Week 13–Blog Post: Biological Citizens

Throughout Life Exposed, Adriana Petryna gives ethnographic examples of people who were effected by the Chernobyl disaster.  Choose one example that you find compelling and explain why.  How is this person expressing biological citizenship and/or seeking justice?

Your response is due by 10 pm on  11/14 on the course website.

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reaction to lives of others

I really enjoyed this movie for many reasons. First, I think it connected well to the course. Throughout the movie I was able to recognize the extreme corruption. Although they did not specifically suggest or tell us why it was so corrupt at the time of the movie, because of previous readings for the course I was able to have an understanding of the governmental systems and ways of that time. The class not only helped me to better understand the corrupt operations that took place but the movie added to the course as well. Most of the books we have read focused on the general populations’ reactions to government corruption. In the Borderline book, as well as in Goodbye Lenin (as well as most of our other readings), it became very clear that the government did not work for the people. Corruption did not remain within government but spread into private lives (which also makes me wonder what really is private, if anything, under the stasi rule). This movie came from the perspective of a particular government worker. This perspective provided me with a better understanding of how important social ties were (and still to a certain extent are). Both for the writer and for the investigator, who they knew permitted them to do what they eventually accomplished. Trust is a very rare thing to come by in this society because of the corruption as well as the very complicated social networks. The investigator, to me, had the most interesting character. I had this notion that all government officials under the Soviet government were bad. He was not. It made me think about all the people who were either forced to do this work involuntarily, got into it when they did believe and then changed as the system became more and more corrupt, or needed the money and social security from the work. Were all these people bad because of what they did for their job? Or, could there be more than one dimension to these workers? Before watching this I was not concerned with how the informal and formal practices of the government affected those in the politics of it all, but afterwards I cannot help but think just as much about the workers as the common citizen.

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Reaciton to “The Lives of Others”

 I found “The Lives of Others” to be a very interesting film for its portrayal of Wiesler, the interpretation of justice under the Stasi system, and its depiction of East Germany under this system. Wiesler provides a stark contrast to what we stereotypically assume a Stasi member to have been like: harsh, secretive, and unfair. Though at the beginning of the film he does appear to be just like one of the rest, spying on the artist helps Wiesler to see all the flaws with the Stasi system and how, as a human, he could not stand aside and let the artist be caught for his “crimes” or continue to let the actress be raped by a Party member, even if it meant sacrificing his career. Wiesler ends up portraying a Western, or retributive form of justice where a victim is compensated for any crimes committed against them and the wrongs are righted. Under the Stasi system, “justice” was the name under which the system hid their totalitarian practices. Though they claimed to treat everyone equally, how freely one could act was all based on connections and gift-giving as exemplified by the Party member’s ability to rape Christa despite other people’s knowledge of it and by the return of Christa’s pills to her after acting as an informant. The subplot about suicide was very interesting as well. Though surely not all suicides were as a result of the harsh Stasi system, it is unknown how many committed suicide for any reason because it wasn’t recorded by the government. This was part of the secrecy traditionally associated with the Stasi. All of this culminates in Christa’s suicide; the secrecy, keeping up with connections, and shame inflicted on her by the Stasi system proved too much to live with. The Stasi notion of “justice” was keeping things in order as they saw fit, using any means necessary to get there, a stark contrast to Western justice where victims are compensated, wrongs made right, and freedom is equally distributed.

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Film Reaction: Lives of Others

I really enjoyed the film Lives of Others. Much like the movie Goodbye Lenin, it provided a more personal narrative than those presented in our readings. However, in contrast to Goodbye Lenin, the personal narrative came not from the perspective of various citizens, but instead from the viewpoint of the government—specifically, the Statsi. This approach has “softened” my criticisms of the state—that is, it has given me additional understanding of their experiences and actions beyond those depicted in our readings (However, that is not to say I condone their actions; I just better comprehend the root of their decisions). In this way, I believe it has helped me to become more aware to the [potential] presence of bias—and, to be more conscious of not letting it permeate into my understandings and interpretations (and thus avoiding the formation of my own bias).

I thought the movie did a good job presenting the concept of justice as it related to the daily actions of the state. It shows the prevalence of security and surveillance in both the lives of civilians and the lives of lower-ranked Statsi officials. For the civilians, we see the practice of “wiring” take shape; for some Statsi officials, we witness security via the mediums of “checking up” (by other, higher-ranked Statsi officials) and of “keeping secrets” (from lower-ranked Statsi officials). Each instance asserts a common theme: deceit. Moreover, it reveals the nature of the state; it reveals a justice system rooted in trickery, dishonesty, and lies. Is that not contradictory?

This troubling realization is further confounded by the recognition that truth is defined by the state. And, in often times, we see the manipulation of this “truth” at the expense of the citizen (I.E. in this case, at the expense of Christa). In this way, the film illustrates power over an individual [as a theme] in the context of the state’s political climate.  Specifically, this manipulation reflects the adverse effects of authority on people’s daily lives. By the end of the film, we gather the apparent “deficit of justice” on behalf of the people—both civilians and [some] Statsi officials. In closing, I would certainly recommend this movie to future audiences, as it highlighted the injustices of the GDR in a new manner.

