Category Archives: class

What makes a Russian (or Chinese) middle-class?

Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears

The discreet charm of the late-Soviet petite bourgeoisie, or rather the ‘protected’ technical managerial class, as seen in the film ‘Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears’.

This autumn I was asked by colleagues to discuss a panel of papers on Class formation in Russia at the BASEES Uppsala conference, Regimes and Societies in Conflict: Eastern Europe and Russia since 1956.

The three papers were Markku Kivinen, ‘Specificities of Middle-class Structuration in Russia’; Mikhail Chernysh, ‘The structure of the Russian middle class’, and Harri Melin, ‘Working life and the myth of precariat in Russia’.

All the papers are part of a book project. I’ll try to summarise them in turn, starting with Markku Kivinen.

Kivinen sees a lack of clearly identifiable class interests in Russia, and therefore a commensurate lack of class-based action or agency. Interestingly, he takes his discussion back to the very idea of what we mean when we talk about a ‘bourgeoisie’: “After more than 60 years, entrepreneurial groups have been revived with the process of privatization. The discussion here focuses on the middle class which in the West is traditionally known as the new middle class (managerial and profes­sio­nal groups), but which in Russia is ‘old’ in the sense that it has inherited its locations from the Soviet era”, writes Kivinen. Suspicious of bare structural accounts, Kivinen argues for class ‘situation’ as well as ‘structure’. This entails some kind of shared rationality or consciousness. From here Kivinen observes that in Russia there is still only a small middle-class in terms of professional wage earners and that corresponding professional organisations are weak. So for him such a class lacks the ‘autonomy’ of a middle class in the West.

Kivinen hypothesises that micro politics of labour control have grown during transition. Given that in the past the ‘inheritance’ of economic resources was insignificant (i.e. even among the elite there was an unwritten rule about limiting the ‘leg up’ effect, and the material intergenerational transmission of resources was not widespread), today, in contrast to economic differences, cultural distinctions of class probably remain important.

Here I’m not sure I completely agree with Kivinen. Part of the ideological breakdown of consensus in the late Soviet period entailed the scramble for position, and the re-writing of those rules to enable the more savvy, including lower level insiders, to position themselves and their kids. To give an example, a 40-year-old Muscovite woman I know has never required a waged income because her parents (1980s Komsomol functionaries) were able to leverage Soviet structural position (partiinye posty) into post-Soviet position (state-org functionaries), then use the access to those state resources to accumulate capital (a private business run through the ‘front’ of a state job and resources) and then in turn into property assets. Now this family has a modest portfolio of flats rented out, allowing a significant consumption lifestyle without requiring anyone in the family to have a meaningful wage income. However, culturally, I don’t see any particular difference between this family and their working-poor neighbours. Both aspired to own a Mitsubishi Lancer and some questionable American kitchen interior design in the late naughties, and that was about it. The working-poor had to get credit for it. The ex-Komsomol bought for cash.

Combining class analysis with the sociology of work, Kivinen proposes a relationship between professional autonomy and mental labour in defining middle-classness.  This is in distinction to his view of working-classes who are always alienated due to a lack of autonomy (control over processes and planning). Then Kivinen engages with Gil Eyal, Ivan Szelenyi and Eleanor Townsley, particularly on the different forms of capitalism that emerged in Eastern Europe (more cautious diffused institutional capitalism without ‘capitalists’), versus Russian nomenklatura take-over of resources (capitalists without capitalism – see my ‘petty bourgeoisie’ example above), and ‘entrepreneurial’ capitalism from below in China. Based on survey data, Kivinen concludes that there has been a major expansion in absolute terms of the middle class (from less than 40 percent in 1998 to now over 50 percent). From the data presented in the paper, it’s not clear what definition is being used of entry to the middle class (I am sure in the book it will be well covered). Interestingly, one aspect Kivinen links to this rise is the continuing propensity of all Russians to change their jobs frequently, known as ‘churn’, and something I’ve written about. Likewise, I’ve written a lot about autonomy among working-class people. (See the discussion from p. 72 in particular). The desire for autonomy cuts across classes, and niches are carved out in the most unlikely places.

Overall, my gut response is that a ‘counting’ approach to class remains problematic and perhaps even counter-productive (excuse pun). I’m sure Kivinen’s figures are robust, but how meaningful is it to say 50% of Russians are middle-class when certainly average disposable incomes, however counted, are tiny in comparison even to other middle-income countries? We will see this criticism repeated in my reading of the other papers.

