Staunton, September 2 – Many are calling those millions of Russian citizens who have fallen into poverty as a result of the current economic crisis “the new poor,” but Aleksey Levinson, a prominent Moscow sociologist, says they are simply the return of “the old poor” who had risen slightly above the poverty line a decade ago but have now fallen back.
The Levada Center scholar says that in the first decade of the 21st century, “from five to fifteen percent of [Russian] adults shifted from the category of the poor to that of one whose members had somewhat more favorable conditions of life.” Now, in the crisis, the movement of people is simply going in the other direction (novayagazeta.ru/society/69755.html).
As a result, we have “not ‘new poor’ but the old poor consisting of those who somewhat improved their situation in the fat years but who today are returning to their former situation.” Of course, there are exceptions, where those well-off earlier have fallen into poverty, but this is the general pattern.
One special feature of Russian poverty, Levinson says, is that most of those who are poor nonetheless at least nominally are employed. On the one hand, that reflects the desire of the authorities to keep dissatisfied people off the streets where they might engage in protests. But on the other, humanitarian concerns are at work as well.
The more open form of unemployment, he says, also has distinctive features in Russia. Many of those in this category in fact are working in the shadow economy. And there are beginning to appear pockets of chronic poverty, although fortunately, he says, they are relatively few in number.
Today, Levinson continues, “Russians of all categories feel that life is becoming more expensive;” and “the poorer people are, the sharper is their reaction” because such people have the least amount of savings and because the most inexpensive goods in the past are the ones whose prices have risen the most.
Approximately 15 percent of Russia’s poor are young people either just graduated from university and not yet employed in their profession or married with children whom they will feed and otherwise support except in “a catastrophe.” Their situation, like that of pensioners at the other end of the age spectrum, is very hard, Levinson says.
Rising rates of poverty in Russia have had and will have little impact on the ratings of Vladimir Putin, Levinson says. “There is the popular idea that in the hearts and minds of Russians there is a struggle going on ‘between the television and the refrigerator.’” But he suggests that such economic determinism isn’t functioning in Russia.
“Russian history doesn’t confirm the rule that when the people are sated, they love the authorities but when they are hungry, they revolt,” the sociologist points out. Instead, “even a more serious deterioration of the economic situation than today’s could lead to a greater consolidation of society around the authorities.”
The situation in Ukraine is likely to have a greater impact, he suggests. Many Russians were swept up in patriotic enthusiasm by the annexation of Crimea, but they haven’t had any recent “new victories and perhaps won’t” get any. That could send Putin’s ratings down, but predicting when and how much is tricky.
He and his colleagues believe, Levinson concludes, that “the most probable scenario is a gradual return to the situation which existed during President Putin’s first and second terms.”