Brodiazhnichestvo (USSR)

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Brodiazhnichestvo 🇷🇺
USSR map.png
Location: USSR
Definition: Term for vagrancy used to legislate against persons engaging in dissent, forbidden trades, private entrepreneurial activity, or speculation in the Soviet Union
Keywords: Russia FSU Trade Speculation Dissent Entrepreneurship
Clusters: Domination Motivational ambivalence Control Informal governance
Author: Sheila Fitzpatrick with Sheelagh Barron
Affiliation: Department of History, University of Sydney, Australia and Alumna, School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College London, UK
Website: Wikipedia entry

By Sheila Fitzpatrick, Department of History, University of Sydney, Australia with Sheelagh Barron, Alumna, School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College London, UK

The Russian term brodiazhnichestvo, meaning vagrancy, had its origins in the legal framework of Imperial Russia, and was a pejorative term used to describe tramps and other destitute members of society. However, in the Soviet Union during the Khrushchev era, brodiazhnichestvo was commonly used to refer to persons engaging in ‘forbidden trades, private entrepreneurial activity, or speculation, the so-called ‘second economy’ which flourished from the late 1950s onwards.

From 1957 to 1961 a Central Committee Commission led by Polianskii investigated the many facets of ‘anti-social’ ‘parasitical’ behaviour in contemporary Soviet life. This investigation revealed an uncomfortable picture of a society employing a range of informal practices to make up for the shortcomings of the state. The commission understood its task as the investigation of the many extra-systemic ways that Soviet citizens found to supplement or substitute regular wages and salaries and to find legislative ways of closing the loopholes that made them possible.

The law of 1961’s implicit reach was broad: it defined the ‘parasite’ as having many faces and noted it may be ‘an embezzler (kaznokrad) plundering socialist property, a bribe-taker, a swindler (zhulik), a speculator; or a young idler, [or] a flea-market trader (barakhol’shchik).’ Begging was mentioned once in the middle of a long list of parasitical second-economy activities, but neither vagrancy nor prostitution even rated a mention. What mattered was identifying all the processes whereby Soviet citizens were getting ‘unearned income’ instead of, or in addition to, their regular wages and salaries.

Polianskii’s commission investigated forbidden trades, speculation, private entrepreneurial activity and in addition appointed working groups on such topics as currency forging, bribery, contraband, cheating customers in stores, and illegal transactions involving land and housing space, as well as demanding investigation into a wide range of illegal trades that included samogon-making (moonshine), folk medicine, fortune-telling, running brothels, and producing and selling pornography. The enquiry amounted to a wholesale investigation of the areas involving private ownership and entrepreneurship, and the circumstances that were making it possible.

In towns there was a great variety of second economy activity. People were using private cars to provide taxi and removal services, renting out rooms or ‘corners’ of their apartments or houses, renting out individually-owned dachas, and using garden or dacha plots to grow produce for sale; Truck drivers and railway employees were moving goods around the country for ‘grey market’ sale. Workers at electrical and radio factories regularly stole their products and sold them outside the plant. Enterprising persons set up ‘clandestine miniature factories that turn out the notorious phonograph records made from x-ray film’ (Literaturnaia Gazeta 1960[1])

Similarly, all sorts of ‘parasitical’ entrepreneurial activity went on in the countryside, especially around the collective and state farms. Some farms established unregistered shops on their premises to produce goods that ‘have no relation to their production profile, for example, electrical fuses, spare parts for textile machines, glass for wrist watches, polyethyline items,’ using kolkhozniki (workers from collective farms) and ‘persons without fixed occupation’ as workforce ([2]). Kolkhozy also used middlemen to acquire needed spare parts and building materials, and to distribute agricultural produce. They and other enterprises, rural and urban, regularly hired the so-called ‘shabashnik’ brigades (moonlighters) to do construction and repair work on contact. All this was, of course, in addition to the pettier forms of rural ‘parasitism’ (living off bee-keeping, carting, selling craft items or produce from the private plot.)

Artisans and craftsmen (outside cooperatives) were always an object of suspicion: these were difficult categories for Soviet authorities, who tended to regard non-factory production as both outmoded and potentially capitalist. Even when the trades were in themselves legal, there was the question of about the way they got raw materials (often on the black market), together with the fact that they sold their produce, possibly ‘parasitically’ for profit. There were also illegal trades, artisan and craft activities that were explicitly forbidden by law by the Criminal Code or in special statutes. Brewing samogon (Davitian 1966[3]), making religious objects, cutting gramophone records and developing photographs were among the illegal trades, but the list in law and practice was probably much longer, including preparation of any goods from precious metals or precious stones, betting, and organising games of chance (Kondrashkev 1989[4]).

The anti-parasite law was not intended to target persons who were unemployed because they were invalids, old-age pensioners, pregnant women, or housewives with young children. However, provision was still inadequate, and some people on retirement and disability pensions supplemented them by begging or petty trading.

