The phenomenon of “second
economy” in the Soviet Union began with the communist revolution of 1918.
The economy of favors, or more commonly called blat, existed throughout
the Soviet society. All Soviet citizens participated even more widely and willingly
in blat than in the official and legal economy implemented by the state.
The most readily identifiable cause for the development of the phenomenon of
blat (or using friendly connections to achieve one’s ends) was
the inherent scarcity of goods and services prevalent in the Soviet Union after
the October revolution. Often, the citizens had to use a number of connections
to obtain even the most basic food products.
However, blat became universally synonymous with economic and social interactions for many Soviets. A number of food products, as well as nearly all services and aspects of life in the Soviet Union, could be obtained through connections. There was a common distinction between obtaining goods and service or products based on one’s blat, rather than getting whatever was commonly available and offered through the Soviet retail system. Blat, or illicit economic and social connections, was used by all the social levels in post-revolutionary Soviet Union. Blat became a multi-faceted economic and social phenomenon found in all strata, income and social levels of the Soviet society.
The scarcity of food which existed in the Soviet Union in 1930s created two tiers of consumers: those who bought goods using the ration cards and “others”, who belonged to specialized stores, which carried every food item imaginable. The division was usually between the common people and members of the emerging party elite and the so-called intelligentsia, who oversaw the building of the Soviet higher education and heavy industry. In his book “Caviar with Champagne”, Jukka Gronow wrote: “ In 1933, the year of mass hunger, in the words of an official document: the monthly consumption of food products of a? official railway wagon of the Central Committee consisted of 200kg of butter, 250kg of Swiss cheese, 500 kg of sausages, 500kg chicken, 550kg of different kinds of meat, 300kg of fish (in addition of 350kg of canned fish and 100 kg of herring), 100kg caviar, 300 kg of sugar, 160 kg of chocolate and candies, 100 boxes of fruit and 60,000 exported cigarettes (papirosy)” (Gronow, 127). In contrast, Gronow cited a menu from a Kirov factory in 1933: “Dinner for workers: Starter- cabbage soup with kerosene; main course - fresh moss with sour cream; desert- a sweet desert of turnips”(Gronow, 126). Such availability of goods to a small number of people, while the rest of the country survived on a limited supply of bread, potatoes and herring, created stratification in the Soviet society, which theoretically should not have been in existence in the classless communist society. The division of “us” and “them” and the understanding of how much better “they” were living helped to explain the solidification of secondary economy.
During the 1930s, social mobility increased tremendously in the Soviet Union and some of the working class people were now able to consume goods from special closed- provisioning stores or through their connections with the higher ups in the communist party. Though it was never mentioned officially, it was understood that provisioned goods could be obtained if one knew someone who was somehow related to the chain of receiving and selling those “privileged” goods. However, it is more important to understand that such a division in the Soviet society naturally facilitated an illicit economy or the economy of favors, by practically forcing Soviet citizens into seeking contacts to obtain goods, particularly food products. In his book, Bribery and Blat in Russia, Stephen Lovell wrote of reactions to such class distinctions: “those personalized relations can bring non-bureaucratic, human codes of behavior to any level of the social hierarchy or state apparatus (the same action may be called ‘nepotism’ or patronage at the top of the social hierarchy, while at the bottom of the social hierarchy it will be deemed an ‘everyday form of resistance’) “(Lovell, 170).
The use of connections was commonly employed to obtain a number of products. More importantly, the culture of blat went beyond purely economical satisfaction. Soviets often referred to blat as: “‘Blat is higher than Stalin or ‘Blat is higher than Sovnarkom’ “(Fitzpatrick, 64). Life in the Soviet Union was restricted by the numerous bureaucratic barriers and did not allow a citizen to have a so-called decent life without connections or blat. In Bribery and Blat in Russia, Lovell cited a poem by a famous poet of the 1920s Maiakovskii to illustrate the ridiculousness of the Soviet bureaucracy: “He thinks: how should he cut down on the staff? / Kate’s eyes they’re like coals! Good gracious! / But maybe Nata should hang on to her job, since Nata is so curvaceous. / Out there in the waiting room voices are raised and the air’s thick with smoke, it’s turned blue/ The official sits at his desk and shrugs: / Too bad! Not a thing I can do”(Lovell, 79). Every aspect of life in the Soviet society was made easier by one’s blat connections. Blat could have been used to get a promotion or get a position within a company or to purchase various products ranging from clothing to refrigerators. It was particularly necessary to obtain those products which were considered a special rarity by the Soviets, like automobiles. Lovell wrote: “Respondent reported that his family’s blat connections were so extensive (his father worked in a co-operative and they had relatives in a kolkhoz) that ‘we always had everything. The suits were expensive, although you could get some at government low prices. We only had to stand in line for shoes, because we had no friends working in shoe stores”(Lovell, 170). Accounts like these can be collected from all over the former Soviet Union, to illustrate what an important role blat played in all aspects of Soviet life. Due to the inefficiency of government agencies at providing a decent standard of living, evading the direct consumption of the state products and finding loopholes through friends and acquaintances became normal in Soviet life.
