Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1997


Lonkila, M. (1997) 'Informal Exchange Relations in Post-Soviet Russia: A Comparative Perspective'
Sociological Research Online, vol. 2, no. 2, <>

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Received: 12/3/97      Accepted: 21/5/97      Published: 30/6/97


In this article I compare the informal exchange of favours, goods and information in St. Petersburg and Helsinki. The study is part of a larger international comparative research project coordinated by the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, Paris. This text is based on data collected in the two cities during 1993 - 94: Forty secondary school teachers in St. Petersburg and thirty-eight in Helsinki kept a diary of their important social relations for two weeks. Each evening during this period they recorded their significant social encounters of the day in structured questionnaires; eg. whom they met and what they did or discussed together. After the two weeks, they added to the diaries persons whom they had not encountered during the study period but whom they nevertheless considered as significant for their social life. In addition, a complementary theme interview concentrating on their life course was carried out.

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.

Comparative Research; Daily Life; Informal Exchange; Post-Soviet Russia; Social Networks; Soviet Union

The Importance of Personal Relations in the Soviet Union and Post-Soviet Russia

Despite the multiple volumes devoted to Soviet studies, the sociological conception of everyday life in real socialist countries in general and the Soviet Union and post-Soviet Russia in particular still remains poorly developed whereas for instance economic and journalistic writings on its nature abound. In the late eighties and early nineties authors such as Shlapentokh (1989), Srubar (1991) and Ledeneva (1996) have started to shed light on the nature of the socialist and post-socialist systems from a genuine sociological perspective. Their analysis emphasizes the importance of informal personal networks in both the socialist and post-socialist societies.

In his article based on secondary sources in real socialist societies in Eastern European, Ilja Srubar (1991) poses the question of the modern nature of real socialism. According to Srubar, the ineffectiveness of the socialist economy combined with the Communist party power monopoly created a distinct mechanism of social integration of 'compensatory redistribution networks of goods and services'. In a socialist shortage economy, the consumer's main worry generally was not how to get money to buy products. Instead, the main problems were first, how to find information about the availability of goods, and second, how to gain access to them. Both problems, as well as numerous other daily problems, were solved with the help of one's social network. The members of these networks used their positions in state organizations for channeling public resources for personal uses. The real nature of these redistribution networks was camouflaged beneath an atmosphere of 'functional friendship' of mutual favours (Srubar, 1991).

According to Srubar, this system of mutually beneficial personal networks, comparable to the nature of social relations in premodern societies, operated under the surface of a seemingly modern real socialist society. Not only were the redistribution networks necessary for the functioning of the socialist economy, they also directed citizens' attention from the dangerous sphere of politics to consumption. For these reasons they were tacitly accepted by the authorities. The long term effects were, however, disastrous from the point of view of general social solidarity. The real socialist society was split up in the 'archipelago of networks', whose members were primarily loyal to their fellow network members and not to outsiders. Since everybody was more or less dependent on these networks, success in life was not attributed to the individual but rather considered a result of political privileges or one's social relations (Srubar, 1991).

This picture of real socialist societies created by Srubar strongly resembles the depiction of the Soviet Union/post-Soviet Russia by Ledeneva (1996) (see also Shlapentokh, 1989), who in her dissertation studies in detail the functioning, tactics and ethics of Russian 'blat' networks of mutual help and favours. Srubar's comparative secondary analysis is supported and deepened by the ethnological-sociological study of Ledeneva, who bases her research on in-depth interviews carried out with Russian respondents in 1994 and 1995.

Despite the differences in research questions and methods, their results show striking similarities. Without being social networks analysts in the structuralist sense of the term, both authors emphasize the distinct, personalized nature of the 'real socialist' (Srubar) or 'Soviet socialist' (Ledeneva) type of social system, pointing out in particular the importance of informal exchange networks. They agree on both their necessity for the socialist economy and their tacit acceptance by the authorities. Both Srubar and Ledeneva propose that these informal networks of favours pervaded the whole socialist society, and describe the consequences for the social order.[1] Finally, they agree on the significance of the inherited 'socialist' patterns of behavior, stressing the tension between change and continuity in post-socialist societies.

The account offered by Srubar and Ledeneva is convincing. The convergence of their results is even more persuasive since Ledeneva has not been aware of Srubar's work.[2] However, so far the studies on informal exchange have not been based on both systematic data on the social networks of Russians and on an explicit comparison with similar data from a western society. This is what I intend to do in this article. How can a comparative study add to our understanding of the daily life in present-day Russia? What signs, if any, are there to be seen from the socialist past? Does the comparison lend support to the results proposed by the authors cited above?

In the text that follows I analyse informal exchange encounters reported in the personal diaries of Russian and Finnish teachers. By 'informal exchange' I denote exchanges of favours, goods or important information which exceed the limits of teachers' official professional activities or family routines.[3] My scope of analysis is on the one hand narrower than Srubar's, whose analysis covers several Eastern-European countries but on the other hand wider than Ledeneva's, who has studied a specific part of informal exchange in Russia, namely the phenomenon of blat.

Below I first present the data and the methods of the study, followed by a description of the main empirical results in the sections 3 - 10. Sections 3 and 10 build on three case descriptions illustrating the importance and pervasiveness of informal exchange in the daily life of the Russian respondents. In sections 7 - 9 the phenomena depicted in the case presentations will be related to the whole data corpus. In section 13 the empirical results are connected to the discussion on the role of trust in post-socialist society. In section 16 I present a summary of the findings and in concluding section 17 directions for further research are proposed.

