Avos (Russia)

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Avos
Location: Russia
Russia map.png
Author: Prof Caroline Humphrey
Affiliation: University of Cambridge


Original text by Prof Caroline Humphrey

Avos’ is a Russian word used in both economic and non-economic contexts to refer to a ‘lackadaisical’ attitude to chance in the world. It expresses the idea that ‘things might work out for me’ (albeit with a low degree of probability). A typical usage might be ‘Надеясь на авось, я решил выехать на встречную полосу, чтобы объехать пробку’ (Relying on chance, I drove into the oncoming lane in order to get round the traffic jam).

In an economic context, avos’ is often evoked to blame people for engaging in risky deals or popular speculation and for then falling prey to cheats and scams. Contemporary Russian writing tends to portray avos’ as an age-old Russian habit of mind, a regrettable lapse into folkways that has somehow survived despite the advent of more ‘progressive’ kinds of economic thinking, such as striving to achieve socialist production-targets, rational administrative planning, responsible management of a household economy, or hard-headed capitalist calculation.

The concept of avos’ is a response to unpredictability and has deep roots in a cosmological vision of how the world works. Although advocates of modernity express the view that it must sooner or later disappear, in fact avos’ springs into view as soon as the economy experiences one of its abrupt upswings or downturns, and hence it is widely evident in 21st century Russia.

It is worth briefly considering the history of the idea. There is an ageless proverb, ‘русский бог—авось, небось да как-нибудь’ (The Russian god is chance (avos’), probably, and yes, somehow) which has been extolled, lamented and satirised by Russian writers from Alexander Pushkin onwards. In the 19th century the notion that avos’ was somehow like a god for the common folk was used, for example, by the novelist Pavel Mel’nikov-Pechersky when he was contemplating the secrets of the economic success of the Old Believers (dissenters who broke away from the Russian Orthodox Church in the 17th century). He wrote that what separates the upstanding, prudent, hard-working Old Believers from the lazy peasants belonging to the mainstream Orthodox Church is that they have escaped from the fatalism of ‘the primordial law of the Russian person, ‘the Russian god—avos’.’ The Old Believers are virtually all active and efficient, he wrote, and therefore prosperous, whereas the Orthodox peasants, prey to avos’, are an inert, slack and reckless lot only too happy to ‘eat at others’ expense’ (Mel’nikov-Pechersky 1868)[1].

It might seem that the passivity of avos’ would imply an idea like Providence, a viewpoint sub specie aeternitatis, the viewpoint of God’s eye—except that in fact avos’ is devoid of Christian connotations and refers instead to wild, untamed happenstance. So, with avos’, it is not by the will of the Christian God that an opportunity comes to me. Rather, avos’ suggests an alternative chanciness—not as inexorable as Fate nor as deity-like as Fortuna, even if Russian writers refer to it sarcastically as a deity—which is just the way the unfathomable world seems to work. Latching on to avos’ implies unreflective immediacy. The great Russian dictionary of Vladimir Dal’ explains the etymology of avos’ as a shortening of ‘А вот сейчас’ (Oh, there it is, right now!) (Dal’ 1836-6)[2].

Avos’ is associated with informal, off-the-cuff practices. For example, an avozka was the string-bag people used to carry in Soviet times just in case they came across something good to buy on their way to work. In post-Soviet times it is assumed that the days of the avozka are over (‘You’ll find it in a museum!’) and, with its peasant associations, people today rarely use the word avos’ to describe their own actions—even if in fact they act in exactly this way. On the other hand, they are all too ready to apply the word to others. This contrast is apparent in the following statements, collected during the author’s fieldwork in Vladivostok in 2015, concerning Russia’s highly risky real-estate business. A young man who had paid in advance for an apartment that, as it transpired, was never built, and having lost all his money, recounted: ‘I didn’t think of checking the reputation of the firm. You can’t call it rational. I knew it was risky. I understood that the firm had been set up more or less on the principle of a pyramid but—ha, ha, I hoped that the firm would collapse only after I received my flat.’ Another man, when asked why he had been so idiotic as to put down his entire life-savings for a flat in similarly uninsured and legally dodgy circumstances, replied: ‘Well, it was there—on my way to work. There was the house going up. There was the sales office. And inside, there was the contract. So I signed.’ Commenting on such occurrences, the director of an estate agency said, rather pompously, ‘It is common to find sad cases of avos’. When buying flats with obviously suspect documents but a price well below the market rate, a considerable proportion of our citizens continue with arrangements, even though any foreigner would have long ago fled from such fishy schemes. Sometimes when searching for a flat for clients I have to push them away almost by force from dubious offers that seem to them extremely profitable’ (RIA Nedvizhimost’ 2013)[3].

