Problems of Taxonomy, Issues of Class, Citizenship, Consumption, and Avdot’ia Smirnova’s KoKoKo

Helena Gocilo, Ohio State University, Columbus, OH, USA

Ноябрь 27, 2018

Class, as we all know, matters. Throughout history, social rank quite literally has decided questions of life and death, especially during such momentous events as the French (1789) and the Russian October (1917) Revolutions. Indeed, the significance of class has been absorbed into everyday parlance of the 'she's classy,' 'that's a class act' variety, even in the levelling discourse of postmodern, postcolonial, and post-almost-everything era. Predictably, following the demise of a purportedly classless society, today issues of class are at the forefront of debates not only in, but also about, Russia, which has reconceived itself along lines that frequently recuperate its remote feudal/aristocratic history, while disavowing its immediate pseudo-socialist past. Hence the plethora of calques-neo- logisms intended to construct a new reality maximally distanced from the discourse of the Soviet era ('generatsiya' instead of 'pokolenie,' 'art' instead of 'iskusstvo,' 'lider' instead of 'vozhd',' and so forth)1.


Difficulties in establishing reliable, universally accepted definitions of a repeatedly invoked nomenclature render the currently proliferating discussions about Russia's middle class and civil society lubricious at best. What traditionally has defined the middle class? While the label, since its inception in 1745, has been subject to evolution and controversy, as well as differentiation according to country, sociologists and economists seem to concur about several constitutive features of the term as applicable to Western Europe and the United States - the latter long perceived as a stronghold of the middle class. In fact, the foundational principles overseeing America's settlement adopted the comprehensive middle stratum for its social structure, thereby obviating, if only in theory, the historically attested conflicts between high and low.

Most sociological definitions of middle class take their cue from the German sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920). Unlike Marxists, for whom one's relationship to the means of production determines class, Weberians conceive of class as dependent on education and professional skills. According to Weber, not the elimination of private property, as Marx insisted, but equal opportunity within a capitalist system reduces (and in an ideal world, presumably would eradicate) social stratification. Weber assigned to the middle class professionals such as bankers, educators, lawyers, and senior civil servants, as well as business owners or managers whose skills would protect them from the vicissitudes of a market economy. Broadly speaking, today's sociologists for the most part continue to analyze society according to Weberian categories of class.

History corroborates reliance on distinctions and hierarchies as an inveterate, seemingly ineradicable feature of humans' modes of sociopolitical organization. When describing the social stratification of Regency England (i.e. 1811-1820, the period of Jane Austen's novels), Jennifer Kloester distinguishes between two groups within the middle class: the upper middle class, which then comprised wealthy doctors, lawyers, engineers, financiers, merchants, industrialists, higher clergy, and farmers; and the lower middle class, which encompassed

shopkeepers, teachers, builders, the lesser clergy, members of the government administration, clerks, innkeepers and even some servants. [...] To be in the middle ranks of society usually meant ownership of some kind of property - land, livestock or tools - and the ability to earn a regular and reliable income2.

Ultimately, property was the main factor separating the lowest of the middle class from the labourers.3 Especially after the French Revolution, a sizable middle class was deemed desirable as a means of tempering the two extremes of absolutism and revolution, associated with the upper and lower classes, respectively. As Leon Aron at the American Enterprise Institute maintained in 2000, 'The middle class has long been recognized as the backbone of a capitalist democracy, a generator and reproducer of values on which such a society is founded, the key to its stability and prosperity.'4 And the sociologist Akos Rona-Tas (at the University of California, San Diego) has delineated the significance of the middle class more precisely as follows:

In democracies the middle class is the nation proper. The typical member of a national community is a member of the middle class. When democratic governments need a social group they can address, a universal class that carries the overarching common interest of the country, they appeal to the middle class. This appeal, while it calls on a common interest, also acknowledges that there are conflicting interests within society. The middle class is not everyone, but it is the majority and it represents what everyone else can become.5

Indeed, historically, mutatis mutandis, that has been the role of the middle class in democratic societies, from which Russia could hardly be more remote.6

However contestable the appellation, today some consensus exists among Western sociologists about the defining characteristics of the middle class: these include stability, advanced education, professional qualifications, possession of property, sufficient finances to allow for discretionary spending, and bourgeois values - particularly an attachment to security and ownership. Some commentators add a culture of domesticity to the profile, which in America usually entails heterosexual marriage, a house, a garage, a couple of children, a dog, and annual vacations undertaken en famille (the much touted 'family values'). While British society has the condign reputation of favouring strict social hierarchies, America is frequently called 'a middle-class country.'7 It is therefore perhaps surprising that whereas in recent decades slightly more Americans have identified themselves as middle class than as 'working' class (roughly 50%), in 2011 approximately 75% of the population in the UK claimed to be middle class - an interesting comparison with the US, for, after all, Britain remains a monarchy and somewhat anachronistically still acknowledges aristocracy as its upper class. Of course, nowadays so many actors, actresses, singers, and authors of mysteries become Sirs and Dames that within the titled group traditionally synonymous with aristocracy, further distinctions surely exist,8 if Pierre Bourdieu's concept of cultural and economic capital has tenability.9

What criteria for the middle class are applied to Russia? In 2000 Leon Aron declared:

In many respects the Russian middle class is a black box - a phenomenon
whose key attributes cannot be ascertained directly with satisfactory
precision and validity. In these circumstances sociologists must try to glean
the key attributes of the object by what comes out of the box - in this case
the patterns of self-identification, behavior, and consumption consistent with Western notions of
middle-class values and pursuits.10 (emphasis added)

