Staunton, May 29 – The roughly ten percent of Russians who are middle class not only by virtue of incomes but by level of savings, education, and rank in the economy play a very different role than do the much larger middle classes in more developed Western countries, Yevgeny Gontmakher says.
Middle classes, the Russian economist points out, in both places play a conservative role, limiting the risk that the political systems will shift radically in one direction or the other. But because of their size and how they are defined and viewed, they play a very different role in the West than in Russia (novayagazeta.ru/articles/2021/05/29/iskorenenie-srednego-kak-klassa).
In Western countries where the middle classes are large relative to the total population, Gonmatkher argues, they serve to protect democratic institutions from authoritarianism by alternating between center-left and center-right parties but not providing support for extremist groups that could challenge the status quo.
In Russia, however, where middle class status is defined by the regime and society almost exclusively in terms of income rather than the other qualities and where if those characteristics are applied, it is very small, the middle class plays a conservative role but one that is fundamentally different.
The Russian middle class is a major supporter of the current regime which provides it with employment and earlier provided for its enrichment, and it is conservative in another way. Those below it aspire to the incomes of the middle class however obtained rather than to the values of the middle classes of the West.
And that means that the Russian middle class conserves the existing system as long as it is renewed just as the middle classes of other countries preserve the systems within which they exist. But the existing system is fundamentally different and so the conservative nature of the middle class in Russia has a very different impact than that of its counterparts abroad.
The Russian middle class, he says, “is along with pensioners the social base of that political regime which has been formed with us over the course of the last 20 years.” Its members with the exception of freelancers and the free professions are satisfied with the situation because they are employed by the state and the state ensures that money flows to them.
From their perspective, “any Russian reforms and even more the most radical ones create dangers to this status;” and therefore the Russian middle class will display its conservative nature, albeit to keep in place not democracy but the current arrangements that now profit its members.
The Russian middle class plays another conservative role as far as the regime is concerned. Its existence established “the standards of ‘a worthy life,’” to which those below it aspire in terms of income, given that that is how the regime defines this class, rather than in terms of its values. That too works to preserve the system.
The problem for the regime is that its policies aren’t permitting a sufficient expansion in the incomes of the middle class to keep its members happy or a growth in the number of its members to allow for the inclusion of the rising generation of educated young people who expect to gain that status. Not surprisingly, both are increasingly upset.
And that pattern, Gontmkher concludes, does not provide any basis for optimism about the system either in the short term or the longer one.