Blat

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           In the early 1920’s, the Russian economy was experiencing great shortages of goods.  Besides the fact that luxury and other desired products were made in small quantities, it was practically impossible to obtain any kind of goods, from shoes to apartments, through the state’s formal bureaucratic distribution channels.  In order to obtain goods of sufficient quality, one needed to have a business or a personal relationship, a network or a connection with a salesperson or someone who had access to the good.  This was known as a blat

            The word blat was not a word commonly used in the Soviet Union, but the process it represented was very popular.  In fact, its meaning does not appear in any of the editions of the Great Soviet Encyclopedia published in 1927, 1950, and 1970.  However, its meaning can be found in Russian dictionaries since the 1930’s.  The term ‘blat’ came from Polish ‘blat’, which means something along the lines of someone who provides an umbrella or a cover.  But, “in the early years of the Soviet Union’s existence, ‘by blat’ meant ‘in an illegal manner’.  Later on, the meaning of the term started becoming more associated with acquainting, obtaining, or arranging."{1}  The term was also not used in the “polite” society and many often found the use of it embarrassing and un-Soviet.  Petr Gattsuk in Sheila Fitzpatrick’s Everyday Stalinism gives a cruder meaning to the term. Petr was a concerned citizen from Novgorod who wrote to the Council of Ministers in an attempt to deplore the phenomenon of blat.  He states that “in translation into the Russian language the word blat means swindling, cheating, stealing, speculation, slipshod practices, and so on.  And what does it mean if we meet the expression, “I have blat”?  It means that I have a close connection with a swindler, speculator, thief, cheat, toady, or someone similar."{2}  Thus, people would often pretend to take no part in it or refer to it in euphemistic terms.As Alena Ledeneva notes, “another reason why blat was usually spoken of only indirectly derived from its ambiguous nature: blat often had to do with minor things and services which in themselves were not worthy or attention but, precisely for this reason, it expanded to such an extent that people tended to take blat for granted as part of their environment.” {3}

            Blat is a system of providing goods and favors and usually takes place between individuals who have a shared history.  Even though money was usually exchanged, the basis for the initial arrangement in blat remained friendship. Friendships provided you with goods other could not purchase, often at lowered prices, at other times at slightly higher and also at regular price.  The price was determined by the provider of the good and depended on his/her greediness and how well the two people were acquianted.  A personal relationship was not always the dominant force behind the blat system.  Acquaintances, and not only friends took part in blat. Thus, if the acquaintance had nothing to offer, the price would be much higher than the good’s price tag.  Individuals were still willing to pay the higher price due to the fact that they were actually getting the product.  Another form of blat relationship was one in which both parties were to benefit.  Since this was also a system based on favors, deals were made to supply the each person with his desired good.  At times no price was changed if the goods exchanged were of equal value, or the price was negotiated.  As Sheila Fitzpatrick explains “from the participants’ standpoint, the Russian proverb “One hand washes the other,” which is the equivalent to our “You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours,” is a rather crude parody of the genuine personal regard and good feeling associated with blat transactions.”{4}  Also the proverb, one must have not 100 rubles but 100 friends, is perhaps a better explanation of what the blat system was about. 

            Blat developed in the USSR because of the great financial problems it had experienced in a great conflict between what Sarah Davies describes as the working people and the exploiters who held all the power. “Us”, in her argument, was the working class.  “According to the propaganda, power in the USSR belonged to the people, namely, the workers and peasants,” she asserts.  “This power was vested in the people’s representatives.  In practice, and in the perception of many of the supposed power-holders, it actually rested in an elite of the officials.”{5}  Average workers felt that their opinions were not being heard and that they were excluded from power.  Davies argues that ultimately, authorities did not bother to negotiate with their workers on how to improve the economy and simply issued decrees.  A decree that the public did not approve and support was unable to revive the economy.  Shortages were born and so gave rise to the blat system of purchases.

