Coping with Uncertainty

Petty Traders in Post-Soviet Russia

by Kamil Wielecki (Author)
©2015 Monographs 180 Pages


Petty trade helped vast numbers of people to survive the crisis faced by post-Soviet Russia. The book analyses how this survival technique was carried out in practice. On the basis of his fieldwork research, the author shows how people coped with rapid social change and places their activities within a context of government policies, migration flows and entrepreneurial strategies.
«This is an original work based on extensive fieldwork research. Wielecki skillfully intertwined «ethnographic meat» with «the bones of theory», which has resulted in a «flesh-and-blood» anthropology.»
Michał Buchowski
«This is an immensely insightful exploration of petty trade in post-Soviet Russia. The author laces his genuine ethnographic work in a coherent account of the concepts of uncertainty, embeddedness, and informal economy.»
Violetta Zentai

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • Note on transliteration
  • 1. Introduction: surviving in the uncertain post-Soviet world
  • Ordering the disorder: new regulations on retail trade in Russia
  • The roots and fruits of petty trade: uncertain past, uncertain present
  • 2. Understanding uncertainty and defining neopredelyonnost’
  • Uncertainty and entrepreneurship in Russia
  • The economic man vs. the socially embedded man
  • 3. From informal Soviet economy to Russian petty trade
  • Researching the socialist informal economy
  • The everyday world of real socialism: Aleksandr Zinovyev and his homo sovieticus
  • The kolkhoz market and barakholka: petty trade in socialism
  • Mikhail Gorbachev and perestroika
  • A passage between epochs: the late Soviet entrepreneurship
  • 4. Coping with uncertainty: surviving the Russian transformation
  • Incomprehensible to mortals: how could one manage in the 1990s?
  • The chelnoki
  • The women who saved Russia
  • Entrepreneurship, informality and criminality in Russia
  • 5. Embedding economy at Russian open-air markets
  • Living in legal uncertainty: the Slavyansky market epic
  • Coping with uncertainty in workplace: the Slavyansky traders
  • Ethnic economy and trade minorities
  • Building communities at Russian open-air markets
  • 6. Conclusions: an insight into the political economy of Russia
  • Appendix 1. Methodology
  • Appendix 2. List of Interview Partners
  • Appendix 3. Voices from open-air markets
  • Works cited
  • Photographies
  • Index

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This book would have not been created if I had not received selfless support from many people. At a fundamental level, an ethnography is, as a matter of fact, a collective endeavor – for it is possible due to the willingness of interview partners to share their experience with an anthropologist. Since their anonymity must be protected for ethical reasons, I can only express general gratitude to all those who contributed to this work with their words and deeds.

Apart from interview partners, there are people – especially scholars – whose names should be mentioned. First of all, this pertains to Jan Kieniewicz, who has never spared his time to talk with me. Our conversations served for me as a great source of inspirations for posing questions and looking for answers. Special thanks should go to a number of Polish and Russian scholars – Jan Miernowski, Ivan Peshkov, Irina Savelieva, Vadim Radaev, Eugenia Bukharova, Viktor Dyatlov and Yuri Popkov – who during my studies at the University of Warsaw as well as my trips to Russia discussed with me issues of my work, broadening my view on petty trade and Russian systemic transformation. I would likewise like to thank Jakob Rigi and Violetta Zentai for their elucidating observations and many practical hints concerning doing anthropology in a postsocialist context. I am also grateful to Michał Buchowski and Szymon Wróbel for their careful reading of my work and invaluable remarks. I would like to thank Jakub Ozimek for editing this book and the countless critical, yet constructive comments he made. Cristopher Culver’s proofreading was also very helpful in preparing this text for publishing.

I am grateful to my host institution – the Faculty of Artes Liberales (University of Warsaw) – for offering me a perfect intellectual space and to the Foundation for Polish Science for funding my work. I also would like to express my gratitude to the Higher School of Economics (Moscow) and the Central European University (Budapest) for granting me scholarships which substantially contributed to the completion of my project.

