Transformations of the Social Structure of Russian Society in late 1980s – late 2010s

Publication type Article
Status Published
Affiliation: Institute of Sociology of FCTAS RAS
Address: Russian Federation, Moscow
Journal nameSotsiologicheskie issledovaniya
EditionIssue 8

The article describes specifics of the social structure of Soviet society, three stages of its transformation in the late 1980s – late 2010s, and stratification models of modern Russian society. It is shown that the key foundations of the social differentiation in late Soviet society (merging of power and property, role of non-monetary privileges, etc.) retained their significance throughout this period, although in the 1990s the effect of access to the ‘deficit’ has disappeared, and since the end of the 2000s importance of higher education has also started to decline. Moreover, the role of such factors of social differentiation as accumulated wealth, current income, employment stability and the resource of social networks has sharply increased in the 1990s, and the role of attributes of precariousness in employment and the social origin has increased in the 2000s. It is shown that the social structure of Russian society currently consists of four main macro-groups: the “top” of society where most power and property is concentrated (top 5%), and three opposing strata of the mass population. Among the latter – a stratum privileged against the background of other Russians, accounting for slightly less than 20% of population; the median stratum, which includes about half of the total population and sets the typical standard of life for modern Russia; the lower stratum, uniting about a quarter of population, whose lives are dominated by the deprivations and risks that are atypical for average Russian. In the determination of the place in the stratification hierarchy in the first two of these macro-groups, the volume and type of resources that determine the position in various markets (including labor market) play a decisive role, which allows us to view them as a basis for the formation of the upper and middle classes. However, the inequalities of the non-class type (age, health, family composition, etc.) play a decisive role in falling into the median or lower strata.

Keywordssocial structure, social stratification, strata, social inequalities
AcknowledgmentThis article is a translation of: Тихонова Н.Е. Трансформации социальной структуры российского общества: конец 1980-х – конец 2010-х гг. // Sotsiologicheskie Issledovaniia. 2021. No 8: 22–32. DOI: 10.31857/S013216250014308-1
Publication date27.09.2021
Number of characters32260
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1 The last three decades have led to serious changes not only in the economy but also in the social life of the country, and have dramatically changed the structure of Russian society. What did it look like at the beginning of these transformations and how has it changed during this time? Under the influence of what factors did these changes occur? And, most importantly, what does this structure look like today?
2 The main evolution stages of Russian social structure. Soviet society was marked by the merging of power relations with property relations. The real basis of the social structure was, in the first instance, a position in the system of power relations, including control over the distribution of all types of resources. Accordingly, the society was divided into two main groups: 1) "managers" who performed administrative and distribution functions, and 2) "the managed", i.e. ordinary employees, the difference between whom was rather nominal. The scope and nature of the powers that the "managers" had at their disposal were of crucial importance in determining their status. While in determining the status of the "managed" (ordinary population), a job position and employment in priority industries, where significantly more resources were directed to than to conventional ones, played a key role. Both largely depended on the person's education. The region and the type of locality where a person lived were also of great importance in determining their status.
3 All these objective factors influenced the standing of the representatives of the largest population segments in the structure of society, determining the degree of their well-being and employment specifics and the prestige of the position. The specific aspects of the position of ordinary Russians in the stratification system 1reflected primarily in the privileges they had (a prestigious job, good working conditions, better medical care, etc.). These privileges were very different in nature, but they displayed the most important forms of social inequality in employment and consumption that existed in society. 1. In this article, the term "stratification system" is used as a synonym of "social stratification" and "status hierarchy". All of them describe a vertically organised model of social structure, which is relevant for modern Russia as well.
4 The social structure of Soviet society included dozens of groups, but, in simplified form, it consisted of four groups:
  1. workers, collective farmers and mass intellectuals, who made up the homogeneous majority of society and whose standard of living was perceived as "typical" for society as a whole. And the countdown on the scale of social statuses began up or down in relation to them. Although the poorest part of them (as a rule, due to the specifics of their family status) had lower income than the rest, they were still able to have a near common lifestyle, and, in this sense, they did not constitute a special social group;
  2. a rather small in number (from 13% to 20–30% of the country's population according to various estimates [see Starikov, 1990; Naumova, 1990]), privileged strata located above them in the social hierarchy, including managers of small enterprises, middle-ranking heads of large enterprises, highly qualified specialists, as well as those whose main activity assumed the possibility of informal redistribution of benefits;
  3. few in number representatives of lowlife (social bottom) located in this hierarchy below the main body of the population;
  4. the "managers" who opposed them all2. In the late 1980s, when representatives of small businesses appeared, they became mainly part of the second group.
2. The division of the country's population in the analysis of the society's social structure into "managers" and "the managed" has been established in Russian science since the late 1980s and has been repeatedly used subsequently becoming well-established. For more information about the social structure of the late Soviet era, see: [Zaslavskaya, 1996; Radaev, Shkaratan, 1996; Tikhonova, 1999; Shkaratan, 2012].
6 The key feature of the social structure with which Russia entered a period of sharp transformations, however, was not only the role of power and privileges as the key bases determining a person's place in the social hierarchy but also the fact that monetary forms of inequality played a relatively small role in determining a person's status. This was largely due to the fact that the degree of these inequalities themselves was rather small. For instance, even in 1992, when large-scale economic reforms began, the R/P 10% ratio demonstrating the depth of the income gap between the richest 10% to the poorest 10% of the population, reached only 8 points.
7 The situation completely changed with the beginning of market reforms. In the 1990s, several processes simultaneously took place in Russia, which influenced the formation of both new foundations and new elements of its social structure. Among these processes were, first of all, the emergence of a free market of goods and services and its gradual saturation with the simultaneous loss of the connection of many non-monetary forms of inequality with the place of work. Secondly, the formation of the private sector, which reduced the protection of workers' rights and increased their differentiation on this basis. Thirdly, the importance of education and qualifications, the economic return from which had increased, significantly rose for the most qualified specialists in the private sector in the 1990s. Fourth, the diversity of social structures of large territorial communities increased. Fifth, there was a colossal deepening of social differentiation and a sharp increase in the number of "social lower classes": the share of the population with an average per capita income of less than one subsistence minimum increased from 2.8% in 1989 to 28.4% by 1999 (according to the data of the Russian Federal State Statistics Service) when it reached its peak values [USSR..., 1990: 79]. Sixth, the restructuring of the economy that was actively going on in the 1990s caused a "downfall" of some industries (e.g., defence industry), including from the point of view of the prestige of being employed in them, and rapid growth of others (e.g., the financial sector). Seventh, "the comparative significance of the components of social status has notably changed. While an administrative and official criterion dominated the stratification of Soviet society, then by the mid-1990s, the criterion of property and income had acquired a decisive role" [Zaslavskaya, 1996: 18].

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