 The difficulties of the Soviet Union and its people are sublimely depicted in the dark comedy short novel of Michail Bulgakov’s The Heart of a Dog.  Its literary depictions of the Soviet life are hard to miss.  Without giving the summary of the book, Sharik(a dog) is becoming a human being and demanding his papers. This the equivalent of a factory worker trying to make his voice be heard in the government.  It also effectively illustrates the benefits and the very real existence of the blat.  It’s subtle but definitely there in the text, as in the example of Philip Philipovich being able to keep a large apartment to himself while “extra tenants are being moved into every apartment”{6} for the rest of the building.  In fact, Philip, a doctor, also has a blat relationship with one of his patients who is willing to pay a high price just so she doesn’t have to go to the hospital to be operated.  As in real life in the Soviet Union in the early 20th century, people were usually willing to pay a higher price for their goods at times, just to be able to obtain them, and on other occasions to buy a good of greater quality. 

In common practice, blat was nothing more than doing a favor for a friend or a family member.  A cartoon reprinted in Alena Ledeneva’s book shows two women talking about jobs.  The caption reads “I can’t believe you got a job through the job center?! How did you manage?” the first woman asks.  The second replies, “Very simple, my uncle is the director there…” Having lived in Russia as a child, I can recall the use blat.  My mother had a childhood friend that worked in a shoe store, and when a new load of imported shoes would arrive, we would get a personal phone call home to let us know about it.  She would hide a few boxes of shoes in the stock room until my mother, or her other friends, came to pick them up, although, they would usually have to be picked up on the same day.  This blat relation worked not because my mother had something to offer her in return but because they grew up together and had a close relationship.

            To fully understand blat one must analyze the similarities and differences between it and other, more frowned-upon methods of meeting your needs and wants.  The initial difference between blat and other more serious forms of corruption was that blat relied on a system of friendships and good acquaintances. According to Alena Ledeneva, author of Russia’s Economy of Favours, “one element of difference appeared to be ‘the nature of the entrée into the arrangement’.  In blat there is some personal basis for expecting a proposal to be listened to sympathetically, either because of past friendship, or because of the trust developed after a long business association (a subject-subject relation).”{7}  Blat is unlike bribery because bribery does not involve past personal relationship that starts the deal but only the initial offer.  Bribery is thus a subject-to-subject relationship and it is usually not a public matter and lacks trust between the parties.  Furthermore, bribery puts on in a position in which one is be to compensated for doing something s/he would normally not do.  Immediate profit is usually sought.  However, blat is not done for immediate profit, if any, but to help out a friend or a relative. 

            Different sorts of blat networks also existed.  There were two sorts of networks, horizontal and vertical. Ledeneva states that “horizontal networks were composed of people of similar status, known as ‘people of the circle’ (‘svoi lyudi’).  Vertical networks were composed of people of different social strata interested in each other’s connections and linked by kin, personal contacts or, most often, intermediaries known as ‘useful people’"{8} Those within a circle had many values, beliefs, types of needs and methods of satisfying those needs in common, they were also brought together by their line of work and/or their personal lives.  One would not be able to get into the circle without an introduction by one its members.  The main difference between horizontal and vertical networks is that in a horizontal network blats were extremely routine but the association with the “useful people” was more instrumental and periodic.

            Finally, the term blat still exists in today’s world; however, opinions regarding its terminology have changed.  Some assert that it still plays a vital role in everyday life while others argue that corruption and bribery has long replaced it. Alena Ledeneva also states “moreover, younger interviewees observe that the term ‘blatnoi’ has long its Soviet meaning and returned to its original, criminal, meaning, now related to ‘bandits’ rather than blat patients, clients, or students.” {9} Post-Soviet Russia has seen a great decline in shortages of goods and thus the usage of the blat has diminished.  With state property becoming privatized, people are no longer able to gain access to resources which do not belong to them, and thus they are able to dispose of the blat system without any reluctance.  “Shortages” also changed from tangible goods to intangibles such as money and private business expenses and thus the blat took on a different role of importance corresponding to that of the needs of a business. Lastly, according to Ledeneva, “material calculations, rather than the fact of acquaintance, count for most. In the current situation of instability the fact of acquaintance does not necessarily ensure that favours will be returns:  ‘Market conditions have changed personal relationships and ruined many friendships.  There is no room for blat as it used to be.  It looks like blat won’t be the same and the very word is going into oblivion.'”{10}