29 Jul Blat
In the Yiddish criminal jargon, this word, at the beginning of the twentieth century, meant “initiated to / privy to an organized crime group.” In the Soviet Union, it acquired the meaning of inside connection which was the backbone of the economy and of day to day life of an individual. It was not simply a word but an institution.
The scarcity of goods and rationing of services and the lack of economic freedom necessitated reliance on informal contacts to acquire or to compensate. Thus, the very nature of the Soviet society spawned its undercover economy and fertilized it by making law abidance irrelevant. Even the top echelon that shopped at “closed distributorships” did not always find unique and prestigious enough goods.
Blat frequently served as a safe gateway to a bride-taker. It opened doors to universities and to jobs – the concept of being qualified was muted. It would direct one to a reputable surgeon who would not be afraid to accept a fee which was unlawful under the free medical care system.
People did not buy things. They “got” things. Humble things: eggs, peas, shoes, fish, buttons, furniture, books, theater and train tickets. In the absence of home improvement stores, one had to “get” everything from nails to tiles, paint, and toilet bowls.
However many degrees of separation between you and the blat, you expected that somebody at the end of the chain took the desired items at his place of work or otherwise did something illegal.
You paid with money, alcohol, by anything you had access to. Even if you lived in Moscow or the few other choice cities, a stick of salami got one a hotel room as reliably as a five-ruble bill slipped into your passport. No one was above or below using blat in some form.
Soviet immigrants to the West could not wrap their minds around the fact that a personal recommendation for employment, though helpful, meant nothing if one was not qualified for a specific position or if no vacancy was open. It was, for some, a difficult mental adjustment.