A conference held, at the beginning of the month, in St. Petersburg, was aptly titled "Middle Class - The Myths and the Reality". Russia is way poorer than Slovenia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, or even Poland. But, as income disparities grow, a group of discriminating consumers with the purchasing power to match, is re-emerging, having been submerged by the 1998 implosion of the financial sector.
The typical salary in the large metropolises is now more than $600 per month - four times the meager national average. Some 20 percent of the workforce in Moscow earns more than $1700 a month, comparable to many members of the European Union. Real average wages across Russia have surpassed the pre-1998 level in May.
Moreover, Russians are unburdened by debt and their utility bills and food are heavily subsidized, though decreasingly so. Few pay taxes - lately dramatically reduced and simplified - and even fewer save. Every rise in disposable income is immediately translated to unadulterated consumption. Takings are understated - Russia's informal economy is probably half as big as its formal sector.
A study, financed by the Carnegie Foundation, found that only 7 percent of Russians qualify as middle class. Another 12 percent or so have some bourgeois characteristics. Sixty percent of them are men, though the Komkon marketing research agency says that the genders are equally represented.
Figures culled from the census conducted this year throughout the Russian Federation - the first since 1989 - are expected to confirm these findings. About one fifth to one quarter of all Russian households earn more than the average monthly income of $150 per person.
Political parties which purport to represent the middle class - such as the Union of the Forces of the Right (SPS) - garnered 10-15 percent of the votes in the 1999 parliamentary elections. Direct action groups of the "third estate" may transform the political landscape in forthcoming elections.
In a recent study by sociologists from the Russian Academy of Sciences' Institute of Philosophy, more than half of all Russians self-flatteringly considered themselves middle class. This is delusional. Even the optimistic research firm Premier-TGI pegs the number at 19 percent at most.
Businesses adapt to these new demands of shifting tastes and preferences. The St. Petersburg-based cellular operator Delta Telecom, owner of the first license to provide wireless-communications services in Russia, intends to test the market among middle class clients.
Ikea, the Swedish home improvement chain, has plunged $200 million into a new shopping center. French, German and Dutch cash-and-carry and do-it-yourself groups are slated to follow. Russian competitors, every bit as sleek, have erupted on the scene. The investment spree has engulfed the provinces as well.
Last month, Citibank opened a retail outlet for affluent individuals in Moscow - though its standards of transparency may yet scare them off, as Gazeta.ru observed astutely. A private cemetery in Samara caters to the needs of the expired newly rich. Opulently-stocked emporiums have sprouted in all urban centers. TV shopping and even online commerce are on the up. According to the Washington Post, Moscow retail space will have tripled by the end of next year from its level at the beginning of 2002.
The Russian Expert magazine says that the middle class, minuscule as it is, accounted last year for a staggering 55 percent of all consumer goods purchased and generates one third of Russia's gross domestic product. The middle class is Russia's most important engine of wealth formation and investment, far outweighing foreign capital.
Russia's post-1998 fledgling middle class is described as young, well-educated, well-traveled, community-orientated, entrepreneurial and suffused with work ethic and a desire for social mobility. It is almost as if the crisis four years ago served as a purgatory, purging sins and sinners alike and creating the conditions for the revival of a healthier, longer-lived, bourgeoisie.
But being middle class is a state of mind more than a measure of wealth. It is an all-encompassing worldview, a set of values, a code of conduct, a list of goals, aspirations, fantasies and preferences and a catalog of moral do's and don'ts. This is where transition, micromanaged by western "experts" failed.
The mere exposure to free markets was supposed to unleash innovation and entrepreneurship in the long-oppressed populations of east Europe. When this prescription - known as "shock therapy" - bombed, the West tried to engender a stable, share-holding, business-owning, middle class by financing small size enterprises. It then proceeded to strengthen and transform indigenous institutions.
None of it worked. Transition had no grassroots support and its prescriptive - and painful - nature caused wide resentment and obstruction. When the dust settled, Russia found itself with a putative - and puny - middle class. But it was an anomalous beast, very different from its ostensible European or American counterparts.
To start with, Russia's new middle class is a distinct minority.
Prism, a publication of the Jamestown Foundation, quoted, in its August 2001 issue, the Serbian author Milorad Pavic as saying that "the Russian middle class is like a young generation whose fathers suffered a severe defeat in a war: with no feeling of guilt and no victorious fathers to boss them around, the children of defeat see no obstacles before them".