Self-identification alone is a dubious method, the unreliability of which may be deduced from a report issued by sociologists from the Russia Academy of Sciences' Institute of Philosophy, whose 2002 study revealed that more than half of all Russians considered themselves middle class.11 A survey conducted in 2003 by Tatyana Maleva, Director of the Independent Institute for Social Policy in Moscow, showed 39.5% of participants identifying themselves as middle class.12 Yet, applying the three indicators of wealth, occupation, and self-identification, Maleva concluded that only 7% of those surveyed could be classified as middle class in all three categories, and the inclusion of respondents who satisfied two of them brought the percentage up to only 20. It is not irrelevant that, according to Ekspert magazine, the middle class in 2001 accounted for 55% of all purchased consumer goods and generated one-third of Russia's GDP (gross domestic product).13 In fact, a recent survey indicated that Russia's wealth inequality is one of the highest in the world, with an astounding 35% of household wealth owned by 110 people.14 The discrepancy between the number of Russians who self-identify as middle class and responsible sociologists' estimation of that group on the basis of several indicators may be explained, I believe, by the erroneous assumption of those surveyed that the mere capacity to spend prodigally suffices to qualify for the middle class. Sam Vaknin, in fact, dismisses self-identification as immaterial, for '[t]he concept of "middle-class” is one of the most researched and best defined in sociological (and political science) literature' and relies on empirical data, not subjective self-perceptions.15

Such data figure prominently in the rigorous analysis published in early 2012 by Lilia Ovcharova, Deputy Director and Research Director of the Independent Institute for Social Policy in Russia. There she pointed out, with justifiable caution, that though a new social stratum seems to be emerging, 'there are doubts as to whether and on what basis a middle class in Russia can actually be said to exist (emphasis added).16 She went on to observe that in the mid-2000s, among the new priorities for the country's longterm development in the socio-economic sphere, Russia's political leadership specified a new strategic goal: the enlargement of the middle class 'to encompass 50% of Russian society by 2020.' In the ensuing discussion, the middle class was explicitly defined as 'a layer of society displaying stable wealth (in terms of property, savings and income) and highly-developed professional skills' forming 'the basis of sustainable development and modernisation' (emphasis added).17 Yet, Ovcharova argued, measured by economic criteria, Russia's middle class has not grown, though it has become wealthier and its composition has changed. That change has enormous significance for the formation of civil society, for today's Russian middle-class features more bureaucrats and fewer business people - a point to which I shall return. Militating against the expansion of the middle class, according to Ovcharova, are the following: 'weak contractual relations' of employment on the Russian job market, the fact that only 5% of Russian families can rely on entrepreneurial activities other than subsistence farming, and (in my view, most importantly) the absence of 'an institutional environment' (i.e. an infrastructure) favourable to small and medium-sized enterprises. Furthermore, revenue from property and financial investments, so essential to the middle class, accounts for only 5-10% of the overall income of the population. And, finally, 'the majority of Russian households [...] do not have any savings or credit at all' (Ovcharova) and, after the banking fiascos of the 1990s, place neither their rubles nor their trust in banks. These circumstances suggest that there are legitimate grounds for questioning the existence in Russia of a middle class as the West has known it for more than two centuries. To validate the claim that a middle class exists in Russia, a new or markedly revised definition of the term is necessary. Yet those bandying it about have proposed no definition, however contestable.


The issue of civil society in Russia is no less thorny. The term is traceable to Aristotle's Politics, where it means a community with shared values ruled by a middle social stratum. Embracing a political philosophy that reflects his general advocacy of the golden mean (aurea mediocritas), Aristotle favoured the middle class (μεσον) 'as an antidote to the political instability that plagued the regimes of his day.' He reasoned that this stratum would moderate its personal self-interests and 'tend to balance the conflicts that inexorably arise between aristocratic or oligarchic elites, and the larger, poorer and less educated masses of the citizenry.'19 Aristotle understood a functional polity as rule by the middle majority - a mode of governance doubling affirming his allegiance to balance inasmuch as it highlights both responsibility and freedom. He deemed it advisable that (1) average citizens participate in the public deliberation that should serve as the foundation of all laws, since that process ensures the welfare of all social groups; and (2) the state not hamper citizens' freedom unless they violate properly constituted laws. Today civil society usually is referred to as 'the third estate' or 'the third sector' of society, independent of government (emphasis added). As Marty Sulek, essentially summarizing Michael Edwards's classic study,20 notes,

Contemporary conceptions of civil society may be arranged into three distinct, but mutually supportive, categories encompassing: associational life, the public sphere, and the good society [...]. 'Associational life' theories, primarily found in the social sciences, define civil society as a function of the various organisations that constitute the voluntary, non-profit sector. 'Public sphere' theories, by comparison, view civil society as the site of public debate - including independent media, civic forums, or even just plain talk among citizens - where consensus is forged through open-ended discussion of issues of public concern. 'Good society' theories, finally, view civil society as a normative concept describing the type of society in which people would (or should) ideally like to live as free and reasonable citizens.21 (emphasis added)

According to the Collins English Dictionary, civil society entails such elements as 'freedom of speech, an independent judiciary, etc., that make up democratic society,' with organizations such as NGOs an important part of voluntary work for the common good.22 In other words, contemporary notions of civil society do not depart significantly from Aristotle's; for both, civil society is part of a system relying on the middle and vouchsafing freedoms while assuming citizens' responsibility for involvement in sociopolitical processes.23

Yet again, this set of characteristics hardly fits developments in post-Soviet Russia. To cite Ovcharova once more, the dominance of civil servants and employees of state companies has made the middle class more conservative and intent less on economic innovation than on social stability. Why? Because whatever their discontent with political developments, 'actual reforms may clash with the economic interests' of members of this social stratum. Maleva's 2013 report makes this argument even more strongly. Tellingly, according to a poll by the Public Opinion Foundation, more than 76% of Moscow respondents declared that they would not take to the streets, either to support or to protest against the authorities. As Maleva wisely suggests,

the opposition might do better by focusing on more tangible goals, such as building parties [. ]. But analysts have observed that some middle class protesters who supported the demonstrations last year seem to have little interest in the brick-by-brick building of a more democratic state.24

David Rohde concurs: 'Moscow's middle-class protesters viewed engaging in traditional politics as debasing. Choosing leaders, compromising with other groups and slowly building an opposition movement were seen as corrupting.'25

Not only widespread reluctance to take part in sociopolitical processes but also an absence of the freedoms that Aristotle and subsequent writers on civil society cite as prerequisites for it hinder the formation of a civil society in Russia, at least as the term is understood in the West. As Boris Bruk, advisor to The Institute of Modern Russia, headed by Pavel Khodorkovsky, notes:

