Networks of gifts and obligations

Apoptosis Network

 

I wrote in my last post about my apartment here in St. Petersburg, which very likely would originally have been shared by multiple generations of the same family, despite seeming to me to be only big enough for a single person – or at most a childless couple – by contemporary western standards.

Of course, it was never designed for so many people. However, under the Soviet Union, resources such as apartments could not be built, bought or sold privately. Everything was done by the State, and allocation was supposedly done in order, according to where your name was on the relevant list. Unfortunately, of course, the State was incredibly inefficient and slow, so it would hardly be unusual to wait ten or even more years for your name to come up. Until then, you shared.

When I mentioned that, under these conditions, people got things done through personal networks instead of official channels, a friend commented on Facebook: “Isn’t any system e.g. blat, guanxi, enchufe in Spain, that is subverting the sanctioned system better known as corruption?”. It’s an excellent question, getting right to the point I wanted to talk about this week, because it brings us straight to the underlying assumption that the “sanctioned system” is itself fair. This is rarely the case, much as we might wish it to be so.

Continue reading

Living in Leningrad

I’ve been in Russia for slightly over a week now. After the initial disorientation, I’m starting to find my feet, and have worked out the essentials of how to live and work here. I haven’t really had the opportunity to relax much, or to get to explore the city, but I already know that I like St. Petersburg, and I like the Russians.

St. Petersburg, of course, was known for most of the 20th century as Leningrad, and that Soviet history is still palpable. I only realised today that a week tomorrow, the 27th of January, is a very significant date: it will be the 70th anniversary of the lifting of the siege of Leningrad.

Continue reading

Arrival in Russia

Things got weird almost from the beginning. As I was settling into my seat on the plane, the message came over the tannoy: “Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. Welcome aboard British Airways flight 878 to Leningrad”.

Leningrad??? Had I fallen into a timewarp? It wasn’t a one-off either; the same message was repeated shortly afterwards. I asked one of the cabin crew about it; she denied any knowledge of it…

Continue reading