The Russian Middle Class
By Jon Hellevig
Photos courtesy of MEGA
Believe it or not there is a whole scientific community theorizing and disputing whether or not there is a middle class in Russia. They remind me of bird watchers, except that they have a physical object to occupy the space in front of their binoculars. We cannot say the same for the army of political observers, scientist and journalists who try to spot the Russian middle class. The reason is that there are no classes, just a whole lot of people.
The middle class is one of those historic concepts that in the European (and I include Russian) scientific mind has acquired a life of its own. I want to stress this, because I believe there is no middle class, and no other classes either. There are only human beings.
Historically, the term ‘middle class’ comes from political thought and describes power relations, always intertwined with economic prosperity, between people. In historical times, power and the ownership of assets were rigidly confined to inheritance, where they belonged to the nobility, as opposed to the peasants who worked for the nobility. In between, there was a group of people more affluent or learned, like the clergy, traders and lower level officers, but without access to the wealth which inherited property confers. Many of them were town-dwellers, in other words, bourgeois. They came to be called the middle class, especially with the growth of cities after the industrial revolution. The Marxists later fixed on the term, which they tainted with their class rhetoric. Consequently, they are very much to blame for the present confusion.
But this division does not exist anymore. You cannot speak about the middle class if you cannot point to an upper class and a lower class at the same time. All ideas of painting the ‘oligarchs’ as upper-class are futile and misconceived. In Russia, they are merely representatives of the general public – that is the same middle class – that have become immensely rich. In a feudal society, they would have become the nobility. But then they would have to have the political power, which they don’t. To be a proper class they would have to have formalized status and informal social cohesion. This they do not have.
And so the political leaders, the state officials, the businessmen, and even the President are all the same. They have all, boys and girls, grown up in the same suburbs, watched the same movies, stood in the same queues, and I dare say even studied at the same schools. For after all, through good and bad, the Soviet Union made the people equal.
I claim that Russia is a through-andthrough middle-class society, which means that if we are to use the word then we use it to define them all. And as in all big countries, there are people that are marginalized, socially and economically. I would estimate these people to amount to some 15-20% of the population. But I do not agree with calling these people a lower class. During my sixteen years in Russia I have seen people from all walks of life – among them poor people, sick people, desperate people – but I have seen no lower class. And if there is no lower class and no upper class, then there can be no middle class.
I often hear the sociologists (i.e. the bird watchers) say “there is no middle class in Russia” or “Russian middle class composes about 10-20% of the population”. This makes me doubt my senses. In Moscow and St. Petersburg, on the streets, in the traffic, in the metro, at work, in coffee shops, I sit and ponder. I think, “Who does not belong to the group? Which one is the non-middle class guy? How do they define it (‘it’ for they seem to think middle class is a thing)?”
On the contrary, I think that most people here are middle class, if we want to use this lingo of class. But who do we have left for the other classes? Twenty oligarchs do not make a class, and I doubt they would even feel comfortable being categorized as such. I would think that from the whole population approximately 70-80% are what we might call middle-class.
Even the economic figures support this view, when you read them correctly. I do not want anybody to forget, though, that there is a huge social problem. Many people have become socially incapable and been marginalized. But this is primarily an economic and sociopolitical problem, not a class issue. There is no "class" of marginalized people, even though there are many such people.
Being middle class is not an economic issue. It is most of all an issue concerning the general cultural and educational level of people. The Russian middle class got poor in the 1990’s. But the people did not disappear anywhere, and their cultural heritage did not vanish. Now these same people are gradually getting prosperous again. Stop seeing the middle class as some kind of an elevator going up and down, and look at the passengers. I propose to speak of the middle class in terms of well-educated, “civilized” people (simultaneously rejecting the value-content: what we consider civilized could well be contested by other people). Russia is a society of civilized people with a strong moral and cultural heritage.
These thoughts are in the back of my mind when I go down to the train at Metro Oktyabrskaya, from where it takes me to Tretyakovskaya and further with a transfer to Mayakovskaya. The trip in the overcrowded morning Metro takes me some forty minutes, but it is worthwhile for I am offered a good sample of the middle class species. I could not spot the underclass, even in the underground. In my carriage, three passengers read a book; there are a lot of women with an accountant look, smart and secure, but combative as if planning their strategy for who to face the tax inspectorate armed with the latest edition of 'Tax and Accounts', and there are girls and boys in their teens, looking much the same as they do all over Europe. Unfortunately, I have to keep to my bird-watching method for, like all over Europe, Russians do not speak with strangers in rush-hour transport. I cannot eavesdrop on their opinions, although I thought I heard the teens discuss the latest development in 'Pick the Straight One.'
