The middle class in Russia scarcely resembles the middle class in the United States or Western Europe where it represents more or less the majority of the population and is defined by a certain (high) level of income, an educated and professional status, ownership of a decent real estate, a healthy political conservatism and an interest in maintaining the status quo. According to some analysts, the middle class per se does not yet exist in post-Communist Russia, with its huge gap between the living standard of a small elite and the rest of the population.
Nevertheless, in Russia, a social layer is gradually forming that belongs neither to the elite nor to ''the poor.'' Its foundations consist of three basic groups. The first is the group of small and medium business entrepreneurs. The second consists of highly qualified specialists, e.g. lawyers, accountants, computer programmers, bank employees, workers in advertising and insurance, who do not work in state enterprises. Civil servants such as functionaries at the federal and municipal level, officers in the military and security organs make up the third group. According to the Russian State Statistics Committee, the middle class makes up no less than 20 percent of society. In the opinion of some economists and sociologists, up to 30 percent of Russians are middle class. The distinguishing factor of the middle class in Russia is that its income is usually no more than double the sum generally considered as a "decent'' salary, and the property such people own is usually confined to an apartment, a dacha and one or two cars. Using this definition, the typical representative of the middle class in Russia has more in common in his or her material circumstances with the underprivileged classes of society than with the elite, which can buy real estate abroad, vacation in luxury foreign resorts and dress in designer clothes.
However, it is actually difficult to measure the real income of the middle class in Russia, since expenditures on food, utilities, consumer goods and leisure exceed stated income. Annual sociological surveys conducted in various regions of Russia show that the turnover of consumer goods on average exceeds the purchasing power of the population by 50 to 100 percent. (When talking about the regions, one should note that most representatives of the middle class, and of the elite, are concentrated in Russia's two biggest cities, Moscow and St. Petersburg.) The social situation of a typical member of the middle class is far from stable. Many entrepreneurs go bankrupt, and the qualified professionals have no guaranteed employment. Small and medium level businesses mostly operate in a way far removed from that of enterprises in the civilized world. Bribery of officials, tax dodging, and cooperation with criminal structures are widespread. All this forms the specifically Russian "business ethic,'' characterized by the absence of the rule of law, general mistrust and the concept of lying as an integral part of the so-called free market.
It is largely thanks to the group of highly qualified professionals, more than half of whom are women, that the middle class in Russia is the fastest growing layer of society. It is worth noting that the income of people with equal qualifications and experience can vary widely, depending on whether they work in the state or private sector. For example, a highly qualified doctor working in a private clinic can be considered amongst the well paid, whereas his or her colleague with the same, or even higher, professional qualifications, but working in a state hospital or clinic, is among the underprivileged. The salary of doctors working "for the state'' is not only low, but is also paid irregularly.
The same situation can be observed in other fields of the state sector. Older people who for years pursued their careers during the Soviet era watch bitterly how their knowledge and experience are worth nothing, and are not compensated in modern Russia.
In fact, the only group of state employees who have not suffered greatly during the years of reform are functionaries of the administrative machine who were not subject to significant cutbacks. The number of bureaucrats in modern Russia does not differ meaningfully from that of Soviet times, despite the fact that, with the collapse of the Soviet Union ,the size of population these people are supposed to serve has decreased practically by half.
Regardless of the differences between the Russian middle class and its Western counterpart, it does exist. And does not simply exist, but is the most dynamic part of Russian society. In many respects, the future of the country depends on it. It is possible that, over the course of some decades, this layer will form a real middle class, which, like the middle class in the West, will play the role of guarantor of social stability in the country.
Maria Fyodorova covers local & state government for ITAR-TASS. Her primary area of interest is political reporting.