly, “I will give you a hairdryer, and we will buy curlers” (another novelty to us). Again: how to explain to her that “one’s own” hairdresser means much more than just getting one’s hair done? Explaining our cumbersome “socialist” everyday life was almost as difficult as translating Stanislavsky’s terminology into the Brechtian conceptual framework then dominant in Germany.

But our definitive divergences cropped up when we discussed… tidying up. She was lucky: she had managed to agree on a good price with her for two hours twice a week. Now I understand her very well indeed, but then… Then I had a nanny, a “domestic worker” in Soviet jargon; she came at 9am and left when she wanted, i.e. not before 10pm: she was my socialist butler, my socialist servant, my good wizard (when my mother-in-law turned 90, then 100), my burden. Nanny would continue to live with me for a long time, almost up to her death, and in the end it wasn’t clear who was looking after whom. But that was later; then I mentioned the mornings but didn’t mention the evenings: my German friend wouldn’t have believed me anyway. “Well, you know”, she said, “only millionaires live like that.” I have never felt so much like a millionaire since.

In our “Munich Marxist debates”, as they would have been called then, I tried in vain to argue that the advantages of socialism (cheap labour) were a result of patriarchal backwardness. The word sputnik had just entered all languages, and Yury Gagarin’s trademark smile doomed all talk about underdevelopment in advance (by the way, the former homeland of the elephants5 honours him much less than the Americans celebrate their astronauts). Moreover, we were in turbulent 1968. But it was our mutual “Lancaster instruction” 6 that – then and there, in a very practical way rather than by hearsay – first made me realise the existence of a Soviet “middle class”. Or at least, its pseudomorphosis7 .


The Soviet middle class’s survival kit (which didn’t always have to be complete) of “apartment, dacha and car” roughly corresponded to the European one’s (leaving out electronic and other innards). is a Russian word, but it does stand for the concept of leisure that is so important in the everyday life of the middle class. The USSR had its own leisure stereotype: the one-month holiday (sometimes with one’s children and other family members) “in the South” or in the Baltics, but always within the Soviet Union. Isn’t this why former Soviet people, at home and in emigration, rushed to foreign beaches [after the end of the Soviet Union] and now travel no less than the Germans? Foreign travel existed, too, but only in groups, instructed to “look left, look right”. Elderly Americans and young Japanese, not to mention others, also board buses and look left and right, but in our times one had to have the (sometimes insufficient) guarantee of official references and a family back home.

Culture, however, meant more than just leisure in Soviet practice, more even than culture itself (“In Russia, a poet is more than just a poet…”8 etc). It was both affordable and scarce. It was at the core of the middle class’s identity and, at the same time, of the way it distinguished itself from others. (This is why Russian emigrants feel a cultural hunger wherever on the planet they may be.)

Of course, rumours about empty museums in the West (a mainstay of Soviet propaganda) turned out to be exaggerated: I have never seen Washington’s National Gallery or Munich’s Pinakothek empty. In Germany, any “events”, even exotic ones such as Russian authors reading from their works, always attract a grateful audience: the Western middle class is curious and active. But this is not to be compared with the symbolic status that culture had in the USSR.

Sports as part of leisure, even expensive ones such as alpine skiing and tennis, also branded the “middle” as a class. Not to speak of active tourism, which the USSR catered for with unlimited resources of wilderness. “Fitness”, however, that emblem of the Western middle class, was something that the latter’s poor relation had only a vague idea of, including those who frequented the banya.
Education (which turned out to be largely convertible) and medicine were a matter of course.

The medical system was different, too; it had its good and bad sides (until it imploded). Maybe the polyclinics (including the “departmental” ones) were as cumbersome and unprofitable as central heating, but for the patient they had advantages compared to the system of autonomous specialist doctors. I confess that I miss the once-hated preventive check-ups with their tiresome blood and urine analyses and summons to the gynaecologist’s. But most of all I miss “our” doctors, who knew us in and out, who didn’t need to be instructed ab ovo and who, most importantly, followed the old Russian tradition of healing the sick, not the sickness. My respects to them. Sometimes backwardness has advantages, too. Though Western medicine is much better equipped, and, if one is insured, much more comfortable.

There was one all-embracing concept, however, which cannot be translated into the Western way of life, but which defined the everyday life of the Soviet middle class in all its grotesqueness. That concept was shortage.


Once, when I was working at the Institute of the World Economy and International Relations, a colleague from a kindred research institute gave a lecture there on the work of an international commission on comparing life standards in different regions and countries. The USSR turned out to be a difficult case: all attempts by our “junior” and “senior” researchers and the foreign experts to find a clear measure for these standards failed. Using Marx’s universal equivalent – money – didn’t work out. Salaries, taxes – none of these statistics contained any information. In the end the international commission concluded that the only scientifically reliable source was… neighbours’ opinion. The point was not that salaries were low, but that one couldn’t “buy” anything with them; everything had to be “got hold of”. The shortages made life basically non-monetary. Everyday life consisted of permanent “extra-vocational” efforts.

