Sociological study

Inequality and mobility

Report on the results of a sociological study


Photo: Alena Agadzhikova (
Photo: Alena Agadzhikova



Study overview

  • The main question of the study is: How does a system of inequality affect young people’s chances and strategies?
  • Information gathering period: July–October 2019
  • Geography of the study: Russia, Belarus, Armenia, Ukraine
  • Methodology: 50 in-depth interviews and 2 focus groups
  • Head of the research group: Grigory Yudin, sociologist, philosopher, professor at the Moscow School for the Social and Economic Sciences

Definition of the problem

Russia has one of the highest levels of inequality in the world. According to the World Inequality Database (Swiss Bank), more than 70% of the wealth is concentrated in the hands of 10% of the population, about 40% is owned by 1% of the population, and about 30% belongs to a few billionaires. According to Thomas Picketty’s research (Piketty, Novokmet, Zucman 2017, 2018), over the last thirty years the level of inequality in Russia has increased dramatically, even compared to the global increase in inequality. The main public assets were redistributed within a small stratum.

Recently, the attitudes began changing in Russia: the current model of inequality is increasingly perceived as unfair (Mareeva 2018).

According to the theory by P. Bourdieu and J.-C. Passeron (1970), the main structural mechanisms of inequality reproduction are, as a rule, localized at the level of socialization of young groups and their entry into the labor market. It is here that life trajectories are chosen and claim horizons are formed.

Over the past two years, survey data have shown an increase in demand for change among young groups in Russia (see Levada-Center’s joint research for the Nemtsov Foundation and the Carnegie Center). Young groups are oriented towards new forms of media consumption, tend to have a positive attitude towards grassroots political movements and make up a significant proportion of their members.

How do young groups perceive objective inequality? How is it explained? How does inequality affect ambitions and life strategies? What forms of individual and collective action does it cause?

Theoretical model

The model of the study is based on the theory by P. Bourdieu and J.-C. Passeron (1970):

  • Inequalities are reproduced not because the upper classes “prevent” the lower classes from accessing resources, but because of “inequalities in understanding inequality”.
  • Different classes perceive the system of inequality in different ways and limit their ambitions according to the available information and the class-determined worldview.
  • Status is inherited to a lesser extent through connections and money, and to a greater extent through more competent orientation in the system of inequality.
  • Mismatches between perceived and objective opportunities can lead to considering migration.

Main objectives of the study

  1. How do young groups see the existing model of inequality? What does the perception of inequality depend on?
  2. Does the current model seem fair and, if so, why? What concepts and justifications are used to describe a fair model? Which countries serve as models and reference points, and why? What are the reasons for the existing gap and what ways are considered to overcome it?
  3. What are the main trajectories of mobility within the existing system of inequality? What are the available mobility channels? What are the roles of education and territorial mobility? How intensively and in how much detail are migration options discussed?
  4. How is inequality reproduced? What decisions and choices lead to the reproduction of social status? How does the status of parents affect the trajectory of young people? What events and biographical factors can change trajectories and “lift” young people?

In the last thirty years, the political trajectories of other post-socialist countries have been different from that of Russia. Have they developed their own inequality models and factors? To what extent are they defined by Russia as a possible migration destination?


The questions posed require an analysis of the motivations, justifications and basic structures common in young groups. For this purpose, in-depth interviews and focus groups were chosen as methods.

Geography of the study:

  • Russia:
    • Irkutsk: 5 in-depth interviews (with students of secondary vocational education institutions) and 1 focus group (with university students);
    • Nizhny Novgorod: 5 in-depth interviews (with university students) and 1 focus group (with students of secondary vocational education institutions);
    • Moscow: 10 interviews with university students with migration experience from other regions.
  • Ukraine:
    • Kharkiv: 5 interviews;
    • Cherkassy: 5 interviews;
    • 5 interviews in Russian and 5 in Ukrainian;
    • 5 interviews with students of secondary vocational education institutions and 5 interviews with university students.
  • Armenia:
    • Yerevan: 10 interviews;
    • 5 interviews in Russian and 5 interviews in Armenian;
    • 5 interviews with students of Yerevan State University and 5 interviews with students of Yerevan Polytechnic University.
  • Belarus:
    • Minsk: 5 interviews;
    • Mogilev: 5 interviews;
    • 5 interviews with students of secondary vocational education institutions and 5 interviews with university students.

Data analysis: category analysis using axial coding. The main result of the study is not an assessment of the balance of opinions, but rather the identification of the logical processes, the basic beliefs about life trajectories, and the linguistic categories used to describe them.

