HSE is presenting A Society of Unequal Opportunities: The Social Structure of Modern Russia, a new book whose authors use an original model to paint a collective portrait of Russians in the last decade. IQ.HSE asked Svetlana Mareeva, co-author of the monograph and Director of the HSE Institute of Social Policy’s Centre for Stratification Studies, about the highlights and trends discussed in the book and whether they tend to change in particularly challenging times.
PhD in Sociology,
Head of the Centre for Stratification Studies
HSE Institute of Social Policy
— Are there class divisions in Russian society — and are they what your book is about?
— There is a lot of discussion but very little consensus concerning class division in Russia. Proponents of a class-based approach argue that your social class is determined by your position in the free market and by the resources available to you. Their opponents contest that Russia does not have a free-market environment or that one's status in Russian society is strongly influenced by non-market factors, from residence location to family composition to gender.
Our research reveals that class-related as well as class-unrelated factors shape the social structure in Russia. However, it has not been our objective to identify social classes. Instead, we focused on describing distinct social groups which occupy fundamentally different positions in the multidimensional system of inequalities, on examining prosperous and disadvantaged strata, and on determining the factors which place individuals in any such stratum.
We construct a portrait of Russian society using a wide range of indicators, not limited to income but reflecting various other aspects of people’s lives, such as opportunities and risks in four key areas: economic security (expenses, real estate ownership, investments, savings, and debt), human capital (health and education), employment, consumption, and leisure.
A Society of Unequal Opportunities: The Social Structure of Modern Russia
Publisher: Moscow, Ves Mir, 2022.
a new approach to analysing Russia's social structure;
an original stratification model based on life chances and risks;
detailed profiles of members of different social strata: privileged, disadvantaged, and those in-between;
empirical data from nationally representative longitudinal surveys: RLMS-HSE and FCTAS RAS monitoring.
— How many groups did you identify?
— Three. The 'in-between' group is the largest and accounts for 50% to 60% of the country's population, depending on the sample and period analysed. Its living standards and quality of life are representative of those shared by the majority of Russians across the country and can be described as ‘the social standard'.
There are strata above and below it. The upper stratum represents between 11% and 20% of the population who enjoy better opportunities, such as higher positions in employment, being able to afford durable goods and comfortable living conditions, etc. The lower stratum consists of people exposed to multiple risks and severely limited in terms of opportunities and represents between 20% and 30% of the population.
The overall picture thus consists of these top, middle and bottom strata. The width of the in-between stratum reflects the finding that most Russians share approximately the same position in the system of inequalities. The bottom stratum is larger than the top one, and together they represent about one half of all Russians.
Source: N. Tikhonova, S. Mareeva, V. Anikin, Yu. Lezhnina, A. Karavay, E. Slobodenyuk, A Society of Unequal Opportunities: The Social Structure of Modern Russia, Moscow: Ves Mir, 2022.
— You have mentioned a 'social standard' for Russia — could you describe it?
— This reflects the typical circumstances for most Russians: while they may not enjoy extensive opportunities, they are also relatively safe from major threats to their livelihood. They do not have sufficient savings to cover a loss of income for any extended period, nor a second home, but they are free from major debt, precarious earnings and inelastic spending on healthcare, rent, etc.
Although without much decision-making power or many lucrative perks in the workplace, they do not usually suffer from major infringements of their labour rights or face long-term unemployment risks.
The same applies to consumption and leisure: these people cannot afford lavish purchases or international travel on vacations, but they live in a reasonably comfortable home and can always afford food.
As for human potential, even without extensive opportunities in terms of healthcare and education, they do have access to both.
Age: 44% are in the 18-30 and 31-40 age groups, and one in five (20%) is aged 60 and older.
Employment: about 67% are of working age and employed.
Occupation: almost 55% are blue-collar workers or commerce and service sector employees, and only 19% hold managerial and professional positions.
Education: one in three has secondary vocational training, 32% have completed secondary school, and 28% hold university degrees.
Place of residence: 68% live in big cities, mainly in the capital and regional centres.
Income: 70% earn between 0.75 and 2.0 median amounts for their region.
— What about your findings in the top stratum which suggest, as you say, 'an absence of sustainable, large-scale wellbeing in society'?
— The phrase about an absence of sustainable large-scale wellbeing refers to the instability of the upper stratum's comfortable situation — and I need to remind you that our study concerns society at large as opposed to elites which are separate from the rest of society. The upper stratum enjoys plenty of opportunities, but the turnover rate is high at the top, with many people dropping out after a while.
In terms of inequality, turnover might seem to be a good thing, because it means that others also have a chance to make it to the top. But for the well-educated, highly skilled Russians capable of advancing to the upper stratum, high turnover is bad news, because they can lose their positions easily due to a change of circumstances, such as a career turn or the birth of a child, among other things.
This is what we mean by saying that there is no such thing as a sustainable zone of wellbeing where one is likely to stay once they have attained a certain living standard. We have observed the same trend in our other studies which examine incomes as well as opportunities and risks: getting stuck at the bottom is pretty easy, but holding on at the top is hard.
Age: the largest across the strata proportion of 31–40 and 41–50 age groups and the smallest share of persons aged 60 and older.
Employment: more than 81% are of working age and employed.
Occupations: the majority are highly qualified professionals, managers and white-collar workers.
Education: almost 59% hold university degrees.
Place of residence: more than 76% live in big cities, mainly in the capital and regional centres.
Families: 51% have children.
Income: 74% earn average incomes, but the proportion of people with high incomes (2.0 regional medians and more) is between 2 and 6 times higher than in the middle and lower strata.