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movie review 11/10

I really liked this movie for a couple of reasons. Like we said in class, it is always nice to learn about a topic or era through visual media instead of trying to comprehend it from a text. In this regard, when learning about Germany and justice through the text Settling Accounts, it is sort of boring, to be honest, and hard to grasp. Especially since I am not a huge fan of history and don’t know a lot about Germany’s unification of the east and west, learning about the struggle for justice and the immense power that people once had over others was easily comprehendible after watching the movie. I think it’s really interesting how, when the east and west came together, there was a hovering question over what to do about past offenses in the west and whether or not to treat the GDR as foreign or domestic. Furthermore, how was justice supposed to be paid for those who have committed crimes? We talked in class about how retributive justice included compensating victims, understanding right from wrong, and restoring the dignity of the victim. This was somewhat translated in the movie. In terms of surveillance and the strong hold the Stazis had over everyone in Germany was truly evident when the movie expressed how people were constantly being watched and recorded. I thought it was so interesting and extremely surprising that you could find files on yourself, about your life that people had recorded without you knowing. This movie was an eye-opener for me. The lack of freedom people had, in the movie’s case of the lead not being able to write Western plays, was strongly stressed and it made me think about what I would have been restricted from doing if I lived there back in those days. I was frustrated after the movie because I couldn’t imagine living a life that was constantly monitored and then when times changed, those people who would have ruined my life would still be around and nothing would have been done to give me justice for that. Loved the movie though!

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Lives of others video reaction

I really liked the movie “The Lives of Others” because it showed justice from a different point of view. The main character of the man who worked for the Stasi but sided with the writer was always torn by the system because he knew that what he was doing was wrong but did it anyways. This theme not only appeared in the main character but also with the female actress character. She did anything she could, even sleep with the Party leader, just to get job and state security. Once she went against the system, she faced so much hardship that she eventually killed herself. Justice seemed to be the goal of the Stasi but was never really a goal that was met. This is because they had so much power in the system that they could just do whatever they wanted to and no one could do anything about it. For example, in investigating the apartment, they damaged many things and the writer couldn’t do anything. They held power because they restricted everyone else’s rights. Nothing was private anymore for you were always being watched. From constant surveillance, whatever the Stasi said was the truth and even if the claims were not the real truth, you couldn’t really do anything about it. For example, in the interrogation of the actress, she said that she was lying and made up her previous story. The response was that the writer was going to jail anyways based on her claim whether it was true or not. Justice was to be sought from correcting the wrongs and to determine wrong, people were put up for interrogation. These interrogations seemed to be unjustified and inhuman because of questionable torture ethics. The possible criminal was kept up late and questioned about the same things numerous times without using the bathroom or eating. This to me seems like injustice by itself.

I found it interesting that even though so many things were monitored and even though everything seemed public, there were still so many secrets. There were secrets kept within the Stasi, secrets kept of the neighbor from the writer, the writer from the actress, the actress from the writer, and more. I also thought it was interesting that even though the party and other high ordered official had so much power to control their citizens,  they let their power lack in border control. The writer laughed at how “lax” the guards were and how stupid they must have been to just let them pass from East to West. Overall, I think this is a great movie in showing how the justice system really lacked.

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Book Review: Women’s Health in Post-Soviet Russia

Book Review—Women’s Health in Post-Soviet Russia


The book Women’s Health in Post-Soviet Russia is an account of the politics surrounding the transformation and privatization (both officially and unofficially) of the Russian health care system. It examines gender and health amid a period of post-socialism change, specifically highlighting the roles of each as vehicles for understanding the larger political, economic, and social changes of the state. The study is carried out through various phases of analysis of actors and the interactions between them, with key actors being: “international development consultants, state policy makers, demographic experts, clinic-based professionals, community activists, and laypersons” (Rivkin-Fish, 2009, p. 1).

Author Michele Rivkin-Fish, now an Associate Professor of Anthropology at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, began ethnographic study in 1993 in St. Petersburg, Russia—the first decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union. She began her research through a project sponsored by the World Health Organization (which endorsed the equality of reproductive health among Russian women) in 1993. This partnership afforded her access to the “maternal hospitals,” where she was able to use her position to observe both official health projects and daily health practices. Topics of projects and practices centered on reproductive health, ranging from abortion to fertility to rates of maternal mortality; and, the “condition” of each issue stands to reaffirm the degenerating nature of the public healthcare system. Subsequently, each of these outlets of study brought interaction with Russian women, local specialists, and global experts; and, it is here where Rivkin-Fish most successfully expresses and explains the maternal health problems plaguing Russia. Additionally, in doing so, the audience more clearly comprehends the efforts in place to shape new policies of reform. It is these observations (accompanied by anthropological commentary and skilled theoretical insight) that became the six case studies that guide the book.