Data and Methods

My data corpus contains information on the social relations of secondary school teachers gathered during the spring 1993 in St. Petersburg and during the springs of 1993 - 1994 in Helsinki. Forty teachers in St. Petersburg and 38 teachers in Helsinki kept a diary of their social relations for two weeks. Each evening during this period they recorded, in the structured questionnaires, important social encounters which were not part of their daily routine; eg. whom they met and what they did or discussed together.[4] At the end of the two weeks, they added to the diaries those significant members of their personal networks whom they had not encountered during the study period but whom they nevertheless considered significant to their social life. In addition, a complementary theme interview concentrating on their life course was carried out.[5] In 1996 the same study was carried out in St. Petersburg with 20 teachers (of whom six had also participated in the 1993 study) and five psychologists. This paper is mainly based on the 1993 data but some preliminary results of the latter study will also be presented.

The nature of the data raises two obvious questions concerning the limits of this study. First, how could 40 non- randomly selected teachers in St. Petersburg and Helsinki represent the other inhabitants of these cities, let alone Russian or Finnish citizens on the whole? Second, how is it possible to compare St. Petersburg, a metropolis of five million people, with Helsinki, a town with a population of only half-a-million inhabitants?

To answer the latter question first, I want to emphasize that instead of the cities of St. Petersburg and Helsinki, I compare the social processes or mechanisms which generated the observed differences. To quote Fredrik Barth:

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).[6]

Due to the nature of our study design, the plausibility of my results will not rely on statistical generalization procedures. In the text that follows, I will show how the informal exchange relations in St. Petersburg and Helsinki are not only different in terms of numbers but also in terms of their functioning and quality. I will build my argument on a detailed analysis of the nature and logic of these relations.

Irina and Alla: Experts of Informal Exchange

I now illustrate the role of informal exchange in the daily life of our St. Petersburg respondents, based on the case descriptions of two middle-aged female teachers.[7] In order to make my point I will present (preceded by short life histories) only those parts of their diaries which deal with informal exchange during the two week study period. I will therefore skip their discussions with pupils or colleagues related to professional affairs, as well as their discussions with their spouses or children.


Irina is a 44-year-old teacher of Russian born in the Ukraine. She met her husband, currently a teacher of physical education, on holiday in Odessa in 1969. Three years later they were married and Irina followed her husband to Leningrad where he was studying at a sports institute. They live together with their 20-year-old daughter in a three room apartment.

Irina's first encounter recorded on the morning of day one is with the school facilities superintendent: 'I was interested to see if she returned boots to our acquaintance which I had bought and which turned out to be of bad quality'. In the afternoon Irina meets Valentina, her colleague and best friend among the teachers. Irina pays back a loan from her. On day three Irina's husband returns from a work-related trip. Soon after this their neighbour Anton pays them a visit. Anton is characterized as 'a neighbour with whom we often meet; we help each other'. The next day Irina's mother phones from the Ukraine. Irina asks if she still has medicine and retirement income left. In the evening Irina receives a phone call from her sister-in-law who is working as a matron at a factory sanatorium: 'I talked with my husband's sister about foodstuffs, which she should pass to us from her acquaintance'. Later in the evening the neighbour Anton stops by again asking for a loan of 5,000 rubles, roughly a teacher's weekly pay at that time, which Irina gives him.

On the evening of day eight Irina receives a call from a colleague, whom she characterizes as 'a colleague with whom I have warm and friendly relations; she often helps me'. One hour later Irina phones Svetlana, an employee of a shoe factory, asking if Svetlana could exchange her defective boots. Svetlana has been characterized by Irina as 'an unknown person, who often did me favours'. The next day Irina meets the secretary of her school to whom she lends money. The secretary is characterized as 'a woman with whom I want to share things both in good and bad'. In the evening of the same day Svetlana visits Irina's home: she collects the boots and they talk about the secrets of kitchen-gardeners. Svetlana gives Irina some extra seedlings.

On day ten Irina celebrates the birthday of her neighbour-friend Anna: 'We talked about school, children, we sang, danced, listened to the music'. During the party Irina meets Elena, a dentist whom she has learned to know through Anna. Irina characterizes Elena: 'We meet seldom, not very open in discussions'. However, they agree about meeting at Elena's office. Two days later Irina reports an encounter with the vice director of her school who brings her medicine. Later in the afternoon Irina meets Svetlana at school: 'I gave her the shoes which my daughter did not like. Then we talked about kitchen gardening. Sveta talked about her family, tragic events'. On the last day of the study period her neighbour- friend Anna phones: 'She reminded me to talk with Zinaida Konstantinova about private lessons in literature for the son of Anna's acquaintance'. Some hours later Irina meets Zinaida at school and passes this message to her.


Alla is a 36-year-old teacher of literature married to a businessman of the same age. They have a 16-year-old son and eight-year-old daughter. After leaving school Alla got a job as a Young Pioneer leader at a school where her mother's acquaintance worked as director. During this period Alla got to know 'an interesting circle of acquaintances reaching up to the regional Komsomol committee level'. Having finished her university studies she was asked, through the help of a neighbour, to continue her studies as a post-graduate student. However, she turned this offer down. Alla joined the Communist party, taking her membership seriously and, in her own words, was a good communist. Her Komsomol and party relations resulted in a suggestion to study in the German Democratic Republic - a possibility only dreamt of by an average Soviet teacher. After her studies in GDR she was offered (most likely again due to her relations) a job in Finland, which she refused mainly because of her husband's resistance. At present Alla is a rank-and-file teacher at school but thanks to her friends at the university she can also teach Russian to foreigners.

Alla's diaries are filled with notes on informal exchange and mutual help. On the first day of the study period Alla's close friend visits her: 'I returned a loan to her. The day had been long, fatiguing. I was very tired but the company of my friend cheered me up. Stress disappeared. We talked about money, illnesses, children, love, purchases, my birthday. We laughed a lot. She shared a new recipe with me...'. In the street on day four Alla meets an old childhood friend who asks for help in placing her child in Alla's school. They talk about their common past and friends. Alla characterizes her friend as 'a good person who has helped me several times'. On day five Alla meets her father, borrowing money from him for the preparation of her birthday celebration and for construction materials for their datcha. The next day her old friend Inna attends Alla's birthday party and mentions being in search of a new job. Alla promises to help her and turns to another birthday guest, 'an old and reliable friend, though we see each other seldom nowadays', asking him to employ Inna.

