sitting on the edge of the sandbox, biting my tongue

October 25, 2011

“Free” Education and “Right to Work”, Soviet Style

Filed under: politics, Russia — Tags: , , , — edge of the sandbox @ 9:23 pm

Political Junkie Mom suggests that I share my family’s experience with free education and a guaranteed job, which happens to be one of the top #Occupy demands.  These demands are very Communist in nature; in fact, Soviet Constitution promised both.  So here’s a few anecdotes.

My great-grandfather Tsali was a successful dressmaker.  He owned a dress factory in Ukraine and another one in Poland.  Then the Bolsheviks came and took everything.   Although the government gave people jobs, Tsali swore he’d never work for the Soviets.  So he worked under the table, making clothes, doing what he did best.  Tsali believed that “the thieves” wouldn’t last long.  Well, they outlasted him.  He was still at the sewing machine when he was already in his 80s because, since he never worked for the government, he did not qualify for a pension.  Makes sense: if the government is also the employer, why should it pay for the retirement of competitors?  So much for the safety net.

Starting in 1918 Soviet subjects had their work history recorded in the Employment Record Books.  Upon retirement the benefits were calculated based on this document.  For the most part of Soviet history the government owned most of the means of production and trained workers.  While black market work was frequently a necessity, this kind of employment was often prosecuted, not to mention that it went unrecorded.  So only official government work counted towards retirement.

In the Soviet Union government work was not just a right, but a duty.  From time to time subjects were legally not allowed to be unemployed.  My grandmother Vera was a nurse, educated in Imperial Russia.  She married my grandfather and decided to be a homemaker.  From time to time, when this kind of arrangement was illegal, she had to return to government work.

Soviet propaganda

The plate features a page from an Employment Record Book with inscription above "Those who don't work, don't eat". Soviets attributed this Biblical proverb to Lenin. Vigorous propaganda campaigns urged citizens to work for the government.

My uncle was a straight A student, graduating from high school with “gold medal”.  That was an equivalent of American valedictorian.  He aced his college entrance exams.  Unfortunately, he wanted to study nuclear engineering, and Jews were not wanted in that field.  He had to chose a different major.  Racial discrimination is what happens when free market forces are not in place to assure that the most qualified individuals will rise to the top.  When the government owns schools and places of employment, bureaucrats’ (and Politburo’s) prejudices reign.

That Soviet universities didn’t charge tuition doesn’t mean that they were free.  To guarantee admission to many prestigious schools, prospective student’s parents had to bribe somebody.  This typically excluded engineering schools because towards the end of the Soviet era engineering lost its luster.  Engineers who often worked in large collectives and for the government clients were not in a position to take bribes.  The profession was still popular among more proud, modest and intellectually-minded people, in part because the hard facts of math and physics remained unaffected by the Party decree.  And so my parents were engineers.

In the 70s and 80s some engineering majors started playing rock-n-roll, and were summarily kicked out of their government-guaranteed jobs.  A few others found that they’d rather — the horror! — be janitors and watchmen and play rock-n-roll in their spare time than be stuck at the drafting board because that was the kind of clean desk job they were allotted.  I wouldn’t call it funemployment.  Here is Boris Grebenshchikov, the lead singer of the seminal Russian rock band Akvarium who himself was kicked out of work with “Generation of Janitors”:

Of course, the government use the threat of unemployment to control behavior in many other ways.   For instance, my uncle who was denied admission to the school of his choice for being Jewish, also lost his job after applying for an exit visa.  He found another job, to be sure, just not the kind of job he’d want.

It’s worth noting that in the past two decades many Soviet-educated engineers did very well for themselves, finding employment abroad.

If a society is going to try to guarantee employment and free education, it has to surrender control of both employment and education to the government.  In the Soviet Union, bureaucrats and party hawks had undue power over college admission and job placement, and government-guaranteed right to work often morphed into mandated government work.  All in all, the Soviet Union wasn’t the kind of society where one gets to play all day just because the government provides.  Most of the #Occupy types are exactly the kind of people Communist society has no use for.



  1. I don’t know what to say first–too many thoughts. Well done. I’m in awe of the familial history here. Will have to email the rest.

    Comment by pjMom — October 25, 2011 @ 9:34 pm

    • And oh, thanks for the link! ; )

      Comment by pjMom — October 25, 2011 @ 9:35 pm

      • By all means, do email questions. It’s not a terribly unusual history for where I come from, by the way.

        Comment by edge of the sandbox — October 25, 2011 @ 10:10 pm

  2. Excellent entry, Edge. These “occupiers” are, in short, massive tools, and probably don’t even realize what it is they are calling for.

    BTW, I have Jewish family too (my grandfather).

    Comment by Karen Howes — October 26, 2011 @ 2:46 am

    • They are tools. Somebody told them that they should demand a free education, and they decided, why not?
      I remember you saying that you have some Jewish roots. Did you always know that your grandfather was Jewish? A friend of mine’s grandmother fled Germany and converted to Catholicism. She didn’t tell anyone that she once was a Jew. He only found out about him when he was converting to marry a Jewish woman.

      Comment by edge of the sandbox — October 26, 2011 @ 1:44 pm

  3. Ah the socialist workers’ paradise. I can’t wait until our Dear Leader Obama ushers it in.

    Comment by Infidel de Manahatta — October 26, 2011 @ 5:51 pm

  4. Your family history is fascinating. When I was in 3rd and 4th grade, I had a great teacher. That was when we were taught about the USSR and communism. How do you explain these concepts to youngsters with no experience or understanding of gov’t? She explained that if we lived in the USSR, we wouldn’t get to decide what we wanted to be when we grew up. The gov’t would pick for us. Well that sure made an impression. Who wants that?

    I guess nobody explained that to the #occupy folks. They should be careful what the wish for, huh?


    Comment by nooneofanyimport — October 30, 2011 @ 12:04 pm

    • We didn’t have too many choices. One thing I didn’t mention is that for post-WW2 generations there wasn’t much in a way of a career. Basically the gov’t gave you a job, and then you work that job for the rest of your work life.
      Intelligent, nice kids became engineers, which doesn’t seem like a bad deal, except that it was barely enough to live on, and not everyone wanted to be an engineer. OWS kids are most definitely not engineering types.

      Comment by edge of the sandbox — October 30, 2011 @ 6:45 pm

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