Lonkila, M. (1997) 'Informal
Exchange Relations in Post-Soviet Russia: A Comparative Perspective'
Sociological Research Online, vol. 2, no. 2, <http://www.socresonline.org.uk/2/2/9.html>
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Received: 12/3/97 Accepted: 21/5/97 Published: 30/6/97
Clear differences were found between the informal exchange practices of Russian and Finnish respondents. Compared to their Finnish colleagues, Russian teachers exchanged more favours, goods and important information. Moreover, the content of the informal exchange in St. Petersburg was both of a different nature and more diverse than in Helsinki; cases abounded of Russian respondents having to use their relatives, friends, colleagues or acquaintances in order to obtain informally products or different kinds of services (eg. medical care). Similarly, half of the Russian respondents reported blat exchanges - a particular Soviet/post-Soviet phenomenon of arranging things through informal connections, and a practice not found in the Finnish data. The informal exchanges reported in the St. Petersburg data were more often carried out with colleagues or other work-mediated relations, thereby stressing the importance of the Russian workplace as a social milieu. In the Russian data the informal exchange relations also involved more examples of informal exchange mediated by a third person, whereas in Helsinki the relations were more of a dyadic nature.
The results support the view proposed by previous research according to which informal exchange and patterns of behavior inherited from the socialist era still continue to influence the transition society. The continuing lack of trust in official institutions and social services was compensated for by our Russian respondents with the use of their personal relations. The trust necessary for informal exchanges to take place was guaranteed either through the use of brokers or a common social context, particularly the workplace. The resulting forms of social life can be characterized as personalized (since abstract and therefore replacable relations were turned into personal and unique ones) and mediated (since the brokers were often used). Though changing in forms and functions, the networks of personal relations still continue to play a significant role in the life of post-Soviet citizens.
By focusing the comparison on the way in which social interaction is constituted and channeled in different systems rather than on the institutional features of differerent societies, it is possible to ignore the question of scale in membership when constructing the dimensions for comparison (Barth 1981, p. 133).
Note that the provider of the favour (eg. lending money) can be either the respondent or the exchange partner and that one encounter reported in the diaries may include more than one act of exchange.
|Content of the Exchange||St. Petersburg||Helsinki|
|1.||Obtaining (dostat), bringing or buying (on other person's behalf with her money) foodstuffs or other kinds of products||40||(17%)||6||(6%)*|
|2.||Arranging medical or paramedical aid; eg. arranging a contact with a doctor, obtaining or bringing medicine||32||(13%)||7||(6%)*|
|4.||Lending things other than money (eg. books, videos, computer programs, diskettes, cassettes, sheet music, clothes)||15||(6%)||19||(17%)|
|5.||Helping with home repairs or work at datcha (St. Petersburg) or moving (Helsinki)||13||(5%)||5||(5%)|
|6.||Arranging useful contacts; eg. business contact, hairdresser, lawyer||12||(5%)||-|
|7.||Sending or transmitting a parcel||11||(5%)||3||(3%)|
|8.||Arranging somebody's child a place at school (university, sport camp)||8||(3%)||-|
|9.||Tutoring others' children; eg. helping colleague's child in homework||8||(3%)||1||(1%)|
|10.||Giving small gifts (birthday gifts excluded); eg. children's clothes etc.||8||(3%)||6||(6%)|
|11.||Giving a car ride||7||(3%)||29||(27%)|
|12.||Miscellaneous small favours or help; eg. taking the children to or from school, sewing a button on shirt etc.||56||(24%)||33||(30%)|
|Total Number of Exchanges||238||(100%)||109||(100 %)|
*Eight of the 13 exchange events in Helsinki classified in these categories were recorded by two respondents who both took care of the affairs of their fathers living in old people's homes.