Below the surface, her WHO assignment provided a unique perspective and gathering of data: it allowed Rivkin-Fish to “observe how efforts to promote democratic reform and women’s rights came together on a daily basis” (Rivkin-Fish, 2005, p. 2). Her research was guided by several significant questions of inquiry: What did Russian women patients and Russian doctors—most of whom were also women—think about the reforms WHO advocated? How did they implement them and improvise with them in the daily work of providing maternity care? How did Russian experts and laypersons respond to WHO’s rather politicized vision that recognizing women’s self-determination was central to improving maternity care? What could Western democracy activists and feminists learn from observing this maternity care reform process and listening to Russian voices? (Rivkin-Fish, 2005, p. 3). In her later years of fieldwork, Rivkin-Fish widened her sphere of query to incorporate additional issues of social, political, and economic uncertainty: What kinds of social change did pregnant and birthing patients, and Russian health care providers seek as they struggled to improve reproductive health? How were their efforts shaped by political-economic constraints of both the socialist health care system and its democratic market transitions? (Rivkin-Fish, 2005, p. 4). Moreover, it is particularly this broadened scope that allowed Rivkin-Fish to discover and draw her alarming conclusions.

Rivkin-Fish argues that the public health care system acts as a channel for implementing and on her part, interpreting, the “beneath the surface” social and political transformations. Specifically, she contends that healthcare serves as a veil to the disparities in defining issues of (and thus, positions on) equity and well-being. She highlights three distinct ways or strategies for creating social change: individualizing strategies (includes “educational projects aiming to develop people’s personality such as new attitudes or behaviors or self-imposed discipline aiming to create social change”), personalizing strategies (“recognizes certain persons as our people…potential for trust, mutual understanding, ad reciprocity”), and privatizing strategies (includes “global and state policies that seek to privatize formerly public services”) (Rivkin-Fish, 2005, p. 10). These strategies can separately or concomitantly execute social change. However, she makes point that not all social changes are desirable, direct, or truthful. Particularly, I reference her posing of democratically-based reforms for women’s rights against increased authority for professionals. She concludes that the best interest of the first is frequently sacrificed for the advancement of the latter. Consequently, she promotes the improvement of healthcare as a unique platform for social reform and restructuring. This improvement, however, seems impeded by the apparent disconnect between peoples’ ideals—between beliefs about how is and what are the most effective ways for achieving improvement. She offers the contestation of the state as an initial platform for transition. In closing, she states that women’s empowerment (and, therefore democracy) came to encompass the amending and reforming of behaviors (as well as values) at the individual level (This approach, she sets against a more unified, communal effort—one that strengthens and improves a the group level).  Further, Michele Rivkin-Fish expressively voices this conclusion:

It argues that many everyday strategies for overcoming systemic inadequacies strove to realize ethically sound tactics in interpersonal relations…as the new constraints of market democracy became increasingly visible to many Russian people, they gave up believing that the necessary amounts of public resources would be allotted to keep welfare services functioning or that legislative acts would actually ensure citizens’ rights (Rivkin-Fish, 2005, p. 31).


The book is organized into two main parts—projects (Part I) and practices (Part II)—with three chapters devoted to each halve (totaling six chapters). These sections are bookended by an introduction (which serves to conceptualize the politics of intervention) and a conclusion (which discusses the transforming of feminist strategies). The sequential focus (and structure) of the book takes the reader through the journey of state delegitimation by women doctors, patients, and professionals. It begins with the WHO affiliated health project and the urge for “women’s self-determination in birth” and flows into the use of financial incentives in stimulating doctors. These suggestions are trailed by the discussion of sex education (its problems, projects, and continued research). From here, the author analyzes the birthing practices implemented to guarantee a healthy pregnancy (although we quickly find that this is not always the case). This methodology of organization acts to strengthen the author’s arguments, as each commentary and discussion seems to build on the previous. Consequently, I believe her argument to be poignant, strong, and firmly rooted in thorough, methodical research. With this, I must note that the novel’s key fault may lie in my responsibility. As stated, I believe her case; however, at the same time, I am given little reason not to because I possess no significant or extensive knowledge of this particular academic area of study. This, I attribute, in part to my own lack of exposure and also in part to Rivkin-Fish’s lack of preface. Moreover, I strongly feel that a foreword—with its central focus being a historical background of the time period and events—would further strengthen the author’s arguments and as a result, the reader’s understanding of the material.

Furthermore, it is important to note that this weakness does not wholly overshadow the significance of Rivkin-Fish’s principal argument: that is, “health and reproductive health in particular, have been sites for conceptualizing and implementing a renewed social order in Russia” (Rivkin-Fish, 2009, p. 5). This understanding, I believe, is an awareness and perspective that ought to be carried elsewhere—carried over into other areas of (my) academic study. In doing so, I find common patterns and tendencies with women’s healthcare in the United States since the Victorian Era. Specifically, I notice a similar social trend: in America, the social reforms and changes of a time period (decade, etc.) are reflected and reinforced through the institution known as women’s healthcare. With this, I draw the conclusion that there are a number of other “vehicles” that also reflect (and arguably, carry the burden of) the social changes and transformations in our society.


            The findings in this novel directly relate to the research and readings we have studied throughout the semester. Specifically, I recognize similar arenas for understanding and interpreting social change: conflict of land in Katherine Verdery’s What Was Socialism and What Comes Next, new persuasive form of advertising in the film Czech Dream, products like “Frugo” in Privatizing Poland, identity struggles in Where the World Ended, and products like “Spreewald Pickles” and “MoccaFix Gold” (the shift in types of products stores carried and the shift in advertising is also applicable) in the film Goodbye Lenin. Despite being different mediums, they parallel in both their purpose and message.


