Declining Incomes among Russians Put Future of Country’s Middle Class at Risk, Chepurenko Says
February 27 – The declining incomes of Russians over the last few years are not
only leaving all but the very wealthiest residents of that country poorer than
they were but putting at risk the formation and survival of the politically
critical middle class in the country, according to Aleksandr Chepurenko of Moscow’s
Higher School of Economics.
Such a class began
to appear in Russia in the 1990s when the state was weak,” and consequently “we
can speak about the middle class in Russia as being in its first generation,” a
collection of people who having lost everything at the end of the 1980s and
early 1990s nonetheless were able by their own efforts to claw their way back
to relative well-being.
emergence of such people gave hope for the future, but in the last two decades
with the creation of the power vertical, they have been eclipsed by “a
quasi-middle class,” people with roughly the same incomes but whose money comes
not from their own efforts but as a result of rents offered by the state in exchange
for loyalty, Chepurenko continues.
people did not risk anything: they simply accepted decisions” from above and therefore
played and play a very different social-political role.Among the most prominent of these are the siloviki,
“’the holy cow’ for our powers that be.”As long as the pie was growing, all of them could continue to get more
when the pie ceased to grow but in fact became smaller, a problem arose and is
only intensifying, forcing them not to fight for the creation of new wealth but
for the division of existing wealth among them.As a result, the sociologist says, there have now emerged “a large
number of conflicts of some siloviki structures with others.”
businessmen, who are not part of the middle class either, “are interested in stability
but not in a free, competitive market system characteristic of a democratic
society.” They thus are not like the middle classes in the US and other Western
countries in either their behavior or their role.
real middle classes, whenever it is possible, “vote in favor of the market and
a competitive economy.” In Russia, they are deprived of the possibility of
voting in that way because of the destruction of parties who favor such
outcomes.And that has led to some
dangerous trends, including withdrawal from normal political life.
of this is hidden by the fact that Russians tend to evaluate middle class only
by income which means that many government or quasi-government employees are included
in it even though they have different values and different behaviors, Chepurenko
says. Many in fact hold values directly antithetical to the genuine middle
situation is not good for either the real middle class or these people, but the
reasons are different: Earnings from entrepreneurship are down by half over the
last decade or so, but possibilities for the lower levels of the bureaucracy
are down as well.
differences between these two and even the decline of both have been hidden not
only by the propensity of Russian scholars to measure the middle class solely
by income but also by the explosion of consumer credit as people in both
categories try to maintain their lifestyles by borrowing. That isn’t
sustainable for very much longer, he suggests.
change this situation, Chepurenko continues, the government would have to do
what it did in the early 1990s, reducing its role in the economy, eliminating
many “’economic crimes,’” reducing pressure on businesses and so on. But it is
far from clear that it will take these steps, although some economic
developments already on view in the West may appear.
include the rise of what some call “the precariate,” the group of people at the
bottom of the middle class who work as adjuncts in universities or hold
multiple jobs in order to try to maintain a middle-class way of life. There is
some evidence that Russia is going in this direction as well.
we could go in a different direction than the West and continue to surprise the
entire world by our weapons, our ballet and our sports, and then, in the
absence of necessary economic, political, and social conditions, our middle
class will not disappear because it simply has not appeared.” Today, that seems
the more likely prospect.