Written by Alisha Kirchoff, PhD student in Sociology
On April 6, RSW hosted a fascinating Telebridge session with scholar Alena Ledeneva of the University College of London. Ledeneva, known for her work on blat, informal practices that shape post-Soviet politics and business, and the prospects for modernization in Russia, has led the effort to develop a new set of data and research called the “Global Informality Project” (GIP). This initiative aims at questioning the links between corruption, poverty and development, identity, morality and oppressive regimes. This project also highlights the role of ambivalence and complexity in the workings of human societies. By leveraging the collective knowledge, expertise, and networks of a group of scholars, GIP scholars are working towards identifying important themes that could be relevant to policy making, cross-regional analysis, and interdisciplinary practice. The even was facilitated by Justin Otten, REEI faculty member and contributor to GIP’s Macedonia section.
At the core of GIP is the question: are informal practices Soviet, socialist, or associated with a particular type of regime? It is tempting to say that informal practices such as blat would disappear with the disappearance of USSR or its analog in other socialist contexts would do the same; but that has not happened. It persisted, transformed, and developed into a new set of practices that operated through the transition. Additionally, evidence of similar informal practices are present in other governance and cultural contexts. Defined as “ways of getting things done,” informal practices tend to escape articulation in the formal discourse, but are captured in the vernacular. Ledeneva explained that informal practices are ably performed by insiders while simultaneously remaining unknown to outsiders. To date, the GIP project has been able to show that informal practices are deeply rooted around the world. These practices can include (but are not limited to): emotion-driven exchanges of gifts or other favours and tributes for services, identity-or value-based practices of solidarity and interest, power-driven forms of co-optation and control.
Professor Ledeneva also had some sage wisdom for scholars across disciplines and career stages whose research centers on Russia or another society where access to research subjects and information can be difficult to obtain. She explained that, “…it’s like ‘slow food’ cooking – you may not be eating for a long time but you are moving towards your goal, bit by bit. It takes time, it takes investment, it takes persistence, but that is the only way to get the best work.”