Classes and Castes. For centuries, the aristocratic and merchant classes were nearly castelike, with endogamous marriage, a strict social hierarchy, and highly codified behaviors. Peasants and serfs constituted a largely impoverished rural population. After emancipation in 1861, as Russia developed slowly along capitalist lines, peasants migrated to factories in urban areas, where they formed an impoverished industrial working class. Strikes and protests and the radicalization of the intelligentsia led to the revolution of 1905, which prompted limited constitutional and social reform along with a reactionary crackdown on political opposition.
Widespread destitution, the ravages of World War I, and ineffective political leadership set the stage for the revolutionary activity of February 1917 in which the government was overthrown; this was followed by the political revolution of October 1917, in which the Bolsheviks took power and introduced communist ideology and social transformation. In the civil war of 1917–1921 and under Stalin in the 1930s, aristocrats, merchants, and well-off peasants were killed, imprisoned, exiled, or forced to emigrate and their property was confiscated.
The Soviet Union was supposed to be ruled by councils (Soviets) formed from the working masses. The creation of social and economic equality was the goal of early communist ideologues. However, Soviet society evolved into a class-stratified and class-conscious state where communist elites and some professionals had special access to goods, services, and housing. Bureaucratic workers and shop clerks used their control of services or goods to benefit themselves through a set of practices known as blat. However, education, health care, and other social services were available to all.
Although they had special privileges, most Communist Party officials did not accrue wealth. Postsocialist privatization has allowed many of them to build large fortunes, by parlaying their political status into direct ownership of state resources and industries. A new entrepreneurial class has developed, some of whose members have become fabulously wealthy. More slowly, a middle class is emerging in the cities, formed of intellectuals newly employed in business ventures and midlevel management and service personnel. Most of the population is impoverished, because of industrial collapse, inflation, financial crises, and privatization structures that benefit only the powerful. In 2000, 37 percent of the population lived below the minimum subsistence level of $34 per month. In some regions of Siberia and the Far East, the provision of critical services such as heating, fuel, and water has collapsed. Coal miners and industrial workers have faced severe shortages of critical supplies such as soap, long-term wage arrears, and the collapse of medical clinics and schools.
Symbols of Social Stratification. "New Russians" are all presumed to drive late-model Mercedes or Jeeps, live in fancy new red brick dachas, dress in designer clothes, speak on cell phones, and wear heavy gold chains and rings with diamonds. There is some truth to this image, which reflects a popular sense that wealth is vulgar.
Government. The years under Boris Yeltsin (1991–1999), were characterized by the reorganization of governmental structures and functions, with conflict over the balance of power between the president and the parliament, and between central and regional powers. A constitution approved by referendum in 1993 provided for a democratic federation with executive, legislative, and judicial branches. The parliament is divided into upper and lower houses. The lower house is the Duma, with 450 elected members; the upper house was to consist of local governors and legislators from the eighty-nine administrative regions, although the newly elected president, Vladimir Putin, replaced the governors with centrally appointed members, giving the president greater control over that house. Putin also changed the electoral and party system to remold the structure and power of the Duma. Economic issues have been at the heart of many political conflicts; battles over fiscal policy, privatization, control of key resources, tax collection, and social welfare provisions have been fierce and sometimes violent.
Leadership and Political Officials. The state has always been prone to authoritarian rule with censorship and strong government control over the media; oppression of political opposition, partly through the secret police; bureaucratic centralization; and legislation by decree. In the Soviet era, political purges killed millions and sent millions more to hard labor or internal exile. Although overt repression ended with Gorbachev and democratization has become a proclaimed political value, the mechanisms of democratic practice are far from universal.
With the end of communism, control over enterprises and whole industries was up for grabs, and top political leaders secured state resources for themselves, their families, and their colleagues, leading to cynicism among the public. Cronyism, bribe taking, inside deals among political and business leaders, a lack of transparency in decision making, and contradictory legislation have further alienated the populace from the political process.
There are over twenty-five registered political parties, although only five are substantial in size. Political fragmentation has been a problem, and coalitions between parties have been unstable.
Social Problems and Control. The rate of violent crimes grew steadily after the end of Stalin's repressive regime. The ubiquity of state authority in the form of the KGB, the police, the Communist Party, and the military created an atmosphere of surveillance and control. Drug abuse was relatively low because of the strong control of border regions, although it increased during the war in Afghanistan (1979–1989).
Economic crime, corruption and bribe taking, black market activity, and theft of state property were normal daily practice for many citizens and officials. An informal culture of networking facilitated the exchange of favors, access, and information and allowed many people to accrue privileges and material benefits. These activities were illegal but rarely prosecuted. One effect of widespread participation in shadow networks and black marketeering was a general disdain for legality.
The economic and social liberalization of the late 1980s set the stage for an explosion of criminal activity. Extortion through the offering of "protection" services became a fact of life for businesses and financed the expansion of mafia activity. The mafia has infiltrated every branch of industry: up to 70 percent of all banks may be mafia-owned, and organized crime plays a substantial role in raw material exports. In little more than a decade, the mafia created vast local and international networks for drug trafficking, prostitution, arms smuggling, nuclear materials smuggling, counterfeiting, money laundering, and auto theft. Mafia-organized contract killings have become common in the cities, and thousands of political leaders, businesspeople, and journalists have been murdered. Because law enforcement is weak and corrupt and because the mafia has close ties with government and business leaders, efforts to reduce its influence have been ineffective. Weak legislation, a judiciary that is underfunded, overwhelmed by cases, and plagued by corruption and overcrowded jails has created a society whose regulatory mechanisms cannot deal with the current conditions. Most people see no point in appealing to the law for assistance or protection.
Juvenile delinquency has grown substantially, along with narcotic abuse, prostitution, the spread of AIDS, and homelessness among teens and children. A number of dramatic terrorist acts have occurred—possibly connected to the war in Chechnya, which also has created opportunities for gun running, extortion, and kidnapping.
Military Activity. After the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Russia experienced a blow to its national pride and identity. Without a Cold War to legitimize a military presence in client states, few fiscal resources, and no longer the center of a superpower state, Russia's military forces contracted, and its military doctrine was revised to focus on national defense and the maintenance of political stability (particularly in border regions). Military issues today include the expansion of NATO, the need for multilateral nuclear disarmament, and separatist movements in the northern Caucasus.
Although military expenditure has decreased and the number of personnel in the armed forces has fallen, sizable forces are stationed in Georgia, Armenia, Moldova, and Tajikistan; these are nominally peacekeeping forces, but one of their functions is to protect Russian strategic interests.
Russia has waged two wars with Chechnya to repress independence movements in that republic. Russia wants to maintain access to the Caspian Sea's rich oil reserves, hopes to prevent the spread of Moslem fundamentalist movements in its territory, and fears that other ethnically based republics and autonomous regions will pursue independence if Chechnya succeeds. Russian forces invaded Chechnya in 1994 and in the following two years nearly leveled the capital city, Grozny, and killed at least thirty thousand of its citizens, including many ethnic Russians. Several thousand Russian forces were killed, and public opinion turned against the war. Russian forces began to withdraw in 1996. In 1999, Chechen rebels in Dagestan gave Russia a justification to renew its attacks; in this second war, Grozny was destroyed, thousands more were killed, and tens of thousands became refugees. Publicity about young men returning home maimed or dead spurred a movement of mothers against the war. Ferocious propaganda stimulated the populace to virulent nationalism and racism against those Russians called "blacks."