Academic review by Marina Zaloznaya (Contemporary Sociology)

Elisabeth Schimpfössl’s Rich Russians: From Oligarchs to Bourgeoisie is a nuanced and thoughtful account of how Russia’s top 0.1 percent understands and justifies its extreme privilege. The book draws on a trove of rich qualitative data that includes biographic narrative interviews with eighty wealthy Russians, ethnographic observations, media coverage, and expert interviews.

Using this evidence, the author persuasively argues that conspicuous consumption, which had served as the primary legitimation strategy for the Russian upper class throughout the 1990s and the early 2000s, gave way to a shared social identity that emphasizes discerning modesty, engagement in arts and philanthropy, patriotism, and Soviet values of hard work and kulturnost (culturedness, in English). Schimpfössl foregoes direct documentation of the consumption patterns of Russia’s classe dominante in favor of analyzing their own narratives of privilege. In my view, this strategy pays off: the book offers a compelling account of ‘‘bourgeoisification’’ as a process, effectively answering the author’s main research question of ‘‘how new money becomes respectable money’’ (p. 12). Ultimately, it is this unusual portrait of social closure in the making that makes Schimpfössl’s book an important contribution.

Of the book’s many strengths, I briefly discuss two: its novelty and timeliness as a qualitative sociological analysis of inequality outside the global North and the surprising breadth of its insights. As a rare qualitative analysis of stratification in a non-democratic, non-western society, this book fills an important gap in the literature. Although some sociologists write about inequality in the global South using survey data and official statistics, analyses of micro-level data collected through interviews, archival work, and participant observation are very rare. This is a result of two interconnected phenomena: an unfortunate parochialism of American and West European sociology, and the difficulty of collecting rich qualitative data in non-western contexts. Given the scarcity of such data, the actual processes of social closure in the developing world remain unexplored from the sociological perspective. Yet, given the increasing role that non-western corporate and business elites play in global governance, understanding these processes is as important as ever. Schimpfössl’s analysis represents a step in the right direction and can serve as an inspiration and a model for other researchers.

Since western sociology (especially its American branch) is an inward-looking enterprise, Schimpfössl faced a difficult task. Inspired by studies of France and the United States (such as Bourdieu’s Distinction and Khan’s Privilege), she set out to write a book about a tiny group of people whom most western sociologists do not know exist. And she tackled this challenge with mastery and conviction. Rich Russians is, of course, a book about rich Russians of the second half of the 2010s; but it is also a book about poor and middle-class Russians of the late Soviet era, of the 1990s, and of the 2000s. Schimpfössl achieves this commendable breadth by embedding her protagonists in their historical context, by showing how their legitimization techniques draw on the legacies of socialism and perestroika, and by emphasizing the ways this small group of people relates to others—including western elites, ordinary Russians, the political class, and the poor. In other words, by painting a nuanced portrait of the exception, Schimpfössl effectively shines light on the rules of life in a post-transitional non-democratic society. The book, therefore, succeeds in bringing value not only to specialists in Slavic studies, but to a broad range of social scientists and the lay public with or without interest in Russia.

Although the book’s strengths are numerous, two critiques bear advancing. For one, the book has a feel of inconclusiveness, which leaves the reader moderately unsatisfied as she turns over the last page. Having learned a lot about the workings of privilege in present-day Russia, readers are likely to be disappointed with the lack of a punchline and of clear, tangible trends in the emerging portrait of those who bear it.

While I acknowledge this issue, I am hesitant to put the blame on the author. Although Schimpfo¨ssl argues that uber-wealthy Russians have come into their own as a distinct social class, I am not convinced. Instead, I would argue that Schimpfössl’s research caught the group in the process of its evolution. One indicator of this ongoing transformation is the significant heterogeneity within the top 0.1 percent of the Russian population. Rich Russians include those who challenge the emergent social boundaries—high-powered women, gay men, and defiant children—as well as those who erect and protect them. This fluidity and indeterminateness of group boundaries suggests that the mechanisms of social closure around wealthy Russians is very much in process, making it difficult for the author to derive definitive patterns from her respondents’ self-narratives. In fact, as I emphasized earlier, this dynamism of the emergent elite may be precisely the reason why sociologists should read Rich Russians: Schimpfössl’s study offers an insight into the processes and mechanisms of the transformation, which often elude scholars of stratification. Moreover, insofar as the book invites readers to ask additional questions (for instance, how does exposure to liberal ideas in the West shape rich Russians’ view of class, gender roles, and sexuality?), I credit Schimpfössl with awakening the sociological imagination of her readership.

My second critique, however, relates directly to the author’s choices. I found her application of sociological theory to the Russian case to be lacking in depth and resolve. In the introduction to the book, and at the start of each chapter, the author sets up a promising theoretical backgdrop to her empirical discussion. She invokes the giants of sociological thought—Veblen, Weber, Bourdieu—as well as less canonical thinkers like Thomas Piketty and Rachel Sherman. Having thus raised the expectations of her readers, Schimpfössl leaves it entirely up to them to figure out whether, and in what ways, the Russian upper class, and its ways of deriving legitimacy, can or cannot be understood in light of existing theories. Ultimately, what I see as Schimpfössl’s biggest missed opportunity is not offering a theoretical outline of the processes of social closure that are unique to a post-communist, post-transitional, and non-democratic society.

These critiques notwithstanding, there are many reasons why sociologists, area students, and the general public will like this book. It is beautifully written and nuanced; it possesses the entertainment value of a TV show about the extremely rich without any of the usual vulgarity; it offers a wealth of insights about social life during and after communism; and, most importantly, it gives western sociologists a glimpse of the promise and the potential that lie in writing about the global South.

References

Bourdieu, Pierre. [1984] 2013. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. London: Routledge.

Khan, Shamus Rahman. 2010. Privilege: The Making of an Adolescent Elite at St. Paul’s School. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

By MARINA ZALOZNAYA, University of Iowa. marina-zaloznaya@uiowa.edu

https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0094306119867060kk

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Elisabeth Schimpfössl

About Elisabeth Schimpfössl

My research focuses on elites, philanthropy and social inequality as well as questions around post-Socialist media and self-censorship. I did my PhD at the University of Manchester and taught at Liverpool University, Brunel and UCL before taking up my current post as Lecturer in Sociology and Policy at Aston University, Birmingham, UK. I live in London.