By Griffin Edwards, MA student, REEI
Natalia Savelyeva’s recent lecture “Parasite Organizations: What the Evolution of Direct Sales Marketing in Russia can tell us about Contemporary Capitalism” discussed the reception of direct sales marketing organizations in post-Soviet Russia, from its original stigma to acceptance. Savelyeva’s research seeks to answer questions such as: what were the prevailing attitudes towards direct sales organizations (DSOs) upon their arrival in the aftermath of the fall of the USSR, and how were they able to thrive even in a place as seemingly hostile to their foundational mores as Russia?
To begin, Savelyeva argued, the ethos of DSOs is antithetical to the communist framework. In a worldview that sees any economic self-improvement as exploitation, there is simply no room for the intrinsically American entrepreneurship of DSO-style capitalism. Many of the prevalent narratives surrounding DSOs upon their original entry painted distributors as sellouts; many Russians were skeptical of this business model, and derided participants.
DSOs further faced an uphill battle due to the Soviet institutions that had, until recently, dominated Russian life. In a country where the state was seen as the ultimate distributor of goods rather than the market, DSOs and their like were radically foreign ideas. Further, the patronage networks present at that time- and today- obscured the goals and rules of capitalism so ingrained in non-communist societies.
According to Savelyeva, however, despite these roadblocks, DSOs soon found fertile ground in Russia. Many of the people who were quick to denounce DSOs, typically well-educated people with good employment (these were not desperate outcasts looking for a quick buck), soon became enthusiastic members of DSO organizations. How do we explain such a fundamental shift?
Savelyeva presented three mechanisms that allowed for such rapid growth and successful adoption of the DSO mindset in Russia. First, there were low entrance requirements, but many benefits. No work would bring in no profit, but had no penalty. Second, DSOs blurred the line between professional and personal life. Distributors could use their existing social, family, and professional networks, as well as their everyday practices, to their advantage, using them as opportunities to grow their web. Third, distributors became “hosts” to the DSO ethos. DSOs would shape peoples’ personal, physical, and mental experiences to promote the distribution scheme.
It is in this way that these are “parasite organizations,” although the appellation is perhaps too negative for the actual phenomenon occurring here. The metaphor can be understood as the parasite transforming the host to achieve its goals (in both the biological and social case, survival and reproduction). It builds a new logic but does not exhaust the host. What begins as a side gig could rapidly turn into full-time employment, one that was quite desirable, with no bosses, flexible hours, and a visible (and heavily-promoted) path to success, if the distributor worked hard enough.
This framework helps explain the success of DSOs in Russia and accounts for the shift from a stigmatized import to acceptance. Savelyeva’s presentation was, therefore, wide-reaching and interdisciplinary, addressing social sciences alongside economic, psychological, and business fields. The result was a well-balanced and interesting presentation that explains the appeal of these “parasite organizations” here and abroad.
Savelyeva is REEI’s postdoctoral fellow for 2020-2021. She holds a PhD in Social Sciences from the Institute of Sociology, Russian Academy of Science, and is a sociologist and researcher with Public Sociology Laboratory, Centre for Independent Social Research (Russia). Her research focuses on labor, organizational and management studies, and narrative studies.