Sergei Vilkov: Everything You Thought You Knew About the Russian Working Class Was Wrong

kalashnikov workersWorkers of the Kalashnikov plant in Izhevsk, Russia, on September, 20, 2016. Photo by Mikhail Svetlov (Getty Images). Courtesy of Fortune

The Heroes of the Day: What We Know about the Russian Working Class
How the Proletariat Stopped Fearing TV and Came to Dislike It
Sergei Vilkov
News.ru
April 30, 2019

It has been a tradition on the eve of May Day to recall the working class, which in Russia has seemingly been usurped by televised images of the “patriots” and regular blokes who work at the Uralvagonzavod plant in Nizhny Tagil.

Actually, Russia’s workers are a genuine black hole to sociologists. No one had seriously researched their circumstances, sentiments, and views for thirty years.

The first tentative attempts to research today’s Russian industrial laborers have produced a portrait that many had not expected. It transpires that today’s proletarians, at least, the most politically and civically dynamic among them, almost never watch television. They have a sober take on politics. They are immune to state propaganda. They have a relatively relaxed attitude toward migrant workers.

They regard themselves as outside observers in the debates between the regime and the opposition, not finding their own interests reflected in them. They are more likely to feel trampled upon by plant management than by a new law passed in the State Duma.

It is the factory where they fight their battles, which are usually invisible to official statisticians. Most important, according to researchers, they have more in common with early twentieth century social democrats than with current parties who try and speak on behalf of workers. However, the new research leaves a lot to be desired, to put it mildly. News.ru took a look at it.

They Got What They Fought For
According to official data, 26 million people in Russia or over 36% of the able-boded population are employed in industry, transport, agriculture, fishing, and several similar sectors. These figures do not include, for example, the large numbers of people employed in commerce and services. Overall, however, sociologists estimate that workers make up 40% of Russia’s population. They identify them as the largest group in society.

These people dwell on the dark side of Russia’s moon, as it were. It would be hard to say when someone last tried to examine them through an academic lens. However, understanding the nature of Russian society and its largest segments is, perhaps, the most ambitious humanities research project in the country today.

In government reports, Russia’s workers are imagined as a passive, homogeneous milieu that positively exudes tranquility. In 2017, Rosstat, the state statistics service, recorded only one strike, while in the preceding years their official number oscillated between two and five strikes annually.

By comparison, in 2005, according to official data, there were 2,600 strikes in Russia. And yet the following year, Rosstat claimed the number of strikes had decreased by a factor of 325. Since then, according to official statistics, it has remained consistently scanty, despite the economic crises of 2008 and 2014.

However, the Center for Social and Labor Rights, which has monitored the situation on its own, claims there were an average of 240 labor protests between 2008 and 2014. In 2016, when the political opposition was quiet, there were twice as many labor protests, while in the first six months of 2018, the last period for which it has data, the center recorded 122 strikes and acts of civil disobedience. Nearly half of these incidents led to workers downing tools.

Since 2014, a year dominated by an apparent “patriotic” consensus in politics, the number of strikes has increased abruptly due to an upsurge of resistance in provincial cities, including district seats. The largest number of walkouts and protests occurred in industry, especially the machine building and metalworking sectors, which have accounted for 28% of the overall number of strikes. The transport sector has accounted for the same percentage of strikes and protests, despite the fact they have mainly been carried out by employees of private transport companies based in the cities. The construction industry has accounted for 19% of strikes and protests during the period.

The main cause of protests and strikes remains unpaid back wages, which accounted for 60% of incidents. Demands to raise pay were factors in 19–20% of incidents.

The Center for Social and Labor Rights noticed a curious thing. In 2018, the number of spontaneous, unorganized protests by workers rose abruptly by 22%. Trade unions were involved in a mere 17% of all strikes and protests. The experts claim this was partly due to the fact that the Russian hinterlands, where there have been no real trade unions for the last one hundred years, have taken the lead in labor activism, along with sectors dominated by precarious employment.

Shop Floor Intellectuals
Someone has been organizing these strikes and protests, however. It is evident there is a core of energetic progressive activists among Russia’s workers.

On April 22, Alexander Zhelenin gave a lecture at a round table held in the offices of Novaya Gazeta newspaper.

Zhelenin is a well-known expert on workplace conflicts, and part of his talk dealt with a research study on the Russian proletariat. In July and September 2018, he and his fellow researchers did a small-scale qualitative sociological research study in Kaluga and Omsk that focused on the self-identification and sociopolitical views of workers.

A total of twenty-three people were interviewed. The small sample was offset by a thorough probing, through in-depth interviews, of the respondents’ attitudes and views, which are never revealed by run-of-the-mill public opinion polls. The workers interviewed by the sociologists were somehow connected to independent trade unions, which had, apparently, supported the research study. However, in the main, the interviewees were not politically engaged: only one of them was a member of a political organization.

We should also not forget it is usually the most energetic people who agree to be interviewed for ordinary official public opinion polls, which affects their outcomes.

In Kaluga, the respondents worked in the food industry and the new auto assembly plants, while in Omsk, they were employed at old Soviet military-industrial complex plants. They ranged in age from twenty to fifty, and included women and men. They were quite well-paid technicians who were proud of their contributions to society. On the other hand, they had a constant sense of their status as subordinates. They tended to strongly associate themselves with their workplaces. Family “labor dynasties” were a possible factor in their outlooks.

Most of the workers interviewed at the auto plants had been abroad one or more times, and this partly had to do with Volkswagen’s work exchange programs. One of the things they had learned on these trips was independent trade unions were ordinary, valuable organizations.

On the contrary, a foreign-travel passport was a rarity among the workers of the old defense plants, and yet both groups of workers tended to spend their holidays on the Black Sea coast. Some respondents in Omsk said they had never seen the sea or had seen it in early childhood.

Mortgages were the main financial obstacles to holidays away from home. Financially, the skilled workers felt they were members of the so-called middle class. In terms of standards of living in their regions, however, they noticed the gap between the more affluent segment of the populace and themselves. Thus, they had a keen sense of the difference in life chances for their children and the children of rich families, talking about it with great indignation.

Pavel Kudyukin, ex-minister of labor and employment and a lecturer in public administration at the Higher School of Economics, commented on the growing social segregation in Russia.

“It comes to the fore when talk turns to children’s futures. It is an aspect that will become more acute, because we are moving from segregation to social apartheid. I think it will facilitate [grassroots] civic activism,” he said.

The authors of the report did not hide their amazement at the fact that the respondents were quite well-educated, intelligent people. Nearly a third of them had a higher education or an uncompleted university degree. Many of them pointed out it was ordinary to find university-educated workers on the shop floor.

Tellingly, a man from Kaluga, identified as Anatoly, who did not finish his university degree, and whose outward appearance (a bespectacled intellectual), cultivated manner of speaking, and hobbies (music and organizing non-profit music festivals) gave the researchers the impression he was a local intellectual, although he said he had been employed as a skilled laborer for over eleven years. Like some other respondents, Anatoly noted he had become a laborer because life had worked out that way and he had to earn money. Industry was the only place where it was possible to earn a more or less decent wage, the study noted.