Finally, I would like to thank my wife Kinga for her constant, and absolutely indispensable, support.

K. M. W.

Warszawa, June 2015
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Note on transliteration

I use the Romanization style for Russian set by the US Board on Geographic Names (BGN) and the Permanent Committee on Geographical Names (PCGN), known also as the British Standard. I adopted a simplified version of this style, rendering ë as yo and shortening the -iy and -yy endings to –y. For the soft sign ь I use the apostrophe and for the hard sign ъ the quotation mark . As far as different styles of Romanization are in use, some names might occur in different versions, e.g. Radayev and Zinovyev might occur as Radaev and Zinoviev in bibliographical references. I make some exemptions from these rules for the sake of familiarity. For instance, instead of Gorbachyov and Gaydar, I write Gorbachev and Gaidar. ← 11 | 12 →

← 12 | 13 →

1.   Introduction: surviving in the uncertain post-Soviet world

Nadya, a tradeswoman from Krasnoyarsk, told me: As far as the state goes, well, it just abandoned us like a bunch of blind kittens. Nobody cared about us not receiving our salaries… Everything we produced in the Soviet Union – it all became useless and it all disappeared in an instant. And it was so difficult, you cannot imagine… (T5).1 She was describing the situation of Russia in the 1990s, where millions of people, having all been suddenly dismissed from state enterprises, were forced to survive on their own. What the newborn country faced after the dissolution of the Soviet Union was in fact a huge civilizational crisis. The policy of shock therapy and attempts at developing the market economy in the country resulted in an economic collapse. State property was massively expropriated, inflation raged, and Russian began to be haunted by unemployment. But the crisis went far beyond the economy. The depression of the state led also to the collapse of social services, a dramatic decline in life expectancy, extreme lawlessness, and a rise in corruption and violent crime.

Nevertheless, as Michael Burawoy put it, “somehow Russian people have managed to sustain a day to day existence despite the cataclysm depicted in official figures” (1999: 1). This study will show how this “somehow” was achieved in practice.

Nadya, for instance, became a chelnok (pl. chelnoki), i.e. a shuttle trader, and she travelled to Poland in order to buy goods and sell them at home. She also learned how to sew fur hats, which she then sold at an open-air market. Her case may be treated as typical, since it was petty trade that allowed vast numbers of people to survive. The grave shortages of consumer goods appeared already by the end of the Soviet era. Then, in the 1990s, they only deepened as Russian industry collapsed. The workplaces of many people simply vanished, but even those who still worked could go unpaid for months or years on end, and they had to earn their living some other way. Others, in their turn, received their salaries in products made by the enterprises they worked in. They were thus forced to exchange these products or sell them. All these factors pushed masses of Russian citizens to engage in trade.

This engagement took on various forms. Some people just sold what they possessed, such as books. Others focused on reselling: along the Trans-Siberian Railway people waited for Beijing-Moscow trains, which at that time came packed with Chinese clothes. They then sold the clothes directly in the streets. There were also people who opened their own kiosks in the country and bought wares from wholesalers in local urban centers. The most popular form, however, came to be international shuttle trading. As soon as the end of 1991, people spontaneously started to go abroad in order ← 13 | 14 → to obtain goods and sell them at home. Poland, Turkey, and China were their most popular destinations, and – since they came from literally every Russian region – in order to get abroad, they travelled sometimes thousands of kilometers, mainly by means of buses, trains and ships. In the first years of the systemic changes, there were neither professional cargo companies nor a system of deliveries, so everything that chelnoki acquired, they basically had to carry themselves. Then they traded their goods at open-air markets. In the mid-1990s, according to various estimates, there were from 18 up to even 30 million people engaged in international shuttle trade (cf. Kapralova and Karaseva 2005: 402; Mel’nichenko 1997: online). The numbers were thus colossal, as was the quantity of goods they imported into Russia.

