A wave of protests rocked Moscow and scores of other cities across Russia between 2011 and 2013. The demonstrators called for free and fair elections and some even demanded an end to the Putin regime. Many Russian commentators argued these mass protests were spearheaded by members of the urban middle class, and the world’s media concurred.
History has shown that where there is expansion of the middle class, democracy develops alongside. As the middle class accumulates wealth and property, it develops a vested interest in stability and the rule of law, promoting the development of a set of democratic checks and balances on the government.
Often seen as a bastion of democracy, Russia’s middle class is popularly regarded as a major source of opposition to the Putin regime. But does it give more support to democratic values, such as support for free and fair elections, a free press and a pluralistic political system, than other classes?
Divisions have weakened the solidarity of the Russian middle class and questioned its role as a catalyst for democratic change. That crucial dividing line is between those who depend on the state for their livelihood and those who work in the non-state sectors of the economy. As commentator Andrei Kolesnikov puts it:
The … end of the post-Soviet transition created a specific kind of middle class: one that grew out of oil and gas deposits, one that demanded both bread and circuses … But there is another middle class, too, born out of something very different … the giant army of state officials and public sector workers. Then there are the security services, investigators, prosecutors, judges: the backbone of the state. The class of people working not just directly for the state but also for state corporations and banks, and private structures whose existence depends entirely on connections with the state and officialdom.
My research reveals that most of the middle class support Putin, and given the choice, will opt for stability and the political status quo, rather than risk the uncertainties brought about by democratic reforms.
Who are Russia’s middle class?
So what factors influence who belongs to the middle class? Economists focus on income and property. But defining the middle class this way fails to explain how such a diverse group of individuals could develop a shared class identity or consciousness. Income-based approaches really define middle “layers” rather than classes, and fail to capture low-income citizens who, according to other criteria such as education and occupation, would qualify for middle-class status.
Sociologists, in contrast, stress divisions between employers and employees, as well as those between “manual” and “mental” labour, and add other criteria, such as education and occupation, to those of income.
In a survey of 4,000 citizens carried out in collaboration with the Russian Institute of Sociology, we found that just 26% of the respondents could be defined as middle class, based on individuals who met criteria in three areas: income – an average monthly income not lower than the median for the country as a whole; occupation – non-manual “white collar” employees; and education – those with higher education.
Recognising the middle class’s role as a catalyst for economic development, Putin has called for an increase in its size “to encompass 60% of the population”. But his attempts to modernise the country to boost economic growth may end up sowing the seeds of its own destruction. For, as has been widely demonstrated, a society’s public values shift and become more hospitable to democracy as they become wealthier, more industrialised, more urban and better educated.
A state-dependent middle class
But it is important to stress that the middle classes are made up of a diverse group of citizens, each with a variety of political and moral attitudes, and its social composition will vary in different countries. An important factor here is the degree to which members of the middle class are dependent on the state for their livelihood, which is particularly relevant to the Russian middle class.
For example, in Russia, 76.6% of leading managers in the state sector were members of the middle class in 2011 compared to just 33% in 2007. For members of the military and security forces, the percentage of middle-class members grew from 25% in 2007 to 44% in 2011. In 2018, 48% of the Russian middle class were employed in the state sector.
We would expect there to be differences in the interests and values between those who are state-dependent for work and those who work in the private sector, and our study confirms this is the case. But the differences are not very large, and they have narrowed since the outbreak of the civil war in Ukraine and Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.
Support for the regime increased substantially in the wake of these developments, as the vast majority of Russian citizens supported Putin’s foreign policy towards Ukraine. Members of both sectors currently prioritise stability and economic security over liberal values, and both express high levels of trust in the Putin regime.
According to our survey, 63% of of state sector workers and 65% of private sector workers supported the idea that “Russia needs to revive national traditions and moral and religious values”, whereas just 37% and 35% respectively, supported the alternative that “Russia should move forward towards a modern way of life, such as in Europe”.
Similarly, 68% of state sector workers and 69% of private sector workers supported “strengthening the state’s power over the economy and politics”, whereas just 32% and 31% respectively, chose the option calling for “the release of citizens from excessive state control”.
Two-thirds (66%) of state sector workers and 63% of private sector workers agreed that “it is necessary to introduce moral censorship over the media”, while 34% and 37% respectively, agreed that “the mass media and art should be free from censorship”. Finally, 73% of state sector workers and 64% of private sector workers expressed trust in the president.
In 2019, after almost two decades of Putin, it would appear untrue to say that Russia’s middle class universally supports liberal and democratic values. As has been the case in countries like China, those doing comfortably well seem quite happy to prop up an authoritarian regime if their interests are protected by the state.