Civil Society [sic] encompasses all individuals and organizations that are not governmental. Therefore, included are: grassroots groups, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), academics, think tanks, individuals who do not presently work for any level of government or governmental organizations, and the private or for-profit sector.26

On paper, Russia rushed to approve the participation of civil society as an 'equal partner' in consultations of the G20 - the group of 20 that is the premier forum for international cooperation on the most important issues of the global economic and financial agenda. Yet in praxis, the infringement of human/civil rights by the repressive government under Putin manifests in countless ways. A brief glance at the current circumstances of NGOs, so fundamental to civil society, demonstrates how illegal official inroads into their operations violate long-established international principles underlying the state's relationship to such organizations and undermine the defining features of NGOs. The jailing of a score of Greenpeace activists under the judiciary system in Murmansk for protesting Arctic offshore drilling is but one of countless incidents evidencing Russia's punitive approach to activities typical of civil society.

After the demise of the Soviet welfare state, the rise of NGOs that would pick up the slack was sluggish and, in any event, largely dependent on foreign funding - especially German, Scandinavian, and American. Commentators today voice the conviction that 'under current conditions, there is no place for civil society [in Russia],' which, according to Ernest Gellner's Conditions of liberty: Civil society and its rivals (1994), means no democracy.27 In late-2012 Putin signed a law declaring NGOs financed from abroad and engaged in so-called 'political activities' as 'foreign agents' obliged to register as such or otherwise refuse non-Russian funding. Despite the law's blatant disregard for the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, mass inspections of NGOs followed. When expedient, of course, the government can interpret virtually any activity as political; ultimately, the entire third sector may be labelled a 'foreign agent' or come under direct governmental control, for the alternative to acquiring that label is applying for money to the Russian government. NGOs that complied by rejecting funds from abroad included the Moscow Helsinki Group (which oversees human rights), the Golos Association (which is [was?] Russia's independent election-monitoring agency), and, reportedly, the Levada Center (earlier reputed to be the most reliable polling entity). According to political commentator Alexander Podrabinek, Prosecutor-General Yurii Chaika claimed that of the 215 organizations examined by his department that had enjoyed financial backing from abroad, 193 'either froze their activities or refused foreign funding.'28 Many of them have turned to the government for the funds without which they cannot sustain their work. As Podrabinek points out, however, 'The perpetrator of human right violations in Russia is the state itself. The position of an organization that fights against human rights violations while receiving money from the sources of these violations is ambiguous' - indeed, outright untenable - and certainly disqualifies the organization as a part of civil society. Putin's recent assertion in his State of the Nation address that 'civil society should be more actively engaged in decision-making by government and parliament,' for 'all bills should be submitted to public review before reaching the State Duma,' should be treated with the healthy scepticism that his record has earned. Since '[i]mportant bills in Russia are already subjected to public discussion prior to filing, but the government is not obliged to react to proposals,' the announcement is little more than flimsy window-dressing.29

As much is clear when one listens to more credible voices. At a seminar of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov announced that approximately one-third of appeals to the European Court of Human Rights come from Russia.30 And speaking at that seminar, Lyudmila Alekseeva, head of the Moscow Helsinki group, lamented the fact that Russian citizens 'have been deprived of all their civil rights listed in [...] Article 2 of the Russian Constitution' ('Civil Society...'). Current prospects look bleak; if the law that essentially blackmails NGOs into forgoing foreign backing is symptomatic, there seems little likelihood of restoring rapidly dwindling civil rights, which might well diminish even further. No wonder that, in an interview with Forbes Russia, Mikhail Khodorkovsky predicted about Russia's future,

A positive scenario is possible only in the event of Putin's gradual departure from power by way of the restoration of real institutions of state (an empowered parliament, an independent judiciary, financially independent local self-administration) and competition, as the 'engine' of change, of dialogue with society.31

These are, indeed, the requisite conditions for establishing a civil society, which currently are absent in Russia. In other words, if civil society functions there, then that category needs a redefinition that would take into account its non-conformity to enduring concepts of civil society.


The addition of a so-called 'creative class' as a hazily formulated near-synonym to the mix of middle class and civil society courts chaos, not the least because, historically, creativity and bourgeois values have been perceived as adversaries rather than equivalents. It is no exaggeration to say that bohemia and bourgeoisie are age-old antagonists. Pushkin's contrast of the 'elevated' poet to the pragmatic bookseller and Mayakovskii's jabs at 'burzhui' are but two of countless Russian examples. If 'creative class' means 'tvorcheskii klass,' it presumably includes writers, musicians, singers, artists, ballet dancers, choreographers, directors and actors/actresses. What about critics? Circus performers? Ice skaters? Journalists? TV personalities? Gourmet chefs? Fashion designers? The Russian label, however, is not 'tvorcheskii,' but, in the spirit of the Neo-neologism era, 'kreativnyi klass' - the Russian rendition of the key term enthusiastically adopted from Richard Florida's spate of books on that putative class, especially the volume published in 2002 and translated into Russian in 2005, The Rise of the Creative Class. Russian commentators blatantly eager for optimistic tendencies in today's grim domestic political landscape not only (1) ignore the specifics of Florida's coinage and his subsequent reprisals of the topic, but also (2) seem ignorant of the numerous criticisms levelled at his contestable theories. The inappropriateness of Florida's thesis for Russia is apparent to anyone familiar with his work and the state of affairs under Putin.

