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Consumer inequalities and regime legitimacy in late Soviet and post-Soviet Russia


Zavisca, Jane Roj (2004). Consumer inequalities and regime legitimacy in late Soviet and post-Soviet Russia. Master's thesis / Doctoral dissertation.


How are inequalities experienced, interpreted, and legitimized during times of radical change? This study approaches this question through an examination of consumption in late-Soviet (1975-1991) and post-Soviet (1992-2002) Russia. Drawing on original survey research, in-depth interviews, archival research, and ethnographic observation in the provincial city of Kaluga, I explicate the effects of the state's partial retreat from the field of consumption on two dimensions of post-Soviet life: the organization of inequality and the legitimation of the official goal of transition to capitalism. The first part of the dissertation characterizes the consumer environment--the system of production and distribution of consumer goods and services, and the mass dissemination of images of goods and lifestyles--in both historical periods. The latter part examines the stratification of living standards and lifestyles in the context of a shifting institutional environment. Both the Soviet and post-Soviet political regimes promised widespread prosperity and a just distribution of opportunities to consume. Recent changes in the regimes of production and distribution have curtailed Soviet-style shortages of consumer goods, but they also have created deep inequities in access to the resources needed to consume. These new inequalities have cultural and political as well as material consequences. Class identities are forged in the process of making sense of the relationship between what is produced and what is consumed, what is deserved and what is distributed. Class identifications also operate as status claims. Lifestyles constitute strategic responses to a central moral question in Russian life--what should be the relationship between economic power and social esteem? This question in turn evokes judgments of the rationality and morality of governing society through markets. No group in society has yet managed to impose universally recognized criteria for evaluating social esteem, in part because the new political system, which destabilized the old status order, is not fully legitimate. Homologies between status claims and political claims demonstrate that a regime's legitimacy depends on the legitimacy of the stratification order it supports.

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Zavisca, Jane Roj