Chelnoki (Russia and FSU)

From Global Informality Project
Jump to: navigation, search
Chelnoki 🇷🇺
Location: Russia and Former Soviet Union
Russia map.png
Definition: Small traders who resells goods purchased in China
Keywords:
RussiaFSUMarketInformal welfareThe System Made Me Do ItSurvivalBordersCustomsTradeSmuggling
Author: Anna Cieślewska
Affiliation: Research Unit of Iranian Studies, Institute of Oriental Studies of the Jagiellonian University, Krakow, Poland

By Anna Cieślewska

Chelnok (pl. chelnoki) is a colloquial Russian term used to describe a trader involved in shuttle trade in regions of the former Soviet Union, and in Eastern Europe. The term chelnok literally means a shuttle which is moved from one edge of a loom to the other in the process of weaving. The activities of shuttle traders are similarly associated with constant movement – travelling to and from a point of purchase to a point of sale of goods. In Polish, two equivalent terms are used: handlarz-turysta meaning a tourist-trader or handlarz-mrówka, an ant-trader. Similar practices across the world are associated with unstable labour markets and occupy a semi-informal sphere of business (see also entry on small scale smuggling). Tarrirus refers to petty, trans-border traders as ‘ants of globalisation,’ ‘the new nomads of underground economy’ such as sacoleiros in Brazil or African mobile phone buyers in Hongkong and Guangzou (Telles di Silva 2012: 90[1]).

Chelnoki has its origins in the phenomenon of meshochnik(i) - speculator(s), the vendors engaged in the prohibited trade of food during the Russian Civil War (the period after the 1917 Russian Revolution until 1922). The term meshochniki is derived from the sack (meshok), in which people transported goods. During the period of the Civil War the Soviet regime banned private trade. Famine in the cities forced the Soviet government to develop a system of rationing, whereby food was distributed to those in possession of ration cards. In consequence, surplus food in rural areas was smuggled from the villages to the cities. Food was bought from farmers or exchanged for valuable goods and frequently ended up at the cities’ black market (Davydov 2007[2]). Under Soviet criminal law, speculation – the selling or buying goods for the purpose of making profit – was defined as ‘one of the most dangerous economic crimes which affects the normal functioning of Soviet trade and genuine interests of buyers’ (Kaiser 1997[3]). Traders were persecuted as ‘speculators.’

‘Margaret Morton©OmbraLuceLLC_2006.’

Under the Soviet command economy, food and consumables were in short supply, and foreign trade was controlled as part of the state planning system. Nevertheless, everything from fashionable clothes to imported electronic goods (in the latter period) could be accessed though blat (Leveneva 1998[4]), through informal contacts, or on the black market. In time, black market traders, specialising in imported goods, became known as fartsovshchik(i) (Kaiser 1997[5]) (see also baraholka).


After 1988, restrictions on trade became less severe and the number of trading agencies sharply increased. Nevertheless, the majority were state agencies that concentrated on exporting goods produced in the USSR and focussed little on importing consumer products. Consequently, when the economy opened up at the beginning of the 1990s the official retail trade sector was not ready to import goods. By the mid-1990s the number of foreign trade outlets reached 20,000 (IMF 1998: 9, 10[6]).


Concurrently, the labour market in post-communist Russia was collapsing. Shrinking domestic production triggered an increase in informal activities. The transitional period, associated with porous borders, as well as non-existent regulations for export and import, allowed for relatively free movement of people and goods. The shortages in foods and diversity of provisions in different regions made it profitable to buy certain goods in one country and to sell them in another, thanks to significant discrepancies in prices between the countries of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. For example, traders brought a variety of domestic and hardware goods to Poland (mostly from the territory of the former Soviet republics) and on their return journeys purchased textiles, electronic equipment and other goods, which were in demand in their home markets (Cieślewska 2014: 126[7], Esim, 2002: 8[8], Ozcan 2006[9]). Chelnoki also travelled from regions of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe to China, India, the United Arab Emirates, Iran, Italy, Pakistan, Syria, Thailand, Turkey and Central Europe in order to buy goods destined for the domestic market. In the 1990s, chelnoki business was associated those travelling with big suitcases full of consumer goods, containing in the main, food products, textiles, clothes and household goods (Esim, 2002: 8[10]). Small tour companies organising ‘tourist excursions’ flourished at this time. Although officially, such trips were targeted at tourists, the majority of clients were traders who rarely had time to visit tourist attractions (Cieślewska 2014: 126[11]).


