The consumer boom of the past decade, “conspicuous consumption” and the controversial issue of the middle-class in modern Russia was in focus in the first part of this article (April 2010). In this second part, sociologists disclose the structure of private finance, define the typology of consumers and uncover an emerging young culture as an alternative to consumerism.
Language mirrors reality. Names of exhibitions such as: “Luxury Boutique ELITE LIFE-2009” which presents elite real estates, the golf industry and yachts, ads with punch lines such as: “business elite gets tsar treatment”, “glamorous weekly parties”, “elite yoga club for you”, are not only decorating Moscow streets, but are daily published in classified sections of magazines and even newspapers. Fully in compliance with Ludwig Wittgenstein’s theory of language which emphasised the link between words and their external environment, modern Russian reflects the ideology of glamour, which has become the most ostentatious and alluring aspect of Russia under Putin. “Elitny” (elite) and “glamourny” (glamorous) are the two of the most popular words in the Russian mass-media, culture and even politics. Unlike the bourgeois milieu in other countries, where glamour is exclusive and for private consumption; in modern Russia, glamour is very much about the new consumer culture representing glory, beauty and success. It is on display and on the tip of everybody’s tongue. Interestingly enough, the survey carried out in 2007 by the Public Opinion Foundation (FOM) indicated that almost a quarter of the population (23%) across Russia and over 50% in Moscow use the Russian for “glamour” and “glamorous”; words which have only comparatively recently entered the vernacular. Only 8% of respondents had negative connotation associated with these words. It’s hard to say for how long the alluring world of glamour will inspire consumers’ appetite, but today Russians want to make the most of their money and enjoy everything money can buy.
The structure of private finances
Even in times of crisis, people have not radically changed their consumption habits, and are not ready to renounce their habits in favour of regular savings. An opinion poll carried in July 2009 by “Levada Center” showed that only 25 % of the population had savings and that was the highest figure since 2002. Data obtained by VCIOM, one of the Russia’s largest opinion research centres, correlated with these figures: roughly two thirds of the country’s population is not saving at all. The structure of private finances is dramatically different in Russia and the West: some 70% of Russians’ income is disposable, versus around 40% for a typical Western consumer. After deducting 13% income tax, necessary payments for housing and utilities, the average Russian spends the rest. People are not being encouraged to save and are assailed by images in the media exhorting them to borrow. For those who fall within the $1,500-$2,000 income bracket, a fur coat or a home movie theatre is for today and a pension is something to worry about in the long distant future. Tatyana K., a 42 year old Moscow-based arts expert and the mother of two, says that in the current economic situation, she could barely imagine how her family could save for the future: “the only thing worth saving for is our kids’ education. In Russia you never know what’s going to happen, and we have so many immediate needs to fulfil”.
Profiling the consumer
A decade after consumer culture won on the Russian battlefield, traditionalism is still opposed to new values and consumption styles fully reflect such social diversity. It’s virtually impossible to draw a sociological portrait of an average Russian consumer since everyone is a consumer of certain good or services. Rather than trying to identify this too generalized social type, sociologists define certain groups according to their consumption of industrial goods. Alexei Levinson, the Head of Social Research Department at Levada Analytical Centre, unveiled the consumer pyramid in Russia today as: “On the territory of such a huge country as Russia, all consumer segments are present. The upper group are brand-name consumers, the next wants the same class of goods, but for less, so they go to cheaper stores or markets. Then come consumers of nonbranded or pseudo-branded goods, second-hand cars and second-hand electronics. Finally there is a very broad layer of elderly urban and almost all of the rural population that consumes everything left on the second-hand and third-hand market of industrial goods. Thus inside Russia we have our own Europe and our own Asia.” This general picture correlates with consumer segmentation based on consumption habits and lifestyle rather than traditional demographic gender-and-age and income characteristics. “Region media”, specialists in Russian advertising, published results of such survey and identified seven main groups. The names of cluster groups speak for themselves: the “Innovators” young and seeking the best (18% in Moscow and 8% in the whole country) , the “Spontaneous” (about 12% nationwide and 8% in Moscow), the “Ambitious”, the “Self-realised”, the “Settled” characterized by conservative taste and great brand affinity (25% of consumers in Russia and 21% in Moscow), the “Traditionalists” ( 16% in Russia and 20% in Moscow ) and, finally the smallest group: the “Thrifty ”who mainly frequent discount shops.
Consumers of the future
Visitors to Russia’s cities often interpret the presence of designer clothes shops, internet cafés, and a vibrant club scene as evidence of the “westernization” of Russian youth. To some extent it is true that the younger generation has adopted a “pick and mix” strategy with regard to western cultural commodities. Nevertheless, speaking about Russian youth consumer culture it’s important to note an essential differences from the same age groups in most other post-industrial societies – the definition is more often used when information and service cultures prevail in the economy. Karin Kleman, a French sociologist who has been studying Russian youth culture for several years emphasizes: “Until very recently, the majority of Russian youth was very conformist; it did not have a counterculture that would be opposed to consumerism. It was pointless to speak about any struggle against consumerism; everybody including the young were struggling for access to consumer society. Quite recently, though, we have seen gradual shifts.” Generalizing about social tendencies of the past decade it’s clear that for the majority of young Russians aged 18-25, their life strategy has primarily meant realising their aspirations for a prosperous life and the imitation of established patterns of social success. There is no room in Russia for anti-consumerism movements, pressure groups of ethical consumers calling for sustainable consumption or ecologically-friendly youth. “Only in the past 3-4 years can we speak of an independent youth culture that is growing in Russia. It is mainly, but not exclusively finding its home in the internet which was accessed by 1/3 of the population in 2008, where this emerging culture has rich forms”, said Alexei Levinson.
On the other hand, after the crisis put the brakes on the Russian economy, Russian yuppies started demonstrating tendencies that have been popular in the West for decades. But as sociologists found out, even downshifting has a different motivation. An average young Russian, usually the dweller of a big city, who quits his job and moves to some inexpensive country like India and Thailand leasing his Moscow or St. Petersburg apartment, is hardly a true downshifter. Most often a change for a better climate and cheaper lifestyle does not imply a change in one’s attitude to life and a re-evaluation of one’s values and priorities. They are not disappointed by their excellent careers but are trying to escape from realities or temporary lack of career perspectives. Vladimir Petukhov, sociologist from VSIOM, is convinced: “Downshifting will take a classical Western shape only when Russia gains a proper middle class. Society must be ripe enough to produce a protest against prosperity and well-being. This does not happen without real well-being prevailing in society.”