Reimagining Russia’s Middle Class

middle class

This week’s Russia! Magazine column, “Russia’s Real Middle Class,”

When protests erupted in Moscow in December 2011, pundits held them up as the Russian middle class finally finding its political voice. Press reports, like in the New York Timesdescribed “well traveled and well mannered” throngs of “young urban professionals” clad in “hipster glasses” denouncing fraudulent elections, corruption, and Putin. The Times, like many others, emphasized that the emergence of this newly politicized middle class was not without a measure of irony. They were the sons and daughters of the economic successes of very system they were protesting. Then as now the Russian middle class are viewed as the most revolutionary. They after all were fulfilling the historicist truism that “economic growth can inadvertently undermine autocratic rule by creating an urban professional class that clamors for new political rights.”And this assertion, too, is not without irony either. Journalists and pundits, who almost universally reject Marxist theories of revolution, still embrace one of Marx’s key maxims from the Manifesto: “The bourgeoisie, historically, has played a most revolutionary part.”

There are many problems with this historical teleology. Russia’s middle classes have yet to fulfill its historical mission. Its revolting ranks have atrophied as members of the so-called “creative class” have retreated back into hipsterdom. Many, of course, will point to Putin’s heavy fist as the main culprit. They would perhaps be a quarter right. The government crackdown, an aimless opposition, and the banality of street rallies have all worked in concert to deflate the protests. But there’s another cause for Russia’s middle class political doldrums. The middle class aren’t the savvy upwardly mobile urban professionals desiring political change as many thought. Rather, the Russian middle class has stagnated economically, isn’t growing, and its ranks are being dominated by state bureaucrats and employees of the security organs. This class is not looking for change, but desires above all security and stability. Rather than remake Russia into their own image, this class likes things just as they are.

Image: M. Stulov/Vedomosti