In this interview with Russia Direct, prominent Russian sociologist Olga Kryshtanovskaya suggests that the concept of the Russian middle class “exists in a kind of vacuum”.

Activists held rally to mark the anniversary of last year’s mass protests on May 6, 2013. Photo: ITAR-TASS

Why is the concept of the middle class having a hard time taking root in Russia? How can the U.S. help to enable the formation of the Russian middle class? What is the relationship between the middle class and the national elites in Russia? These are the issues discussed below by Olga Kryshtanovskaya, Director of The Kryshtanovskaya Laboratory think tank.

Russia Direct: How, in your opinion, can the middle class best be defined? What is more important: its economic characteristics (income, place of work, financial status) or its social characteristics (education, social status, ideas and principles)?

Olga Kryshtanovskaya: Certainly, the economic characteristics matter. The concept of the middle class emerged in modern economic society. All countries where the concept came about have been economically determined, and that means all social groups were determined by their level of wealth.

The concept of the middle class is very simple: there are people who have low, average and high incomes, as defined by their level of wealth. Yet the level of living standards is the most important. That concept was later fleshed out with additional meanings, such as the middle class underpinning the state. Actually, in my opinion, the concept hasn’t so far applied to Russia.

RD: Why?

O.K.: The problem is that our society is inherently political. What has always been the most important in Russia is the possession of power and the proximity to power. Meanwhile, money has been secondary. In such societies as Russia, power has always won in any conflict with money. It was power that gave money, not vice versa. [Joseph] Stalin’s idea, that our society was divided into the working class, the peasantry and the intelligentsia, prevailed in the Soviet era. The main criterion for this division was the nature of the labor they performed, not their material status.

The collapse of the Soviet Union, perestroika, and the emergence of capitalism destroyed the old ideology, but no new one has appeared -- we just tried to import the Western liberal theory. And the concept of the middle class is a part of this trend. Its goal is to build a Western-style society, the one that “they have”. We have imported this theory but we have so far failed to adapt it to the Russian reality.

Olga Kryshtanovskaya. Photo: RIA Novosti

We have a middle class that exists in a kind of vacuum: We do not have a lower class; we do not have an upper class. There is only the middle class – and a vacuum around it.

This middle class is hovering like a cloud over society and is not linked to it in any way. True, if one takes the average wage, then we do have a middle class and it consists of the majority of the population. Every country has a middle class in this case.  

Proceeding from the concepts put forward by Western, notably American, sociologists, one has to have not only a high income, but also property. In this country, everyone has some property, even the poorest representatives of the population because we had a free privatization of apartments.  By these Western criteria, we are all middle class.

RD: Is there a global middle class? What are its common features and what are its political aspirations and economic expectations?

O.K.: My approach is that this category includes people with an average wage by the standards of the given country and an average standard of living. Naturally, the standards differ from country to country but it is everywhere the majority of the population and that majority are qualified people.

They may be workers but, more likely, they are specialists with a higher education. What interests do they have in common? Prosperity, stability, comfort, decent living standards. There can’t be any other ideology. That’s why, from the political point of view, they do not represent a united force of any kind and they do not have a shared ideology.

What brings together people with average income? Consumption. In this context we are a part of the global middle class. We have recently become a consumer society. That’s why it’s important for us to earn money to buy and travel. Thus, the only thing that unites the middle class people is an aspiration to be well-off, to consume and to have a decent standard of living.

They have no internal links with one another other than that they look for a decent life and seek to save their property. And to achieve this, the government should provide security, economic stability and a way to resolve disputes. 

RD: How does the Russian middle class differ from the American middle class?

O.K.: Russia does not have the kind of middle class that America has. The U.S. has a middle class – there, the state was built through the efforts of a certain group of people who worked hard to establish it. They dreamt of earning money, that was the basis of the whole capitalist system. That is their ideology. In Russia, this has been imported and it has not been adapted to our country.

We recently conducted opinion polls among young people and a nationwide poll has shown that the respondents had heard about the middle class but none of them said they belonged to it. Moreover, they believe that there is no “middle class” in Russia. It sounds like a kind of myth. Many young people have an incorrect idea that the members of the middle class are rich. The middle class actually implies average prosperity.

RD: What is the current relationship between the middle class and the elite in Russia?

O.K.: Imagine society as a pyramid with a wide base and a narrow top: there are a lot of people down below, but only a few at the top. Where does the elite come from? It comes from the lower strata and the middle class; I do not see any other source. It is a vertical society in which you have to rise step-by-step.