Photo: Alena Agadzhikova (
Photo: Alena Agadzhikova

Key findings

  • Russia is home to significant inequality – this fact is self-evident among young people. The society is perceived as a pyramid with a wide base and an elite separated from the main part.
  • At the youth level, different social strata interact little with each other – presumably, closed classes are formed, separated from each other by moral boundaries.
  • The Russian model of inequality is perceived as fundamentally unfair. As an ideal, young people imagine more egalitarian and symmetrical models – a sphere, a circle, a square, etc.
  • For young people in Russia, the Nordic countries are the primary paragon, since they have less inequality, people treat each other better, and the state cares equally for everybody.
  • In Russia, the elite is defined mainly by the concentration of political power (“the government”, “the parliamentarians”), in Ukraine – by the concentration of wealth (“the oligarchs”).
  • Currently, inequality is described as inevitable in Russia, Armenia and Ukraine, caused by factors that cannot be changed (“mentality”).
  • However, the apolitical stance typical for young people in Russia is gradually giving way to formed political positions. The depoliticization pursued by parents and teachers irritates young people.
  • Young people are highly aware of the political events that took place in Moscow in the summer of 2019. An unequivocally negative assessment of the government’s actions in the Moscow conflict gives grounds to criticize it on other issues as well. The events in Moscow are perceived as a manifestation of inequality.
  • Inequality is evident in the fact that children are usually dissatisfied with their parents’ status and want to live better. The existing high inequality is not perceived as a constraint: “you have to want it.”
  • The main mobility channels in Russia and Ukraine are (1) education; (2) career; (3) migration.
  • In Russia, parents usually do not have sufficient information to choose an educational and career path for their child, and neither do the children themselves.
  • Under conditions of uncertainty parents tend to believe in standard trajectories: to succeed, one needs higher education, one must study well. If the standard trajectory does not work, there is no backup plan; this greatly affects the self-esteem of the young person.
  • In higher-resource families, the attitude towards standard trajectories is critical, higher education is differentiated by quality, and planning begins earlier and in more detail.
  • Temporary and permanent migration is actively discussed among young people – they are interested in it and see it as a development channel. That said, Russians have little experience of traveling abroad and little understanding of what is needed for migration.
  • In Ukraine and Belarus, young people are more competent and have more experience, especially in Eastern Europe.
  • In Armenia, young people consider Russia as a possible direction of migration. It provides opportunities to earn money; however, it does not look attractive as a country to live in.
  • The reasons for migration desire in Russia are the lack of opportunities, dissatisfaction with the attitude towards people, and the search for new experiences.
  • The main directions of desired migration from Russia are Eastern Europe, South Korea, the US, Canada, Germany and Northern Europe. Belarus and Ukraine have a perceivable focus on Eastern Europe.
  • There is a significant lack of information about the structure of inequality and existing mobility channels in Russian society. Information provided by educational institutions is usually inadequate; it hides actual inequality mechanisms and sends distorted signals.
  • The lack of information is a key factor in the reproduction of inequality in Russia. High-resource families have more information about mobility channels.
  • Information is disseminated through networks and communities; under conditions of atomization and mutual isolation, lower-resource families remain disoriented without access to information.
  • Lower social strata have a weaker understanding of objective opportunities and external constraints. As a result, they are more likely to take full responsibility for life outcomes and more often consider themselves “lazy” or “unorganized.” They are highly dependent on external assessments.
Photo: Alena Agadzhikova (
Photo: Alena Agadzhikova

Inequalities through the eyes of young people

The image of inequality

The existence of significant inequality in Russia is seen as self-evident. The information about this fact is obtained mainly from personal experience – i.e. the stratification is obvious. Personal experience of close interaction with resource-poor groups further enhances perceptions of inequality.

I’m just talking from my own experience, I’ve been to a lot of places, and the situation there is just terrible. So, for example, in Karelia, where I remember we were sitting in a pavilion, and a family came to the next pavilion: a mother, her husband, apparently, and their sister, and a little girl of about six years. They just started drinking. Beer, vodka, really everything. And the girl was just hanging around. They gave her a little bit of it, too, and that was that… I mean, we have this kind of people, at the lowest level. Unfortunately, they are the most numerous. (M, Moscow)

Respondents almost always choose a pyramidal structure in response to a request to draw the structure of the society. A narrowed neck and an enlarged base are frequently added to the pyramid. The pyramid also symbolizes the belief that resources concentrate while moving upwards, so that one person is at the top. Thus, political inequality (power) merges with economic inequality (wealth).

Of course it’s a triangle. In Russia, just one percent of the population earns over a hundred and fifty thousand rubles. What can you say? Here’s that one percent at the top. Some people are earning a more or less reasonable amount, they’re here somewhere. But, in general, everyone just makes ends meet. Definitely this triangle here (M, Nizhny Novgorod)

Closed groups

The main groups that make up the different strata of the hierarchy are described in general terms.

  • Among young people, there is no stable terminology to describe the social structure.
  • The upper strata consist of representatives of political power with a large distance from respondents – “the parliamentarians”, “the government”, “the officials”. The lower strata are “ordinary people,” “pensioners”, “alcoholics”.
  • Marxist language is rarely used; an alternative language has not been developed.

All social strata have limited ideas about life outside their own stratum.

  • Well-off groups have vague ideas about the lives of the disadvantaged, and vice versa. This is because the social strata are relatively closed: the representatives of different layers interact little with each other.
  • Personal experience of interactions with other strata noticeably changes perceptions of inequality, making them more structured.
  • Regardless of objective differences in status, respondents tend to classify themselves as middle-class. People who might have serious objective class differences between them are united by a view of the social hierarchy “from the middle,” i. e. from the point that renders the social structures least visible.

The people in the senior classes were not very good or nice, full of themselves, from well-to-do families. It so happened that this school was considered prestigious and prepared students well, but with the change of the principal, everything changed… I decided to transfer. (F, Nizhny Novgorod)

Moral boundaries

The formation of closed groups is supported by the drawing of moral boundaries.

  • The view “from the top” (by the better-off) is shaped by moral coloring (“they don’t need anything,” “those people are uneducated, they might get into a fight”).

I don’t really want to say it, but everyone needs to contribute. And I’m just not sure that, say, some alcoholics are able to make a contribution rather than dragging everyone down… I don’t think there will be a situation where we don’t have these groups at all. (F, Nizhny Novgorod)

  • The view “from the bottom” (by the less well-off) is also morally colored – negatively (egoism, “rich kids,” not helping anyone) or positively (“benefactors”).

There are some go-getters who will walk over dead bodies. They’re going to walk over dead bodies, they’ll want to be the first, to control, to take power… I can hardly tell them “don’t walk over dead bodies.” They can walk all they want. It’s just that it isn’t done. This didn’t use to happen before. (F, Moscow)

Territorial inequality

Moscow and St. Petersburg are contrasted to the rest of the country on the axis of economic inequality. In addition to higher income, Moscow is distinguished by greater attention from the state.

In Moscow, there are more benefits for the local… they pay something to Muscovites, I forget [what it’s called], they don’t pay it here in Irkutsk, they don’t pay it anywhere in Russia, only in Moscow. (F, Irkutsk)

The perceptions of Moscow’s superiority are often shaped without any experience of being in Moscow and can be very general in nature.

That said, the migration attractiveness of capitals, especially of Moscow, is not that high. Moscow has the reputation of a city that is not pleasant to live in, a city that is “frightening,” an aggressive environment.