Though blat was illegal, it became synonymous with decent living in the Soviet Union. The connotation of illegality was erased by the massive numbers of people engaged in one form of blat or another. At times blat involved monetary exchanges for the benefit of one party by the other, but often blat was based on friendly connections and favors people committed for one another. As one respondent in the Harvard project noted: “Blat means that we help each other out. Not simply that I pay you for it” (Fitzpatrick, 68). Because of extensive use in Soviet Union, blat lost its clear identification of illegality and started to be seen as more altruistic throughout the 1960s and 1970s. Very few people were denounced for using their blat connections, because it was widely understood that there was no other way to live in Soviet Union. Blat was no longer a purely economic term. Blat, or the connections associated with it became a part of social relations. Its connotation of friendliness and altruism gave an impression that the secondary economy was legal and prosperous, while the real economy was flawed and entirely ineffective. The continued failures of the Soviet economy, particularly during the stagnation of the 1970s and decline of the 1980s, only encouraged the growth of a secondary market of favors. Blat gave those who used it to obtain non-material things like a better job a sense of pride because obtaining something through hard work was no longer in fashion in Soviet Union. It could even be said that it was considered almost inappropriate to achieve something without the use of one’s connections.
Blat can be seen as not only an economic and social but also as a cultural phenomenon. A number of popular publications circulated all over Soviet Union made constant humorous references to how common blat use had become all over the country. Popular writers only reinforced the popularity of blat as an economic and social way of connecting. Stephen Lovell commented: “Zoshchenko shows (sometimes it would appear, in spite of himself) that the language of Cultural Revolution, far from introducing transparency into human relations, can make them even more confused”(Lovell, 152). The works of writers and satirists emphasized the importance of the second economy in the Soviet society as a phenomenon that the culture and the society could no longer survive without. Lovell captured the humor expressed in one of the cartoons from the popular satirical magazine Krokodil:
“Headed ‘A good upbringing’, it shows a store manager talking politely to a customer, while the cashier and another woman look on. ‘He’s a courteous man, our store manager’, says the cashier. ‘When he sells cloth, he calls all the customers by name and patronymic.’ – ‘Does he really know all the customers?’- ‘Of course. If he doesn’t know someone, he doesn’t sell to them’ “(Lovell, 177).
Blat became ingrained in the Soviet psyche. In the contrast to what the Soviet government wanted to put into practices in the Soviet Union, the general public perceived all their efforts and promises as illusion and the popular press only reinforced that notion.
The 1930s saw a creation of a blat professional (blatmeister). Stephen Lovell wrote of the phenomenon:” Blat professionals played an important role in the informal system of distribution. You could solve a problem, one Harvard respondent said, if you were acquainted with some ‘professional “blatniks”, persons who have contacts with higher persons and know the Soviet system. They know who can be bribed or presented with a gift, and what this gift should be.” Beginning in 1930s and continued through the 1960s, various jargon associated with blat permeated the Russian language. Even the highly censored popular periodicals began to use the terms of blat previously only known to criminals. Lovell cited an example of “the new terminology”: “The blat-book was the notebook in which you kept all the telephone numbers and addresses of your blat connections, plus cryptic notations: Peter’s buddy (sanatorium), Sergei (records, gramophone), Nik. (about grub)” (Lovell, 174). Various publications reinforced the importance of blat as a center of Soviet culture and economy.
Though blat was often perceived as a comical but an intricate part of Soviet life, the underside of blat revealed how it contributed to the decline of Soviet economy, as its necessity reflected the deterioration of Soviet economy throughout the 1980s. In the 1970 and particularly the 1980s, Soviet citizens often used blat and bribery interchangeably. Blat was often put in context of friendly relationships; simply put, a friend helping out a friend. Such a “harmless” understanding of the concept often overshadowed the seriousness of blat as a part of Soviet economy and political organizations, as well as a contributing factor to the flourishing black market which emerged in the 1980s and 1990s. Alena Ledeneva observed: “Despite the changes in society, which have reduced the role of blat in daily life and business activities, blat endures in the state sector, where the principles of distribution have not been changed radically”(Lovell, 189). The economy of favors became synonymous with the actual economy in Soviet Union, and blat played an intricate role in solidifying that process. Despite the ideal that the Soviet citizen should be satisfied with the scarce material goods available, scarcity only increased the acceptability of blat as a part of everyday life. Blat and the efficient use of connections not only contributed to the deterioration of Soviet economy but also became ingrained in the culture.
The economy of favors which existed in Soviet Union was always present in the shadow behind the real economy. However, the common acceptance of blat as a way to obtain goods and a place within the society put the “second economy” in the place of the legal system. Blat affected all classes of the theoretically classless Soviet society, all levels of income and education, permeating the Soviet culture permanently. Present and identified with consumption and social mobility, blat and its interpretation differed throughout the society. Nonetheless, one or another aspect of blat was present in the lives of all Soviet citizens. “Connections”, for Soviet citizens, represented all that was achieved and accomplished during the life of difficult and scarce years of Soviet Union’s existence.