That said, we are witnessing a stratification of society and many rich, well-to-do people are appearing. Of course, they are eager to become an aristocracy, a group of people who inherit their status, and are trying to pass laws and introduce practices that would preserve their privileged position. This is happening in Russia today.

Since Vladimir Putin’s inauguration the street protests have lost steam. Photo: Yulia Ponomareva

RD: You say that the idea of the middle class is having a hard time taking root in Russia. How can it be adapted to Russian reality?

O.K.: Russia has been a political society for a long period of time. Russia has been an authoritative society for a thousand years. It will not be a fast process! It is necessary to build a market society for as many years for the class of property owners to feel its strength, to become aware of its own interests, for people to get used to saying, “We pay taxes and demand something in return from the authorities.”

This means adaptation to the power of money, adaptation to the idea that money is maybe not everything, but almost everything. So far, our society rejects that view: many think that rich people are thieves and that all wealth is ill gotten. In other words, our society hasn’t so far been adapted to a change in the global parameters of the social hierarchy.

RD: How can other countries, such as the U.S., help us to form a middle class or adapt this idea?

O.K.: They have done a great deal to help us in this. They proceeded from very simple premises: for people to understand that there are societies of a different, Western type, based on different principles, they have to see them first-hand.

The U.S. has been investing a lot of money in internships, educational exchange programs, conferences and projects in which they involve people from St. Petersburg and Moscow. Then they understood that Moscow and St. Petersburg were sufficiently advanced and started focusing on the Russian regions. This was mainly thanks to the many internship and exchange programs, both of which exposed people to Western culture. America is the undisputed leader in that sense.

I myself have experienced this and getting in touch with another civilization changed me a great deal.

RD: But that is public diplomacy, soft power. Can it be called an instrument for adapting the concept of the middle class to Russia?

O.K.: I am talking not about public diplomacy. In sociology it is called social mobility. People change their outlook when they tear themselves away from their usual environment. Social mobility has a great impact and plays a crucial role on our protests, from my point of view.

Our society has started moving: We travel around the world and people from different countries come to us. We are proud of our emigrants and, at the same time, we despise our migrants.

I attach a great importance to this “great transmigration of peoples”. It helps to look at ourselves from a different angle. It develops our awareness. This is a great boon for us because we are beginning to understand ourselves better and become more tolerant to other cultures. That is what globalization is all about.

RD: You mentioned the protest movement. What has changed in the Russian middle class since the 2011–2012 protests? Will it take to the streets in the event of new economic and social upheavals?

O.K.: The concept of the middle class confuses everything: it is a useless concept that has not taken final shape here. If we turn to our old scientific concepts, they do offer an explanation. The point is that the protesters are not the middle class but the Russian intelligentsia. The intelligentsia has been in conflict with the authorities for 200 years. These reasons have been amply described by Russian philosophy and sociology.

It is notable that the nucleus of the protest movement is initially consisted of students.  Now we see in our research that opposition is getting older: young people are leaving the protest movement. 40-year-old people are taking to the streets. These are the results of our recent study of the dynamics of protests.

According to Russian sociologists, the youth is leaving the protest movement. Photo: ITAR-TASS 

RD: And what is the “dynamic of protests”?

O.K.: Political societies (like Russia) have both strengths and weaknesses. The weakness is that the authoritarian vertical power structure is economically inefficient, prompting occasional liberalizations, which in this country is called a “thaw.”

All these “thaws” are accompanied by intellectual ferment (like during the New Economic Policy or “perestroika”). Dmitry Medvedev’s presidency also marked a thaw, when it seemed that we were about to become a true democracy and that the authoritarian state would collapse.

Each time such destabilization begins, it is destructive for the country. There comes a time when the people running the country cannot cope with the problem other than by bringing the country back to its former state.

In theory, we want democratization but, in practice, we cannot achieve this so far because a process of territorial disintegration, intellectual ferment and revolutionary epidemics sets in, leading to numerous conflicts in the country and the lack of control.

I therefore believe that the protests arose because of the hope that [then-President Dmitry] Medvedev gave when he was president. And Putin’s current tough stand is compulsory. His goal is to bring stability in society and put government in order. 

In this case the protests will fade out. Many people, not wishing to court disaster for themselves or their children and families, will quietly distance themselves from the protests to avoid risk. And those who remain will be radicalized. It will be a handful of professional politicians and their assistants.

Olga Kryshtanovskaya is Director of The Kryshtanovskaya Laboratory. Previously she served as the head of the Russia Academy of Sciences Sociology Institute’s Center for the Study of Elites. She is also Professor Emeritus at Glasgow University, Doctor of Sciences (Sociology) and author of Anatomy of the Russian Elite.