We, first, review the key findings from existing research on social mobility in Russia (including both international and Russian scholarship) and discuss major theoretical and methodological issues related to such research. We then re-address the issue empirically by utilizing data from four cross-sectional representative surveys, which were carried out in 1994, 2002, 2006 and 2013. All surveys feature comparable retrospective information on the life course of respondents, including educational and career mobility and the social context of respondents’ earlier socialization.
In this project, we define social mobility as social pathways travelled by individuals throughout their life course depending on their social origins, i.e. the social context of their earlier socialization. We operationalize social destinations in terms of final educational attainment, achieved occupational status and subjective well-being, whereas the operational definition of social origins is constrained to educational status of parents and the area of residence during individuals’ school age.
The novelty of our research for the Russian context stems from the fact that we 1) approach social mobility in a broad historical perspective (spanning across several Soviet and post-Soviet generations) and 2) evaluate social mobility in relative rather than absolute terms, which allows us to disentangle the impact of political and institutional change from the impact of structural change that was due to restructuring of occupational structure and the trend towards educational expansion. Surprisingly, the span of existing studies that approach similar issues rarely extends beyond the beginning of 2000s, and they contain no systematic comparison between different historical periods.
Our primary analytical instrument is multivariate regression analysis, with which we model the probability and status of different social destinations (i.e. educational attainment, occupational status and subjective well-being) conditional on several important covariates, including variables that correspond to social origins. In order to capture period effects (i.e. variation in relative social mobility that may be due to changes of political and institutional context) we interact the ‘cohort’ variable with covariates for social origins, and further interpret conditional probabilities that have been simulated using real data.
In order to yield more statistical power to our analyses we pool our data in a single dataset, accounting for all methodological reservations (including weighting of data), to obtain a larger sample (N=9,113) that enables a more robust and fine-cut cross-cohort comparison, than the ones that have been previously attempted.
Our results seem to contradict some of the conventional wisdom about the evolution of social mobility in Soviet and post-Soviet Russia. Although, generally, we find that relative social mobility declined for post-Soviet cohorts, who were exposed to market reforms that fostered inequality, we also find that this tendency was not as uniform as suggested by other studies. In fact, contrary to our expectations, the late post-Soviet generations (i.e. those, who matured during the so called Putin’s era) exhibit the highest rate social fluidity among all other generations, meaning that their relative social situation is only weakly explained by the social context of their earlier socialization.
Further, our analyses tend to support the more conservative estimates of relative social mobility in Soviet society, but a more detailed analysis also reveals that it fluctuated substantially. The highest degree of intergenerational transmission of social status was observed among the generations which were finishing their education and entering labor market until 1970s (i.e. during the Stalin’s and Kruschev’s era). There was a slight weakening of this association among the later generations, which continued until the 1980s (where it was the highest during the whole Soviet period, rather than the other way around, as is usually supported by many commentators).
Nevertheless, we would like to stay more careful with commenting on the more optimistic trends, which have observed for the late post-Soviet generations. First of all, given the high political relevance of this finding, we suggest that it has to be re-examined using alternative data sources that feature other high-quality longitudinal or retrospective information on life course (or a combination of both to enhance the robustness of results). Second, one has to keep in mind that relative social mobility exhibits surprisingly negligible change when approached from a long historical perspective (e.g. P. Sorokin’s ‘trendless fluctuation’ or J. Goldhtorpe and R. Erikson’s ‘constant flux’). That is: social advantage appears to always regain itself after gradual improvement in equality of opportunity or even radical reshufflings of opportunity structures that usually follow wars and radical social change. Therefore in order to keep this optimistic trend policy-makers would have to sustain existing institutions and constantly improve them, as well as carefully monitor the situation for the new sources of inequality that will inevitably emerge.