On day seven Alla receives a phone call from her mother's neighbour Vladimir, a factory shop superintendent 'who helps our family with small repairs'. He congratulates Alla on her birthday and tells Alla he has fullfilled her wish by employing a friend of Alla's acquaintance. They talk about how to arrange new doors for Alla's friend and neighbour Ira. Half an hour after this phone call Ira herself stops by. She asks Alla's husband about passport formalities concerning Ira's trip to Turkey. Before leaving, Ira also uses the opportunity to ask Alla to recommend her to Alla's coiffeur-acquaintance.

On day eight, female colleagues sit at the table celebrating Alla's birthday at school. A recently divorced colleague confesses to Alla tha she is in search of a new husband. She asks if Alla has a candidate to recommend but she does not. On the evening of day ten, Alla receives a phone call from Lena K, a person whom she did not personally know beforehand. Lena asks Alla to arrange a place for her son at Alla's school. Before the phone call Lena's sister (an acquaintance of Alla) had done some background work by informing Alla about her sister's problem. Alla promises to help, though she characterizes Lena somewhat bitterly: 'We haven't even met but she already wants help'. Finally, on day fourteen Alla meets her neighbour, a 'product expert' (tovaroved) who wants Alla to acquaint him with a hairdresser. He is characterized as 'a benevolent, tender person, ready to help'.

Comparing Irina and Alla

The social life of Irina and Alla, though different in many other respects, is marked not only by the great number of their exchange relations but also by the intensity and nature of these relations. Other 'exchange experts' similar to these two teachers were found in St. Petersburg but not in Helsinki.

The informal exchanges recorded by Irina and Alla are often of a particular nature. The exchanges provide the two teachers an access not only to the personal resources of their exchange partners but also to the resources of their work organizations. Vladimir does not only help Alla's family with small repairs; as a factory shop superintendent he also uses his position and contacts to help Alla's friend to obtain new doors. In a like manner, the shoe factory employee Svetlana offers Ira an access to the selection of (most probably) either cheaper or better boots than Ira could find without connections in the department store.

Both Irina and Alla have reported numerous informal exchange relations particularly with their colleagues and neighbours. In the interview Alla confesses to having noticed her special disposition to socialize with others: 'All the time I feel the interest of others, how they want to approach me, how they'd like to make friends with me'. The instrumental and altruistic aspects of the social relations of both teachers are intertwined to the extent that they seem impossible to separate. Alla for instance often characterizes the nature of her exchange relations in terms of mutual help:

Another interesting feature in both Alla's and Irina's diaries is linked to the ritualized exchange. Both teachers - as well as several other Russian respondents - have in their diaries reported a significant number of birthday celebrations. The arrangements for Alla's 36th birthday party begin on Friday, when she is preparing the invitations with her mother. Her mother worries about the costs of the birthday party.[8] On Saturday Alla visits her brother's family and the coming birthday celebration is discussed. The following Monday Alla's father lends her money for the birthday party preparations. On Tuesday the party finally takes place at Alla's home. On Wednesday Alla's mother's neighbour Vladimir phones to congratulate her. On Thursday there is another celebration party - this time arranged at school. On Friday Alla's former pupil congratulates her at school. The last note concerning the birthday is from Saturday, when a female friend phones to congratulate Alla.

Our diary data does not allow a profound study of ritualized exchange. It suffices here to note that an event which is celebrated in Finland with hardly anybody, except family, even noticing it,[9] initiates in Russian diaries two, possibly more, social occasions costly both in terms of time, arrangements and money. On the one hand birthday parties provide an opportunity to socialize, relax and have fun, but on the other hand during the celebrations the host and guests can also maintain their social relations and make new contacts.

For both Alla and Irina, informal exchange is rooted in their daily life and life history in a manner not found in the Finnish data. Though instrumental and altruistic help are closely connected with their personalities and they are obviously sociable characters, both have also gained from their relations eg. in terms of employment opportunities.

The Extent of Informal Exchange in Russian and Finnish Data[10]

As noted above, Irina and Alla are not anomalies in our Russian data. In contrast with the Finnish diaries, several similar Russian 'exchange experts' were found. The median percentage of informal exchange encounters among all recorded encounters was 10.4% for Russian respondents but only 3.4% for their Finnish colleagues. In addition, nine of the 38 Finnish respondents did not report any informal exchange encounters, whereas all but one of the 40 Russian teachers did.[11]

As these figures show, favours, goods and important information were exchanged considerably more in the Russian than in the Finnish data during the two-week study period.[12] After the period had ended, our respondents added to their daily contacts those persons whom they had not met during this time but who nevertheless were important to them (eg. mother living in another part of the country). Respondents were then asked whether they had exchanged significant medical aid in respect of those in their diaries, and those who had been added later.[13] The results confirm the trend noted during the two-week period: The median percentage of exchange partners was 38.0% for the Russian respondents and 17.1% for their Finnish counterparts.

The Russian teachers did not only differ from their Finnish colleagues in the number of exchange encounters but also in terms of their contents. Table 1 presents the most typical contents of informal exchanges of goods and favours reported during the two weeks.

Table 1: Typical Content of the Exchanges of Favours and Material Goods in St. Petersburg and Helsinki

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 ExchangeSt. PetersburgHelsinki

1.Obtaining (dostat), bringing or buying (on other person's behalf with her money) foodstuffs or other kinds of products40(17%)6(6%)*
2.Arranging medical or paramedical aid; eg. arranging a contact with a doctor, obtaining or bringing medicine32(13%)7(6%)*
3.Lending money28(12%)-
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, lawyer12(5%)-
7.Sending or transmitting a parcel11(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 homework8(3%)1(1%)
10.Giving small gifts (birthday gifts excluded); eg. children's clothes etc.8(3%)6(6%)
11.Giving a car ride7(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 Exchanges238(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.

