Blat Out Wrong

Throughout the seventies and into the eighties, the black market had become “a fact of Soviet existence.” Seventeen Moments talks of the building of a car park and the different factors that went into the decision of whether to follow the law, which would lead to likely failure, or make use of the Soviet black market for their needed supplies to actually complete the project.

The Soviet economy was very labor-dependent and throughout the seventies, they experienced many labor shortages. This was a problem because the 24th Party Congress and the Ninth Five-Year Plan placed emphasis on consumer goods more than capital goods. The industrial market could not provide those consumer goods at the rate they were needed, so oil was the saving grace for the Soviets. The profits from their foreign oil sales allowed them to pay for imported consumer goods (Freeze 443).

“Virtually every citizen became a de facto criminal in the quest for a more comfortable life.” There was issues with getting simple consumer services, such as appliance fixes or medical services and this gave rise to a necessary black market. This cartoon image displays this scarcity, “the plumbing in our house is in a state we cannot bear, and the Department of Waterworks almost a year just answers our letters in bold and vigorous papers…while we carry the water on our backs and shoulders.”

This type of Second Economy, or blackmarket, gave rise to another reaction to shortages in Soviet Economy, called Blat. Blat is defined as, “an exchange of favours or access to public resources in conditions of shortages and a state system of privileges,” according to Alena V. Ledeneva’s book.  Blat, just like the second economy was both vital to its survival and at rival with it, as all acts of the Second Economy were illegal with harsh punishments. Blat is similar to nepotism and is slightly different than the black market because it relied on the personal relationships from one donor to another, they became irreplaceable (Ledeneva 173). A favor or good given did not always result in an immediate favor in return, but was never forgotten.

In this clip (make sure to turn the subtitles on) from the movie by Eldar Riazanov, titled The Garage, shows of the situation with the car park building that I discussed at the beginning of this post. The clip appears to be showing the workers being told that they will have to accept the son of a gentleman named Miloserdov who seems to be influential, into their building cooperative. Some of the people in the cooperative did not think it would be an issue, but others stand up and say things like “the big boss used his sway (blat) to shove his little boy on us.” This clip shows how blat worked during these times and how it forced some others out of work, but allowed for jobs to be completed.

Blat networks were how many Soviets made it through when the government could not meet their needs easily or at all. This blog I found shows pictures from Ledeneva’s book I referenced earlier, that give more insight into how these beat networks ran. The first image shows how she met her various needs, such as food or healthcare, and who would help her to meet those needs. The second pictures shows another list of a Soviet’s blat network with their various needs and who was going to help them to meet those needs.

It’s all about who you know. This is not just a Soviet ideal during the 1970s and 1980s, but one that lingers today. Not just in the Soviet Union, but here in the United States as well. Human connections are irreplaceable when times are tough.


Freeze Text: Freeze, Gregory L. Russia: a history. Oxford: Oxford U Press, 1997. Print.




Can Soviets Predict the Future?

In 1960, Diafilm, a Soviet movie studio, released this filmstrip entitled “In the Year of 2017,” seen below. It shows images of what they believed the world would be like in 2017, after the Western imperialists were destroyed and the Soviet’s had perfected their knowledge of science and technology. There are atomic trains and flying power stations that control climate. It follows the story of a boy, Igor, and his family, as they travel, experiencing all the riches and achievements of the Soviet Union. I could go on and on about what is in all the frames, but I’ll let y’all explore the various options for viewing the different slides.

Some of the predictions are relatively accurate. You see in one frame, Igor talking to his family in some type of video chat, coming from a cruise ship on the Black sea, which foreshadows the development of Skype, FaceTime, and other video chatting features. This article shows all the slides with descriptions in English.

As I thought about how this type of technological based propaganda would come about, I thought of all of the efforts by the Soviet Union that were put into the space program, “the space program embodied the strength and weaknesses of the Soviet approach to technology.” The Soviet’s were the first to send a human to space on April 12, 1961, making them confident in their technological abilities and national abilities.

I found this propaganda to be so interesting, not only because it’s 2017 currently, but because of how effective this type of propaganda must have been to promote Soviet nationalism. This showed the Soviet people, and possibly the rest of the world, how highly the Soviet’s thought of themselves and their technological capabilities, making the Soviet people feel as though their country was on a long road to prosperity while they were in somewhat turbulent times. “The two decades after the Khrushchev’s removal were a marvel of contradictions — economic decline amid apparent prosperity, détente and confrontation, harsh repression and a burgeoning human rights movement,” this shows what place the Soviet’s were in during the time this filmstrip was made (Freeze 434-435). I also just find it so interesting to see how people envisioned the future and how different it is from what the future is actually like. People are constantly looking forward to the future and how great it will be with awesome technology and happier lives, but it is never what it is made out to be and history does not erase itself. Since it is 2017, we know what 2017 is like and that this is not accurate. The West is not destroyed and the Soviets have not taken over and neither has their technology. There is still turbulent relations between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, largely due to what happened in the 1960s and the Cold War.

