Russia’s Middle Class Still Lacks Political Power

The Russian middle class depends on the government rather than the private sector. It has yet to organize itself.

The middle class in Russia is very different from what scholars and journalists describe as the middle class in America and West Europe. Our middle class is more like that of China, India and other countries that are usually referred to as developing. The middle class in these countries, while not small, is still a minority. Meanwhile, in Western countries the size of the middle class peaked in the 1970s and 1980s at 50%-70% of the population, and for the past 20-25 years has been either growing poorer or shrinking numerically

In China, India and Russia the middle class has always been much more modest. In Russia it does not exceed 30% of the population. So a middle class that represents 70% of a nation is qualitatively different and has the power to impose its will on the ruling class. A large middle class can dictate behavioral norms, fashion, style and standards to those above and below it on the social ladder. The Russian middle class does not fit this mold. It is not the backbone or hope of Russian society, just one of the social classes – no better or worse than the others. Certainly, nobody is trying to emulate it in any meaningful way.

The Russian middle class also lacks the kind of organization necessary to articulate and advance its interests in the political arena. Trade unions historically have been a unifying force for the working class, but what serves a similar function for the budding middle class in Russia? The country has many clubs, groups and movements, but they are diffuse. The Russian middle class has yet to organize itself and there is nobody to defend its interests. Some time ago Vladislav Surkov tried to address this problem on behalf of the state. He devised a program to strengthen the middle class, which became a major part of his vision for the country, but all this came to an end several years ago and the middle class did not become a political force in Russian society as a result.

Finally, the middle class in Russia is losing its human capital, and it’s unclear who will replenish and expand its ranks. In the United States, the middle class consists of professionals like college professors and lawyers. Our middle class primarily draws from government workers, the officer corps and what remains of the intelligentsia. In other words, our middle class depends on the government rather than the private sector. A person with a minor position in a state corporation with a decent salary and benefits may be middle class, but they owe their position in society to that state corporation. Few in Russia have reached the middle class on their own steam.

The Russian middle class expanded rapidly between 1999 and 2008, reaching 25% of the population. But in the recovery that has followed the 2008 recession the middle class has not made any numerical or qualitative gains. In the last two years the president has pulled doctors and teachers up into the middle class by boosting their wages. This has already yielded some results, but the process will be slow and it is too early to speak about any qualitative improvement of the middle class. It still makes up no more than 30% of the population. And its growth dynamics are very weak, as entrepreneurs continue to fall out of the middle class owing to the difficulty of doing business in Russia, especially for small and medium companies. But the officer corps, the Interior Ministry and service personnel – who now earn much more thanks to the military reform – are being drawn into the middle class. The same is true of teachers and doctors. While these three categories are driving a small expansion of the middle class, there are not so many teachers and doctors in the country, several million at most, so this resource will be exhausted eventually.

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