The conditions of the peasantry varied within the period 1855-1964 as the rulers had different ways of dealing with the peasants. There were times when the communists treated the urban working classes far worse than the tsars did such as during the rule of Stalin. On the other hand, there were also occasions when the tsars carried out policies that benefited working people such as reducing working hours. During the time of Alexander II, the urban working classes hardly existed so there could not be poor conditions for peasantry generally.
In freeing the serfs, however, there was a side effect. Serfs fled to the towns and cities looking for work in factories, leading to urbanisation which caused public health problems such as the spread of cholera. In this way, Alexander II carried out a reform that did not help the working class and in turn created poor living conditions for the peasantry. His father, however, showed more interest in developing Russia’s industry which created jobs. He employed Witte to push industrialisation forwards including the expansion of the Trans-Siberian railway.
However, like the other tsars, he used the police and army to eliminate any opposition when workers complained about conditions, showing how the peasantry endured great hardship through repression. Nicholas II continued his father’s economic policies, creating more regular and better paid work for those employed in industry. He introduced factory inspectors and, by 1917, the average working day had been reduced to eight hours. Better education was also introduced for the children of workers. However, urban living conditions got worse and little was done to solve the problem of the spread of disease.
Workers either lived in overcrowded blocks of flats or barracks. The average flat housed 16 people and only about 30 per cent of the houses in the main cities had running water. The supply of food was erratic, especially during times of faming such as in 1922. Most people had to make do with basic meals. Nicholas also repressed worker strikes and protests, the best example being Bloody Sunday 1905 when peaceful protesters were short at by the imperial guard as they marched on the Winter Palace. Even when Nicholas carried out reforms to help workers through his October Manifesto, he went back on his word.
In theory, the Duma allowed the voice of the workers to be heard, but by the time of the fourth Duma, it was dominated by supporters loyal to the tsar. All of the political groups that claimed to represent worker interests, such as the Socialist Revolutionaries and the Social Democrats were clamped down on. Thus, some things seemed to improve for workers during the reign of Nicholas II, but on balance the peasantry were treated poorly in repressive conditions. The Provisional Government did not exist long enough to have much of an impact on the urban working class.
The Petrograd Soviet had more effect as it helped campaign for higher wages and better working conditions. Generally, it was effective in organising workers politically and helping to overthrow a regime that was unwilling to help working people. When the Bolsheviks seized control, they promised a better future for the proletariat. However, the first thing they did was disband the Constituent Assembly which was democratically elected and which consisted of individuals who were intent on improving conditions for the urban people. This was similar to how Nicholas II manipulated the Duma.
Urban people were then badly affected by the Civil War as they were asked to work excessively long hours to produce munitions for the Red Army. There were again food shortages due to War Communism, although things changed with the introduction of the New Economic Policy. Some workers became Nepmen and made quite a bit out of selling a range of consumer goods. The hardest time for the urban working class was under Stalin. The Five-Year Plans resulted in more hours and lower pay. Production targets were set which were impossible to meet. Workers who failed to achieve these were fined or sacked.
New accommodation was built for workers, but it was worse than ever before. They were confined to small spaces, with some families sharing accommodation with many others. Education improved as more schools were built. The only problem with this was that the curriculum was very restricted. All children had to learn about communism and were indoctrinated to praise Stalin. Workers who complained were badly treated, as with Lenin and the tsars. Those accused of being saboteurs were harshly dealt with. Rebel workers were purged either by being exiled to salt mines in Siberia or executed.
Some workers did well under Stalin, especially if they increased their own productivity levels. The Stakhanovites were given substantial financial rewards and medals for achieving or exceeding their production targets. They were made to seem like heroes who set an example. Generally, workers who remained loyal to the party were rewarded with promotion and better living conditions. It could also be argued that Stalin benefitted workers by ensuring that Russia was ready to fight and defeat Germany during the First World War. If Germany had won, the Russian people would have been treated much worse.
Conditions improved for the urban dwellers during the rule of Khrushchev. He doubled the amount of housing and reduced overcrowding, although the Five-Year Plans were continued, targets were more realistic and workers were not bullied as much to achieve them. Education and health care improved, although there were still not many consumer items around as the emphasis continued to be on producing goods for the military. Destalinisation resulted in less oppression of working people, although they still had to obey the party line. One negative development was the escalation of the Cold War.
Khrushchev’s policy nearly took Russia into a nuclear war. This meant that Russian people often lived in a state of fear just as they had done in the earlier periods of the communist rule. The urban working classes were treated worse by the communists, especially under Stalin as he took repression to new extremes. However, there were times, such as in 1905 when the tsars were just as cruel towards the peasants. Of course, the communists were meant to create an ideal society for the urban workers, but in the end they failed to do so miserably.