Sources: (full film strip here. not in video form)


Freeze text: Freeze, Gregory L. Russia: a history. Oxford: Oxford U Press, 1997. Print.

Hit Me With Your Best Shot

Russian family life has had a turbulent past with differing levels of control by the government and this was no different during wartime. Traditional gender roles were challenged by wartime needs, passion was at an all time high because of the unknown nature of a war, and the aftermath left many children born out of wedlock.

The atmosphere of wartime left people feeling a new passion that came with the unknown of whether you would ever see that person again. Before wartime, these feelings of overwhelming passion and excitement were “dismissed as bourgeois nonsense.” These feelings were one of many factors that left many children out of wedlock after the war.

Because of this, the Soviet government had to adapt and support unwed mothers because they needed the population growth, after the sky rocket in abortion rates after Stalin made abortion illegal because he realized that it was not conducive for population growth. Now more than ever, the Soviet Union needed to replenish their population after the loss of so many lives in the war, especially the lives of Soviet men. Here we see the Soviet government using family life to manipulate the population again and unwed mothers as a political issue, rather than a social one.

You can learn more about the Soviet government’s changing role in family life, in my last blog post as well.

Not only did women’s family roles change, but they began to take a more serious and dangerous role in the war, “the Soviet Union was unique in placing women in harm’s way in combat roles,” which added to the struggling aftermath of family life after the war. The image I chose for this post is of one of these women named  Roza Shanina, who was a one of the most acclaimed snipers of the war. She had 59 confirmed kills. She was praised for her precision and ability to make doublets, which is when two targets are hit with two bullets in quick succession. She was killed in action during the East Prussian Offensive.

More than 800,000 women went to the frontline of the Eastern front. 520,000 of those women served as regular troops in the Red Army and another 300,000 served in combat and anti-aircraft positions. “These women were much more intimately involved in their country’s defense and frontline combat than the woman of any other combating society in World War II,” this was part due to the loss of men due to the long period of fighting.

It can be argued that women’s roles in the war were among the many reasons that allowed the Soviets to be surprisingly successful. “The upheavals and turbulence of the 1930s had taught the mass of Soviet citizens a healthy respect for the power of the state and had inspired belief in its solidity and permanence,” and these beliefs were reinforced by the authoritarianism that allowed more mobilization of troops by compelling both men and women to war-related work (Freeze 385).


Photo source:

Freeze Book: Freeze, Gregory L. Russia: a history. Oxford: Oxford U Press, 1997. Print.


Glory to the Mother

Once the Bolsheviks came to power they gave special attention to family institutions, as well as the individual, they perceived “the patriarchal, religiously sanctioned family as tsarist society in microcosm.” Because of these thoughts, the Bolsheviks quickly gave official recognition only to civil marriages, made divorce easier, gave women full equality, rights to children born out of wedlock, and legalized abortion (Freeze 331).

This legalization would later be repealed as Stalin would realize, what the Bolsheviks quickly did, that legalized abortion made it difficult to grow a population and create a new society. The Bolsheviks hoped that in time Soviet women would better understand socialist principles and recognize their role in child-rearing, but this did not actually occur until much later, around the time that Stalin made abortion illegal. In fact, registered abortions rose to 55 per 100 births in this time and throughout the 1920s (Freeze 333).

I found this concept very interesting because I do not think that we can fully understand abortion as a problem relating to population or the need for population growth because America is not struggling for more people in this country and hasn’t really in the past. Abortion is seen most solely as a women’s rights and religious issue, rather than a political one. Opposition to the prohibition of abortion in Russia also reflects this difference; the oppositions were not usually based on women wanting control over their bodies, but about the strains that child-bearing and rearing could put on career aspirations and living arrangements.

In order to combat these oppositions, there was an increase in established nurseries and kindergartens, so that women could still contribute to society by working. There was also an increase in dining rooms and ready to cook/serve food items in order to relieve some of the home-making burden off of women.

This is interesting timing because under both the Bolshevik rule and Stalin’s Rule, women received a lot more rights and equality, but under Stalin it seems like most of those rights geared towards women were an effort to increase the birth rate, which we also aided by prohibiting abortion because he viewed giving birth as an “great and honorable duty” that is not a private affair.