Plans to move to Moscow usually arise in connection with specific professional trajectories, when the attractiveness of the city is secondary to professional growth.

The differences between urban and rural areas are only noticeable for those who have the experience of living in the countryside.


As in Russia, the main model of society is the pyramid. Society is described as highly stratified.

As in Russia, respondents tend to identify themselves with the middle.

As in Russia, respondents point to a link between economic and political inequality. However, the key difference from Russia is that not political groups are named as the upper strata, but rather economic elites that have seized power (“the oligarchs”).

In contrast to Russia, respondents produce more holistic and convergent narratives about the relatively rich strata. The rich strata have quite a clear and negative image as greedy and selfish. The poor strata are being described less clearly: respondents believe there must be someone “below” themselves, but struggle to identify these groups.

That’s the way it is in our country because all the oligarchs control everything. People say the members of parliament are at fault, or the “bad regime,” but in fact I think it’s all controlled by people who have a lot of money. And that’s why all the people who had more money, there were quite a few of those at my school, they didn’t try to study, they always tried to settle things through their parents. (M, Cherkassy)

Territorial inequality is less pronounced than in Russia. The country is described as polycentric with several points of attraction (Kiev, Lviv, Kharkiv), there are different “capitals” in different spheres of activity. Eastern Ukraine is described as an “incomprehensible” territory and is symbolically set aside.


The assessment of inequality in Belarus differs from other countries: respondents describe the social system as more egalitarian. Even if the pyramid is selected, it is emphasized that it is wider in the middle part.

In Belarus, I believe that there is no strong social stratification. That is, of course, yes, some people have more money, but not that we have the poor and the rich. That is, if you take Poland, say – that has a very noticeable stratification. (M, Minsk)

The discussion on inequality in Belarus is closely connected to the difference between the capital and other cities and towns – more so than in Ukraine and Russia. People living in Minsk are contrasted to the rest of the population, and life in Minsk is described as superior in quality to life elsewhere.

Unlike Ukraine and Russia, the description of the upper strata has no clear inclination towards either the political or the economic elite. Even more vague wording is used (“those who hold high-level positions with corresponding salaries and who have a certain power”, “the programmers,” “the celebrities”). There have been suggestions that discussions on such a topic may not be safe (it is assumed that they lead to the figure of President Lukashenko).


In Armenia, different models are chosen to characterize society. This may be a sign of an intermediate, unstructured state resulting from political transformation. In their descriptions, respondents point to the society being unformed. The hierarchical structure raises questions about the egalitarian image of the new president.

I don’t think that it’s a pyramid, because even if the president is on top, now we have a [different] policy in the country… (F, Yerevan)

Yerevan is described as significantly different from other cities in terms of both lifestyle and opportunities. For respondents with experience of living in other regions, Yerevan may look progressive, but at the same time unfriendly.

I don’t know why, but the people here are very different. If a girl has a smoke, say, people here find it normal… The attitude, I don’t know, towards black people. I’ve heard words [in Hrazdan] at which they laugh in Yerevan, they say “How can you talk about it like that?” I don’t know, it’s not that people are bad there, they just don’t take some information the right way. (M, Yerevan)

I can’t tell you anything specific, what can I say – there are good people here, bad people there? The only thing I can say here is that people are very busy. That’s the way the society is. And they don’t care what’s going on around them (F, Yerevan)

Photo: Alena Agadzhikova (
Photo: Alena Agadzhikova

Inequality and injustice

Basic injustice

The Russian model of inequality is justified not in categories of normative rectitude, but in categories of inevitability. This creates a constant experience of “inevitable injustice”: the current public order can be justified and defended only in negative terms.

The normative impropriety of the Russian model is neither doubted nor disputed; the respondents hardly ever try to find explanations to defend it. Russian inequality is “unfair” and “unjust.”

Take my dad, he knows a lot of things, and he’s working as a security guard. Now if you take this knowledge and compare him to an official, I know that my dad will be smarter. He really knows loads of stuff. And my husband is smarter, too, he’s well-read, he knows history. But they work in the lower classes. This means it’s unfair. (F, Moscow)

Respondents describe the injustice of the model in three main categories:

  • The “gap” between rich and poor is too wide (distribution inequality);
  • The presence of an “isthmus” near the top, its isolation, closedness and immorality (wealth inequality);
  • The distribution of benefits regardless of merit, the lack of meritocracy (inequality of opportunity).

When I look around, I see that everybody’s got connections, but they have different significance. That is, someone has a friend who can get them a job or teach them something, and someone else has someone who can just get a job to start them off, at least… And I don’t have anybody at all, and I try to achieve everything myself, but after university I realized that it’s just very difficult, and you have to lie all the time, to keep lying. (M, Moscow)

In search of symmetry

When discussing the ideal model, respondents suggest constructions with symmetry relative to the central horizontal axis – a sphere, a circle, a rectangle. Those who propose a pyramid specify that it is a pyramid without internal partitions.

Symmetrical constructions are offered because they contain “more equality,” access “for all.”

I think the oval shows exactly – not really an oval, I guess, a circle… – that the government is with the people. It also means the government is doing everything for the people. Not the other way around, as in Russia, I think. Here, they just look for ways to save money, I think, and use it for themselves. (M, Irkutsk)

Three options are usually mentioned by respondents as reference points for the ideal model:

  • First of all, Northern Europe (Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Germany),
  • the USSR,
  • Canada and, to a lesser extent, the United States.

These countries are contrasted to Russia on the following parameters:

  • “Caring state”
  • “Everyone is equal”, no aggressive “capitalism” (“consumerism,” “everyone for themselves”)
  • “Humaneness”, “different attitude”, “mentality”

These reference points are often not based on real knowledge of these countries and are formed as a counterbalance to Russia.

In general, the society “abroad” is described as friendlier and more humane, regardless of whether there is actual experience of traveling abroad.

