On request of the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum, Anna Skvortsova, Executive Director at the NGO Development Centre (St. Petersburg, Russia), prepared an essay on social justice in Russia – a topic intensively discussed within the Working Group "Social Issues and Civic Participation":
Social justice is a phenomenon that is relevant at any time, especially for Russia with its wavy history.
The poor have always existed in Russia. The first social programmes to support the poor people appeared in Russia in the 9th century already. The main institution, from which poor people could get assistance, was Church as it helped those in need. The reduction of the poverty was not its goal, though, because poverty was not considered a vice. Church was forbidding the separation of those in need from parasites, as everyone should have received help. The poor throughout the country were begging for any reason – when someone died or someone was born, when celebrating weddings or praying for the dead and, of course, on all the religious holidays. Donations were made by tsarinas, princes, dignitaries, the rich but also ordinary people. These were the times, when the tradition to pay visits to prisons and almshouses to see the poor and the sick was born among “those in power”.
Assistance to the poor stopped to be a pure charity and turned to a state affair at the end of the 16th century, during the reign of Ivan the Terrible. Tsar Fedor Alekseevich signed a decree on the state aid to the poor in the late 17th century: Their children were taught crafts; aid was also granted to bonds. It was also proposed to provide housing for the poor, the sick, and the elderly. At this time, the important principle of the state social policy was formulated: The real poor people are to be identified and separated from parasites. This meant that all the poor were divided into those who were eligible for assistance and those who were not. The latter were viewed in the negative light. During the reign of Peter the Great, on the one hand, the programmes to support the poor became more diverse (hospitals for the disabled, orphanages, and almshouses were built, small financial assistance for food was given); on the other hand, special decrees that forbid begging and giving alms were issued by the tsar. Those who violated these decrees were fined or sent to a penal servitude, the poor were persecuted and repressed.
In the beginning of the 19th century, during the reign of Alexander I, the support system for the poor based on the state, public, and private forms of assistance was formed in Russia. Many categories of citizens had the right to social security – poor families, the wounded, the military, poor artisans, children, widows, orphans, poor women, the elderly, the disabled, the unemployed, students, families of convicts. There still were repressive measures against the poor – deportation, fines, or jail. Since the second quarter of the 19th century, during the reign of Nicholas I, philanthropists introduced the idea that poverty should be prevented; the main method of that was training of various working skills. This is how the organisations of labour assistance – various schools, workshops, craft shelters – were created.
The first statistics on the number of the poor in Russia were obtained during the reign of Alexander III. In St. Petersburg in the period from 1882 to 1887, 25,500 beggars were registered, of which 64 % were men, 32.7 % retired soldiers, 30.9 % peasants, 23.3 % bourgeois, 4.3 % nobles, and 2.2 % artisans. By the end of the 19th century, charity and labour care institutions had been created in many cities – day and night shelters, hospitals, bunkhouses, nurseries, homes of free and cheap apartments, schools, almshouses, shops, free and cheap canteens, day shelters, craft institutions and orphanages, information agencies for job search, loan offices, various correctional institutions, etc. Such assistance was provided by the local authorities and depended on their will and capabilities rather than on any legislative norms. Only in October 1892, an attempt to create a law on organizing of public charity in Russia was undertaken. The special commission was called; various versions of the draft law were designed. It declared the obligatory charity, employment aid principle, job search assistance, issuance of means of production, and assistance in product sales. In 1898, a new self-government legislation was adopted, according to which the expenses for public charity became mandatory.
According to various sources, by the end of the 19th century, the number of people begging in Russia had varied from 300,000 up to 2 million. These were the times, when an interesting fact was noticed: The more poor houses were constructed, the less poor people there were, ie this measure worked out. The scale of the Russian public charity of those times is impressive: There were dozens of charitable institutions, which hosted thousands of people, including children. For example, there were 648 almshouses in the Russian province, which became homes to more than 20,000 people.
Thus, the system of the so-called state and public charity (in today’s sense – the social protection of the most vulnerable groups of the population) emerged in Russia in the period from the 18th to the early 20th century. The main role in this process played public charity, including the activities of the rural communities, parishes, monasteries, local municipalities, which assisted various categories of those in need. Charitable organisations and institutions, private philanthropy helped to weaken the suffering of the poor, the sick, and orphans. By 1910, there had been 14,854 charities in the Russian Empire, 7,349 of them were charitable societies (they provided assistance on specific issues) and 7,505 were charitable institutions (apart from one-time assistance, they provided shelter, food, and care on a daily basis). Three-quarters of charities were financed by private money. In addition, the mixed case and a separate category of charities were institutions ‘managed of the special grounds’. For example, the Empress Maria Fiodorovna Institutions and the Imperial Philanthropic Society not only provided one-time assistance to those in need (primarily the poor) but gave to them allowance, training, professional skills, care, and treatment. The second half of the 19th century – the beginning of the 20th century were a “golden age” of philanthropy in Russia. 82 % of charities operating in the early 20th century in Russia were founded in the last 40 years of the 19th century. Only in 1898, more than 7 million people used the assistance from the charities. Nearly half a million people were assisted on the daily basis.
However, the charities could not significantly reduce poverty and misery. Private charity was not widespread among commercial and industrial classes in Russia. In the early 20th century, social discontent has grown in the country, the systemic crisis started and developed to the revolutionary events of 1905-1907 and 1917.
For many years since then, the governments of the Soviet Union and the present-day Russia has been trying to improve the system of social protection and to achieve progress in the social justice.
30 yeas have passed since the beginning of perestroika, but we still state that the reform of the social assistance to the population in Russia ‘has just begun’. This does not only mean that new laws and regulations are constantly being adopted on the federal and regional levels. This means, first of all, that people need to get used to the different relationships with the state. For example, the state will not provide them with health or a decent pension now. They have to learn to rely on their own strength and to be responsible for their own health. This part of the reform have been realised by the people very slowly, especially in the older generation.
1) Aleksandrova A.L., Ovcharova L.N., Shishkin S.V. Poverty and privileges: Myths and Reality, People’s Assembly. Independent Institute of Social Policy, “Institute of City Economy” Foundation, 2003 (Bednost’ i l’goty: mify I realnost. Narodnaya Assambleya, Nezavisimyy institute social’noy politiki, Fond “Institut ekonomiki goroda”, 2003)
2) Gorcheva A. Yu. Mendicancy and Charity in Russia, Moscow: Spiritual Renaissance, 1999, p. 53 (Nishchenstvo i blagotvoritel’nost v Rossii. Moskva: Dukhovnoe vozrozhdenie, 1999, s. 53)
3) Speransky S. V. On History of Mendicancy in Russia // Reprint from ”The Herald of Charity”, St. Petersburg, 1897, p. 40. (K istorii nishchenstva v Rossii // Ottisk iz “Vestnika blagotvoritel’nosti”, Sankt-Peterburg, 1897, s. 40)
4) Tsitkilov P. Ya. History of Social Work, Rostov-on-Don: Feniks, 2006 (Istoriya social’noy raboty. Rostov-na-Donu: Feniks, 2006)
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