Staunton, May 30 – Despite the rise of a Russian middle class and the rapid turnover in that country’s leaders and regimes, Vladimir Putin draws his support from the fact that Russian society remains tied to its peasant past, with most people not more than a generation or so removed from the culture of the village, according to a Moscow sociologist.
That underlying reality, Natalya Tikhonova, a researcher at the Institute of Sociology of the Russian Academy of Sciences, says, is often lost sight of because of interest in the urban middle class and the ways that Russian scholars define that group, ways very different from those used elsewhere.
Tikhonova, one the co-authors of a new study, “The Middle Class in Contemporary Russia: 10 Years Later,” points out that most investigations of the middle class in the West define that group in terms of its professional activity and level of education and view it as a group which receives income on its human capital.
“In Russia,” the sociologist says, “the situation is different and what is more about what it was ten years ago. Therefore, we have had to introduce two additional blocking criteria” for working with the middle class: “One of these is the level of well-being, and the other is the self-conscious feeling of where one is in the social system.”
The minimum income level for inclusion in the middle class is 20,000 rubles (US $600) per person per year, although there are important regional variations, she says. But the problems of definition of the Russian middle class are not about that but rather about its structure, employment patterns, and assumptions.
The share of state employees in the Russian middle class is much higher than in the middle classes of Western countries but mostly because many functions that in the latter are performed by the private sector are part of the state in Russia rather than having any broader meaning that is sometimes extracted from this.
More fundamental, Tikhonova continues, is that the share of Russians working in the quartenary segment of the economy – finance, programming, marketing, journalism, and science – is much lower than is the case of Western countries, a pattern that reflects the differences in the stage of development in the two.
While Western countries are moving toward post-industrial societies, she says, Russia is only approaching “the stage of the transition to post-industrial society.” And that calls attention to something else: members of the Russian middle class do approximately the same things members of the middle classes in Western countries, but they do so under conditions of a very different form of property arrangements.
That helps to explain, she says, why the Russian middle class made up more heavily of government employees is so “comfortable” with the regime and why the regime does not feel threatened by it – although Tikhonova insists as well that no middle class anywhere has been a political force on its own.
But there is a deeper stratum in Russian life that matters even more, the sociologist says. “The Putin electorate is above all the relatively poor strata which form about half of the population of the country.” They have been relative winners over the last few years, and “a significant part of them has been able to escape poverty.”
“In Russia,” she says, “political regimes and leaders change … but the type of society has been preserved.” Changing that society from one which is still closely linked to the peasantry is very hard and will take a long time.
Even though a majority of Russians now live in cities, very few of them are hereditary city dwellers with two or three of the preceding generations having been city residents as well. Today, the share of people who grew up in cities of at least 200,000 and having at least one parent with a higher education is only about 10 percent of the population.
As difficult as it is for many to accept this, she says, it is the case, and because it is, the regime “”completely corresponds to this dominant type of the population.” That means that the powers that be won’t be under pressure from this direction for some time.
Tikhonova pointed to another trend that may slow this process down even more. Compared to a decade ago, those in the middle class who are investing in education are now less numerous than they were because the return on such investments has fallen dramatically in Russia.
That is “a very poor sign,” the sociologist says, because “it means that we are losing the opportunity for further development” and that making a breakthrough will be ever more difficult. At the same time, Tikhonova says she won’t “demonize” the regime because its leaders understand this, have tried to do the right thing, but have been “sabotaged” from below.
Until elites recognize that they must promote development rather than simply line their own pockets, an attitude that is unlikely to take place until more are “hereditary” members of the middle class, however, Tikhonova concludes, achieving progress in Russia will remain extremely difficult.