>The missing middle

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A SSEES graduate emails me to ask if I know of any useful readings about the development of the Russian middle class. I don’t really. Russia not my main area of expertise, but it’s an interesting question. Middle classes are generally rather weak, dependent on/or overshadowed by the state and squeezed between the very rich and the fairly poor even in the more liberal CEE states and middle class revival is a theme that has entertained and agonized sociologists, right-wing parties seeking a counter-weight to social forces rooted in the communist, and liberals who see the new and/or old (historic) middle class as a potential dynamo for economic liberalism and civic engagement. Bulgaria even has a think tank called the Association for Middle Class Development.

I suspect the consensus would probably be that the Russia probably lacks a ‘middle class’ in any very meaningful sense, but the only thing I could think was a short polemical piece in Transitions Online by Andrei Piontkosky, former director of the closed down Strategic Studies Centre in Moscow. He makes the interesting point that the emergent Russia middle class – like those of Latin America – are indifferent to democracy and something of a minor prop for the Putin regime. A similar point was made a few years ago in more academic form in a very prescient article by Neil Robinson, who draw a parallel with ‘bureaucratic authoritarianism’ as a side effect of modernization in South America more explicitly. Unfortunately, as if to make the point – Piontkovsky seems more concerned with ‘modernization’ than democracy per se – which seems to suggest that the problem is that Russia has the wrong kind of authoritarian rule. Rather oddly, having started out with argument that Russia is a heading for a novel form of (semi-)authoritarianism ‘that is neither socialism nor capitalism but some hitherto-unknown creature’, he ends up suggesting that Putin is some kind of authoritarian neo-liberal in the Pinochet mould.

As more expert colleagues aren’t to hand, a quick google reveals a lot of informed journalistic comment – a sketch in Business Week, an article by Masha Lipman in the Washington Post, and two posts on Johnson’s Russia list (here and here) – but seemingly little in the way of academic research. How can you research something that doesn’t exist – and perhaps historically never did? The most I can turn up is a reference to a conference paper by a Dr Anna Ochkima of Penza State Pedagogical University presented at last year’s meeting of the American Sociological Association. Alas there is no publicly accessible online version, Dr Ochkima doesn’t have an email address listed, and her university doesn’t seem even to have a website. So much for Russian middle class development.

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