|Content of the Exchange||St. Petersburg||Helsinki|
|1.||Medicine or medical cure||18||(27%)||2||(22%)|
|2.||Where to buy (kupit) cheaper products (mainly foodstuff)||10||(15%)||-|
|5.||Where to find or how to obtain (dostat) products||6||(9%)||1||(11%)|
|6.||Official documents (passports, medical documents etc.)||4||(6%)||-|
|7.||Common investment opportunities||4||(6%)||-|
|Total Number of Exchanges||67||(100%)||9||(100%)|
Explanations (St. Petersburg)
|1.||eg. where to obtain medicine, own experiences of medical treatment|
|3.||eg. where to find private teachers|
|5.||eg. receiving boots through an employee of a shoe factory. Here the main issue is not the price (sometimes the products purchased did not cost anything) but the method of purchasing|
|7.||These teachers of the same school had invested their money together in an investment fund|
|5.||Discussion on 'direct purchasing' of tea avoiding the retail sale chains|
|Type of Relation||Percentage of all Exchange Partners, St. Petersburg (N=256)||Percentage of all Exchange Partners, Helsinki (N=105)|
|Respondent's own kin||28%||50%|
|Spouse and spouse's kin||13 %||10%|
|Closeness Indicator||Percentage of all Exchange Partners, St. Petersburg (N=256)||Percentage of all Exchange Partners, Helsinki (N=105)|
|1 - 2||26%||46%|
|3 - 5||44%||34%|
|6 - 7||28%||13%|
|The son of Alla's old friend||Alla's old friend (teacher)||Alla||Alla's school director||Arranging a study
place at school|
|Alla's friend||Alla||Alla's old friend (teacher)||Arranging a job|
|Alla's close friend (midwife)||Alla||The neighbour of Alla's mother, (factory superintendent)||Arranging a job|
|Alla's neighbour (nurse)||Alla||The neighbour of Alla's mother, (factory superintendent)||Arranging new doors|
|Alla's neighbour, (nurse)||Alla||Alla's acquaintance (hairdresser)||Arranging a contact with
|The son of the sister of Alla's acquaintance||The sister of Alla's acquaintance||Alla||Alla's school director||Arranging study place at school|
|Alla's neighbour, (tovaroved)||Alla||Alla's hairdresser - acquaintance||Arranging a contact with hairdresser|
He [husband] wanted to return [to Leningrad] by any means ... and, of course, all my relatives joined in the effort to get him here. A study place was arranged for him in the maritime military academy.
When I came here [from Sevastopol to Leningrad], things were reversed. I was registered as a resident of Sevastopol but lived in Leningrad. Everything was the other way round. And of course, again I could not get a job. But my mother had worked in a school her whole life. She knew a director ... it was a school specialized in literature and she needed a chemist, teacher of chemistry. And ... they [employed me] without registration documents, silently. I worked there for two years.
Olga: ...[my own] mother - she is a 'blatnoi' person. Generally there is a category of people - whereever they go, nobody will ever deny them anything. But my father ... he was a very intelligent person, always 'please' and 'thank you'. He was always treated with rough words and left in tears...
Interviewer: And did not achieve anything.
Olga: And did not achieve anything. He did not know how to ask, he sent mother everywhere. I am probably the same kind of person. I love achieving things myself. Well, of course, if I need something some kind of contacts appear, it even turned out that I got po blatu to hospital!
Interviewer: You got there through relations [po znakomstvu]?
Olga: Yes, I did not expect it! I asked [my student's] mother to come to see me, the son of whom had started to skip lessons and behave badly. There were complaints about him, and I asked her to come. During our conversation she appeared to be an 'uzi' specialist [a doctor specialized in ultra wave diagnostics] at our maternity clinic. I did not know this at all. And I complained that I did not feel good and she invited me to her office. This is how it all happened. ...
Interviewer: And she also arranged things for you at the hospital?
Olga: She arranged everything, she arranged for me to go very quickly to the hospital and undergo all these analyses etc. But had I gone myself! You know how you take care of your own health - you do everything at the last moment.
Interviewer: Yes, that's the way it happens.
Olga: And this happened again - po blatu [by blat].
Interviewer: Now it is interesting; did you feel indebted to her?
Olga: Yes, I brought her a box of chocolates and a bunch of flowers, and - well, she is just such a tender person, that...
Interviewer: And you resolved the conflict with her son?
Olga: Yes, we resolved it , here everything is ok (laugh)
Interviewer: And what about the doctor? Were you operated on free of charge?
Olga: Yes, free of charge. ... it was only a maternity hospital, not far from here. But I was amazed how they took care of patients. Completely gratuitous maternity hospital ...
We never had such problems. She [his wife] simply picked up the phone and was told when to come to the shop and how much money she should take with her.
The rows in the table denote the channels or social milieus through which exchange partners were introduced to respondents.
|St. Petersburg (N=72)||Helsinki (N=14)|
|Respondent's own kin||10%||36%|
|Spouse or spouse's kin||15%||14%|
Interviewer: But for example, do such chains [of useful relations] exist? If you need ... for instance, a dentist or purchase [dostat] some kind of medicine? Do such chains take shape?
Galina: Yes, they do. ... for example, if you need a dentist or quick medical help, then you'll start searching [these relationships]. For instance, we have a teacher of music; her mother works as a doctor, so she took care of my teeth ... .
One doesn't want to run the risk of seeing the first person one comes across in a hospital or even in a hairdressing salon. One goes to those recommended by friends. If one respects oneself, one has to have one's own dentist, gynecologist, hairdresser, masseuse, tailor. If these are friends, it's the best. It is much more pleasant to socialize than just to get rude service (Ledeneva, 1996: p. 21).
