Soviet Legacies Still Influence Russian Welfare, But Change Under Way


During structural changes to the political and economic system in Russia in the 1990s and 2000s, many features of the socialist welfare state were radically transformed. But legacies of the past continue to shape post-Soviet realities. They are present in institutional arrangements, values and beliefs. This is shown in research from the University of Gothenburg, Sweden.

This is one of the findings in Elena Iarskaia-Smirnova’s thesis at the University of Gothenburg, in which she studies Soviet legacies and contemporary challenges in Russian welfare policies from a class and gender point of view.

“Today, many Russians still carry an idealized image of socialist welfare, even though the old Soviet welfare system was over-centralized, with state-run services and a strict hierarchy,” says Elena Iarskaia-Smirnova. “This corresponded well with old paternalist attitudes, but brought overall apathy and passivity.”

Reformulated welfare policies have now established social work as a profession and brought new services. But this has also led to a decline in childcare facilities, due to the privatisation of state-owned enterprises. This decline has increased the burden of childcare on families, leading to women being disempowered. Furthermore, welfare hierarchies have increased rather than declined, since the general welfare system in the former Soviet Union has been transformed into a system based on a means test approach. Low-income parents have become subject to governmental control and find themselves trapped in vulnerable positions.

Additional pressure is put on those families who raise children with disabilities. But some parents build up the capacity to resist.

“The contemporary situation in terms of social work in Russia is characterised by a gap between training and practice, and there is lack of critical reflection among the practitioners on their experiences,” continues Iarskaia-Smirnova.

However there are also signs of change. Iarskaia-Smirnova feels that social workers are gradually acquiring new knowledge and skills that can help them contribute to social change in a democratic, egalitarian manner, rather than following the old paternalistic scheme of thought and action.

“In order to take social work forward, it is important to develop a critical and holistic view, to develop reflective professionals and to empower service users,” she says.

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