For a middle class-spotter, opinions offer valuable material. A representative of middle class can always be identified by values he or she holds. This is how we separate the wheat from the chaff. Being middle class is most of all an issue pertaining to a person’s general cultural and educational level. Our dear sociologists seem to confuse that with income-levels, and are perplexed when they discover that in every nation there are those with middle-income levels – which is a mere arithmetical truism.
This fact disturbs their scientific mind so they decide to go global with income comparisons. But making global comparisons is too difficult, so they simplify their research by comparing the salaries of Russians with their own, Western scholar’s, salary. But they forget about purchasing-price parity, the value money can buy in different countries, and also taxation. They ignore the fact that European states expropriate approximately half the national income in the form of taxes, while the Russians may keep most of their salaries. Looking at the Russian statistics, and his own salary, and feeling middle class himself, the researcher concludes that no middle class can be detected in Russia.
So back to opinions, the features that define the biological constitution of the species ‘middle class’. Middle class people are those that strive for a good education; who think and act independently; who take care of themselves and the well-being of their families and loved ones; who strive forward, study and work for prosperity; who buy cars, and dream of yet a bigger one; who take out mortgages to buy houses or apartments; who travel abroad, read books, go to the theatres, watch both domestic and foreign movies; who argue about matters of taste and politics; who are in a sound sense patriotic while at the same time tolerant; who are particular with their hygiene and dress well; who do not believe all they are told; who avoid the military draft and want to live in peace…
Looking around, I fail to see many Russians who would not fit this description.
But few people are willing to change their well-cemented prejudices. You will have a hard time convincing the birdwatcher/ sociologist that he should not look for the mysterious middle class, but look at people individually to try to find out what they are like. But given a good incentive, you may even give up your dearest prejudice. With expats in Russia I have seen it happen with the aid of the great equalizer, love. An even stronger incentive is money. After all, most expats around here come for the latter. For them, the news will be great, a huge mass of educated people, in a country becoming increasingly prosperous. Soon this mass of people, with their middle class mentality, will reach European standards of middle income. 100 million middle-income middle-minded middle class people will mean so much more sales per month and per year.
By Ian Mitchell
Jon Hellevig makes a very important point about Russia and the way outsiders view this country. He is quite right to stress that foreign perceptions of Russia are often influenced by the point of view of the commentator. If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, then perhaps sociological truth is in the binocular of the birdwatcher, to adopt his very apt analogy.
However there are, I think, two important qualifications which might be made. First, and briefly, most Russians would say that Mr Hellevig might be accurate about Moscow, but would not be accurate about the rest of the country, St. Petersburg also exception, possibly. Outside the two great cities, there really is a vastly smaller level of middle class “consciousness,” if that is the right word.
But even sticking to Moscow and St. Petersburg, there is one point which ought to be made. Being middle class is not just a question of income. It is a question of a feeling of inner security which, to a certain extent, comes from affluence, but which requires more than mere roubles in the bank. It requires a certain long-term security, which not all middle-income Russians feel that they enjoy. Perhaps security is taken for granted in Finland, where Mr Hellevig comes from. Certainly it is in Scotland, where I live. But the upheavals of the last century mean that few Muscovites feel secure in their rights and property to the extent that most western Europeans do.
The freedom to shop at Mega, or to race round the MKAD in a Lexus, does not make a middle class. What makes a true middle class, in the accepted English-language sense of the term, is a feeling of socio-economic inviolability. Your rights, your freedoms, your accepted ways of behaving (excluding details, and this is not a case of details), safe in the hands of the state to which you give allegiance. This is not something which all Mega-shoppers or Lexus drivers in Russia feel.
Perhaps there can only be a true middle class when the State itself is governed by middle class people. The only way the world can be made safe for democracy, is to have democrats in control, just as the only way to have proper aristocratic government used to be to have aristocrats in control. The dictatorship of the proletariat was guaranteed only when government was in the hands of true, horny-handed, proletarians.
Russia will one day be a middle class society, of that there can be no doubt. But not just yet. For Russians to belong to a genuine middle class, they need to be ruled by people who think of themselves a middle class – and are proud of it.
It is often said in Britain that we will have a democratic monarchy when, Scandinavian-style, the Queen goes about London on a bicycle. In much the same way, when the senior Russian apparatchiki start pretending to the public that they shop at Mega – of course they never will actually shop in the same shops as people who can afford a Lexus – then the country will be on the road to true middle-classdom.
This is an issue of perception rather than substance. Remember Mrs. Thatcher with her little basket of baked beans and Shreddies standing at the check-out in Tesco’s before the general election in 1979? She was desperately pretending to be “ordinary.” That is what made her one of us. Of course, she was never really one of us, but when leaders and their minions feel that, in moments of crisis, they have the confidence necessary to be able to pretend to be ordinary, then ordinary people always feel a little safer. Only then, will they be truly middle class, whatever their income might be.