New Rich, New Poor: Wealth and Morality in Ukraine
At a recent Kennan Institute talk, Catherine Wanner, Assistant Professor in the Department of History at the Pennsylvania State University, spoke about the role of religion in the formation of a new moral order in post-Soviet Ukraine. She noted that independent Ukraine shares two important social trends with the diverse societies that constitute the ex-Communist world: a religious renaissance and the emergence of sharp class divisions. They are closely related, according to Wanner. As Ukraine's economic system changes from socialist to capitalist, Soviet-era standards of morality are being challenged as well, and religions of many different varieties attract attention because they can provide the foundation for a new moral order and a new social contract in a new society.
Wanner argued that most people in the Soviet Union held very different ideas on the morality of wealth and the consumption of goods than those fostered in capitalist societies. Largely owing to a meritocratic view of wealth, meaning a belief that individuals have earned their wealth due to valuable skills and hard work, capitalist systems breed a greater degree of acceptance of inequality and of the disparity between those who can consume wealth, even conspicuously, and those who cannot. This is not the case in Ukraine.
According to Wanner, wealth had decisive moral implications during the Communist period because it was seen as a direct result of being in collusion with an unpopular regime. Although Soviet leaders claimed that they had built a classless society, Wanner maintained that there was a distinct political-economic hierarchy of privilege in the Soviet Union. Those at the top enjoyed access to scarce consumer goods and other privileges. She argued that many Soviet citizens felt hostile toward the state that provided these privileges in exchange for ideological conformity. People who lived even moderately privileged lifestyles tended to hide their privilege rather than publicly flaunt their ties to the unpopular state. Because the socialist economy failed to satisfy consumer demand, this increased the social status implications of consumption and even the fetishization of goods. Dissatisfaction also indirectly encouraged the widespread and accepted practice of workplace theft, of time, materials, and influence, as individuals informally supplemented their incomes at state expense.
Wanner argued that the collapse of socialism not only opened new possibilities for accumulating wealth but radically reordered its consumption and meaning as well. In the post-Communist period, wealth still carries decisive moral implications but for different reasons. Many believe that wealth is largely acquired through criminal activities, "speculation," profit from the labor of others, or some other morally questionable practice. Wanner noted that real income difference between the rich and the poor has risen sharply, while the willingness of the "new rich" to flaunt their wealth through consumption has increased the visibility of class distinctions. New economic realities have led Ukrainians to ask new questions about the nature of right and wrong as they are constantly posed in the process of generating and consuming wealth in Ukraine today. Wanner illustrated this new reality and the moral quandaries it has created with examples from her fieldwork in Ukraine. She described how "New Ukrainians" have amassed wealth and how others view the degree to which they "deserve" their privileges. Similarly, she told of the difficulties average citizens have in identifying professions that will allow them to earn a living wage and yet avoid the morally unsavory practices of selling or lying and cheating government authorities, competitors, and customers. Her stories of how individuals strive to balance competing expectations, ensure their personal and professional survival, and still maintain self-respect reveal the changing moral underpinnings of work, wealth and obligation to others in post-Soviet Ukrainian society.
Religion provides a moral framework that can both define and challenge the new ethics of the market economy. She argued that religion has become an important but subtle force in Ukrainian politics. The prominence of religion at this historic juncture hinges on its duel potential to generate moral outrage and challenge inequality and its ability to interpenetrate politics and provide a moral justification for the class-based inequality that is emerging. The increasing diversity of religious groups in Ukraine reflects the country's diversity of political and ethical views.