Consumerism: the third Russian revolution
In a two-part series, Elena Rubinova analyses the causes and development of consumerism in Russia.
Descarte’s phrase ‘I think, therefore I am’ can in Russia be easily twisted into ‘I consume, therefore I exist’, to express what sociologists call “conspicuous consumption”. If you spot a pretty woman somewhere on a ski resort wearing high-heel boots, a fancy mink coat and Chopard jewelry where everybody else has a ‘Columbia’ anorak on, you can be almost sure she is a wealthy Russian. Her partner probably likes her attire and could not care less what everyone else thinks. Russian customers are still easy to spot in Europe: you’ll find them in London’s smartest restaurants, darksuited and discreet in the corner, famous for leaving huge tips. Their wives and girlfriends will be shopping primarily at boutiques and luxury brand stores favouring crocodile skin purses and a heavy dose of diamond frosting.
The Soviet ideological machine spent a lot of effort on labelling consumerism as a negative manifestation of bourgeois society. Another Soviet myth was that Soviet man was indifferent to material wealth, could live on very basic things and did not cherish comfort. In reality, the ideology of consumption was not consistent and homogeneous during 70 years of the Soviet state, changing from everyday asceticism to the legitimating of consumer goods.
fading in the late 1960s and 1970s, it became clear that there was no special breed called “a Soviet man” and that Russian consumers were no different from anyone else. The society that lagged behind the West in both consumer product choice and quality, demonstrated a sociological phenomenon called ‘veshizm’, which basically translates as: wanting and liking consumer items. In an era of total deficit, people worshiped a pair of new boots or Western-produced jeans almost as sacred objects, as icons of a better life.
From the late 1980s to early 1990s, food shortages were people’s main concerns. Stacks of boxes of sugar on book shelves and macaroni hoarded in every spare corner of a living space were common even in the flats of rather wealthy Muscovites. Eating out was a special event for any family. Some were driven to the ridiculous extreme of buying burgers for their dinner parties at the recently opened McDonalds, outside of which huge queues sometimes formed.
Elegant Russian ladies, deprived of high quality beauty products, prematurely turned into middle aged women, wore hand-knitted cardigans and a sack-like skirts. Glossy magazines such as Cosmopolitan, Elle or Vogue depicted bright, colourful and sun-filled worlds in the midst of drab reality. In many ways, the lack of a consumer market speeded up the fall of communism. Acceptance of ‘democracy’, although few had much idea of what that entailed, came part and parcel with the western consumer items.
The pace of social transformation alongside with economic reforms of the 1990s was rapid indeed. In the early 2000s, sky-rocketing oil and gas prices fuelled the Russian economy and rising incomes. GDP averaged a 7% growth for almost a decade. Real disposable incomes showed annual growth in the double digits, reaching $718 a month in May 2008, compared to approximately $60 a month in 1999.
In 2001-2003, the consumer-credit market for the first time offered credit loans, credit cards and car loans. The credit market saw phenomenal growth, reaching a debt market of 940 billion roubles in 2007. The lifestyle of tens of millions was reshaped, and not only of those who could afford to buy high-end cars.
Happy consumers flocked to Mega malls and chain stores as fast as developers could build them. From 2000- 2007, consumer demand increased by 20-30% each year. In 2006, Russia came out top in Europe for sales of washing machines and telephones; second only to Germany for beer; and third for automobiles. In 2008 alone 2.8 million automobiles were sold in Russia. One could see more brand-new BMWs or Toyotas in Moscow than in most European cities. Despite the economic crisis, 28% of families got consumer credits over the past 2 years according to ‘Levada Center’ poll of 2009. The newly born ‘middle class’ was at the heart of a decade-long consumer boom.
But how solid is the middle-class? Opinions differ among sociologists, political scientists and other specialists studying the phenomenon, as to whether it exists in modern Russia at all.
‘According to our latest surveys, the middle-class in modern Russia did not exceed 17% of the population in 2008 and by the end of 2009 it even decreased to 13%,’ says sociologist Alexei Levinson, the Head of Social Research Department at Levada Analytical Centre. ‘The main criteria used in our studies was participants’ self-evaluation of their consumer capacity, not their political, psychological or cultural views. Russia does not have what in the West is called “middle-class culture”. We can point out various groups of the population that live according to laws of consumerism, but it is barely enough to speak about consumer society on a national scale’’, he said.
Sociologists from Public Opinion Foundation (FOM), avoid using the term “middle-class”, explaining that a mechanical transfer of terms used in most developed countries standards only distorts the picture. Other researchers claim that if the middle-class does not exceed 25%-30 % of the population (the highest figures obtained for Russia), it is useless to discuss the phenomenon, since this figure is around 60% and over in developed societies! It is not just a matter of statistics; it means quality difference for middle-class role in society in general and its consumer aspect in particular.
‘The Russian middle-class is growing not due to entrepreneurs and people from free business, but due to government employees or state corporations. Furthermore, gradually this tendency is becoming more vivid and changing the mentality of what the middle-class is. It is not the mentality of free people who act independently and take a risk, but the mentality of those who must obey the boss, putting it simply,’ explains Alexei Levinson.
To retailers, who cares what the middle- class is?—as long as people are buying things. And buying things is certainly popular in Russia today. The Russian consumer virus affects not the superrich and famous.
Karin Kleman, a French sociologist who has been living in Russia over a decade, shares her observations: ‘In the Russian provinces, people tend to buy a new TV set every year even if it’s the third in their household, or update a mobile every half a year, but eat badly. They have limited funds or take out bank credits. It’s a kind of a proletarian show off.’
Utility costs are low in Russian, and saving for education, health and retirement is still not widespread, nor is financial planning, so a high percent of income is spent, something that retailers have been keen to exploit.
So has consumerism radically influenced national mentality? Has a drive for material wealth replaced the famous Russian urge for spirituality? Recent history showed that the Russian soul is bubbling away searching for spiritual values as much as ever. The myth about a special breed of a Soviet man resistant to material values, has however exploded and re-grouped to turn into “Conspicuous consumption”.
‘This is not a particular Russian trait and should not be exaggerated,’ says Alexei Levinson. ‘Russian rich behave in exactly the same way as the nouveau riche from China, Korea or the Arab countries. If we speak about a nouveau riche on an individual scale, it takes him about 3-4 year to learn the rules of consumption. When we speak about the instantly wealthy class as it was in Russia, it takes a lot longer to digest exported models of consumption and work out their own patterns. And the young will play a decisive role in maturing Russian consumer population.’