This month, the topic of envy was a subject of some debate as two Russian economists on opposite ends of the political spectrum reached different conclusions about its role in the economy, while a sociologist questioned the assumption that Russians really do hate the rich.
Yevgenii Saburov, director of the Institute for Investment Issues, argued that envy is imposing a economic cost by hampering the development of property and investor rights. In an interview with Ekho Moskvy on 4 May, Saburov argued that the Russian public's hatred of oligarchs such as former Yukos head Mikhail Khodorkovskii could result in real damage to the Russian economy. Citing Nobel Prize-winning economist Gary Becker's argument that such envy can have significant economic costs, Saburov said, "we will see that in the case of Khodorkovskii, [the people's] spite will [cost] billions of dollars." "The population is ready to lose this money, and we will lose it daily, as everyone can see what is happening on the stock market," he continued.
A recent sociological study challenges the popularly held notion that Russians hate the wealthy.
Economist Abel Aganbegyan, on the other hand, suggested that envy, and/or perhaps more appropriately, rage, are understandable responses to an economy characterized by entrenched poverty and a widening gap between rich and poor. In an interview with "Argumenty i fakty," No. 18, Aganbegyan, asked why other countries treat the rich with more tolerance, argued that Russia's poor are considerably worse off than in other countries, while the gap between rich and poor is deeper. According to Aganbegyan, workers in Russia earn 25 times less than in Denmark or 20 times less than in the United States.
At the same time, Russia has 25 billionaires -- dollar billionaires not ruble ones, according to Aganbegyan. "There are only 17 billionaires in Japan and even fewer in Great Britain and France," he said. Twenty percent of the population lives below the subsistence minimum. Under that standard, a person can afford a half a kilogram of sausages once a month, one coat and two dresses every five years. "How is that for life in Russia?" he asks.
While both Saburov and Aganbegyan take envy as a given, a recent sociological study challenges the popularly held notion that Russians hate the wealthy. In an interview with "Novaya gazeta," No. 30, Natalya Tikhova, deputy director of the Institute for Complex Social Research (http://www.iksiran.ru), argued that it is "myth" that there is a deep hatred of the rich in Russia. According to surveys conducted in March 2003 of more than 2,000 people, only one-fourth of respondents expressed envy, suspicion, or contempt toward those persons who became rich over the past 10 years. "For this mass of people, the wealthy person is an abstraction because they do not know any rich people among their close acquaintances," she said. "But for those poor people who have seen their closest associates become wealthier, their level of tolerance is much higher."
Tikhova said that socioeconomic strata in the West developed over centuries, and as a result substantial connections between layers are practically absent. However, in Russia only one-third of the wealthy do not have anyone who is impoverished in their closest circle of relatives and friends, according to Tikhova. And in Russia, as a rule, these rich people help their poor relatives owing to what she called a tradition of Russian national culture. "In the West, similar interfamily transfers of wealth are simply impossible," Tikhova said.
If Tikhova's conclusions are correct, then we might expect to see less of the kind of jokes that were popular in the Soviet period lampooning what seemed to be an almost reflexive hostile reaction to wealth. Recall this anecdote: A genie says to a peasant, "I will grant you any wish, but remember that I will give your neighbor twice what I give you." The peasant thinks for a while and responds, "Poke out one of my eyes."