They Have Their Own Values
And yet 74% of of the respondents unambiguously identified themselves as workers, stressing their difference from other groups in society and their direct involvement in production. The remaining 26% preferred to call themselves “employees” and supported the notion of so-called social partnerships with management. However, despite their decent standard of life, it followed from the interviews that the workers believed they occupied one of the lowest rungs on the social ladder. This had to do with their palpably subordinate positions at work and the lack of prestige in their occupations. This circumstance was painfully apparent in the tension between blue-collar and white-collar workers at one plant, a tension exacerbated by the arrogance of the latter towards the former.

The workers were very annoyed by the fact that, as Sergei, a grinder who was involved in the Omsk focus group, said, “In terms of wages and education, the blue-collar workers often outperform the office workers, but the latter still treat them as inferiors.”

In Omsk, for example, the wages of workers fluctuated between 20,000 and 30,000 rubles a month, but workers at some defense plants could earn up to 70,000 or 80,000 rubles a month. However, according to the same interviewee, the well-paid jobs were “inherited.”

Besides, he said, to earn such a wage, one virtually had to live at the factory, working twelve hours a day and enjoying only one day off a week, something not all workers would do. Meanwhile, office workers at the same plant could earn only 20,000 rubles a month, but they treated the workers “as if they were above [them],” said Sergei.

“A really interesting thing is the split in self-identification as workers and members of the middle class,” said Kudyukin. “It clearly manifests the pressure exerted in society by hegemonic views. It is like what Marx wrote: ‘The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force.’ Since the notion of the middle class is constantly in the air, people give no thought to the fact that it’s a sociological fiction. People realize they are workers. They work on an assembly line or operate a machine. Yet in terms of income they identify themselves as middle class in the sense that they are neither rich nor poor. Maybe this has to do with the notion that the middle class is formally defined by income.”

“Russia is a quite highly stratified country, and it is constantly becoming more stratified,” explained Gregory Yudin, a professor at the Moscow School of Social and Economic Sciences. “It’s not a matter of income gaps, but of what these people say: the sense of symbolic superiority in cases where there is no income gap. When this sense takes root at a particular factory, what happens is quite predictable. In this sense, Marx was more or less right.”

Speaking about their place in production, the workers voiced the opinion their plants could run without managers, but without them the shop floors would grind to a halt. However, they sensed the arrogant attitude towards manual labor that had emerged in other parts of society. They realized that, from this perspective, their status was not considered prestigious at all. The factory laborers responded by opposing the values of their milieu to “other” values, saying that nowadays the chic thing to do was to steal and mooch, to make lots of money for doing nothing.

“I think this is an ordinary means of compensation, a psychological defense mechanism. We are considered impoverished in some way, whereas in fact we are the salt of the earth, and everything would grind to a halt without us. Their sentiments are quite justified. Despite the importance of managerial work, if you got rid of the management staff, the shop floor would function all the same. But if the workers suddenly disappeared, the plant would shut down,” said Kudyukin.

The research study showed the respondents perceived Russian politics as an established system that ignored their interests. This applied not only to the government but also to the opposition. Nearly half of the respondents consciously refrained from voting. By comparison, during the last presidential election, in March 2018, the Central Electoral Commission reported that 32.5% of registered voters did not vote.

Some of the respondents voted for the CPRF (Communist Party of the Russian Federation), A Just Russia, and LDPR [Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s party], although they noted these parties were entangled in establishment and supported workers’ interests more in words than in actual deeds. They were not a serious opposition.

What they had to say on the matter was telling.

“I have little trust in politicos and parties. I have more faith in the people here, the people with whom I work, the people I know. Here, at the local level, there are decent people among the members of different [political] movements. But the leadership is usually a bloody shambles,” said Sergei, 35, a grinder at the Aggregate Plant in Omsk.

“There are currently no parties that would defend workers’ interests. We need to create such a party,” said Sergei, who works at the Volkswagen plant in Kaluga.

Volodya, who also works at Volkswagen in Kaluga, was likewise certain such parties did not exist.

“All of them are against us [workers]. They represent business and big money, even the CPRF and A Just Russia. Those parties just use the ‘movements’ to score political points. They have great jobs. United Russia try and pass bad laws. They have the majority in the Duma, so [the three other parties represented there] can pretend to oppose them, since the bad laws will be passed all the same,” he said.

He quoted Mark Twain.

“If voting made any difference they wouldn’t let us do it.”

The federal government was a source of considerable irritation to the workers, especially in connection with the pension reform.

Roman, a 45-year-old worker at Volkswagen in Kaluga, was the only respondent in either city who said he had always voted for Putin and United Russia, but since the pension reform had passed, he was severely disenchanted and was more inclined to vote for the CPRF.

Vladislav, a 28-year-old worker at Volkswagen in Kaluga, had a confession to make despite the fact he had never voted.

“I was never opposed to Putin. But I did not believe to the last that he would say yes to this cannibalistic reform,” he said.

“Their statements jibe with what we see in other studies,” said Yudin. “People are depoliticized, yes. They distrust the system profoundly. This distrust grew even deeper last year. It’s a typical Russian scenario, and I am not entirely certain it has something specifically to do with workers. It typifies many segments of the populace. People who espouse this worldview serve as the base for different populist projects.”

Researchers describe their views as a contradictory mix of spontaneous anarchism and paternalistic expectations from the state. They would like to see the state solving society’s problems and intervening in the economy to raise wages, create jobs, and distribute incomes more fairly.

Igor, a worker from Omsk, had a typical view of the matter.

“The government should definitely solve these issues if workers have hired them to serve the people. When are they going to handle all of this if they work six and seven days a week? They just don’t have the time to deal with their own improvement [sic],” he said.

However, their political beliefs were more leftist and democratic than conservative and reactionary, even when it came to ethnic, religious and gender issues.

“The workers with whom we spoke, irrespective of whether they believed in God, wanted to lived in a secular state, while hoping the Russian Orthodox Church would be behave more modestly when it came to secular issues and would be less politicized. The views of workers on gender roles, the place of women in families, society, and the state were generally quite democratic. In terms of their worldviews, the workers had more in common with classic leftists than with a good number of current leftist parties and movements in Russia,” write the study’s authors.

Cool Heads
The researchers claim the workers they surveyed were clearly not victims of government propaganda. Their attitude towards Russia’s involvement in the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria was generally very restrained, if not sharply negative. Many of them argued that Russia’s foreign policy, as defined by the country’s leadership, had nothing to with their interests and was even capable of harming them. They also had a skeptical attitude to the promotion of great-power patriotism, seeing it as a means of distracting working people from real problems. But while they openly voiced their attitudes to foreign policy, the workers were cautious about discussing it, emphasizing a lack of information on the subject.