The life structure of the Soviet middle class reminds one of the elevator in Vassa Zheleznova’s art nouveau house in Panfilov’s film: on the outside, everything is normal; the cabin moves as expected; but in fact, instead of a mechanism, there is a guy who pulls it up and down. The elevator was driven by “pure manpower”. How else could a “junior researcher” have survived on his 120 rouble salary invisible to the world?

My above-mentioned apartment in a house built in 1912, with its stucco mouldings, parquet, old redwood elevator and all the rest constantly prompted my foreign friends to ask misconceived questions about rent. The amount of the latter just as constantly shocked them. Even compared to our scanty salaries, the figure was negligible. Only now do I realise the weighty share of a “normal” middle class person’s budget that is made up of lodging expenses. In Munich, rent has reached astronomical levels, and bankrupt Berlin refuses to follow Munich’s example of total privatisation, since a lack of subsidised housing means that there are no more levers to influence prices.

But could my friends, even Slavic studies experts, have understood Voland’s judgment on Soviet people: “they’re normal people, but they’ve been corrupted by the housing issue”9 ? Or the sacramental meaning of the title of one of Trifonov’s novellas, Exchange? Even the most innocent “amelioration of dwelling conditions” meant melodrama, comedy, and farce, and at times even something epic in the Brechtian sense. When, after my husband’s death, I moved from my art nouveau house to the co-operative ghetto of Moscow’s Aeroport district, I had to use “pure manpower” to organise a cyclopean exchange involving 11 flats, pull it through the Scylla and Charybdis of bureaucracy (real estate agents didn’t exist) – and, when this effort, so alien to my impractical and un-heroic character, was over, the last bureaucrat suddenly refused to sign. I had to run to see Misha Ulyanov, a “people’s artist”10 in the true sense of the word. He put on all his regalia and off we went; en route he told me about the “three peg rule”. Whenever he called a big boss about someone’s request (which is what he, his partner Yuliya Borisova and a host of other bearers of famous names did all the time, unselfishly, for friends, acquaintances and strangers), a subordinate would note the call and peg the note somewhere, hoping his boss would forget about it. The game continued up to three calls, after which the subordinate would willy-nilly take down the request. “So you’ll see, we will get off lightly.”

I remember how Raya Orlova11 , when she was an unofficial consultant, vainly proposed Voinovich’s Ivankiad to American publishers. They had trouble understanding not just the humour of the situation, but the situation itself. “A high-ranking bureaucrat wants to buy a room from an intellectual – so where’s the problem?” This is where the watershed difference lay between their fairly hierarchical, but monetarised way of life and our pseudomorphosis.

The legendary standardisation of life in the USSR concerned ideology and, probably, lists of staff members. In the sphere of everyday life, every administration, every institution, every local party committee excelled in overcoming the shortages autonomously, wringing out privileges large and microscopic.

In my sister’s hush-hush aviation institute, “orders were taken”12 . In Mosfilm’s cafeteria, one could get meat on Thursdays (or Fridays). A friend of mine got a “voucher” for a carpet in the hospital where she was working. My brother-in-law was “attached” to a polyclinic belonging to the Academy of Sciences, while I was “attached” to that of the Writers’ Foundation. Their institution had rest homes in the Crimea, ours had “creative resorts”. My local nursery school was administered by a secret military factory. The network of tricks was infinitely diverse. One would get a plot of garden land, another would obtain tours abroad (the prices were laughable, one could have travelled around the world, but there were the officially imposed “years without travel”, the issue of registration etc). One would get manufactured goods at his workplace, another would get a subscription to whole series of collected works etc etc. But personal effort was much more important. Everyone was a trapper hunting for his prey under conditions of total scarcity. One would have “their own dealer”, another would have access to a 13 , still another would get one of the rare commissions to countries of the “socialist camp” – it’s impossible to remember everything. The well-known paradox whereby the fridges were full while the stores were empty, was rooted in private initiative. One of my friends “shopped” at the Central House of Writers, another had “her own” butcher’s, where she entered through the back door. As for myself, whenever I had lots of visitors or was in need of boots, I would ask “my” hairdresser. She did the hair of all the ladies in the area, so she had blat, connections – the decisive word in Soviet middle class man’s thesaurus. One could survive without money, but not without blat.

