The Russian Middle Class as Policy Objective

Thomas F. Remington, Emory University


This paper reviews recent social science literature on the Russian middle class. The topic is contentious, with active debate about how the middle class should be defined and measured. Some of this debate is grounded in long-standing ideological disputes over the transition from the Soviet system, and some in the fact that expanding the share of the middle class in Russian society is an objective of the current Russian political leadership. Therefore the subject matters to scholars and policy-makers alike.

Several empirical facts are now well-established. In Russia, as in the United States, at least until the 2008 economic crisis, income inequality has risen in recent years while poverty has declined. In both countries, the growth in inequality reflects the concentration of income increases (both in pre- and post-tax and transfer incomes) in the highest income strata. In neither country has the middle class expanded at anything like the same rate as the growth in average incomes.

Russia differs markedly from the United States, however, in the fact that half or more of middle class individuals depend on the state for their livelihoods. However, both the Russian and current American leaderships recognize that the development of a larger middle class would be beneficial: by reducing the polarization between rich and poor, it would improve the provision of growth-enhancing public goods, reduce social tension and increase stability, and would make government more effective and accountable. Whether it would also enhance the prospects for democratization is a fundamental question underlying this research.

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