Many of them said society was not told everything.

To the surprise of the sociologists, most of the interviewees (78%) identified the internet as their main source of information, despite the fact they were asked about this part of their lives in a way that mentioned television and newspapers first, while the internet was among the information sources listed last.

By comparison, in March 2018, Levada Center published a poll claiming 85% of Russians got most of their information by watching television; moreover, 72% of respondents preferred watching state-controlled Channel One. On the contrary, only five of the workers (22% of the focus group) watched news and political programs on television. They regarded what they saw on television quite skeptically, trying to detect the influence of certain third-party interests.

They had a rather low opinion of the state of the nation.

“Lately, I’ve been ashamed of my people,” said Roman, a worker at Volkswagen in Kaluga.

Another worker, Vladimir, countered Roman.

“To stop feeling ashamed of your nation, just don’t identify yourself with it. Russia, the people, and the nation are illusions that have been pounded into our heads. There is just the earth and the people who live on it. The people who lived before us dreamed up border: here is Russia, there is Ukraine, here is America. In fact, we are all people. If you look at things from this standpoint, everything falls into place. For example, I don’t acknowledge the existence of national Olympic squads. My world is the people I know. When they say, “Our guys are playing football,” I think of “our guys” as my neighbors, workmates, family members, and the clerks at the shop. I could not care less what is going on in Syria and Donbas,” said Vladimir.

The researchers got rather unexpected and ambivalent results when they asked the workers about their attitudes towards migrant workers. In July 2018, Levada Center reported that 67% of Russians regarded them negatively. It is such sentiments that currently fuel nationalism and xenophobia. Among the workers in the survey, however, the intensity of these sentiments was considerably lower.

The different focus groups were split in their opinions of migrant laborers.

“Why hide it? I have a positive attitude toward them, because they are former brothers [within the Soviet Union]. We have the same troubles as they do. They get paid under the table, and so do we. And sometimes they are not paid at all,” said Mikhail, a 55-year-old freight handler.

“I tend to believe we need to create jobs for our own people first, and only then can we create jobs for migrants. As a worker, I consider them competitors, but as a human being I have no problems with them. On the other hand, how do we employ Russians if no Russians want to work as janitors?” said Svyatoslav, a truck driver at the Volkswagen plant.

Ultimately, 45% of the respondents took anti-migrant worker stances. In Omsk, the breakdown between migrantophobes and internationalists was six to four. In Kaluga, on the other hand, where the focus groups and in-depth interviews were dominated by workers from modern, foreign-owned production facilities, there were seven internationalists, as opposed to three migrantophobes.

The study’s authors argue the discrepancies are due to the different types of industry in the two cities, contrasting the workers from the old Soviet defense plants with the employees of foreign companies. However, we would be remiss not to note the relatively low level of nationalism in all the groups surveyed.

“In our view, this is because the workers have closer and more frequent contacts with migrant workers, and thus have more personal experience with them, something that always shatters stereotypes. It is yet another testimony to the fact that the dominant media coverage in Russia has less impact on the views of workers,” argue the study’s authors.

As for attitudes towards religion, twelve of the twenty-three respondents identified themselves as believers, while eleven identified themselves as atheists or agnostics. Two of the respondents regarded themselves as deeply religious Russian Orthodox believers. However, all the respondents said they wanted to live in a secular country in which the Russian Orthodox Church should have a smaller role in secular issues and politics.

The views of the workers on gender relations and the place of women at home and in society were quite democratic. According to the researchers, nearly all the men agreed women had the right to pursue any career or calling. They would not stop their own wives from getting involving in public life and politics or pursuing a career.

However, they regarded female politicians in the State Duma quite skeptically, since they did not see them as politicians who hailed from the grassroots. The respondents named German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Croatian President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović as positive examples of women involved in politics.

At the same time, both of the experts we interviewed, Pavel Kudyukin and Gregory Yudin, agreed the research study had serious methodological flaws. Besides, it gave its readers no sense of the particular life experiences that had prompted the workers to embrace particular outlooks.

Thanks to Alexander Zamyatin for the heads-up. Translated by the Russian Reader

Russia’s Working Poor

Employed and Poor
Andrei Bespalov
Takie Dela
December 13, 2017

According to official statistics, at least ten million Russians work hard all their lives but cannot escape poverty. 

Russia has no clear criteria for poverty. The concept is absent from Russian legislation. There are poor people throughout the world, but not in Russia. We vaguely define them as “low income,” meaning people whose income is below the subsistence level. Each region of Russia has its own subsistence level. For example, for a person of working age to make it for a month in Omsk Region, he or she needs at least 9,683 rubles [approx. 140 euros]. In Moscow, the minimum income is twice as high: 18,472 rubles [approx. 267 euros]. If your income is lower than the officially approved subsistence level, you are living below the poverty line. True, this in no way mean you cannot be paid less this same minimum for your work. You can indeed be paid less: if your monthly wage exceeds the minimum wage at least by one kopeck. Currently, the minimum monthly wage in Russia is 7,800 rubles [approx. 113 euros].

Story No. 1: Olga
We imagine you have go looking for poor people far from Moscow, and the farther you get from Moscow, the more flagrant poverty you will encounter. It is not true. There are large numbers of people living below the poverty line in the capital. I should emphasize that, in this case, we are talking Russian nationals, not about migrant workers from the former Soviet republics.

Take Olga. She works in a lab at Moscow Medical University. In her fifteen years there, she has risen from senior lab assistant to head of the lab. Olga’s monthly salary is 12,000 rubles [approx. 173 euros], and it is her entire income.

True, she gets the occasional bonus, but they come “a little more often than once in a lifetime.” Ordinary lab employees are paid 11,000 rubles a month [approx. 159 euros]. Such salaries are hardly a rarity in Moscow.

Olga was educated as a programmer. She graduated from Bauman Technical University, but she has not worked as a programmer for a long time. She believes she cannot catch up and has lost her qualifications. Olga worked as a programmer before her children were born. Her family had enough money for everything, and besides, she had the opportunity to earn money part-time. When her maternal leave was up, she was unable to go back to her old job: her department has been disbanded. She was able get the job in the lab at Moscow Medical. Olga likes everything about the job—her colleagues respect her, and her work team gets along well with each other—except the salary. Management occasionally permits her to work from home. This is good for Olga: she does not have to spend money on commuting. (Olga lives in Moscow Region, not in the city.) This comes to around 300 rubles [approx. 4 euros] a day for the trip to the city and back on the commuter train and a round trip on the subway to the university.

When her children were small, Olga did not try and find better-paid work, and when they were older, she tried, but was turned down everywhere she applied. To her surprise, she realized no one wanted to hire a woman in her forties.

“First, you can’t find work because of the children, who are constantly ill, and then you can’t find work due to your age. Although what age are talking about? I’m forty-five!”

Olga had wound up in the category of people with no prospects. The only place she could get a job was a school. Olga worked there for several years before quitting. She had never been offered a full-time position, and her monthly salary of 6,000 rubles [approx. 87 rubles] was only enough to pay for her commute.

