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Leisure Studies 20 (2001) 161–172

Economic polarization, leisure practices and policies, and the quality of life: a study in post-communist Moscow* K. ROBERTS†, C. FAGAN†, I. BOUTENKO‡ and K. RAZLOGOV‡ †Department of Sociology, Social Policy and Social Work Studies, The University of Liverpool, Bedford Street South, Liverpool L69 7ZA, UK. E-mail: [email protected] ‡Russian Institute for Cultural Research, Moscow

Since the 1980s Russia has been transformed from one of the world’s most equal into one of its most unequal countries, certainly in terms of income levels. This paper, based on survey research in Moscow in 1997, explores the implications of this economic polarization for the population’s uses of leisure and the quality of their lives. The analysis juxtaposes and compares alternative, Russian and Western, approaches to measuring the quality of leisure. The Moscow evidence conŽrms that leisure is an important, independent contributor to the quality of life, and the analysis identiŽes the types of leisure policies and provisions that will maximize wellbeing within all socio-demographic groups, not just in Moscow but also, we believe, in other modern cities as well.

Aims and methods How do leisure provisions contribute to the quality of life? Perhaps the Žrst questions to address are what we mean by the quality of life and how it can be measured. It may be all too readily taken-for-granted that since high levels of leisure participation are known to be beneŽcial, involvement in any kind of leisure will be good for those concerned. Are some kinds of leisure participation more valuable than others? Does this depend on how value is measured? Does the character of beneŽcial leisure vary between sociodemographic groups? Our research comprised interviews in 1997 with 120 Moscow residents. These interviews focused upon the respondents’ uses of leisure and also included measurements of well-being. The sample was small, but it was carefully and strategically selected. Half of the respondents were rich while the other half were poor, and these two groups were matched for age, life stage and gender. The rich really were rich by Moscow standards. In the younger life stage group (aged up to 30) they were all in households with monthly incomes of at least US$1000 per capita. In the older (60 plus) age group the rich all had pensions plus substantial additional incomes while the * The research on which this paper is based was supported by INTAS and the Russian Foundation for Basic Research (award 95–0330). Leisure Studies ISSN 0261-4367 print/ISSN 1466-4496 online © 2001 Taylor & Francis Ltd DOI: 10.1080/02614360110061405


K. Roberts et al.

poor respondents were receiving assistance with their rent payments, which meant that they really were poor. In the younger age group the poor respondents’ households had incomes per capita of less than $100 a month. So the least prosperous of the young rich respondents had household incomes of at least ten times greater than all the young poor respondents. The rich and poor samples were both extreme groups, representing the top 10% or thereabouts and the bottom 5% in terms of Žnancial circumstances in Moscow in 1997. Both groups were new to these circumstances. Under communism, Russia was one of the world’s most equal countries (in terms of income levels). Throughout the 1960s and 70s the Soviet government pursued egalitarian policies, and an outcome was that, by the 1980s, an average university-educated employee earned only 8% more than unskilled workers (Razlogov and Boutenko, 1994). Privileged groups were set apart not so much by their high incomes as by their political power, access to scarce (Western and other) goods, and relatively spacious apartments with prestige locations (in city centres). Market reforms changed all this rapidly. The Russian economy contracted. Between 1991 and 1999 average living standards were more than halved. The poor respondents in our survey were clear losers from the reforms. An income of $100 per capita per month in Moscow in 1997 was subsubsistence. How did these people manage? Rent and payments for basic household services would be waivered or would fall into arrears. Food would be purchased cheaply in the streets or obtained from relatives in the countryside. People would ‘make and mend’, and thereby survive. Our rich respondents were living in entirely different circumstances, but they are better described as ‘new’ rather than ‘super-rich’ Russians. The respondents were from Russia’s new middle class composed of people running private businesses, or with jobs in Western-based or linked organizations, and salaries that gave them access to Western lifestyles, meaning that they could afford cars, fashionable clothing, meals in restaurants, foreign holidays and suchlike. One objective of the research was to assess the effects of the economic polarization in Moscow on the population’s day-to-day and week-to-week ways of life, while another aim was to assess and compare alternative measurements of the quality of Muscovites’ leisure by using a combination of Russian and Western methods. The quality question in Russia This question has been posed in a particular way, in the historically speciŽc circumstances (making a transition from communism) in Russia during and since the 1990s. Previously there was a clear and known cultural hierarchy in Russia. Cultural elites were the authoritative judges. Their authority was validated by the state and party. Cultural elites were based in cultural institutions (producing Žlms, music, visual art, and so on) which were funded by the Ministry of Culture, and the elites were produced by educational institutions which were linked to the individuals’ subsequent places of