Florida's thesis, propounded and extended in several volumes, concerns the emergence of a new social class comprising '38 million members, more than 30 percent of the nation's workforce,' which he calls the creative class. This group supposedly has become the dominant influential class by creating 'meaningful new forms' in today's society, where 'creativity is the driving force of economic growth' (emphasis added).32 Yet, Florida argues, its members do not perceive themselves as a class - an inexplicable paradox, in his view and one that raises the question of self-identification.33

According to his schema, the creative class consists of two subgroups: the Super-Creative Core of approximately 15 million workers (12% of the American workforce), which includes

scientists and engineers, university professors, poets and novelists, artists, entertainers, actors, designers and architects, as well as the thought leadership of modern society: nonfiction writers, editors, cultural figures, think-tank researchers, analysts and other opinion-makers. [...] they fully engage in the creative process;34

and 'creative professionals' (for some reason, non-capitalized), who

work in a wider range of knowledge-intensive industries such as high-tech sectors, financial services, the legal and health care professions, and business management. These people engage in creative problem solving, drawing on complex bodies of knowledge to solve specific problems.35

Certain cities, Florida contends, thrive through 'the power of place' (the title of his twelfth chapter) because they attract creative individuals who elaborate transferable solutions/ designs and, typically, possess higher formal education. That magnetic power has a tripartite structure, which Florida labels 'the 3 T's of economic development': Technology, Talent, and Tolerance (249). Translated into specifics, these involve a technological infrastructure conducive to entrepreneurial culture (251-52); a population with considerable skills and/or education (251 -52); a community that is not only diverse, but also accepting of groups such as immigrants, gays, and bohemians (252-63).

Despite their popularity with urban leaders, Florida's ideas, as well as his unhelpfully vague definitions, logic, and empirical claims, have come under steady attack over the years.36 Even if his concept of a creative class has merit, which strikes me as improbable, its inapplicability to the Russian situation is immediately apparent on several fronts. First, natural resources, not creativity by any groups, account for whatever economic growth Russia has experienced during the last decade. According to a recent report, 'officials do not expect its economy, the world's eighth-largest, to revive soon' and 'the Kremlin is ready to try a new policy to spur growth.'37 There is no evidence whatever of an emergent class stimulating the Russian economy through innovative ideas. Second, what cities apart from Moscow, which allots itself a disproportionately generous chunk of the federal budget and bears slight resemblance to any other cultural and sociopolitical centre, attract 'creative people' - moreover, in a country where various modes of creativity are censored? Third, the government's tight rein on private enterprise and the absence of a technological infrastructure conducive to entrepreneurial initiatives explains why small and middle-sized businesses have not thrived and increased, as Ovcharova has documented. Fourth, it would be difficult to imagine a society less tolerant of diversity if the latter encompasses, as it does in Florida's paradigm, different skin colour and homosexuality or lesbianism.38 Of Florida's 3 T's, then, segments of the population in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Ekaterinburg, and other cities indisputably have talent, but the other T's, and especially tolerance, are at best in short supply. The decade of the 2000s has confirmed that a 'managed democracy' curbs free enterprise and the sort of 'creativity' that Florida deems requisite for economic expansion.

More generally, the introduction of a newly constituted class, however arguable, within American society benefits from a class structure that has enjoyed stability for more than a century, even though the composition of classes within the US has evolved over time. Russian society, having lost its status as an imperial power that at least theoretically championed the proletariat and adopted a classless society as its communist goal, lacks social stability and a profound understanding of class identity and relations - which may, in fact, account for the popularity of Florida's questionable notions among the educated part of Russian society impatient to join the international debate on a promising future.


The sudden disappearance of the long-venerated term 'intelligentsia' from discussions of the middle or/and creative class further complicates the task of adequately identifying the very object under examination. Is the problem that the intelligentsia has always prided itself, if somewhat disingenuously, on its poverty and therefore experiences discomfort at being considered middle class?39 Or that the intelligentsia has become discredited, especially after its support of Yeltsin's attack on the White House in Moscow (October 1993), which prompted Andrei Sinyavsky's principled dissociation from that self-proclaimed defender of human rights?40 In a kindred vein, Ludmila Ulitskaya felt alienated from her fellow writers (e.g. Bitov, Iskander) when more than a decade ago they battled for apartments around Belorusskii vokzal that were on offer to writers. 'Creative' certainly sounds more appealing than 'middle,' and the term translated from Florida and readily embraced by members of the (former?) intelligentsia and today's Russian consumers doubtless warms egos but does little to advance civil society or effect significant change within Russia.

To make my case for the impotence of resistance to authoritarianism in Russia (let alone the fantasy of a creative class) during the twenty-first century, I wish to examine the contributions to initiatives by so-called civil society of four internationally acclaimed representatives of the literary intelligentsia - Tatyana Tolstaya, Boris Akunin, Ludmila Ulitskaya, and Mikhail Shishkin.41 I have in mind their relationship to the opposition that has organized peaceful demonstrations against Putin's regime in the last few years - the phenomenon that only the credulous can view as a significant social force. Since all four make a very good living and have advanced educations, they would fulfil two of Maleva's requirements for membership in the middle class. Whether they self-identify as such I cannot say. All have the capacity to influence the public owing to their popularity and renown. Fame, of course, carries weight, as Akunin noted when he confided that he has 'always' been critical of the Russian political system, but until he became a famous novelist no one cared about his opinions.42

To start with Tolstaya:43 As the co-hosts of the inexplicably popular TV show Shkola zlosloviya [School for Scandal]44 on NTV channel, Tolstaya and Advot'ia Smirnova on 24 October 2005 asked that day's guest, Daniil Dondurei (sociologist and editor of Iskusstvo kino), whether a middle class existed in Russia. They prefaced their question by asserting their conviction that it does not, without clarifying the basis for their opinion.45 Though Dondurei immediately changed the terms of discussion by saying that 78% of the population is still Soviet ('with a feudal consciousness'), whereas 20% at most may be called new-thinking people who make up 'a whole [different] cosmos,' the latter implicitly resembles a middle class. To my knowledge, the two co-hosts have not raised that query again, and the reliance of NTV on the government's good will makes it unlikely that they will revive that issue in a serious way and risk a frank public exchange about Russia's alleged civil society, though Smirnova's film KoKoKo (2012) explores the phenomenon of the post-Soviet intelligentsia in a highly unflattering light (about which more below). Since the show gives every indication of being Tolstaya's major public platform for self-presentation and her sense of elitism, of which her increasingly quiet critique of the government and her condescension to the masses are a corollary, Tolstaya in both word and deed hardly strikes one as a figure actively promoting civil society, though her blog might lead one to think otherwise.

