Category Archives: Russia

Challenging the view that Russians are ‘passive’.

uncollected rubbish

uncollected rubbish from a designated municipal site.


In a previous post I talked about the phrase: ‘people are Russia’s replacement oil’ as representing a new extractive shift to harvesting economic rents in more intensively from ordinary people. In this post I want to talk about liberal pundits’ interpretation of this turn of events. A much truncated version of what I wrote below was part of a short piece for

But before that just a quick recap on the reality of ‘making ends meet’ for many Russians that I talked about previously. Ordinary people are suffering from a decade-long decline in their living standards putting them in a position of extreme want. Published average incomes may look survivable, but the reality is that, like in other unequal countries, such statistics are misleading not least because of the distorting effect of a small number of very high incomes. In 2018 average gross wages were 40000 rubles a month or $560. Whether this figure is fiddled or not, in any case it ignores the large effect of lower informal (undeclared) incomes, and the imbalance between big city state company employment and the rest.  Independent polling indicates that the ‘real’ average pay was less than 20000 rubles ($305). $300 is not even a subsistence wage. Even adding to it a lower secondary wage, a family is left virtually nothing for clothing, medicines, travel or spending on children. When trying to measure relative poverty a robust measure is how much a family spends on food and other essentials. The open acknowledgement of the extreme poverty in which many Russians life can be seen in political events like the strange passing of a law allowing Russians to collect fallen trees, ‘for their own needs’.

Influential independent political observers like Valerii Solovei and Vladislav Inozemtsev draw pessimistic conclusions about the ‘extractive turn’. Mostly they view their fellow citizens as passive and lacking any agency, despite the obvious evidence to the contrary – the massive informal economy that sustains livelihoods and habitability above the bare subsistence level and is seriously disruptive to the state. Solovei paints a vivid picture of Russians as passive sponges to be wrung dry in any way possible by an emboldened state – where can people hide from taxes on fuel and cigarettes? (I guess you can anticipate my answer to him – in both cases it’s in the interstices of the informal economy). To be fair to him, he at least strikes a warning note: history shows that eventually people get fed up and social strife is the result. However, his remedy is predictably unimaginative, a bourgeois democratic revolution (without any messy involvement of ordinary people) such as what ‘could have been’ in 2011-12. But how realistic is political change without the engagement of people beyond metropolises? And how would a bourgeois democracy he envisage address the enormous structural inequalities and imbalances Russia faces? Doesn’t this approach just reproduce a ‘two Russias’ perspective so criticized by other observers such as Ilya Matveev? We can see traces of this stigmatizing perspective everywhere: the assumption that a ‘lack of culture’ or an ‘authoritarian personality’ prevents the ‘other’ Russians from seeing the light. On the latter, Carine Clement has recently taken this idea to task. In particular, she rejects the ‘mythical apoliticism of Russians’ and asks the question – if Russians’ ‘authoritarian’ thinking includes a strong element of critique of the existing social order, then to what degree is it really authoritarian?

Inozemstev’s approach is more interesting. He starts with the notion of popular disenchantment and elite indifference, but then links this to a more general pessimism.  Noting that the ‘new oil’ trope indicates people have awareness of how costly the elites are to them he despairs that ‘the authorities realise quite how broken the Russian population’s willingness to resist really is, from mass protests to even small-scale acts of dissent.’ Does this view make the mistake that only ‘open’ protest is a mark of resistance? Elsewhere Inozemstev actually hints at what is in plain sight: the informal economy as a bulwark against complete penury for many. He notes that even the Russian government openly acknowledges that 38 million people’s work and income is opaque at best to the state. I agree with him that most Russians want to hold down a legitimate employment in the formal economy. However, given such pessimism, even this is increasingly questioned by some of the already most vulnerable. The qualifying period for an old age pension will soon increase from 6 to 15 years, the social rights that accrue to a formally employed person are losing their value due to the erosion of the health system in general.  All in all Inozemstev proposes some incremental reforms that can be characterised as too little too late (tax free allowances on low incomes, assistance schemes like food stamps), which are regressive (increasing VAT) or even defeatist (corruption should be limited to the resource sector). Overall it looks like a kind a pale Fabianism with little scope for taking root.

