Over the weekend Wikileaks released a trove of 100,000 new cables, including dispatches from the US Embassy in Moscow. As the cables reveal, US diplomats have been tracking every aspect of Russian society for the past decade. Yet their conclusions read less like a John le Carré novel, and more like Reader’s Digest.

Among the cables is a dispatch devoted exclusivelyto the rise of fitness clubs in Russia, while others look at different trends characterising Russia’s middle class, including their wages, political convictions and ideological beliefs.

Russian news outlets on Monday had a field day with the findings.

“Wikileaksrevealed the secrets of the Russian middle class” proclaimed tabloid Arguments and Facts.

“Fitness won’t save Russia” wrote newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets.

“American diplomats found a middle class in Russia” joked the news site Utro.ru.

“As it turns out,” summed up Russian daily Kommersant, “American diplomats are interested in virtually all aspects of the life of Russian society, from the demographic situation and the status of women in society to the development of social networks and the rise of fitness.”

Of most interest was the diplomats’ apparent obsession with Russian fitness clubs. The reason: “The Americans believe this trend also signals the appearance of a middle class,” explains Kommersant, adding that the diplomats believed Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s own macho-man image had also added to the nation-wide trend.

While this line of thinking may be questionable, it’s easy to see why the US state departments is so interested in this demographic.

According to one expert interviewed in the documents, Russia’s middle class represented roughly 12 – 20 per cent of the population between 2000 and 2007, while as former US Ambassador to Russia William Burns noted in 2006 there must have been a group of people - besides the super rich - buying all the televisions, cars and mobile phones.

Since Burns wrote that, however, there have been some significant shifts in the demographic. While experts originally interviewed by the diplomats identified the middle class as the managers of big corporations, bank directors, financiers, medium-sized business owners, some members of the intelligentsia and mid- and high-ranking bureaucrats, their findings changed during the 2008 crisis, Interfax reported.

Now about a fourth of Russia’s middle class is made up of bureaucrats, the news service said.

While most middle class Russians were able to keep their jobs during the financial crisis and are not concerned with job creation (in contrast to the US, for instance), the decline in real wages poses the bigger challenge going ahead.

According one expert quoted in the cables, real wages will fall by 10-15 per cent this year. This is in contrast to 2006, when at the time of Burns’ cable, real wages had increased 66 per cent over the previous five years.

The main question on American diplomats’ minds is whether a change in the middle class’s financial standing will affect their political views. (A common complaint in the cables was that members of the Russian middle class are largely apathetic, in contrast with similar demographics in Europe.)

Overall the hardly-shocking cables are likely to have little effect on US-Russian relations, especially compared to previous dispatches which called Dmitry Medvedev Robin to Putin’s Batman.

As Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, said previously, the cables are an “amusing read”. But Moscow, he said, would only respond to Washington itself – not the musings of a couple of diplomats.

Related reading:
Inflation severs Russia’s material comforts, FT
Ok, Russia, time to work it, New York Times
Wikileaks declassified the meaning of Russia, Kommersant
The middle class of a third world country?, Interfax

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