Boris Akunin is a vastly different case. Since 2011, he has thrown himself into the anti- Putin movement as a tireless blogger committed to peaceful demonstrations and an advocate for a more democratic Russia based on a middle class. According to his email, as cited in a 2012 article about him in The New Yorker, he has stated,

I think that 19th century Russia, when Fandorin lived, wasn't ripe for democracy. Even in 1991 it was probably too early. I do not believe that effective and lasting democracy is possible in a country without a middle class. Now is just the right time. We've grown up as a society, we are ready to take responsibility (emphasis added).46

Akunin's personal mode of assuming responsibility - a requisite in Aristotle's concept of citizenship and American notions of practicing democracy - took shape in 2011. After hearing of activists' negative response to Putin's intention of returning to the presidency, he abandoned his initial intention to emigrate, which had been prompted by his disgust with the Russian government. Writing his next novel in Brittany, where he owns a house, he heard of the street protests following the 4 December parliamentary elections and flew to Moscow, where 'he was one of the first - and some say, best - speakers at the December 10th rally on Bolotnaya Square, possessed of a soft-spoken moral authority').47 Vocal about the rigged elections and the venality of the current administration, he subsequently helped to organize the antigovernment protest of tens of thousands on 24 December; supported kindred public demonstrations; organized the 'stroll in freedom' of May 2013 throughout Moscow that drew 10,000 participants, among them the poet Dmitrii Bykov and Ludmila Ulitskaya, whom Akunin had called personally;48 and now is dedicated to supporting anti-government activities as a writer and blogger.49 Unlike Tolstaya, Akunin is politically engage and consistently outspoken about his anti-Putin sentiments, as well as his admiration for Mikhail Khodorkovsky, whom Amnesty International has declared a prisoner of conscience.50

The same may be said, though to a much lesser degree, about Ulitskaya. Asked by an interviewer what role the intelligentsia plays in today's Russia, Ulitskaya responded in terms pertinent to my discussion:

I subscribe to the view that the Russian intelligentsia has ceased to exist in the classic understanding of the word. However, the same applies to the proletariat. There are intellectuals, functionaries, a mass of people dissatisfied with the power exercised over them - possibly more than there were in the Soviet system. The old cliches do not work, but there is no substitute for them on the table. There is a vast cloud of empty demagogy on [the] very dangerous soil of national revival, the national idea, and longing for former might (emphasis added).51

Traditionally, the self-appointed intelligentsia considered itself, somewhat grandiosely, 'the conscience of the people,' though most had scant direct knowledge of 'the people' and some referred to them with revulsion. If the intelligentsia has evaporated, what rubric now substitutes for educated, articulate Russians engaged in sociopolitical activities on moral grounds? Are they the 'creative class,' which need have little knowledge of culture, according to Florida's paradigm, as long as it promotes change - change of a primarily economic nature? Apart from the most successful writers, surely literati do not financially qualify for the middle class, and academics a fortiori? At best, literati could fulfil two of Maleva's three criteria of wealth, occupation, and self-identification, and most Russian writers seem completely disinterested in striving for change.

Called by a journalist at The Observer ‘a leading advocate for freedom of expression,'52 Ulitskaya not only participated in the ‘stroll' orchestrated by Akunin through his blog, but attracted public attention by joining him and Boris Strugatskii in a published correspondence with the imprisoned Khodorkovsky in a volume titled Mikhail Khodorkovsky: Articles, Dialogues, Interviews .53 According to Akunin, whose veracity there is no reason to impugn, no other writers wished to take part in exchanges with the ‘oligarch.'54 By 2011 the volume had undergone three editions. Convinced, along with Akunin and countless others, that the charges against Khodorkovsky were trumped up, and having attended his second trial, Ulitskaya has called him ‘an outstanding individual,' explaining, ‘My support for Khodorkovsky primarily lies in how much money he spent on charitable enterprises,' whereas she has virtually dismissed Putin as ‘quite juvenile' (emphasis added).55 Though less active than Akunin in the anti-Putin movement, Ulitskaya is equally frank in her criticism of the political status quo and manifestly supportive of at least one aspect of civil society: its efforts to ameliorate conditions for the underprivileged.

And, finally, the last in my quartet of examples is the novelist Mikhail Shishkin, winner of all three major literary awards in Russia (the Russian Booker, the National Bestseller, and the Bol'shaia kniga prize), who since 1995 has resided abroad, primarily in Switzerland, with long sojourns in Berlin.56 Though Shishkin criticizes Russia, unlike Akunin, he does so from abroad and certainly does not participate in Moscow rallies while in Russia. Invited in February 2013 to join the official Russian delegation to the annual BookExpo America, Shishkin sent a refusal in a widely published letter that ignited a host of responses, both laudatory and derogatory. He wrote,

I should and will represent a different Russia, my Russia, a country free of imposters, a country with government structures that defend not the right to corruption but the right to personhood, a country with a free press, free elections, and free people

- not ‘[a] country where a corrupt criminal regime seized power, where the government is a pyramid scheme, [...] where courts serve the authorities and not the law.'57 Whatever one's reaction to such a document, of particular relevance to my concerns here is ‘Shishkin's Russia,' which accords with classic definitions of democracy and civil society. Like Akunin, Shishkin is sufficiently versed in concepts of sociopolitical structures to appreciate Russia's remoteness from both.

These four writers, arguably among the best-known and most affluent within the liberal wing of the literary ‘creative [tvorcheskii] class,' span a broad spectrum in their commitment to ‘civil society' in Russia, ranging from Tolstaya at the low to Akunin at the high end. If they are at all symptomatic, it is worth examining to what extent they and less successful/popular writers actually constitute a social class. Are they former members of the intelligentsia? Current members of the middle (as well as ‘creative [krea- tivnyi]') class? Complications set in when one includes such writers as Viktor Pelevin, Dar'ia Dontsova, and especially proponents of Russian exceptionalism: Aleksandr Pro- khanov and neo-Eurasianists such as the late theorist of ethnogenesis, Lev Gumilev, as well as Aleksandr Dugin, and Aleksei Beliaev-Gintovt in art - a cultural sphere that has witnessed repeated anti-Putin street activities and visual statements, inter alia by Sinie Nosy, graphic artist Sergei Elkin, and, most recently, Konstantin Altunin. The Museum of the Authorities in St. Petersburg, owned by Aleksandr Donskoi, who orchestrates opposition-themed exhibitions, showed Altunin's painting of Putin in female lingerie stroking the hair of Medvedev, clad in bra and panties. Police seized the painting and three others before promptly closing the gallery, while Altunin fled to France after threatening phone calls, just as earlier the actionist Avdei Ter-Oganyan had sought refuge in the Czech Republic, as would Aleksei Plutser-Sarno of the group Voina several years later.58

