I hope that my email finds you and Bruce in good health and doing fine.
I will try to answer your interesting questions, please note that my answers are from my personal point of view, it is built on daily observations, readings, talking to different people, and even watching tv now and then, with no pretenses whatsoever.
How would you characterize the class structure in Russia in terms of upper class, upper-middle class, middle class, and working class?
The super-rich and oligarchs: This thin social layer is an entity by itself, it owns assets and shares in the big companies, banks and financial institutions. There is an uneasy peace between them and the government that regularly gathers them and “politely” reminds them of their social responsibilities and where their riches came from. They are at the present untouchable due to the fact that some of them are on boards of companies belonging to the state or near persons holding high positions in the government. That is when the political situation becomes corruptible.
The upper-middle class include the upper echelons of the government bureaucracy, the top management of companies, banks and financial institutions and people holding valuable assets (immovable and moveable). There is very little upward movement, the danger of moving downwards exists.
The middle class: mostly concentrated in the cities, professionals, engineers, teachers, doctors, small lawyers, office workers, shop owners, and small businessmen. This is a relatively new class for Russia. Dynamic with porous boundaries, the danger of slipping to its lower level is higher than making a leap into its higher level or to the upper-middle class.
The working class is the most interesting and complex class. The classic working class person is in the military industrial complex, metallurgy, auto industry, oil and gas, power generation, and all types of transportation. The upper classes make a point of a pretense of treating them well which includes salaries, perks and bonuses. Construction is a big part of the economy. Skilled workers are mainly Russians or citizens of the Russian Federation. There is a big part of the low skill jobs that are done by migrants from republics of what once was the Soviet Union. Their numbers are significant, including, janitors and, delivery workers. They mostly do not integrate and hold on to their religion (mostly Muslim). Some of them are involved in misdemeanors and crimes, which are blown up and generalized to a whole nation or region. This is a sharp weapon in the hands of the authorities, pitting the migrants against locals. There is much more to be said but I will leave it for other occasions.
How do the different classes feel about “The Oligarchs” (billionaires in Russia) – do they think they deserve what they have?
I am afraid that my reply to this question is going to be a short one because there are no ambiguities or subtleties. Once again in my opinion it is not just a matter of class but a nearly unanimous negative attitude, especially from the working and middle classes and even from some of the upper classes. The Communists and left are just itching to nationalize some industries or at least have a better tax law. Fortunately, the majority of the people see the oligarchs as acquiring their fortunes like in Gustave Myers book History of Great American Fortunes as not having earned it.
What’s the range of differences in how the Russian people see the American people?
The range is narrow, and it does not depend on class. Rather, it depends on age and the change in subtle things like music, art, and clothing. I think that the average Russian attitude is negative, this is especially true for people older than 25 years. It is also a reaction to the US and western policies in demonizing and humiliating the Russian people. A western person a priori thinks that he is superior, and this not only on official state levels but in the mentality of the ordinary person. It is ubiquitous in art, literature, and Hollywood. From Harry Truman to Joe Biden nothing much has changed.
The Russian reaction was predictable, I am now mentioning daily stuff – not high politics or economics. It all started by making fun of the Americans and their ignorance about the history and geography of Russia, as well as their traditions and literature. Allow me to tell you one of the more famous stories of a well-known comedian (Mikhail Zadornov) who passed away not so long ago.
A Russian is traveling to the US to visit his friend, at the customs when they open his suitcase, they find a bunch of small branches (around 50 cm) tied together. The inspectors immediately are very suspicious. The Russian tries to explain that these branches are for the Sauna where they dip them in water and lightly hit each other (this is the Russian way and Sauna for some is like a religion, they can talk endlessly about which trees should be chosen for the best smell). The inspector’s eyes become like saucers. “This guy is not only a narcotic maniac he is also sadomasochistic.”
I am not being flippant. I just want to show that ignorance and prejudice from nuclear policy to sauna lead us to making stupid decisions.
At the present the majority of the Russians, as a reaction to all the Russophobia, sanctions against any kind of activity, from industry and science to art and sport have really stiffened their stance against Americans. There is a set of people, belonging to the TV, cinema as well as some economists, and sports celebrities who are pro-western, which is not exactly pro American. Anyway, many of them have left Russia after the beginning of the conflict with Ukraine. I should point out that in a real capitalistic society, a filmmaker or a painter is on his own in making his life. In Russia the majority receive help from the government on a regular basis. It is especially galling to the Russian taxpayer, who thinks his money is being wasted on someone who curses his country.
The Russians reacted coolly to the departure of US brands of fast food and clothes. This left many Americans wondering. Russia is not what it was in the 1990s. This is a different time. Russians now bring up their children not to eat fast food and drink soda pop (not always successfully), just like any sane parent in the US would do.
How do the different classes in Russia feel about China?
I do not think it is just a matter of classes. Defining how the Russians feel about China should be according to a number of factors that would include class. At the present there are two more or less evident trends. The first trend is supported by the state, the left, Communists and some of the nationalists who support strong ties with China on many levels. The Russians want to be sure that the Chinese have their backs through the Chinese Silk Road project and the Russian oil and gas supply to China. The liberals and pro-westerners try to find fault in any Chinese initiative.
However, all that being said, there is the human, psychological factor that broadly affects a significant number of Russians. There are cases when it is definitive and that is race. Many Russians, as most Europeans, cannot easily rid themselves of their racism that appeared after the disintegration of the Soviet Union. They see themselves as superior and have been taken in by the western propaganda. The ignorance and prejudice regarding Russia about China is colossal in dimension. Culture and humanitarian sciences are Eurocentric. The Yellow Peril of the early 20th century is alive and well. Anti-Chinese propagandists love to bring up the border conflict that took place in 1969 between the Soviet Union and China.
The Russian Far East regions have a special relationship with China. There are some that welcome trade and financial possibilities while others are afraid that they would swamp their region and take it over. The Chinese buy unprocessed Russian timber from Siberia, and some of the local producers are eager to do this because they get paid in US dollars. The government frowns upon this, and a lot of commotion is raised. Despite their racism, the upper-class businessman is still eager to do business with China. The average man is wary and cautious. It is only the incomprehensible, myopic, bone-headed American foreign policy that is driving Russians to overcome their racism and have more sympathy for the Chinese.
How do the different classes feel about the European continent around the natural gas issue?
Soviet gas reached Germany in 1973 and each side signed a contract for 20 years, after lengthy negotiations. The German side noted that in spite of the different ideologies, all the procedures were very business-like. Since then, the Soviet, and afterwards the Russian supply of gas continued more or less smoothly to Germany and most European countries as well. Countries that have natural resources to sell as a policy diversify their routes of outlet. Just by taking a look at any modern map of gas or pipelines of nearly every producing country one can notice that. Therefore, Russia’s Nord Stream gas pipelines were logical and legitimate, especially if your pipeline passes through territory that is unstable.
The prevailing opinion about Europeans and gas supply has been formed by the fact that Europe has blocked Russian assets that are counted in hundreds of billion dollars, besides stopping the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline. The Russians took a step from their side, dividing the countries that they were supplying with gas into “friendly” and “unfriendly”. The friendly would continue to pay in US dollars or euros while the unfriendly that had blocked Russian assets would pay in Russian rubles. Although the contracts were in US dollars, Russia decided that blocking their assets was a force majeure clause, and they therefore took this step to defend their interests. It is not so much a class issue as it is an issue that affects nearly the whole nation. The majority of the Russians are fed up with Europe, with the gas issue and all the holier-than-thou attitude of nations filled up to their elbows in the blood of the people of the Third World as well.
With affection and respect