Furthermore, in recommending this piece of literature, I believe future audiences must possess a keen understanding of the shift from socialism to post-socialism across Europe and particularly, the Soviet Union. Additionally, the reader would benefit from having some knowledge—both historical and contemporary—of the conditions, circumstances, and conflicts surrounding health care. The individual should also enjoy an interest in (and preferably academic exposure to) social and political change—and the accompanying affairs of a state. Also, due to the dense, textbook-like nature of this writing, one must put forth a dedication of time as well as a willingness to “work” for full comprehension and understanding of the text itself.

However, let it be noted that such an extensive background need not be required (as I myself possessed only limited knowledge); it is merely a guiding suggestion to get the most out of this academic text. This novel is scholastically challenging and intellectually stimulating for the individual who is willing to sift through dry facts, raw data, and often dull commentary. Nonetheless, if you choose to read this piece, I am convinced you will feel a since of scholarly achievement upon the turning of the last page.


Rivkin-Fish, Michele R. Women’s Health in Post-Soviet Russia: The Politics of Intervention. Bloomington, IN: Indiana UP, 2005. Print.

Rivkin-Fish, Michele. “Michele Rivkin-Fish: Faculty Bio.” The Department of Anthropology at UNC Chapel Hill — Department of Anthropology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. 2009. Web. 29 Oct. 2011. <http://anthropology.unc.edu/people/faculty/mrivkinfish>.