A study in post-communist Moscow


employment. The elites were part of a self-legitimating system. Cultural quality became a matter of uncertainty, debate and hence research (as in this project) in Russia only when the state and party were delegitimized. Subsequently the cultural elites’ quality problems have been how to revalidate their judgements and thereby maintain their status and claims on public funds, and they have turned to science to provide answers. Allegedly scientiŽc answers to this quality question had in fact been developed under communism (see Suma and Petrov, 1985; Golitsyn and Petrov, 1995). It had been argued that high culture (which received particularly generous support under communism) was superior in much the same way that higher education is above other levels. First, people were said to progress beyond popular to higher levels of taste. Second, high level tastes were said to be more rational, based on coherent judgements, in much the same way that Žrst class academic work, where answers are based on rational arguments, is superior to guesswork or the repetition of memorized textbook answers even when the latter prove correct. Up until the 1990s these arguments were not tested rigorously either empirically or theoretically. There was no apparent need for such a test: the arguments were simply endorsing cultural judgements that, in practice, had no need of additional support. The arguments are explicitly elitist and contain clear traces of scientiŽc Marxism. They suggest or, at any rate, were read as conŽrming that traditional high culture is superior to everything else and that this can be proved objectively, independently of anyone’s opinions, in much the same way that the status of higher education has never depended on survey evidence showing that it is esteemed by the general public, or enjoyed by its participants. The policy implications of these arguments are that the cultural policies that will best enhance the quality of life are those that educate people to appreciate, then provide opportunities for them to enjoy, superior, that is, high culture. In so far as wealth is associated with a high quality of life one would expect this to be partly a product of the wealthy’s cultural education and tastes rather than their wealth per se, but facilitated by the latter via the ability that it confers (in a market economy) to afford high levels of consumption of high culture. Making high culture accessible at low cost (the policy under communism), and educating the masses to appreciate high culture, should, according to these arguments, protect the quality of life even among groups suffering economic adversity. The decline of spending on high culture in post-communist Russia would therefore appear to threaten the quality of life just as surely as the spread of poverty (see Council of Europe, 1996). And in the West In the West the quality question has never been posed in quite this way because there have never been historically equivalent circumstances to those in Russia both under communism and subsequently. Once-upon-a-time (certainly up until the Second World War) self-appointed cultural elites claimed conŽdently that their tastes were objectively superior, and paternalist