According to some estimates, chelnoki trade provided employment for up to 30 million traders in the mid-1990s. It is thought that majority of chelnoki are women, for whom bazaars became the only source of employment during the turbulent years of transition (Abazov 2009: 27-29[12]; Taraban 2002[13]). A popular myth reinforces the notion that women are more skillful at trading than men. Men involved in chelnoki trade are often related to the female traders, and play a significant role in helping to develop business and in protecting the women from a variety of dangers such as intimidation by strangers or sexual abuse. A typical chelnok trader operated though a personal network, involving flexible distribution of responsibilities. Members of the network of family and friends might be involved in a range of activities from the transportation of goods across borders, to selling the products at market and distributing goods among the group. Another form of assistance included providing relevant personal contacts and advice. (Slonimski et al. 2012: [14] ). Traditionally, chelnoki are especially widespread in Central Asia and the Caucasus, but their overall number is declining. (Cieślewska 2014: 126[15], Avtokratov 2001[16], Abazov 2009: 27-29[17]).


Over time, some of the chelnoki trade has transformed into profitable business. Traders still travel, but the scale of trade and their purchasing power has increased. Many former chelnoki became retail suppliers to wholesale outlets. Others continue to travel abroad to buy a variety of goods for their own stalls in the markets; but in the majority of cases, they send the purchased goods through intermediaries, thus they are required only to supervise their delivery.


At the outset of the post-communist transition, chelnoki trade suffered from unstable economic conditions, racketeering and operated in a high-risk environment. A so-called ‘protection fee’ was often extorted from shuttle traders and collected on regular basis. Typically a particular gang or criminal entity controlled each bazaar. Traders were forced to pay up to 30 per cent of their profits to racketeers. Theft of the chelnoki's possessions occurred on a daily basis, either as punishment for those who had not paid their dues or as a warning to others. Further financial exploitation was experienced by chelnoki at the hands of customs officers at the cross-borders control points, by transport police and other officials keen to benefit from the earnings of traders who were readily identifiable. Officials continue to seek personal gain from the chelnoki trade to this day (Cieślewska 2014: 126[18], see Avtokratov 2001[19]).


A number of monuments commemorate chelnoki trade. In July 2009, a monument to chelnoki was erected in Yekaterinburg, near the main entrance to the largest market in the Urals, Taganskii riad (Lenta.ru 2009 Exchange , Cambridge: Cambridge University Press[20]).Another shuttle trader monument was constructed in Manzhouli, on the border between Russia and China. The sculptures, dedicated to chelnoki entrepreneurs of 1990s were erected in the centres of Belgorod in November 2007 and in Blagovshchensk and Sloviansk in Ukraine. (Polsergmich.blogspot 2012[21])


A documentary entitled Chelnoki: a school of survival (Chelnoki. Shkola vyzhivaniia), released in Russia in 2011, showed the reality of chelnoki business in the first years following the fall of the Soviet Union, during the period of transformation. Another documentary, Jarmark Europa, by Minze Tummescheit was produced in 2004. It depicts Warsaw's 'Dziesieciolecia Stadium', one of Eastern Europe's largest bazaars, and a centre of the trans-border trade between early 1990s and 2007. In 2010, the book 'Wielkie Bazary Warszawskie' (Warsaw's Big Bazaars) by Jacek Maria Kurczewski, Mariusz Cichomski and Krzysztof Wiliński was published; the book describes the 'life' of two bazaars in Warsaw: Jarmark Europa and Różyckiego and includes the life stories of the traders, their clients and the policemen who controlled the bazaars. Overall, chelnoki trade became a symbol of the rapid changes of 1990s, a period of uneven transformation, instability and a flourishing informal economy.