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Book Review: Solovyovo

Solovyovo: The story of Memory in a Russian Village is an ethnography written by Margaret Paxson, who spent seventeen months in the rural Russian village of Solovyovo in the early 1990s, post Glasnost and Perestroika. She lived with an elderly farming couple for the majority of her time, so her views are well-informed by the spectrum of the couples’ experiences from the many years from which they drew experience. Paxson states that her central theme is social memory. The memory aspect of this means that she devotes most of her writing to events and customs that were more prevalent in years past- also likely a product of her studying mainly those of advanced age. As Paxson focuses on memory, she writes more about what people think and perceive as reality rather than strictly empirical, objective observations of customs and occurrences.   She uses translations and transliterations of interviews in Russian of what she feels are the most integral examples to her conclusions. She places particular importance on the formation and concepts behind words, transliterating many Russian words which she feels are in themselves filled with specific and powerful meaning.  A particular set of connotative terms which she often comes back to are the concepts ‘svoi’ versus ‘chuzvoi’; possessive words meaning the familiar and inclusive- “one’s own” – versus the unfamiliar and foreign –“someone else’s” (Paxson 78).  In addition to these, the directionality of verbs and the meanings of words connected to svoi and chuznoi are called into usage, specifically those concerning other forms of commonplace but Slavic-specific social hierarchy. Paxson argues that verbs have directionality and metaphoric and literal meanings other than those commonly understood, denoted often by their perfective prefixes.
                The social structure and hierarchy of the village of Solovyovo are integral to Paxsons’s concern with social memory, as memories of events and customs are more coloured, justified, and defined by peoples’ perceptions and senses of social hierarchies. Paxson, focusing on the memories of villagers, deals mainly with the intangible. She writes often of the spiritual and other-worldly forces from the point of view of memory, her writing reflecting the villagers’ implacable belief in the supernatural and utterly impalpable.  In addition to such spiritual beliefs, Paxson introduces the essential ideals and value systems used by the villagers of Solovyovo.
                Margaret Paxson delivers a great deal of information over the three-hundred some pages of Solovyovo. The village she describes is not one of this age, but of all ages, the collective memories of her subjects providing an image of the supernatural yet ordinary, the tragic yet commonplace. Her ethnography could be more precise- she herself is certainly wrapped up more in the details of village life and villagers’ memories than the conclusions she wishes to draw from observing them. What she does best is to provide a native’s conception of normalcy in Solovyovo. Paxson does a great job of immersing her readers into the intensive complexity of a culture utterly different from the traditional west, subtly stressing such differences, so that her readers pick up on them but do not fixate on them as, at least in the context she writes from, unusual. Though in particular what stands out is the importance placed on equality over individual success, Paxson explains the value system in quite enough depth for her readers to understand that though Solovyovo villagers may strive for different ideals, they are still human, scores are still kept, humans are still goal-oriented beings. It is only that the goals are culturally different in the Slavic world of rural Russia.
                Tied into the value systems, social hierarchies, and even other-worldly forces that Paxson describes, is how the time of socialism in expressed in Solovyovo’s collective memory. As she of course writes about not the real effects, but the remembered presence and effects of socialism, Paxson describes it with nostalgia. She writes that the “radiant past” contained a “radiant future”, that of promise of eventual communism, and that part of the radiance of the past was that there existed a promised golden future towards which everyone worked. In addition to the hope for the future that no longer exists, the villagers of Solovyovo also mourned the loss of the ‘koziain’- the authority figure of Stalin. Paxson writes of the plethora of accounts she heard of the day Stalin died, how the villagers wept, and felt suddenly lost and hopeless. The equality aspect of socialism was already very alive in rural Russia, simply due to the reliance on community necessary in conjunction with the hardship of eking out a life with agriculture as the means of survival.
 The depth of the view provided is very beneficial from a reader’s perspective while trying to understand a culture so different from those of western origin, likely the intended audience of the book, considering it is written in English, not Russian. The sheer number of words Paxson devotes to every topic she covers, especially in her chapters regarding healing and other-worldly forces. Though the depth is appreciated, and her writing flows well and is entertaining, she seems to use many examples to make the same point, and with her plethora of examples, her conclusions seem a long time in coming. This phenomenon is especially demonstrated in the chapter Radiance.  What damages her arguments most is their lack of timeliness and their dependence on her reader to accept that the notions held by several elderly villagers are held just as strongly by the rest of the population.
                The translations and transliterations Paxson uses are essential to her points concerning the connotations of specific words. Margaret Paxson, however, is a fluent speaker of Russian.  Unfortunately, words, especially the connotation-laden words that Paxson deals with, are not easily translated into another language, so the book at times turns into a discussion of linguistics and language theory more than a collection of observations and conclusions. In addition to this issue, Paxson often translates directly the stories which some of her interviewees tell her. Because of Russian’s different grammar structure and colloquialisms, such direct translations are almost always unclear and confusing. Though it is easy to see that Paxson finds the exact language used as extremely important and tied to the meanings of such stories, it also makes it very difficult for non-Russian speakers to quite understand the notion many stories are meant to convey. In conflict with this issue is the obvious importance of linguistic connotation to Paxson’s points. She does a good job of familiarizing her readers with the concepts of ‘svoi’ (one’s own), ‘chuznoi’ (someone else’s), ‘kolkhoz’ (home area), and ‘koziain’ (authority figure), all of which she argues are keystones in the mental image of Solovyovo’s Russian social structure.  Though the language barrier was one of the most problematic parts of Solovyovo, Paxson dealt with it well, though not perfectly.
                Solovyovo was most comparable to Where the World Ended by Daphne Berdahl, though Margaret Paxson came off as more immersed and a part of village life, and less of an observer, than did Berdahl. Paxson has a much more detailed account of her village, which has very different values than those of the assumed readership, so thus requires more explanation than the East German village of Kella. Berdahl also focuses on change, on events affecting the happenings within Kella, whereas Paxson focuses on the memories of people, and while she touches on how change affected them, her primary focus is on memory, which is often practically impervious to change, adapting any new influences to fit the old, established molds of times long past.  However, the nostalgic, positive light under which Paxson presents socialism is resembles more of the impression one gets from Privatizing Poland by Elizabeth C. Dunn. Overall, Solovyovo  presents quite a different view on socialism. With such rural, secluded subjects to study, Paxson provides more a submersion into culture and how socialism may or may not affect it, than a view of socialism and its very tangible effects on life and culture.
Many of Paxson’s points involve her analysis of Russian language. Such dependence is a flaw, when you consider that it is unlikely that any but those who learn Russian anything but a first language are likely the only people who pick apart meanings of words according to prefixes. Though word structure is certainly indicative of word origin, Paxson argues not for origin, but for subconscious meanings that such words have in everyday usage within villages such as Solovyovo- “grammatical categories . . . create metaphoric templates” (Paxson 78). It is hard to accept that Paxson is correct in her views that such common-use words such as ‘svoi’ and ‘chuznoi’ have such meanings within the consciousness of the common villager.
Despite this specific weakness, Paxson does provide an image of memory and life, especially in her Radiance chapter, of extremely believable quality. She manages to capture enough detail for the reality of village life, foreign though it might be, to seem utterly human, culturally complex, and thus relatable.
Solovyovo I would recommend to anyone wishing to gain a full understanding of Russian culture, especially rural Russian culture. It would be helpful for any inclined to study in the field of anthropology however, being a thorough and well-written ethnography. My one caution in recommending it would be that a minor understanding of the Russian language would be helpful in truly understanding especially Paxson’s points to do with language, terms, and their connotations.  

Berdahl, Daphne. Where the World Ended: Re-Unification and Identity in the German Borderland. University of California Press, 1999.

Dunn, Elizabeth C. Privatizing Poland: Baby Food, Big Business, and the Remaking of Labor. Cornell University Press, 2004.

Paxson, Margaret. Solovyovo: The Story of Memory in a Russian Village. Washington DC: Woodrow Wilson Centre Press, 2005.

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Book Review

Annie Goldman

ANTH- book review

How Russia Really Works by Alena V. Ledeneva

Building from her previous book, Russia’s Economy of Favours, Alena V. Ledeneva reflects on the economic and political practices in Post-soviet Russia in her book How Russia Really Works. Informal practices gained prominence across the post-soviet market and democratic reforms. The reforms of the soviet system have resulted in the spread of black and gray PR and krugovaia poruka in elections, “kompromat in the media, barter and financial scheming in industry and business, and alternative enforcement in legal and security spheres” (Ledeneva 189). Ledeneva’s study is not limited to a description of both the informal norms and the formal rules, but illustrates the people’s perspectives in post-soviet Russia as she discovers “ingenuity, wit, and vigor” in these activities (Ledeneva 9). She proposes that it is crucial to view the informal practices in post-soviet Russia not only as an impediment but also as a resource for modernization.

