Welcome to the Digital Domostroi

Vera Mukhina’s sculpture, The Worker and the Collective Farm Woman (1937), depicts the unification of urban workers and rural peasants – the hammer and the sickle – under the banner of Soviet communism. Created for the 1937 World’s Fair in Paris, Mukhina’s stainless steel totem was a proclamation to the world that the Soviet Union had reached the classless society toward which it had been striving, where “any cook could govern,” as the platitude went. In reality, it is no secret that Soviet society was rife with class inequality. Those who were party members and on the list of nomenklatura lived markedly different lifestyles than the rank and file citizens of each group. At the level of labor alone, the work force was separated into specialized trade unions, which offered access to state-allocated goods and services, thereby demarcating boundaries, spaces of negotiation, and expectations of social mobility that tethered the Soviet fairy tale to its fraught reality.

Our online project traces the realities and myths of the middle class in the Soviet Union and Russia as it develops alongside major political and social upheavals. Vera Dunham’s influential notion of “The Big Deal” (1976) sought to define the middle class less according to the stratification of society by income, wealth, or occupation, but rather by sets of values that crosscut positions of difference.[1] “The Big Deal” described the tacit agreement that Stalin made with the newly emerging post World War II middle class, as a way to smooth over potential conflicts and provide material goods in exchange for political allegiance. What was at stake for Dunham was the embourgeoisement of core Soviet manners, values and attitudes, or in other words, what would beginning in the 1930s materialize as the key features of kul’turnost’ (4). Whereas meshchanstvo, or petit-bourgeois behavior, had run contrary to revolutionary ideals, Dunham argued that “from the thirties on, when the new middle class emerged, Soviet society has been making room for meshchanstvo” (21).[2] Thus, the middle class became a descriptor for an expectant society, one that cultivated its image and material well being in concordance with moving through the ranks of the Party.

Dunham’s description of middle class formation and cultivation is symptomatic of the ebb and flow of evolving class identities during the Soviet period. A number of recent studies have reevaluated class structure in the Soviet Union, revisiting the same values that Dunham enumerated as kul’turnost’. Anna Paretskaya’s “A Middle-Class without Capitalism” (2013) returns to more traditional views on class and classification, noting how state discourses under Brezhnev lifted the status of the blue-collar trades towards their white-collar counterparts (47). Blue-collar workers simultaneously sought cultural enrichment, a distinction no longer reserved for the intelligentisa. Paretskaya’s analysis of how workers and the intelligentsia jockied for inclusion and distinction from one another sheds light on the contradictions of Soviet “classlessness,” at the same time dedicated to absolving class difference yet predicated on progress defined by materiality and abundance: “In a society of ‘developed socialism,’ the party-state, for reasons of politics and economics, could not allow everyone to become a white-collar professional. But it had to demonstrate to its people that some tangible progress toward a classless, homogenous social system was being made” (50).

Fast forward to the twenty-first century, and notions about class in the Russian Federation are equally as mythologized as during the Soviet past. In October 2013, the Associated Press reported that Russia held the number one position for the highest inequality of wealth distribution amongst major countries, with 110 people owning 35% of all wealth. The 1990s saw savvy businessmen rise to oligarch status, and the 2000s featured an equally dubious, far subtler rise of Putin’s close political allies to the ranks of Russia’s billionaires. Yet this most recent stage, the ongoing Putin era, has also brought with it new-found stability and bourgeoisification in Russia’s major cities. While this movement – one that effectively squeezed out the middle class – was once largely ascribed as a feature of a neo-liberalizing, western world, Russia has had similar problems fashioning a middle class in the last twenty years.

According to a 2012 report from Rosstat, in 2008 29% of Russia’s population made less than $315 a month, while another 25% made over $845 a month. The nearly 50% of the population in between these two brackets, the so-called Russian middle class, earned somewhere between five and ten thousand dollars per person per year. According to Mark Adomanis, even if we were to transcribe these figures into what their dollar equivalents would truly represent in the Russian market, “a representative ‘middle class’ household in Russia, two working parents and a child, could have an income of anywhere between $12,000 and $30,000 (of $15,600 and $39,000 adjusted for purchasing power)” (Adomanis). By contrast, the average American middle class salary of a dual-earning household is often placed somewhere between $50,000 and $100,000 per year. To complicate matters, the collapse of the Russian ruble on December 16, 2014 was declared the death of the upper class and of the middle class, in that the plummeting rate of the domestic currency threatened to liquidate the fortunes of the very rich and stretch the boundaries of the middle class both ways, to the very lowest and highest ends of the financial scale. Amidst this pressing crisis, iconic locations of Marxism-Leninism, such as former site of the 1930s All-Union Agricultural Exhibition and current home to Mukhina’s The Worker and the Collective Farm Woman, are undergoing both architectural and ideological rebranding in order to market them to a young, hip middle class.[3]

Given these and other disparities, where then does the middle class figure in the Russian Federation since the early 2000s, and where do we see its cultural presence? Our exploration of class in contemporary Russian visual culture and cinema emerges motivated from the fifteenth annual Russian Film Symposium, ”Re-Imagining Class: Recent Russian Cinema,” held at the University of Pittsburgh in 2013. Our ongoing, online project adopts the form of a digital Domostroi of the Russian middle class. The Domostroi is a set of household rules written during a relatively prosperous and stable time in mid 16th century Muscovite Russia, during which the state was expanding its control over neighboring principalities and incorporating them into a vertical hierarchy of serving groups under the grand princes, and later the Tsar. In the Domostroi, symbolic value is attached to the order found in, and achieved by, the daily practices of everyday life, from the arrangement of utensils to the proper storage of food.  But the Domostroi is also a document that dictates and codifies the rules of societal decorum, establishing customs for the obedience of sons to fathers, wives to husbands, citizens to their Tsar, and of all men to God. While the etymology of the word domostroi conveys order, or proper housekeeping, the text more broadly reflects on ideals of wealth, luxury, and self-sufficiency as key elements of a healthy hearth.