In his latest piece Inozemstev is closer to some of the points I make in my previous post – detailing what the increasing in indirect taxation will mean to ordinary people – a real rise of around 10% in petrol costs and the real fall in incomes since 2008. Interestingly, given the ongoing ‘rubbish disposal’ protests, he points to the very large increase in household bills for waste disposal. This increase – a doubling has not gone unnoticed by ordinary people and they are up in arms about it – especially in places like the town I study which has been repeatedly the victim of fly-tipping of Moscow rubbish and which recently saw its head of the council’s environmental services jailed for taking bribes to allow such tipping.

Ekaterina Shulman uses the questionable assumptions and methodology of the World Values Survey data to address the topic of ‘turning the screws’ on ordinary people. She first argues that a shift in Russian values from ‘superatomisation’ characteristic of the 1990s to ‘conservative’ is somewhat positive as it facilitates collective action and sociality. A notable effect is the strengthening of weak ties and broadening of the scale of interpersonal trust especially among the young and dynamic. On the other hand, she sees in Russia the continuing legacy of totalitarianism: ‘secular, atomised society’ that produces the lonely distrustful individual with atrophied social skills.  Homo soveticus is very much still with us in her view. Consequently, she greets the shift in public opinion from ‘political security’ to ‘social security’ with some surprise (in reality this aspect of public opinion has always been there).

The beef I have with approaches like these is that the ordinary Russians who daily make decisions about how to live are presented as an undifferentiated mass – suffering from ‘learned helplessness’ (a phrase used by Ekaterina Shulman but also by Carine Clement) or as an unruly source of social unrest – the word ‘revolt’ (bunt) is reserved for them. At worst this ‘by-the-numbers’ approach gives the impression that ‘we’, the addressed middle-class audience of these pundits, should fear the ‘other’ Russia.  Solutions presented ring hollow – they are either a form of gradualism or legalism (vote, even if the field is rigged; use your right to agitate against a bad candidate; if only we just adhered to the Constitution; wait for those nostalgic old people to die). In my final post on this topic, I’ll make use of James Scott’s ideas of infrapolitics to talk more about everyday forms of resistance to the extractive turn.



Why do 66% of Russians regret the collapse of the USSR?

2018-05-11 18.52.56

I was asked today to answer this question by a journalist, so I thought I’d share my responses. Thanks to Jesper Hasseriis Gormsen for asking it. And check out his [Danish language] podcasts on Russia

This is a really tricky question, but what I want to stress is two things – like many other polls, the answer might not be telling us what we think it is. The answer might be to a different buried question in the mind of the answerer. That question (among others) might really be ‘why do so many people live so badly now, when in the USSR they did not (or at least everyone was in the same boat, more or less)?’  Thus eliciting the answer: ‘Yes, I do regret the collapse of the USSR.’

Note (and I guess it needs saying), that this is not my opinion of what the USSR was like (as if there can be a single ‘reality’ of lived experience of an incredibly diverse state that existed for 70 years), just an interpretation that might well be ‘real’ to the person who is asked the question.

The second thing is that poll answers are overly and frustratingly simplistic answers that actually express (or, as I have just said, obscure) very complex feelings and values of the people they are asked of. It is amazing that when I talk to political scientists, they often don’t really believe this in their heart of hearts. Take for instance Brexit or Trump. These ‘answers’ are not merely, or even mainly, about ‘immigration’ or ‘racism’.

Thirdly, the devil is in the detail of the question. It’s well known that survey questions can be phrased and ‘hacked’ to significantly change the result – and pollsters know this (or should do). I don’t think that’s the case here. However, Levada, by using the term ‘collapse’ [raspad] does set out a particular ‘framing’ inadvertently, of the ‘ending’ of the state called the USSR in 1991. One that sets up in the mind of the person answering it, even if they are too young to experience it themselves, the trauma of postcommunist transition. Here we might add – why wouldn’t someone sensitive to the past, or lacking clear ideological support for ‘actually-existing capitalism’ answer: ‘Yes, I do “regret” the passing of the USSR, the state I was born in, or that my suffering parents were born in and worked hard all their lives for.’

Let’s turn the phrasing around. If Levada asked: ‘Do you regret the founding of the Russian Federation in 1991?’ I’m pretty sure the majority would say ‘no’ and so the poll would in a way be reversed.

Here’s the poll in question.