Ledeneva argues that the informal practices are an integral part of the post-soviet transformation. The changes that have been introduced into the system through these practices are linked to economic rationality, political competition, and the centrality of the law (Ledeneva 195). Through 62 in depth interviews, she was able to represent the elites, the practitioners, journalists and those on the “technical side of the know-how” (Ledeneva 5). Her sample is a strong representation of people who knew the ins and outs of both the formal and informal practices. Her sample does not include those who were misinformed by the government and those who were not included in the black and gray markets, weakening her points because her sample does not accurately reflect the post-soviet Russian population. Most of her interviews were conducted between 1997 and 2003. Therefore, most of them took place ten years after the fall of soviet Russia. Although a lot changed for Russia over the ten years post-soviet Russia, Ledeneva aims to confirm the lasting presence of informal practices. The ten years allows time for the new markets to settle and to reflect the real shifts, if any, in society and the economy. The information she obtains through her interviews was accompanied by statistical facts. With approximately 90 percent of bribes being paid by businessmen (Ledeneva 2), she shows how large of an effect the black and gray markets had on the business world and the economy at large.

From a legal perspective, Ledeneva suggests, the legitimacy of informal practices often causes controversy. “If informal practices are widespread and more or less accepted, it indicates that (1) the formal rules are lacking legitimacy or informal norms predominate in determining the ways of behavior; (2) there are legitimate formal rules but there are also legal loopholes that allow informal practices to flourish in a controlled way; or (3) there is a balance between the defects of legislation and the informal practices” (Ledeneva 192). What many fail to admit, or even recognize, is that the informal institutions are as much a solution as they are a problem.

Some analysts argue that selective enforcement is better than none and in many ways it is the only possible way forward (one has to start somewhere in order to, in Putin’s words, “teach people to live by the law”)” (Ledeneva 194). However, Ledeneva proposes that there is no solution to a government that is dependent on its informal leverage. If the rules were to be made transparent, there would be no way to maintain the “manageability needed to run a country of such scale and complexity” (Ledeneva 194). Not making them transparent would reproduce the obstacles of the formal practices. This becomes particularly important when looking at the effect of informal practices on the political and business realms. Although she argues that the informal practices not only hurt but help to support the formal structures, in order to form a completely stable and non-Soviet state, suggests Ledeneva, the state cannot be so heavily dependent on the informal practices.

Ledeneva says that informal practices “may have helped to bring about the collapse of the Soviet Union, but they also ensure that there will be no return to a Soviet-type rule” (Ledeneva 195). She supports this through explanations of how suppliers, intermediaries, and customers of the black PR and kompromat market as well as how members of krugovaia poruka’s needs are met through informal practices. In addition, the needs of political regimes are met through these same practices. She is strong in her arguments that suggest the significant presence of informal practices in everyday life, however her argument becomes weak in suggesting whether or not informal practices dominate social and political order. There is no denying that the legal rules of post-soviet Russia are intertwined with the informal norms based on Ledeneva’s study. Whether or not there is potential for the system to slowly untangle the formal from the informal loopholes, however, depends on the dependency level of the formal rules on the informal practices. If there is to be hope that Russia can become a transparent formally legal based society, the formal rules must dominate over the informal.

Katherine Verdery was among the first Anthropologists to work in Eastern Europe. In her book What Was Socialism and What Comes Next, she develops an ethnographic and historical study of socialism and its effects and consequences. Similar to Ledeneva’s suggestion, Verdery’s suggests that socialism remains prevalent in society in the post-socialist era. She shows the prevalence through familiar symbols and themes. “National and ethnic symbols are manipulated by the same means as before but in different conditions” (Slavic Review). Although some of Verdery’s examples are not always easy to grasp, her constant references to symbols and themes make her points easy to understand and relate back to other scholars’ papers and readings. Ledeneva uses more examples that Verdery in her book How Russia Really Works however she does not link her ideas with clear metaphors or symbols. Despite the lack of metaphors and symbols, Ledeneva finds other means to explain most of her points well. Her points are linked by constant themes throughout the whole book, which makes them seem more concise and often clearer than many of Verdery’s points. It is not clear whether this is because Verdery approaches a much broader topic of socialism and its effects and consequences whereas Ledeneva is focused primarily of the economic socialist systems, or because their writing styles and study methods have different ways of approaching a topic.

Another scholar interested in the post-Soviet world, Olena Nikolayenko looked into post-soviet Russia from a political perspective in Citizens in the Making in Post-Soviet States. In contrast to Ledeneva, Nikolayenko argues that post-soviet modernization rests in the hands of the young people and in the education they receive rather than the informal practices. Since the Russian government has extreme leverage over the education, it has restricted the knowledge and resources available to the Russian youth. As a result, “Russian adolescents tend to obtain less systematic knowledge about human costs of political stability and economic prosperity during Soviet and post-Soviet Russian history” (Nikolayenko 6).  By taking a more cultural and social approach, Nikolayenko seems to broaden her audience and allows her point of view to be understood both through capitalist eyes and through socialist eyes, whether or not they may agree.