By adopting the term Domostroi, we are replicating the document’s attempts to codify class relation, values, and ideals about values during the time the text was written. At the same time, as Carolyn Johnston Pouncy has argued, the Domostroi itself was a product of privilege, as it reflected “the life enjoyed by the fortunate few of a new nation at a time of relative calm and comfort” (5). The entries on the middle class keywords included in our contemporary Digital Domostroi reflect on the context of their codification, recognizing that the Russian middle class is a fluid set of values and assumptions that are very much under contestation and construction. These entries are inspired by Raymond Williams’ Keywords (1976), as well as by more recent projects in that same genre.[4] For the purposes of this project, we are interested particularly in the exploration of Russia’s past celluloid-based, and now digitally constructed middle class.

Our project poses questions on how Russian culture cultivates middle class values today.  Is the middle class constructed from within or from outside its ranks? Is it presented as an inclusive or exclusive group? The emergence of film in the early 20th century was predicated on the notion that film was an art form for the masses. This optimistic view of a multi-class theater audience, with tickets that were neither sold, traded, nor appraised, paralleled the rise in class-consciousness at the turn of the century. Yet cinema is riddled with its own tastes and distinctions in the Bourdieuian sense; highbrow festival films certainly cater to a different audience than genre films, and intelligibility becomes a site of exclusivity.

Moreover, how is class in its visual representations different from its reality? Images provide the ultimate means of enablement for the viewer, yet at the same time, they produce the alienation of what the viewer does not possess. Cinema and television can envision and provide the suspension of disbelief to present on-screen utopias, where sexy and chic actors and actresses play out and augment everyday reality. The middle class on screen and in visual representations such as in advertisements is never really the middle class. Outside of 1950s through 1970s American film, television, and advertising, which embraced the aesthetics of the middle class and suburban life, class representation always seems to be “classed up” a notch on the social ladder. Thus, we seek to explore not only what middle class values are articulated through visual representations, but also what is falsely represented or impersonated. How does spectacle of the image present the unachievable middle class?  Or rather, how does it visualize an upper class that poses as a middle class to which people aspire, but can never attain?

Lastly, how do we as scholars continue or discontinue the discussion of class categories in our analyses of contemporary Russian culture?  Cultural theory and film theory have pushed disciplines’ glances away from the middle class, writing off the normative as a space of interest, in favor of scholarship based on identity politics in race, gender, sexuality, and other categories. We hope that this project returns the focus back to class, while simultaneously embracing these other lenses.

As viewing practices change and audiences increasingly access visual culture online, the middle class home becomes an even more important space, where media can be consumed in private comfort. The digital dimension to our Domostroi recognizes that the cultivation of normative, conservative, middle class values goes beyond Russian cinema and its traditional in-theater venues of exhibition. This digital medium allows us to catalog middle class values across Russian cinema and other forms of media as an ongoing project. We welcome additional contributions to our growing archive of keywords. The middle class is a political and aesthetic myth that is constantly in flux, and thereby requires ongoing analysis; our Domostroi seeks to capture this myth in its numerous iterations, shedding light on the dynamic and often deceptive digital life of the Russian middle class.

Andrew Chapman and Alyssa DeBlasio, January 2015


[1] Dunham’s work on middle class values is bookended by two other important Soviet class studies of the 1970s by Mervyn Matthews (sociology) and Charles Bettelheim (economics).

[2] See Svetlana Boym’s discussion of how this new materialism clashed with Soviet values in “Rubber Plants and the Order of Soviet Things” (5-11).

[3] On the gentrification of Gorky Park, VDNKh, and other Moscow locations from “rusting funfair to Wi-Fi heaven,” see: Omidi.  

[4] See, for instance, the University of Pittsburgh’s Keywords Project: http://www.keywords.pitt.edu/index.html.

Works Cited

Adomanis, Mark.  “What is the Russian Middle Class? Probably Not What You Think.”  Forbes. Sept. 10, 2012.  http://www.forbes.com/sites/markadomanis/2012/09/10/what-is-the-russian-middle-class-probably-not-what-you-think.  Last accessed Dec. 28, 2014.

Bettelheim, Charles.  Class Struggles in the USSR: 1917-1923.  Brighton: Harvester Press, 1977.

Bourdieu, Pierre.  Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste.  Trans. Richard Nice.  Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1984.

Boym, Svetlana.  Common Places: Mythologies of Everyday Life in Russia.  Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1994.

Dunham, Vera. In Stalin’s Time: Middle-Class Values in Soviet Fiction.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976.

Matthews, Mervyn.  Class and Society in Soviet Russia.  NY: Walker & Co., 1972.

Omidi, Maryam.  “Moscow embraces ‘hipster Stalinism.’”  The Guardian.  Dec. 12, 2014.  http://www.theguardian.com/cities/2014/dec/12/moscow-hipster-stalinism-gentrification-artkvartal-zaryadye-park.  Last Accessed Jan. 1, 2015.

Paretskaya, Anna.  “A Middle Class without Capitalism?  Socialist Ideology and Post-Collectivist Discourse in the Late Soviet Era.”  Soviet Society in the Era of Late Socialism, 1964-1985.  Eds. Neringa Klumbyte and Guinaz Sharafutdinova.  NY: Lexington Books, 2013.

Pouncy, Carolyn Johnston, ed. And trans.  The Domostroi.  Rules for Russian Households in the Time of Ivan the Terrible.   Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1994.

Williams, Raymond.  Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society.  NY: Fontana, 1976.