Class and Materiality in Contemporary Russia

Nick J Fox and Tatiana Gavrilyuk

In today’s Russia, almost four in five workers under 30 earn less than 400 US$ a month, and a third no more than 270 US$ (Gavrilyuk, 2019).  These figures reflect the emergence of an unequal society (Credit Suisse, 2018).  Those in managerial jobs fare best, with the wherewithal to fund a more comfortable home, a car, and perhaps access to a family dacha.  For manual workers, life on a low wage means a frugal or even grim existence, as they brave shoddy and inadequate work environments and reside in cramped and poorly furnished apartments. 

Here’s Alexei (not his real name), a railway maintenance engineer in the Ural district of Siberia, talking about his work-life.  Though he worked much of the time outdoors in sub-zero winters and scorching summers, it was the indoor spaces he found most oppressive.

At our workplace, apart from the depot, the offices are very small and angular. You feel like in a cage inside them. I hate them. I can’t stand them. And there’s no air to breathe there at all.  They stink with either oil or fuel or hell knows what else.  It’s a heavy feeling from these gloomy rooms. It’s like working in a morgue.  [In the cafeteria] there’s a fat woman at the checkout, with a credit card reader. But the device sticks.  We are always standing, waiting. There are many tables in the room.  They are plastic, round or square, but very light-weight, so it’s hard to sit down at them.  You lean on it accidentally and everything slides.  My soup spilled on me twice this way.

Alexei went on to describe how he lived alone in a small apartment with outdated decor, frayed carpets, a broken gas stove, empty freezer and furniture bought with an expensive loan – still being repaid. 

Political transition

Since the collapse and fragmentation of the nominally Marxist-Leninist Soviet Union, Russia has experienced a lengthy socioeconomic and political transition, leading to consolidation of new power hierarchies and economic re-structuring.  This has been founded ideologically upon a form of neoliberal capitalism (Trubina, 2016), though partially tempered by the social welfare norms established under the previous Soviet regime (Collier, 2011). 

This transformation has resulted in devastating de-industrialisation (Crowley, 2016; 399), dramatic increases in precarious work (Trubina, 2016: 203) and a parallel ‘shadow’ or ‘underground’ economy of untaxed, unregulated and illegal practices. 

The Credit Suisse report (2018) suggested increases in social inequality in Russia have been fuelled by a small number of Russian oligarchs who own a substantial proportion of assets previously controlled by the Soviet state.  According to the Bloomberg billionaires index, the 10 richest Russians added more to their wealth in 2017/18 than their equivalents in the USA or UK. 

Now more than ever, the growing inequalities facing young Russian workers requires a critical sociological perspective on social class.  In 1845, Friedrich Engels revealed the shocking conditions of daily life for working class people in many English cities (Engels, 1993).  He recognised that the material circumstances of both work and dwellings can make life not only hard, but also unhealthy.  He connected the appalling conditions of the working class to the profit motive of industrial capitalism.

Right now, Russian sociology is ill-placed to offer a critical assessment of the growing inequality in their country.  After the demise of the Soviet system, Marxist-Leninist class analysis was swiftly discarded.  In its place, Russian political sociologists apply a structural-functionalist theory that regards the division of labour as necessary for economic and social development. 

This approach has focused on multi-dimensional and hierarchical models of Russian society, based on criteria such as employment, income, and self-identification.  In these, the ‘middle class’ is usually theorised as a stratum, while the concept of a ‘working class’ has largely disappeared because of its previous association with Marxism-Leninism, and remains un-named or described by euphemisms such as the ‘basic layer’.  Recent works discuss the class nature of a ‘precariat’ (Toshchenko, 2018) and the emergence of a new ‘owner class’ (Golenkova, 2017: 9 -10).

Dis/advantage and daily life

Engels’ insight was that inequalities do not simply derive from the size of a weekly wage packet; they also depend on the material conditions of life.  Labouring in a noisy, crowded or even dangerous environment rather than a comfortable, regulated and healthy work-space can disadvantage workers.  Living in cramped, damp and insanitary housing can do the same.  Over time, these daily hardships and inconveniences produce lasting inequality.

We took the opportunity of a qualitative component in a major Russian Science Foundation-funded survey of working-class youth (Gavrilyuk, 2019) to re-play Engels’ study in contemporary Russia.  How might the daily encounters between human bodies and the material environment progressively and endlessly produce advantages and disadvantages among these young workers?  Tatiana interviewed 37 respondents aged 16-29 working from a range of occupations about their physical work and home environments, and how these affected their opportunities.  The two of us then analysed the interviews, using an approach that acknowledged that both humans and non-human stuff can produce dis/advantage.