During Putin's tenure, it is visual artists rather than literati who have agitated against the government. Following the actionists of the 1990s (Avdei Ter-Oganyan, Oleg Mavromati), radical groups of the 2000s and 2010s such as the street-performance Voina (founded in 2007) and Bombila have protested against censorship, state corruption, and the trials of artists involved in such inflammatory exhibitions as Zapretnoe isskustvo-2006 [Forbidden Art-2006] at the Sakharov Center, which already had been taken to court for its 2003 Careful! Religion! [Ostorozhno! Religiya!] exhibition.59 Groups that continue, boldly and ironically, to address political issues include Sinie Nosy [Blue Noses], PG, and Protez.60 By now, challenges to the regime in various modes by gallerists (above all, Marat Gelman, threatened and beaten for his championship of this opposition) and artists have settled into an all too frequently iterated pattern of performance, arrest, limited public outcry, and release or fining of the 'perpetrators.' In light of the larger population's indifference to or dislike of contemporary art, these media-intensive events, which constitute the kind of initiatives adopted by representatives of civil society in the West, exert minimal impact on those segments of Russian society that some, apparently, assign to the middle or 'kreativnyi' class.

Notably, various studies of the middle class have deployed self-identification as an algorithm, but no one, to my knowledge, has polled Kulturarbeiter about their perceived class affiliations. However creative were Voina's politically loaded provocations of 2010 - the Blue Bucket action in Moscow objecting to abuse of the blue light in high officials' cars resulting in huge traffic jams or the group's Khui v plenu u FSB [The Prick Held Prisoner by the FSB] - a drawing of a huge phallus on St. Petersburg's Liteinyi Bridge that erected when the bridge was raised and was intended to 'give the finger' to the regime and especially the FSB, they hardly enhanced the country's socioeconomic conditions. The aftermath illustrated Theodor Adorno's gloomy observation about the cultural industry's self-regulating elimination of critical tendencies - namely, the conformist mainstream assimilates unofficial or oppositional art into sameness. In 2011 the National Center for Contemporary Arts [Gosudarstvennyi tsentr sovremennogo iskusstva], an institution overseen by the Ministry of Culture, awarded its Innovation prize to Voina in the project-of-the- year category for the looming phallus.

The largest question that needs to be addressed is what impact, if any, all these actions, usually accompanied by arrests, seizures, and sometimes incarceration, can have on what is essentially a repressive authoritarian state, which by definition lacks a civil society and a 'kreativnyi' class. However admirable, isolated instances of oppositional speeches by a minority in the capital (and, more recently, in the provinces) hardly qualify as an effective means of influencing the government and the country's future, particularly when the opposition (with or without Aleksei Navalny) has not elaborated an agenda beyond media-attentive demonstrations and calls for change. What is needed is the brick-by-brick building activity noted by Maleva. Perhaps Russians' reluctance to undertake that task stems from associations with the brick-laying that constitutes prisoners' work in Alexander Solzhenitsyn's Odin den' Ivana Denisovicha [One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich 1962].


Given her pedigree and professional trajectory, Avdot'ya Smirnova (daughter of director/ actor Andrei Smirnov, and in her own right, scriptwriter, film director,61 and co-hostess of Shkola zlosloviya) surely belongs to the intelligentsia or the 'creative [tvorcheskii] class.' That problems of class differentiation preoccupy her may be inferred to an extent from her second film, Dva dnia [Two Days 2011], and more obviously from her third, KoKoKo (2012), a comedy that explores the relations between Liza (Anna Mikhalkova), an ethnographer employed at St. Petersburg's Kunstkamera (the Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography),62 and Vika (Iana Troianova), an energetic, brassy nightclub manager from Ekaterinburg. Both have sufficient money to dress and eat well, for Liza to have a roomy apartment, and for Vika to buy Liza expensive gifts.63 But the two women could hardly diverge more in occupation, style, and self-identification. Vika's clothes, manners, job, origins, and speech mark her as independent and street-smart, but uneducated: the film's title derives from her ignorance of the word rococo, used by Liza, which Vika uncomprehendingly transforms into KoKoKo. Enterprising, accustomed to work, and grateful to share Liza's spacious Petersburg apartment, Vika cooks and cleans for her with gusto. She brings similar fervour to her humble admiration for Liza's kul'turnost' and to sex with Kirill, Liza's sometimes lackluster lover. In general, Vika's is the less complex character, for understandable, directly articulated emotions and common sense guide her behaviour. Though she 'disqualifies' for employment with the snobbish intelligentsia, she has no difficulties landing a job requiring 'people skills.'

By contrast, lacking sex-appeal and a zest for life, as a socially comme if faut ethnographer at a cultural institution, Liza nurtures intellectual pretensions and condescends to Vika. While benefiting from Vika's companionship and domestic skills, Liza ultimately disdains her as culturally primitive, mocks her gifts, and secretly shares her colleagues' and friends' view that Vika is 'vulgar,' 'brazen,' a 'monster,' 'creature,' 'rat,' and ' fishwife' (khabalka) (Doubivko). Smirnova, however, exposes Liza's bad faith through the clever device of mining the cultural provenance of the Kunstkamera, through Liza's professional activities (or lack of them), and her treatment of Vika.