As shown in Table 1, the contents of exchanges of material goods and favours were more diverse in St. Petersburg than in Helsinki. The range of exchange in the Russian data was not only wider but also closely related to the necessities of everyday life - such as purchasing foodstuffs or medicine, loaning money or arranging health care services. With the exception of the miscellanous small favours numerous in both cities, the most frequent type of informal exchange in the Finnish data was giving somebody a car ride followed by lending things like cassettes or sheet music.

The first two rows of Table 1 deserve closer attention. In the Russian language the verb 'obtaining' (dostat) as opposed to 'buying' (kupit) has particular connotations (see Ledeneva, 1996). In St. Petersburg it denotes informal exchange which implies the use of social relations in order to obtain either material goods or services. Half of the Russian cases in the first row referred to this kind of encounter, whereas both such cases and the corresponding vocabulary were absent in the Finnish diaries.

Another notable difference in row three of Table 1 is the greater amount of informal lending of money in the Russian data as compared with Finns. Besides Russian teachers' lower salaries it may also reflect a more general difference in one's relationship to money, loaning and self-reliance.

In addition to the exchange of favours and material help, Russian diaries also contained considerably more exchange of important information. [14] Again, both the amount and variation in the Russian data was larger (see Table 2):

Table 2: Typical Content of the Exchanges of Important Information in St. Petersburg and Helsinki
Content of the ExchangeSt. PetersburgHelsinki

1.Medicine or medical cure18(27%)2(22%)
2.Where to buy (kupit) cheaper products (mainly foodstuff)10(15%)-
3.Children's studies9(13%)-
4.Job opportunities7(10%)2(22%)
5.Where to find or how to obtain (dostat) products6(9%)1(11%)
6.Official documents (passports, medical documents etc.)4(6%)-
7.Common investment opportunities4(6%)-
Total Number of Exchanges67(100%)9(100%)

Explanations (St. Petersburg) where to obtain medicine, own experiences of medical treatment where to find private teachers 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

Explanations (Helsinki)

5.Discussion on 'direct purchasing' of tea avoiding the retail sale chains

Table 2 confirms the trend already noted in the previous table. In contrast with the Finnish respondents, the ultimate motive for informal exchanges in the Russian data - whether they included material, favours or information - was typically related to the basic needs of daily life.

Both tables presented above have been structured according to the content of the exchange. But as with Irina and Alla, many of the exchanges presented in the tables gave participants access not only to the personal resources of their exchange partner but also eg. to the resources of the partner's work organization. This phenomenon of 'favour of access' is strongly present in the Russian data, particularly in Table 1.[15]

Why still in 1993 did our Russian respondents have to use their social relations in order to obtain such necessities of life as medicine? In order to understand the situation, one should recall the effects of the price liberation in 1992 which severely hit the previously relatively well-to-do middle strata of Russian society. Suddenly such professionals as engineers, doctors and teachers 'found themselves at the brink of poverty' (Piirainen, 1997: p. 54; see also Jyrkinen-Pakkasvirta and Poretskina, 1994).

To cope in a new situation, different strategies were possible. One possible strategy was to enter the market economy by trying to increase one's revenue. Since teachers' wages could not match the growing inflation, some of our respondents, for instance, gave private lessons or worked as tourist guides thus earning some extra money for living. But more traditional strategies were also used in the new situation.[16] They were based on the use of personal relations as described above, and hence, at least in principle, foreign to the abstract mechanisms of the market economy:[17] First, social relations and brokers were used in order to be able to obtain rare products (eg. medicine). In 1993 some medical products were either lacking or hard to secure in St. Petersburg, the situation being even more difficult in smaller cities or countryside. In order to obtain them, one had to contact pharmacy or hospital staff through one's social network, or possibly somebody abroad. Second, personal relations were needed in order to gain information about where to buy products or services in St. Petersburg. Not all pharmacies in the city, for instance, necessarily had the same product assortment. Finally, social relations could also help to get products or services more cheaply than through the formal channels.

Russian and Finnish Exchange Partners[18]

A large part of the informal exchange in both cities took place, as could be expected, between close relatives and friends. However, in the Russian data the level of exchange, particularly between colleagues, was more significant than in Finland.

In order to study the different types of exchange partners, both Russian and Finnish data were coded according to the type of relation between respondents and their partners. Instead of being labeled only as eg. 'colleagues', 'friends', 'relatives' or 'acquaintances', the coding of partners denoted the way in which they had been brought into the network, stressing the importance of different spheres of life to the growth of the network. In this manner, a network member characterized as 'an acquaintance' but introduced to the respondent by her current or former colleague (or pupil) was coded, together with co-workers, in 'work- mediated relations' (see row three in Table 3).

Table 3: Types of Exchange Partners in St. Petersburg and Helsinki

Type of RelationPercentage of all Exchange Partners, St. Petersburg (N=256)Percentage of all Exchange Partners, Helsinki (N=105)
Respondent's own kin28% 50%
Spouse and spouse's kin13 %10%
Work32 %11%

Table 3 shows that the Russian and Finnish data differ most in terms of exchange partners mediated through kin and work. In the Russian data, the respondent's own kin accounted for 28%, but in the Finnish data for 50% of all exchange partners. In work-mediated relations this picture was reversed. Thirty-two percent of the Russian exchange partners were work-mediated whereas the correponding proportion for the Finns was 11%.[19]

Another clear difference was found in the perceived closeness between the respondents and their exchange partners. Vis-a-vis each network member, the respondents were asked to indicate the perceived closeness between themselves and the persons encountered on a scale from 1 (very close) to 7 (not at all close). These indicators were then classified according to the following scheme: 1 - 2 = strong, 3 - 5 = intermediate, 6 - 7 = weak social relationship. Whereas in St. Petersburg 26% of all informal exchanges took place between respondents' closest or 'strongest' social relationships, the same percentage in Helsinki was 46% (see first row in Table 4).

