Research casts doubt over Russia’s ‘growing’ middle class

There are more billionaires in Russia than any country on earth, bar the U.S., but new research shows that many Russians are hiding their poverty by calling themselves middle class.

“In the 1990s, people blamed the state for their deprived living conditions, and even underestimated their standard of living by saying they were poor. Nowadays, that’s an embarrassment. People say that they represent the middle class and life is good. But they’re not from the middle class – not even according to Russian standards that, of course, differ in many ways from those in the West,” says sociologist Natalya Evgenia of Russian Academy of Science.

The number of Russians living below the poverty line, set at 6,000 roubles a month (around $US 250), has halved in the last four years, from 40 to 20 per cent. But most of the county fall outside the middle class income bracket.

Moscow is an exception, but it is not a fair reflection of the whole country. To get an understanding of the real Russia you have to head to the regions.

Take the city of Yaroslavl. Four hours drive north of the capital and you see a better example of how people live.

Sasha Solyanov epitomises Russia’s new middle class. At 30 he is the deputy manager of his father’s construction business with ambitions to branch out on his own in the future.

“In my town I would be considered middle class, maybe even more affluent. I think that if a person wants to achieve something and puts effort into reaching his goals, he will succeed,” says Sasha.

A wife and young son at home, the Solyanov’s display the indicators of the Russian middle class. A foreign car, and a flat furnished with all the latest mod cons. Solyanov’s two-year-old son, Yaroslav, has his surplus toys.  The Solyanovs can also afford the annual holiday abroad – another symbol of status.

Meanwhile, their neighbours have a different standard of living. Mum of 5 Olga, has had to work all her life. Like her husband Nikolay, she has a university degree and is a specialist in engineering, but still the couple don't consider themselves middle class.

The Ivanovs suffered greatly from the collapse of the Soviet Union, and had to put all their money into raising their children, forgoing any trips abroad themselves.

“I don’t think there is middle class in Russia. Russia has the poor, the very poor, the extremely poor and the very rich. Now we don’t have a holiday house, we don’t have a car. That’s because we wanted to give an education to our children,” says Olga.