Natalia Zubarevich – The Four Russias

Natalia Zubarevich’s concept of “The Four Russias” is one of the most reasoned and perceptive political analysis from the liberals, and as such I think it important enough to translate it (mostly I disagree with its core assumptions and conclusions though I do think it is a useful way of envisioning Russian politics). As such I am translating Четыре России from Vedomosti (there is also a longer version, translated here).

The Four Russias

Natalia Zubarevich

The events of 2011 demonstrated that the authorities’ habit of looking at the country through a “vertical incision” played a cruel joke on them. In reality, there is not one Russia, but rather three or even four. And this is a reality with which both the government, and the opposition, will have to come to terms with.

The Four Russias: First Russia – urban, educated (white); Second Russia – urban, industrial (blue); Third Russia – rural, apolitical (green); Fourth Russia – ethnic, poor (red).

The First Russia is a country of big cities. They aren’t great in number, but the 12 city-millionaires as well as Perm and Krasnoyarsk, which have close to a million residents, constitute 21% of the country’s population, i.e. every fifth Russian, while Moscow and Saint Petersburg by themselves account for 9%. In the past 20 years, the biggest cities cities ceased being industrial – only in Ufa, Perm, Omsk, Chelyabinsk, and Volgograd do Soviet industrial enterprises continue to dominate the economy. Although the fastest post-industrial transformations are observed in Yekaterinburg, Novosibirsk  and Rostov-on-Don, all the city-millionaires have seen a change in employment patterns: The percentage of qualified “blue collar” workers rose, there appeared more employees of small businesses, and even the public sector attracted more qualified workers. There is quick adoption of the metropolitan model of consumer behavior, even though earnings are 1.5-2x lower than in Moscow. It is precisely in the bigger cities that we see a concentration of those middle class “disgruntled urbanites.” Migration flows in Russia are directed towards these bigger cities, so their share of the population is growing. The only difference is that the two federal cities of Moscow and Saint Petersburg, and their adjoining agglomerations, attract migrants from all over the country, accounting for up to 80% of net migration in Russia, while the other big cities for the most part draw migrants from their own regions.

We can also include cities with a population of greater than 500,000 into the First Russia, raising its share of the population to 30%. The most optimistic variant – all cities with a population greater than 250,000, which altogether account for 36% of all Russians, or 51 million people. Of course, these are very different cities – from the progressive university and research center Tomsk, with its half a million people – a fifth of them students, as well as its own independent TV channels and rich cultural life; to Saransk with its 300,000 people, which – as does the entire Republic of Mordovia – votes exclusively for United Russia.

It is in precisely in the big and biggest cities where we see most of the 35 million Russian Internet users and the middle class that wants change. Its animated activity isn’t based on advancing economic crisis, but on the frightening prospect for a multi-year Putinist stagnation that would stall the lifts of social mobility. Although there’s an economic factor too – in a corrupt country, the deficit of investments translates into a deficit of new, quality jobs for urban professionals. The First Russia’s appetite for protest appeared without any stimulus from the crisis; it sprang not from the instincts of homo economicus, but from moral revulsion. In the event of a new crisis, the educated urban class will be hit hard, but the mobility and higher competitiveness of big city residents will enable them to quickly adjust to new circumstances.

The Second Russia is a country of industrial cities, most of them with 20,000-30,000 to 250,000 people, but occasionally bigger: Up to 300,000-500,000 (Cherepovets, Nizhny Tagil, Magnitogorsk, Naberezhnye Chelny) and even 700,000 (Tolyatti). Not all of these middling cities preserved their industrial character in the post-Soviet years, but its spirit remains strong, as are Soviet values and ways of life. In addition to a significant industrial “blue-collar” workforce, there cities also have many public sector workers, most of them with lower qualifications. As a rule, small businesses do not thrive – either the residents’ purchasing power is low, or there are high institutional barriers to entry due to local cronyism. There are of course exceptions – for instance, small business is well-developed and diverse in Magnitogorsk, but it crucially depends on the financial fortunes of its Magnitogorsk Iron and Steel Works; any fall in wages for its metallurgists would collapse demand for services.

