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Coping with Uncertainty

Petty Traders in Post-Soviet Russia

Kamil Wielecki

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


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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...

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