This is a very interesting webpage because it shows the abortion statistics in Russia from 1921-2015. In 1936, is when the draft of the law “On the Protection of Motherhood and Child” was published in the newspaper and the reported abortion numbers were still very high comparatively, but dropped significantly in the next year, but then climbed after. The numbers are also expected to be higher because abortion was illegal, meaning that many more went unreported.

This propaganda poster is actually from 1944, which is a little after the time frame we are talking about, but I think it illustrates the change that occurred within family institutions and abortion laws between 1918 and the 1930s.  It shows the mother as the heroine figure, displaying how important a role she plays in Russian society by having and raising children. This was an important ideal during both the Bolshevik and Stalin rules, but their expression of this importance was acted out in different manners.



Freeze Book: Freeze, Gregory L. Russia: a history. Oxford: Oxford U Press, 1997. Print.

Photo found here:

“Let Them All Eat Cake”

At the beginning of World War I, Russian officials gravely misjudged their ability to provide food during wartime and things started to decline within a year.On March 25th, the Provisional Government, after inheriting the food shortage issues, established a grain monopoly meaning that all grain was state property to be rationed as it saw fit and set fixed grain prices. The Ministry of Food Supply was created shortly after, to control this monopoly. This state control of the food supply not only undermined the market for food, but also the commercial infrastructure of Russia. Business firms and an entire class was essentially moved aside due to the regime asserted state authority over the food supply. What the Russian people had hoped would be less assertive and controlling behavior by this new Provisional Government turned out to be way more socialist than liberalist (Freeze 279).

This photo is of an appeal to the peasants to send their bread to help the war effort. It is set forth as an appeal to people to give bread or else the soldiers won’t be able to fight and win the war, but by giving bread they are taking it away from themselves and the city populations because the diversion of resources and food supplies to the war effort is what causes the shortages.

In light of the food shortages,”Bagmen” started to appear as private agents or on behalf of organizations to go get bread from the peasant country and bring it to the cities to skirt restrictions. They basically created a black market for grain in order to bring it to the starving people in the cities. They were seen as “bad men” who were skirting the restrictions of the Provisional Government, but were they just trying to help themselves and those who were starving?

“but I do not understand why we are being called bad names … I never would have come two thousand versts if the land committees had given us what we need … We are hungry … You have no idea how we suffer. Famine is no respecter of paper laws … give us bread!”

This is a quote from a “bagman” who said a few words to Congress on why he does what he does. There were harsh measures being taken against the “bagmen,” which Congress did not necessarily agree with. Guards would rain bullets from a machine gun on the roofs of a train, then enter the train car only to throw out the filled sacks, leaving the “bagmen” weeping.

As you can imagine, this only added to the undermining of the Provisional Government, which is why harsh measures were taken again these “bagmen” and why their reputation was so poor. Ultimately the Provisional Government, was not able to curb this blackmarket or the food shortages in general. The inability of the Provisional Government to regulate the food shortages effectively added to their delegitimization and disapproval by the Russian public.

For those who don’t know the background on the title of this post, is was supposedly spoken during a shortage of bread during the French Revolution. It can be attributed to a misunderstanding of the Queen of France, Marie-Antoinette, over the problems and sufferings of the peasants during the Revolution. Cake was known to mean brioche bread, which is a rich bread made of eggs and butter with a cake-like texture and taste. There is controversy over whether she actually said this or not, but I felt it was fitting for this post.



Freeze Book: Freeze, Gregory L. Russia: a history. Oxford: Oxford U Press, 1997. Print.


Neva Stop the Party

The Russian Revolution of 1905 stirred a lot of change within the country. Political parties were not legal before the Revolution, but that did not stop them from existing as we know because they were the ones who stirred the Revolution pot. Under the Tsar, political parties were illegal before 1905.

The idea of political parties is not like the Western system you imagine, since they were not legal until after 1905. Since there were no elections, there was no competition for office (which is the sole purpose of Western political parties). There was no office to compete for until after the Revolution, in 1906. Instead, these parties worked mostly underground to overthrow the current government (Freeze 246). This further shows the backwardness of the Russian culture and their desire to have reform, without changing their antiquated societal ways.

The main political parties of the Revolution were the Party of Socialist Revolutionaries (SRs) and two factions of the Russian Social Democratic Workers Party(RSDWP), the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks.  The SRs were “high-energy, revolutionary performers” made up of mostly the working class that did not have much patience for slow-moving transition. The Bolsheviks, like the SRs had little patience for a slow-moving revolution, but pushed for growth in capitalism. The Mensheviks did not appeal to the working class, but championed for a ‘bourgeois’ revolution and also wanted to see capitalism in Russia because they believed it was the best way to achieve economic growth, eventually leading to socialism (Freeze 246-248).