— Is it possible to rise from the very bottom to the very top? How can you do this?
— Movement between strata is possible but usually just by one step. A rise from the very bottom to the very top would be rare.
Belonging to a certain stratum is determined by one's human capital, available resources and being able to convert them into earnings. The type of employment makes a big difference. There are clear distinctions across the strata: managers and university-educated professionals at the top; blue collar workers and commerce and service sector employees at the bottom. Interestingly, while the latter are not engaged in manual labour, they are similar to blue-collar workers in many ways and form a new working class.
Younger people and urban residents, in particular those living in big cities such as Moscow, St. Petersburg and regional centres, have more opportunities to make it to the top. Urban-type settlements and villages are typically in the disadvantaged zone. There is no clear-cut boundary, and members of all strata can be found in any type of community, but their proportions vary.
Education, of course, is a distinctive characteristic. People in the upper stratum tend to be university-educated, while secondary vocational training is characteristic of those in the middle and lower strata.
Age: more than a third (35.5%) are aged 60 and older.
Employment: compared to the other strata, this group has a higher proportion of unemployed people (over 48%), including those who are temporarily out of work, people with disabilities, and retired individuals.
Occupations: almost 58% are blue-collar workers.
Education: over 71% have completed (more likely) or dropped out of secondary school.
Place of residence: villages (about 37%); the share of urban residents is the lowest of all strata.
Income: 38% are low-income people who earn less than 0.75 of the regional median; the other strata have between 1.6 and 3.4 times fewer low-income people.
— How long ago was this social structure established? Can it change in response to external circumstances?
— We have analysed the most recent decade starting in 2013 — unfortunately, our tools do not make it possible to look further back. The overall configuration of the model, with a wide middle and the lower part larger than the upper one, has remained fairly stable throughout the decade.
There have been some changes, of course. The period between 2013 and 2018 saw both socioeconomic shocks and a certain stabilisation, causing some people to advance from the lower stratum to the middle, which thus became wider.
The coronavirus crisis had a relatively strong effect on the distribution across the strata. The related change in the upper stratum's living standards and habitual patterns of consumption, recreation and leisure reduced the gap between the topmost and middle strata, with some people sliding down from the top to the middle and making it even larger.
— Is this all about specifically Russian developments?
— Our model is not directly applicable to other countries, so we cannot make immediate comparisons. But we do know that the general trend in the West is towards income polarisation causing a decline and shrinkage of the middle class; in Russia, the social structure is fairly stable, with the middle part getting even bigger over time. However, the living standards and quality of life in the middle stratum are far from ideal.
— Where in your model is the middle class?
— From a class-based perspective, the middle class is characterised by a high level of human capital which secures its members a relatively privileged position in society due to their contribution to the labour market. In this sense, Russia's middle class belongs to the upper stratum whose members are highly qualified professionals, executives and specialists with university degrees who earn high incomes due to their knowledge and skills.
To remind you, the upper stratum is between 11% and 20% of the Russian population. According to consensus-based expert estimates, the middle class accounts for 20% to 25% of the population, but its stable core is less than a half of the total. This core is based in the upper stratum.
— Would you say that the key differences for Russians lie in the sphere of opportunities or that of risks?
— Opportunities. People in Russia differ widely in terms of opportunities available to them in various areas, but much less in terms of risks, which are mainly concentrated in the lower stratum. A situation of multiple risks and no opportunities whatsoever is rare. There are risks, but they are not very deep.
— How do Russians see their place in this system of inequalities and what do they generally think of it?
— The way they see their own place varies from person to person, but the attitude towards inequality as such is universal: people find it excessively high and based on illegitimate and unfair grounds. It is noteworthy that people with fundamentally different positions in this system of inequalities all agree that the system itself is unfair.
The tunnel effect where people who have advanced to the top and expect to stay there tend to be more tolerant of inequality does not seem to work in Russia.
No amount of positive personal experience and wellbeing can change the perception of unfairness. It is not about one's own life but about something being wrong with society at large. And people here tend look to the government as the main actor of change to address these inequalities.
— May it have to do with historical memory?
— Younger people who grew up in a totally different environment also hold these ideas. Rather, what we observe is an inconsistency between the basic norms and values which are part of the common cultural code — fairness, equality of opportunities over equality of income, and acceptance of inequality when it is based on differences in performance and education — and the way these values are realised — or, rather, not realised in practice.
— Three years ago, during the presentation of your first joint monograph, someone referred to this group of authors as founders of a distinct school of thought. The second book has the same team of authors. Does it mean that this school of thought lives on? Do you agree with this definition?
— We are, of course, pleased with this assessment. Our team is indeed unique. It has formed around our long-term academic supervisor Natalia Tikhonova. Under her guidance, we all defended our degrees as doctoral students at different times and are now working to study social structure and social stratification.
Working together for years — the core team formed when many were still undergraduates — has helped us develop our own approaches and methods, and it would perhaps be true to say, our own school of thought. We have been really fortunate in this respect and will try to keep it this way.
— Should we then expect more such studies in the future?
— Yes, definitely. We have already come up with some approaches to analysing Russian society in terms of income and multidimensional inequality, but our research is not limited to these aspects. The structure of society can be viewed through the study of resources available to people, through the public's subjective perceptions, and more.
All of this is both interesting and important to examine, especially in a situation of continuous change. Each of our books, unfortunately, describes a period of turbulence, but on the other hand, these moments of upheaval make it particularly clear which factors are fundamental and which are only temporary and can change their meaning over time. Social scientists will always find things to study in a transforming society.