Note the fluctuation since 1999 of around 20 % of the ‘regret’ vote (however, most ‘regrets’ are in a band between 53% and 65% since 2005). (Don’t look at the graph, look at the table). This fluctuation could be to do with people with direct experience of the USSR (positive or negative) dying along with people with no personal experience thinking in more rosy terms about the period – hence a kind of up and down wave effect.  But, you would also expect nostalgia to rise according to periods of crisis. When people feel their lives are not going to plan they might well look back to a ‘simpler’, more ‘stable’ time with nostalgia.  That’s plausible for the figures in 1999, 2000, and 2001 when people took a massive cut in living standards due to the Defolt. However, that is not borne out by the data here when taken in terms of trends over time since then. So perhaps there is not clear answer as to ‘why’ the numbers fluctuate. Here we could have an aside about polling most often telling us ‘nothing’ directly related to the question.

Now to the question of the meaning of nostalgia.

In her wide-ranging book The Future of Nostalgia, the wonderful Svetlana Boym identifies two distinct types of nostalgia: ‘restorative’ nostalgia and ‘reflective’ nostalgia.  Restorative nostalgia, “puts emphasis on nostos (returning home) and proposes to rebuild the lost home and patch up the memory gaps.”  Reflective nostalgia, on the other hand, “dwells in algia(aching), in longing and loss, the imperfect process of remembrance.”

Boym was first and foremost a Russian cultural scientist with a deep commitment to the personal insights lived experience provides for research. We can ‘read through’ her descriptions to suppose that both forms could be operative for nostalgia towards the Soviet Union. And as their psychology origins suggest, nostalgias can be personal quirks, irrationally warm ‘affective’ feelings, passing infatuations, or indeed pathologies bordering on madness. I suggest that all these are operative in different people at different times in the last three decades.

Lastly, we can break down nostalgia into a scale of more ‘rational’ interpretations by people. I rank these not in order of importance, but in terms of macro-to-micro social scale. All, some or one may be simultaneously operative in a person’s mind when they answer the pollster’s phone call – in fact none of them might be operative and the person getting the call might just want to get the pollster off the line!

  1. Nostalgia for Great Power status (empire and the respect for the geopolitical might of the USSR). See Mazur below (and Kustarev) on the ‘myth of achievement’ and the ‘myth of power’.
  2. Political order (totalitarian as a system that ensures a lack of political and civil strife, that obviates the need for the citizen to perform any political roll – relief at this and thankfulness – particularly effective in those that see the 1990s as ‘chaos’). See for example, ‘We grew up in a normal time’ – the title of a chapter in a book by Don Raleigh on Soviet baby boomers.
  3. Social order (“to each according to his needs”) – the Soviet social contract (which Linda Cook shows was failing in large part by the 1980s). Related to this, as in the West, a period of sustained social mobility. See, for example, Liudmila Mazur’s ‘Golden age mythology and the nostalgia of catastrophes in post-Soviet Russia’, although her polling data paints a more complicated picture of the ‘myth of prosperity’.
  4. An emphasis on the sincerity in personal relations, the intensity of personal trust and reciprocity given the ‘heartless system’ of the USSR – note how this is contradictory to point 3, yet perfectly possible to hold this belief at the same time as number 3. People are like that.
  5. Nostalgia for the time of one’s youth (probably universal – hey, I think the early 1980s in the UK were great, but ask a miner or other person from the North that). Nostalgia for personal and more widespread idealism (the BAM-romanticism factor) that accompanied this. See Mazur on the ‘myth of achievement’.
  6. Recognition of Labour(due recognition given to labour as the primary factor of production). Not that I am not saying that work was more ‘dignified’ or better paid than in the West during the Fordist period after WWII. Merely, and this is what most of my research interrogates, many working-class people feel nostalgia for what they perceive as a better time before the present. They highlight particularly, relative lower inequality (everyone was paid badly!), relative degrees of social compensation for labour (the social wage and labour paternalism included subsidised childcare, faster routes to social housing for workers, subsidised food), the team-level autonomy of work given the dysfunctional industrial system – bottle-necks, old equipment, distant management, shortages – all these led to a large degree of control over work, as enterprises looked to individuals and teams to find quick and dirty hacks to solve these otherwise intractable structural problems with the Soviet economy. Another way of looking at this is to say that workers had little or no political or associational power in the USSR, but they did have structural (work-place bargaining, or ‘contingent’ power).

Also operative are the answers that regret ‘loss of homeland’, ‘destruction of kinship and other ties’ – these are offered as options in the more detailed poll question. However, I think my 6 are more heuristically persuasive than the dry promptings of Levada, including the most important one: ‘the destruction of a united economic system’, although my points 2, 3, and 6 could be version of that.

