The Middle Class: Expenditure Structure and Self-Understanding

An Interview with Sergei Parkhomenko

Sergei Parkhomenko argues that a new middle class is emerging in Russia but its definition depends on much more than just economic factors. A changing self-perception plays a vital part in reshaping the economic and social structures of the Soviet Union. How will this affect the democratisation of the Russian society?

Neprikosnovenny Zapas: Is there a middle class in Russia today?

Sergei Parkhomenko: We undoubtedly have a middle class. The concept is very broad, and there are different criteria for singling out a “middle class”. I think that the middle class is certainly not defined by income, as is often erroneously – and simplistically – assumed. This would mean that families where one member has an income between 500 and 2000 dollars belong to the middle class, whereas those having 450 dollars do not quite yet. That’s wrong, of course; the middle class is a certain life style, a feeling, an understanding of oneself and one’s strengths and potentialities.

Another simplistic and incorrect view is that the middle class are those who have achieved everything. People used to say that there is Yavlinsky’s party and there is Gaidar’s and Chubais’s party, and that on the whole, the supporters of both of these more or less share the same views, but those who don’t suffer any need vote Gaidar, whereas those who have been unlucky vote Yavlinsky. This is not what defines the middle class.

Belonging to the middle class is a question of self-understanding and self-image. Recently my colleagues and I attempted to get different sociologists to try and do the necessary research for us. The first problem we faced was that of income. It wasn’t clear what was to count as a large income and what as a small one. People refused to discuss this, and when asked for figures they just shut up. You may ask someone “What’s your impression, do you manage to get by in general or not?” and they will say “I think we have enough of everything”, and then it turns out they’re really destitute. Or the other way round. At some point we worked out the following method: we decided to find out not people’s income, but the structure of their expenditure. It was decided that if you spend less than half of your income on food, or better just a third, then that’s, roughly, the economic basis for being counted as middle class – which doesn’t necessarily mean that you will be counted like that. Those, on the other hand, who spend, say, three quarters of their income on food – including people with high incomes – cannot be categorised as middle class, because only a minimal share of their expenditure is spent on relatively long-term investments, such as their own health, their own education, or their own entertainment. Here we are gradually getting to what I tend to count as middle class.
I would say that a middle class person is someone who respects himself and is very self-centred. This definition allows to distinguish the middle class from what we call the “new Russians” – coarse, consuming animals. From a psychological point of view, the middle class are people who are satisfied with themselves, who are sure of themselves. I remember entering a stylish shop with a friend, at the time when they just started appearing, and leaving it, like any normal person, in total astonishment, thinking: who is this intended for? How many people in this country can afford this? To which my friend said: “What are you surprised about? There are quite a lot of them. Take this man, he buys a jacket, leaves the shop, goes around the corner and gets killed. Then there’s another one, and so on.” This attitude, whereby all blessings need to be had here and now because nobody knows what will happen tomorrow, is of course totally alien to the middle class. The middle class has a certain long-term perspective, makes plans for this perspective, and has a strategy based on these plans. Correspondingly, people spend a lot on their health and similar things.

NZ: What is decisive in forming this attitude – economic or cultural factors?

S.P: Economic independence is undoubtedly the basis for this behaviour – but just as undoubtedly, this behaviour is not a consequence of economic independence. One needs to have a minimum level of income – but the objectively necessary figures aren’t very high. This basis is relatively modest, but if someone spends all he earns on food, then whatever his attitude to the outside world, he will not be able to take care of his children’s education: he will just not have the money. If, however, he manages to nourish himself decently and have something left over, then the question is what he spends the money on: more food, or life investments.

Another criterion is whether people count on their own strength – after all, you can inherit money or win the lottery. So it’s significant where the money comes from, since we’re talking about relying on one’s own force. Moreover, these people need to be quite mobile, not just geographically (though this is important), but also psychologically. These people constantly need to be prepared to change their occupation and living conditions. There is an enormous number of people who are psychologically chained to companies that have long gone bankrupt or editorial offices already covered in cobweb.

NZ: Is this “middle class” view of the world self-generated or is it fastened on from the outside?

S.P: I am convinced that it does slowly develop within a person, within a small circle, due to all sorts of factors – including, of course, cinema, advertisements, and observation of life outside. Of course, the opening of the borders and the possibility to travel and observe life in different countries have played an enormous role. People live very differently, say, in European countries and in Latin America or Italy and Portugal – these are two different worlds, two different ways of life. Of course, all this has played a role, but the worldview itself undoubtedly matures inside. It is very important gradually to realise that I can afford this – not because this is what people wear, not in order to prove anything, but simply because I can afford this. I just can. The second feeling is something like this: now I will always be able to afford this. The third feeling is that I can afford this because this only depends on me, I have arranged this myself.

NZ: So you wouldn’t emphasise the role of the media in the formation of a middle class?

S.P: I wouldn’t emphasise it, but I wouldn’t underestimate it either. There is a big and extremely varied world that surrounds us and influences our brains – but only certain ideas spring up, and they do so inside our brains. Of course, we have been told that we need a middle class, and some people immediately rushed to start building it, just like the national idea; but everything grows from inside, and it grows very slowly. The magazine I edited for five years together with my editorial team was part of this way of life, it grew along with this milieu. Imagine that a few people crop up in some back of beyond who could count as members of this milieu – then and only then will the magazine reach that place.

NZ: Can one be a representative of the middle class in the first generation, or do we first need a certain micro-culture, including on the family level?