Looking back, I keep marvelling at the high status of culture. Of course, I topped up Lyusya’s fee to get my hair cut without having to queue; but in all other instances, she wanted nothing from me except news about theatre and cinema (Lyusya was a theatre lover). The young urologist from the Botkin14 whom I consulted at the polyclinic, was a film freak. I had to give him detailed surveys, recommendations and reviews of the latest films. Once I found him cheerful and suntanned after a holiday – he had been to the United States at his cousin’s invitation (such visits had only just been allowed). His cousin was a director and wanted to know whether his new movie could have any success in Russia. The movie was called Jaws. I nearly fell of my chair: the cousin was Spielberg (indeed, Russia is the home of the elephants – but elephants need the right conditions to prosper). Maybe my doctor is now living in California (he mended my kidneys, and they haven’t caused me any trouble since). By the way, throughout my long life no medic, from nurses to famous professors, ever accepted money from me – they were all among the foremost consumers of culture. But part of the print run of each of my books went into a “medical fund”.

Well, of course, apart from one’s personal “database”, there was the “communal network”, which my friend dubbed the “Do-you-happen-to-know-where-to-have-a-fan-mended”. True enough, we couldn’t have survived without the famous “Let’s take each other by the hands…”15 But I’m not talking about favours and services. The trademark Soviet friendship was a political, moral and personal refuge, yet another element of identity; it was what our fellow middle class men from abroad fell for in bureaucratically unfriendly, uncomfortable Moscow. Even now neither distance nor changes of place can alter it; though perhaps age can. However big the income differences were (some were better off, others were substantially poorer), they didn’t play a significant role.


Let’s not pretend there weren’t any differences in levels of prosperity. One had a Volga, another a Zaporozhets (I recall how Zhora Vladimov16nearly died when he crashed one of these “soap boxes” into the monumental concrete letters “Glory to the CPSU”). But here, too, foreigners were in for much confusion: poor Soviet women, for whom a can of instant coffee was a gift of fate, would wear gold and diamonds without much ado. Fashion? Part of an inheritance from grandma that escaped confiscation? Sure, but also regular interventions of the “Disinformation Ministry”, when suddenly there were rumours about an imminent devaluation of the rouble, and the population, schooled by bitter experience, rushed to spend its precarious savings, emptying the jewellers’ shops. Lacking the indispensable, Soviet middle class man would buy the superfluous. By the way, in Berlin, during the switch to the euro, I saw a display in a Saturn hi-fi and computer store saying: “Bring us the deutschmarks you saved for a rainy day, we will take them!” They’re normal people, too, Voland would have said; but in Russia, these were systemic flaws.

Having eventually become the owner of a Zhiguli from one of the first series (they were mostly popular with chauffeurs and fops then), one summer of unprecedented heat, when the forests were burning, I noticed that a cable was smouldering under my car’s bonnet. I had to drag the car to Moscow’s then-only service station for foreign cars – luckily, its director was one of those who “respected culture”. Obviously, I wanted to “thank” the electrician who had put my car back in shape. But the enterprise turned out to be embarrassing; he looked at me and said: “You don’t have that kind of money. See the buttons on my jacket? They’re made of coconut. My jeans are Levi’s. My raincoat is from Burberry’s. I have all the tickets I want for the Cinema House (indeed, those who knew the Cinema House at the time will remember that half of its patrons were such “benefactors”), the same goes for the House of the Actor. So if you need a new pair of boots or anything else, call me, you know the number.” There was nothing I could do for him. The service station was a club for the upper middle class, including its cultural elite. News about theatre and cinema would constantly be discussed there, and the director complained to me that his trainees would start the day drunk on the choice cognac they would get from generals and colonels. This was another personal sociology lesson for me. The word “intelligentsia” ceased to be a euphemism for the “middle class”. A “monetary” dimension encroached upon the habitual status one. I don’t remember if it was a bit earlier or a bit later that Arro’s play Look Who’s There became a hit. In it a fashionable hairdresser wants to buy a dacha from a professor, who is offended by this (“What’s the problem?”, Americans would say). Social shifts were taking place inside the Soviet system: the capitalist revolution only brought them out to the surface.

Of course, the concept of a “Soviet middle class” can and must be explicated from a bird’s eye view, in the rigorous terms of social science. But I think the classical middle class differed from ours in the same way that Roman law differs from British common law, which is based on precedent. Therefore, as a participant in this process, one who grasped it through experience, not through study grants, I have preferred to describe it “by precedent”.