About 25% of the country’s population lives in the Second Russia, and its most unstable parts – the single-industry “monotowns” – account for 10%. There are twice fewer of these towns than reported by the Ministry for Regional Development. According to official statistics, there are 334 mono-profile towns, but this number includes a hundred small settlements, two mono-profile villages, and even one mono-Cossack village (a kind of Russian peculiarity). Humming monotowns, with more or less stable working enterprises, account for half the official figure – about 150, whereas in the other towns enterprises already drastically reduced employment rolls way back in the 1990’s, and it no longer makes much sense to consider them mono-profile.

Should there be a second wave of the crisis, it is the Second Russia which will be hardest hit – industry falls more than other sectors of the economy, and the mobility and competitiveness of its population are low. Will there be enough money in the federal budget to raise transfers to the regions by a third, and increase unemployment support many times over, as in 2009? If not, it will be the residents of the industrial cities who will become the main motor of protest with their demands for work and wages, which will increase pressure on the government to make populist decisions. Many of these zombie enterprises should have been closed a long time ago now because of their lack of competitiveness and profitability, but this wasn’t done during the crisis, and most likely, it won’t be done in the next. As shown in 2009, the authorities both realize the dangers of an agitated Second Russia, and know how to quench it. The struggle for employment and wages leaves the Second Russia entirely indifferent to the problems that concern the middle class. The authorities understand this and try to play it off against the First Russia. This, however, has no future; time works against them. When the economy was growing, wages in the industrial cities grew slower, than in the regional centers, and fell into crisis faster. The population of the industrial cities is rapidly shrinking, as young people move to the regional centers. So there’s no point in intimidating the capital with Nizhny Tagil.

The Third Russia is the vast expanse of the periphery, consisting of the residents of villages, settlements, and small towns. They constitute 38% of the country’s population. The Third Russia “lives off the land”, outside politics, for the calendar of agricultural work doesn’t depend on changes of government. Their depopulating small towns and settlements, with their heavily aged populations, are scattered all about the country – but there are especially many of them in Central Russia, the North-West, and in the industrial regions of the Urals and Siberia. The rural population is more concentrated in the Southern and North Caucasus Federal Districts, which account for 27% of Russia’s rural residents. In the other regions, the only viable rural populations are those close to the big cities; their populations are young, more mobile, and earn more. The periphery’s protest potential is minimal, even should a crisis create delays in paying pensions and wages.

There is also a Fourth Russia, which we need to distinguish from the previous three. These are the republics of the North Caucasus and southern Siberia (Tyva, Altai) which accounts for less than 6% of the population. They have big cities, and small cities, but almost no industrial cities. According to statistics, Makhachkala has 580,000 residents, but this figure rises to close to a million with the inclusion of its densely packed suburbs. The urban educated middle class is low in numbers, and transient, frequently migrating to other regions. The rural population is young and growing, but its young people are migrating to the cities. For the Fourth Russia, plagued by local clan wars for power and resources, as well as ethnic and religious strife, it is only important to maintain stable flows of federal aid and investments. In 2009-2010 federal transfers to underdeveloped republics and their people’s income both grew at fast rates, and so they could give the party of power a nice present in the elections. And even if the crisis comes again, nothing is likely to change, for federal spending on them is actually relatively modest: The total volume of transfers to the North Caucasus republics in 2010 was 160 billion rubles, or just 10.7% of all regional transfers from the federal budget, and if we include Tyva and Altai too – then 12%. For comparison, Moscow spent twice as much in 2012 on its transport infrastructure.

It might appear at first glance that the political “carrying pole” – the 30% more educated and modernized population of the big cities and the 38% residents of the village and small towns – consistently leans towards the side of patrimonial mores. And the protest sentiments of the residents of the middling industrial cities of Second Russia can likely be satiated in the event of a new crisis. However, the passing of 2011 should remind us of the laws of physics – the density of brains is higher. Sooner or later, the First Russia will tip the balance.