Table 4: Perceived Closeness between Respondents and their Exchange Partners in St. Petersburg and Helsinki (scale: 1 = very close, 7 = not at all close)

Closeness IndicatorPercentage of all Exchange Partners, St. Petersburg (N=256)Percentage of all Exchange Partners, Helsinki (N=105)
1 - 226%46%
3 - 544%34%
6 - 728%13%
Not known2%7%

As evident from Table 4, a significantly greater proportion of informal exchange in St. Petersburg was carried out with people perceived either as 'non-close' or 'intermediate' in terms of closeness whereas in Helsinki, perhaps somewhat more predictably, informal exchange diminishes with the weakening of the relationship.[20]

The Importance of Mediated Exchange in the Russian Data

Though seemingly of a dyadic nature, exchange is often embedded in or influenced by people or groups outside the dyad (see Grieco, 1987, p. 48). In this section attention is paid to particular cases of this more general phenomenon, where dyadic exchanges are mediated by a third person.

Several examples of this kind of mediated exchange have already been presented above: Alla asking her mother's neighbour to arrange doors for Alla's neighbour-friend; Alla asking her friend to employ another friend of hers; Irina receiving foodstuff from an acquaintance of her husband's sister. In the Russian data 72 instances of this kind of mediated exchange chains were found (as opposed to ten cases in the Finnish data).[21] Not only was the number of mediated exchange events greater in the Russian data, the events were also more evenly distributed among the respondents; 32 out of 40 Russian respondents (but only 10 out of 38 Finns) reported mediated exchanges in their diaries. This observation, as well as the work by Ledeneva (1996: p. 154) supports the claim that mediated forms of exchange are still important in Russia in contrast to more dyadic exchanges noticed in the Finnish data.

The mediated chain of exchange in St. Petersburg could sometimes be a fairly complicated one involving several brokers. Thirteen of the 72 cases observed included two brokers, turning the triad into a rectangle. The majority of the cases, however, were of a simpler nature taking the form of a triad consisting of three persons: receiver, broker and donor. The three examples of mediated exchange from the diaries of Alla and Irina described above could be presented in the form of an exchange triad as follows:

The 'primary' relation between receiver and broker is the relation where the original need for exchange is born - for instance Irina asking her husband's sister to obtain foodstuff for them.[22] The 'secondary' relation between broker and donor includes: First, the request for help (eg. husband's sister turning to her acquaintance for foodstuffs) and second, if the donor's response is positive, the 'symbolic' service being done for the broker (sister's acquaintance promises sister to arrange the affair). The 'tertiary' relation between donor and receiver finally includes the concrete service being done to fullfill the original need of the receiver (sister's acquaintance obtains the foodstuff and gives it to Irina either directly or through Irina's sister-in-law).

In mediated exchanges different kinds of requests are made and different kinds of obligations are being born. In the first example above, Vladimir does a favour both for Alla (by helping her neighbour-friend Ira) as well as for Ira (by helping her concretely). Therefore both Alla and Ira will feel obligated to Vladimir. On the other hand, Alla does a favour to Ira by mediating her request to Vladimir. This results in Ira becoming indebted to Alla. All these relations within the exchange triad may thus either strengthen the existing social ties or possibly create new ones building up chains of social solidarity. It is exactly the latter, in fact, that happens between Vladimir and Ira, since they did not know each other beforehand.[23] After the exchange event, however, it would be totally legitimate for Vladimir to contact Ira and ask a return favour, which Ira (a nurse by profession) could then try to do either personally or through her own network.

It is not surprising that respondents inclined to exchanging favours in general (such as Alla and Irina) also reported several mediated exchange events. In her diaries Alla even reported a record of seven mediated exchange events observed in the Russian data. Table 5 examines these in detail.

Table 5: The Exchange Chains Reported in Alla's Diary

ReceiverBroker 1Broker 2DonorContent
The son of Alla's old friendAlla's old friend (teacher)AllaAlla's school directorArranging a study place at school
Alla's friendAllaAlla's old friend (teacher)Arranging a job

Alla's close friend (midwife)AllaThe neighbour of Alla's mother, (factory superintendent) Arranging a job
Alla's neighbour (nurse) AllaThe neighbour of Alla's mother, (factory superintendent)Arranging new doors
Alla's neighbour, (nurse) AllaAlla's acquaintance (hairdresser)Arranging a contact with hairdresser

The son of the sister of Alla's acquaintanceThe sister of Alla's acquaintanceAlla Alla's school directorArranging study place at school
Alla's neighbour, (tovaroved)AllaAlla's hairdresser - acquaintance Arranging a contact with hairdresser

It is characteristic of Alla that she functions as a broker in each chain.[24] The occupations of several of her exchange partners suggest that when in need, Alla could turn to them for help. For instance tovaroved denotes a trading profession - eg. in a department store - which in Soviet times implied an opportunity to distribute some of the products to one's friends and acquaintances under the counter. The medical professionals among Alla's exchange partners also provide at least a potential informal access to medical services.

The majority of the content of mediated exchange relations consisted of arranging medical aid, as with the exchange events in general (eg. contact with dentist) or other kinds of services (eg. contact with hairdresser, seamstress or lawyer); obtaining medicine or other products; tutoring the children of friends, colleagues and acquaintances or arranging them a study place. The favours mentioned accounted for a total of 80% of the observed 72 cases.

An analysis of the strength of the links in these 72 exchange chains showed that strong links accounted for a clear majority of the relations between receiver and broker but only a tenth of the links between broker and donor.[25] This can be seen, following Ledeneva (1996: p. 155), as indicative of the fact that for the broker it is psychologically easier to ask a favour even of a donor perceived as distant (who is more likely not to be a relative) since the broker does not seek help for themself. In several cases these exchanges were about helping somebody's child, implying the importance of intergenerational relations in mediated exchanges. Similarly, in the relation between receiver and broker, extended kin outnumbered other types of relations whereas the type of the link connecting broker and donor was distributed more evenly between acquaintances, colleagues, extended kin and friends.