In opposition to Western individualism, the Soviet Union was reputed to be a reserve of collectivism, since the threat of “getting lost on one’s own”17 was no idle one there. I believe, however, that the West had no need for the blooming individualism that marked the Soviet middle class. Everything in everyday life – from the intricate “specialities” that a housewife would concoct in her kitchen for lack of a choice of food-stuffs, to the dress that one created together with “one’s own” tailor; from the chance accessories and outfits got in the “commercial shops”, to the foreign best-sellers that accidentally found their way into our neck of the woods – all this was a matter of good luck and personal effort. Our mutinous tight trousers and our revolutionary jeans were stitched at home, not to mention the rebellious rock records “on the bones”18 and the ubiquitous attempts to tune in to “enemy voices”. Late Soviet middle class man wasn’t just a trapper, he was an eternal guerrilla fighter. He was a quasi-collectivist at party meetings (if he joined – I, for one, excellently made do without becoming a member) and a collectivist in his “narrow circle”; but he couldn’t become a “mass man” for lack of a mass consumption industry, which is more powerful than ideology.

Obviously, this pseudomorphosis had generic traits dictated by the system.
Take the aforementioned all-pervading shortages, which produced the aforementioned blat as a way of life. One shouldn’t think that this doesn’t exist in the West, connections are just as important there, but they don’t concern daily bread or furniture sets.

This can also be called a shortage of choice. Choice is a habit that our middle class man, excelling as he was in inventiveness, did not have.
Still in the same category, there was a shortage of quality. This is what created a measure of equality despite the wide spread in prosperity. The real middle class is highly stratified, and this stratification is clearly marked. In that same year of 1967, in Munich, the president of the Bavarian Academy of Art (who had invited me to the university) boasted that he could take the liberty to drive a Volkswagen Beetle. Such “free-thinking” would have been off-bounds in Frankfurt. Trademarks aren’t designations, they’re a clear social code.

On the other hand, everything in life was low quality. Now this is expressed by the concept of yevroremont, which is untranslatable into any other language19.
And, finally, there is that sweet word, freedom. Of course, freedom is always relative, and the best freedom is to be found within oneself. But still, when I think back… I’ll better quote from one of Chekhov’s letters to Suvorin: “From childhood, I have been a believer in progress, and it couldn’t have been otherwise, for there was an enormous difference between the time when I was beaten and the time when they stopped beating me” (27th of March, 1894).

Has Russia created a new “middle class” which can act not as a shop display, but as a foundation for society? For me the question remains unanswered…

A highly decorated Soviet movie director and scriptwriter whose films were mostly about official Soviet heroes, such as Gorky and Lenin. [Translator's note]

Stepan Bandera was one of the leaders of Ukrainian nationalism before and during the Second World War; part of his movement co-operated with the Nazi invaders. [Translator's note]

Reference to Emile Zola's novel The Ladies' Paradise, very popular in the Soviet Union. [Translator's note]

State-run shops where scarce goods officially to be distributed for free could be bought at very high prices [Translator's note] .

Jocular reference to the Soviet leadership's campaign, in the 1950s and 60s, to prove that all important inventions in human history had been made in Russia. [Translator's note]

A system of mutual education named after its British inventor; in Russia, this was applied in the tsarist army in the early 19th century and advocated by the Decembrist aristocrats. [Translator's note]

A term borrowed from Oswald Spengler, who has been very popular in post-Soviet Russia. It is used to denote one society (or civilisation) displaying outward features of a phenomenon that originated in another society, but without the corresponding underlying structures. [Translator's note]

An oft-quote line from a poem by Yevgeny Yevtushenko. [Translator's note]

Voland is the name of the Devil in Mikhail Bulgakov's "The Master and Margarita", and this is his most famous line. [Translator's note]

The title of "people's artist" is an official distinction bestowed upon actors by the Soviet and Russian authorities. [Translator's note]

Raissa Orlova (1918-1989), a well-known writer and literary critic, wife of the writer Lev Kopelev. Both later emigrated to West Germany [Translator's note]

I.e. one could obtain scarce goods through one's employer [Translator's note]

A chain of state-controlled hard currency shops officially reserved to foreigners. [Translator's note]

A prestigious hospital in Moscow. [Translator's note]

Part of a line from a famous song by Russian songwriter Bulat Okudzhava, which became the hymn of the "Sixties generation" after the liberalising message of the 20th Party Congress. [Translator's note]

The writer Georgi Vladimov, who was very popular in the Thaw era and later became a dissident and human rights activist before emigrating to West Germany. [Translator's note]

Another quote from the aforementioned song. [Translator's note]

I.e. on X-rays. [Translator's note]

Meaning a complete overhaul of a Soviet-style apartment to make it more comfortable and give it a "European" look. [Translator's note]

Published 30 August 2002
Original in Russian
Translated by Mischa Gabowitsch

Contributed by Neprikosnovennij Zapas © Maya Turovskaya / Neprikosnovennij Zapas / Eurozine


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