The middle class leads economic and social development in the world’s leading countries. ‘An essential feature of the middle class is the ability to perceive everything new and to broadcast innovation to the rest of the society’ (ex-Minister of Finance Alexey Kudrin). At the same time, the size of the middle class in Russia is not growing, and although no one underestimates its importance in the modern society, no real steps are being taken to help it develop.
Tatiana Maleva, Professor at the HSE and Director of the Institute of Social Analysis and Forecasting at the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration (RANEPA), spoke at the conference ‘Middle Class Development’ which took place in the end of April at RANEPA, discussing what the middle class in Russia is like, what the dynamics of its development are, and what measures are necessary to stimulate the growth of this social strata.
It is well-known that there is no single agreed academic definition of the middle class. That’s why this topic is surrounded by so many myths. According to Maleeva, there are three particularly widespread myths.
Myth one – the middle class in Russia never existed, doesn’t and won’t exist. This point of view was especially popular in 1990s – early 2000s. It was explained by the poverty of the population. A lighter version of this myth is the idea that the middle class existed, but disappeared during the crisis of 1998. This myth was replaced in mid-2000s with a statement that soon half, or at least 40%, of Russians would become middle class. According to Maleeva, such a statement became especially popular before the election. ‘The concept of the middle class has always been used in election processes’, Maleeva emphasized.
And, finally, a third myth has appeared inrecent years. According to this, there are only a few representatives of the middle class in Russia, but they are active. The middle class has started to be identified with the creative class.
Traditionally, there are three approaches to defining the middle class: material, social, and subjective. Speaking about the middle class, usually the level of material wealth is taken into account (which includes both revenue and property), as well as a set of socio-professional indicators (education, profession, position), and personal subjective feelings.
The middle class are not rebels, nor revolutionists. They choose wealth and stability. They don’t initiate reforms, but can be a social basis for reforms.
‘It’s impossible to assign someone as the middle class, if he doesn’t think of himself as being so’, Maleeva said, ‘We decided to try all these approaches and evaluate what share of the population can be called middle class’.
According to her, the middle class is a combination which is characterized both by material and non-material resources, as well as some indicators of social self-identification. Statistics don’t allow us to carry out a deep study and get exact data, but regular studies of this issue have unveiled an interesting fact. Since 2000, about 20% of population in Russia can be identified as middle class. This figure hasn’t changed for more than 10 years. At the same time, 20% of the population can be placed within the middle class by material indicators, 22% by social factors, and 40% by subjective criteria. ‘We had 20% in 2000 during the country’s transition to economic growth. Everyone expected that the middle class would grow. But both in 2007 and a year ago we got the same figure’, Maleva concluded.
According to the economist, the middle class can grow in two ways: by itself and by means of being joined by other members of the society – through the so-called ‘social lift’. ‘For a country which has gone through some hard economic crises, 20% is quite a lot. One question remains unanswered: what is the potential of the middle class, what social groups can add to it, and what prevents them from doing so’, Maleva asks.
According to the researcher’s calculations, 70% of the population is between the underclass of society and the middle class, forming its potential future members: ‘This is a big part of the society which is hovering between the hammer and the anvil’, Maleva jokes. But the lack of movement is frightening.
There is a feeling of a hardened pyramid with certain borders. And even the rapid economic growth of the 2000s was unable to break this pyramid. But it is worth saying that the crisis also failed to damage it seriously. ‘Russian society has been in stasis for more than 10 years’, the expert concluded. And visible stability is hiding internal rotation. The social lift moves in different directions, both upwards and downwards.
Maleva believes that the thesis that the middle class, through its activity, will develop itself to be false. According to her, the middle class are not rebels or revolutionists. First of all, they are good timeservers. They choose wealth and stability. That’s why recently they have actively been leaving private business for state bodies. ‘A middle class representative works where stability and profit is highest. He doesn’t initiate reforms, but can be a social basis for reforms. That’s why it is important to invest in those institutions which correspond with the middle class’s interests (and primarily, institutions supporting private business), as well as creating a political party for them’, Maleva said and emphasized that with all their diversity, different representatives of the middle class have some mutual positive characteristics. These include aspiration for innovation and a willingness to promote sustainable economic development. ‘The larger the middle class, the more successful economic development is’, the economist concluded.