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The Russian Dream: Sadder, but Truer, than the American One

The Russian Dream: Sadder, but Truer, than the American One

They may no longer be on the opposites side of the Cold War, but Russians and Americans still see the world in opposite ways. While even most blue collar Americans believe they are middle class, 45% of Russians consider themselves to be poor, according to Svetlana Kononova’s piece in Russia Profile, which relies on new survey research.

When asked what it takes to succeed economically, those  self-described as poor tend to “believe that the secret to financial success is ‘knowing the right people,’ ‘shiftiness, the ability to beguile’ and ‘the availability of initial capital to start up a business.'”

By contrast, overwhelming majorities of Americans continue to believe that hard work, intelligence and skill are surefire ways to make it.

The Russian attitude may be pretty depressing, but it seems, alas, more realistic considering the way Russian business has worked over the last two decades. Indeed, given all the statistical evidence that social mobility in the U.S. has fallen to record lows, the American position appears naive, if not delusional.

Unfortunately, the Russian pessimism is not delusional. Although only 15% of the population is technically poor (earning less than the $230 minimum wage a month), only 11% earn more than $1,250 per month. To put it in perspective, Russia’s monthly average income is $660, but, as Kononova shows, utility bills cost around $90, and renting a flat costs from $250 in small towns to a minimum of $1,000 per month in Moscow, where a monthly public transport pass alone is $85.

And if Russia’s famously bizarre attempts at increasing birth rates have yet to show results, Kononova suggests one reason why: growing family poverty.

“It’s not retired people who are at the highest risk of poverty in Russia, as is often believed, but households with children. In 2008 to 2009, mostly families with three and more children accounted for the growing numbers of the poor”, she quotes an expert as saying. Unsurprisingly, “the majority of young Russians do not plan to have children in the next two to three years, and the number of those who do not want children at all is also growing”.

Putin made large strides in reducing poverty in his first decade in power, cutting the poverty rate to a fraction of its 1994 level (which was around 30%). However, the economy’s over-reliance on oil prices, raw materials and financial markets jeopardized many of those early gains.

Quoted in a Guardian article from two years ago, economist Dmitry Butrin said that “Putin’s relative success in fighting poverty over the last decade had been reversed: ‘The official poverty rate has gone up by precisely 6 million people. All of the gains in fighting poverty during the period 2000-2008 have been utterly wiped out”.



Vadim Nikitin

Vadim Nikitin was born in Murmansk, Russia and grew up there and in Britain. He graduated from Harvard University with a thesis on American democracy promotion in Russia. Vadim's articles about Russia have appeared in The Nation, Dissent Magazine, and The Moscow Times. He is currently researching a comparative study of post-Soviet and post-Apartheid nostalgia.
Areas of Focus:
USSR; US-Russia Relations; Culture and Society; Media; Civil Society; Politics; Espionage; Oligarchs