Note that nowhere do I find it persuasive that there is nostalgia for the overly abstract notion of ‘communism’ as a system or the ‘communists’ as a ruling party… I intended to reference this piece on the mythology of the Soviet Past by Kustarev, but didn’t have time in the end. I highly recommend it. Александр Кустарев, Мифология советского прошлого «Неприкосновенный запас» 2013, №3(89)

People as the New Oil. Or, ‘как жить дальше’ in Russia? Part I

Savelii Kramarov - 'I have more than thirty half-litres of vodka left to live on'

Savelii Kramarov in a satirical sketch on the cost of living in 1971. It has become a viral meme in the last year.

Phrases on the variation: ‘people are Russia’s replacement oil’ represent a new extractive and punitive turn in domestic politics, a shift to harvesting economic rents in more intensive ways focused on the daily doings of ordinary Russians. The interpretation goes like this: consistent oil prices over $70 – not seen since 2014 – are needed to maintain Russia’s state budget. After four years of expensive foreign policy adventures and a longer term lack of progress in creating a diversified economy at home, the government has resorted to ‘farming’ the ordinary population in earnest. This is the corollary of the ‘intense struggle access to budget money’ among the elite since 2016 that [paywall] Svetlana Barsukova details. Since most Russians have seen stagnating income levels for the last decade, and witness a noticeable deterioration in state-provision in general (in health and education and importantly the entitlements connected to them – these were the top ‘concerns’ of Russians in 2018), they can’t help but feel acute injustice at the sudden zeal for extracting fines and increasing taxes on unavoidable expenses like transport and utilities, even non-existent land holdings.

While the increase in pension age gets a lot of attention, it is worth mentioning what are more pressing issues, like the price of petrol and the raise in VAT from 18 to 20 percent, and not least inflation on staples, which is likely understated by a factor of three in official statistics. Indirect taxes hit the poorest most, and VAT is levied on utility bills, which already take up around half the income of a person on the ‘minimal income’ ($170) and are now adjusted more frequently for inflation. A second issue is largely untaxed income from self-employment which cuts across classes, from nannies and tutors to taxi drivers and  tradesmen. The government declaring ‘war on the nannies’ was a recent headline. However, most people see these incomes as topping up their meagre primary incomes and interpret the state’s renewed interest in personal taxation as profoundly unjust. Third is the more general ratcheting up of the punitive tax potential of fines on motorists, late payers of utilities, and other minor law breakers. Russian roads are densely covered by enforcement cameras in comparison to most European countries.  Moscow Region alone quadrupled its count in 2018 with 1300 cameras garnering $150m in fines (this is as many active cameras as in the whole of the UK).  400 more are on the way in Moscow in 2019. But the most telling indicator for me was a national park suddenly deciding in 2017 levy a ‘user fee’ of 400 rubles a year from hikers, anglers and even villagers whose abodes happen to lie within the park, the only interest shown in the park by the ministry of natural resources since 1995. It is as if suddenly a player in the ministry decided that previous milking of the parks (through lumber harvesting and guided tours) was now insufficient.

Therefore it is of no surprise to me that a recent Levada poll showed that while Russians’ pessimism is not as bad as it was even as recently as 2013, 46% of Russians cannot plan for even the immediate future. This was published at the same time as another poll that saw presidential ratings fall back to below 2014 levels. Furthermore, the unpopularity of the government and the Prime Minister is as high as it has ever been in the post-2000 world (a record high for the Prime Minister). Perhaps more importantly, for the first time since 2013 more surveyed people respond that the country is ‘moving in the wrong direction’ than the right one (45% versus 42%).


Making impossible ends meet

Bear with me here but it’s really unavoidable that we dig down into the reality of existence for the majority of Russians – poorly paid and already highly taxed before these changes. Indeed, it’s bordering on the irresponsible that the ‘human face’ of working poverty is largely absent from much discussion (which I’ll discuss in the follow-up post). To do this, let’s look at a portrait based on a real research participant I have worked with for the last ten years.

