What’s the difference between a petty trader and a smuggler? Quite a lot, actually. The issue of criminality was but one of the many topics addressed by Kamil Wielecki, Fulbright recipient and Visiting Professor at Wagner College, at his lecture “Coping with Uncertainty: Petty Traders in Post-Soviet Russia.” The event took place on April 4th and was jointly sponsored by the Russian Studies Workshop, the Polish Studies Center, and the Russian and East European Institute.
The lecture was based on Wielecki’s PhD research, which has been published in a book under the same title: Coping with Uncertainty. The research was based on Wielecki’s own ethnographic fieldwork in Krasnoyarsk and other Siberian cities, which he conducted by interviewing traders and observing behaviors at the Siberian open-air markets. His research was grounded in a desire to understand how individuals have coped with the radical social and economic changes that have been underway in post-Soviet states since the 1990s, using petty-trade as a lens to understand wider economic and social patterns and attitudes. His study has revealed a number of interesting patterns of emerging economic and social behaviors, many of which are quite difference from the circumstances of the “wild 90s.”
Open-air markets emerged in the 1990s as a means for the “economically dispossessed” to make a livelihood. With state property and enterprises being devalued through the tenuous effects of shock therapy, many Russians began to engage in cross-border shuttle trade in order to obtain and sell international goods for a profit. The growth of commercial enterprises, however, has made it is increasingly difficult for traders in open-air markets to carve out a sustainable living. Additionally, what began as a field of work that involved people from all walks of life has now turned into an enterprise primarily dominated by ethnic migrants, resulting in some growing tensions within the local communities. These ethnic migrants are simultaneously looked down upon for engaging in this field of work, while also being the subject of resentment for “taking” jobs from the local community. As stressed by Wielecki, although these ethnic migrants are not engaged in criminal activities, there exists a widespread perception that they are, contributing to tensions and discrimination faced by these traders. An interesting phenomena Wielecki discovered from his research is how these ethnic tensions can result in acts of economic sabotage, particularly in the form of black magic. Some traders will regularly visit local witches in order to defend from evil spirits or engage in their own magical assaults with their competition.
Once magic is involved in economic transactions, it seems traditional rational approaches to understanding economic behavior and the free market do not apply. Wielecki’s research demonstrates how embeddedness affects economic behaviors and challenges traditional paradigms of economics in the post-Soviet context. As an American, one thing I found striking from Wielecki’s lecture was the number of similarities between perceptions of migrant workers in Russia and attitudes towards migrant workers in the United States. Perhaps Wielecki’s research might also have implications for understanding interethnic behavior in a broader context, expanding outside the boundaries of the post-Soviet sphere.