Monday, July 23, 2007

Moscow's Collapsing Middle Class

I'm not a huge fan of Anne Applebaum's columns, and I don't have a great deal of context for Russia. Her latest posting on Slate caught my eye, about how the increasing failure to enforce the rule of law in Russia is taking a toll on the professional middle class, as observed from the experiences of Applebaum's friends and acquaintances . An excerpt:

If you look at the statistics—GDP, stock market, annual growth rates—Russia's economy appears to be improving rapidly. Presumably the oil magnates who are snapping up big houses in Geneva and London are benefiting from the huge rise in oil and gas prices, and the accompanying boom. Maybe the retirees whose pensions are now paid on time—in the 1990s, they would go for weeks without seeing a ruble—benefit, too. But there is a group that clearly isn't doing well from Russia's economic growth, and most of my friends—doctors, journalists, teachers, historians, some entrepreneurs—are part of it. For lack of a better term, I'll call this group the would-be middle-class.

The mere fact of living in a post-Communist country doesn't explain their tribulations, however. I reckon my friends in Warsaw must be the rough socioeconomic equivalents of my friends in Moscow, but my Warsaw friends are flourishing despite the chaotic coalition government that currently runs their country, and despite the corruption that sometimes prevails in their city government. They might not be zillionaires, but their children study abroad, their apartments have new Ikea bookshelves, and they don't regularly tell horror stories about their daily lives. They aren't a would-be middle-class, they're a real middle class, and eventually they'll vote like one, too.

It's a good reminder of something we often forget: Not every prime minister has to be a genius, not every economic target has to be met in order for life to improve in a developing or transitional country. But a few institutions are required, at minimum: a percentage of honest bureaucrats, a minimal investment in public health and safety, a genuine separation between criminal mafias and at least most state authorities. And, of course, a working legal system.

Applebaum's observation immediately triggered two disparate thoughts in my mind. The first revisited an observation of my reading of Arthur Koestler's Darkness At Noon from earlier this spring. Specifically, I always have this feeling that the experience of the individual in Russia, dating in literature from Soviet times and before, is a unique one. I have no personal context for this assertion, but when reading either great literature or more recent accounts like Applebaum's, I get the impression that the impersonal bureaucracies, the systematic unfairness, and monolith of illogic that your average thinking Russian faces is somehow of a different character than what you might find in Kafka, or in any of Graham Greene's bizarre outposts, or in navigating the multi-tiered government ministries of modern day India or China.

The second thought, more germane to the remainder of this blog, is about the disconnect between the official evaluation of development and government policies, as measured by things like GDP or economic growth rates, and the experience on the ground of those pillars of civil society that make an economy or a society function. From an academic perspective, many attempts have been made by socially-concerned economists to try to gauge the health of an economy - the genuine progress indicator being one. Less academically, ff Applebaum's observations hold true, and Russia's professional class is at risk, then this represents a significant threat to Russian society. Living in America, projecting into the next century, Russia and China remain the two real wildcards to the global order - and our focus has been distracted by the war in Iraq and Islamic terrorism in the past six years. Perhaps warnings like Applebaum's warrant further attention?

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