The Russian authorities have acknowledged that they do not know what nearly half of the country’s working-age population does. IMR Advisor Boris Bruk has analyzed the Soviet-era experience of fighting “parasitism” and compared it to the present day.
On May 4, 1961, in response to “multiple requests of the workers,” the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the RSFSR issued a decree entitled "On Strengthening the Struggle with Persons Avoiding Socially Useful Work and Leading an Anti-Social, Parasitic Way of Life." According to the decree, which noted the Soviet people’s disapproval and resentment of “parasitic elements,” such citizens were to be sent into exile for a term of two to five years.
At that time, it appeared to most “conscientious” Soviet citizens that there was a significant number of "malicious parasites" in the country against whom a decisive and ruthless battle should be waged. In 1961 alone, according to some estimates, some 200,000 individuals were exiled to “specially designated places.” The decree was enforced against the homeless, beggars, speculators (persons buying and selling goods outside the state controlled system), as well as other “irresponsible persons” who did not participate in socially useful work. These parasites, while holding the status “Having No Specific Occupation” (“BORZ” to use the Soviet acronym), lost the right to freely enjoy the Soviet Union’s “wide open spaces.” As KGB Chairman Alexander Shelepin pointed out, “Soviet laws are the most humane in the world. Their humane nature, however, is exclusively for honest workers. As for parasitic elements, to all those who only use what is produced by others, the law should be strict since the individuals in this category are our internal enemies”.1
The Soviet authorities not only used the decree to deal with the above mentioned categories of citizens, but also made it a weapon in their fight against dissneters. In the 1960s, when compared to Stalin’s times, there was a change in nature of the regime’s view of what constituted an “internal threat.” If in previous years the major focus was on “unmasking the hidden enemy,” in Khrushchev’s time, the emphasis was placed on those whose dissonance could contaminate “the ideal image of the Soviet society.”2
The Soviet authorities made the decree on “parasites” a weapon in their fight against dissenters.
Among those “enemies” prosecuted as a parasite was Joseph Brodsky, a young poet and future recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature. At that time, he was considered among “the most politically unreliable” people, because he “was part of a circle of anti-Soviet individuals” and “wrote poems of a decadent and even hostile nature” instead of engaging in activities that would benefit the state.
The hearings in the Brodsky case started on February 18, 1964. Brodsky was charged with willful social parasitism, and his trial would become part of Russian and world literature:
Judge: What do you do?
Brodsky: Write poems. Do translations. I guess ....
Judge: No expressions like “I guess.” Stand still! Do not lean on the wall! Look at the judge! Answer the judge properly! … We are not interested in “I guess.” Answer – why didn’t you work?
Brodsky: I worked. I wrote poems.
Judge: We are not interested in this. We are interested in the following: with what organization were you affiliated? … In general, what is your specialty?
Brodsky: Poet. Poet-translator.
Judge: Who has acknowledged that you are a poet? Who assigned you to poets?
Brodsky: Nobody. (In an unchallenging manner) And who assigned me to humans?
Judge: Did you study this?
Judge: To be a poet? Did you try to complete a degree, attend a university where one is prepared, trained?
Brodsky: I do not think it can be acquired by education.
Judge: By what then?
Brodsky: I think this comes (Embarrassedly) … from God.3
Brodsky’s comments could not penetrate the officially approved mindset of a Soviet judge. On March 13, 1964, the verdict was to exile the “parasite” Brodsky from Leningrad for a term of five years. As the Soviet press reported at the time, “The decision of the court was welcomed by the applause of people with honest workers’ hands.”4 Brodsky was sent to the Norinskoe state farm near Arkhangelsk, where he spent little less than a year and a half (the poet’s sentence was shortened under international pressure).
In today’s Russia, it will not take long to find the successors of Judge Savelieva who presided over the Brodsky case. Although the decree on parasites no longer exists, there are plenty of other regulations that could have a similar impact. As for the “parasites” themselves, they have not disappeared, and the authorities feel the need to deal with them, because the new “parasites”—like their predecessors—show the seeds of “disharmony” in Russian society.