We found huge differences between the work environments of our different respondents.  Natalia (not her real name) is a social science teacher at a technical school with a Master’s in sociology.  She described her working environment, emphasising the importance of having appropriate spaces and furnishings to enable her to work effectively.

I visit the library of our school very often because my subject area requires working with computers.  And our library is well equipped technically, computers with an Internet connection.  Everything is quite new.  The building where I now work, where I conduct most of the training sessions, is new.  It was completed three years ago and all equipment was purchased then, so no PCs, projectors or screens are more than three years old.  Quite convenient and comfortable conditions have been created for me.

For workers like Natalia and managers interviewed in the study, spacious work spaces, good quality technology and office furniture, and a designated car-parking space contribute to a more comfortable work environment.  Less skilled workers’ daily interactions with the work environment were very different.  Entry-level office worker Kristina described how a lack of adequate temperature control at work was debilitating, affecting her mood and productivity.

Lack of heating or air conditioning in the office is an obstacle to productive work. … Here now it’s winter, but the heating is not on and the office is very cold. Everybody has caught a cold, and it affects productivity – headache, cough, snivel, runny nose, general malaise.  So of course, the mood deteriorates immediately, there is no desire to work.  That is, you have to work, you can’t get rid of it, but the mood in the office is not like it should be, like it could be.

Sometimes inadequate technology could directly disadvantage these workers.  Waitress Vera described how making mistakes when using a poorly-designed food-ordering system meant financial penalties.

If you screw up with a computer, then there will be a fine depending on how much you enter into the computer.  For example, you enter ‘Caesar salad’ and this item is automatically debited from the kitchen.  That is, you pay money for this salad, because who else will pay if I was wrong and these foodstuffs simply went nowhere? 

Work conditions for manual workers can lead to multiple disadvantages.  Nikolai’s job as a welder was routine and physically debilitating, but he also felt socially degraded by the physical interactions with metal and welding equipment that his job entailed.

[Managers tell me:] go down, weld the bolt, unweld the bolt, cut the piece of iron, fit the piece of iron.  Nothing supernatural and complicated … Working conditions are severe: hot in summer, cold in winter.  And the bosses all walk around so pompous, turn up their noses at us, from simple hard workers.  Not pleasant.

Conclusions

Some of these opportunities and constraints on daily life can seem quite trivial.  Perhaps that’s why sociology (both in Russia and internationally) has downplayed how physical work conditions affect social dis/advantage.  But these tiny daily dis/advantages add up to lasting inequalities.  Poor work environments can make it hard for workers in less skilled occupations to excel in their occupations, limiting career progression, further baking in inequality.  And because children often follow their parents into similar work, these inequalities can reproduce inter-generationally.

Engels’ study kickstarted critical political economy.  Maybe it’s time it found its way back on to the reading lists of politicians and sociologists, in Russia and elsewhere.

Nick J Fox is professor of sociology at the University of Huddersfield, UK. He is currently working on the development of a critical new materialist political economy.

Tatiana Gavrilyuk is senior researcher in the Centre for Advanced Research and Innovation, Industrial University of Tyumen, Russia. Her interests lie in the field of sociology of culture, youth studies and working-class studies. 

References

Collier, Stephen (2011) Post-Soviet Social: Neoliberalism, Social Modernity, Biopolitics. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press.

Credit Suisse Research Institute. (2018) Global Wealth Databook.  Available at https://www.credit-suisse.com/media/assets/corporate/docs/about-us/research/publications/global-wealth-report-2018-en.pdf

Crowley, Stephen. (2016) Monotowns and the political economy of industrial restructuring in Russia. Post-Soviet Affairs 32(5): 397-422.

Engels, Freirich (1993 [1845]) The Condition of the English Working Class.  Oxford University Press.

Gavrilyuk, Tatiana (2019) Youth of the New Working Class of Modern Russia. Moscow: Flinta.

Golenkova, Zinaida T. 2017. Sotsial’noe prostranstvo rossiyskiy regionov. [The Social Space of Russian Regions]. Moscow: IS RAN.

Toshchenko, Zhan T. 2018. Prekariat: ot Protoklassa k Novomu Klassu [The Precariat: from Protoclass to a New Class]. Moscow: Nauka.

Trubina, Elena (2016) Class differences and social mobility amongst college-educated young people in Russia.  In Salmennieni S. (ed.) Rethinking Class in Russia.  London: Routledge, pp. 203-219.

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