Russian Workers an ‘Invisible Class’ Since Collapse of Soviet Union, New Study Concludes

Text by: Paul Goble

Staunton, January 11 – Russians employed in factories have become “an invisible group” in society since 1991; and as a result, the identity even now is based largely on memories of the Soviet past as exacerbated by their sense of growing social inequality, according to a new study by the Higher School of Economics of workers at the Uralmash plant.

The study, prepared by Elizaveta Polukhina and Anna Strelnikova of the HSE and Alexandrina Vanke of the University of Manchester, notes that since the end of the Soviet Union, workers have received very little attention, including from sociologists and other scholars (iq.hse.ru/news/213569213.html).

This has left members of this group “lost” because they had been respected in Soviet times; but “in the 1990s everything changed completely.” They lost their former status in society and watched as their relative position in the income pyramid fell precipitously, the three researchers say.

Uralmash, set up in the northern section of Yekaterinburg in 1927 was a workers’ settlement based on a number of factories. It was one of dozens of such settlements in Soviet times. At present, more than 190,000 people live there, a number far lower than in the past. The HSE researchers conducted deep interviews with a number of the remaining workers.

These settlements, the sociologists say, were intended to provide everything the workers needed and to root them to one place. As such, they served as an important component of the Soviet system of control. But despite what many might think, many there now recall that arrangement as a positive thing.

Most of the workers now say they felt like “part of a large family,” one in which their days and even their lives were predictable and in which they could expect to be taken care of cradle to grave. They say they were proud to be “simple Soviet people,” a category that they defined more in ethical terms than in class ones.

For these workers, the collapse of the Soviet system as completely negative and remains so. And if they were quite happy to talk about the Soviet period, they were much more restrained in discussing the 1990s, the three sociologists say. For them, that period meant wage arrears, the loss of many fellow workers, and search for a new place in life.

The sociologists say that even now, workers at Uralmash view themselves as “innocent ‘victims of circumstances.’” As a result, “the contemporary identity of workers is a kind of mix which includes Soviet and post-Soviet practices, meanings and values,” but it still focuses on values rather than income alone.

“This doesn’t mean that class distinctions have disappeared entirely. To a large extent,” the three write, “identity is defined as a result of a sense of social stratification.” Workers don’t feel comfortable dealing with managers or owners and don’t have the same social cohesion they once had particularly as younger workers gain education and move away.

Read the orginal text here.

Transformation of Working-Class Identity in Post-Soviet Russia

We present the results of our group project The Everyday Life of Industrial Workers: Ethnographic Case-Study of Industrial Neighborhood in Yekaterinburg, conducted by me, Elizaveta Polukhina and Anna Strelnikova, in the working paper The Transformation of Working-Class Identity in Post-Soviet Russia: A Case-Study of an Ural Industrial Neighborhood.

Abstract

This paper presents an analytical description of working-class identity in three key periods of the socioeconomic transformations which changed the structure of a plant’s industry and working-class life: the Soviet era (1930s-1980s), the time of economical change (1990s), and the post-Soviet years (2000s-2010s). The analytical framework of the study is based on the concept of ‘cultural class analysis’ (Savage 2015). It includes the concepts of habitus and cultural capital, and culture as embedded in economic and social relations (Bourdieu 1980).

In the course of the research we conducted an ethnographic case-study in 2017 and lived in the neighborhood of Uralmash, which was designed for workers of a heavy machinery plant dating back to the 1920s in the city of Yekaterinburg. Based on 15 in-depth interviews with Uralmash workers living in the neighborhood and 8 experts, and our field observations, we discovered 3 restructuring shapes of the Uralmash worker identity. These working class identities shapes referred to 3 determined periods. The Soviet period showed a ‘consistent’ working-class identity of the Uralmash workers, whereby the plant and working spirits were the centers of their lives. The 1990s was marked by severe deterioration of workers’ social conditions and the loss of their familiar bearings in life. As a consequence, the Uralmash workers perceived themselves as ‘victims of circumstances’ with ‘collapsing’ worker identity in 1990s. Currently, ‘Soviet’ and ‘post-Soviet’ practices and values are combined in today’s ‘mixing’ and an inconsistent worker identity. The notions of ‘simple’ and ‘working-class’ as sense-making images are encapsulated in nostalgic memories and retain their role as criteria for the delineation between inequalities and social discrimination along the ‘them’ and ‘us’: ‘we are those who live belonging to the past’. The Soviet past still continues to be an important sense-making resource; in fact, it is the only ‘universal’ prop for them that support their subjective perception of themselves.