Notes

  1. Telles da Silva, V. 2012. 'Illegalism and City of San-Paulo', in G. Mathews, G. L. Ribeiro, and C. A. Vega (eds.) Globalization from Below: The World's Other Economy, New York: Routledge, 86-101
  2. Davydov, A. Iu. 2007. 'Meshochniki i Diktatura v Rossii’, 1917-1921', Sankt-Peterburg: Aleteiia
  3. Kaiser, M. 1997. ‘Informal Trade Sector in Uzbekistan’, Working Paper No. 281, Bielefeld
  4. Ledeneva, A. 1998 ‘Russia’s Economy of Favours: Blat, Networking and Informal Exchange’, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
  5. Kaiser, M. 1997. ‘Informal Trade Sector in Uzbekistan’, Working Paper No. 281, Bielefeld
  6. International Monetary Fund, 1998. ‘Shuttle Trade’, https://www.imf.org/external/.../98-1-3.pdf
  7. Cieślewska, A. 2014. 'From Shuttle Trader to Businesswomen: The Informal Bazaar Economy in Kyrgyzstan', in J. Morris and A. Polese, (eds.) The Informal Post-Socialist Economy: Embedded Practices and Livelihoods, London & New York: Routledge, 121-134
  8. Esim, S. 2002. ‘Women’s Informal Employment in Transition Economies’, United Nations Division for the Advancement of Women (DAW) Expert Group Meeting on ‘Empowerment of Women Throughout the Life Cycle as a Transformative Strategy for Poverty Eradication’, 26–29 November, New Delhi: India
  9. Ozcan, G. 2006. 'Djamila’s Journey from Kolkhoz to Bazaar: Female Entrepreneurs in Kyrgyzstan', in F. Welter, D. Smallbone and N. Isakova (eds.) Enterprising women in Transition Economies, Aldershot: Ashgate, 93-115
  10. Esim, S. 2002. ‘Women’s Informal Employment in Transition Economies’, United Nations Division for the Advancement of Women (DAW) Expert Group Meeting on ‘Empowerment of Women Throughout the Life Cycle as a Transformative Strategy for Poverty Eradication’, 26–29 November, New Delhi: India
  11. Cieślewska, A. 2014. 'From Shuttle Trader to Businesswomen: The Informal Bazaar Economy in Kyrgyzstan', in J. Morris and A. Polese, (eds.) The Informal Post-Socialist Economy: Embedded Practices and Livelihoods, London & New York: Routledge, 121-134
  12. Abazov, R. 2009. 'Current Trends in Migration in the Commonwealth of Independent States', Human Development Research Paper 36
  13. Taraban, S. 2002. 'Women and Economic Restructuring in Post-Socialist Ukraine: The Paradoxes of Constructing a Businesswoman', 21: 4 Canadian Women Studies, 124-128
  14. Slonimski, A., Pobol, A., Linchevskaya, O., Slonimskaya, M. 2012. 'Crossborder Enterpreneurial Cooperation at the Household Level: Bialorus and EU countries', in D. Smallbone, F. Welter and M. Xheneti (eds.) Cross-Border Entrepreneurship and Economic Development in Europe's Border. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Publishing Ltd, 157-167
  15. Cieślewska, A. 2014. 'From Shuttle Trader to Businesswomen: The Informal Bazaar Economy in Kyrgyzstan', in J. Morris and A. Polese, (eds.) The Informal Post-Socialist Economy: Embedded Practices and Livelihoods, London & New York: Routledge, 121-134
  16. Avtokratov,A. 2001. 'Viuchnye Liudi', Druzhba Narodov 5. http://magazines.russ.ru/druzhba/2001/5/avto.html
  17. Lenta.ru. 2009. ‘V Ekaterinburge otkryli pamjatnik chelnokam’. http://www.lenta.ru/news/2009/07/20/chelnok/
  18. Cieślewska, A. 2014. 'From Shuttle Trader to Businesswomen: The Informal Bazaar Economy in Kyrgyzstan', in J. Morris and A. Polese, (eds.) The Informal Post-Socialist Economy: Embedded Practices and Livelihoods, London & New York: Routledge, 121-134
  19. Avtokratov,A. 2001. 'Viuchnye Liudi', Druzhba Narodov 5. http://magazines.russ.ru/druzhba/2001/5/avto.html
  20. Lenta.ru. 2009. ‘V Ekaterinburge otkryli pamjatnik chelnokam’. http://www.lenta.ru/news/2009/07/20/chelnok/
  21. ‘Skulpturnie kompositsii (9) pamiatniki torgovtsam-chelhokam’. 2012.http://polsergmich.blogspot.com/2012/12/9-7.html

See also

Chelnoki operating in Istambul, Turkey in Yükseker, D. 2004. "Trust and Gender in a Transnational Market: The Public Culture of Laleli, Istanbul", Public Culture, 16 (1): 47-66, doi.org/10.1215/08992363-16-1-47