In search of Russia’s middle class

ZOiS Spotlight 23/2020 by Bernhard Braun (10 June 2020)

A shopping street in Moscow. © John Kellerman/ Alamy Stock Photo

Since the demise of the Soviet Union, Russia’s middle class has become a much-discussed topic in both academic and political circles. Russia’s presidents, too, have attached great importance to this social group and have pledged to ensure that it continues to grow. Indeed, Putin recently stated that more than 70 per cent of Russia’s population could now be considered middle class, including anyone earning one and a half times the monthly minimum wage – equivalent to roughly 200 euros. This sweeping definition met with derision from many commentators, while on social media, it was mockingly claimed that wearing shoes was apparently enough to qualify someone as ‘middle class’. But what does it mean to be middle class in Russia’s hugely unequal society? Indeed, to what extent is it appropriate to talk about a middle class(es) in Russia, where just 10 per cent of the population controls more than 83 per cent of household income? And who can be considered middle class?

Russian society has undergone a historic transformation in the post-Soviet era. After the political and economic upheavals of the 1990s, the early years of the 21st century were characterised by more stable growth and socioeconomic consolidation. This phase was considered conducive to the emergence of a ‘middle class’, which in political discourse is generally regarded as indicative of a successful transformation to a market economy. Western commentators, too, invariably regard this so-called middle class as a hopeful sign of democratic consolidation, based on the principle “no bourgeoisie, no democracy”. Consequently, almost all the protest movements that emerged in recent years were attributed to the ‘Moscow middle class’. There appears to be an assumption that the concept of the ‘middle class’ espoused in European social theory is transferable to the Russian context, where it supposedly performs similar socio-political functions.

Between 5 and 70 per cent

Social science research, too, is highly invested in this so-called middle class, often based on a similar premise – one which implies a Eurocentric concept of the middle class and whose frame of reference are Western societies, with no challenging of the concept in terms of its relevance to Russia. This can sometimes produce paradoxical outcomes, such as the finding that as little as 5 or as much as 52 per cent  of the Russian population may be considered middle class, depending on the extent to which descriptive criteria are applied. Indeed, according to the World Bank’s method cited by Putin, the figure is above 70 per cent.

The problem with these calculations is that the criteria applied, such as above-average income, higher education, higher professional status and self-identification, are often not cumulative in Russia: in other words, one criterion, such as higher education, does not necessarily lead to another, e.g. higher income. As an example: highly qualified professionals such as doctors or university lectures are, to put it mildly, by no means among the top earners within Russian society. Furthermore, the highly ambiguous nature of the middle class as a construct results in considerable variation in self-identification. Thence, attempts to delineate a coherent group using a checklist of descriptive criteria are already showing flaws.

Inadequacy of statistical criteria

Identifying the middle class solely on the basis of wage data is problematical. For example, the salaries paid to university lecturers in Moscow are very difficult to quantify as a precise monthly amount. The basic salary accounts for a very small proportion of monthly earnings, as the lectures delivered are remunerated on an hourly basis. In order to make ends meet (and thus achieve at least an average salary of around 500 euros), many lecturers take on tutoring work on a private basis. However, the risk of loss of earnings – for example, during the long summer holidays or in the event of illness – is largely shifted to the individual lecturer.

The issue of subjective attribution, too, is by no means easy to resolve. In Germany, for example, the term ‘middle class’ can be considered a broad consensus-based form of self-identification across society and is widely claimed by anyone from a skilled worker to a millionaire (admittedly, this is a subjective assessment). In Russia, however, there are reservations: the image of the ‘middle class’ is heavily influenced by the media discourse and often has overtones of a consumer-oriented Western lifestyle. This implication, combined with a high level of social inequality – exemplified by the very large number of Maybach cars on Moscow’s roads – results in considerable reluctance to identify as ‘middle class’, even among higher earners.

The permanently unstable middle class

Whereas the ‘middle class’ is often theorised as a product of social redistribution and a strong welfare state in many European countries, in Russia, it rather seems to be the outcome of the individual’s own efforts. However, Russia’s average earners often regard themselves as losers on both fronts. Personal initiative and entrepreneurship are subject to harsh state control, and yet the weak welfare state leaves a vacuum that is being filled by neoliberalism and the transfer of social responsibility from the state to the individual. The lack of social security mechanisms is a constant threat hanging over the so-called middle class. The absence of guaranteed unemployment benefit, the threat of age-related poverty due to low pensions, even the birth of a child – all these are becoming risk factors for social demotion and worsened insecurity of livelihoods.

In view of its inconsistency and ambiguity, the Russian ‘middle class’ is reminiscent of the Holy Roman Empire, which according to Voltaire was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire. Neither economic nor subjective criteria appear to be adequate or sufficing descriptors of a social class. It remains unclear what may qualify as ‘middle’ and or as a ‘class’ according to statistical criteria (and be they applied by the World Bank), the calculation methods used in political sociology, or Western ideals. The complexity of life’s realities calls for a perspective that factors in the interdependencies and contradictions inherent in social mobility. Whatever the causes – an unpredictable income, a lack of social insurance or the global Covid-19 pandemic: Russia’s middle classes constantly face existential challenges. It is therefore this permanent instability, first and foremost, that makes average earners in Russia a middle class in an analytical sense.

Bernhard Braun is a social anthropologist. He is currently working on his PhD at the University of Vienna.