Avos’ is one amongst various ideas of luck and fortune, hope, speculation and anticipation found in societies across the world (Humphrey and Da Col 2012)[4]. Such ideas are used contextually, including in seemingly completely rationalised financial markets (Miyazaki 2007)[5]. Yet the history of anthropology shows that some indigenous concepts have themselves become theoretical terms of wider import. According to David Graeber, concepts such as ‘mana, sakti, baraka and orenda’ might best be considered as ‘grappling with the same ambiguities and antinomies of temporal existence that all humans, even social theorists, have to confront in one form or another’ (Graeber 2012:25)[6]. Avos’ has not yet reached the limelight in this respect; but it can be compared with the idea of kairos, named after the Greek god Kairos, the deity of seizing the moment—an idea that has been expanded and recast to capture ideas of event, revolution, or effective business action in numerous theoretical writings of the 20th century (Boer 2013)[7]. Writing about the US boxing business, for example, Loic Wacquant uses this idea to explain how an experienced matchmaker becomes successful by his ability to choose exactly the right time to strike the best deal for his fighters (Wacquant 1998:16)[8]. Yet avos’ differs from kairos. The latter in its ancient Greek version implies selecting the right place and time, duly measured, appropriate and opportune, and is an aristocratic practice; the unbalanced, untimely, out-of-place and vulgar are outside the zone of kairos (Boer 2013)[9]. With avos’, by contrast, conceptions of harmony and due measure are absent. So is the notion of judicious choice. Avos’ is chance that seems rather to happen to the actor, on the wing, and all he or she has to do is to notice it.

In an economic context, despite seeming similarities, the ‘spotting a break’ and the ‘letting things happen’ of avos’ are very different from the laissez-faire attitude of the model capitalist entrepreneur described by Friedrich Hayek (2002)[10]. The latter is an opportunist, flitting here and there, navigating by intuition and grazing on lucky breaks; but he or she still takes account of the rules of the game and the laws of the state, and must peg an operation to the calculated choices of the multitude of economic actors. Avos’ on the other hand supposes a proper cosmic chaos. It does not expect there to be rules or statistical regularities—none, at any rate, that the actor can discern. Practice by avos’ mirrors such an unpredictable world: sly, yet inconsistent, and happening according to whim. Thus it operates beyond any strategies of circumscription by means of rules, laws or governmental techniques. The more the economic environment does indeed manifest itself as arbitrary, unreliable and beyond the law, the more attractive and appropriate does acting by avos’ become.


Notes

  1. Mel’nikov-Pechersky, P. 1868. Otchet o sovremennom sostoyanii raskola v Nizhgorodskoi gubernii http://az.lib.ru/m/melxnikowpecherskij_p/text_0200.shtml
  2. Dal’, V. 1863-6. Tolkovyy slovar’ zhivago velikoruskago yazyka. http://slovardalja.net/word.php?wordid=52.
  3. RIA Nedvizhimost’. 2013. ‘Osobennosti natsional’nogo podkhoda k pokupke i ekspluatatsii zhil’ya v Rossii’, 9 August, http://riarealty.ru/affordabletrends_analisis/20130809/401091712.html
  4. Humphrey, C. (forthcoming). ‘Speculation, Avos’ and Trust in the Russian Real Estate Business’
  5. Miyazaki, H. 2007. ‘Between Arbitrage and Speculation: An Economy of Belief and Doubt,’ Economy and Society 36 (3): 396-415
  6. Graeber, D. 2012. ‘The sword, the sponge, and the paradox of performativity: some observations on fate, luck, financial chicanery, and the limits of human knowledge,’ in Da Col and Humphrey (eds) Cosmologies of Fortune 56(1): 25-42
  7. Boer, R. 2013 ‘Revolution in the Event: The problem of Kairos,’ Theory, Culture and Society 30 (2): 116-34
  8. Wacquant, L. 1998. ‘Fleshpeddler at work: power, pain and profit in the prizefighting economy,’ Theory and Society 27 (1): 1-42
  9. Boer, R. 2013 ‘Revolution in the Event: The problem of Kairos,’ Theory, Culture and Society 30 (2): 116-34
  10. Hayek, F. 2002. ‘Competition as a discovery process,’ The Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics 5(3): 9-23