Keywords: Industrial Neighborhood, Worker, Working-Class Identity, Ethnographic Case-Study

Elizaveta, Polukhina and Strelnikova, Anna and Vanke, Alexandrina, The Transformation of Working-Class Identity in Post-Soviet Russia: A Case-Study of an Ural Industrial Neighborhood (November 22, 2017). Higher School of Economics Research Paper No. WP BRP 77/SOC/2017. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3075749

Masculinities, Bodies and Subjectivities

A book Masculinity, Labour, and Neoliberalism. Working-Class Men in International Perspective editited by Charlie Walker and Steven Roberts with my contribution Masculinities, Bodies and Subjectivities: Working-Class Men Negotiating Russia’s Post-Soviet Gender Order has been finally published by Palgrave Mcmillan.

Abstract

This chapter considers the interrelation between masculinities, bodies and subjectivities of Russian working-class men generated by Russia’s post-Soviet gender order. The collapse of the Soviet Union led to large transformations in Russian society that changed its social structure significantly. During the period of transition, some social classes and groups, which had been sustained by the state and respected in Soviet times, were devalued and downshifted. Working-class people, especially men, experienced this downgrade in the greatest measure. Building on the approaches by Michel Foucault and Raewyn Connell, the chapter examines masculine subjectivities constituted through body and sexual practices of working-class men, and it explains the peculiarities of post-Soviet gender order reflecting Russia’s new forms of socioeconomic politics. The author defines several types of working-class masculinity, which are classic masculine subjectivity reproducing patterns of the Soviet gender order and trying to sustain a normative gender model; and new masculine subjectivity combining neoliberal and counter-neoliberal patterns which can be divided into consuming and protest masculinities.

Cite this chapter as: Vanke A. (2018) Masculinities, Bodies and Subjectivities: Working-Class Men Negotiating Russia’s Post-Soviet Gender Order. In: Walker C., Roberts S. (eds) Masculinity, Labour, and Neoliberalism. Global Masculinities. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham

Sociological Debate on Inequalities in Russia and Beyond

My review Sociological Debate on Inequalities in Russia and Beyond has been published in the Russian Sociological Review.

The review considers the 5th All-Russian Sociological Congress held at the Ural Federal University in Yekaterinburg in October, 2016. The event, entitled “Sociology and Society: Social Inequality and Social Justice,” attracted more than 1000 delegates from Russia and abroad. The Congress took place against a background of increasing social inequality in Russia, following the economic crisis of 2015. The program included 17 sessions, 37 panels, and 35 round tables which covered burning topics such as the unequal distribution of resources in Russian regions, the reduction of social welfare, the low living standards of vulnerable social groups, the growth of ethnic tension, and others. One of the plenary talks was given by the president of the International Sociological Association, Margaret Abraham, who spoke on the humanistic mission of Sociology, and called to coalesce in the struggle against social injustice in the world. The discussions at the Congress have shown that sociologists in Russia follow the global trends in examining urgent social problems, as well as in reflecting methodological issues, e.g., the application of new approaches in inequality studies. The debate on the restriction of academic freedoms in Russia at the closing plenary session made it obvious that the solution to this problem can be found in professional solidarity and is the responsibility of everyone who belongs to the sociological community.

Read more: here.

How do social factors determine which music, fashions, trends, films etc become pop culture phenomena and which don’t?

My answer to the question “How do social factors determine which music, fashions, trends, films etc become pop culture phenomena and which don’t?” on the website TheQuestion UK


According to one sociological approach, music, films, books, clothes, and other cultural goods become popular among mass audiences through the mechanism of competitive struggle between various social groups.