Western people, in contrast to us, are very independent. They rely on themselves and do not fancy helping out or accepting help from the others. Russians assume that they can always ask for help and will help themselves. I am sure that if I ask I will be helped, and the other way round. If I am asked, I drop everything and help the other person, because I can imagine myself in his place. Indifference or refusal is a psychological trauma. I try not to refuse, giving out everything I can (Ledeneva, 1996: p. 164).
2 Ledeneva, private communication in Helsinki, 5th December 1996.
3 Thus, for example, helping a colleague with a problem related to schoolwork was considered a professional activity but lending money to a friend (who may or may not be a teacher) was regarded as informal exchange. Similarly, a respondent helping one's child to do homework was considered a family routine whereas helping a neighbour's child was regarded as informal exchange.
4 In the diaries, the respondents were asked to record seventeen different details concerning the encounter itself (eg. date and time, duration, place, content, number of participants) and the person(s) met (sex, age, occupation, place of birth and residence, duration of the relationship, place of the first encounter, nature and perceived closeness of the relationship). Telephone calls were also recorded as 'encounters'. The respondents were not instructed to pay particular attention to informal exchange, which was only one, though distinctive and visible, of several themes reported in the diaries. As a result, the diaries reflect our respondents' subjective views covering the whole sphere of their 'significant social life'. It is of course possible (though, in the light of the work of Srubar and Ledeneva, not very likely) that the Russian respondents over-reported their informal exchange encounters in comparison with the Finns. If so, this would at the very least prove that they considered them more important.
5 Of the Russian teachers, 31 were selected from one school in St. Petersburg and 21 from one school in Helsinki. Despite our efforts to find more male respondents, only seven in Helsinki and 12 in St. Petersburg were men. Most of our respondents in both cities were married and had children. The 1993 study was part of a larger comparative research project originated and coordinated by Dr. Maurizio Gribaudi, Ecole Des Hautes Etudes in Sciences Sociales, Paris. The Finnish research group was led by Dr. Risto Alapuro.
6 For further information on the related methodological debate in the field of history, see Gribaudi (1996) and Revel (1996).
7 I thank Marina Vitukhnovskaya for her help in constructing the case descriptions.
8 As pointed out to me by Teela Jyrkinen- Pakkasvirta, during the transition period birthday party rituals were transformed due to the lack of money. Some of her respondents have started to bring their own food and drink to the birthday party hence turning the ritual into a form of social support.
9 The Finnish teachers, too, reported a considerable number of birthday party meetings in their diaries. However, these were almost always either relatives' 60th or 70th birthday celebrations or children's birthdays.
10 All the reported encounters in the diaries were coded according to the content of informal exchange:
11 The Finnish respondents, who had recorded most exchange encounters, for instance, reported having taken care of their own parents living in old people's homes or hospitals. Since Russian respondents often lived with their parents, this kind of home help was very likely not reported as 'a significant encounter'.
12 The total number of all informal exchange encounters was 298 in St. Petersburg and 109 in Helsinki. Note that several encounters recorded in the diaries of the same respondent may refer to one act of exchange. The respondent may for instance first phone a friend asking if she has money to loan and the next day visit her to pick up the money. Since 31 Russian and 21 Finnish respondents worked in the same school, different respondents may also have reported the very same encounter. These 'cross-references' were checked for the St. Petersburg school but only four such cases were found. Due to a different age distribution in the Finnish data (the median age was 46 compared to 38 in the Russian data) a subsample was also formed to control the age variation. The subsample contained 35 Russian and 17 Finnish teachers between 30 and 50 years of age, who were married and had children. The median percentage for informal exchange encounters was 9.6% for the former and 2.0% for the latter.
13 One Russian respondent was excluded from the analysis for technical reasons. Note that not all exchanges referred to here necessarily denote informal exchange. Unfortunately we do not have more detailed information about the content of this exchange.
14 Since the respondents were asked to record in the diaries 'the encounters which were not part of their daily routine and which contained an exchange of significant information', all diary data was by definition related to the exchange of information. Therefore, the coded encounters were defined to include only information about new job opportunities, children's education, health, information of useful contacts, improving or maintaining one's standard of living or similar kinds of important information.
15 This was pointed out to me by Alena Ledeneva. On the importance of access, see Ledeneva (1996).
16 For a recent analysis on household survival strategies in St. Petersburg, see Piirainen (1997).
17 I owe the following points to Marina Vituhnovskaya.
18 By exchange partner I denote here the person encountered. Their total number in St. Petersburg was 256 and 105 in Helsinki. But exchange encounter could also involve or refer to other people. These kind of 'mediated' exchanges are dealt with in section 9.