The above drawing is the reflection of what caused the Russian Revolution and what was really happening. It is the Neva River which flows through the city of St. Petersburg. When looking for an image to add to this post, this one stuck out to me for a few reasons, one being that the image of the workers at first appears to be somewhat underground. Once I read on I realized it was a reflection onto the river, but it still speaks to the underground work of the parties that helped incite the Revolution. Another cool fact is that the photo comes from the 1905-1906 Russian Underground Press. Based on the research I found, it seems like the Underground Press was run by the Social Democratic Party (RSDWP) during the Revolution. Here you can take a virtual tour and learn more about the Underground Printing Museum that allows you to see where the original printing house was built. The print shop was originally in the basement of a fruit wholesale shop in Moscow. I could go on about the fun facts of the printing-house all day, so I would encourage you to explore the link!

After the Revolution, the Fundamental Law of 1906 was enacted, which stated in Chapter ll, “Russian subjects have the right to organize societies and unions for purposes not contrary to the law. Conditions for organization of societies and unions, their activity, terms and rules for acquiring legal rights as well as dosing of societies and unions, is determined by law.” This gives Russians the legal rights to organize political parties and unions, as they already were.

The photo is titled “The Treacherous Neva Reflected Everything” and was drawn by Volshebny Fonar in 1906.


Freeze Book: Freeze, Gregory L. Russia: a history. Oxford: Oxford U Press, 1997. Print.

Photo found here.

Who let the dogs out?

At first glance, this looks like a picture of dogs relaxing in the autumn sun, but little do many viewers realize, they are resting less than 15 feet from a building that stores dynamite and other explosives. Although it doesn’t seem to be bothering the dogs. Maybe the dogs are supposed to be guarding the explosives/surrounding area or are merely used for hunting, as the laika breed is commonly known for. Laika comes from the Russian word layat, meaning barker, probably assuming they were good guard dogs, making sense of the “Guard Dog” title of the photo. The Laika breed are also known to be very loyal to their masters, protective of their property, and to bark at strangers.

Now back to the explosives. It is believed that this photo was taken in 1909 in Ekaterinburg, Germany, in the heart of the Ural Mountains. The city was known for mining in the 18th century and milling in the 19th. There were expansive railroads starting with the first in 1878, which linked the plants of the middle Ural mountains to the provincial capital. During the time the photo was taken, a railroad was actually being built with a direct path the St. Petersburg.

It can be assumed that the explosives stored in the back building of the photo were used for mining, railroad building, and other construction within the Ural Mountains. Here is a video of how dynamite is used to build railroads; at they end they camera goes right up to where the blast was to show the aftermath of the explosion, so you can see how effective and necessary it was/is.

Railroad building and expansion are an example of the problems of reform in 19th and 20th century Russia and their relationship with the West. The idea of railroads in Russia was not accepted until 1836, from the Austrian engineer Franz Anton von Gerstner. Rivers were the primary mode of transportation before railroads and while they were fast, many were frozen for months out of the year. Railroads were a necessity for Russia to continue to advance socially and economically, but not all Russian leaders were on board, along with a lot of the Russian public. One of them being Count Kankrin, the Minister of Finance, who felt that this would not benefit the welfare of the people as much as improvements in agricultural would. I’m sure the fact that the West, especially America, was embracing the new railroad technology did not help the situation either.

We see many of these ideas in Freeze’s book, including agriculture beginning to suffer due to reforms and the idea of secret reforms being employed in order to make it seem as though Russia was advancing, while not changing the status quo.

If I’m being honest, which is always am, I chose this pictures because I love dogs. As I was clicking through the gallery, nothing seemed to pop out at me. None of the people, artifacts, or scenic views, until I saw the dogs. It wasn’t until I read the short bio about it that I realized there was a story here. The photographer, Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii, was a hunter himself, so it was possible he took this picture because he liked and even used this breed of dog for his hunting or maybe it was more. Maybe he saw the warning signs for the explosives and knew a railroad was being built at that time and took this photo to elude to all that railroad building involved in Russia over the past couple decades and all that it stood for.  

It is important to note what was going on in the life of the photographer during the time this photo was taken. In May of 1909, Prokudin-Gorskii met with the Tsar of Russia and was given the necessary equipment and permission to take pictures everywhere with the goal of education. The plan was to show these photos in schools to show children the vastness and richness of the land. The first expedition of this project was up the Mariinsky Waterway, that expanded from the St. Petersburg to the Volga River. A few months later, in the fall, is when he headed up to the Ural Mountains and took this photo. It is interesting, after knowing the history of the canals and railway systems, that it was on this trip that he took this picture which shows off some of the main resources used to build the eventual replacement to the canal system.

Book citation: Freeze, Gregory L. Russia: a history. Oxford: Oxford U Press, 1997. Print.

Find original picture here