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.



8 thoughts on “Blat Out Wrong

  1. I was also going to write about the black market because I thought it was interesting (ended up writing about environmentalism), but I think you did a great job with outlining the main aspects to it! You found some interesting sources, and I like the way you connected it today. How those relations are still found in post-Soviet Russia & also the US. Great job overall!


  2. This post was thorough, complete, and contained many videos and other hyperlinks that were super useful to learn more about Blat. Blat seems as though it is a illegal barter system. Consumer goods were in such high demand because of the rise in standard of living that occurred , which gave Soviets “a taste of the good life”.


  3. Johanna, I again enjoyed reading your post for this week. I remember us having a discussion in class about the black market and how the official Soviet economy had such a dependent relationship to it, so much so that some policies were almost implemented with the alternative market in mind. You always do a great job of including interesting resources into your posts and this week was no different!


  4. You make a lot of very interesting points about the Soviet economy and the importance of human connections. Throughout Soviet history, the black market continues to reappear out of necessity, not necessarily greed, as the state would have one believe. These Blat networks reinforced a sense of capitalism, but they also seemed to bring people together in a way that the state could not. Great post!


  5. I never knew that this system of favors had a formal name. I like the comparison that you draw between the black market and Blat, and how they both became an accepted reality. It’s interesting that you mentioned that favors are not necessarily repaid immediately, but are never forgotten. Interesting post!


  6. I knew that there was an underground economy type of thing going on in the USSR, but it was really cool to learn more about the different parts of it. It really was extensive. I know that there was also an extensive bribery system; my Russian professor talked about it with the university system. Well done!


  7. It is really interesting how the Soviet system with government control failed badly as it warranted the black market to function as a second economy since the first one wasn’t enough. I think this second economy also contributed greatly to the corruption that still plagues Russia to this day because of the lasting influence of the Black market during Soviet times.


  8. I love the fact you talked about the black market. I don’t think it’s something we usually tend to think about when it comes to societies, but obviously as you pointed out, it was a big deal. I also think the video you posted was a great addition to your post!


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