19 The observed difference (which may run somewhat counter to the stereotypical picture of the significance of family and kin relations in Russia) cannot be attributed to the place of birth since 63% of the Finnish respondents were native residents of the city vis-a-vis 75% of Russians. Interestingly, a similar pattern emerged in a comparison between the American General Social Survey from the year 1985 and a survey carried out in the city of Tianjin, China in 1986. When asked with whom they 'discussed important matters', 44% of the Chinese but only 19.9% of the American respodents mentioned fellow workers. The corresponding numbers concerning kin were 52.7% in America and 38.9% in China (Ruan et al, 1997).
20 To find out if the type or closeness of exchange partners varied with the content of the exchange, Tables 3 and 4 were reconstructed for those encounters in the Russian data which only concerned 'obtaining' products, medicine or medical care (see two first rows of Table 1). The results were strikingly similar as to the type of relations. However, the proportion of closeness indicator three almost doubled at the expense of the weakest ties (closeness indicator seven).
21 Repeated combinations of an identical chain (where all the participants were the same) were counted only once but two chains in which one or more members were different were both included. Of the resulting 74 mediated exchange events two were excluded since they referred to the same chain reported by different respondents of the same school.
22 Receiver may or may not express a request for broker to contact donor. For instance respondent as a broker may know about her friend's (receiver) unemployment and contact a possible employer (donor) without her friend explicitly asking her to do this.
23 Our respondents were asked to fill in a who- knows-who matrix of their network members.
24 Our respondents functioned both as receivers, donors and brokers, the last position accounting for over half of all cases.
25 The strength of the link between broker and donor was unknown in 43% of the cases but between receiver and broker in only 7% of the cases.
26 Chris Chulos pointed out to me that even though the word blat does not have an exact English equivalent, similar expressions implying the use of social relations can be found. Doing something po blatu (or po znakomstvu) could for instance be translated as 'using one's influence to get something' or 'using one's connections/ties/position to get something', eg. 'I got tickets to the sold-out concert because I knew someone' (Chulos, private communication).
27 This case description is based on the work of Marina Vituhnovskaya.
28 Propiska denotes a stamp on the internal passport indicating the permitted place of residence. Without it one could not get official medical care, education or work. The propiskas of bigger Soviet cities, not to mention such metropolises as Leningrad and Moscow, were valuable documents since they enabled access to material and cultural resources of the cities.
29 The nature of these blat encounters were discussed between my three Russian colleagues, two of them natives of Leningrad. They agreed on 26 cases and disagreed on eight. Two main reasons for disagreement were noted. First, based on short diary notes it was in some cases difficult to say, whether something was done out of friendship (which was considered different from blat). Second, in some cases it was not evident if the privileges (such as buying foodstuff from school's dining hall) were an official part of the respondents' salary.
30 One of the few cases in the Finnish material which seemed to correspond with blat was a male teacher having his car repaired at the garage where his friend worked. But since there was no certainty whether the repair was paid at the market price or not, this correspondence could not be confirmed.
31 In 1995 my Russian friend arranged for her child to enter the university through blat. Another example of living blat practices is the possibility to phone long distance calls for free. This kind of blat relation was reported in the 1996 data by a Belorussian teacher, whose sister knew a phone operator (telephonistka) thanks to whom this teacher daily received long phone calls from her relatives in Belorussia. Similarly, my St. Petersburg colleague was connected time after time to her Ukrainian friend through her telephonistka friend.
32 Based on our data collected in 1993 it is impossible to answer the question of the possible pre-revolutionary roots of blat. Similarly, a comparison of St. Petersburg and Helsinki allow only speculation about this phenomenon in other countries. Srubar's secondary analysis, however, suggests that similar patterns of behavior were also developed in other real socialist countries.
33 Many of them evidently do, but here I pay attention to the particularities of Russian data.
34 Granovetter left it to future research to develop operational measures for the strength or weakness of a social tie. Marsden and Campbell (1984) have proposed closeness as an adequate indication of the strength of the tie. The perceived closeness between respondent and her network members was used in our diaries to indicate the strength of ties.
35 One may argue that the proportion of colleagues considered non-close was due to the possibly strained atmosphere of our St. Petersburg school. This would not, however, explain why the exchange still took place between them.
36 This was pointed out to me by Evgenija Poretskina. Both professions also deal with extremely valuable matters: one's health and children.
37 As late as 1996 it was customary for my St. Petersburg colleagues to come to Helsinki with a bunch of international letters to be mailed from Helsinki.
38 This is not to say that there was no room for individual striving and careers in the Soviet Union. But at some point in time it most likely required help from others, eg. in terms of party relations. For a recent discussion on individualistic/collectivist ethics among Russian entrepreneurs, see Kharkhordin (1994) and Brym (1996).
39 Most of Ledeneva's respondents did not regard gender as a salient category in the consideration of blat ties. She notes, however, that gender distinctions 'did affect the focus of people's blat efforts' (Ledeneva, 1996: p. 124).
40 Note again that exchange referred to here does not necessarily denote informal exchange.
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