K. Roberts et al.

governments accepted these claims and sponsored uses of leisure that the people were said to need. Thus the BBC, in its early years, had explicitly paternalist aims. Democracy and consumer cultures have long swept most of this aside. Governments now realize that there is no point in offering wares that people do not manifestly want, and Western social science has provided justiŽcation for this ‘philistinism’. British/European and subsequently worldwide cultural studies developed from the 1960s onwards largely as a critique of the pretensions of high culture (see Hoggart, 1957; Williams, 1963). Popular cultures were said to be just as complex and sophisticated. While objective ranking might be possible within genres, it was said to be impossible to rank genres themselves. Such judgements, and certainly their degrees of success in gaining widespread support, were said to reect neither more nor less than the judges’ economic and political power. In the West (meaning, for current purposes, EU and NATO countries), in recent times the quality question has been adopted as a research issue mainly by leisure studies, which developed initially in America where the traditional cultural hierarchy was never established as securely as in Europe. Leisure researchers have addressed the quality question mainly in order to clarify leisure motivations and effects, but they have also sought to provide guidance to central and local government departments for leisure services. Which services should they support so as to do the greatest good? In this research the normal quality indicators have been self-rated satisfaction and similar quality of life measurements. Enquiries using these measures have shown that leisure activities normally improve people’s self-assessments provided that the leisure is structured, requires effort, involves social interaction, and that the actors have the time and competence to perform effectively (see Esteve et al., 1999). Leisure theorists have sought higher level explanations of why these characteristics make leisure satisfying. Their proposals, corroborated by evidence to varying extents, have been either that leisure supplies ‘basic categories of experience’ that promote well-being wherever they are obtained, or that leisure generates ‘ow’ or some other allegedly optimal human experience, or that it is the seriousness with which leisure activities are pursued that really matters (see Csikszentmihalyi, 1990; Haworth, 1997; Stebbins, 1992). According to these arguments a very wide range of leisure activities should be capable of improving the quality of people’s lives. Whether the activities are highbrow or lowbrow would appear irrelevant. One would expect poverty to threaten the quality of people’s leisure irrespective of which leisure interests and activities they maintained, simply and inevitably through the constraints (in a market economy) on their leisure opportunities. The economic polarization in post-communist Russia would appear necessarily damaging to the leisure of the poor in so far, as is known to have happened, their out-of-home leisure has been curtailed, and uses of free time have become more home-based and television-centred (see Bulletin of the AllRussia Centre for Public Opinion Studies, 1995; Razlogov and Boutenko, 1994).

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We should note, however, that although the methodologies are different, the Russian and Western approaches to the quality question could, in theory, lead to identical or at least compatible answers. Western methods could show that people’s self-assessed quality of life was most likely to be enhanced by coherent, rationally-guided repertoires of leisure activity, the production and consumption of highbrow rather than lowbrow culture, and minority rather than mass tastes. Methods Our interview schedule was designed so that appropriate evidence to operate both the Russian and Western approaches to quality would be gathered. Checklist questions explored the range of each respondent’s leisure activities, and the items of leisure equipment to which he or she had access. There were some questions on sports-related leisure, but Žlms, television and music were explored in particular depth. These are all mass interests, but are followed to different extents, and in different ways, by different people. There was also a set of questions seeking respondents’ self-assessments of their leisure and other aspects of their lives. In the analysis, the question on self-assessed leisure satisfaction is sometimes treated separately, but otherwise merged with respondents’ self-assessed satisfaction with their jobs, families, friends, health and lives in general to produce overall quality of life scores. As explained below, this evidence was analysed by constructing discrete variables, then subjecting these to multivariate analysis, and also by seeking to match the raw data to a variety of mathematical models. Findings The Russian approach to quality Russia’s own scientiŽc attempt to answer the quality question presumes that there are rational patterns behind the public’s leisure choices, albeit patterns which should be more strongly present in some sections of the population, and some uses of leisure, than others. One such pattern should be a hierarchical structure, distinguishing mass from minority tastes, with the former tastes and related activities succeeding and sometimes, if not always, then accompanying the latter minority activities. In addition, if people’s leisure choices are guided by consistent tastes, then their leisure practices should cluster, and some (higher level) clusters should be more sharply deŽned than others. In order to test whether there were such patterns in our sample’s leisure tastes and activities we tried to match their answers to a series of mathematical models. SpeciŽcally, we tested to see whether the distribution was normal, lognormal, binomial, hyperbolic or instructive, and whether it conformed with Auerbach’s, Zipf’s, Pareto’s, Maxwell’s, Rayleigh’s or Poisson’s laws. This modelling was indifferent to whether tastes were highbrow or lowbrow, though the Russian approach led us to believe that