How can the importance of using mediated exchange in particular and social relations in general be understood? First, as with the direct exchanges, the mediated exchange relations could naturally be used to gain information about the availability or location of the products or services - as well as to obtain them at cheaper prices. Second, the extension of the network increases exponentially with each new broker, consequently increasing the possibilities for positive responses. Third, broker could guarantee the quality of the products or services (see Rivkin-Fish, 1996, and Ledeneva, 1996, on the importance of the brokerage in post-Soviet medical care) and create the trust needed between the receiver and donor.

Blat Relations in the Russian Data

According to Ledeneva, 'blat is a roundabout way of arranging things, circumventing the formal procedure by using personal contacts' (Ledeneva, 1996: p. 26). Though the English and Finnish languages contain similar expressions[26] they do not capture the essence of this social institution nor its rootedness in the daily life of both and post-Soviet citizens. In Ledeneva's opinion blat can be regarded as a truly Soviet phenomena, still functioning - though in lesser degree - during the transition period.


Perhaps the clearest example of a 'blat specialist' among our respondents is Nina, a 44-year-old teacher of handicrafts and English. She was born in Leningrad as the daughter of an officer and a teacher of handicrafts. Nina graduated with a degree in chemistry and was married young to a Leningrader student at the military academy. In July 1973 she gave birth to a daughter. The following month her husband was transferred to Sevastopol, Crimea where Nina followed him half a year later. Afraid of losing her residence registration (propiska[28]) in Leningrad, Nina first lived illegally in Sevastopol but later officially changed her residence there. After several attempts her husband managed to return to Leningrad in 1979 and Nina was now faced with the problem of how to regain her status of permanent resident of Leningrad. After having returned to the city, she managed to work illegally without propiska for two years. In 1983 Nina divorced and took up a job at her present school. Next year she married for a second time, to an engineer. The couple is currently living with Nina's daughter and mother in a three room apartment.

The use of social relations, particularly those mediated by her mother, has been significant in Nina's life. However, the transfer of her husband from Sevastopol to a military academy in Leningrad was most probably arranged through Nina's officer -father:

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.

After her husband had finished the military academy, Nina's relations were employed again, this time in order to arrange his job allocation in Leningrad.

Blat has been involved in several important decisions in Nina's life. Through it she received a ticket to the event where she met her second husband. She got her first job as a teacher of chemistry through her mother's contact, the director of the school, who was running a considerable risk of illegally employing Nina without the residence registration:

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.

Nina's current job was also arranged through her mother's contact. The director knew Nina's mother, a retired teacher of handicrafts and asked her to recommend a new teacher of handicrafts for the school. Naturally the mother proposed her daughter for the job. Though the use of her relations is most evident in her life story interview, Nina's diaries also hint at her social abilities: she has contacts with doctors and nurses who advise her on health problems, write her prescriptions; her friend's acquaintance sews her clothes; her husband's doctor treats her brother, and so on.

Blat Exchanges in Russian Diaries and Interviews

Thirty-four encounters implying blat relations were found in the diaries of 18 St. Petersburg respondents.[29] The most typical examples of blat were cases where respondent either arranged a study place at her school for somebody's child or arranged medical services or medicine. The Finnish data was investigated for similar instances but no clear cases were found.[30]

Finns may and very likely do use their social relations to circumvent official regulations, also illegally. It is possible, too, that the use of connections is taboo to the extent that our Finnish respondents were unwilling to report such encounters. However, both on the basis of the examination of our data and the reports by other authors (eg. Ledeneva, 1996; Rivkin-Fish, 1996) it seems clear that the use of social relations, particularly in the form of mediated ones and blat, is not rooted as extensively in the social life of the Finns. For instance, there is no commonly known practice of school selection of Finnish pupils on the basis of their parents' contacts, or of students entering the universities by blat as was the case at least in some university faculties in St. Petersburg in 1995.[31]

In the new interviews carried out through spring 1996, the respondents (among whom were six 1993 respondents) were asked about their opinions of blat. On the one hand it seems that doing something po blatu (by blat) was not accepted as decent behavior, but on the other hand, most teachers had experiences of these relations. In a similar manner, the respondents of Ledeneva (1996) considered blat as morally questionable when carried out by others but altruistic help when done by respondents.

A good example in our data is Olga, our respondent who participated both in the 1993 and 1996 studies. In the 1996 interview Olga described her mother as 'blatnoi chelovek' (person inclined to do things by blat) as opposed to her father who never wanted to use his social relations. Having first characterized herself as similar to her father, in the next sentence, however, she tells about her blat relations with her pupil's mother:

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 ...

In the quote it is essential to note that both Olga and the mother of her pupil can gain private benefits from their professional positions. Both this quote and the case of Nina described above also indicate that some persons were more inclined to making and maintaining blat relations than others. Another respondent from the 1996 data was married to a dentist and tells in the interview of his wife's exchange of dental care with the services of a hairdresser. According to the husband, neither currently, nor during the Soviet era has the family had problems in obtaining (dostat) anything needed for normal life as opposed to other people, who had to stand in the queues:

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.

To summarize, blat has not been abolished by the transition period though its forms may change with the gradual progress of the market economy. This phenomenon is clearly present in our St. Petersburg data, claiming credence to the argument stressing the continuity between Soviet and post-Soviet eras.[32]

The Problem of Trust: Strength of Weak Ties in Russia?