In How Russia Really Works, Ledeneva takes a primarily economic approach. She seems to reach out towards an audience with a solid foundation in a socialist economy as well as a capitalist economy. Blat is defined to the reader as “the use of personal networks for obtaining goods and services in short supply and for circumventing formal procedures” (Ledeneva 1). While defining this term, she also refers back to her first book, Russia’s Economy of Favours, in which she argued that blat is losing its significance to the post-Soviet world (Ledeneva 1). Although I have not read Ledeneva’s first book, I believe she is also reaching out toward an audience that has read it prior to reading How Russia Really Works.

Ledeneva’s book provides a well developed look into the informal practices that have shaped post-Soviet Russia. Although it would be useful for her reader to have previously read her first book as well as for her reader to have a prior understanding of socialist economics, the overall writing is thorough and well organized. She provides a unique ethnographic perspective of informal practices that are rarely presented in such an open context. In addition, Ledeneva goes against many others who have studied post-Soviet Russia in suggesting that perhaps the informal practices have been a resource for modernization.




Ledeneva, Alena V. How Russia Really Works: The Informal Practices That Shaped Post-Soviet Politics and Business. Cornell University Press. 2006. Print.


Nikolayenko, Olena. Citizens in the Making in Post-Soviet States. Abingdon, Oxon; New York: Routledge. 2011.


Slavic Review , Vol. 58, No. 1 (Spring, 1999), pp. 188-190. Katherine Verdery. What Was Socialism and What Comes Next? Review by Stelian Tanase. Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/2672995>


Verdery, Katherine. What Was Socialism and What Comes Next. New Jersey. Princeton University Press. 1996. Print.

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Book Review: Russia Gets the Blues, Michael Urban

Michelle Hickey                                                                                                                11/1/11

ANTH 284                                                                                                           Professor Asher

Michael Urban’s Russia Gets the Blues discusses the relevance, popularity, and evolution of blues music in Russia’s post-socialist society. Using formal and informal interviews as a means of gathering first-hand accounts, Urban thoughtfully combines these sources with his own conclusions to provide an extensive overview of the blues musical subculture. Particularly insightful is his comparison between blues culture and features of socialist societies. Though it is definitely beneficial to have knowledge of music when reading this book, any anthropologist would benefit from reading Russia Gets the Blues because its masterful analogy of blues music to the larger post-socialist Russian experience.

Organized into seven chapters, Russia Gets the Blues begins with the question of “Why Blues?” Blues music has its roots in the deep south of the United States where, following the abolition of slavery, African Americans were facing the reality of freedom and all the unexpected problems that came with it. Urban points out the parallel between this situation and that of the Russians who had recently gained freedom from repressive socialism, but now had to deal with unemployment, poverty, and different economic classes. In both situations, “blues represented a reaction to these conditions. It indexed that ‘trouble’ facing everyman and found ways to surmount it in song” (Urban, 3). Blues was the perfect music for Russia because it gave them a way to “resist and endure” through the problems they faced in this new capitalist society (Urban, 3). However, Russia’s “First Encounters” of this music were not through the original recordings of African Americans, but covers of these songs by British rock and roll bands. As with many products, following socialism there was a great demand for everything Western (as discussed in Elizabeth Dunn’s Privatizing Poland) and music was no exception. Therefore, the road toward true blues was a “backward” one for the Russians as they worked their way back from blues-rock to its roots in blues. The more Russian musicians played rock and roll, the deeper they found themselves digging into its origins where they found blues, their true passion.

Chapter three describes the lives of blues musicians and bands in Moscow who performed in nightclubs and experienced the “backward” transition from blues-rock to true blues. This was aided by increased accessibility to media from the West which they used to educate themselves. The early ‘90s was rife with this ‘backward” motion into blues roots and the mid-‘90s was dominated by with bands trying distinguish themselves amidst a plethora of blues bands.  Intertwined in this was a struggle to classify what truly was blues and what was mimicry, resulting in many different opinions. The organization, clientele, and layout of Moscow nightclubs, the predominant performance venue for blues music, is the subject of chapter four (Urban, 70). Nightclubs were an unfamiliar phenomenon to Russia, so these three factors varied largely upon the manager. Urban placed these nightclubs on a chart (76) comparing their economic and cultural capital in relation to blues music. Nightclubs were important to the blues community as a place to perform music as well as a venue where those who appreciated it could socialize together. There was a delay between the blues reaching Moscow and them reaching “St. Petersburg and the Provinces”. Therefore, these places didn’t get to experience the journey from rock-blues to true blues that Moscow did and didn’t place as great an emphasis on nightclubs. These communities were also much poorer than Moscow and often placed negative stereotypes on the latter such as being only concerned with making money and not the authenticity of their music. Despite the differences in these places, however, both were creators of wonderful blues music.