“I don’t want to leave these folks. It’s easy working with professors. They are quite cultured, decent people. It would be a pity to quit the job. I feel I’ve become a highly qualified specialist over the last fifteen years,” said Olga.

If it were not for her husband, a programmer, she would have a hard time feeding them and their two children. The family of four’s overall income is above the subsistence level, if only by a little. It comes to around 80,000 rubles [approx. 1,155 euros] a month. (The per capita subsistence level in Moscow is 18,472 rubles, meaning Olga and her family make around 7,000 rubles more in total than the subsistence level.) It was their good fortunate both her sons were admitted to university as full scholarship students. Olga and her husband would definitely not have been able to pay their tuition.

Olga’s family took out loans to improve their living conditions. They started out in a room in a communal flat and, after several steps, moved into their own two-room flat. However, they had to rent housing for three years, since construction of their apartment building had been postponed. Renting meant additional expenses. Subsequently, Olga had to take oout a loan to fix up the flat in order to move in as quickly as possible. That was five years ago. Of the original loan of 500,000 rubles, they still have 300,000 rubles [approx. 4,300 euros] to pay off. The monthly minimum payment is 20,000 rubles [approx. 290 euros].

In her free time, Olga tries to earn extra money by knitting. She says she is very good at it. But she is unable to supplement her salary by more than 4,000 or 5,000 rubles a month, and this happens extremely irregularly. Olga says a master knitter would have to work all month without taking a break to earn that kind of money. Everyone likes the things Olga knits, but people are willing to buy them if they do not cost more than mass-produced Chinese goods, that is, they are willing to pay the price of the yarn. Olga is not ready to give up her job at the university.

It’s Unique
The poverty experienced by employed people harms the economy and hinders its growth. This was the conclusion reached by the Russian Government’s Analytical Center in a report published in October 2017.

“The poverty of workers generates a number of negative economic and social consequences, affecting productivity and quality of work, shortages of personnel in the production sector, especially manual laborers, the health of the population, and educational opportunities,” wrote the report’s authors.

Olga Golodets, deputy prime minister for social affairs, has spoken of the fact that the working poor have no stake in increasing productivity. Judging by a number of recent speeches, the authorities are aware that grassroots poverty threatens the country. Golodets called poverty among the working populace a unique phenomenon in the social sector. A uniquely negative phenomenon, naturally.

Story No. 2: Nadezhda
Nadezhda works as a history teacher at a technical school in Barnaul. She has been teaching for twenty-seven years, and her monthly salary is 12,000 rubles [approx. 170 euros]. Nadezhda has been named Teacher of the Year several times. The regional education and science ministry awarded her a certificate of merit for “supreme professionalism and many years of conscientious work.”

Nadezhda works with a cohort of students that includes many orphans and adolescents with disabilities: the visually impaired, the hard of hearing, and the deaf and dumb. It happens that her class load is as much as eight lessons a day.

Nadezha and her eleven-year-old son share a room in the technical school’s dormitory. Nadezhda has been on the waiting list to improve her living conditions for fifteen years.

“Last year, I was ninety-fourth on the list. This year, I’m ninety-first. At this rate, I can expect to get a flat in thirty years or so,” she said.

Nadezhda thought long and hard about applying for a mortgage, but she decided against it, although the bank had approved a loan of one million rubles [approx. 14,500 euros]. But what income would she have used to pay back the loan, when the monthly payment would have been 21,000 rubles?

In Altai Territory, where Barnaul is located, 12,000 rubles is above the subsistence minimum, which has been set at 10,002 rubles for the able-bodied population. In addition, the state pays Nadezhda’s son a monthly survivor’s pension of 8,300 rubles after the death of his father. Officials cite this as grounds for rejecting her request that her son should receive additional social benefits. The family’s monthly budget is 20,000 rubles, so they should be living high on the hog from the official viewpoint, apparently.

In 2013, Nadezhda suffered a severe concussion involving partial loss of hearing and eyesight. She was struck by a student high on drugs, she said. She spent over two months in the hospital. Ever since then, she has had to take pills that run her 3,000 rubles a month.

“Working with classes in which there are many orphans is not easy at all. They demand your constant, undivided attention. When I say ‘demand,’ I mean ‘demand,’ and they get that attention. But then conflicts arise with the parents of other children: the class doesn’t consist entirely of orphans. They say I don’t give their kids enough attention.”

Over the course of her life, Nadezhda has never been able to earn enough money to buy a standard 600 square meter dacha plot. Thanks to her former father-in-law, however, she grows vegetables on his plot.

“I hear the call to be a patriot from every radio, TV set, and kitchen appliance. What are you going on about, guys? I have been humiliated my entire life, paid crumbs for a difficult, responsible job. I’m hit on the head by students, and they go unpunished. I’m told to quit if it doesn’t suit me: no one is holding me back. They tell me they will find a way to evict me from the dormitory, although they are unlikely to succeed as long as my son is a minor. I’m a teacher of the highest category, with a certificate of merit from the education ministry. Our family income exceeds the minimum subsistence income by 700 rubles, meaning that officially we are not poor. Thank you very much, it makes life so much easier.”

A Trend
Since 2005, the poverty level in Russia has decreased threefold, note the authors of the study. At the same time, they write, “We cannot recognize as normal circumstances in which over ten million employed people have incomes that do not allow them to provide decent living conditions not only for themselves, but for their families.”

The researchers at the Russian Government’s Analytical Center have noticed a trend in recent years. There have been more people working in needy families, but “this has not vouchsafed their exit from poverty.”

Story No. 3: Igor
Igor Kurlyandsky, a PhD in history and senior researcher at the Institute of Russian History of the Russian Academy of Sciences, cannot be categorized as belonging to the working poor. His monthly salary exceeds the minimum subsistence income for someone living and working in Moscow by 600 rubles. His monthly after-tax income is 19,300 rubles [approx. 279 euros]. There are freelance jobs, of course, but they are irregular and do not change Igor’s circumstances for the better.

“Generally, the salaries at the institute are pitiful. Doctors of Science and senior employees are not paid much more than I am, three or four thousand rubles more,” Kurlyandsky said.

FANO (Federal Agency for Scientific Organizations) is supposed to pay quarterly bonuses based on performance indices, for example, academic publications. But this year, according to Kurlyandsky, FANO has not paid out any of these bonuses, and it has canceled old bonuses as well.

“It’s wrong to demand that scholars publish frequently. They might work for a year in the archives, collecting material for future academic articles. Or they might take several years to write a book. I worked for four years on a book about the relationship between the regime and religion during the Stalin era. I will not be paid a fee for the book. I might get a salary bonus for it from FANO. But whatever it is, if you divided it by four years, it would amount to kopecks. The institute has nothing to do with selling books. Authors earn nothing except complimentary copies.”