Some puzzling aspects of our Russian data still deserve closer examination. A peculiar feature of Russian exchange partners already presented at the end of section 8 is the number of partners characterized as non-close. The proportion of these weak and intermediate exchange relations in the Russian data raises an obvious question: What guarantees that a service or help given to a distant exchange partner will ever be repaid? It seems obvious that the trust is 'built in' as a constituent part of an individual's closest relations such as extended family or good friends, but how is the trust necessary for an exchange with a partner perceived as distant created? And why in particular are so many weak exchange ties of Russian respondents maintained - sometimes for a long period of time? Why don't they either break up or develop into closer relations?[33]

In his well-known article The Strength of the Weak Ties Mark Granovetter (1973, see also 1982) has proposed one answer to the question. According to Granovetter, weak ties with acquaintances (as opposed to the strong ties with relatives and friends) are important precisely because they connect people with the social milieus they are not familiar with.[34] In contrast to friends and relatives, the weak ties are more likely to furnish them with new and possibly useful information from these new milieus. Though friends and kin are likely to be strongly motivated to help you, they will also more probably produce redundant information whereas weak ties can function as 'bridges', carrying new information from one social milieu to another.

In line with Granovetter's argument, the amount of distant social ties in Russia could be explained by the importance of managing information on available goods, services or advices. This line of argument would consider informal exchange relations as a necessity of everyday life. Perhaps, in order to get by, one simply had to be constantly looking for useful information and relations by any means and through everybody, no matter how distant?

Another kind of answer has been proposed by Michael Eve (1995). Emphasizing the growth of the networks he argues that social relations do not grow dyadically and haphazardly in all directions but follow some socially predictable routes. According to Eve, beneath the weak ties can often be found either a common social milieu or a strong tie - eg. family or friends - which serve as a link guaranteeing that the weak tie 'really can carry some weight' (see also Grieco, 1987: p.48).

Studying Eve's argument requires a closer examination of the nature of distant exchange relations in our Russian data. In Table 6 weak ties have been cross-tabulated with the type of relations - or more exactly with the type of the different channels or milieus through which they were introduced to respondent.

Table 6: Type of Weak Exchange Partners (closeness indicator = 6 or 7) in the Russian and Finnish Data

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 kin10%36%
Spouse or spouse's kin15%14%

The results presented in Table 6 support Eve's argument. Even though a strict comparison is not possible here because of the small number of distant exchange partners in the Finnish data, the overwhelming majority of weak exchange partners in both cities were brought into the network by either extended kin or a common social milieu, such as the workplace.

Social Importance of the Workplace

Table 6 confirms the special importance of the workplace in the Russian data: almost half of all weak exchange relations were 'guaranteed' by the context or mediation of common work milieu.[35] The same trend emerges when studying the intermediate exchange relations. The St. Petersburg school where the majority of our Russian respondents worked seems to act as an important context for informal exchange, accounting for a third of all informal exchange relations (vis-a-vis one tenth in the Finnish data).

Of the numerous social relations gained through work, our respondents could first of all count on the help and advice of their colleagues, whom they had known for several years. Our Russian respondents not only got advice, loaned to and borrowed money from their colleagues but also bought food at the school dining-hall and gave private lessons to their colleagues' childrens. The school teachers also trained themselves in capitalism by investing together in a Russian company. Galina, one of the six teachers participating both in the 1993 and 1996 studies, told in 1996 of the continuing importance of collegial relations exceeding the limits of the work milieu:

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 ... .

In terms of social relations perhaps as big an advantage related to the teacher's profession were the connections with pupils and their parents. In general the Russian teachers had registered more pupils in their diaries than their Finnish colleagues. Since the respondents in both countries were asked to record only those pupils with whom the relationship exceeded the normal teacher-pupil relationship, there seems to be a particularly strong relation between the Russian teacher and her pupil.

This relationship has been explained by the educational (vospitatelnaya) ethics of collective upbringing inherited from the Soviet era (see Bronfenbrenner, 1970). But in a closer analysis we find that many of the pupils and teachers in our Russian data are also connected by more concrete ties than educational ideology. To start with, the teachers often had arranged a study place for the children of their friends or acquaintances. Both pupils and teachers tended to live in the vicinity of the school (one teacher reported her pupils living in the very same house as herself). Teachers' own children often studied at the same school thus making friends with their mothers' pupils. Finally, the pupils could function as links between their teachers and parents, often leading to mutual exchanges.

Therefore, the very meaning of workplace or occupation in general seems to be different for Russian and Finnish teachers. Teaching - together with medicine - are two of the Soviet/Russian professions whose relatively low status and salary is compensated for by their huge clientele cutting across all the social classes - and at least potentially offering a wide range of possibilities for the informal exchange of favours.[36] For our Russian teachers - in contrast with their Finnish colleagues - the occupation seems to function as access to the multiple institutional and personal social resources mediated through the working place.

Personalizing Trust

Eve's criticism can be related to the discussion on the concept of trust - a notion recently taken up by several authors in discussion on post-socialist society (see eg. Preisendorfer, 1995; Ledeneva, 1996; Misztal, 1996; Sztompka, 1996). According to Piotr Sztompka, the lack of trust is a central phenomena of post-socialist societies. In a society penetrated by distrust, a natural strategy seems to be turning to one's personal relations. The distrust in real socialist societies did not only concern the political organizations and macro structures but penetrated the everyday life of the whole society. Trusting such basic social services as children's daycare, medical care, old people's homes or even mail delivery was not self-evident in Soviet life.[37]

According to Peter Preisendorfer (1995) the problem of distrust can be solved either on the level of institutional arrangements or on the level of individual actors' strategies. As an example of possible strategies for dealing with the situation he presents the relation between doctor and patient - a concrete example well illuminated in our Russian diary data as well. The first possible strategy of an individual distrusting medical care could be to avoid any contacts with doctors. Since this is not always possible, the patient could see different doctors and compare their diagnoses. Third, the patient could 'personalize' the relationship for instance through common sailing-trips or golf-games. Finally, the patient could strive to get a clear-cut contract with the doctor, establishing the relationship on a contractual basis (Preisendorfer, 1995: p. 265).

