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Uncertainty of the New Middle Classes in Russia: Analytical Essay

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The article focuses on the new middle classes and their consumption practices in the wake of the policies of consumption recently introduced by the Russian state (the embargo on food imports and the strategy of import substitution), and on the background of the economic crisis. The future of this group, largely acknowledged through globalized consumption practices, seems now uncertain. Nevertheless, they accept these changes with resilience; moreover, many managed to generate support or to acknowledge rationalities in the new policies of the state. Drawing on fieldwork data collected in 2015-2016, in Moscow and Smolensk, this paper explores changing consumption practices of the new middle classes, and the interplay between their social subjectivities, and state-belonging; it looks at their strategies of positioning within socio-economic hierarchies as well as vis-à-vis the Russian state. Acknowledging the multi-faceted dimensions of inequalities within which the new middle classes are situated, the article elicits the silence of the nation-state boundaries bringing into the picture the context of the embeddedness into the global hierarchies. It is argued that the reactions of the new middle classes have to be considered in the context of their relationships with the Russian state, and the ways their socio-economic positionalities are entangled with the state belonging within a particular historical context.

The Russian ‘new middle classes have recently found themselves in a situation that is at odds with their past; specifically, the dynamics they experienced in becoming the ‘middle class.’ Their lives have been exposed to changes in several respects. They have to adapt and accommodate to the new regulations of and on consumption put into place by the Russian state. The state introduced an embargo on food imports from a number of countries, in response to the sanctions over the conflict in Ukraine. The ban targeted a broad range of food products: meat and dairy products, fruits and vegetables, fish, and seafood. In parallel, it announced the strategy of import substitution as the new priority in the development of the national economy. Furthermore, the conditions of the new middle classes living and working have been affected (though in different ways) by the general economic downturn in the country, accompanied by high inflation, devaluation of the national currency, and a decrease in the real income.

All this poses a contrast to the developments of the recent fifteen years that were generally marked with economic growth, an increase in living standard for most Russians, and skyrocketing individual consumption, in which the imported goods played a central role having firmly entered everyday mass consumption. These improvements were believed both to underpin the formation of the middle classes in Russia and to shape to a significant extent the relationships between the middle classes and the Russian state.

This paper focuses on a section of the middle class – the so-called ‘new middle classes. I define the ‘new middle classes’ as professionals, managers, and highly qualified specialists working as employees or self-employed individuals. Most of them spent the main part of their professional lives under the condition of a ‘market’ economy. Along with the similarity of their structural positions in the socio-economic system, the new middle classes are believed to share certain patterns of lifestyles and living conditions (a relatively high standard of living and increasingly globalized consumption practices, active usage of Internet media). This commonality of the life situations provides a starting point to follow how the representatives of the new middle classes react to the current changes in the politics and policy of the state, and in their lives.

On the one hand, the new middle classes, as the major consumers of the imported goods, became seen as the primary ‘victims’ of the embargo. Globalized consumption practices and lifestyles were believed to be central for their self-identification, and for the way they distinguish themselves from the lower social classes. On the other hand, the new middle classes were assigned with often contradictory roles as political agents (as adherers of traditional values or the moving force of ‘modernization,’ supporters or opponents of the current regime). Still, these interpretations were rooted in the assumptions about their interests concerning their lifestyles and living standards. Therefore, the new policies of consumption along with the economic crises potentially challenge the foundation of the new middle class in Russia, the ways they live and see themselves.

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The new middle classes have been responding to these changes in diverse ways. There was no organized resistance to or contestation of these measures; those who did not approve these measures did not become vocal or mobilized. At the same time, a considerable share of those belonging to the new middle classes supported or admitted the potential rationality of these measures. The way the new middle classes react to the current changes has to be considered in regard to their dynamics within a particular historical conjuncture.

In this paper, I explore how the new middle classes in Russia cope with these new regulations and conditions in relation to their positionalities. Starting with the discussion of the implications of consumption for the new middle classes, I problematize the focus on the interclass boundaries. Instead, the attention is shifted to more complex positionalities of the new middle classes, and the multiple dimensions of inequalities that inform them. Questioning the silence of the nation-state boundaries, I elicit the simultaneous embeddedness of the new middle classes in the context of a concrete “political-social economy”, and global inequalities. Further, these assumptions guide the analysis of the new middle classes’ relationships with the Russian state, following the dynamic of the country’s development after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The relationships between state belonging and socio-economic positions are conceptualized. In the final part, I suggest how the new middle classes’ experiences and reactions to the consumption policies of the state and changing economic conditions can be linked to their positionalities, situated within these complex, historically dynamic constellations. This paper draws on data collected as part of fieldwork carried out between 2015 and 2016 in two cities in Russia – Moscow, and Smolensk. Following these processes can offer new insights into how we conceptualize the dynamics of the middle classes across different historical and regional contexts, with a special focus on their self-positioning within the socio-economic hierarchies and vis-a-vis the state.

The new middle classes as consumers and the agents of societal change

The theme of consumption and class formation became central in regard to the new middle classes, first, for the early industrialized countries and later, even more prominently, for the emerging economies. Consumption is believed to be a central site of formation, reproduction, and self-identification of these groups, which emerged in a result of the shift in the occupational structure under the condition of globalization, namely, with an increase in the share of relatively well-paid qualified white-collar jobs in different world regions. In the process of claiming, constructing, and sustaining their relatively privileged (though often vulnerable) positions, the modern consumer lifestyles and consumption practices become intermingled with other practices and meanings originating from diverse local and historical contexts.

While acknowledging the flexibility of the socio-cultural boundaries, it was the construction of the interclass differences that received the major attention, and through which the new middle classes were conceptualized as socio-cultural entities. The capacity to construct and to guard these interclass boundaries through cultural and consumption practices were claimed to be central to the new middle classes’ ability to hoard the opportunities and to exclude the lower groups securing and legitimizing their relatively privileged positions.

However, some recent studies dealing with the class patterns of consumption conclude that class is “relatively insignificant” in determining the patterns of cultural consumption and that boundaries among the middle and lower classes become harder to draw. This is not to suggest that the patterns of consumption are distributed uniformly across the population, or that there are no differences among people in different social positions. Rather, the fixation on the interclass boundaries limits the analytical perspective and does not allow to comprehend the complexity of the ways in which the consumption practices contribute to the construction of social relations and experiences. Hence, consumption should not be reduced to the construction of inter-class differences. It also functions as a means through which people, situated in concrete social positions, construct meanings, and make sense of their lives and the social world around them.

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Uncertainty of the New Middle Classes in Russia: Analytical Essay. (2022, September 27). Edubirdie. Retrieved February 8, 2023, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/uncertainty-of-the-new-middle-classes-in-russia-analytical-essay/
“Uncertainty of the New Middle Classes in Russia: Analytical Essay.” Edubirdie, 27 Sept. 2022, edubirdie.com/examples/uncertainty-of-the-new-middle-classes-in-russia-analytical-essay/
Uncertainty of the New Middle Classes in Russia: Analytical Essay. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/uncertainty-of-the-new-middle-classes-in-russia-analytical-essay/> [Accessed 8 Feb. 2023].
Uncertainty of the New Middle Classes in Russia: Analytical Essay [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Sept 27 [cited 2023 Feb 8]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/uncertainty-of-the-new-middle-classes-in-russia-analytical-essay/
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