‘Dima’ worked as a loader in a brick factory in his small industrial town for the last ten years, but there his wage was static and never rose above 18,000 rubles a month. His wife works in a food shop part time and takes home 8000 rb. They have a pre-school-age child. The household income was recently therefore less than $400 a month (26,000 rb). Dima thought he’d got lucky, in 2018 he got a job at the Samsung washing machine assembly, on the road between Moscow and Kaluga. This gave him 24,000 rb a month, a 30% pay increase. However, he needed to use a car to commute to work, the costs swallowing a lot of the wage increase. With petrol going up, now he’s earning less than he used to. Before the new tax increases come into effect these were the outgoings of the family: 7000 on utilities, and 15,000 on food, which is skimping on all but the essentials. The family relies on relatives who work a garden plot for fresh fruit and vegetables, as well as jars of preserves in the winter. 5000 a month goes on petrol, just to get to work and back (there are better paid jobs, but they’re further afield). That’s already 27,000 gone, not accounting for clothes, medicine, other motoring costs, or anything for the child. What’s left is 5000 rb – or $75.


When trying to measure relative poverty a robust measure is how much a family spends on food and other essentials. In the bitter current debate on how to quantify poverty, a frequently cited level is an income of least 8 dollars a day to maintain survival, and at least 15 dollars for any kind of dignified existence (especially in a ‘middle’ income country). It’s interesting to note that these two figures map closely the lower and upper range of blue collar wages a man like Dima can expect to earn. These kind of figures are criticised for not taking into account local prices (purchasing power), but as you can see, while wages are very low, living costs are relatively high and even bear comparison with many EU countries.

Just to take the example of the occasional treat of eating fast food, an example that resonates because of the supposed utility of the BigMac Index, for Dima to treat his child to a Happy Meal once a month will cost him more in dollar terms than either the UK or US! Indeed it will cost him 5% of his disposable income for the whole month. [And I can’t resist the personal aside here: my own family of four cooks its own meals and drinks little alcohol. When in Russia we make local-style meals. But our outgoings on food are significantly higher in Russia than in W. Europe]. A more ‘traditional’ measure of one’s finances could be in vodka ‘halflitres’.  Dima can afford 18 bottles of vodka with his 5000 rubles. In the classic routine of Savelii Kramarov from 1971, he complains of only having 30 bottles a month left over after all his expenses! Our real Russia example shows how even with two earners and only one child, no kind of dignified existence is possible. And that is before the significant increases expected in 2019. I often put it like this, Russia is a ‘middle income country without middle-incomes’. And of course Dima is substantially better off than pensioners or the many in much lower-paid work.

In the next post I will try to unpack some of the conclusions observers like Valerii Solovei and Vladislav Inozemtsev draw about what I will call the ‘extractive turn’. Overall they reveal a deep pessimism about alternative futures. Most of all though they continue to view their own countrymen as passive and lacking any agency (beyond a destructive ‘buntovat’ mentality), despite the obvious evidence to the contrary – the massive informal economy that sustains livelihoods and habitability above the bare subsistence level.

What’s Driving Russia? Fools and Bad Roads?

2017-08-07 18.47.26a

Low-speed prang in the village. Much shouting ensues.

Let’s talk about Russian roads and drivers! No really! Attentive readers may note I wrote about the experience of driving in an earlier post.

That post was related to a chapter in my book about men and cars in Russia and a subsequent article related to it. There was a wonderful tension in some friendships between those that bought ‘bangers’ – oldish Russian Lada cars, and those that took credit out to buy (usually secondhand imports of) German marques, SUVs, etc. Each ‘wore’ their purchase like a badge of honour. For me, car ownership was symbolic of men’s approach to their class positioning and their conscious and unconscious attitude towards the ‘brave new world’ of work. Some were ‘happy’ with the low pay, slower paced, yet dangerous and dirty work in old workshops – firing bricks, making lime, extruding plastic. They ‘nursed’ their old bangers like invalid wives – with affection. Others ‘risked’ the new factories, particularly the higher-paid work in places like Samsung’s monitor assembly. Risky because the work is hard, demeaning, demanding in terms of what academics call ‘biopolitics’ – one has to ‘perform’ being a good worker – turn up neat and visibly sober. Kow-tow to the lower middle-managers. For me this is one meaning of ‘neoliberalism’ in the working-class Russian context (the intrusion of the market into spaces where it was previously absent or moderated by other imperatives). [I know some people object to people bandying around the term ‘neoliberalism’. Case in point. In a recent article, an editor asked me to define what I meant by neoliberalism: for my longer answer, see the footnote on p. 13.]

But talking in general about Russian roads and driving is a really tricky, as indicated by a recent exchange on Twitter. I had mentioned that increasingly punitive traffic laws were designed not to increase safety, but to raise revenue. A point that is often made the world over, not only about Russia. However, as a twitterer pointed out to me, anything that does improve safety has got to be positive, right?