The choice of many of our Russian respondents would evidently be a modified verson of the third 'personalizing' strategy. If our respondents did not trust the official medical care (about this distrust see also Zemtsov, 1991: pp. 30, 34; Rivkin-Fish, 1996; Ledeneva, 1996: p. 21), their best choice would not be to ask the doctor for a game of golf but typically to inquire whether they could find somebody in their network of friends and acquaintances who could recommend a good and reliable doctor.

The results of the Russian data presented above seem therefore to imply a particular form of social behavior which, compared with Finnish respondents, could 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).

As noted in the sections concerning the content of the exchange relations and mediated exchange, social relations in general and brokers in particular were needed for several reasons. First, a direct way to achieve the goal was often not possible. Owing to shortages of production, it was difficult to obtain, for example, medicine or durable consumer goods without contacts. Second, without mediation the quality of the services received was questionable. It was reasonable to try to guarantee decent medical treatment, childrens' education or child care with the help of a third person recommending or arranging things on one's behalf. In the words of one of Ledeneva's respondents:

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).

In this kind of social system a western cultural ethos emphasizing one's own individual abilities, 'making it my way' and stigmatizing help from others would sound strange.[38] A Soviet/Russian alternative would perhaps be making it 'with a little help from my friends'. Even though the following additional quote from Ledeneva's respondent can be read as a stereotypical and idealized self- presentation, it still may also reveal an important aspect of Russian sociability:

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).

Distinctive Features of Russian Informal Exchange Relations

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 products informally or different kinds of services (eg. medical care). Similarly, half of the Russian respondents reported blat exchanges - a particular Soviet/post-Soviet phenomena of arranging things through informal connections which was not found in the Finnish data. The informal exchanges reported in the Russian data were more often carried out with colleagues or other work- mediated relations stressing the importance of 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 Finland the relations were more of a dyadic nature.

Even though in 1993, when our study was carried out, the Communist party power monopoly had officially been demolished and the market economy was gaining ground in Russia, the period was still marked by the scarcity of several necessities of life and the functioning of the markets was far from perfect. For instance medicine or medical services were either unavailable, hard to find, too expensive, or their quality was not trusted by our respondents. Consequently obtaining them required the use of social relations.

An indication of the prevailing scarcity was noted in Russian expressions used by the respondents, such as 'obtaining' (dostat) goods as opposed to simply 'buying' (kupit). Whereas the latter expression indicates the impersonal mediation of the markets, the former refers to the 'networking' necessary to obtain goods, implying the imperfect functioning of the market economy. Similarly, the school where our Russian respondents worked also had a valuable and rationed resource to offer - namely a good education. This allowed for several teachers to be involved in blat relations by arranging for their friends' or acquaintances' children to be admitted to the school.

The results of my comparison support the view proposed by previous research according to which - despite the evident changes brought about by transition period - informal exchange and patterns of behavior inherited from the socialist era continue to influence transition societies. Though changing in forms and functions, the networks of 'friends of friends' (Shlapentokh, 1989), 'redistribution networks' (Srubar, 1991) or 'blat networks' (Ledeneva, 1996) still play a significant role in the life of post-Soviet citizens.

The Role of Informal Exchange in Russian Sociability

Many questions remain unanswered. One of the most obvious is the role of gender in informal exchange. Due to the preponderance of women in the teaching profession, the majority of our respondents in both cities (as well as the teachers described in the case illustrations in this article) were women. Similarly, the running of daily life - to which a lot of informal exchange was closely related - has traditionally been considered the duty of Soviet/Russian women. Though gender clearly played marked role (eg. in terms of mother-child relations) in our Russian data, at least in terms of the numbers of informal exchange encounters, no radical differences were found between men and women. A more detailed study is clearly needed to spell out the gender dimension in the informal exchange networks.[39]

Another interesting question not dealt with above is related to the overall importance of informal exchange in Russian sociability. What is the role and significance of social relations which do not deal with the exchange of goods or services? This question cannot be fully treated here because I have intentionally concentrated on the analysis of informal exchange relations. Since our data consists of the encounters perceived as 'significant' by respondents, not all aspects of day-to-day interaction may be adequately covered in the diaries. I have demonstrated the importance of exchange relations in Russian social networks without claiming that it would cover all social life either of Russian or Finnish respondents.

However, our replication study carried out in 1996 gives some indication of the general importance of exchange. In 1996, 20 St. Petersburg teachers, among them six respondents of the present study, and five psychologists were asked to note network members with whom they had exchanged not only medical and financial, but also other kinds of significant aid. Studying the proportion of network members with whom respondents have exchanged some kind of significant aid (either medical, financial or other kind) showed startling results. For 21 out of 25 respondents the proportion exceeded 50%, the median being 69%.[40] Consequently, the 'significant social life' of several Russian respondents as described in the diaries was almost completely intertwined with exchange relations. These findings show that the exchange relations overlapped with a major part of the significant social life of St. Petersburg teachers interviewed both in 1993 and 1996. This suggests the need for further studies on these relations.


1 The thoroughly social nature of the informal exchange relations is the main reason why the discussion on 'second economy' is inappropriate as a frame of reference for this text. For a discussion on this see Yang (1989: pp. 46 - 49) and Ledeneva (1996: pp. 50 - 57).

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.


In writing this article I have greatly benefited from the comments of Risto Alapuro and Maurizio Gribaudi. In addition I want to thank Anna- Maija Castrén, Chris Chulos, Michael Eve, Jukka Gronow, Marina Hakkarainen, Timo Harmo, Teela Jyrkinen-Pakkasvirta, Alena Ledeneva, Andrei Mogoutov, Anna Rotkirch, Anna Temkina, Marina Vitukhnovskaya and three anonymous reviewers for their help and constructive comments on the earlier versions of this text. I remain, however, solely responsible for the conclusions and results presented. I also thank the Academy of Finland for the funding of this study.


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