The ‘shadow economy’ parasitism that was the central target of the law evoked a mixed response from the public. Kolkhozniki who did not volunteer to work on other projects on ‘labour days’, as well as ‘shabashniki’ working as contract labourers on kolkhozy and elsewhere (often these same ‘non-working’ kolkhozniki) were damned as parasites, (GARF[5]) and resentment was also expressed against people who rented out their dachas and other housing space for a high price. But others who participated in the public discussion were worried about labelling such common activities as dacha-renting as parasitical: after all, many of ‘the public’ engaged in such activities themselves. It was not unusual for activities that were condemned in others to find justification in the personal sphere.

It is not clear how often people were actually sent into exile as ‘parasites’ as a result of ‘unearned income’ from second-economy activities. Despite the draft law’s emphasis on ‘second economy’ offences, police and other local authorities continued to understand the category of ‘parasites’ in more traditional terms: beggars, tramps, prostitutes, and drunks making a disturbance on the street. The MVD reported that among those exiled as parasites there were ‘not a few’ carpenters, joiners, painters, stonemasons, tailors, shoemakers, coopers and other tradesmen working privately (RGANI[6]). Sewing women and tailors were likewise liable: there are reports of parasitism charges against women – ‘getting rich at the expense of the toilers’ state,’ to quote the standard anti-parasite rhetoric - who sewed dresses or made bras, paper flowers, and homemade mirrors for sale at the kolkhoz markets (GARF[7]). In practice, of course, such small-scale private enterprise was often tolerated.

The 1961 law is interesting not so much for its direct results as for the way in which it exposed various fault lines in the society and confusion in the minds of the leaders about where the society was going. The party ideologists claimed that the society was moving inexorably towards communism, that is, ever further away from capitalism and the remnants of capitalist consciousness and habits that were the soil in which parasitism grew. Yet to an outside observer, it might have appeared that its trajectory was exactly the opposite – not away from ‘capitalism’ (that is, a situation allowing scope for individual economic initiatives and acquisition and use of goods) but towards it. It was very striking, too, just how many kinds of parasites there were when one looked closely: it was as if a ‘second society’ of parasites coexisted with the ‘first’ society of toilers (or, even worse, that every toiler was a potential parasite). The discussions surrounding the anti-parasite law gave a vivid and informative picture of the great variety of stratagems and social niches developed by individual citizens; everything that mattered went on not in the formal structures of the society but in the interstices between (Baron and Frierson 2003[8]). The work of Polianskii’s Commission showed a considerable understanding of how the Soviet economy actually, as opposed to formally, worked.

The Soviet Union was not alone in using the vagrancy law to deal with ‘undesirable elements’ of society or using the law as a ‘catch all’ solution. In the United Kingdom, the Vagrancy Act of 1824 banning vagrancy and begging continues to be enforced to this day and it is claimed that it has been ‘repurposed over the last decade as a truly modern tool to police poor, vulnerable and ‘suspicious’ people in public spaces’ (Open Democracy 2014). In 1971 and 1972 vagrancy laws in the USA were challenged as being unconstitutional, however until this time the law provided ‘an escape hatch from the Fourth Amendment’s protections against arrest without probable cause’ (Time 2016[9]). In Canada vagrancy continues to be a criminal act, being defined as ‘Every one commits vagrancy who (a) supports himself in whole or in part by gaming or crime and has no lawful profession or calling by which to maintain himself’ (Criminal Code Canada 179. (1) [10]). Western governments have also found ‘vagrancy’ a useful tool for exercising control.


  1. Literaturnaia Gazeta,1960. 27 September, p.2
  2. RGANI = Rossiiskii gosudarstvennyi arkhiv noveishei istorii (Central Archive of the Communist Party, 1953 on)
  3. Davitian, M.M. 1966. Protiv antiobshchestvennogo otnosheniia k trudu. Erevan, 38
  4. Kondrashkev N.N. 1989. Tundeiadstvo:protiv Zakona i sovesti. Moscow: Iuridicheskaia literature, p.25
  5. GARF= Gosudarstvennyi arkhiv Rossiiskoi Federatsii (State Archive of the Russian Federation)
  6. RGANI = Rossiiskii gosudarstvennyi arkhiv noveishei istorii (Central Archive of the Communist Party, 1953 on)
  7. GARF= Gosudarstvennyi arkhiv Rossiiskoi Federatsii (State Archive of the Russian Federation)
  8. Starr S.F. 2003. ‘Leningrad 1966-1967 Irrelevant Insights in an Era of Relevance’ In Baron and Frierson (eds), Adventures in Russian Historical Research: Reminiscences of American Scholars from the Cold War to the Present. Armonk, New York and London: M. E. Sharpe
  9. Goluboff. R. 2016 ‘The Forgotten Law that Gave Police Nearly Unlimited Power’, Time, 1 February,
  10. Criminal Code of Canada no 179 Vagrancy:

Further Reading

  1. Fitzpatrick, S. 2006. ‘Social Parasites: How Tramps, Idle Youth, and Busy Entrepreneurs Impeded the Soviet March to Communism’, Cahiers du Monde Russe, (47): 1–2
  2. Hermer. J. ‘The modern return of Vagrancy Law’ Open Democracy, 4 March
  3. The Vagrancy Act 1824,</ref>