The social groups that are important in the fields of fashion and culture production are those that possess a large amount of capital (in terms of Pierre Bourdieu),e.g.: economic capital, cultural capital, symbolic capital, etc.

These resource groups are made up of:
a) dominating classes (the elite, bourgeoisie),
b) producers of cultural products (designers, couturiers),
c) staff of fashion-papers (editors, journalists), and
d) other collective agents who set the fashionable styles.

Thus, popular culture is the result of the interplay between many agents and conventional consumers who are mostly represented by middle-class buyers, who in turn try to perform upward social mobility with the help of improving the appearance, consuming fashionable goods, reading popular literature, watching new films, etc.

However, through the exercise of these imitative practices, conventional consumers are only engaged in symbolic mobility, while their actual social positions remain the same. This means that in societies with a well-defined class structure, dominating classes, as well as agents with specific competencies from fashion and mass media industries, set the trends that are accepted by the ordinary public.

Тампере. Уютный город с индустриальной культурой

В первые дни декабря мне довелось побывать в уютном финском городе – бывшем промышленном центре Финляндии, известном сегодня как центр новых технологий, образования и науки. В Тампере я приехала на несколько дней для того, чтобы принять участие в семинаре “Маскулинности на границах”, который предполагал дискуссию по вопросам мужественности между финскими и российскими исследователями, художниками и активистами. Наш междисциплинарный семинар проходил в двух местах, в Музее индустриальной культуры Верстас и Музее Ленина, что повлияло на мое восприятие города.

Многослойный контекст пребывания в Тампере заставил задуматься о том, что может превратить промышленный город в удобное место для жизни и отдыха.

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Картонажная фабрика Тако. Фото Александрины Ваньке

Первое, что поражает, когда добираешься пешком за десять минут от вокзала до центра, – это то, что самая современная гостиница Sokos, в фойе которой постоянно толпятся туристы, расположена вблизи фабрики по производству картона. Из большого окна номера открывается вид на чудесный пруд и заводскую трубу, выпускающую клубы дыма. Здесь же около гостиницы находятся магазины, ночные клубы, бары, кафе и ресторанчики с вкусной едой и недорогими (по европейским меркам) ценами. С ними соседствуют бывшие фабричные здания, помещения которых сейчас заняты парикмахерскими, офисами и художественными мастерскими. Но это далеко не все! В этом же пространстве вы найдете пристань с красивыми маленькими яхтами, палубы которых присыпаны белым снежком.

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Вид на реку Таммеркоски. Фото Александрины Ваньке

Обилие такого количества разнородных объектов инфраструктуры в одном месте удивительным образом создает в Тампере комфортную городскую среду, что приводит в восторг туристов.

Стоит пройти немного наверх от пристани и пространство поменяет свою конфигурацию. По мере удаления от центра улицы расширяются и образуют прямые линии, а в жилых кварталах дома новой постройки перемежаются со зданиями бывших ткацких фабрик, построенных в XIX веке из красного кирпича. В последних сегодня размещаются салоны красоты и студии дизайна. И если оказаться на одной из таких линий, например, на улице Papinkatu, то в одном ее конце можно увидеть церковь, а в другом – парк и бухту. Удивительно, как отдыхают глаза, когда смотришь на водную гладь и тонкие льдинки. И в этом почти безлюдном месте может произойти нечто неожиданное. Например, можно встретить красивого финского зайца, который любезно согласится попозировать на камеру.

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Финский заяц на фоне бывшей ткацкой фабрики. Фото Александрины Ваньке

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Южный парк и бухта Вииниканлахти. Фото Александрины Ваньке

Сбалансированная экосистема и здоровая природная среда, по отношению к которой местные жители проявляют заботу, добавляет гармонии спокойному ритму жизни Тампере.