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highbrow tastes would be best-represented among the minority interests that would be most common in the more sharply deŽned clusters. In the event, none of the mathematical models matched the evidence. There were slightly more system-like properties in the leisure of the rich than the poor respondents, but the overall results of this analysis suggested that, at a collective level, the sample’s uses of leisure were unstable and chaotic. In other words, the evidence was completely inconsistent with the Russian answer to the quality question. We conducted a qualitative as well as a quantitative search for rational patterns in the sample’s leisure. In other words, with each individual’s responses we tried to spot links between their tastes in Žlms, music and television, the leisure equipment that they possessed, and so on, but there were very few cases where any links were evident except that some individuals (generally the rich) tended to do a lot while others (usually the poor) did relatively little. Now we admit that there are grounds for caution before dismissing the Russian approach. Maybe we failed to apply the right mathematical model. If we had collected more evidence about more aspects of the sample’s uses of leisure, or if the sample had been larger, it is possible that rational patterns would have become apparent. However, we deliberately set out to collect the type of evidence, and selected a sample, that would reveal the structures postulated in the Russian answer to the quality question, if the answer was in fact correct. Our inclination is to trust our evidence which indicates that in 1997 the leisure of Moscow residents was chaotic at a collective level, with activities and tastes occurring in numerous, apparently random, combinations, but we realize that there are alternative explanations of this. It might be a case of Russian exceptionalism – a temporary product of the rapid and dramatic changes that had occurred in the 1990s. As explained earlier, most of the rich and the poor were new to these circumstances (see Bogomolova, 1998). Alternatively, Russia could be part of a global post-modern scene. In the latter event, the Russian answer to the quality question may have been correct in the past but will have been invalidated by a historical change of era. Yet another possibility is that, in modern societies, leisure has never exhibited strong system-like qualities. Rather, all groups of people may always have used their leisure in diverse, often idiosyncratic ways. We know that leisure interests and skills are acquired incrementally, throughout the life course, and the batteries which are acted-upon at any one time are always likely to depend on concurrent circumstances and opportunities, thus creating ‘chaos’ at a macro-level. The Western approach to quality This was operationalized in the Moscow project by building from the raw data a set of derived variables measuring involvement in different types of leisure. One set of variables measured the depth and breadth of the sample’s involvement in sport, Žlms, television and music. Another set measured their engagement with broader types of leisure activity – highbrow, social and private. Another variable measured the range of leisure equipment in each


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respondent’s home, and a Žnal variable, labelled ‘discrimination’, measured whether individuals had deŽnite preferences, selected their leisure activities and entertainment deliberatively, and whether they also read about and discussed what they watched and listened to. As explained above, the question measuring self-assessed leisure satisfaction was treated separately in the analysis, and a derived variable, labelled overall life satisfaction, amalgamated responses to all the satisfaction questions. The analysis explored which of the leisure variables were related to different levels of leisure satisfaction and overall life satisfaction across the sample as a whole, and within socio-demographic groups. What emerged was one variable, ‘discrimination’, which predicted both leisure satisfaction and overall life satisfaction throughout the entire sample (see Table 1) and within most of the socio-demographic groups. Involvement in most types of leisure was related to relatively high levels of leisure satisfaction, but it was only ‘discrimination’ that was consistently improving satisfaction with life overall. The quality of leisure and life in general that was being experienced by our respondents did not appear to depend on exactly what they did with their leisure, or (in the case of overall life satisfaction) on their total volume of Table 1 Leisure and variations in the quality of life: whole sample

Totally %


Not at all

High* total life satisfaction %

SatisŽed with leisure Discrimination

Low High

28 25

38 52

34 23

45 58


Low High

23 31

43 46

34 24

48 53


Low High

21 30

40 47

40 23

50 51


Low High

27 26

35 54

38 19

50 51


Low High

12 38

47 42

41 20

62 42


Low High

23 32

41 48

36 20

59 41


Low High

28 25

41 48

31 27

53 48


Low High

30 24

39 49

32 27

44 56


Low High

26 27

35 55

39 18

47 55

* High = above the median for the entire sample.