Political apathy and politicization

Considering the reasons for the gap between reality and ideal, respondents immediately feel forced to switch to “politics.” A critical discourse about the political system is triggered almost automatically when the causes of injustice are discussed.

The conversation about “politics” is characterized by a pronounced ambivalence:

  • On the one hand, there is a declaration of great uncertainty, the fear of “not understanding,” and “political apathy” as a position that allows one to avoid this insecurity.
  • On the other hand, the respondents show a high level of knowledge about the latest political events, and express holistic positions.

For some time, I used to position myself more as an apolitical person, because this topic feels discomforting. There are some things that, yes, okay, I’d agree with them and, say, I’d go to the rally, but globally I don’t want to identify with people who support some ideology. (F, Nizhny Novgorod)

The effect of the Moscow rallies

There is considerable awareness of the political events that took place in the summer of 2019, combined with concerns about the actions of “the government.” Discussions of “rallies” or “protests” begin spontaneously in response to the question about the causes of injustice in the system: they are semantically related to injustice and are perceived to be caused by it.

And where’s the government? When people turn to the government in Moscow. I’m a modern person, I see that there was a fifty-thousand-strong rally in Moscow, that four hundred and eighty people were detained, or maybe three hundred and eighty. A woman was hit by two policemen. They dragged a woman, you must have heard. And they hit the woman in the guts. I even have a video somewhere, you can’t say that’s normal. (M, Irkutsk)

Depoliticization mechanics

To some extent, depoliticization continues to function as a tool to undermine any political position, to deprive all political activity of support. From time to time, a depoliticizing rhetoric appears in the respondents’ discourse: political action and political discussions are described as irrational, hopeless and dangerous activities.

We’ve been visited and warned: Guys, use your head, we don’t prohibit it, but just understand, if anything happens… (M, Nizhny Novgorod)

In group conversations, the emergence of depoliticizing rhetoric can temporarily paralyze the discussion.

However, a transition is noticeable: depoliticization causes irritation. By now, it is opposed by a relatively holistic political discourse with which speakers can associate themselves. Respondents do not make abstract political statements describing what is necessary or desirable – but they can show how their beliefs are related to their own “I” (“I am not satisfied” / “I am influenced by”).

Disruption of authority

Authoritative figures systematically emerge in the political discourse, either in an explicit form (parent) or in the form of stopping oneself, the readiness to interrupt oneself and expose one’s own expressed position as incompetent.

The parental position “stay out of politics, you don’t understand anything about it, you’re being manipulated” is internalized, but at the same time, it is irritating and subject to criticism.

I talked about it with Dad, and he basically says: “Do you know that it’s mostly young people who go to the rallies, who are being brainwashed, and who just – Navalny, you know, and all that – who don’t understand what they’re marching for.” From other sources, I know it’s not just the dumb youth, as they say now, as my dad said; he didn’t call them dumb, but he implied it. And I just want that the government – I don’t know, these rallies don’t just happen, there are reasons. People have come, you have to look into it somehow, not just send hordes of police to prevent all that and close up shop. It’s going to happen anyway, and now our media is working like anything. So it’s going to come out anyway, right? (F, Nizhny Novgorod)

The causes of injustice

The two main reasons for the unjust gap between the real and ideal models are “the government” (1) and “the people” (2).

Despite the high perceived inequality, the situation is mostly seen as containing enough opportunities for those who “want to achieve something.” “Hard work,” “patience” and “effort” are named as recipes for success: these qualities are regarded as sufficient despite the inequality.

However, young people who are facing difficulties in their careers see a link between inequality and mobility constraints.

In order to approach the ideal, a change of government or a change in the people is necessary – both of which are considered almost impossible. There is an insurmountable gap between the real and ideal situation. Respondents have virtually no terminology to describe how normatively oriented action can be implemented. It can be assumed that the demand for clear, realistic and effective means of change is sufficiently high.

Respondents do not see a possibility to personally contribute to changing the situation, and do not mention the possibility of collective action. Attempts to come up with forms of personal action often lead to environmental issues (“you have to start with yourself, to stop littering”).

I honestly don’t… often think about issues that I have no control over. But, frankly, I think that no matter how much you try to get rid of it, you can’t get rid of it completely anyway, right. (F, Nizhny Novgorod)


As in Russia, respondents tend to adopt spherical forms as the ideal social structure. However, the concrete imagining of levelling strategies is blocked by reflection about the Soviet experience: equality is associated with the unsuccessful Soviet model.

Of course, I would like everybody to be equal, everybody to have everything, but it’s like in the Soviet Union: everybody was trying to be equal, and in the end nothing good came out of it. (F, Kharkiv)

Obstacles to the movement from real to ideal society are regarded as insurmountable and related to essential, unchangeable characteristics (“mentality”).

Ukrainian respondents have a better-defined idea about the structure of life “abroad” compared to Russian respondents due to their own experience and the experience of acquaintances in Eastern Europe (Poland, Slovakia, Czech Republic). Therefore, Eastern European countries are more often mentioned as reference countries. The main difference is their higher standard of living and the atmosphere (“people are pleasant, kind and sociable”).

Those favorable to President Zelenski can perceive his sharp rise as an opportunity for themselves.

Something has changed a bit in Ukraine, we are getting closer to that. Perhaps soon anyone who wants and has some skills for it will be able to do things, to change something here in Ukraine, will be able become a member of parliament and even president. (M, Cherkassy)


In Belarus, the narrative of injustice is noticeably weaker than in Russia and Ukraine. It is apparent that this is not what young people worry about.

In some interviews, there is a degree discontent with the political system as being too rigid and restrictive.

No alternatives to the social system are discussed, no explicit ideals are formulated. In case of dissatisfaction, the main strategies are related more to leaving the system than to changing it. The topic of personal change-directed activity may not be fully disclosed, as the conversation seems dangerous to respondents.

We have a state that controls everything in a totalitarian way, so maybe we’d try to move somewhere else. (F, Mogilev)

Personal strategies clearly dominate over collective strategies.