But here I’ll end with a heuristic example: The average wage in Russia is, after tax, around 34,000 Roubles. That’s barely 500 USD. The same article linked to here is a good treatment, acknowledging that in Moscow the average wage probably is around 500 USD (but anyone aspiring to have any quality of life there on that wage would be extremely depressed by reality). In addition, the article notes that wages have fallen in real terms for the last 10 years! Outside the big cities (only 30 million inhabitants out of 145m) the ‘real’ average is likely to be around only 20,000 Roubles elsewhere. See here for a similar enumeration. This all chimes exactly with my ‘anecdotal’ research experience – most of my research participants struggle to make more than 20,000 Roubles. And remember this is among economically active people (less than 50% of the population) with full-time wages (a much smaller fraction).

Yes, a household on two average (20k) incomes, with no housing costs, can live better than the urban poor and pensioners, but that’s less than 50% of the population. The 34k income bracket is, for want of a better phrase, ‘upper-middle class’, or ‘affluent’ and seen as anomalous by most of those I research.  More importantly, even this putative middle group is going to severely struggle with unexpected bills, even running an old Russian car will be a stretch. Frequently they will resort to pay-day loans (there’s plenty of evidence of this in my research). Cognitively, they will not be inhabiting the mindset of any middle-class you can imagine. And that’s different from aspiring to own a jeep, go to Cyprus, or own a second home. An instructive comparison can be made with the ‘struggling middle’ in China at the moment (urban dwellers with middle-class aspirations) who on average earn around the same as the real average in Russia ( 3,000 yuan, or 480 USD a month). However, unlike in Russia, meaningful consumption is possible on this income (discretionary spending), including on taxi rides to work, investment in stocks, luxury imports (gourmet cat food!).

And to finish with a thought about autonomy. James Scott, interestingly, also links middle-classness (or rather the classical petite bourgeoisie subsection of it) to autonomy in his book Two Cheers for Anarchism: Six Easy Pieces on Autonomy, Dignity, and Meaningful Work and Play. Like my former Komsomol leaders, many people in history have aspired to become small property owners due to the perception that this confers autonomy (and social standing). Scott argues that the petite bourgeoisie play a role in the development of a modern capitalism that is socially tolerable in that important social and civil functions are delegated to them (land stewardship, public safety, public action). On the other hand a more conventional leftist tradition would see in ‘middle-classness’ only the reactionary, whether cultural or social. One can see the short distance from here to the debates about civil society in Russia. However, so far I remain to be convinced both in economic and social terms about the meaningfulness of talking about a Russian middle-class.

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Is youth more than just a word? Civic consciousness in Russian youth today

Russia, Sevastopol, Crimea combined rally and concert in Moscow[A version of this post appeared on Ridl in late May. https://www.ridl.io/en/young-russians-are-not-just-young-and-russian/ A Russian version is also available here. With the ‘strapline’: Молодые россияне чувствуют себя неполноценными гражданами, т.к. в стране установлен персонализированный и патримониальный характер предоставления доступа к возможностям, социальной мобильности и привилегиям. I’ll be revisiting this topic shortly.]

Talk about Russian ’youth’ usually assumes one of two modes: either they are easily mobilised by patriotic rhetoric to support the state, or, on the contrary, about to form a progressive vanguard to bring down a corrupt regime. In each case I take a contrarian position. Not for the sake of it, but on the basis of some very old ideas in social research – the difficulty in even defining youth, and the mistake of thinking in terms of group consensus or even cohesive identity.

Let’s take the first point – is ‘youth’ more than just a word? Let’s turn things around – if you’re in your early 40s, are you middle-aged? You probably don’t feel that way. You’re 60. Are you old? I guess you don’t think so. Why then do we expect people who are 20, or 25 identify as ‘youth’? Or even hold positions or perspectives that are coherently similar or correlating to others in such a ‘cohort’. The label of ‘youth’ is invariably deployed by a more powerful group, as a label of insufficiency, of incompleteness. And yet as a term it is frustratingly lacking in explanatory power.

My ethnographic writing on Russia bears out such scepticism. I researched Russians in their 20s in an industrial town in Kaluga Region in the early 2010s. I have also researched relatively privileged and educated young people from St Petersburg and Moscow as part of collaborative projects with Russian sociologists. The people I speak to differ in some ways and are similar in others. In both ‘cases’ I found both political radicals and conservatives. Moreover, in equal measure I met both ‘individualists’ and ‘collectivists’. The best I can do in terms of commonalities is point to a deep need to express young people’s love for and sense of connection with their country, to engage in some way civically. In most cases, whatever their political stripe, youth are conscious that this is quite difficult, if not impossible in today. As a ‘public institution’ youth are objectified by the state either as a ‘problem’, or as a potential group for mobilisation. In either case, they acutely feel that they are incomplete citizens due to the highly personalised and patrimonial nature of access to opportunities, social mobility and privilege.