The author is a director of the regional program of the Independent Institute for Social Policy.



Disregarding the obvious ideological slant of the author (“Migrants, of course, can also create problems, by bringing their rural conservatism to a city that suffers enough from this already”)…

First, it treats white-collar professionals in the “First Russia” as irrevocably opposed to (some unchanging and monolithic власть, or authority). In reality we know that even Moscow’s richest precincts favored Putin over Prokhorov in the 2012 elections. Second, the differences between the Russias aren’t anywhere near as radical as she makes out (one can even say she buys into the Kremlin’s strategy to side with Nizhny Tagil against Moscow LOL); your average industrial city resident is only 10% points likelier to vote for Putin than Moscow, and the rural resident – 15% points. Third, it assumes that in the long-term, quantity is on the side of the First Russia; whereas in fact that is far from self-evident as it assumes that migrants there will “modernize” their outlooks. In reality there is no reason for the “heartland” (The Second and Third Russias) not to continue playing a decisive political role; if anything, the influence of their “rural conservatism” may increase as this Russia gets richer, more politically engaged, and wired up to the Internet.

In short, Zubarevich seems to suffer from the common liberal delusion that more wealth and Internet –> more support for her ideological comrades and the West. That is not really how Russia (or the world) works.


  1. Dear Anatoly,

    You’ve already anticipated my own objections.

    Two points:

    1. A point I have made previously: where does this idea that affluence goes with liberalism come from? In most societies that I know of the middle class tends to be not liberal but conservative if only because it is the class, which whilst benefiting from the status quo is the one that has the most to lose (the very rich are always protected by their wealth, some of which they will have sent abroad, whilst the poor have less to lose and always get by). In Russia with its turbulent recent history and its recent experiences of financial crisis and economic collapse I would expect the middle class (however that is defined) to be generally conservative. The fact that even in Moscow Putin as you say outpolled Prokhorov even in richer districts seems to support this.

    2. I seem to have come across something like Zubarevich’s analysis somewhere before.

    • I would also quicky add that there is an elitism about this analysis that I find both undemocratic and ugly. At the end of the day people have a right to vote and to have opinions even if they live in small towns and villages and in industrial centres even if those opinions are not those of Zubarevich and her friends.

    • Moscow Exile says:

      Dear Alexander Mercouris,

      Perhaps you recall the famous British comedy sketch that features John Cleese, Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett who represent respectively the British upper, middle and lower classes.

      Barker: “I look up to him [Cleese] because he is upper class, but I look down on him [Corbett] because he is lower class”. Corbett: “I know my place”.


  2. After reading the fist couple of sentences I stopped reading, I lost interest.
    Natalia Zubarevich, who is she?
    Is it set in the stone what she writes and how long will anybody think about it?
    Besides if the west, read UK+USA cannot exploit it against Russia, nobody will know about her writing in the world.

  3. Fascinating:
    “…for federal spending on them is actually relatively modest: The total volume of transfers to the North Caucasus republics in 2010 was 160 billion rubles, or just 10.7% of all regional transfers from the federal budget…”
    Thats for the region with the population of 6.3% of all Russia. “Relatively modest”, ok.

    • 4.4% more funding than its corresponding population size going to a desperately poor (not able to generate sufficient internal capital) , violence-ridden region (with the only alternative to not paying being another war). “Outrageous” is it not?

  4. I have a feeling people are going to be shocked, shocked on November 6th that all those polls showing Obama with a six point lead were bogus, and sampling lazy people who won’t vote, even if their precinct wards ‘vote by proxy’ for them several times. Enthusiasm matters, even in American politics which does its darndest to blunt it (see all the massive sabotage of the admittedly limited ceiling Ron Paul campaign from within and without), but so do the numbers out in the heartland. In America right now with the exception of the heavily Democratic Rio Grande Valley and New Mexico it’s largely a urban cores versus suburbs and exurbs game. If there’s no stash to mobilize the folks in the urban core then what? I have a feeling Obama could lose even with precincts from Milwaukee to Detroit to New Orleans all pulling 120-130% turnout and the inner cities going 95% for him simply because depopulation in places like Milwaukee and Detroit has persisted. Without Ohio, Wisconsin and Florida Obama is toast.