This got me thinking about an ethnographic dilemma that I’ve been trying to solve in a piece I’m writing for publication at the moment. It boils down to this: How, when writing about places that from time immemorial have been presented as somehow backward, lacking ‘culture’, or just plain unpleasant environments, do scholars avoid contributing to those one-sided perspectives?

And this goes for ‘roads’ and ‘road culture’ too. Russians are guilty of this – the famous Gogol aphorism: ‘Fools and Bad Road’. His summary of what was wrong with nineteenth-century Russia is as true today. By any measure, Russia is an outlier in terms of road deaths in highly industrialised countries. 53 deaths per 100,000 vehicles in 2013. Canada is around 9 / 100,000. (The UK is 5, but it too is an outlier – in the other direction).

In the article I’m presently writing, I try (and probably fail) to balance a perspective that says, yes, Russian roads are objectively unsafe (poor design, maintenance, climatic factors), and Russian driving culture is poor because of the way that many drivers did not meaningfully ‘learn’ to drive or ‘pass’ a test. Alcohol use, poor car maintenance and safety are also important. Another truism is the risk-taking culture that is prevalent, especially among men. (I don’t think age is a factor here, some of the craziest are older blokes).

However, these culturally essentialist ‘explanations’ of risk-taking (pofigism), and aversion to rules, are too easy (some would even call them forms of Orientalism). ‘Culture’ is a small part of the problem, in reality. Much more important is a state that does little or nothing to improve safety, and safety culture. Even more significantly, through its daily and longer-term policies, pronouncements and even small actions (like tinkering with the status and rules about what Road Police can do), the state and its representatives show that they values human life so little. Indeed, a great article on this topic (victim blaming) from nearly ten years ago calls this a kind of ‘misdirection’ by an incompetent, uncaring elite.

Such articles, such as this similar one from the Economist, suggest a technocratic/technological fix. As an American journalist put it in 2012: ‘roads reflect a government’s ability to project power and to harness bureaucracy for the common good’. But what if the state has no, or at least a very incoherent conception, of the ‘common good’? Effectively, the common good in Russia is ‘delegated’ to atomised individuals, or only occasionally tolerated NGOs and grassroots organisations. This informal mode of delegated governance is something I’m thinking about a lot at the moment and the ‘incoherent state’ is my working definition of this, but I’d like to improve on it.

However, things do change for the better, and Russia is quite astounding on this account. Responding to delegation (or abdication of the state’s responsibility), driving standards among new drivers are subjectively better now than ten years ago. It’s unclear whether this is partly because of better ‘testing’ while learners. Very rarely in the last decade have I witnessed drink-driving (I did previously see this quite a lot). Similarly, about 6 years ago drivers started spontaneously using a ‘language’ of courtesy – flashing their hazards when you let them overtake you; people do wear seatbelts and use child-seats. I’ve had trouble getting used to cars stopping for me while I’m waiting to cross a pedestrian zebra crossing. Last time I broke down, a motorist stopped to ask whether he could lend a hand. While I don’t enjoy driving on highways in Russia any more than I did twenty years ago, driving culture has certainly improved a lot.

The neoliberal compact and the loss of autonomy for Russia’s middle class.


Milton: “…I used to be over by the window, and I could see the squirrels, and they were married, but then, they switched from the Swingline to the Boston stapler, but I kept my Swingline stapler because it didn’t bind up as much, and I kept the staples for the Swingline stapler and it’s not okay because if they take my stapler then I’ll set the building on fire… “

This is my third and final post about the papers presented as part of a panel on Class formation in Russia at the BASEES Uppsala conference, Regimes and Societies in Conflict: Eastern Europe and Russia since 1956.

The third paper in this troika is by Mikhail Chernysh on ‘The structure of the Russian middle class’. Chernysh begins by examining the Russian government’s development programme “On the concept of the social and economic development 2008-2020” which aims to increase “the intensity of growth of the human capital and the middle class”. The policy paper is useful to get an idea of the government’s way of defining a middle class. These are individuals with incomes over six times the minimum. On this measure the ‘middle’ rises from 30% in 2010 to 52-55% by 2020. Chernysh remarks that it is symptomatic that the self-employed or small and medium entrepreneurs don’t really figure in this equation. The middle class is defined mainly by improved consumption linked to income.