A person can control her own destiny, if she wants, all the roads will be open for her. (F, Minsk)

As in the Ukrainian case, mobility is focused on Eastern Europe (primarily Poland). However, Poland is described more in terms of additional possibilities than in terms of social structure.


In Armenia, respondents with different views on the current social structure are inclined towards the sphere as an ideal model. The main argument is the need for greater equality – not only economic but also symbolic.

For me, the ideal, as I said, is that everyone should be equal, so that, for example, the manager couldn’t yell at a regular employee. That’s bad. Ideally, a manager works like a regular employee. The manager’s doing his job, and the other one’s doing his. Everyone respects each other. (M, Yerevan)

As in Russia and Ukraine, the possibility of significant change in the social structure towards the ideal is not seriously considered.

The main reasons for the wrong social structure (“mentality,” “human nature”) are described as unchangeable.

In Armenia, the average age of respondents is lower than in other countries – this may limit the range of alternatives available to them.

Photo: Alena Agadzhikova (
Photo: Alena Agadzhikova

Mobility strategies

Living better than the parents

There is hardly any desire to repeat the parents’ life trajectory – that looks either impossible (“a different time”) or undesirable to respondents. Parents rarely appear as reference points, even in well-situated families.

Almost all strata of society state their dissatisfaction with the social status of their parents and a desire to improve their financial situation and change their way of life (with the possible exception of well-off Moscow families). Another possible cause of dissatisfaction is family relationships.

A family’s standard of living is assessed according to the relations within the family; external criteria play a smaller role (especially for younger respondents). A strong family can enhance a sense of quality of life.

Our standard of living is not bad. Sometimes we don’t have enough money, but in general, we’re not doing poorly. We have a private house, we have a car, we have a big, tight-knit family, we’re doing well. It’s just that we’ve got issues with money, but that’s what a lot of people have. (M, Irkutsk)

Work: need vs. development

The desire for intergenerational mobility is formulated differently in different social strata.

  • In the case of a lower status, the main motivation is the unwillingness to live “in a grind,” the desire to live “easier,” to work less and to earn more.

I: Do you want to live your life, I don’t know, like your mother, like your relatives?
R: No, definitely not. Because my mother – she’s forty-five now, I don’t remember exactly, but that’s not the point, she’s over forty, anyway – she’s working all the time, and I think, a woman of that age shouldn’t work, she should rest. She should have a strong shoulder to rest on, a husband who provides for both the children and the mother. And she’s working twelve hours a day instead. Is that normal? Of course not.
(M, Nizhny Novgorod)

  • In families with a higher status, striving for development is an ethical principle, a mindset. Even if satisfied with their family’s way of life, respondents still try to overcome it.

It’s just… the main task of macroeconomics is to ensure economic growth, economic development, and what kind of growth can there be when your life is worse, or lower. I mean, I think we should definitely move forward. Yes, better than my parents. I think this is what everyone should really strive for. (M, Moscow)


In general, long-term life planning is uncommon. Instead of planning, the belief in the existence of certain established trajectories in society provides a sense of confidence: the main thing is to take a place on the trajectory and to have a goal (“the most important thing is wanting it,” “everything depends on wanting it,” “in principle, you can achieve anything”).

However, there are differences between the more and less well-off strata:

  • Lower strata tend to rely on standard trajectories, to make more spontaneous decisions and not to plan the sequence of their actions.

Usually, if something goes wrong, I take it poorly, and then it’s hard for me to recover and come up with some new plan. If something goes wrong, no matter how hard it is, [you need to try] something new (F, Irkutsk)

  • Higher strata are more often able to describe their current position as resulting from a system of purposeful choices made previously and to link it to further choices (especially if they have experience of migration).

In many cases, there are not enough resources for planning, but respondents describe the lack of planning as either a desire to enjoy the moment or as a personal weakness (“I’m lazy”).

My chances – I can’t really tell what they are, how I’m going to move along the path of life, young and green as I am, I only recently realized all this. Because I’m at the very beginning of my journey. The main thing is having a goal and ambitions, and it’s going to work out. I mean, why calculate the odds? (M, Nizhny Novgorod)

Main mobility strategies

Three main strategies for improving status are considered by young people:

  1. Through education
  2. Through work/career
  3. Through moving

These strategies are not contradictory; rather, they are often complementary.

The situation is most often perceived as allowing for individual status improvement. Though high inequalities are stated, in many cases they are not experienced as a personal problem limiting mobility opportunities. The link between the social structure and the personal situation is rarely explicitly mentioned (except for respondents with experience of unsuccessful mobility). A language linking a personal situation to a public situation and describing personal problems in relation to public problems has not been developed.

Photo: Alena Agadzhikova (
Photo: Alena Agadzhikova

Education vs. high-quality education

Notions about the functions of education in constructing life trajectories are rather vague, especially in less privileged groups. The formulas “I just have to learn well” and “it’s important to acquire knowledge” are often used.

Children of parents without a higher education feel pressure from parents who consider higher education as such to be a success factor.

My dad’s a man from the countryside, so to speak, you know. He’s very clever, not educated, but very clever. And he always says to me, “Vanya, look, your mother got an education – and look what she does, and I haven’t got an education – and look what I do. So, see, aim to be like your mother, not like me. Learn. Learn, son.” And I’m trying. I’m listening to him. (M, Irkutsk)

A value in this group is the ability to “be smart,” “mix with smart people.” The choice of a better social circle is seen as a condition for mobility.

Children from families with higher education have the ability to differentiate between higher education institutions and to appreciate the quality of education, rather than education itself.

I grew up in a circle where everybody has higher education, and a person without higher education was perceived as something strange, as some know-nothing. That’s why it seems to me that since childhood I’ve had this assumption that a person should definitely have a higher education. The difference in higher education, now, that I only began considering in school, I guess, in the lyceum, when we began to argue about which university is good, which is bad, and began to compare, well, not whole programs, but some exercises for first-year students. (M, Moscow)

Concentrating on the standard trajectory

For respondents who think in terms of established trajectories, education is seen as a way to get onto a standard trajectory that will lead to results.