S.P: That’s a strange question, because the middle class is not an estate. Obviously, the middle class has nothing to do with generations. More than that, it’s possible not to have been a member yesterday and to become one today. This is a social state which one may enter (and leave) several times during a lifetime. In many ways, this is linked to income levels, because today you may be an employee in a big company, tomorrow the company closes down, and the day after that you’re hired by another one. Of course this is important, but that’s not all. Over time, as a person ages and as his social or even family situation changes, he may return to the middle class or leave it. For example, he may marry another woman; with his old wife his family could not possibly have been attributed to this class, and then he divorces, marries again; his habits, his attitude to life and his taste all change – and he becomes a representative of the middle class.

NZ: Is there a connection between this nascent middle class and late Soviet social structures or processes, such as urbanisation, modernisation and the spread of higher education?

S.P: I am deeply convinced that the whole structure of our world in Soviet times – early Soviet, mid-Soviet, late Soviet – was in profound and systematic contradiction with everything that I put into the definition of this word. Under Soviet rule, given the system of social behaviour, consumption, and etiquette, the system of do’s and don’ts (which all of our compatriots, almost without exception, followed to a certain extent) that was in force then, there could be no middle class. There could be rich and poor, there could be successful and unsuccessful people, there could be fat ones and skinny ones, but this is not what makes up “middle classdom”. True, an educated urban dweller has more chances to be part of the middle class than a former collective farm worker. Simplifying things a lot, one can say that this is because in a relatively primitive rural environment, there are fairly few opportunities and few desires to whose fulfilment a person may turn his forces; of course a big town presents many more temptations and many more opportunities for self-realisation, for the application of one’s skills. When I first travelled abroad, to Paris, I stayed with a friend. He showed me where everything was – sugar, salt, toilet paper, and then he tells me: “Turn off the light when you leave – not because I’m greedy, but because there’s so much else that this money could be spent on.” I think that’s very true. This is a very important imperative of life – one tries to widen the scope of one’s resources, then there’s the question of what these resources will be used for? All the immaterial values that may be cited in response are also linked to consumption, consumption in the broadest sense – because education is also consumption, art is also consumption, travels are also consumption.

NZ: Many of these values – education or art, for example – were propagandised precisely in the framework of the Soviet project of modernisation. Of course, this propaganda was in profound contradiction with the real opportunities one had for realising one’s ambitions, but still…

S.P: It’s important to see what was propagandised and how. Strangely, Soviet cinema, all its great merits notwithstanding, wasn’t an object of consumption – it was an object of comprehension. American cinema, on the other hand, is an object of consumption which encompasses everything including pop corn and all the paraphernalia such as beauty or fashion contests etc. The best example is “Jurassic Park” – someone sat down and created a whole world out of nothing, then made the whole planet busy itself with dinosaurs. Before that, few people were interested in dinosaurs: there were children who were interested in biology at school, there were nice illustrated books, but nothing special. Then someone came and stirred up a dinomania across the whole world: he made a good movie and opened gates beyond which there were toys, computer games, cartoons – but also passions, life styles, and dreams.

NZ: Is the formation of a middle class a guarantee for the democratisation of our society? Is the middle class in itself inherently democratic, or are there conditions under which it can help bringing a dictatorship to power?

S.P: Of course there are – but then the dictatorship will destroy it. In my opinion, dictatorship and middle class are incompatible, because mobility is one of the most important traits of “middle classdom”, whereas dictatorship doesn’t like it when people move around, change their views, change their occupation. Strange situations do emerge, such as in Chile. But Chile and the Pinochet situation in general were a rare exception, because for the past 150 years there have been a lot of dictators in Latin America, and only one of them managed to make the country prosper economically. Usually things would result not in a Pinochet but in yet another Stressner, who didn’t make anything prosper, and the country would be poor, unhappy, stupid and ugly. Many scenarios are possible, of course, but in general, in a standard situation, any clampdown, any concentration on “order” is in contradiction with the mobility of this group and consequently reduces the middle class to being simply a well-off stratum.

I don’t think we should be complacent – everything can still be driven back. Privatisation, say, had as its second (strictly speaking, as its first) aim not to build and create something, but to destroy. Those who initiated this privatisation had a clearly defined aim; they fulfilled it brilliantly and deserve an everlasting bronze statue for it. They had to make a few irreversible steps, destroy the socialist systems of ownership and management. This is what their task was: they had to make this Soviet aquarium boil, no matter whether there would be fish soup in the end or not. The main thing was to make the water boil so no more fish would be swimming in there, ever. One can, of course, imagine horrible ways to make them swim in there again – but these ways are too horrible. The construction of the middle class, on the other hand, is not a destructive, but a constructive process. And everything that is built is reversible. The process can be reversed while maintaining the same income levels, one can imagine that the country would not be as poor as in Soviet times. But we’ve already established that the middle class is not just defined by an income level, but also by a worldview, a view of one’s own future.

True, at the moment we are a big, unenlightened country. There are a few sprinkles of the new; gradually, these sprinkles will grow. In each country there is a different correlation between these sprinkles and the masses. There is a multitude of geographical, economic, climatic, psychological, historical and cultural circumstances which determine their optimal correlation in a given country. On one end of the scale there is, say, Holland, which almost entirely belongs to this middle class, on the other end there is Brazil. At some point there is a certain saturation, on a different level for each country. I have little knowledge of what happens in Brazil, but I do have an idea of what happens in Portugal. There this correlation is rather difficult, it’s a relatively poor country. I don’t know what there will be in Russia; give it some time to grow. So far, undoubtedly, the milieu is growing; at some point there will be a saturation. So far the system has evidently not reached any equilibrium. We’ll see.

Published 30 August 2002
Original in Russian
Translated by Mischa Gabowitsch

Contributed by Neprikosnovennij Zapas (NZ) © Sergei Parkhomenko / Neprikosnovennij Zapas (NZ) / Eurozine

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