Thursday, January 18, 2018

No Social Stratum in Russia, Even the Highest, Can Be Confident about the Future, Kordonsky Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, January 18 – Simon Kordonsky, a sociologist at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, says, as his host Valery Vyzhutovich at the Yeltsin Center put it, that “not one of the social strata, including the highest, feels confidence in its prospects or has any guarantee of stability in the future.”

            Consequently, the scholar suggested in the course of a lecture on the nature and structure of the Russian social system that “all strata [in the country] live a day at a time and are concerned only that tomorrow will be like yesterday and that nothing will be changed” (

            There is a major difference between classes and strata, Kordonsky says.  The former are “groups which arise in the market” as a result of which there are differences in ownership and consumption, while the latter are groups “which are created by the state for various reasons but mostly for the neutralization of threats.

            Tsarist Russia was based on social strata and the Soviet Union was as well because in the latter, “the so-called classes of workers, peasants and employees were groups created by the state.” With the collapse of the USSR, these strata lost their raison d’etre and classes began to emerge, with real rich and real poor.

            But before the process of class formation could be completed, Kordonsky says, the government intervened to restore strata, albeit ones defined in different ways. That process was completed, he suggests, by the 2003 law “On the system of state service” which created categories of those who “do not work but serve” and “in exchange receive strata privileges.”

            Today, the sociologist says, Russia has both “class differentiation by level of consumption” and strata differentiation by the share of resources it controls for distribution.” Given that strata are created to respond to threats, those strata which do the most to counter whatever threat the regime deems most important get the greatest amount of resources.

            The new strata are relatively closed, and it is almost impossible to move from one to another. In Soviet times, one could but not now. The only thing possible to “spin in one’s own world. Moreover, he continues, the situation in Russia today is extremely interesting because there is a single criminal code rather than separate ones for each stratum as in tsarist Russia.
            But the code is differentiated in its application by the punishments meted out to members of one or another stratum.  And for that reason and others, strata self-consciousness is not fully formed. That takes not 20 years but “two or three generations. Whether the country with such as strata structure will live that long,” he says, is something he cannot now say.

            With the Khodorkovsky case, Kordonsky says, “the liquidation of entrepreneurship and the market was begun and the state began to officially dominate the situation” on the basis of the principle “not of equality before the law but equality before the boss who distributes the resources.”

             That is driving businesses and people out of the public space. Over the last year, some 300,000 small businesses have gone into the shadow sector, something Kordonsky says is not a bad thing. Moreover and in part as a result, “approximately 40 percent of the population capable of working doesn’t deal with the state and lives outside of the state.”

            Today, he continues, “the liquidation of the stratum of budget employees via ‘transfer to contract’ is being liquidated, and its former stratum privileges are disappearing.  This is part of a much larger trend, one in which “the state is leaving from the lower levels” of public organization, forcing the population to act on its own.

            In health care, for example, with the end of government support for many medical facilities, people are turning to apothecary shops and informal healers to take care of their needs.  “The population is curing itself without turning to the government system of health care,” Kordonsky says.

            Because of this exit from public life, Moscow often does not know what is going on in the country. Its estimates of population are ten to fifteen percent below the reality. Indeed, Kordonsky says, the real population of Russia may be 160 million rather than the much lower numbers typically cited.

            But at the same time, because stratas get resources only if they are able to show that they are confronted by threats, officials are various levels are often overstating problems, be it unemployment, diseases or anything else, so that they can get more money. The center seldom has a way to find out the truth.

            This in itself, the sociologist says, “a threat to social stability … Money from the budget goes to the neutralization of threats which don’t exist … People from below write reports: give us resources because we have all kinds of problems. And the person sitting above him and reading theses papers have the sense that everything is bad in the country.”

            That is made worse by something else, the scholar says.  “Those theories which are used for the description of our reality and explaining it are entirely and completely borrowed from somewhere else. This is a specific Russian phenomenon and the source of many problems” and has been since tsarist times.

            Peter I borrowed from the Dutch experience. The Bolsheviks borrowed from Marxism. “And now we borrow very not very adequate theories about the market, democracy, management and everything else.” Those theories lead people to conclude that everything in Russia is bad and must be changed rather than to an understanding of what is.

            “Over the last 30 years,” Kordonsky says, “we have had 60 reforms, and not one of them has led to the desired result. This is a result of a negative attitude toward our reality, an unwillingness to accept the country as it is, and a desire to remake it according to some foolish scheme beginning with Marxism and ending with contemporary democratic ideas.”

            According to the Russian sociologist, it is time to “stop reading translated pamphlet and borrowing down before these authorities.” Instead, he says, Russians must recognize that they do not know their own country and seek to remedy that before they decide how it must be transformed.

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