Conducts research and collects data on the global history of labour, workers, and labour relations

A Workers' State without Workers?

100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution: research, collections and events at IISH.

The Russian Revolution of October 1917 brought a party to power, which claimed to act on behalf of the working class. The Bolsheviks established the dictatorship of the proletariat, which meant that the interests of all other social classes were made subservient to those of the working class. But did it actually exist, this working class?

Ball bearing factory, Moscow 1932, by Kislov. IISH collection (BG B6/756-60)

Workers versus Working Class

Russia had long remained an overwhelmingly agrarian country. Only in the 1870s a process of industrialisation had started to make headway. This meant workers did exist in Russia at the time the Bolsheviks came to power. But whether they actually identified themselves as such, and to what extent there was something like a class-consciousness, remains to be seen. Most workers in industry and other urban crafts and trades, like construction and transport, were of recent peasant extraction, and often still had land in the village to fall back on in times of old age or unemployment.

When revolution, war and civil war derailed the economy after 1917 this link to the countryside proved to be very much alive. Peasant workers returned en masse to the countryside, the cities lost a good part of their population, and it did not take long for the Bolsheviks to find themselves at the helm of a workers’ state without workers. They were greatly concerned about this, because all of their Marxist ideology taught them that a social base of support was essential for their power position, and they were now effectively left without one.

With economic recovery after the end of the Civil War of 1918-22 many of the peasant workers returned to the towns. However, peasants still formed the great majority of the population. Only with forced industrialisation of the 1930s this changed. Demand for labour increased manifold, at the same time, when the collectivisation of agriculture greatly eroded the prospects of making a living in the countryside. This caused a virtual exodus from the countryside. Between 1926 and 1939 an estimated 23 million people exchanged the village for the town, and a rapid process of urbanisation started in the Soviet Union. This way, a Soviet working class came into being, again of recent peasant extraction, but this time with an unambiguous urban orientation. They had given up their plots of land in the village for good.

Women’s Labour

At the same time female labour participation rapidly increased. This was one of the achievements of the revolution. The Bolsheviks wanted to liberate women from the constraints of household and family, so that they could contribute to the construction of socialism. During the 1930s other considerations emerged – women had to take up employment to satisfy the ever-increasing demand for labour from industry. By the mid-1950s this had resulted in an almost entire labour force participation of women, much earlier than in any country of Western Europe.


The state had a monopoly on hiring labour and due to all sorts of ideological and practical constraints on entrepreneurial activity the opportunities for self-employment were extremely limited. The majority of the population, therefore, was employed by the state, and entirely dependent on the state for obtaining the means of existence.

At the same time, the largest part of the population did not work in industry and manufacturing, but in administrative and other service professions. Research on shifts in the occupational structure of Russia in the course of the twentieth century shows that employment in the tertiary sector was invariably larger, and increased more rapidly, than that in industry and manufacturing. This had to do with the large role of the state in economic life. In the planned economy there was on average more than one worker in administration, transport, distribution and government services for each worker in industry. The Soviet Union, therefore, was much less of a workers’ state than the omnipresent iconic images of heroic workers would lead one to believe.

The large role of the state in the economy, and the dependency upon this state as the sole employer, made the population vulnerable during the period of economic downturn and restructuring which followed the collapse of the planned economy in the late 1980s. The Russian state was no longer in a position to provide the means of existence to its dependent population. For most of the 1990s people had to make ends meet by growing potatoes on their garden plots, by taking on all sorts of odd jobs and side-jobs, and by engaging in petty trade.

At the same time, up till the present day, a large number of people remain dependent upon the moribund former state enterprises, which in many towns and regions still are the sole employer. In October 2017 the IISH dedicated a documentary film programme to these issues, organised in co-operation with De Balie.

Article by Gijs Kessler

A large part of the knowledge underlying this article has been derived from IISH research projects. Over the last twenty years the IISH has been deeply involved in research on the labour history of Russia. A number of joint Russian-Dutch research projects was carried out in Moscow. Also, data on occupational structure and labour relations were gathered, analysed and made available to the scholarly community.

More information?

Documentary in De Balie: Russische IJzervreters

Global Collaboratory for the History of Labour Relations: data on Russia

Research project Work, Income and the State

Research project Social and Economic Agency and the Cultural Heritage of the Soviet Past



30 October 2017