    Of course I say none of this with any sense of triumphalism as then the real battle the Tea Party/libertarians that actually want smaller government and the Big Government/War corporatists who dominate the party begins.

  5. I see from your “disagreements” section that you have already noted the “other Russias” argument posited by Zubarevich is highlighting the existence of a phenomenon that has lost its phenomenal nature because it is actually the human condition everywhere humans gather in sufficiently large groups as to constitute nationhood or society.

    If we look at Georgia, for example, in the frame of different Georgias existing by virtue of different voting patterns, we see there are at least 5 Georgias. As a general rule during Saakashvili’s reign, he was more popular in the country than in the cities, so perhaps there can be said to be only 2 Georgias.

    There are such examples everywhere you care to look. Moreover, such enclaves are deliberate creations based on the perception by political figures that they need to cater to this audience or that audience, because their position with their base is already secure and they can go off the reservation a little bit in courting groups with whom they have historically done poorly. A timely example of this, bizarre though it may be, also comes from Georgia, where thousands of satellite dishes are being seized from the rural electorate due to a perception that Bidzina Ivanisvili is giving them away so as to be able to broadcast his message directly into the homes of those who constitute Saakashvili’s base.

    Different “Russias” or even different “Moscows” exist based on political influence at least as much as economic variation, and perhaps more.

  6. These Russian liberals seem to fall into a category of liberal I’ve encountered elsewhere – people who are progressive in some ways, more educated (often far more so) and more enlightened than their countrymen, but at the same time completely unable to understand:

    a. that they have their own snobberies and prejudices ;
    b. that they are where they are as a result of social advantage just as much as ability ;
    c. that the economics they propound favour (and are seen as favouring) them, not everybody ;
    d. that there is a huge link between social division and prejudice, which their economics foster rather than ameliorate ;
    e. that if you weaken labour organsiation and socialist politics, it’s not liberalism which fills the gap ;
    f. that if progressive social ideas are linked to fuck-you economics, and are seen as being propounded by a superior elite, then you are asking for what you get, which is an alliance between the resentful proletariat and the cynical wealthy.

    That they can’t grasp any of these is precisely because of their monumental self-regard and sense of superiority.

    • Moscow Exile says:

      And that sense of superiority is often all too plain to see. Chirikova is on record as calling the vast majority of Russians that do not go on protest marches and who seem to her to all be unquestioning supporters of United Russia and Putin as быдло – cattle, a herd, a bovine mob. Other “liberal” opposition leaders in Russia also seem to look down on the millions who are not educated and upwardly aspiring as feckless, vodka besotted couch potatoes. Latynina, columnist for Novaya gazeta, Moscow Times et al. has even questioned the wisdom of allowing the hoi-poloi the right to vote.

  7. therussiawatch says:

    Reblogged this on The Russia Watch.

  8. Philip Owen says:

    The British “creative” elite are a small politically divided minority. There are homes for “creatives” in all three main political parties and the nationalist parties of Wales and Scotland (who have always been driven forward by poets and other writers). United Russia does seem to be designed to exclude these people. It is significant that the Architects institution was the main refusal to join UR’s patriotic front but not having a home in UR is a long way from being an independent political force. In Saratov, I meet UR, LDPR and Communist supporters from all walks of life. They are sincere in their differences. I know one Prokhorov supporter. She is a human rights lawyer (adoptions and immigration) with her own NGO (rights of juvenile prisoners) funded by George Soros and is from an extremely rich family. I do not expect the “creatives” to overthrow the regime anytime soon. The article is a reprisal of Russian snobbery. Educated people in the capital cities at the top, ethnics at the bottom. This was the allowed snobbery of teh Soviet Era. Any schoolteacher would have provided the same view.