Intended as a means of acquiring knowledge about the world, the Kunstkamera was Russia's first museum, established by Peter the Great as a collection of 'natural and human curiosities and rarities.' Peter reportedly collected human and animal foetuses with anatomical deficiencies, and, to combat superstitious fears of monsters, encouraged research of deformities. Malformed, still-born infants sent to the Kunstkamera in response to his ukaz were exhibited as 'accidents of nature.'64 This concept functions as the matrix metaphor in the film, for the personnel, as well as the holdings, at the Kunstkamera are deformed 'accidents of nature' - i.e. the intelligentsia, self-deluded, timorously self-perpetuating, and remote from what Dostoevsky called 'living life' [zhivaya zhizn']. Liza's 'work' at the Kunstkamera consists primarily of sleeping at her desk; her colleagues focus on selfpromotion, not intellectual development; and, at Kirill's behest, Liza quickly abandons her pro forma participation in the small picketing demonstration on behalf of Khodorkovsky to pursue other matters that interest her more. Finally, in a sequence that heavily relies on the trope of silencing through stifling, she attempts to smother Vika with a pillow after her alleged inferior has 'failed the Kunstkamera test' but bedded Kirill, easily made new friends, and found a position as an art director at a Petersburg music club. At film's end Vika's healthy sense of self-preservation prompts her to sever relations with the apparently superior but basically 'deficient' Liza. And Smirnova is equally merciless to all other workers at the Kunstkamera, who, like the items in the museum, are curiosities that might as well be preserved in formaldehyde.

The film gives the intelligentsia no quarter, exposing it as an antiquated, impotent remnant of a bygone era, part and parcel of the structures that belong to history but can have only a stifling impact on today's Russia. In KoKoKo vitality and the future belong to 'the people,' as the synecdochic persona of Vika illustrates. The film posits an answer of sorts to the question that I posed earlier, of the relationship between the intelligentsia and the 'creative class' in both senses of the word. Nothing remotely imaginative [tvorcheskii] or change-promoting [kreativnyi] is perceptible in the Kunstkamera personnel, who belong to a moribund intelligentsia priding itself on its efforts to 'educate the inferior classes' in a spirit of alienated, uncomprehending condescension. If KoKoKo sounds the death knoll on the intelligentsia, does the Floridian 'creative class' comprise those members of the intelligentsia who have abandoned their voluntary 200-year-old identity of conscience and educator, to focus on their own personal and professional concerns? Certainly nothing in the film credits any characters other than perhaps the energetic, resilient Vika with a vision for the future and the boldness to pursue a course that may hold out the promise of eventually effecting socioeconomic transformations.


Not unlike the Thaw under Khrushchev, which congealed into the Stagnation that dragged on for approximately two decades, the euphoria of perestroika and the promise of genuine desovietization have ceded to the renewed authoritarianism of the Putin era. That Russians now may enjoy conspicuous consumption, travel abroad, vote in (compromised) elections, and communicate via iphones and the internet should not automatically encourage the misperception of these phenomena as 'proof' of a middle class or a civil society. That a tiny percentage of the population gathers in city centres to clamour against fixed elections or other violations of civil rights does not mean that any of the participants have the slightest notion of what, in practical terms, should replace the current regime or a willingness to undertake the steady, laborious work of elaborating a viable platform for alternative candidates to the presidency. Who joins the demonstrations and what motivates them? The demographics of the groups need to be analyzed, just as fundamental terms - above all, 'middle class' and 'civil society' - need to be clearly defined before a meaningful discussion can take place. It would be beneficial, in my view, to recognize Florida's shaky, diffuse notion of 'creative class' as at best an America-specific label unsuited for adoption by Russia and to abandon it, for eagerness to identify anything that can quicken optimism about Russia's future should not blind one to the wrongheadedness of trans-Atlantic transfers that are patently inapplicable to the sui generis nature of Russia's current sociopolitical circumstances (written in 2015).

