Chapter 2 of the Soviet ABC
BLAT in the Soviet Union was the word for useful connections, allowing you to get what you wanted, bypassing the established order.
I learned about the concept of blat from my classmate Olga.
When I first came to Olga’s apartment, it seemed to me that I was in a parallel world. There was a huge carpet hanging on the wall in the living room. It was a real wool carpet depicting a reindeer in the forest, not some cheap, fussy synthetics.
Crystal wine glasses gleamed in the polished cupboard, and a brand new telephone—with the buttons, not a dial—was on the nightstand.
Olga told me that they got all these treasures by blat.
“Blat means relationships with useful people,” she said. “If you don’t have blat, you live like a loser, and if you do have it, you are on the top of the world. Let’s say that you want a gold tooth implant. What are you going to do about it?”
“Well,” I hesitated. “I’ll go to the dental office.”
“And the technician will tell you they have no material for your crown and that you should bring your own gold.'”
“My great-grandfather’s pocket watch is made of gold,” I said. “I guess I can have it melted down for my crown.”
“If you bring your gold watch, the technician will steal it and use cheap alloy for your crown.
“But if a mutual friend introduces you to each other, the attitude will be quite different.”
I frowned. “What if I don’t know anyone who can introduce me to a dental technician?”
“If you are a useful person yourself, you’ll get plenty of blat eventually.”
Olga told me about her mother, who worked as a manager at a state dairy and was a highly sought-after person.
Quality sour cream and cheese were scarce in Soviet grocery shops, especially in the provinces, so everyone wanted to be friends with Olga’s mother who could arrange for pickups at her dairy.
Still, mere mortals couldn’t approach her with a business offer. It was against the law to take advantage of your position and sell products produced by your enterprise on the side, and profiteers were liable to a term of imprisonment.
People constantly brought Olga’s mother gifts (or rather bribes) to cement the relationship with her. If she took a fancy to get anything—a carpet, crystal wine glasses, or gold teeth—she could always ask around and get what she needed.
“The most important thing,” Olga told me, “is to have access to something other people want. What can your parents bring from work?”
My mother was an engineer at the automobile plant and could bring only the stem cutting from the potted ficus tree that was standing on the windowsill in her office. My father was an inventor and a philosopher who could bring out the best in people with an inspiring quote.
I realized that I was not about to get golden teeth any time soon.
Still, I’ve enjoyed some blat too. I gave Olga answers for Russian and Geography tests, she invited me over to her place, and we put on her mother’s makeup.
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