It is striking here how modest this definition is in money terms. If ‘minimum income’ here refers to the МРОТ, then a ‘middle-class’ income equates to around 60,000 Rubles per month or 750 Euros a month. Here’s a discussion of the ‘minimum’: Going back to Markku Kivinen’s paper on linking middle-class to the classical idea of a propertied bourgeoisie, it is interesting that this amount is not enough to build assets over any meaningful period in most circumstances in Russia. People (including dual-income couples with no, or one, child) on this income typically resort to micro and meso short-term loans and mortgages. There are many stories of bad debt, ruined relationships and moonlighting among this segment of the so-called ‘middle-class’. In this income bracket I see people give up or downgrade their automobiles (to Russian or second-hand models bought for cash), whereas in the ‘noughties’ they bought new on credit. Similarly, while people nudging 1000 Euros, or so, could previously holiday now and then in Europe, now they are turning to domestic destinations, or those in the CIS (witness the boom in Armenia/Georgia tourism).

Chernysh then reports on an interesting discourse analysis by E. Balobanova which examines how Russian presidents have used the phrase ‘middle-class’. [E. Balobanova 2011.  Analiz ponyaita “srednii klass” v poslaniakh presidenta Federalnomu sobraniu RF. Political Linguistics. 2(36). For Yeltsin this phrase meant primarily ‘the bureaucracy’, echoing discussion in other papers about the ‘state’-focus of class and caste. Under Putin and Medvedev there was rather inconsistent rhetoric about raising what we might call the neglected technical intelligentsia up to the middle class. It’s interesting that again, entrepreneurs are nowhere in sight and neither are the ‘core’ intelligentsia of teachers and lecturers.


Chernysh then traces the controversial debates in sociology about the middle-class – from being seen as a myth, to the current (politicized?) promotion of Russia-specific ways of counting a middle-class that would produce figures higher than 10% or 20% (see my previous post). Chernysh remarks that this led to the rather unconvincing result of an income of 220 Euros-equivalent allowing entry to the middle class – 44% of the population!

Chernysh then goes on to discuss what he sees as the neoliberal compact in Russian society – particularly with regard to its effect on the state-sector middle class. In return for large increases in salaries, doctors, teachers and others had to sacrifice job security (austerity cut backs) and autonomy (increased monitoring, loss of control over job processes). This strongly parallels my findings among working-class cohorts in the same period. Also important for Chernysh is the actual intensification of work for these groups. The positive part of the deal – increased pay – is at least partly illusory. This is because of intensification but also because much of the pay increase is based on discretionary awards – premiia/nadbavka, etc. This also finds strong echoes in my work with caregivers like teachers and kindergarten employees. They complained after 2009 that they weren’t really better off as so much of their pay was subject to these ‘tricks’ (see p. 62, 64). Chernysh speculates that these factors may influence the current negative evaluation of the government by these groups.

Based on a number of datasets, particularly focusing on responses to questions about what people struggle to afford (durables, more expensive purchases like cars, etc), Chernysh finds that coupled with an occupation approach, the Russian middle-class is less than 20% of the population and more likely less than 15%.

Following Erik Olin Wright’s definition of the middle class as those working in jobs where autonomy is possible, Chernysh analyses autonomy as a variable in a group of respondents with middle class consumption patterns and a university degree.  He finds a significant fall since the 1990s in this category. This is important in the historical context of the necessity, even under totalitarianism, of a ‘moderate level of work autonomy’ in Soviet professions. (I argue, along with the sociologist A. Temnitskii, that this was true of blue-collar workers as well).

Chernysh concludes by drawing parallels with H. Balzer’s Russia’s missing middle class : ‘Middle class consciousness is contradictory, it is not only critical, but also individualistic, showing limited capability of concerted action in defense of group’s rights and class positions. It looks like a revival of historical pattern dating back to the pre-revolutionary times. Balzer’s analysis of the tsarist Russia middle class showed that it was too small and disorganized to effect tangible influence and possibly revert the negative tendencies that weaken existing economic and social institutions’.

Returning to the panel as a whole, the organizer, Jouko Nikula, recently published an interpretive summary based on a broad survey dataset ‘Social Distinctions in Modern Russia’ (SDMR), which some of the papers also made use of.

Nikula points out the ‘decreased opportunities employees have to influence their working pace or work tasks’, particularly among professionals and in the public sector, with a narrowing too of flexibility on working hours. Unemployment has been low despite the two recessions endured by the country – one in 2009, the second in 2014. This because of a persistence of the Soviet practice of labour hoardings and paternalism, at the cost of low wages and furlough, as well as the foregoing of bonuses, which as we discussed earlier, make up an increasing proportion of the real take-home wage.

