Academic journal article Journal of Comparative Family Studies

The Lost Years: Assessing Family Change in St. Petersburg, Russia, between 1983 and 2003*

Academic journal article Journal of Comparative Family Studies

The Lost Years: Assessing Family Change in St. Petersburg, Russia, between 1983 and 2003*

Article excerpt

The transition from communism to capitalism following the breakup of the U.S.S.R. provides a unique opportunity to analyze the impact of radical social change upon 'the relationship.' Within this study, the city of St. Petersburg serves as a laboratory in which to see how this transformation affected perceptions of social relationships, specifically those within the family.

A concern about "the deteriorating effectiveness of the family as a source of moral and social guidance and values" (Hopper, 2003:36) motivates this investigation. The basic assumption behind such a worry is that the social relationship serves as the glue that binds individuals together, and is thus the mechanism through which social order is maintained. Family relationships are particularly important because of their role in imprinting, enforcing, and maintaining social norms.

With such concerns in mind, this article first reports on whether or not respondents in St. Petersburg, Russia, have perceived a change in the quality of their family relationships between 1983 and 2003. Second, the immediate causes of reported changes are explored through analyzing multiple regression results. Third, two family change perspectives, those of family stress and of individualization, are used to interpret the results. These three issues are dealt with through the lens of retrospective questionnaire data collected in St. Petersburg in the summer of 2003.


The Family

In order to frame this analysis, it is necessary to first briefly introduce the historical context of the Soviet family before seeing how it may have changed after the fall of the U.S.S.R. On the one hand, the Soviet state was highly anti-social and espoused policies that were destructive for families. Shlapentokh (1991) describes how the Russian family in Stalinist times lived under three immense pressures. First, state ideology, not the family, was the chief determinant of social values, and these values both emphasized public life over private life and work over family. Second, the Soviet state before and through Stalin's reign existed in conditions of stark material poverty. According to Shlapentokh (1991), this poverty exacerbated the low-priority of family life because the poor living conditions within Soviet homes and communal apartments of that era provided little incentive to spend time with the family within them. The third and most direct pressure exacted by the Soviet state against the stability of families was that it pitted family members against one another in its mechanisms of repression. Stalinist intelligence services set children against parents, wives against husbands, and neighbors against each other by encouraging them to spy on one another. This sort of treachery, woven into every-day life by the state, in Shlapentokh's (1991) view, made family life tense. These pressures on the family were apparently great because people reportedly "devoted little time and energy to their families" (Shlapentokh, 1991:267). Another researcher, Malysheva (1992:10), has dubbed the Soviet person of this era "Homo Sovieticus," a human being "completely deprived of its social roots."

On the other hand, the Soviet family became a sanctuary from the state, a place where state ideology could not intrude. Under the strain of the above pressures, family members relied more upon one another. As Shlapentokh (1991:267) puts it, "when faced with the Stalinist leviathan, the Soviet people turned to their families for protection against the horrors of everyday life." Similarly, Malysheva (1992:3) called family "the only place of expression and resistance in a spiritual vacuum." Furthermore, the pressures that affected Russian families especially in Stalin's time weakened considerably at the latter end of Soviet rule, to the benefit of the family. The ideological collapse entailing the failure of communist ideals and the declining authority of the state, the improvement in living conditions, and the decline of repression allowed family life to "re-emerge" (Shlapentokh, 1991:269). …

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