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
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.