While Russia’s economy and its citizens’ real incomes have grown significantly over the past eight years (at least in part thanks to soaring world energy prices), Nezavisimaya gazeta recently reported that new research suggests that this increase in economic well-being has not been accompanied by a greater feeling of security among some of those who have benefited the most. In fact, polls conducted by the independent Levada Center aimed at determining the mood of well-off young residents of Russia’s large cities found that half of the members of the Russian middle class’s “elite” would like to leave Russia temporarily or for good (Nezavisimaya gazeta, June 27).
Levada Center researchers told Nezavisimaya gazeta that these polls were targeted, not at the entire Russian middle class, which comprises, according to various estimates, 20-40 percent of the country’s population, but only at the “cream” of the middle class. The polls were taken among college-educated Russians aged 24-35 who live in the country’s 14 largest cities and have a high average per capita income, that is €1,500 (about $2,360) per family member in Moscow, €1,000 (around $1,575) per family member in St. Petersburg and €800 (around $1,260) per family member in the other large cities. According to Boris Dubin, who heads the Levada Center’s sociopolitical research department, the answers from these respondents revealed a mood not all that different from that which characterizes the broader Russian middle class: an uncertainly about the stability of their own situation and a feeling that the foundations of their well-being could collapse.
Only 13 percent of those polled by Levada Center agreed with the statement that Russia had entered a period of protracted stability, while 59 percent said the situation could change for the worse at any moment. Around 76 percent of those polled said that they could not protect themselves from the arbitrary actions of the authorities, in particular the police, and around 65 percent said they were not sure that they could protect their rights and interests in court.
“Despite the fact that Russians are not delighted by this situation, it appears that they have resigned themselves to it,” wrote Nezavisimaya gazeta. “Many of the respondents believe that they cannot influence the political processes in the country and are prepared to use dishonest and unlawful means for the resolution of conflicts and problems. The readiness to give bribes and to use personal contacts is very high within the Russian middle class.” Indeed, around half of the respondents in Levada Center polls have said that if they were falsely accused of not paying taxes, it would be better to use bribes to resolve the problem than to take it to court. The respondents indicated that they were prepared to act similarly in more “neutral” situations. For example, 59 percent said that they would pay for medical services, which in theory are provided at no cost.
The Levada Center’s polling found that the greatest causes of dissatisfaction for the elite of Russia’s middle class are the high level of crime and aggression in society (59 percent), corruption (54 percent) and the poor quality of medical services (52 percent). Around 44 percent of the respondents indicated that they were concerned about the state of Russia’s pension system and the situation of pensioners.
The uncertainty about the future expressed by the respondents in the Levada Center’s polls was also manifested by an inclination to leave Russia: according to Nezavisimaya gazeta, half of those polled indicated that they were thinking about leaving the country temporarily or for good. Three-quarters of the potential émigrés are younger than 35 years old, with 15 percent of them belonging to the “top” of the middle class in terms of income, 29 percent living in Moscow and 70 percent speaking one or more foreign languages. The Levada Center found that the respondents were transferring their own lack of faith in the future to their children: Two-thirds of those polled indicated they would like to send their children abroad to study or work, while a third indicated that they were considering the possibility of sending their children abroad for good.
Asked why they were considering leaving Russia, 86 percent cited the desire to get a greater guarantee for a stable and safe future; 79 percent cited a desire to live under conditions in which the rule of law, rights and freedom prevailed; 69 percent cited the desire to avoid governmental lawlessness; and 83 percent cited the desire to enjoy better and more comfortable living conditions. According to Nezavisimaya gazeta, the Levada Center’s researchers believe that the high level of desire to leave Russia is evidence of serious social malaise.
“The central feature of the consciousness of the middle class is a feeling of the in-betweenness [sic] of its own existence and a radical collision of the way of life with the way of thinking,” Dubin told Nezavisimaya gazeta. He added that without radical changes in society, the prospects for Russia’s middle class to grow and transform into a wide and stable social stratum seem doubtful (Nezavisimaya gazeta, June 27).