Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1998

Towards a New Social Order in Russia: Transforming Structures and Everyday Life

Timo Piirainen
Dartmouth: Aldershot
ISBN 1 85521 690 6
£39.50 (hb)
viii + 256 pp.

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From Submission to Rebellion: The Provinces versus the Center in Russia

Vladimir Shlapentokh, Roman Levita and Mikhail Loiberg
Westview Press: Oxford
ISBN 0 8133 2156 5
$69.00 (hb)
viii + 295 pp.

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These books offer an analysis of the 'new' Russia from contrasting perspectives. Both of them have come out of existing research programmes that have been focused on the momentous changes sweeping through Russia in the 1990s. The changes described here are consequent upon the collapse of 'actually existing socialism' throughout the region. Yet the changes have been distinct between countries - and in Russia, at the heart of this empire, these changes have been different from the experiences of other countries in Central Europe.

The contrast between the books is at four levels. First, they take a contrasting view of the relevance of history. Second, they are focused on the one hand at the level of the nation state and its regions, and on the other hand at the level of a handful of families in one city. Third, the data they use varies from detailed qualitative interviews to opinion surveys. And fourth they differ in their theoretical assumptions between: Weberian notions of individual action as adaptation to rapidly changing circumstances with different resources to hand; and the path dependency of Russian central-local relations, echoing down the ages over the last thousand years or more, drawing (although with great critical distance) on Parsons' pattern variables.

Nevertheless the books both offer intriguing and pertinent insights into the nature of Russian society after the transition. The Shlapentokh monograph claims that the growth of democracy and globalism within and around Russia in recent years has increased the possibilities for regional autonomy. But the story of this tension between centre and locality is presented from the very early date of the tenth century, and the emergence of the Kiev State. From then, the history of the growth of a dominant and strong centre is traced in the first, and substantial, part of the book. A perennial concern about centrifugal tendencies within Russia is identified. In particular the de-stabilisation which Khruschev's regional economic innovations were feared to have heralded in the early 1960s, and which lead to his ouster, came to be resurrected during the debates in the early 1990s about the future of the Soviet Empire, the CIS, and indeed of the Russian State itself.

Gorbachev had been forced in the late 1980s to grant increasing hopes of regional autonomy, since both in theory and reality it was becoming increasingly impossible to manage this complex socio-economic system centrally; the coordination of information between centre and periphery had defied mathematical and computerised planning, and confirmed the predictions of information theorists that inter-regional information flows, independent of the centre, were both a necessity and an inevitability. In the early 1990s, Yeltsin struggled in the same way, but with the added pressure from some ethnic groups, especially in Chechnia, for a cultural (and 'national') separation from Russia.

The centre and the regions continued to battle for control throughout the run-up to the 1993 constitution, and the subsequent war in Chechnia. At stake was not only political autonomy, and cultural independence, but also crucially the local economy. Who was to own or control local, ministry owned enterprises? What were local property rights? Did valuable mineral deposits belong to Moscow or the locality? Who raised and collected the taxes, and where should they be spent, and on what? Two groups supported regional autonomy: democratically minded intellectuals in Moscow, and regional elites. But the population as a whole was also de facto losing its strong past commitment to the central state, for example avoiding the military draft in growing numbers, and defecting from units in Chechnia - an act unheard of in earlier years.

The book covers the period to the end of 1995, and at time the balance of integrative and disintegrative factors suggest that Russia will continue as a unitary state. While many new political actors have made their mark through regional political careers, they are unlikely to see the future through independence. A common Russian culture, and fear of surrounding independent states, from Central Europe through to Asia, especially China, continues to hold the regions together. There is a wealth of detail provided by the authors, who draw deeply on existing opinion surveys, debates in the media, and interviews with regional actors.

Piirainen's study of St. Petersburg is at one level a detailed case study of daily life and household survival against the backdrop of one particular Russian 'region'. In the west, St. Petersburg has since its early years been regarded as closer to the west than any other part of Russia. It certainly seems to be ploughing a relatively independent path from Moscow in terms of local economic and social policy. We have characterised this as 'Keynesian' in comparison with Moscow's 'municipal capitalism' in a current project on social and employment policy in Russia (Manning et al, in preparation). Nevertheless the problems of household survival in the 1990s that we ourselves are analysing are in many respects common to widely different cities, and thus the detailed case studies presented by Piirainen in his book do unpack in detail the situation facing millions of post-transition Russian families.

Like Shlapentokh, indeed more so, Piirainen is careful to review the theoretical position appropriate to the task he has before him. That task is to understand how the restructuring of Russian society has unfolded in the daily life of ordinary people, and thus to consider what the appropriate methodological approach to an unfolding revolution should be. The Owl of Minerva starts its flight at dusk, he reminds us from Hegel. The book starts from the study of individual actors rather than social structures, on the grounds that it will be the accumulated structuring that arises out of these actions that will develop the future structures of the new society. A qualitative case study approach is chosen to reflect his view that Russian people are the active shapers and re- shapers of their lives through rational decisions and strategies as to how best to draw on their own resources, human, financial, and social, to cope with the uncertainties that economic transition throws up. Eighty families were interviewed in the mid-1990s, twenty of them twice.

The bulk of the book reports on these families and the way they have tried to use the resources at their disposal to maximise their survival strategies in various ways, and to minimise any risks that they might be exposed to. The areas covered include the management of consumption through a period of rapid price inflation, the getting and holding of employment, and to a slightly lesser extent the relationship between households and public policy. Out of this comes a typology of the three basic economic strategies available to these families, and a detailed illustration of the working out of these choices for four 'case study' families. The three 'economies' are soviet, market and informal. The first two represent continued (low) wage labour, or some kind of small enterprise activity. The third includes home production, barter, clientelism and 'self provisioning'. In reality families try to survive by the use of any or all of these types depending on their circumstances and opportunities. And this can lead to highly unequal outcomes, perhaps the lowest of which is represented by attempts to abandon the market altogether and to attempt to survive through agricultural self sufficiency away from urban settings. All in all there is here a compelling account of the difficulties of family survival in an extremely difficult period of change. Piirainen lists very near the end 'significant negative tendencies' including poverty, inequality, economic shrinkage, unregulated markets, weak civil society, and weak legitimacy of the state and local authorities.

Both these excellent books show clearly that the future still remains to be formed; the social structures that are very slowly emerging in Russia are as yet still difficult to discern. However research is growing and the opportunities to identify both change and the social costs this brings, are also growing. Our own project has extended the view that Piirainen gives to three rather different cities, to a wider sample of households, and to the views and actions of local policy makers attempting to deal with these social costs. We have also found that the regional differences carefully dissected and historically located by Shlapentokh are of great significance for the situation faced by households we have interviewed. Many other projects are doubtless in the field, and will be reported in future books. But for now these are extremely valuable additions and can be highly recommended.

Nick Manning
University of Nottingham


MANNING, Nick, Ovsey SHKARATAN and Nataliya TIKHONOVA (in preparation) Russian Social Policy: A Study of Social and Employment Policy in St. Petersburg. Moscow and Voronezh, Ashgate.

Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1998