1 Whereas borrowings from English for both technology (e.g. drive, blog) and the market (e.g. voucher) may be explained by an absence of the requisite vocabulary in Russian, the novelties in question substitute for words that have existed in Russian for centuries but suddenly seemed inadequate.
2 Kloester, Georgette Heyer, 5.
3 Ibid., 6.
4 Aron, "In Search."
5 Vaknin, "Russia's Middle Class." Note that Max Weber linked Puritanism to modern capitalism, with early middle-class America a bastion of both. See Giddens, "Introduction," 7.
6 For centuries Russia, which until the nineteenth century favoured autocracy and feudalism, had little interest in democracy - a legacy embraced though perversely transformed during the supposedly socialist period of Soviet rule. And post-Soviet society in its acceptance of (and among a large segment of the population, admiration for) Putin implies its readiness to prolong that legacy.
7 "Who is the Middle."
8 Those distinctions may parallel those between 'old money' and 'new money,' thoroughly explored in the fiction of Charles Dickens, Edith Wharton, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and numerous other writers.
9 Bourdieu, Distinction.
10 Aron, "In search."
11 Vaknin, "Russia's Middle Class."
12 Maleva, "Russian Middle Class."
13 Vaknin, "Russia's Middle Class."
14 "Russia's Wealth Inequality."
15 Vaknin, "Russia's Middle Class."
16 Ovcharova, "Russia's Middle Class." Ovcharova and Maleva have co-authored a number of works, listed at the end of the former's analytical report.
17 Ovcharova, "Russia's Middle Class."
18 Uncivil Society is the title of a study by Stephen Kotkin, subtitled 1989 and the Implosion of the Communist Establishment.
19 Sulek, "Aristotle and Civil Society."
20 Edwards, Civil Society, esp. 91.
21 Sulek, "Aristotle and Civil," 3-4.
22 Collins English Dictionary.
23 Key statements on the topic belong, inter alia, to Locke, Alexis de Toqueville, Hegel, and Marx, as well as more recent theorists, such as John Rawls. See O'Brien, "Philosophical History."
24 Maleva, "Russian Middle Class."
25 Rohde, "Middle Class."
26 Bruk, "Civil20."
27 Ibid.
28 Podrabinek, "The Choice."
29 "Putin Cautiously Urges."
30 "Civil Society Leaders."
31 "Khodorkovsky Interview."
32 Florida, The Rise, ix. Florida maintains that despite its larger size of 55 million, the Service Class is less influential owing to its economic status (Florida, The Rise, 9).
33 Florida, The Rise, xi.
34 As summarized in a later passage, this group 'is made up of people who work in science and engineering, computers and mathematics, education and the arts, design and entertainment' (74) - a characterization that seems to collapse at least one category of 'creative professionals' into the Super-Creative Class, and that is those in the 'high-tech sectors.'
35 Florida, The Rise, 69.
36 Among numerous others, McCann, "Inequality and Politics," 188-96; Peck, "Struggling with the Creative Class," 749-70; and Ponzini and U. Rossi, "Becoming a Creative City," 1037-57.
37 Kramer, "Russia Cuts Budget."
38 Indeed, Florida devotes significant attention to the influx of "the new outsiders" (ethnic groups) (252-5) and "the gay index" and its connection with "high tech" (255-8).
39 During an interview in October 2005 on the TV show Shkola zlosloviia, Dondurei remarked, "My vse pribedniamsia" [We all claim poverty/act poor], an uncommonly accurate perception of the intelligentsia, which invariably claimed moral rectitude and a complete lack of self-interest vis-á-vis the Soviet government, from which, however, it regularly received various perquisites, including privileged access to foods and consumer items denied the classes whose rights the intelligentsia purportedly wished to protect. This state of affairs explains why the demise of the Soviet Union proved catastrophic for most members of an intelligentsia suddenly stripped of its privileges.
40 But the final disagreement between me and the Russian intelligentsia was over the firing on the White House [...], which was supported by a great part of the intelligentsia - and by its most outstanding members. It was unbearably painful and shameful to see, at the bottom of those "collective letters," the signatures of cultural figures—Sergei Averintsev, Bella Akhmadulina, Bulat Okudzhava, Marietta Chudakova.... (Siniavsky, The Russian Intelligentsia, 10).
41 The influence of Western popular culture has demoted such 'high art' genres as literature, art- house film, and philosophy in Russia, which partly accounts for its former practitioners' efforts to establish themselves in less prestigious but more lucrative areas, instanced by Tolstaya's transfer to TV and Aleksei Balabanov's (1959-2013) abandonment of such works as a screen adaptation of Kafta's Castle (1994) for such movies as the successful Brother films and Kremlin-pleasing nationalistic fare. The pre-eminence of murder mysteries, which have print-runs far outstripping those of novels and novellas, even by such popular writers as Ludmila Ulitskaya, perhaps best illustrates this trend.
42 McGrane, "Boris Akunin."
43 Author of two volumes of stylistically stunning stories and the dystopian novel Kys' (2000)[Slynx], Tolstaia did not publish any significant fiction until the appearance of an extract from her new novel, Arkhangel [Archangel], in the tellingly titled magazine Snob. See Tolstaya, "Arkhangel."
44 By archly adopting the title of Richard Sheridan's 1777 social satire, the decision-makers behind the show doubtless wished to signal sophistication and indicate the show's critical side. Since Sheridan's comedy targets the British upper classes, the choice of title is somewhat pretentious and redolent of post-Soviet Russia's fantasies of recuperating a distant aristocratic past. The major scandal of the show is the silly format and the two hostesses' occasional vulgarity and uninformed pronouncements, which contrast with some guests' intelligent observations.
45 For that segment, see Dondurei, Daniil. "Shkola zosloviya."
46 McGrane, "Boris Akunin."
47 The ascription of "moral authority" to a writer rests on an age-old Russian tradition that may still thrive in Western perceptions of Russian culture, but has weakened in Russia itself - unless the writer is also a popular media figure, such as Dmitrii Bykov.
48 A few weeks after that stroll, on 6 June, the Russian Parliament passed a law raising fines for participation in unsanctioned rallies by a 150 times, to $9,000, close to an average Russian's annual salary, and later that month state forces raided opposition leaders' apartments. See McGrane, "Boris Akunin."
49 On his blog site Akunin has stated that only 'amputinatsiia' will free Khodorkovsky. He elaborated in an interview: 'Я не имею в виду то, что Владимиру Владимировичу нужно что-то отрезать. Я просто хотел бы его отрезать от управления Российской Федерацией. Потому что у меня глубокое убеждение, что он не полезен для России. Это был ответ в моем блоге.' See "Khodorkovsky Interview."
50 Significantly, on September 29,2013, Pavel Khodorkovsky, who heads the Institute of Modern Russia think tank, received a $100,000 human rights award on behalf of his imprisoned father during a ceremony in Poland conducted by Solidarity founder Lech Walesa. See "Son of Russia's."
51 Mateo, "On Being Chosen."
52 Day, "Ludmila Ulitskaya."
53 For a laudatory review of the volume, seed Sakwa, "Mikhail Khodorkovsky."
54 On this volume and Akunin's participation in it and in an exchange with Khodorkovsky printed in Esquire, see Stroganova, "Boris Akunin."
55 Day, "Ludmila Ulitskaya."
56 For more information on Shishkin, see the interview with him conducted by Gorski, "An Interview."
57 Gorski, "An Interview," 41.
58 Voltskaya and Bigg, "Police Close Gallery."
59 Many so-called scandalous actions and exhibits have invoked religious iconography and other aspects of religion, for artists directly address the collusion between the Church and the state, so rewarding to both, in today's Russia. Pussy Riot's 'cathedral show' was but the latest in a series of actions deriding the Church's capitulation to the Kremlin's relentless consolidation of repressive power, headed by Putin.
60 For a detailed survey of protest-related artists and groups, their activities, and their political involvement from the 1990s until today, see Jonson, Art and Protest.
61 Thus far Smirnova has scripted Aleksei Uchitel''s Dnevnik ego zheny (2000) and Progulka (2002), co-scripted her KoKoKo, and directed Sviaz' (2006) and Dva dnia (2011).
62 For information about the Kunstkamera, see the official site at
63 For an incisive, lengthy review of KoKoKo - the major points of which fully coincide with my own reading of it - see Doubivko, "Avdot'ia."
64 "Kunstkamera."

Disclosure statement

No potential conflict of interest was reported by the authors.

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To cite this article: Helena Goscilo (2017): Problems of Taxonomy, Issues of Class, Citizenship, Consumption, and Avdot’ia Smirnova’s KoKoKo (2012), Slavonica, DOI: 10.1080/13617427.2017.1376799
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Published online: 27 Sep 2017.