2018-05-11 18.52.18

Much has been written in the last few years about the visibility of young people in political and social protests in Russia. Who are these people and where do they come from? Undoubtedly this is a metropolitan phenomenon, despite people – including the young Muscovites I speak to – insisting that mobilisation of youth in places like Omsk is important in showing that protest is not just the preserve of the metro-middle-class. However, when I ask these young people the last time they spent time outside Moscow (where I do most of my research) they stumble. There is a real disconnect here. And while they deny it, these sincere and dedicated youth let slip a sense of moral, intellectual and political superiority. There’s nothing wrong with that, it’s just that they would never really consider the idea of building a coalition with other young people. Their interests are dominated by identity politics dictated by privileged backgrounds. When one young woman told me that her strong and vocal opposition was based on personal experience of suffering, it turned out that what she was referring to was the anti-gay propaganda law.  I probed further – what about inequality of opportunity, about blocked horizons for youth without connections? But my 20-year-old students were quite clear that they personally were not, and would not be affected by these, undeniably real, problems. They still believed they could succeed by merit in Putin’s Russia, without ‘connections’. And while they may be personally right, reality tells a different story. Politically engaged, fervent even in their opposition, they were also naïve. They were already sophisticated operators in the Moscow market for opposition:  ‘Navalnyi is a means to an end. We can go to a rally without endorsing his candidature’. But their sophistication was that of the bubble network of Moscow. These were the children of what Simon Kordonsky calls the genuinely ‘free’ and active middle-class, which only exists in big cities and is a marginal ‘estate’ in the stratified system.  They have the most to lose from further political tightening for they exist in a narrowing niche, which emigration is further eroding (in a small sample, small numbers matter). But most consciously make a choice that emigration, for now, is not for them. Indeed, they say, just as proudly as any, that they are civic patriots and that it is youth that has a responsibility to take personal moral responsibility for its country. In general a sense of ‘belonging’ as an urge is important, but searches in vain to connect to a suitable civic meaning. As one young interviewee in 2013 research commented: ‘I do not feel like a citizen. A citizen is someone connected to the state. The state is formed of power… politics… I would not like to be a citizen… the state is over there somewhere and I am here. We exist separately.’

There are other niches as well, more representative of transition to adulthood in Russia. The most important is in the vast semi-formal and informal economy where permanency of employment is unknown. Many survive in a position of economic precarity due to lack of opportunities or the right connections. These include potential allies of the ‘oppositionist’ minded youth: like the IT programmer I know in his 20s, living from gig to gig. Most however have a lower level of education, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t also consciously wary of the state. Earning money in the black economy can carry political meaning. For the plumbers, electricians, taxi-drivers and even underground factory workers of my research, it’s more than a convenience that the state is at arm’s length.  It obviates any necessity to make political compromises. It’s a form of freedom, impoverishing and precarious as it is. They make their own society of ‘opposition’ in the back of ersatz taxi-cabs, in garage blocks, and on the summer village plots. Even for those in nondescript blue- and white-collar employment, there is a sense of apartness from ‘society’ or politics. Is that any different from other countries? Well, no. But, the accelerated entry of these ‘ordinary’ (male) youth to the adult world – through the army and then encountering the ‘system’, where they see first-hand the difference in progression between those with pull and those without, makes them cynical and wary of the oppositionist youth. Young women are a different story – there is more buy-in to the ideal of social mobility through educational achievement, which is sometimes turns out to be real but more often, illusory. Youth divisions in a belief in social mobility, and by extension a belief in the ’system’, would be an interesting topic for sociologists to explore in terms of a gendered conformity/non conformity.

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However, there is a third niche for youth that’s more important than ever given the vast resources apportioned to it, and that is the security apparatus. Here I set aside the marginal projects like the abortive ‘Nashi’ movement or the more recent ‘preventative’ work of the Youth Army. I mean the opportunity given (a job, a salary, maybe even a shortcut to a flat) by an ordinary job in the interior ministry troops or special purpose police. Look at the faces of the policemen next time they’re called out to a rally in Moscow. These are the same future-oriented, optimistic, and probably just as critically thinking youth as those they are arresting. One of the most academically gifted kids I ever met in my research actively chose a career in the security forces (after a stint in the army) as a way of escaping small town life. Was this out of political loyalty? Not at all. However, beyond the job security and opportunity, a sense of ‘belonging’ was certainly important.

Here we return to the common feature of all youth, the question of their subordinated place in the order of things and their need for more or less active citizenship. Even for our invisible citizens, theirs is often an actively ‘negative’ sense of citizenship, avoiding formal jobs and the ordering purview of the state. Throughout Russia’s history the idea of visible, or conscious roleness – of the idea of the active young person becoming a part of change, has been a vexed one. This time is no different.