The 2011-2012 pro-democracy rallies in Russia pointed to a growing political awareness and political muscle of the country’s middle class. Donald N. Jensen, Resident Fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, discusses the Russian middle class, its social nature and its political potential.

 

 

The demonstrations in the wake of Russia’s falsified 2011-2012 parliamentary and presidential elections came as a shock not only to the international public, but also to the Kremlin. After years of apathy, a new social force—the Russian middle class—seemed to be emerging, with a message that included not only a political, but also a moral and emotional rejection of the corrupt authoritarian state that developed during the Putin era. While some observers had previously noted a growing sense of popular frustration, most did not expect the opposition to mobilize so soon or so quickly. Public opinion surveys also failed to detect the change in the national mood.

By the end of 2012, however, the protest movement seemed to have run out of steam. While the movement lost ground in part due to a harsh Kremlin crackdown, the lack of a single, mobilizing leader and internal divisions over strategy and tactics raised questions about the extent to which a middle class can be properly said to exist in Russia and about its ability to effect political change.

There is no universally agreed-upon definition of “middle class,” but the term can be said to describe the segment of a given society that has achieved a certain level of wellbeing and education and that exhibits an aversion to extremes and a desire for stability. The Independent Institute of Social Policy (NISP) identifies members of the Russian middle class as individuals who meet two of the following three criteria: possessing property; possessing a professional education or a white collar job; and having sufficient financial freedom to make certain life choices, such as choosing a school for one’s children. The Russian Academy of Sciences claims that one-third of Russians belong to the middle class. Other experts disagree. Despite the economic boom of the last decade, according to the NISP, today well-off Russians make up about 10 percent of the population, and the middle class about 20 percent, with the remaining 70 percent of society living in near or outright poverty.

Well-off Russians make up about 10 percent of the population, and the middle class about 20 percent.

Whatever its actual size, the Russian middle class is, on average, younger, better educated, and wealthier than the rest of the population. Its members generally live in big cities and tend to be more entrepreneurial, practice more sophisticated financial behavior, and exercise a much higher level of consumption than the majority of Russians. Vocationally, the Russian middle class is largely composed of small- to medium-sized business entrepreneurs, highly qualified specialists such as lawyers and accountants, and civil servants, including government functionaries and members of the military and security services.

Leonid Grigoriev, a professor at the Higher School of Economics, notes that many middle-class Russian entrepreneurs of medium-sized businesses are apolitical, though managers and the intelligentsia tend to be more politically aware. He observes that members of the middle class often support United Russia, implying that for business people this may be a tactical decision, because it is the ruling party and is likely to provide them benefits. But social and economic change has resulted in increased pressure for greater democracy. Maria Lipman of the Carnegie Moscow Center has described last year’s protesters as “un-Soviet or de-Sovietized” Russians who have shed a “dependency mentality.” A key factor she identifies in this push for political openness is the growing indifference to Stalin among the younger generation. Lipman argues that “the paternalistic model that Putin has established derives its legitimacy from a system of symbols that could be called ‘Stalinist’: an infallible state, patriotism understood as loyalty to the ruling authorities, [and] disloyalty regarded as a criminal act.” These symbols were largely rejected by those who turned out to demonstrate in the streets last year.

 

 

Despite the protests, the middle class may have reached its limits as an engine of political change—at least for now. First, Russia’s middle class has stopped growing, according to Tatiana Maleva, Director of the Institute for Social Analysis and Forecasting. Second, there are one-third more state officials, security officers, public sector managers, and employees of state-owned companies in the middle class today than in 2007, when the middle class included relatively more people interested in entrepreneurship and economic innovation. These newcomers to the middle class are more likely to value the stability of the state than to challenge its authority. They also tend to display more conservative values than non-state-employed citizens. Third, the Russian middle class is embedded in the Russian economic and political systems, in which employees of state companies benefit from informal links with state bureaucracies. Therefore, even though some members of the middle class may have voiced their unhappiness with Putin, actual democratic reform could clash with the economic interests of other members of this social stratum. Finally, Russian society is highly fragmented—social scientist Emil Pain recently identified the four “faces” of Russia as liberal, leftist, nationalist, and pro-authority. Pain observes that these factions do not talk to one another and find it difficult to reach any kind of political consensus.

Without a galvanizing event such as fraudulent national elections, it appears increasingly difficult to drive the Russian people into the streets.

These changes in the composition of Russia’s middle class may have already affected Putin’s standing in the polls. According to a recent poll by the Public Opinion Foundation, his support in Moscow, where he has traditionally had lower approval ratings, has risen to about 50 percent. (A different poll by the Levada Center places Putin’s approval rating at a lower, but still respectable, 44 percent). Furthermore, more than 75 percent of Moscow respondents to the Public Opinion Foundation poll said that they would not take to the streets—either to support or to protest the authorities.

Without a galvanizing event such as fraudulent national elections, it appears increasingly difficult to drive the Russian people into the streets. The opposition might do better by focusing on more tangible goals, such as building political parties (a middle-class preoccupation in other countries). But analysts have observed that some middle class protesters who supported the demonstrations last year seem to have little interest in the brick-by-brick building of a more democratic state—many view the job of choosing leaders, organizing, and compromising with other groups as tedious and corrupting. Amid widespread speculation about the future of the regime, it remains unclear which of the country’s four “faces” Russia’s middle class will eventually adopt.

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