‘Injustice is not only a problem of the poor and disadvantaged, all Russian society is in solidarity here’

Sociologist Svetlana Mareyeva about Russians’ attitude to inequality

‘Injustice is not only a problem of the poor and disadvantaged, all Russian society is in solidarity here’
Photo: Maksim Platonov

Results of research done by Levada-Center Structure and Reproduction of Memory of the Soviet Union in Russian Public Opinion were published in late March. According to these results, 75% of Russians think that the Soviet era was the best time in the country’s history (only 18% of the respondents don’t agree with it). Specialists see the reason for such an attitude of our compatriots to the already relatively long past of the country in, first of all, the unfair set-up of our today’s life. Realnoe Vremya talked with head of the Centre for Stratification Studies of the Institute for Social Policy of HSE NRU Svetlana Mareyeva about this. Read in the interview with the sociologist what causes the biggest feeling of injustice among Russians, why they are anyway quite tolerant of different manifestations of inequality and if the poor are ready to confront the power.

“It isn’t paternalism but rather readiness to refuse some rights so that the state will provide general game rules

Svetlana, sociologist Natalya Mastikova’s work Perception of Social Justice by Russians According to the Data of European Survey reads: “According to the IS (Editor’s Note: Institute of Sociology) of the Russian Academy of Sciences, the majority of Russians (over 90%) at least once feel that everything around in unfair, moreover, 46% feel this often”. It is very high numbers, do you agree with it?

Yes, very high. They indicate that the injustice of what’s going on is a general feeling of all the population of contemporary Russia. This includes wage, mechanism of property distribution, different access to health care and education for different layers of the population. It is important that everything is talking about the unfair set-up of Russian society today — both the advantaged and disadvantaged, that’s to say, it is not only a problem of the poor and disadvantaged, in this respect, but all Russian society is also in solidarity with them.

Actually, justice is a very important concept for the Russian model of norms and values. But the topicality of this problem has grown in the last years, and justice has become a sore point for society. This is seen in a number of indicators — not only among those who directly talk about the unfairness happening around. So the configuration of the model of society desired by Russians are diverging with the real, the population sees the reasons for wealth and poverty, first of all, not in individual effort of a person but the guilt of the state in the first case and luck and clout in the second.

Finally, the feeling of injustice has more to do with growing multidimensional inequalities based on illegitimate grounds, as Russians think. Precisely fairness and inequality are two closely intertwined key sore points of Russia, which even do not go back during an economic crisis and falling incomes, on the contrary, they become more topical.

Photo: Rinat Nazmetdinov
So the configuration of the model of society desired by Russians are diverging with the real, the population sees the reasons for wealth and poverty, first of all, not in individual effort of a person but the guilt of the state in the first case and luck and clout in the second

Do different groups of Russians have one idea of justice?

There is no single understanding of justice, everybody adds something personal to this concept. The population can not give a clear definition of social justice, but it understands and evaluates it quite well — if something is fair or not. Now it has a common feeling that mechanisms and institutions in Russia operate in a way that can’t be called fair. As I already said, this is, first of all, linked with inequality. If the wage gap was a consequence of the difference between the quantity and quality of effort people put to do a job, the difference in qualification, skills and education, Russians wouldn’t see this as a problem and even welcomed it.

But Russians see that our wage gap is based on other factors. Generally, they are right because economic research shows that the wage inequality is mainly explained by a region of residence, the type of settlement and occupation sector as well as a demographic load — the number of children and non-working members in the family that need to be maintained. And these factors have a greater influence than what is linked with a person’s position in the labour market (education, job).

There are some Russian specifics in comparison with other countries — Russians see the state’s key role in the economic and social spheres. But it isn’t paternalism but rather readiness to refuse some rights so that the state will provide general game rules, control vital spheres and consider interests of different social groups. But as a result of such a model, Russians demand a fair public set-up, first of all, from the state. Firstly, it is a demand to base the inequality on merits.

But according to international research, Russians give more negative evaluations of the current effort of the government to eradicate inequalities. Today there has been a very alarming situation in Russian society: a very high demand for fair game rules, particularly a fight against unfair inequalities, and at the same time disappointment because the state doesn’t react to this demand.

Photo: Rinat Nazmetdinov
Today there has been a very alarming situation in Russian society: a very high demand for fair game rules, particularly a fight against unfair inequalities, and at the same time disappointment because the state doesn’t react to this demand

“The poor aren’t ready to confront the power”

Is the feeling of injustice, first of all, linked with income distribution?

No, as for justice, Russians anyway don’t mean wage equality but equality of opportunities at the moment. About 60% choose equality of opportunities as an alternative, though this share gradually decreases, that’s to say, the resource of productive use of inequality gradually runs out. But at the moment, it is anyway not an aspiration “to take everything away and share”. Everybody should be given equal opportunities, and then people can hit different ceilings.

Generally speaking, Russians are quite tolerant towards different manifestations of inequalities if they initially have a fair foundation. In this respect, we were like Germans some time ago. So Russians considered rather fair that high incomes give a chance of providing children with the best education, receiving a high pension, providing yourself with the best dwelling. The only thing that has always been unacceptable for our population is the difference in access to quality health care services due to different incomes (medicine is another sore point in contemporary Russia). But now the share of those who doubt it is rising, the share of certainly accepting such manifestations of inequalities as fair is reducing.

How much income does the top own?

It is very hard to evaluate. This is usually evaluated indirectly, through data about taxes, heritage. Specific numbers of different centres vary. But even with these differences, according to some research, Russia is one of the world leaders where the top of 1-10% of the population own the most income. And the indicators of concentration of wealth are much higher. For instance, the World Inequality Report suggests that 10% of our population hold 46% of national income, while the 1% at the top owns about 20-22% of all incomes. Wealth inequality is higher — 1% holds over 40%.

It is quite an explosive situation. How do you assess the Russians’ readiness for a revolution in this situation?

The scenario of 1917 seems to be more unrealistic. There aren’t real prerequisites for it. The problem of inequality is now demonstrated, first of all, in a growing demand for the state, that’s to say, people are requiring it to establish fair institutional frames, game rules for everybody.

The social group that can be called a middle class — a more qualified and educated part of society — is quite rational. This is why they prefer to solve their problems as they can, with their resources and contacts, not through interaction with authorities or confrontation with it. And the poor have concerns. The poorer the people, the higher their demand for wage equality, but it is a call for help — they aren’t ready to confront the power. Undoubtedly, there is social tension in society, but there aren’t crowds that want to take to the streets against power.

Photo: Maksim Platonov
The poorer the people, the higher their demand for wage equality, but it is a call for help — they aren’t ready to confront the power

I think this situation is dangerous not because of an explosion that can occur but, first of all, because the solution to this problem requires signing a new public agreement between the state and population. Secondly, Russians can start sabotaging reforms and initiatives of the state, which will bring to their ineffectiveness.

How do Russians rank types of inequality from a perspective of their urgency?

Wage gap steadily ranks first in terms of urgency for the population. Russians themselves suffer from it the most, and it is often discussed as the most problematic for society. Then it is inequalities in basic living conditions — health care and dwelling, then it is a group of inequalities linked with social mobility — it is inequalities in access to good jobs, education and inequality of opportunities for children from different groups of society. And it is very illustrative that only 2% of the population talk about the absence of acute inequalities in contemporary Russia, and just 9% note that they don’t suffer from any inequalities themselves.

By Matvey Antropov