Вместе с тем, живая интеллектуальная среда с прогрессивными идеями в области социальных наук оставляет ощущение открытости и создает свободное пространство для кросс-культурных обменов и множественных интерпретаций. Невероятная атмосфера Тампере, задаваемая структурой урбанистического пространства, помогла, на мой взгляд, и участникам семинара “Маскулинности на границах” найти точки соприкосновения и осознать важность трансграничного диалога. Ведь осмысляя другого по ту сторону границы, мы лучше узнаем себя.

How can I tell what social class I belong in?

My post on social class for TheQuestion UK.


The answer this question depends on several parameters. Firstly, it depends on the way you define classes or social groups. Secondly, it depends on the social structure of the society you are a part of. Thirdly, it depends on your class consciousness or your subjective class self-identification. I’ll outline four main sociological approaches to social classes here.

1) In Marxist theory, classes are understood as large groups of people differing in their positions regarding the ownership of the means of production and social division of labour. In other words, a class position is determined by the role of an individual in the public organization of labour. Marx divides the capitalist society of the 18th century into three classes:

  • Bourgeoisie, which is a dominant class owning the means of production and feeding on the exploitation of wage-workers;
  • Petite bourgeoisie, which is a class of small owners living on their personal (mostly family) labour (e.g. craftsmen, substantial peasants, etc.);
  • Workers who make up a class of employees without the means of production, who sell their labour power, producing surplus value and being exploited by bourgeoisie in the process.

In Marxism, class position forms class consciousness. But since the 18th century, the concept of class has changed significantly and new social classifications have been invented.

2) In the latter half of the 20th century, French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu built on the Marxist concepts of class and capital. According to Bourdieu, social class should be understood as a collective position in the multi-dimensional space of social distinctions, which is a configuration of various volumes of capitals:

  • Economic capital (money, valuable material objects),
  • Cultural capital (level of education, specific knowledge, diplomas),
  • Social capital (connections, social networks),
  • Symbolic capital (recognition).

In Bourdieu’s approach, social classes look like clusters of points. It means that individuals with the same social characteristics and the same volumes of capitals cluster together in social space and have similar “class habituses.” “Class habitus” refers to an incorporated history and a set of social practices (manners, styles of behavior, etc.) that are determined by both the general of society and the biography of the individual.

To understand Bourdieu’s vision of classes, you can the graph from his book “Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste”:

3) British sociologist John Goldthorpe suggested yet another class model centered on employment status. He distinguishes three main classes differing by type of labour contract:

  • Employers who buy labour forces and control workers;
  • Employees who sell their labour power to employers;
  • Self-employed who are relatively independent and work for themselves (e.g., businessmen, freelancers, etc.).

With R. Erikson and L. Portocarrero, Goldthorpe has elaborated an eleven-class scheme (EGP) containing several service classes, working classes and transitory classes. (See more about EGP here). Today, the EGP class scheme is widely used by sociologists in research on social stratification, social mobility, and social inequality.

4) In recent research on social structure in British society, a group of enthusiastic sociologists under the leadership of Mike Savage constructed a new classification of classes, building on Bourdieu’s approach of capitals. On the basis of vast empirical data Savage and colleagues have defined seven classes in contemporary British society, each involving specific social traits:

  • Elite: very high economic capital (especially savings), high social capital, very high highbrow cultural capital;
  • Established middle class: high economic capital, high status of mean contacts, high highbrow and emerging cultural capital;
  • Technical middle class: high economic capital, very high mean social contacts, but relatively few contacts reported, moderate cultural capital;
  • New affluent workers: moderately good economic capital, moderately poor mean score of social contacts, though high range, moderate highbrow but good emerging cultural capital;
  • Traditional working class: moderately poor economic capital, though with reasonable house price, few social contacts, low highbrow and emerging cultural capital;
  • Emergent service workers: moderately poor economic capital, though with reasonable household income, moderate social contacts, high emerging (but low highbrow) cultural capital;
  • Precariat: poor economic capital, and the lowest scores on every other criterion.

If you would like to know which class you belong in according to the classification developed by Mike Savage and his team, just take the test “The Great British class calculator: What class are you?”

But beware! Do not forget that this test is designed for respondents from Great Britain. Other societies might have other class structures, or the social classes in those societies might involve a different set of social traits 🙂