K. Roberts et al.

activity, so much as whether they knew what they liked and acted accordingly. The policy implication of this Žnding is that improving the quality of life via leisure policies and provisions does not depend on providing opportunities for people to engage in a particular set of quality activities. Rather, it appears that a better approach will be to create access to a wide range of activities for all socio-demographic groups, and, via leisure education, to widen individuals’ skills and interests, and encourage them to act deliberatively and discriminatingly whatever their socio-economic conditions. Our Žndings are plausible. Amid the changes underway in Moscow in the 1990s it seems reasonable that we found (using the Russian approach) that leisure was chaotic at the macro level, and (using the Western approach) a contributor to the overall quality of life that people were experiencing provided they had deŽnite personal tastes and inclinations, and were able and willing to express them. These may be general features of a post-modern condition, or, more likely in our view, they could have applied throughout modernity. In Moscow 1997 we did not Žnd that extreme individualization was the ideal recipe for well-being. Rather, leisure was proving most beneŽcial when people had interests and were doing things that were typical of their sociodemographic groups. These beneŽts seemed most likely to be arising through leisure integrating individuals into their particular social milieu, and thereby into the wider society. Young people will derive such beneŽts from an interest in popular music (which is near universal in the age group), but then, within the genre, according to our evidence, they need to discriminate; they need to know exactly which performers and types of popular music they like, and to be able and willing to speak and act accordingly. Leisure and other social roles There are no differences in Western and Russian methods of measuring leisure activity and comparing socio-demographic groups. As is always the case in leisure research, in detail our Žndings are complex, but the more signiŽcant Žndings (see Tables 2 and 3) are as follows. i. Wealthy respondents were much more leisure active than poor respondents but with some exceptions. The poor were the more involved in sport and television, and neither group was more ‘discriminating’ than the other. ii. Women were generally the more leisure active sex (or appeared to be so, which may well have been due to the interviews concentrating on television, Žlms and music), and the women were also more ‘discriminating’ than the men. iii. The young were the most leisure active age group, but the retired were the most ‘discriminating’ life stage group. None of these Žndings are particularly surprising. They are consistent with the results of previous Russian and Western research. The Žndings are

i. Equipment ii. Highbrow iii. Music iv. Films v. Television vi. Sport vii. Private leisure viii. Social leisure ix. Discrimination

48 55 65 72 48 52 48 58 60

26 39 50 57 49 51 34 39 43


50 40 50 57 43 53 42 40 27




Sex 72 56 48 72 42 54 54 58 44

Rich 55 26 61 64 40 59 48 54 44


Age 38 90 50 65 58 40 40 40 43

Old 43 26 69 49 26 46 46 60 43

Students 62 41 60 69 45 64 38 48 41

FT Workers

Economic status 17 88 50 63 67 46 38 38 54


46 34 52 55 48 52 48 36 48


51 55 61 70 45 53 43 57 41



Table 2 Summary measurements of leisure activity by socio-demographic groups. Percentages with high (above the median) scores

A study in post-communist Moscow 169


K. Roberts et al. Table 3 Socio-demographic groups and the quality of life.




Total life satisfaction high*

Male Female

27 27

40 48

33 25

50 52

Poor Rich

21 32

41 47

38 21

48 54

Young Old

26 28

44 45

30 28

53 48

Students Full-time workers Retired

20 29 25

54 45 46

26 26 29

40 62 50

Education: low Education: high

30 25

41 46

30 29

46 54

Highly educated poor Highly educated rich

21 26

41 50

38 24

48 59

Single males Single females

23 27

47 53

30 20

53 50

Married males Married females

30 27

33 43

37 30

47 53

Young childless Young parents

27 25

47 35

27 40

53 50

SatisŽed with leisure

* Above the median.

noteworthy in themselves only for showing that ‘normal’ relationships between leisure and other social roles were being maintained even amid the economically turbulent conditions in Russia in the 1990s. As we have seen, involvement in most types of leisure was boosting levels of leisure satisfaction. So the wealthy, the most leisure-active of all the sociodemographic groups, were more satisŽed with their leisure than the poor. Wealth was in fact the socio-demographic predictor most strongly associated with both overall levels of leisure activity and leisure satisfaction. Variations in overall life satisfaction followed entirely different social contours. Here there was little difference between the rich and the poor. The rich were the most satisŽed with their leisure and their jobs, and the poor with their health, while there was little difference in the two groups’ satisfaction with their friends and families. Our Žndings here are a further demonstration that, in modern societies, money does not automatically bring happiness. In this respect Russia has become another example of the failure of the market experience (see Lane, 1991). It would be consistent with our Žnding little difference between the rich’s and the poor’s ‘discrimination’

