Since the fifteenth century, the Russian state has been distinguished by centralized, generally autocratic rule, strongly dependent upon a service class ( oprichnina, dvoryanstvo, Communist party). This was particularly developed by Peter I. Even in 1987 a party monograph stated that "it is important that not only directors, but rank and file workmen, collective farmers, and intellectuals understand their place and role in perestroyka" (Laptev, ed., 1987, 22). Although alternative foci of power (the Orthodox church, the National Assembly Zemskiy Sobor, the high aristocracy, the local Zemstva) have emerged from time to time, they have been repeatedly co-opted and controlled. Only the widely dispersed, deeply devoted, and secretive Old Believers have resisted control despite persecution since the seventeenth century.
The rise and expansion of the Russian state, in a context of hostile states and peoples, has been at enormous cost in wars and rebellions, famines and epidemics. The Tatar raids, the Time of Troubles (a period of dynastic conflict, 1598-1613), the Swedish War, the Napoleonic Wars, the Crimean War, the Russo-Japanese War, and world wars I and II brought great misery. For 150 years, the drafting of serfs for 25 years of military service was deeply mourned in every village. Peter I instituted a modest vehicle for military and civilian upward mobility, through the system of progressively earned ranks. A modern-day parallel was the nomenklatura, a system of specified ranks in the former USSR.
Autocratic, often capricious, political power has combined with other elements of Russian social culture to limit the extent and stability of social stratification. In earlier times, estates were constantly being dispersed because of falls from favor and the equal inheritance rights of all sons (as opposed to primogeniture). Although there were many merchant families, some of them extremely wealthy, trade was in general not highly valued and was prohibited for those of noble descent. Modest alternative avenues of social ascent (as defined in the Tables of Rank) were open even to Jews, who were otherwise a persecuted minority confined to the western Pale.
Serfdom, which began during the medieval period, reached its nadir in the eighteenth century when Aleksandr Radishchev's A Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow disclosed appalling abuses. Conditions on the great estates, particularly for household serfs, were those of true slavery, although they were better for the land-working serfs, particularly those under the quitrent ( obrok ) system (the other system being to work on shares). Because, as in other frontier lands, there was no serfdom in Siberia, it provided an escape and some relief—hence the continuing stream of fugitive serfs, who settled these regions and often became Cossacks.
From the 1930s in the former USSR, the collective farmer represented a dispossessed class lacking the internal passport needed for urban residence. Only collective-farm chairmen—party appointees after 1956—were in a position to control farm resources and incomes. Virtually the only area of collective-farm freedom was the de facto possession of small private plots that produced an extraordinary share of Russian foodstuffs, including meat, dairy products, and vegetables. This is increasingly the case today. Within this rural domain, incidentally, elements of customary law have persisted with remarkable vitality. Despite the partial privatization of land and various programs and projects, many Russian peasants are primarily interested in more effective production (e.g., by working together) than they are in private ownership of land as a matter of principle.
Russian industrialization has varied between periods of intensive development and those of prolonged stagnation. In the Kievan period, the cities, as archaeology shows, were centers of local and even international trade and of production through many sophisticated crafts. By the sixteenth century Muscovy's trade with England and other parts of Europe had stimulated technological development. But it was not until Peter I that a strategically oriented program of industrialization was initiated and pushed forward with considerable success. Its central and continuing weaknesses were the dependence on facilities granted to court favorites and on serf (i.e., slave) labor. Despite these weaknesses, there was, in the eighteenth century, phenomenal growth in many areas, the opening of mines and factories, and, among central and northern peasants, the growth of large cottage industries with an enormous inventory of goods such as wooden spoons for export to Asia via Kazan. By the nineteenth century steam power was used, especially in the growing textile industry; during the latter part of the nineteenth and first part of the twentieth centuries, Russia experienced the most rapid industrial growth in modern world history. In general, though, government efforts failed to help rising small entrepreneurs, and the subsidization of inefficient favorites went on. By the eve of World War I, Russia had become an industrial world power, comparable to France, Germany, and the other Western powers that had aided it with their capital.
Although permanent urbanization encompassed barely 10 percent of the Russian population in 1913, a great part of the central and northern Russian population was engaged in migratory industrial labor as well as crafts. This permitted very rapid economic growth in the 1920s. With the rise of German and Japanese militarism, Soviet industrialization took a strategic direction, stressing widely dispersed heavy industrial production, which has continued to dominate to this day. Vast numbers of workers were essential for the huge tasks, and forced labor was a basic recruitment mechanism from 1933 to 1957. In addition, between 1940 and 1957, the State Labor Reserves drafted millions of young people, whose barracks life greatly depressed family formation, induced cultural discontinuity, and encouraged alcoholism and violence.
Generally, the new cities built standardized housing—apartment blocks with central play areas for children. But housing rarely approached real needs, nor did it provide the desired privacy. In 1984 in Kemerovo, about 40 percent of the population lived in apartment blocks, another 40 percent resided in traditional wooden houses without running water or plumbing but with electricity, and the remainder were in dormitories.
The class of intellectuals, despite attrition through oppression, censorship, and internal conflicts, has been of great significance in modern times. With its origins mainly in the educational reforms of the eighteenth century, and drastically enlarged through the intellectual explosion and political tensions of the nineteenth century, the intelligentsia, defined partly by intellectual and partly by political criteria, became a decisive factor in the revolutions of the twentieth century and remains peculiarly powerful in the chaotic scene of the early 1990s.