Staunton, September 5 – Vladimir Putin and most Russian officials define middle class exclusively in terms of income and insist that as many as 70 percent of the population of that country is now part of that class. But sociologists who view such a status as a conjunction of various qualities say the figure may be as low as seven percent.
Such a range means that anyone who talks about the Russian middle class must be very careful about specifying what he or she means, according to Svetlana Mareyeva, a specialist on the issue who heads the Center for Strategic Research at the Moscow Higher School of Economics (polit.ru/article/2020/09/03/midleclassmatter/).
Among the many indications of middle class status sometimes used and sometimes not in addition to income are being managers, investing in their children, having dachas or significant savings in banks. In a new report, she suggests that nearly 40 percent of Russians have at least one of these characteristics but “only seven percent” have all of the qualities often used.
Other experts make similar points. Anna Ochkina, head of the Center for Social Analysis of the Moscow Institute of Globalization and Social Movements, says that the income basis used by the World Bank and favored by the Kremlin as well doesn’t work in Russia because of differences in the prices of cars and foreign travel often associated with the middle class.
Using income alone fails to work, she and other experts suggest, because that fails to capture the declining purchasing power of any given amount. Over the last five years, for example, the purchasing power of the middle class (and others) has fallen significantly. Those who were confidently middle class in 2015 aren’t now.
There are other ways to “fall out” of the middle class, these specialists note. One is to go on pension, another is to have more children. Those with two or more now cannot in most cases expect to remain middle class, something that means the country can’t reproduce itself demographically because its economic arrangements don’t permit that.
While the poor may see their situation decline even more than members of the middle class during a crisis like the pandemic, members of the middle class feel this decline more intently because of their significantly greater expectations for themselves and their children, Ochkina adds. They thus are more inclined to become frustrated and angry.
Unfortunately, Mareyeva points out, the Russian authorities do not collect enough data to permit a resolution of the debates about how many Russians are in fact middle class. That gap is partially compensated for by scholarly research but only partially. Many issues remain unresolved, and the debate about how large the Russian middle class is will continue.
Window on Eurasia — New Series