According to Kurlyandsky, the Institute of Russian History, one of the principal historical research institutions in Russia, with many wonderful scholars on its staff, is itself a beggar.

“It literally has no money for anything. The state hardly finances it. Of course, for many years, its fellows can travel for business only at the expense of host institutions.”

“If memory serves me, the last time researchers got a raise was around fifteen years ago. Life becomes more expensive, but our salaries stay the same. Over this period there were several spikes in inflation, but our salaries were not indexed. I have to skimp on lots of things,” Kurlyandsky confessed.

Where Are There More Poor People?
If you look at the situation by sector, the majority of the working poor are employed in housing services and utilities, education, culture and sports, agriculture, forestry, and a number of other sectors. The sectors with the fewest working poor are the resource extraction industries, finance, public administration, the military-industrial complex, and social security administration.

Generally, the statistics say that, since 2005, the number of working poor has decreased from eight million to two million, and the percentage of poor people from 24.4% to 7.3%, and this has occurred mainly due to the private sector, not the public sector.

Story No. 4: Svetlana
Forty-four years old, Svetlana works as a senior librarian. She arrived at the library immediately after graduating from a teacher’s college. Twenty years on the job, Svetlana has a huge amount of experience and a monthly salary of 8,300 rubles [approx. 120 euros].

“When I was a student, I imagine my future job as a perfect idyll: silence, lamps glowing on the tables, people reading, and me bringing enlightenment to the masses. It’s funny to remember it. I didn’t think about the money then, of course, but nowadays it’s the thought with which I wake up and go to sleep. My husband teaches at a university and makes a little over 14,000 rubles [approx. 200 rubles] a month. We have two sons in school. My dad is quite unwell, and my husband’s mom and dad are also quite ill. So we earn our 23,000 rubles a month and divide it among seven people. Among seven people, because my dad and my husband’s parents have pitiful pensions, public pensions, despite the fact they worked in factories for thirty years. It’s my perennial puzzle. What should we buy? Medicine for the elderly? Shoes for the kids? Pay off part of the debt we owe on the residential maintenance bill? Buy decent trousers for my husband? I haven’t given myself a thought for a long while. Honestly, I wear blouses and skirts for ten years or so before replacing them. I can’t recall the last time I bought cosmetics.

“Earlier, we bore our poverty more easily, maybe because we were younger. So what there was nothing to eat with evening tea? Who cared that we dressed modestly? It was a style of sorts. We tried to make sure the children had better shoes and clothes.

“The most terrible thing right now is not that we are paid kopecks. My husband used to believe we would struggle through, that we would work off our debt. But then he burnt out. He forces himself to go to work. The children are perpetually dissatisfied, and our parents are always ill. Only I don’t pretend it’s okay, that everyone lives like this. I have caught myself sizing up how people are dressed on public transport, and at the store I look into their baskets. What fruits, meat, and wines they buy! We are always eating buckwheat groats with bits of chicken and meatless soups. I hate the dacha, but it really does put food on our table.

“I have no prospects. I won’t live long enough to be promoted to head librarian, because our head librarian is my age. I lack the strength for side jobs. My real job is not easy: there is lots of scribbling involved. Plus, we divvied up the jobs of the cleaning woman and  janitors, so we either mop the floor or chop ice on the pavement. I crawl home barely alive. Frankly, I don’t see how my life could change, and I’m used to it. What worries me is my sons’ future. I’m horrified when I think that soon they will be applying to university. What if they don’t get full scholarships? We definitely don’t have the money to pay for their educations. So it turns out we have doomed our boys to the same poverty.”

It’s Shameful to Admit
Nearly everyone with whom I spoke when writing this article asked me not to use their real names and places of work. They all made the same argument. First, it is shameful to admit you work for mere kopecks. Second, their bosses would be unhappy and punish them for “disclosing information discrediting the organization.” Many of my interviewees actually had signed such non-disclosure agreements, entitled “Code of Ethics,” at work.

All illustrations courtesy of the artist, Natalia Gulay, and Takie Dela. Translated by the Russian Reader

________________________________

Labor ministry: about 13% of Russian population live below poverty line
TASS
December 28, 2017

The number of citizens with incomes below the minimum cost of living is around 20 million people, according to the Russian labor minister

The incomes of about 13% of Russia’s population are lower than the minimum cost of living, Labor Minister Maxim Topilin said in an interview with Rossiya 24 TV channel.

“According to current estimates, the number of citizens with incomes below the minimum cost of living is still around 20 million people, which is 13–13.5% of the country’s total population,” Topilin said.

He noted this is “at least an unpleasant indicator.” The minister attributed this figure to price increases in the last two years and, as a result, the growth of the subsistence minimum.

Topilin stressed the government has already taken the first steps to reducing the number of people with incomes below the subsistence minimum. He recalled that under a law that was adopted recently and would come into effect on January 1, 2018, the minimum wage would rise to 85% of the minimum subsistence level, and to 100% on January 2019.

“For the first time in the history of the Russian Federation, we have managed to bring the minimum monthly wage to the minimum subsistence level,” Topilin said.

NB. This article was lightly edited to make it more readable—TRR.

“Life Is Very Difficult for People”

“Life Is Very Difficult for People”
Yelizaveta Mayetnaya
Radio Svoboda
November 30, 2017

The announcement first appeared on the doors of a cafe in St. Petersburg, and then on the social media networks: “Olivier salad, kharcho, vegetable ragout with chicken, compote or ale, bread. 200 rubles. Free of charge to veterans and impoverished pensioners.” The whole town learned about the charity campaign literally within a few days, and old people flocked from all ends of the city to enjoy the free lunch special.

No one asks for any letters, verifying a person’s income. Pensioner ID cards are not required, either. You just have to sit down at a table and you will be fed.

Czech Yard, the cafe that will not let pensioners go hungry, is a family business. 25-year-old Alexandra Sinyak, the cafe’s co-owner, came up with the idea for the charity campaign.

“It all started with an old man who came into eat, but had little money on him. My husband was working in the cafe that day. He felt sorry for the man and said that lunch specials in our cafe would be free to pensioners,” recounts Sinyak. “The old man came for lunch every day for three weeks or so. We thought we should be feeding all the old people in our neighborhood, and not once, but on a permanent basis. We hoped our colleagues would support us, and one or two cafes that fed old people would pop up in each district. We did not imagine, of course, that they would come from all parts of the city to our cafe, but life is clearly very difficult for people. They spend forty minutes, an hour traveling one way to come here. We feed everyone. We do not turn anyone down.”

At first, Sinyak recalls, for some reason the old women brought their pension receipts along with them. The amounts listed on them were 6,200 rubles, 8,000 rubles, and 10,000 rubles. [That is, these women receive, at most, a pension of 143 euros a month.] They brought other receipts as well, such as the receipts for their apartment maintenance bills, which contained almost identical sums. [In fact, the amount of my latest apartment maintenance bill is 6,285 rubles and 20 kopecks. It tends to be lower by two or three thousand rubles in the summer months, when the centralized heating system is shut off—TRR.] Many of them have adult children who are employed, but they cannot help their own old folks, because they are barely making ends meet themselves.

