American Journal of Sociology: review of Rich Russians

Elisabeth Schimpfössl’s Rich Russians: From Oligarchs to Bourgeoisie offers a fascinating insight into the lives, values, and identities of the Russian superrich. Filled with riveting details and curious observations, the book reads in one breath. The book’s relevance stems from its timeliness, given the surging interest in the West to learn more about Russian elites. The elegantly written book brilliantly portrays the complex souls of Russian oligarchs, exposing their inner contradictions, desires, and aspirations. Schimpfössl’s extensive sociological analysis of Russian elites challenges contemporary stereotypes, calling for conceptual rethinking and more empirically grounded theories.

By Kirill Kalinin. American Journal of Sociology Volume 125, Number 3. November 2019

The impressive enormity of conducted fieldwork truly distinguishes this book from others in the same field. The book is based on a collection of 80 biographical narrative interviews and observations of the top 0.1% of wealthy Russian entrepreneurs, their spouses, and their children in Moscow, London, and New York between 2008 and 2017. Additionally, the author also conducted over 100 “expert” interviews. This rich material helps the author to develop sound empirical footing and test major theoretical hypotheses using qualitative analysis.

By providing historical perspective, the book portrays the transformation of the Russian rich class from “oligarchs” to the “bourgeoisie,” defined in terms of power and class identity. While the oligarchs of the 1990s, with their vast economic and political power, identified themselves through rival clans, the bourgeoisie of the 2000s, stripped of political power, experienced class cohesion through shared interests, tastes, and practices. The latter was no longer defined solely by their wealth and conspicuous consumption as compared to the oligarchs but rather by growing demands for cultural and social resources. The book covers a broad range of topics illustrating the changes in attitudes and perceptions that happened over the last 20 years within Russia’s rich class: the origins of the nouveau riche tycoons and the bourgeoise, the complex issues of identity formation, the quest for legitimacy and superiority, gender relations, intergenerational wealth transfer and philanthropy, and perceptions of Russia and the West. The author argues that, despite the upheavals of their country’s history in the 20th century, the elite respond to their privileged positions by developing appropriate narratives to justify their current status and success. These narratives include everything from genes to merit, rather than the structural advantages inherent in the proper family origins, as observed by the author. The influences of Russian exceptionalism and the sense of moral superiority among Russia’s rich are often mixed with actual status anxiety, especially when they find themselves surrounded by Western elites enjoying privilege and status from birth. In fact, the author concludes that, for the Russian bourgeoise, “the approval of their bourgeois peers is far more important than gaining social legitimacy vis-a-vis society at large.”

With only 13% of interviewees declaring that the major part of their wealth would not go to their children, huge wealth assets are passed from the elite their offspring. Parents make sure to inculcate proper values and manners in their children; philanthropy, in particular, occupies a special place in the lives of the Russian rich and their posterity. The author concludes that reproduction of the upper class would follow the path of “greater etiquette, a stronger family orientation, and some degree of modesty, philanthropy, and patriotism.”

While reading the book, one is haunted by the impossibility of distinguishing the truth from false claims and of differentiating between sincere testimonies and the bourgeoisie’s strategic responses. Unfortunately, the author absolves herself of these tasks, leaving the reader with the responsibility of deciding. As a qualitative study, the book lacks any presence of quantitative evidence supporting the author’s main ideas, which is truly disappointing since some sort of content analysis could empower the author’s findings. While reading the book, one cannot dismiss the methodological can of worms related to sample selection bias, as sampling procedures are obscure. Response bias might be present due to social desirability pressures or recall issues, especially when the 1990s are discussed; or nonresponse bias might be operating due to the possible reluctance of specific individuals to participate in the survey. One of book’s obvious challenges is that, while the author’s theory spans both time periods, the actual evidence was collected during the 2000s. When considered collectively, these biases potentially raise certain concerns about the validity and generalizability of the book’s findings. The author manages to partly address some of these concerns by reaching hard-to-contact interviewees, referring to response biases as a part of research design, and combining analysis of verbal messages with nonverbal cues. Nevertheless, I suppose the book could substantially benefit from more comprehensive and systematic analysis of various biases and partial inclusion of quantitative analysis. Overall, the book fulfills almost all of its promises in terms of its key findings—from now on Russia’s rich class must be referred to as the “bourgeoisie.”

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Elisabeth Schimpfoessl

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.