Sociologists believe that, just as there are more than 300 definitions of time in physics, there are about as many definitions of the middle class, or bourgeoisie, to use the European term. In Ukraine people are unwilling to identify themselves as poor. They are embarrassed to openly talk about their prosperity and call themselves rich. So it is no surprise that the latest sociological study conducted by the Kyiv-based Horshenin Institute of Management shows that one in three Ukrainians calls himself middle class, perhaps because s/he feels more secure that way. But experts say these are subjective indices. Objective ones produce a totally different picture.
“We have defined the middle class using objective European criteria, including well-being, education, employment as well as participation in public life and degree of influence an individual can have on sociopolitical events,” Kost Bondarenko, director of the Horshenin Institute, said during the launch of the latest findings. “Therefore, also bearing in mind indices of public activity, our experts concluded that the middle class is in an embryonic state in Ukraine. Nevertheless, our Russian colleagues told me that almost nine percent is good, considering that in the Russian Federation the middle class constitutes only five percent. By way of comparison, between 50 and 70 percent of Europeans and over 80 percent of Americans belong to the middle class.”
More than 2,000 respondents took part in the survey, which revealed that the middle class in Ukraine is divided into the “old” and the “new.” The old one makes up one-third of this thin stratum, and sociologists believe that these people can be referred to as neokurkuls (neokulaks). They own means of production; they are entrepreneurs and businessmen, 42 percent of whom are building capital in the spheres of trade and services. They were quick on the uptake when the Soviet Union fell apart and they survived.
According to Bondarenko, “they are now distancing themselves from public life within their given community; they know that they have made enough money for themselves and their descendants; they don’t take part in elections.” The other third is made up of the “office proletariat” whom sociologists identify as the “new” middle class. They believe that these people are earning an average of 1,000 dollars a month but often have no apartments or cars, and are completely dependent on their employers, so their status is rather shaky.
The third category is composed of “pseudo-investors.” These people also belong to the “new” middle class; they receive money from relatives abroad, so they feel good and can afford not to work. The Horshenin experts believe that 4.9 million Ukrainians are working abroad, each sending an average of 300 dollars to their relatives every month (the yearly total amounts to a quarter of the national budget).
“In Ukraine the middle class is a family notion. Parents who have good capital automatically include their son, a university student who doesn’t work, in the middle class,” says Volodymyr Popovych, the head of the Horshenin Institute’s social studies department. “I have noticed a trend: the more prosperous an individual becomes, the more interest he shows in cultural values. This, however, does not apply to very rich people, who are too busy making money. We have two percent of these types of individuals, and more often than not they are absolutely inaccessible to sociologists.”
The impact of material well-being on relationships with other people is a separate and interesting subject. Popovych says that the more a person earns, the more s/he withdraws into a private circle, curtailing all other contacts. “This suggests that just as your living standard continues to rise, so does your estrangement from fellow humans. Another thing is that well-to-do parents are often against their sons marrying girls from families with lower incomes, cultural distinctions, and so on.”
Political persuasions are the only thing that money doesn’t affect while giving the owner a degree of freedom. Sociologists believe that the middle class should support liberal and democratic values, as is the case in Europe, so that by influencing the government these people can serve as a stabilizing factor, something we can only dream of in Ukraine. Be that as it may, most representatives of our middle class support the Party of Regions (36 percent) and BYuT (22 percent).
Bondarenko says that the desire of the Ukrainian middle class to be ruled by an iron hand is an alarming trend. He remembers that in the 1920s-1930s the Nazis came to power precisely because they were supported by the middle class, which was not a stabilizing factor in Germany at the time. Also, the ratings of the political forces that identify the middle class as their electorate are close to nil insofar as people representing this electorate are concerned (this is true above all of the Viche Party). As for people’s confidence in their immediate future, the Ukrainian bourgeoisie fears such consequences of the ongoing political crisis as chaos and bloodshed (over 60%) and only one-third are concerned about the possibility of Ukraine’s breakup - something experts also regard as an alarming symptom. The poll shows that most representatives of the Ukrainian middle class reside in the Donbas, Dnipropetrovsk, Zaporizhia, Odesa, and Kyiv. But, as Bondarenko notes, “one can come across oligarchs in small towns throughout our regions, who can match many of their medium-level counterparts in Kyiv, and no one knows anything about them.” In Kyiv the number of middle class people is not much larger than Ukraine’s average: about 12 percent. This is somewhat surprising, but sociologists have a killer argument: the last mayoral election showed that the middle class is not predominant in the capital. Experts agree, however, that there are many pseudo- investors in Kyiv, people who lease out their apartments or profit from other sources they are loath to identify, and who do not identify themselves with the middle class.
Experts also believe that in the nearest future there will be no lowering in class in our society (owing to material privations). Sociologists say that the rising living standard is a positive social trend, and that there are no special preconditions for a drop. “Ukrainian society is accustomed to living in spite of rather than thanks to the state. After all, 10 years ago 80 percent of Ukrainian citizens considered themselves to be poor, now it’s 50-60 percent,” Bondarenko sums up.