Thursday, January 8, 2009

Window on Eurasia: ‘Middle Class Culture’ in Russia and Hence Its Middle Class in Trouble, Moscow Analyst Suggests

Paul Goble

Vienna, January 8 – The creation of a Russian middle class is now at risk not only because of the economic crisis but also and perhaps more importantly because the distinctive culture of such a group that had begun to emerge as the basis for identity suffered serious reversals during the course of the last year, according to a leading Moscow commentator.
In a column in the current issue of “Vzglyad,” Andrey Arkhangel’sky argues that 2008 was marked among other things by “the defeat of the culture of the middle class in Russia,” a development on which that class depends for its self-definition as much as it does on its income level and educational attainment (
And these difficulties in the development of “middle class culture” in Russia are especially serious, he continues, because “the middle class is, as is well-known, the hegemon of a democratic society,” its “most conscious and active” part and the one that “exerts a decisive influence on all spheres of life.”
As is the case with its counterparts in other countries, Russia’s “middle class needs its own culture for self-identification,” he writes, because “’through culture’ it is simpler to recognize its attachment to [and membership in] a social group on the basis of common ideas and values.”
Arkhangel’sky suggests that “if two managers have the same automobiles and diplomas, this still doesn’t guarantee a commonality of their convictions regarding, for example, freedom of speech or human rights. But if both attend a showing of ‘One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich,’” that suggests they have a common interest in preventing a return to that world.
Fundamentally, he continues, “the culture of the middle class is a compromise between high culture and lo and is thus the natural consequence of the democratization of culture in the 20th century. “ But “in Russia, in the place of ‘middle class’ culture, there has been a black hole,” with people having to choose, in Boris Akunin’s words, between Dostoyevsky and bad TV.
Most of those who people would class as middle class do not really want one or the other, they prefer “a third, intermediate variant,” which contains elements of both but is different from either of the others. Such a culture had begun to emerge in Russia, Arkhangel’sky says, but recently, it has suffered a setback – and as a result, so has that class’s development.
Middle class culture promotes “all-human solidarity,” the recognition that “money alone does not eliminate suffering,” and thus “reduces the level of conflicts among classes and reduces aggression in society,” all values that Russia now appears to be losing as the elements of this culture are under siege.
In many ways, Arkhangel’sky says, “’middle’ culture is the culture of the digest, the retelling, the adaptation; in this sense, any series based on a well-known artistic work, such as bringing to the screen something by Dostoyevsky or the Strugatsky brothers is a manifestation of ‘middle culture.’”
From the end of the 1990s through 2007, he says, such productions had been on the rise, but “2008 saw the total defeat of ‘middle’ culture” and thus the last 12 months became the occasion for its “massification and glamorization,” developments that reduced its distinctiveness from the mass culture and thus reduced its role in promoting middle class values.
Arkhangel’sky gives numerous examples of what he argues were unsuccessful efforts to continue the middle class approach in media and offers in conclusion the assertion that “2008 confirmed that the culture of the middle class” in Russia and hence that country’s middle class are too weak to flourish at least in the short term.
“In a moral sense,” he continues, “the Russian middle class has proved to be a colossus with feet of clay, without internal support, without ideas and desires except for one: a desire for material well-being.”. And that has left “a deafening silence” in this social space as Russia enters a new year.
But despite his conclusion about where Russian middle class culture is now, Arkhangel’sky offers what he calls a “paradoxical” prognosis: the country’s current economic difficulties which are affecting the middle class may lead its members to think more about cultural issues, and if they do, that could lead to the rebirth of both the culture and the class.

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