According to Rosstat, around two million employed Russians are paid wages below the subsistence level. If we account for the fact that this money is also spent on other family members, the number of employed but impoverished Russians is over twelve million people or 16.8% of the population, according to calculations made by experts at the Russian Federal Government’s Analytical Center. Analysts at the World Bank have argued that the percentage of economically vulnerable people in Russia is over fifty percent.  According to a World Bank report, the proportion of Russians with a daily income of less than $10 has risen to 53.7%, while 13.8% of Russians spend less than 5$ a day.

Sinyak has seen her share of employed poor people in hospitals and rehabilitation centers. Four years ago, she and her husband gave birthto a premature baby. Doctors told the couple the girl would not be able to walk, talk or see, and they could not even dream of sending her to school. The Sinyaks threw all their efforts into making their baby daughter well. Now she has a slight limp, but is otherwise a normal child.

“We organized charity concerts for the children, and my husband and I simply gave their parents money because we really wanted to help them,” says Sinyak. “Now we are thinking about organizing a New Year’s party for the old people.”

At first, they posted the announcement about the free lunch specials on the cafe’s front door, but only one person showed up. It was only after Sinyak posted the announcement  on social media sites that the whole city discovered her and her husband’s lunches. Now they serve at least twenty-five free lunch customers daily.

То самое объявление

The initial announcement outside the cafe: “Dear patrons! The restaurant invites needy people of pension age and veterans to enjoy free lunches daily from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.” The post on the VK social network reads, “Czech Yard Cafe at 73 Sixteenth Line. All veterans and elderly people can eat lunch for free from noon to four p.m. […] We will support all cafes that can afford to do it. There are three of us for the time being. We are reposting this. Maybe a whole bunch of cafes in every district of the city will join us.”

One of their customers is 66-year-old Lyubov Volkova. She lives nearby, but she ordinarily does not walk on the side of the street where the cafe is located. She saw the announcement on VK. She spread the word to all her girlfriends in the neighborhood so they could lunch together.

“The lunch specials are a tremendous support to me. I worked my whole life. I have the title of veteran worker, but my monthly pension is 10,200 rubles, and the maintenance bill for my two-room flat is at least 7,000 rubles during the winter. I’m left to my own devices,” says Volkova, sighing heavily. “The electricity has been shut off for non-payment, and I have 15,000 rubles in unpaid fines, but I have not paid them, because I do not have the money to pay them. There are lots of people like me in our district. The people at the housing maintenance service and the electric company have become insolent. They constantly raise rates. They could not care less whether we can pay their bills or not. It is a good thing that Alexander appeared on the scene. Her cafe is charming and serves tasty food, and it is just nice to come here.”

Александра Синяк с мужем Евгением и пенсионеркой Любовью Волковой

Alexandra Sinyak, her husband Yevgeny, and pensior Lyubov Volkova

Volkova leads a rather active lifestyle. She is a member of the human rights public monitoring commission, inspecting pretrial detention centers and prisons, and she also volunteers at several public veterans organizatons. But all this work is unpaid.

“Most of the work in Russia is done by migrants. Our own people struggle to make ends meet, and they cannot get jobs. I have two sons, but they themselves have to squirm to feed their families. And I have lots of girlfriends: we left jobs at research institutes in the nineties to trade on the streets in order to raise our children. The situation was no better: everyone’s pensions were tiny. You know, I really love Russia, but everything that is happening makes me terribly sad. I want to go back to the Soviet Union. There was stability and calm then. Sure, we did not live high on the hog, but nor did we go begging. We had enough to pay for the essentials.”

Igor Bukharov, president of the Federation of Restaurateurs and Hoteliers of Russia, says the vast majority of restaurateurs have been feeding the needy for many years, but they do not talk about it.

“Societies for disabled people ask us for help, as do war veterans, as do veterans of military operations, as do the orphanages. Who doesn’t ask us for help?! Some ask to be fed breakfast, some ask to be fed lunch, some ask for help with charity suppers, and I have never heard of anyone being turned down,” claims Bukharov. “Generally, I think helping the needy is everyone’s personal affair, and we should not talk about it.”

For the time being, according to Alexandra Sinyak, they have been contacted by one only restaurant, in Sestroretsk, about arranging lunches on a permanent basis, rather than a one-off basis, and businessmen have turned up who are willing to supply their cafe with produce. Municipal councils in some large cities arrange free lunches for pensioners, but there are waiting lists, and the pensioners have to provide documented proof of their neediness. On the other hand, you can then eat free twenty-one times per quarter, says Lyubov Volkova.

Social organizations also provide assistance in the form of produce and groceries. For example, the Rus Food Fund has distributed 20,000 tons of produce and consumer goods to the needy during the five years it has operated. Right now, for example, the fund has been collecting “Food for the Backwoods” in time for the New Year’s holiday. The food will be delivered to the poor and lonely who live in villages in seven regions. Fifteen thousand people will receive assistance.

Anna Kirilovskaya has taken charge of so-called foodsharing in St. Petersburg. Volunteers collect food from various businesses, and distribute it for free to the needy. Originally, Kirilovskaya explains, the idea was to save edible produce from being discarded. The project now employs around 400 volunteers. The produce is collected almost daily, and thirty businesses give away their leftovers on a constant basis. According to the project’s website, over 113,000 kilos of produce have been saved in the different regions where foodsharing exists and there are teams of foodsavers.

“The volunteers decide themselves what to do with the food. They can take unsold soup from a cafe and pour it into sixty packets, freeze them, and eat them for the next two months. But I know that many of our volunteers take care of neighbors, families with lots of children, and old people. Some volunteers will take leftover meat that has been given to them, turn them into cutlets, and hand them out to the people they look after, but we get the most donations from vegetable warehouses. We mainly distribute fruits and vegetables,” says Kirilovskaya.

According to Kirilovskaya, the businesses most willing to help are owned by green-minded people who promise their customers fresh products and goods.

“Imagine how bakers at a private bakery feel when they have to throw their unsold goods into the trash in the evening?” Kirilovskaya wonders. “But everyone, employers and employees, likes giving away food to the needy. By the way, employees appreciate their employers more when they have this considerate attitude to their work.”

Alexandra Sinyak says she does not know what to do if hundreds of people come every day for their lunch specials, and whether she and her husband can continue to feed them at their own expense for very long.

“We decided we would do it as long as we were able,” she says.

In the coming days, she plans to make the rounds of the cafes in neighboring districts to personally persuade their owners to provide similar lunches to their own local pensioners. Sinyak is certain that someone will respond to her request.

Lyubov Volkova argues that Sinkyak should keep a count of the people who come for lunch, and if there are really too many of them, to refuse to serve everyone.

“I would not want these wonderful, kind folks to end up beggars themselves because of us poor pensioners,” she says.

Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Comrade Preobrazhenskaya for the heads-up

Poor Russians Up to Their Necks in Debt

ruble coin 2This one-ruble coin, minted in 2014 and sporting the newish symbol for the ruble, adopted in 2013, won’t buy you love or much anything else. 

Poor Russians Go into Debt
Tatyana Lomskaya
Vedomosti
October 11, 2017

Low-income Russians have been unable to wait for an uptick in incomes and have turned to loans to meet their consumer needs. Experts, including the Central Bank, believe such borrowers are a danger to the economy.

The demand of Russians for loans has been growing. In August, their arrears to banks rose to levels not seen since the spring of 2014. Ruble-denominated loans reached their maximum historic high, according to RANEPA’s monthly newsletter Monitoring the Economic Situation in Russia. Banks have been vigourously issuing loans. In July, they provided Russians with 23% more loans than at the same time last year. Consumer loans have been the fastest growing. According to the National Credit History Bureau, such loans increased by 27% over the past eight months.

Loans have been playing a growing role in the budgets of Russian families, notes the newsletter. In the first six months of the year, new loans made up 21% of household final consumption expenditures. This is significantly higher than the crisis levels of the last two years (15–18%), although it is still below the peak levels of 25–27% in 2013–2014. With virtually no increase in the real incomes of individuals, this generates additional risks to their financial circumstances, noted RANEPA’s analysts.

Residents of poor and distant regions are the biggest borrowers of consumer loans at the moment, along with the poorest segments of the populace, notes Natalya Zubarevich, director of the regional program at the Independent Institute for Social Policy. This is how they offset falling incomes. Wages in Russia have been growing since August 2016, but real incomes have continued to fall.

People cannot skimp and save forever. People turn to loans to meet their needs, says Zubarevich. What matters is that banks not issue too many loans, which would raise the specter of a huge number of defaults.

The debt burden has been growing more quickly in regions with the highest poverty levels, according to the FR Group, although the situation varies from region to region, notes project manager Anastasia Zyurkalova.

Russians have been spending more and more of their income on consumption. According to some indications, they have abandoned the savings model of financial behavior, acknowledges Yelena Grishina, head of RANEPA’s research laboratory on pension systems and social sector actuarial forecasting. One of the ways they survive is by taking out loans. Certain segments of the populace have outlived the means they once had for limiting consumption. In the first six months of 2017, a linear dependence bwtween increases in the volume of loans and poverty levels in the regions was observed, says Grishina. Russians are now more positive than a year ago: they have assessed the changes in their welfare, and the percentage of those who skimp on food and clothing has decreased, note RANEPA’s analysts [sic].

The burden of non-mortgage loans is highest in regions with high unemployment and a poorer populace, Alfabank’s chief economist Natalya Orlova wrote last autumn. The middle class [sic] would be unlikely to emerge as the main source of the growth in demand for retail loans, she noted. The average borrower is more likely to be someone with a limited income. Judging by the numbers for the first six months of 2017, nothing has changed, says Orlova. It is still less well-off Russians who want to bring their consumption up to average levels. The increase in retail loans in the poorest regions is likely due to people’s tapping out their savings and and trying to maintain a certain level of consumption, agrees Karen Vartapetov, an analyst at S&P.

A significant portion of the demand for consumer loans comes from people whose incomes are less than the median income in Russia. Often, their incomes are unstable as well, and their debt burdens are high, noted analysts in the Central Bank’s research and forecasting department. (Their opinions may differ from the financial regulator’s official stance.)  Yet banks currently do not really have the capacity for an increase in lending, and so even a moderate uptick in consumer loans is fraught with risks no less serious than during the 2010–2012 loan boom. To limit these risks, the Central Bank has been working out individual debt burden indicators, notes a source at the regulator. The share of an individual’s expenditures on repaying loans should be such she could continue to pay back the loan even if negative events were to occur.

For the time being, the largest banks surveyed by the Central Bank have reported that the percentage of borrowers with increased levels of debt burdens has not grown, and the number of people with monthly incomes of less than 20,000 rubles [approx. 290 euros] who have taken out cash loans has fallen, says the source at the regulator. The banks have been forced to behave more conservatively. Everyone well remembers the wave of late payments in 2012–2013, says Yuri Gribanov, CEO of Frank RG.

After the crisis of 2015, the quality of loan applicants has not improved considerably, notes Sergei Kapustin, deputy board chair of OTP Bank. There are still many people with problematic debts that have not been managed and refinanced at another bank. According to certain channels, the share of such debts is ten percent, and banks have been forced to lower the number of loans they issue. In addition, a number of bankers issue unsubstantially large loans to people who have borrowed money at other banks in amounts disproportionate to their incomes.

The demand for consumer loans is currently quite high, says Mikhail Matovnikov, Sberbank’s chief analyst, and there are still a lot of extant bad loans at high interest rates, especially among low-income Russians. This not at all what the economy needs, and it is bad for borrowers, too, he argues.

The banks’ fight against such loans has pushed borrowers into the arms of microfinance institutions, where the circumstances can be even worse. This year, the microlending market has grown from 186 billion rubles to 242 billion rubles [approx. 3.5 billion euros]. The banks have not met the steadily growing demand for loans, according to research by microlender Home Money.

home money

A screenshot from Russian microlender Home Money’s website. “It’s simpler to make a phone call than to borrow from somebody! Call if you need to! New services: personal legal consultant; home protection; credit history.”

Measures to limit interest rates cooled the consumer lending market in 2015–2016, notes Dmitry Vasilyev, an analyst with Fitch. Currently, the portfolio’s growth matches the nominal growth in incomes of Russians (2–3% during the first sixth months of 2017) and the percentage of risky and unsecured loans has lowered. Some borrowers have drifted to the microlenders, while some banks have been weeded out due to noncompliance with tougher standards, says Vasilyev.

Orlova points out the banking sector is at a crossroads. Maintaining quality lending means not taking on as clients people working in the informal sector and incapable of confirming how much they make and microlenders currently lending at very high rates. Or banks could increase their appetite for risk and take on inferior borrowers to increase their market shares and loan portfolios. Banks have to earn money. If there are no borrowers willing to pay (for example, the government, which would have to become much more active in the state debt market), the issue would become particularly critical. Prospects for income growth in the coming year are worsening, and the risk that not very well-off people would not be able to service their loans is growing, warns Orlova. Poverty will not seriously decline in Russia in the coming year, if we believe the government’s three-year macro forecast, as submitted to the State Duma. It will drop from 12.8% of the populace this year to 11.2% in 2020, i.e., it will not drop to the levels of  2012–2013 (lower than 11%).

Translation and image of the ruble coin by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Comrade Koganzon for the heads-up. The original article, as published yesterday by Vedomosti on the front page of its paper edition, was behind a paywall. Thanks to Press Reader for providing me with the text of the article.