Since the 1990s, petty trade in Russia has undergone a significant evolution. The chelnoki era may be regarded to have ended with the financial default of August 1998. It was then that the ruble lost its value in relation to the dollar by several times. Everyone who had any financial obligations in foreign currencies went bankrupt immediately. That included banks as well as individual traders who made their dealings with foreign partners almost entirely in dollars. Granted, there were some shuttle traders who managed to survive in spite of all the difficulties. There were also people who started their businesses after the crisis. All in all, however, the quantity of people involved in trade decreased substantially. In addition, the phenomenon remained international only in the borderlands whereas most of the traders were based. If traders go somewhere to get the goods, they would go to Russian urban centers. One no longer has to go abroad in order to get supplies. Nevertheless, hundreds of thousands of people throughout Russia still rely on petty commerce to provide for themselves and their families.

In general, petty traders can be counted among the masses of people in the whole post-Soviet region who became dispossessed as a consequence of the systemic transformation.2 They were deprived of their property, jobs and ascribed places in society. The dispossessed constitute a broad category insofar as they comprise such different groups as homeless people, economic migrants, or abandoned pensioners. However, what unites all of them is that they lost the material and social status they enjoyed in the socialist past. The feeling of loss and of being poor (bednye) is to a considerable extent subjective and is strengthened by the comparison to those who managed to take advantage of the changes (Humphrey 2002b: 21ff.; Nazpary 2002: 13–16). ← 14 | 15 →

The vendors – just as the whole category of the dispossessed – originated from different social classes. People of all walks of life were involved in trade at open-air markets in the 1990s, ranging from pensioners, members of ethnic minorities, or Russian refugees from the former Soviet republics to university professors. Overall, however, it was former industrial workers and the so-called working intelligentsia who engaged into trade in order to survive. Furthermore, as it has been argued, one has to use ideas concerning classes and social stratification in postsocialist countries cautiously (Buchowski 2001: 141–143; Il’in 2000: 86–87; Il’in 2008). Even if petty traders in contemporary Russia were to be seen as forming a distinct social class, it would encompass several subclasses, delineated along the lines of entrepreneurs versus sellers, local tradespeople versus labor immigrants, stallholders versus employees and self-employed persons, etc. However, in a neoliberal regime “the new precarious poverty grows in an atmosphere of silence” (Beck and Beck-Gernsheim 2002: 52). Unlike in previous periods, the fact of being poor does not carry any budding dignity. On the contrary, it is perceived as one’s personal failure and a sign of helplessness. Thus, in modern societies, poverty has lost is class-distinguishing potential and instead rather supports social atomization.

A few external factors seem to be shaping the actual state of petty trade in Russia at the moment. The main challenge for the people engaged in the so-called street economy (Ivleva 2010) – i.e. those who work at open-air markets, in street kiosks, or trade informally in the streets – is the competition posed by big shopping centers and rapidly developing supermarket chains. The costs of economic crises are also suffered by the vendors: the prices of goods have gone up and at the same time the people have less money to spend. Last but not least, Russian cities are destinations of migrant workers (trudovye migranty) from the former Soviet republics (cf. Ivleva 2009). A large inflow of Chinese people can also be observed. Entire branches of trade and professions have become monopolized by members of a single nation, to such an extent that in some remaining markets it is the Russians3 who constitute the minority. This inflow creates a great deal of tension between the newcomers and the local population in general, and poses a harsh competition for local traders in particular.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2015 (September)
economic anthropology entrepreneurship postsocialist transformation
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2015. 180 pp., 20 coloured fig.

Biographical notes

Kamil Wielecki (Author)

Kamil Maria Wielecki is an anthropologist and social philosopher at the University of Warsaw, Poland. He has done ethnographic fieldwork research in Moldova, Kyrgyzstan and Russia. His areas of interest include postsocialist studies, political economy of capitalism, globalization, and economic anthropology.


Title: Coping with Uncertainty
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182 pages