The final two chapters discuss the “Identity and Community” and the “Politics” of Russian blues music. In the beginnings of capitalism, since people no longer had the “community” of socialism to cling to, they found other, more individual ones to be a part of, blues being one of them. Part of this community was centered on the ability to perceive the deceptive difficulty of blues which, to the uneducated listener may sound very simple. The identity used to form this blues community has many similarities to the socialist past which was so familiar to its pioneers. The blues community was subtly political. It was woven of songs relating to individual struggle (seeming apolitical), but the feeling embedded in these songs was one of resistance and the ability to endure through all the new troubles arising within capitalism.

Two of Urban’s most important arguments involve parallels: between the situation of African Americans post-slavery and the Russians post-socialism and between the identity of the blues community and elements of the larger socialist community. I felt that both of these parallels were backed with plausible evidence and were very powerful in communicating the significance of blues in post-socialist Russia. Looking at the first parallel, African Americans had long looked forward to freedom from enslavement, so much so that it was a bit of a shock for them how many problems awaited them once freedom was finally placed in their hands. Urban notes this same realization of troubles in the wake of freedom to have been present in Russia immediately following the fall of socialism and the rise of capitalism. Derived from field hollers, work-gang chants, gospel music, minstrelsy, and marching bands, blues music served as a way to express these emotions of frustration, but furthermore as a means of hope that one will endure through these sufferings. Despite obvious time, racial, and culture differences between African American slaves and post-socialist Russians, blues held this same purpose to help “resist and endure” (Urban, 3) the problems facing the individual. That this music is able to convey those same emotions across centuries and continents and that Urban was able to pinpoint this parallel between two cultures is really powerful and core to the success of this book.

The second parallel is between the identity of the new blues culture and the socialist one that preceded it. Socialist communities participated in collectives like those described by Katherine Verdery in her What was Socialism and What Comes Next? In a collective, people voluntarily pooled their resources (usually land) and worked together to make the best of their interests; “involv[ing] whole individuals in pursuit of a common purpose” (Urban 117). Blues bands have similar functions, combining the talents of many people with the common goal of creating authentic blues music. Sometimes, bands even refer to themselves as “nash kollektiv [our collective]” (Urban, 117). Another comparison made by Urban is between socialist intelligentsia and modern blues bands. The intelligentsia were the “bearers, interpreters, and creators of social values” and felt it their duty to enlighten the other members of society who were “degenerate, fallen, and morally threatened” and desperately in need of their help (Urban, 131). Similarly, blues musicians considered themselves responsible for sharing the power of blues with those uneducated in the deceptive difficulty of blues. Therefore, blues bands see themselves in the same position of cultural authority that the intelligentsia saw themselves in during socialism. These parallels make sense because of the proximity of the blues movement at the beginning of capitalism to the end of socialism, under which many blues musicians had lived for all, or at least a significant portion of their lives. While I believe this parallel to be a little more of a stretch than the first parallel, it is still backed with solid evidence given by Urban and provides a strong explanation of this element of the blues community.

I really liked that Urban gave a comprehensive history of blues music beginning with its African American roots, adaptation by white artists, evolution into rock and roll, and its arrival, greatly altered from its original form, in Russia at the end of socialism. Having this information strengthens his parallel between the situations of post-slavery and post-communism as well as what blues artists had to work “backward” through to get to the origin of the music they were playing. I also enjoyed that Urban often quoted musicians, audience members, and others that he had interviewed for this book. There are many different opinions over what constitutes true blues (use of English versus Russian, etc.), what is a respectable way of presenting blues to others (whether use of expedient means is appropriate), what type of ambiance is appropriate for blues listening (nightclub vs. apartment, different styles of nightclubs, etc.), and a variety of other matters. It was nice to be able to take in the views of different people who each had unique and thought-provoking observations to share and to have vantage points that varied from the author’s.

My largest criticism of this book is that it did not have an audio recording to go with it. While there were names of songs and artists that one could look up, having a CD with those recordings by those artists readily available would have been beneficial to ensure the blues the reader envisions or has experienced before are the same ones the author is referencing. It is impossible to imagine absorbing everything possible out of this book without having at least having heard blues music before. Additionally, while the book would not prove incomprehensible to someone without knowledge of music theory, I felt that my understanding of the book was greatly aided by my familiarity with music theory and my experience with music.

An interesting read for any ethnomusicologist, I would also recommend Russia Gets the Blues to any anthropologist, but especially to those with interests in music, post-socialism, or Russia. A great source of information on blues music in post-socialist Russia, it wonderfully shows how the blues music subculture affected the larger post-socialist Russian society and why this music was the perfect fit for this place and time. It also provided thought-provoking parallels between post-slavery and post-socialism and between aspects of the blues community and features of socialist societies in an organized and easy-to-read fashion. Inclusion of quotes from interviews broadened the perspectives present beyond those of the author. Overall, I found Russia Gets the Blues to be an informative and interesting read.



Dunn, Elizabeth C. Privatizing Poland: Baby Food, Big Business, and the Remaking of Labor. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2004. Print.

Urban, Michael E., and Andreĭ Evdokimov. Russia Gets the Blues: Music, Culture, and Community in Unsettled times. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 2004. Print.

Verdery, Katherine. What Was Socialism, and What Comes Next? Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1996. Print.


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