Capital Flight for Your Right to Party

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Petersburgers queue at a money exchange point in the downtown as the euro again rises in value against the ruble, August 22, 2017. Photo by the Russian Reader

Half the Kingdom for an Offshore
Since the early 1990s, Russians have exported as much money as is left in the country 
Arnold Khachaturov
Novaya Gazeta
August 24, 2017

Research into the scale of the transfer of money from Russia to preferential tax jurisdictions has confirmed the darkest fears of economists and politicians. The offshore capital of Russian companies amounts to 62 trillion rubles [approx. 888 billion euros], which is comparable to 72% of Russia’s annual GDP and three times larger than the country’s gold and foreign exchange reserves. A handful of hyper-wealthy Russians and major companies have deposited in accounts in Panama (read our special investigation “Offshores: An Autopsy”), Cyprus, and other offshore zones about the same amount of money as the rest of Russia’s populace has left at home. Or, to invoke another comparison, the elites have exported the monetary equivalent of the entire Russian economy during the mid-2000s.

You won’t find this information in the official statistics, of course. These are the calculations reached by three of the world’s leading specialists on inequality—Thomas Piketty, Gabriel Zucman, and Filip Novokmet. (Piketty and Novokmet work at the Paris School of Economics, while Zucman works at UC Berkeley and the National Bureau of Economic Research.) The economists have authored a report entitled From Soviets to Oligarchs: Inequality and Property in Russia, 1905–2016. The report has been published by the NBER, a private research organization based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Piketty and his colleagues most often assemble and analyze globe-spanning data sets, but this time they have written a detailed article on a single country. It deals with a particular trajectory in Russia’s progress after the Soviet Union’s collapse: the economy has been sent offshore, and the income gap between the wealthy and the poor has reached critical levels not typical either of the developed countries nor of other post-communist regimes. The report’s authors see this as an example of an extreme form of oligarchic capitalism, which confirms their central hypothesis that a high level of inequality is incompatible a country’s sustainable development.

Although Piketty’s methodology has been constantly criticized due to the insufficient reliability of his data (the use of official Soviet statistics provokes the biggest questions in this instance), the conclusions reached by the world’s biggest star in academic economics and author of the international bestseller Capital in the Twenty-First Century cannot be ignored.

In any country in the world, the major capitalists are engaged in devising different ways to minimize tax payments: economic incentives function the same everywhere. In his previous works, Zucman calculated there is $7.6 trillion tucked away in the world’s offshore zones. In 2014, according to Oxfam, the fifty biggest US companies kept $1.4 trillion in tax havens.

In relative terms, however, this is only 8% of the US economy. The European elites keep approximately the same percentage of their wealth abroad. Returning these assets to their original jurisdictions and adding them to the tax base would certainly be a powerful impetus in the fight against inequality, but the quality of life of the average American or European would probably not change too drastically.

Can the same be said of Russia? Offshores have played a fundamentally different role here.

Due to corruption and the lack of legal protections for business, the Russian economy has been deprived not just of a small part of corporate super-profits, but of almost half of its potential assets. The failure of the deoffshorization campaign has shown the problem in Russia lies much deeper than in western countries. Russian businessmen are trying not so much to evade the practically preferential income tax rate of 13%; on the contrary, in other jurisdictions they are willing to pay twice as much so as not face the Russian tax inspectorate and the Russian courts.

Even if we ignore the origins of the offshore fortunes of the Russian rich, the possible public gain from returning these funds to Russia appears extremely significant. The most conservative estimates predict 400 to 500 billion rubles in additional tax revenues for the budget annually. This was the same amount the federal government spent on healthcare in 2016.

If at least part of this money were invested in the Russian economy, the effect could be much stronger. For example, the Stolypin Club’s strategy argues that, in order to grow, the Russian economy lacks 1.5 trillion rubles annually in the form of business loans. Economist Mikhail Dmitriev proposes allocating the same amount to finance infrastructure projects.

These are conversations in a vacuum, however. Having made their fortunes both in the private sector and government service, wealthy Russians imagine Russia’s “national interests” quite differently.

Translated by the Russian Reader

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This paper combines national accounts, survey, wealth and fiscal data (including recently released tax data on high-income taxpayers) in order to provide consistent series on the accumulation and distribution of income and wealth in Russia from the Soviet period until the present day. We find that official survey-based measures vastly underestimate the rise of inequality since 1990. According to our benchmark estimates, top income shares are now similar to (or higher than) the levels observed in the United States. We also find that inequality has increased substantially more in Russia than in China and other ex-communist countries in Eastern Europe. We relate this finding to the specific transition strategy followed in Russia. According to our benchmark estimates, the wealth held offshore by rich Russians is about three times larger than official net foreign reserves, and is comparable in magnitude to total household financial assets held in Russia.
Abstract to Filip Novokmet, Thomas Piketty & Gabriel Zucman, From Soviets to Oligarchs: Inequality and Property in Russia, 1905-2016, NBER Working Paper No. 23712, August 2017

They Also Lie About How Much They Pay Us

“Loans, whatever your credit history, paid in cash in 30 minutes.” Flyer photographed in central Petersburg, 15 May 2017. Photo by TRR

Russian Public TV: Average Wage in Pskov Region Two Times Lower than Official Figures
Pskovskaya Guberniya Online
March 15, 2017

An SMS poll conducted by Russian Public Television (OTR) has shown that the average monthly wage in Pskov Region is two times lower than the official figures, amounting to 9,950 rubles [approx. 160 euros]. These figures were published by OTR’s news service on the basis of information sent by viewers. OTR viewers reported their minimum and maximum monthly wages: they amounted to 6,500 rubles and 15,000 rubles, respectively. According to Rosstat, the average monthly wage in Pskov Region amounts to 22,264 rubles [approx. 358 euros].

The poll showed that the average monthly wage in Russia is 15,158 rubles [approx. 244 euros], which is also two times less than the official figures. Rosstat reported that the average monthly wage this year has amounted to 36,746 rubles [approx. 590 euros]. According to Rosstat, the poorest region is Dagestan. The average monthly wage in the country’s wealthiest regions—Murmansk, St. Petersburg, Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous District, Khanty-Mansiysk Autonomous District, Sakhalin, Kamchatka, Moscow, and Moscow Region—is over 40,000 rubles per month [approx. 640 euros].

According to OTR’s survey, only viewers in Moscow, Moscow Region, Buryatia, Ingushetia, the Maritime District, and Belgorod Region make over 30,000 rubles a month. Viewers in Kabardino-Balkaria, Kursk Region, Orenburg Region, Pskov Region, Saratov Region, and Tver Region make less than 10,000 rubles a month. The lowest monthly wage was discovered in Novgorod Region. A postman there makes 2,800 rubles a month [approx. 45 euros].

Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Comrade Koganzon for the heads-up. See “Russia’s Economic Performance: Fudging the Stats” (February 16, 2017) and “Alexei Gaskarov: A 25,000 Ruble Minimum Monthly Wage Is a Good Idea” (February 9, 2017) for more perspectives on these issues.