Last year, the Ministry of Labor and Social Development expressed concern about the problem of the so-called “professionally unemployed.” According to Deputy Minister Tatiana Blinova, this group consists of “a stratum of the population” that comes to the employment offices “not to get employed but to get unemployment benefits.” Yuri Gerciy, then-head of the Federal Service on Labor and Employment, was even blunter when he described such people as “not some kind of professionally unemployed, but just lazy persons, who do not want to work.”
Taking into account the low unemployment benefits in today’s Russia, not everyone agrees with Gerciy. Deputy Prime Minister Olga Golodets stated that “the employment sector is in many respects not legitimized. Only half the employment market works in accordance with transparent rules. Forty-eight million people work in sectors that are transparent and clear for us. We do not understand, however, where the rest, some 45 percent are employed and what they do.” In other words, out of 86 million citizens of working age, 48 million fall under the category of “it is clear where they are employed and what they do,” while the other 38 million—using Soviet terminology—consist of individuals “with no specific occupation.”
The “grey” employment sector includes a large and heterogeneous mass of people, among them the homeless, citizens getting nonrecurring income, so-called “self-employed” individuals, and many others. An entire segment of people earning money consists of those who work but have no employment contract and are paid in cash, or sell goods or services to others without any receipts or records and who have to “share” their earnings with certain people who in turn also have to “share” their take. In addition to all this, experts estimate that because of the high burden of pension and other social taxes, some 90 percent of Russian businesses use “grey” schemes in one way or another. Clearly, under such conditions, payments due to the budget are not being made. According to Golodets, the money lost this way would be enough to increase pensions by 50 percent.
Experts estimate that some 90 percent of Russian businesses use “grey” tax schemes.
Unfortunately, “the tendency of employment to shift to the shadow economy is becoming more pronounced.” According to Sergei Smirnov, director of the Institute of Social Policy and Social and Economic Programs at the Higher School of Economics, “in this situation, the government deserves a significant share of blame. They constantly change the rules of the game. Why do we have the “grey” sector of the economy? Workers do not believe that when they reach retirement age, they will have an adequate pension. In Russia, it is still true that employment brings a larger income if it is not reported; people try to save on everything. But the state should be content: those individuals are not counting on a good pension, only on their social benefits.”
One might ask a question: would it be better for the government to remain “content” with this or should it employ repressive measures to fight “parasitism”? For example, in Nigeria a person can be punished by 30 lashes and a half year in prison for “willful parasitism.” Alexander Lukashenko, the president of Russia’s neighbor Belarus, keeps recalling Soviet methods of dealing with “parasitism.” Last year, he prohibited employees of several lumber enterprises from quitting their jobs: “The employee cannot quit work from the factory without the supervisor’s permission. If the supervisor lets him leave, he can leave. If not, he should work. Any worker who violates this rule will be returned to his enterprise and subjected to forced labor. Starting from December 1, quitting one’s job is categorically prohibited.”
These ideas are intriguing; however, repressive measures will not help solve the problem related to individuals “with no specific occupation” in today’s Russia. At the same time, continued government inaction would negatively affect the system as a whole. In 5 years’ time, the authorities could be in for another “surprise.”
1 Shelepin, A. I. (October 28, 1961). Rech’ na XXII s’ezde KPSS [Speech to the XXII Communist Party Congress]. Izvestiya.
2 Lastovka Т. V. (2011). Тuneyadstvo v SSSR (1961–1991): yuridicheskaya teoriya I social’naya praktika [Parasitism in the Soviet Union: Legal theory and social practice]. Antropologicheskiy Forum, 14, 212-229.
3 Gordin, Y. (2010). Rytsar’ I smert’ ili zhizn’ kak zamysel. O sud’be Iosifa Brodskogo. [Knight and death or life as intention. On the fate of Joseph Brodsky]. Moscow.