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scores to offer this as the explanation of the rich’s failure to beneŽt from their wealth in terms of overall life satisfaction. However, other evidence suggests that this is not the true explanation. Despite women being the more ‘discriminating’ sex, their overall life satisfaction scores were no higher than men’s. Despite the retired being the most ‘discriminating’ life stage group, full-time workers had the highest overall life satisfaction scores. Leisure ‘discrimination’ accounted for variations in overall life satisfaction within all socio-demographic groups, but not the rank order in this respect of the groups themselves. Whether or not the groups had full-time work was the main determinant of this ordering. Conclusions The Žndings from our study are complex, but the policy implications are relatively straightforward. i. The Russian approach to measuring leisure quality simply does not work, meaning that the evidence proves inconsistent with the theory, even within Russia itself. The Western approach, in contrast, yields clear and meaningful results. ii. In a market economy economic inequalities lead inexorably to inequalities in leisure satisfaction between the rich and poor. These leisure inequalities are unlikely to be ameliorated by public leisure provisions: the wealthy will always have the widest options and will be able to do more. iii. Leisure is not the sole determinant of the quality of life. Jobs are just as important. Access to employment is indeed the main determinant of how socio-demographic groups are ranked in terms of overall life satisfaction. Full employment should therefore be a primary goal in socio-economic policy in so far as the aim is a high quality of life for a population. iv. However, leisure does have independent effects on the quality of life. It discriminates within all socio-demographic groups in the quality of life that individuals are experiencing. So leisure policies and provisions can be expected to make a difference in any modern society. According to our evidence the principles guiding such policies should be:




There are no intrinsically superior forms of leisure – either speciŽc activities, or overall coherent packages. Maximizing the quality of life requires access to as many uses of leisure, by as many sections of a population, as possible. Leisure education will not merely help but is likely to be crucial in so far as it can give everyone a broad base of interests and skills, and encourage them to be discriminating, so that they can pick their own mixes from the opportunities that are available, thereby using leisure


K. Roberts et al. to construct or express individual identities while becoming integrated into their particular social milieu.

References Bogomolova, T. (1998) Income mobility in Russia in the mid-1990s, paper presented to International Sociological Association Congress, Montreal. Bulletin of the All-Russian Centre for Public Opinion Studies (1995) Economic and social change: public opinion monitoring, Bulletin of the All-Russian Centre for Public Opinion Studies, 3. Council of Europe (1996) Cultural Policy of the Russian Federation, Culture Committee, Strasbourg. Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990) Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Harper & Row, New York. Esteve, R., San Martin, J. and Lopez, A. E. (1999) Grasping the meaning of leisure: developing a self-report measurement tool, Leisure Studies, 18, 79–91. Golitsyn, G. A. and Petrov, V. M. (1995) Information and Creation: Integrating the Two Cultures, Birkhaeser Verlag, Berlin/Boston/Basle. Haworth, J. T. (1997) Work, Leisure and Well-Being, Routledge, London. Hoggart, R. (1957) The Uses of Literacy, Chatto & Windus, London. Lane, R. F. (1991) The Market Experience, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. Razlogov, K. E. and Boutenko, I. A. (eds) (1994) Recent Social Trends in Russia 1960–1990, Russian Institute for Cultural Research, Moscow. Stebbins, R. A. (1992) Amateurs, Professionals and Serious Leisure, McGill-Queens University Press, Montreal. Suma, U. F. and Petrov, V. M. (1985) Sociology of Aesthetic Culture: Methodological and Methodical Problems (in Russian), Zinatne, Riga. Williams, R. (1963) Culture and Society 1780–1950, Penguin, Harmondsworth.