In this case, the trajectory of “get accepted – study well – get a good job” is neither criticized nor tested. Neither the contours of the outcome (“so that everything is OK”) nor the mechanism by which education brings one closer to the outcome are formulated. Apparently, education functions as a stabilizer of the emotional state in conditions of uncertainty.

For many students, secondary vocational education becomes a way to regain the interest in learning and education that the school has undermined. Such students have a history of self-esteem undermined by parents and teachers who tried to convince them that they were incapable.

Finally, I also asked my teacher, my class teacher, and said I’d probably continue to take the tenth grade, and she said: I’ll flunk you. And me: Well then, so I have to drop out. Well, I had very bad grades in math, geometry, and all that stuff, just like, terrible. And she said: you wouldn’t manage, just wouldn’t cut it, leave. So I got into technical school, we have algebra and all that as well, and I have a four [a good grade]. I mean, it depends on the teacher, right. (F, Nizhny Novgorod)

Standard trajectory failure

The problems of that model become obvious when a student is disappointed in the education he or she receives – and this happens systematically at universities with a low quality of education and low engagement (disrespect for students, elderly teachers, lack of practice, profanation of education, unengaging specialization, irrational waste of time, unmotivated classmates).

Disappointment can lead to disorientation or a desire to receive the diploma in order to pursue further studies in a different university/specialty. Here, differences become apparent between the search for a specific goal (and the difficulties in setting it) and the general “ethics of development,” which is not focused on a specific goal but is driven by the very idea of advancement.

In fact, I always thought we just weren’t taught these things. We don’t know how to plan our day. Not many people know that, right? Somehow you have to learn anyway. That is, to have some professional skills, maybe life skills. At school, we aren’t taught how to find ourselves, how to manage finances, how to build a relationship. That is, they don’t teach us that basic stuff. Parents can’t always tell you, either, because they don’t know themselves. And then some people are able to put something by, and some people aren’t. What kind of plans can you talk about? (F, Irkutsk)

Critical attitudes towards higher education are adopted by people with atypical trajectories, experiences of complex life situations or of life abroad.


Two main career paths are “work in one’s field” and “a business of one’s own.” The latter is a way to achieve independence from parents and from possible problems. It is related to the figure of a successful self-made person. For the less well-off, entrepreneurship is seen as a mobility channel.

In all strata, the principle of full responsibility for one’s own trajectory (“everyone can achieve everything”) develops into the model of the “American dream” – overcoming challenges, rapid growth under unfavorable conditions due to a number of factors, with subsequent success. Respondents do not often refer to role models (“I try to be different”), but if they do, stories of people who “made it on their own” prevail.

– Here, everyone’s looking to be like Steve Jobs. Yes, we have lectures, and it’s like a hype.
М: Why Jobs?
– A lot of people know his story. That’s what I’m saying, it’s being hyped.
М: And what is that story? In what respect should you be like him?
– Actually, I don’t know the story very well, it’s just that everyone always refers to him.
М: But if you say that people are looking to be like him, what is so attractive about him?
– Just because he didn’t go into this system, he got it all by himself.
– Made something global out of nothing.
– He sold a company and then bought it back for himself.
– He managed to sell it and tell about it.
– He knows how to communicate with people.
– It was communication which made him a great man.
(Focus group, Irkutsk)


Migration, both within the country and abroad, is actively discussed among young people as a possible mobility channel. In general, the topic of migration occupies a very prominent place in conversations.

Despite the perception of Moscow as a resource-rich city, it often looks unattractive for life, unfriendly (“an anthill, too much fuss”), especially for those who have moved to the city for study or those whose family does not have a high status, who do not have a rich and diverse life experience.

A temporary stay abroad (internship, education) appears in almost all life projects. A permanent move is mentioned less frequently, but also appears in many scenarios. Often, respondents do not make a strict distinction between temporary and permanent migration.

Detailed plans and specific relocation models are the exception, especially when moving abroad. Specific relocation mechanisms are available only to high-resource families or those with special circumstances (relatives abroad). The mechanisms of moving both to Moscow and abroad are poorly understood, and this is experienced as disbelief in one’s own abilities.

And she was such a person, I never thought she’d have the heart. To go to such a big city, so far away from home. Some people are go-getters, I didn’t think she was one. (F, Irkutsk)

Photo: Alena Agadzhikova (
Photo: Alena Agadzhikova

Migration directions

The main directions of possible migration from Russia are Eastern Europe, South Korea, the US, Canada, Germany and Northern Europe.

South Korea is more often referred to as the destination of migration in Irkutsk, but in general, Korean culture has noticeably permeated youth culture, primarily through K-Pop.

The main criteria are: (1) extension of opportunities / higher standard of living; (2) friendlier atmosphere; (3) feasibility.

But Canada… Well, Canada, even its nature is attractive, and its population, too. That’s true. I have a former collegemate, he’s gone to the U.S. That was a year ago. Well, somehow, he left everything, apparently, he had some turning point – he decided to take the risk and moved to the U.S. And it wasn’t even like he passed an exam and got accepted there. Instead, he just left. And he got very lucky: he was taken in by people, just taken from the street. They took him in, gave him a home, an apartment. And he writes, like, “In America, I understood what kindness is.” I think there are people like that here in Russia as well, of course. But still I think you can meet them [in the West] more often. Though perhaps not – perhaps he just got lucky. (M, Irkutsk)

The experience of staying in countries outside the former Soviet Union remains relatively rare. That said, this experience is recognized as important in many youth communities – people with experience of life or stay abroad cause great interest.


The main mobility channels in Ukraine are similar to those in Russia. However, in terms of education, a more critical discourse has emerged, with respondents placing greater emphasis on the importance of careers and geographical mobility.

Differences between children from higher- and lower-resource families are noticeable:

  • In lower-resource families, young people face difficulties in entering the labor market and feel socially threatened. The availability of work experience might not lead to an improvement in the financial situation and raise concerns that the time and effort spent on earning money is not justified by the income from that employment.

