Russian History


Social Stratification

Perhaps the most significant fact about Russia's social structure is that ideology no longer determines social status. During the Soviet era, membership in the CPSU was the surest path to career advancement and wealth. Political decisions rather than market forces determined social status. Despite Marxist-Leninist (see Glossary) notions of a classless society, the Soviet Union had a powerful ruling class, the nomenklatura , which consisted of party officials and key personnel in the government and other important sectors such as heavy industry. This class enjoyed privileges such as roomy apartments, country dachas, and access to special stores, schools, medical facilities, and recreational sites. The social status and income of members of the nomenklatura increased as they were promoted to higher positions in the party.

The social structure of the Soviet Union was characterized by self-perpetuation and limited mobility. Access to higher education, a prerequisite to political and social advancement, was steadily constrained in the postwar decades. The so-called period of stagnation that coincided with the long tenure of CPSU chief Leonid I. Brezhnev (in office 1964-82) had social as well as political connotations. Moreover, the sluggish economy of that period reduced opportunities for social mobility, thus accentuating differences among social groups and further widening the gap between the nomenklatura and the rest of society.

Members of the urban working class (proletariat), in whose name the party purported to rule, generally lived in cramped apartment complexes, spent hours each day standing in line to buy food and other necessities, and attended frequent obligatory sessions of political indoctrination. Similarly, the peasantry eked out a meager existence, with little opportunity for relief. Agricultural workers constituted the bottom layer of Soviet society, receiving the least pay, the least opportunity for social advancement, and the least representation in the nominally all-inclusive CPSU leadership.

Postcommunist society also is characterized by a wide disparity in wealth and privilege. Although there is no rigid class structure, social stratification based on wealth is evident and growing. The nomenklatura as it existed in Soviet times disappeared with the demise of the CPSU, but many of its members used their continuing connections with industry and finance to enrich themselves in the emerging capitalist system. According to a 1995 study conducted by the Russian Academy of Sciences, more than 60 percent of Russia's wealthiest millionaires, and 75 percent of the new political elite, are former members of the communist nomenklatura , and 38 percent of Russia's businesspeople held economic positions in the CPSU. The wealth of the new capitalists, who constitute 1 to 2 percent of the population, derives from the ownership of private property, which was prohibited under the communist regime; from former black-market transactions that now are pursued legally; and from repatriation of funds that were secretly transferred abroad during the Soviet era. Entrepreneurs have purchased former state-owned enterprises privatized by the government (often using connections with government authorities to gain favorable treatment) and have opened banks, stock exchanges, and other ventures typical of a market economy (see Banking and Finance; Privatization, ch. 6). By the mid-1990s, Russia had by no means established a full-fledged market economy, but the era of capitalism, which the Bolshevik Revolution had cut short, was ascendant.

The most successful of the new capitalists practice conspicuous consumption on an extravagant scale, driving flashy Western cars, sporting expensive clothing and jewelry, and frequenting stylish restaurants and clubs that are far beyond the reach of ordinary Russians. Russian biznesmeny with cash-filled briefcases purchase expensive real estate in exclusive areas of Western Europe and the United States. Other areas of the world, such as the city of Limassol, Cyprus, have been transformed into virtual Russian enclaves where illicit commercial transactions help fuel the economy. Russian capitalists attempting to achieve at a high level using legitimate means must nonetheless pay protection money to criminal groups, especially in the larger cities.

In the first half of the 1990s, the gap between the richest and poorest citizens of Russia grew steadily, and it became a source of social alienation because newly successful Russians are resented and often are assumed to have criminal connections. In 1995 the World Bank (see Glossary) ranked Russia's dichotomy between the highest and lowest economic echelons on a par with the wide gaps between rich and poor in Argentina and Turkey. However, by 1996 the gap had decreased slightly. According to the State Committee for Statistics (Goskomstat), in 1995 the wealthiest 10 percent of Russians earned 13.5 times as much as the poorest 10 percent. In 1996 the ratio had shrunk to 12.8 percent, suggesting that more people were sharing in the wealth. According to reports in 1996, the flaunting of luxurious automobiles, clothing, and other forms of material wealth became less prevalent in Russia's largest cities, especially Moscow, which is the center of the nouveau riche population.

Nonreporting of incomes by the highest socioeconomic level likely makes the real gap wider than the official statistics indicate. The overall decline in living standards in 1995 is revealed by an 8 percent decrease in retail trade and by opinion surveys. For instance, in early 1995 some 56 percent of respondents said that their material situation had declined, and 17 percent said that it had improved. Another survey identified 68 percent of respondents claiming to live below the poverty line in 1995, compared with 56 percent the previous year. Such self-perceptions of victimization promote the platforms of antireform political parties that promise a return to the guaranteed well-being of the Soviet era (see The Elections of 1995, ch. 7).

A subclass of young businesspeople, mainly bankers and stockbrokers, runs the new trading and investment markets in Moscow and St. Petersburg, remaining aloof from the tangled, state-dominated manufacturing sector. This group, a very visible part of life in the larger cities in the mid-1990s, has profited from the youthful flexibility that enabled it to embrace an entirely new set of rules for economic success, while Russia's older generations--with the exception of the astute nomenklatura members who became part of the nouveau riche--were much less able to adapt to the post-Soviet world.

Conditions for the working class and the peasants are sharply at variance with those of the new capitalist class. Political repression has eased, but economic privations have increased. Although more goods are available, they are often beyond the means of the average worker. Full employment, the virtually guaranteed basis of survival under communism, no longer is the norm (see Unemployment, ch. 6). At the lower end of the social scale, the "working poor" toil predominantly in agriculture, education, culture, science, and health, most of which are considered middle-class fields of employment in the West. State employees, who suffer especially from inflation because of infrequent wage adjustments, often fall below the official poverty line.

Young parents with little work experience and more than one child are especially likely to be members of the working poor. In 1993 some 57 percent of families classified as poor by the World Bank had one or more children, and 86 percent of families with three or more children were classified in the lowest income group. Most single-parent families also belonged to this group. In the lower- income groups, people with relatives generally fare better than those with none (especially single pensioners), as the informal subsistence networks formed during the Soviet era continue to provide support to a substantial segment of society.

The glasnost (see Glossary) policy of the late 1980s brought a new youth culture that took up the nonconformist dress, drug use, music, and antiestablishment stance of young people in the West, while earnestly seeking answers to questions about Russia's past and its potential future. The social and economic stresses and disappointments of the 1990s have pushed the majority of young Russians completely out of the youth culture, while the few who have won some sort of success have moved to further extremes, such as hedonism and wild economic speculation. In the cities, clubs and bars, all making heavy protection payments to the mafiya --as Russia's growing organized crime groups are termed--are gathering places that feature a variety of narcotics (including mushrooms gathered in the woods near St. Petersburg), alcohol, and a form of Russian rock music that was full of protest in the late 1980s but has since been diluted to widen its market appeal. This small but highly visible class of youth is divided into hundreds of tusovki (sing., tusovka ), mutually exclusive social circles that provide a sense of identity but isolate their members from the rest of society. What the tusovki have in common are decadence, an appetite for risk, and a readiness to indulge in faddish forms of mass behavior.