In the Russian Hinterlands

The social structure of life in the Russian provinces is defined by the shadow economy
Simon Kordonsky and Yuri Plyusnin have explored life in the hinterlands
Pavel Aptekar
May 28, 2015
Vedomosti

Provincial Russian society is divided into several quasi-estates, which are defined by informal features. Membership of “one’s own” set in the hinterlands provides access both to the fruits of the state allocation of resources and the benefits of the shadow economy, while maintaining an acceptable standard of living even when a person’s official status is low. The provincial lifestyle impacts how life is practiced in the big cities. The social structure of the provinces is stimulated by informal economy and the rent economy, and by the desire of the ruling class to preserve its privileges. Such are the conclusions of a report issued by the Khamovniky Foundation, “The Social Structure of Russian Provincial Society,” prepared by Simon Kordonsky and Yuri Plyusnin on the basis of research done by the foundation between 2011 and 2015. Soviet-era social statuses have been lost, and most residents of the hinterlands cannot clearly define their place in the new social reality. The new сlass criteria—level of income, membership of the civil service, entrepreneurship—are having a hard time taking root in the small towns and rural areas.

66.3% percent of the population, the popular majority, lives on wages, old-age pensions, and state allowances. The share of businessmen, members of the liberal professions, and seasonal workers (i.e., those who earn their money in places where they do no live) does not exceed 15.2% and is comparable to the number of outcasts (13.4%), i.e., prisoners, convicted offenders, and homeless people. Government officials make up another 5.1% of the population. The percentage of outcasts is high, but it should not confuse us. According to the calculations of Vladimir Radchenko, former first deputy chair of the Supreme Court, during the past twenty years, one in every eight men has passed through the prisons in Russia, and the proportion of men familiar with the criminal subculture is twice as large.

In the provinces, the individual’s position is a reflection of their informal influence, which primarily depends on their belonging to an informal group (e.g., a family, clan, street, professional community or gang). Official status and publicly declared income (wealth) are less significant factors. Simon Kordonsky told Vedomosti that upward mobility is difficult. People with criminal records find it hard to get decent jobs, while energetic businessmen and seasonal workers with higher incomes tend to emphasize their status outwardly, through the ways they furnish their homes and other superficial features. Yet they maintain informal ties with other local residents. Aggravation of relations can take a dramatic turn, involving arson, arrest, and even violent death. Local communities are willing to come together to defend themselves from “strangers”: from industrial and infrastructure projects by large companies, government pressure on local kingpins and leaders, and incursions by criminal gangs.

Provincial society is more fragmented and loose, argues Natalya Zubarevich, who researches Russia’s regions. She believes that Kordonsky and Plyusnin’s description of their social structure is too schematic, and that we should speak of ten to twelve large social groupings. But the current situation in the hinterlands is indeed largely a consequence of the informal economy, notes Zubarevich; statistics ignore it, but it impacts people’s unofficial status. Archaic economic forms are well developed in the villages and small towns: subcontracted manufacturing, with families and locales specializing in various forms of manual labor, and garage workshops where everything “from furniture to children” is repaired and produced. The informal and natural economies help the locals survive crises. The metropolitan centers and the provinces influence each other. The big cities export advanced technologies, contemporary lifestyles, and consumer standards to the hinterlands, but they adopt the informal practices common in the provinces, the unwritten laws, and the authoritarian style of relations. In turn, the growing informality of governance and the economy in the provinces is reinforced by the current political model, under which the ruling class has been trying to transform its unofficial privileges and group interests into law.

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