things magazine / about / what's new? / archive / photos / projects / order
5,000 rubles: detail
detail of a 5,000 ruble note
caption link / issue index / archives
things 10
summer 1999
Alena V. Ledeneva
Turn and turnabout

Alena V. Ledeneva: Russia's Economy of Favours
Blat, networking and informal exchange
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1998, 246 pages, £13.95

Why did the Soviet Union collapse? According to the Russian sociologist Alena V. Ledeneva, the question would be much better phrased as follows: why did the Soviet Union not collapse much sooner? What was it that kept its half-dead social system functioning for so long?

Ledeneva, who is currently continuing her research at Cambridge university, gives the western world its answer in her book Russia's Economy of Favours. Blat, Networking and Informal Exchange. The key concept in the book is blat, something that scholarship has hitherto ignored despite the numerous studies devoted to the Soviet Unions informal 'other' economy.

'I come from Novosibirsk. There, as everywhere in the former Soviet Union, blat was something so natural that you didn't even think about it. For my book, I interviewed about fifty people of different social ranks and from different parts of Russia. All of them knew blat, and most had engaged in it in some form, although one does not necessarily recognise it at first when it is described as "helping friends and family",' Ledeneva told me. 

The untranslatable word blat stands for a type of non-monetary transactions between friends practised in the Soviet Union from the 1930s onward. As the practice was so widespread, blat developed into a quiet resistance against the official system. But precisely because blat made life bearable for Soviet citizens, it also acted to support the continued existence of the Soviet system. 

'One could say that blat is as old as humanity. It is a traditional premodern structure which developed special features under the Soviet regime,' Ledeneva asserts. In the Soviet Union, everyone was a servant of the state, and there were always shortages of all material goods. Despite formal equality, the nomenklatura had all kinds of privileges. The services and goods exchanged in the name of friendship or helpfulness were thus not one's own property but the states; one was, so to say, evening out the shortages and privileges. Blat was something that followed the Soviet citizen from cradle to grave, whether it was a question of getting the children into the right school or jumping the queue for food or an operation. Blat also affected legal practice: 'We have equal rights for both an army general and a collective farmer. The law is supposed to be the same for everyone. But there is a proverb: "The law is like a sheep, it walks the way it faces", and so it happens in practice: the one with connections is punished by reprimand, the one without  by the Criminal Code', one of her interviewees tells Ledeneva. Soviet citizens engaged in this informal system to varying degrees.

Ledeneva divides her compatriots into three categories: 'blatmeisters', sporadic participants in blat, and the 'true Soviet citizens'. A representative of the third category delivered the following remark: 'It is immoral to go and arrange something at the expense of others. I have been waiting for the telephone to be connected for 21 years. And I'm still waiting. This is all because I did not go there and did not complain. If I had complained, I would have got it long ago because I am the holder of the Order of Labour honour. I have no phone because I have no blat and I don't want to have it.'

This third category formed a minority in Soviet society. The real blatmeisters were often single women, socially gifted, with a large circle of acquaintances. As an example, Ledeneva cites a charming and clever doctor, Natalia, who never had any difficulty in travelling abroad or getting hold of luxury items during the Soviet period. She fixed up most of it to the satisfaction of both herself and her patients. 'Just remember what life was like. Everything had to be "obtained": furniture, books, subscriptions, wallpaper, tiles, cosmetics, underwear. Everything was prohibited, rationed and censored,' Natalia recalls. And she adds: 'I even arranged schools for children. My college mate asked me to arrange a place for her child in an elite school (she helped me once with my flat documents). That school was nearby. Chatting with my neighbour, I happened to ask about our common acquaintance, who turned out to be friendly with the vice-president of that school. Wow! I said, she's a good girl and her father is a worker who will put things right in the school, windows and whatever. Nobody paid; rather, mutual interests were served'. 

A post-Soviet proverb runs: 'Don't have a hundred friends, have a hundred dollars'. Money and the market economy have made their entry into the new Russia. Accordingly, blat has, if not ceased to exist, at least changed character. Many of Ledeneva's interviewees speak with a certain nostalgia of the good old days when the friendly exchange of goods had not yet been ruined by money, a time when differences in income were not as vertiginous as they are today.

Blat has been replaced by monetary transactions and bribes, a fact that could not but have an effect on the economic system and social relations. Need for social contact has diminished, just like the number of one's friends. 

For the uninitiated customer, the informal system and its codes made Soviet society seem a strange and distorted world. The same applies, to the highest degree, to post-Soviet society. Although blat has partially vanished, Ledeneva stresses, it remains a key to much that would otherwise be incomprehensible in the Russia of today. What is in the West called the Russian Mafia, the organised crime that has grown explosively during the 1990s, can partly be explained through the blat phenomenon - or perhaps through the absence of blat.'Bandits' were recruited from strata of society which had no legitimacy in the Soviet system of the past, that had no opportunities, no contacts, no power. Their only way out, to make money, was violence. 

The layer within post-Soviet society that did have access to blat continued to practise it to carry out transactions in the old spirit. A large number of the old nomenklatura retained their power and saw to it that they and their friends were able to extract maximum profits when state property was privatised. 

There are certain areas where the blat mentality continues to operate. One of them is the national budget and government  information. Private companies with the right contacts acquire useful budget information before others. The government education system is shot through with blat, as is employment policy in private firms. Alena Ledeneva's book has attracted much attention both within sociological circles and outside them. It will make useful reading for foreign investors and businessmen who are easily nonplussed by the mysteries of Russian society.

In one of Ledeneva's closing sentences, she remarks that post-Soviet society will never come to resemble western society. Certain processes, such as privatisation of state property, accumulation of capital and the reintroduction of class society have taken place in a manner that is specific to post-communist society.

Ledeneva questions whether Russia is definitively on the path to developing into thoroughly corrupt society in which politics is completely infiltrated by business and criminal life. Or might it be possible to investigate and utilise the positive sides of the informal network and the post-Soviet legacy?

Translated from the Swedish by Hildi Hawkins

things 10, summer 1999

back to top of page