All in all then, a provocative set of papers from the Uppsala conference. To conclude I would ground them in the reality of my ethnographic fieldwork (albeit partial and unrepresentative). I note the following from my own fieldwork: the least satisfied people from my research were always those that experienced the least autonomy (or a perceptible fall in it over time) – but this was true both of working-class (forklift drivers, packers and sorters in the carplant), and middle-class jobs (teachers and child-psychologists, whose work became increasingly monitored by metric evaluations over the 2010s). Who was most ‘satisfied’? Those with the most or least – well-paid entrepreneurs in high-barrier-to-entry areas like data-gathering and bespoke services, and at the other end, those informal taxi-drivers and grifters who answered to no one and could always ‘withdraw’ to the burrow of the garden plot (at least in the summer) and other strategies of informality.

Is the nature of precarity in Russia different? Melin’s view


This is my second post about the papers presented as part of a panel on Class formation in Russia at the BASEES Uppsala conference, Regimes and Societies in Conflict: Eastern Europe and Russia since 1956.

The second paper I want to discuss is Harri Melin’s “Working life and the myth of precariat in Russia.”

Melin interrogates the applicability of the ‘precarity’ concept to Russia using survey data about jobs. Following Guy Standing, Melin presents precarity as a process: ‘to be precaritised is to be subject to pressures and experiences that lead to a precariat existence, of living in the present, without a secure identity or sense of development achieved through work and lifestyle’ (Standing, 2011: 16). For Melin, Standing’s work shows that the precariat lack a work- or occupational-based identity. However, Melin cites his own and others’ work in Finland as an example that shows the rise of insecure and temporary work is, in his view, not the case.

Melin is interested in O. Shkaratan’s concept of etacratism to understand Russia’s social structure.  Just as Soviet society was not really socialist but form even approaching state capitalism (insert your own caveats here!), contemporary Russian society is a direct continuation of this etacratic tradition (Radaev & Shkaratan 1992). This approach influenced S. Kordonsky about whom I’ve written recently.

Melin’s survey data tell a story about an absolute and relative growth in ‘skilled working-class’ jobs in Russia, at the cost of unskilled work and ‘nominal’ managerial positions. To collect data Melin used Erik O. Wright’s class typology (Wright 1978, 1997) and to triangulate that with precarity Melin’s respondants are sorted into 1) unemployed, 2) fixed-term labor contracts 3) part-time jobs. The data is from the European Social Survey 2010 set. Precarity is defined as ‘several unemployments, part-time or fixed time employments’. By this measure women in Russia are much less precarious than men, who are more similar to Northern European counterparts. Perhaps more interestingly, Melin counts a very small Russian middle-class – barely 20%. The high number of Nordic youth he counts as precarious is compensated for by the more comprehensive social protections in those countries.

Melin then moves on to subjective measures of precarity: “While in the Nordic countries 55 % of the skilled workers feel that they can live comfortably with their income … in Russia, only 5 % of skilled workers feel living comfortably.” Melin finishes by drawing attention to what I consider a ‘symptom’ of high subjective precarity: my and Sarah Hinz’s work on high labour turnover in the Kaluga Volkswagen factory where relatively well-paid blue-collar jobs there should mean less job ‘churning’. Melin notes how this could be related to precarization and the increase in the use of short-term labour contracts.

It might be worth thinking about the agency of workers in making the above ‘necessity’ of turnover into a virtue. ‘Bad jobs’ leading to turnover, leading to making of turnover into a form of skilling up (or ‘trying out’ of different skills pathways – as the very least). At least within the limits of one’s ‘profession’. This also calls back Markku Kivinen’s point in his paper about the conundrum of high inequality yet lack of class-based polarisation. Partly this can be explained because of the remarkable turnover – ‘exit’ as the only viable strategy.  There’s a lot in my book about the final destination of workers who ‘churn’ – it’s an equally precarious existence in the informal economy.  This is why there are so many male unregistered taxi-drivers. The Russian state has declared ‘war’ on this type of informal income recently.

We could also here take some issue with the blanket position of Harri – that the etacratic system provides more stable and safe employment to workers. My gut feeling is that this is being severely eroded for a number of reasons – corruption leading to the replacement of ‘meritorious’ workers by clients, and welfare state residualisation/austerity meaning the laying off of many workers. Mikhail Chernysh’s paper takes this up. I will discuss his paper in my next post.





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.