It just so happens that… I understand I don’t like my education. I won’t be able to earn as much money as I want to [and as could earn] in another job in another country. (F, Kharkiv)

  • In higher-resource families, young people rely more on the education system. Knowledge and practical skills are considered necessary to achieve the set goals. There is also a dominating idea that genuine effort will get a result: no link is traced between inequality and mobility restrictions.

The directions of migration are more clearly defined than in Russia – these are mainly Eastern European countries. Short-term mobility is being considered thanks to the visa-free regime.

Young Ukrainians often have experience of traveling to these countries; the concrete required steps are clear, real examples and scenarios of migration are available. Unlike Russians, Ukrainians are aware of the importance of language skills for migration and link their chances of successful migration to language learning.


The allocation system has a significant impact on mobility strategies in Belarus. In general, respondents do not mention its positive aspects, speaking of it as a threat, restriction and inconvenience – although there are no direct complaints, either. Not all students understand how the system works and what awaits them.

The main concern is forced allocation to a province or village.

There have been cases when guys who’d lived all their lives in Minsk, Minsk guys, graduated from the university with an average score of eight [out of ten] and got allocated, sent to the depths of the Vitebsk region, where they had to travel for eight hours, that is, four hours to Vitebsk, two hours to the district center, then, like, another one and a half hours by bus to the woods, then two kilometers through the woods, and there’s a village with thirty people, six of them schoolchildren, and you work there for two years. That is, the allocation system – it sometimes plays pretty dirty tricks. (M, Minsk)

This system encourages people to leave school early, try different options and gain experience before they have to deal with allocation.

Another threat to men is the recent reduction in deferrals from military service.

Compared to Ukraine and Russia, in Belarus, people speak more confidently about the importance of connections (in the other countries studied, aggressive use of connections is condemned).

The main direction of migration is Poland. As in Ukraine, Belorussian students are more likely to have a specific idea of the mechanics of moving, even if they have no personal experience of traveling to Poland.


In Armenia, moving to Yerevan is an important element in the strategy of raising one’s status. Even if there is a general desire to stay in one’s native city, town or village, it is admitted that migration is a precondition for getting a good education. The combination of admission to university and moving to the capital creates a basic scheme of mobility.

Respondents mention temporary or permanent migration as a possible development option and express interest in gaining experience abroad.

Unlike the respondents in Ukraine and Belarus, those in Armenia mention Russia as one of the main directions of possible migration. Their acquaintances and relatives have experience of life in Russia; this is a channel which is understood. Russia is primarily seen as a place to earn money, not as a pleasant place to live.

I planned to go to Russia this summer, it just didn’t work out… Either as a tourist, or to earn a little money. (F, Yerevan)

I really don’t know, I don’t like Moscow. I could go there as a sort of tourist for a few months, but living there is terrible. The mentality there is high, no question about it, but people there are very cold, only looking out for themselves, not interested in others. That’s alarming. The generations, the people – I guess everything there just creates distance. Moscow is a cold country. (F, Yerevan)

The low average age of respondents in Yerevan does not allow for a full assessment of their trajectories’ effectiveness.

Photo: Alena Agadzhikova (
Photo: Alena Agadzhikova

Reproduction of inequality

Reproduction through educational choice

Key decisions about education and life trajectories are usually made jointly with parents, although respondents aim to make the final decision on their own.

However, parents lack expertise and guidance in both education and labor market entry, except in special situations.

  • They are not able to differentiate between universities in terms of the quality of education and to assess how education can help their children.
  • Parents tend to rely on standard trajectories – this model is probably reproduced because externally the education system seems to have preserved its Soviet contours.

Parents tend to push for “higher education” in general. If the parents have no higher education themselves, they hope to thus avoid a reproduction of their status. For parents with higher education, their children’s higher education is an axiomatic scenario, and secondary vocational education is generally not considered as a choice (up to taboo status).

Professions that students receive in secondary vocational education… they are now already on an equal footing or are valued slightly higher than higher education. Well, people probably get higher education for the sake of [a particular kind of] work, or because they are told by their parents. There are only a few people who really want to get an education. (F, Irkutsk)

Lack of information

A critical element of inequality reproduction is the lack of information for parents and children at the times of education and mobility choices.

  • The information required for decision-making is not available: not only information about what is needed for admission, but also information about how to live (in another city), what it is like to study at a university.
  • This deficit is usually not recognized and has a long-term impact on the child’s trajectory.

I: What do you think made this happen that a lot of the people in your class wanted to enter university and didn’t? What was missing?
R: I think, you know, information… I mean, it’s down to the point where someone didn’t know you had to take this particular course. I have an elder sister, and she was able to help me with some things, find information and stuff like that. But say, you’re the only child, and your Mom doesn’t know what to do, either. And somehow you don’t check it, don’t look out for these things, and then weird stuff starts happening and you don’t even know why.
(M, Moscow)

Making a decision about education is a nontrivial task that requires orientation in the space of possible trajectories. Public information channels do not provide an adequate picture. Instead, they tend to hide real inequality.

  • Information is distributed mainly through networks, so that finding it requires active communication with representatives of different strata. Ideally, this communication should begin at a relatively early stage, well before the final decisions are made.
  • However, the system of inequality tends to isolate the strata from each other, so that communication between them is difficult.
Photo: Alena Agadzhikova (
Photo: Alena Agadzhikova

Formation of a critical perspective

In families with more resources, the planning horizon is wider, planning begins earlier and is more detailed.

Then, around the fifth grade, my parents offered me to transfer from my regular school to a lyceum specializing in physics and math. In fifth grade, I refused because I thought all schools were the same. But a few classes later, I understood that my school was no good at all, and transferred to the lyceum in the seventh, after all. And then I was surrounded by people who do not consider the option of staying in Cheboksary at all. (M, Moscow)

Children from higher-resource families form a critical attitude to higher education, realize the lack of a direct link between grades and prospects, and abandon perfectionism in learning and belief in standard trajectories.

