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Nordic Russian and Eastern European Studies Conference
Intentions, Interactions and Paradoxes in Post-Socialist Space
24-25 May 2013 in Helsinki, Finland

Abstracts

Middle class as producer and guarantor of neo-modern in post-socialist societies
Chair: Jouko Nikula (Aleksanteri Institute, University of Helsinki, Finland)
Discussants: Alexander Nikulin (The Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration, Moscow, Russia), Katalin Miklóssy (Aleksanteri Institute, University of Helsinki, Finland), Svetlana Pasti (University of Tampere, Finland), Leo Granberg (University of Helsinki, Finland)
Mikhail Chernysh (Institute of Sociology, Russian Academy of Sciences, Russia): Agency of modernization in contemporary Russia
Ivan Tchalakov (University of Plovdiv, Bulgaria): Smashing the socialist middle class by the New Post-Communist Oligarchy: the tension between 'nomenclature' and 'authentic entrepreneurs' during early transition
Saara Ratilainen (Aleksanteri Institute, University of Helsinki, Finland): The Cultural Role of Glossy Consumer Magazines in Russia
Olga Gromasheva (Pisa University, Italy): Short food supply chains in St. Petersburg, Russia

Much of the hopes of re-modernization of post-socialist societies have been bestowed on the shoulders of middle classes. The panel discusses some key issues which have a bearing to the social, economic and political roles of middle classes.

Saara Ratilainen argues in her presentation that the success of glossy magazines in post-Soviet Russia has been interpreted in the light of the rise of the “new” middle class – the class of consumers.  Her paper constructs a cultural-historical context to the phenomenon by scrutinizing the cultural status of glossy consumer magazines in contemporary Russia through the concept of “popular reading”. By analyzing mostly the point of view of cultural critics (in academic journals and the news media), the paper concentrates especially on the ways in which the glossy magazine is conceptualized as embodying a certain, commercialized and popular mode of reading which differs dramatically from the highly institutionalized and high literature centered Soviet reading culture. This approach sheds light on the question why, despite the fast development of also many other forms of commercial mass media in post-Soviet Russia it is often the glossy magazine that seems to be symbolizing  most clearly the negative results of post-Soviet cultural commercialization.

Ivan Tchalakov’s paper analyzes the emerging patterns of private economic activity in early post-socialist period based on evidences from South-Eastern Europe from the point of view of their effects on social stratification and social structure. Outlining the inherited social structure of late communist period Tchalakov tries to reconstruct the ‘open end’ situation in early 1990s, when different paths of evolution of social structure seemed equally possible. In the paper the clash between potential authentic entrepreneurs (as representatives ‘late socialist middle class’) and representatives of former communist political nomenclature is identified as the key social tension during this period. The latter group developed an opportunist strategy of preserving the control over the society and its economy, and which was hidden by the public with the ideological backing of Reaganist and Thatcherite neo-liberal programs.

Mikhael Chernysh notes that despite the fact that there has been recently a lively discussion of modernization in contemporary Russia, it is obvious that the twenty years of reforms saw few real achievements as far as transition of the Russian society to late modernity is concerned. In fact it is obvious that in many dimensions of its life the Russia society has skidded down even in comparison with the Soviet period. This concerns most spheres of social life in Russia (education, industry, politics). Chernysh argues that  the important problem of modernization can only be undertaken if there is an agency in Russia that a) is willing to undertake the task of going through with it, and b) wields enough power and influence to push it through against die-hard resistance. He notes that former modernization policies have been based on the autocratic power. However, Catherine the Great represents an important exception to this rule. She created a number of social institutions (popular representation, a system of health care, the Academy of Sciences, Hermitage) and she wielded a strategy of social engineering to gather support for her initiatives. Chernysh argues that current state of Russia makes it necessary to go back to history to fish out a possible approach that may provide for a constructive though gradualists approach to modernization. This approach calls for a variegated approach to its possible agents. It is obvious that it is hard to seek out agents that would be equally interested in all parts of the policy, so panoply of agents can emerge and be accommodated by the authorities to proceed with modernization. Therefore the agency of the contemporary stage of modernization in Russia can only be plural with the elected power acting as a coordinating force enabling the conversion of the “positive interest groups” into “modernizing agents”.

Olga Gromasheva notes in her paper that there has happened a clear change in the eating habits, indicated by a shift to snacking and unhealthier alternatives. This has resulted in the rise in food-related diseases which is most dramatic among children and adolescents. Opinion polls show that a large share of consumers is unsatisfied with quality of food and that at least third of foodstuff is falsified, at least third does not have full information on the package and there are regular cases of food poisonings. Most of the Russians buy their food from supermarkets, however for example in St.Petersburg 28,9% of consumers buy from the markets and 4% from Internet shops.  Typical consumers of organic food are between the ages of 25 and 45; highly educated; high and middle class; and residents of Moscow or St. Petersburg.   In her paper Gromasheva analyses different types of alternative food networks (city food markets, street vendors, food fairs, cooperatives, autolavkas, raw milk tanks, farmer’s product shops), their typical features, consumer profiles, benefits and problems. She argues that alternative food networks (AFNs) meet unsatisfied needs or create new ones (raw milk, pheasant meat, pine-cone jam, etc.) and offer more direct interaction with farmers/sellers. The consumers take decisions in the situation of information asymmetry , where there are many frauds and where some groups of  producers even of AFNs are not transparent.  In many cases consumers base their decisions on personalized trust to sellers and use of social networks (trust as result of successful experience). However, there is also very low sustainability awareness both among consumers (mainly healthy food reasons) and producers/sellers (even those with sustainable practices) In this respect the most ‘advanced’ actor is the one who has the highest price level (sustainability for rich?) with intermediating function.