But this metaphor is misleading. The Russian middle class is a nascent exception - not an overarching rule. As Akos Rona-Tas, Associate Professor in the Sociology Department at the University of California, San Diego, notes correctly in his paper "Post Communist Transition and the Absent Middle Class in Central East Europe", a middle class that is in the minority is an oxymoron:
"In democracies the middle class is the nation proper. The typical member of a national community is a member of the middle class. When democratic governments need a social group they can address, a universal class that carries the overarching, common interest of the country, they appeal to the middle class. This appeal, while it calls on a common interest, also acknowledges that there are conflicting interests within society. The middle class is not everyone, but it is the majority and it represents what everyone else can become."
Russia has a long way to go to achieve this ubiquity. Its middle class, far from representing the consensus, reifies the growing abyss between haves and haves not. Its members' conspicuous consumption, mostly of imports, does little to support the local economy. Its political might is self-serving. It has no ethos, or distinct morality, no narrative, or ideology. The Russian middle class is at a Hobbesian and primordial stage.
Whether it emerges from its narcissistic cocoon to become a leading and guiding social force, is doubtful. The middle class' youth, urbaneness, cosmopolitanism, polyglotism, mobility, avarice and drive are viewed with suspicion and envy by the great unwashed - the overwhelming majority of Russia's destitute population. Empowered by their wealth, the new bourgeoisie, in turn, regards the "people" with naive admiration, patronizing condescension, or horror.
Granted, this muted, subterranean, interaction is not entirely deleterious. It is the social role of the rich to generate demand by provoking in the poor jealousy and attempts at emulation. The wealthy are the trendsetters, the early adopters, the pioneers, the buzz leaders. They are the engine that engenders social and economic mobility.
A similar dynamic is admittedly evident in Russia - but, again, it is tampered by a curious local phenomenon.
Writing for the Globalist, two Brookings Institution scholars, Carol Graham, a Senior Fellow of Economic Studies and Clifford Gaddy, a Fellow of Foreign Policy and Governance Studies described it thus:
"The eyes of Russia's middle class, on the other hand, are figuratively directed downward, towards the poor. In fact, as poverty in Russia increased dramatically in the 1990s, the middle class's reference norms shifted downward as well. As a result, Russia may be the only country in the world where the 'subjective poverty line' is falling. That is, the amount of money that Russians say that they need in order to stay out of poverty has been steadily falling over the past five years. It is even below the objective poverty line. For the time being, at least, these curious Russian attitudes, along with the existence of the non-monetary virtual economy, have insulated the country against political upheaval."
The list of anomalies is not exhausted.
The new middle class comprises the embryonic legitimate business elite - entrepreneurs, professionals and managers - but not the remnants of the financially strapped intelligentsia. It is brawn with little brains. In dissonance with western Europe, according to a survey published in the last two years by Expert magazine, the majority of its members are nationalistic, authoritarian and xenophobic. Their self-interested economic liberalism is coupled with social and political intolerance. But two thirds of them support some kind of welfare state.
Thus, there are major differences between the middle class in the West and its ostensible counterpart in Russia.
The Russian parvenus - many of them women - do not believe their state, their banks, or their compatriots. They fear a precarious future and its inevitable calamities though they are not risk averse and are rather optimistic in the short run. They keep their money under the proverbial mattress, invest it surreptitiously in their ventures, or smuggle it abroad. They are not - yet - stakeholders in their country's stability and prosperity.
Often bamboozled by other businessmen and fleeced by a rapacious bureaucracy, they are paranoid. Tax evasion is still rampant, though abating. They trust in equity and avoid debt. Some of them have criminal roots or a criminal mindset - or are former members of Russia's shady security services.
Three fifths, according to the Expert-Komkon survey, find it "hard to survive" when "observing all laws". "Strong leaders are better than all sorts of laws" is their motto, quoted by Izvestia. Generally, they are closer to being robbers than barons.
Early capitalism is always unruly. It is transformed into a highly structured edifice by the ownership of land and realty (the prime collateral), the protection of private property, a functioning financial system comprised of both banks and capital markets and the just and expedient application of the rule of law.
Russia has none of these. According to Business Week, bank deposits amount to 4 percent of the country's mid-size GDP - compared to half of GDP in other industrialized countries. Mortgages are unheard of, deposits are not insured and land ownership is a novel proposition. The judiciary is venal and incompetent. Might is still right in vast swathes of the land.
The state and the oligarchs continue to represent a rent-seeking opportunity. Businessmen spend time seeking concessions, permits, exemptions and licenses rather than conducting business. The "civic institutions" they form - chambers of commerce, clubs - are often mere glorified lobbying outfits of special and vested interests. Informal networks of contacts count more than any statute or regulation. In such a mock "modern state" no wonder Russia ended up with a Potemkin "middle class".