When I was in high school, I had rose-tinted glasses, like, “Here, I’ll get admitted, I’m going to study day and night. I got into the evening college, never mind, I’m going to study so well that they’ll let me transfer to full-time. I’ll be perfect.” Then I realized that there’s no reason to be so zealous about it. And in general, even though this is Moscow State University and good teachers, you’d think, you still get the most basic stuff on your own, at home, from the literature they give us. Yes, you come to the lectures later, you discuss it, but in fact, all the main work, it happens at home. And education is just a course, just an arrow pointing in the right direction. (F, Moscow)

The role of the environment

Getting into a mobility-oriented environment is an important mobility factor. Young people who have high educational achievements, experience of victory in academic competitions or of study at a prestigious university form an experience of success (“I’m good at that”) which they can build upon at the next stage. It also contributes to the formation of an attitude towards “development” as an ethical principle.

The people around me, they were really motivating me to study. They were very different from most of my classmates – my classmates mostly didn’t need anything from life, didn’t want anything; they knew that their parents would pay for them or something, and they didn’t aim for anything. But these other people – though they had parents who could pay, too – they tried to do something nevertheless, they really studied a lot. (M, Moscow)

The environment, access to information and parental support create the conditions for autonomous action.

I wrote a letter to a professor, and he told me I should go to [university X], that’s where I’m studying now… I just knew that this professor has the experience, he can compare [university Y] and [university X], and now he has achieved great success. So I wrote him a letter, I dared to for some reason, and he replied right on the day I was supposed to submit my papers to Y: I was already preparing to go to Y. And he replied to me on exactly that day. I read the letter and changed my mind, and decided to come here. (M, Moscow)

Photo: Alena Agadzhikova (
Photo: Alena Agadzhikova

Pressure and fears

Young people from families with a low status and on the secondary vocational education trajectory are in general much less familiar with the possibilities of the educational environment, less confident in their abilities and experience many fears.

A very important factor is psychological pressure to pass the unified state examination (USE). In fact, the USE exams are to a large degree a selection of those who are persistent and have sufficient moral support. Pressure from the system at the USE level is mentioned by respondents with different statuses, but it affects lower-resource young people the most.

The USE is presented as if it was some kind of test for your whole life. Will you pass it or not? That’s the line of demarcation. If you don’t, that’s it, you’re a lost cause, some kind of scum. If you do, you’re a success, a businessman, a programmer. You don’t, you’re a janitor. And so on. Kids have no motivation to study after ninth grade. If there was real motivation, if people didn’t get intimidated as much, if the selection was not so tough, and… if there hadn’t been this, well, intimidation of the kids. (M, Irkutsk)

Honestly, I was a little afraid to go all the way to 11th grade. I thought I wouldn’t pass. I had little support in my family, or rather, no support at all in the last two years. That’s why I didn’t want to study either, I wanted to go away as soon as possible, to get away from it all. (F, Nizhny Novgorod)

I said: Mom and Dad, you’re pressuring us because of bad grades, and maybe we don’t have the abilities, that’s why so many teenagers commit suicide, because they’re afraid that you’ll scold them for not passing the exam. Since then, she hasn’t ever checked my homework. (F, Irkutsk)

Formation of restrictions

Students often put down problems at school and university to their own laziness and lack of organization – even in cases when the student actually shows much activity. These forms of self-assessment work to reduce claims and reproduce status. They are more pronounced in families in which parents have no higher education or have different levels of education.

I was afraid not to pass the exams, we were always told about it, I couldn’t write the tests which we had, the examination and training tests, I only got threes [barely passing] in them. I understood that I wouldn’t pass anything. Besides, I had to take additional exams, like, social studies and history; plus, my mother forced me into the natural sciences class, and I have terrible problems with physics and chemistry. I couldn’t manage anything, the physics teacher told me I had no talent for it. I knew all the formulas by heart, I knew all the definitions by heart, but I couldn’t solve any problem, I didn’t understand how to apply it. (F, Irkutsk)

The lower strata are characterized by a lower ability to distinguish between the zone of their own possible action and external structural limitations. This is manifested either in complete passivity of the language (“it happened to me,” “I was kicked out”), or in hyper-agency (“it is possible to achieve anything, everything depends only on me”) – sometimes in the same respondents.

Respondents place themselves in the middle of the social hierarchy regardless of the differences in the objective level of welfare. The lack of understanding of inequality structures also contributes to reducing the alternatives under consideration and to reproducing the current status.

Russia in a comparative context

Different models of inequality exist in the countries studied, and the present material is not sufficient to delineate the reproduction of each. A number of reproduction mechanisms are shared by several countries, while others point to differences.

In Belarus and Ukraine, as in Russia, the system of centralized final testing at school has two-fold consequences:

  • On the one hand, it unifies the educational space of the country and creates incentives for mobility.
  • On the other hand, it contributes to the reproduction of inequalities, as parents of children from less well-of groups and provincial towns/villages invariably have less understanding of how to succeed in this system. They lack the necessary information to assess options, are late to start training and misunderstand the effects of higher education.

In Belarus, the importance of higher education and high-quality education for mobility is somewhat lower than in Russia and Ukraine. Instead, territorial mobility and early career development play a key role in maintaining/improving the status.

Experience of traveling abroad plays an important role in increasing the chances of mobility in Belarus, Ukraine and Russia. It not only provides orientation in the actions necessary for temporary or permanent migration abroad but also significantly enriches the competence of young people, their ability to make a choice of an educational and career trajectory. However, in Ukraine and Belarus, access to such experience exists in different strata, while in Russia it is available mainly to the upper strata – which works to reproduce their separation from the lower ones.

Armenia is the only country where migration to Russia is an important resource for improving the material situation. Therefore, the reproduction of inequality in Armenia can depend on the state of inequality in Russia – in particular, on the volume of the labor market for migrants.

Photo: Alena Agadzhikova (
Photo: Alena Agadzhikova