Sunday, January 13, 2008

Window on Eurasia: ‘Fartsovshchiki’ Were Not the Proto-Capitalists Some Decried and Others Celebrate

Paul Goble

Baku, January 14 – The “fartsovshchiki” of the late Soviet period, a slang term for people who engaged in one of the most notorious aspects of the shadow economy at that time, were neither the misguided pawns of the West denounced by the communist authorities then nor proto-capitalist heroes celebrated by some Russian writers today.
Instead, according to a new oral history, they represented a unique combination of certain earlier Russian economic traditions with the opening up of the USSR near its end presented and should not be seen as the advance guard of contemporary Russian capitalism.
That is the conclusion offered by investigative journalist Dmitriy Vasil’yev in his new book Fartsovshchiki (St. Petersburg: Vektor, 2007, in Russian) and whose arguments are laid out in an extensive review essay of his investigations that is now available online (
Vasil’yev interviewed people in the northern capital who had engaged in “fartsovka” activities between the 1960s and the1980s and was thus able to show, in the words of the review, “the principle distinctions of ‘fartsovka’ from trade of the bourgeois type and its similarities to forms of trade in traditional [Russian] society.”
According to the book’s author, there are two etymologies for the word “fortsovka” and its derivative “fortsovshchiki.” The first derives the term from the English “for sale,” while the second traces it back to a slang term from Odessa referring to someone who “talks down” the price of he wants to buy and then resells it for more.
The second of these explanations is probably the more likely, but however thtmay be, the term was first applied to those young people who hung about hotels in major Soviet cities where visitors from abroad were staying and offered to exchange Soviet goods of various kinds for all sorts of things “from the West.”
Vasil’yev suggests that this phenomenon passed through three phses, a “romantic” beginning inth 1960s, a flowering in the 1970s, and a rapid decline and finally disappearance “together with the Soviet Union” at the end of the 1980s and beginning of the 1990s.
In its romantic phase, the “fartsovshchiki” consisted mainly of the so-called “stilyagi,” part of the “golden youth” of the Soviet elite and its hangers on who celebrated everything from the West, however cheap or silly it might be and engaged in “fartsovka” in order to get it however expensive the Soviet goods they had to offer in exchange.
This first group, Vasil’yev makes clear on the basis of his interviews, was thus less interested in making money off the deals, although some of its members did, than in acquiring for themselves and their friends the latest Western fashions or what they believed were such.
As this Western-oriented subculture spread, the St. Petersburg journalist says, more people were drawn in to “fartsovka,” more money was made through the resale of goods acquired from Western visitors, and that in turn lead to a division of labor between those who bought the goods and those who sold them.
In the 1970s and 1980s, “fartsovka” grew so large that Vasil’yev suggests there were six different groups involved in acquiring goods -- hotel workers, sailors on Soviet cargo ships, long-distance truckers, participants in Interclubs, guides, and those who continued to deal “outside hotels” as well as those who sold these goods to others.
Vasil’yev describes each of these in great detail, and his online reviewer helpfully summarizes Vasil’yev’s findings on each of them. But as interesting as those findings are sociologically, the conclusions about the nature of “fartsovka” that Vasil’yev’s research suggests about this movement is more significant politically at least now.
First of all, as his findings make clear, “fartsovka” was never “simply a business” but rather “a subculture with its own ideology, its own slang and its own division of people into ‘our own’ and ‘others.’” And for most who participated in it, acquisition of a Western style rather than profit was the primary motivating force.
Second, its members routinely practiced “mutual assistance” and did not seek to make all the money off the exchanges that they might have, something more typical, Vasil’yev’s reviewer suggests, of classical trade than of its capitalist variant as usually understood.
And third, the “fartsovshchiki” behaved in some ways very differently than did their traditional predecessors because they were less concerned with satisfying their real needs either directly through the goods they obtained or indirectly through their sale than in acquiring status.
Unfortunately, as Vakhirov notes in his review, “the Marxists in the USSR defined ‘fartsovka” as a rebirth of bourgeois trade [because they could not imagine any other kind], and then the liberals, mostly graduates of [Soviet-era] departments of historical materialism [simply] repeated this,” albeit with a different sign in front.
Vasil’yev’s book offers a correction to this, the reviewer concludes, and should force today’s liberals to reflect upon the fact that “even those Soviet people who sincerely copied everything Western were not able to escape from the framework of the communal model of trade characteristic of Russia.”
If yesterday’s Marxists and today’s liberals were able to recognize this reality about which Vasil’yev has written so cleverly, they would be able to understand that there are many forms of economic activity which are not captured by the “socialism-capitalism” dichotomy favored by both groups.

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