Monetary Middle Class

The Russian “middle class” remains an elusive and rather unclear category. It’s an entity that is recognized, but what exactly are its contours is rarely clearly defined. Kommersant has fitted one piece into the Russian middle class puzzle. The Russian middle class, at least as defined by Kommersant, is purely monetary. I’ve never been satisfied with defining the middle class by income. Income brackets just doesn’t provide the human stuff that make up class relations. Numbers don’t say much about how people act or collectively define themselves. I tend to side with E. P. Thompson’s notion that class is first and foremost “an historical phenomenon, unifying a number of disparate and seemingly unconnected events, both in the raw material of experience and in consciousness.” Most importantly, again following Thompson, class is “something which in fact happens in human relationships.”

Nevertheless, income is part of the story, even if it is not the whole story. And given the income brackets Kommersant provides, we can posit a Russian middle class that is broad as it is internally stratified. Below is a break down of middle class growth and stratification accompanying Kommersant’s article.

  2007 2006 Growth
Income more than $16,000 a year 19.4 14.6 33%
Income more than $25,000 a year 9.19 5.56 65%
Income more than $50,000 a year 4.5 2.12 113%
Income more than $125,000 a year 1.76 0.7 151%
Income more than $250,000 a year 0.86 0.36 138%
Income more than $500,000 a year 0.42 0.19 126%
Income more than $1 million a year 0.21 0.1 114%
Income more than $2 million a year 0.1 0.05 103%
Income more than $3 million a year 0.07 0.03 97%
Income more than $4 million a year 0.05 0.03 93%
Income more than $5 million a year 0.04 0.02 89%

The first thing to notice is that the middle class is approximately 36.6 percent of the Russian population. Interestingly, the figures cut off the middle class at an income $5 million a year. Those who make above this inhabit a wholly different strata suggesting that the ideology of middle class, as reflected in income, does not have the universality of a place like the U.S. where everyone seems to be of the “middle class.” The fact that there is not just a bottom to the middle class, but a top suggests that class still matters, even if it is demarcated by income.

Second, that there is great stratification within it. About 28.59 percent of the middle class makes between $16,000 to $50,000 a year, while 0.47 percent makes between $1 million to $5 million. Unfortunately, one can’t get a sense of how or how far a family jumps between brackets. How many families, for example, are earning so much wealth so fast that they are able to jump over strata in one year?

Also, like in most cases, money begets more money. Therefore, once a family hits the $125,000 a year bracket they are sure to continue moving up. For example, the number of families earning $1 million doubled from 100,000 to 200,000 between 2006 and 2007. This rapid reproduction of the top income brackets also suggests that there is an increasing gap between the lowest and the highest rungs of the middle class. The poorest section of the Russian middle class (earnings from $16,000 to $25,000) numbers about 10 million families. The number of families earning $1 million is about 5,000. This increasing concentration of wealth is further reflected in Rosstat’s adjustment of Russia Gini Index. In just one year, it rode to 42.2, up from 41.6 (Total equality is zero. The latest Gini for the United States is 45, whereas in Sweden it’s 23).

So that is one piece of the puzzle. The real question however is how this income corresponds to politics, attitudes, lifestyle, geographical location, age, and other factors the late E. P. Thompson would have used to determine the making of the Russian middle class.