Humphrey: Favors and “normal heroes”

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Favors and “normal heroes”:

The case of postsocialist higher education

Caroline Humphrey, University of Cambridge

This paper reconsiders the expression “economy of favors” that became popular in the literature about postsocialist societies as shorthand for a variety of illicit practices such as bribery, kickbacks, nepotism, etc. It argues that favors can be singled out and considered in their own right from an anthropological point of view. Favors are carried out in economies that are mainly conducted in other ways—ways that are not favors at all. The paper suggests, based on materials from Russia and Mongolia, that favors are different from transactional exchanges. They are defined by their quality of gratuitousness and by the fact that they require the recipients to be personally chosen. Because neither of these are features of market economic practice, favors tend to be described in the literature as informal, corrupt, etc., but the suggestion here is that favors persist because they enable actors to enhance a sense of self-worth within relevant social circles; they are sources of esteem for “normal heroes” in such life-worlds. Analyzing favors in the sphere of higher education, the paper also suggests that practical operation of favors in an increasingly commercialized and power-differentiated environment is also helpful for understanding how social networks are formed.

Keywords: favor, gratuity, higher education, economy of favors, economic sentiment

Perhaps it is time to pick apart the expression “economy of favors” (Ledeneva 1998) and consider instead something a little different, the doing of favors in an economy that is mainly conducted in other ways, which are not favors at all. The idea of an “economy of favors” was a way of conceptualizing a wide range of informal economic activities in socialist and postsocialist societies, merging favors with practices that are translated as gifts, kickbacks, bribes, illicit benefits, patronage, wire-pulling, leverage, compensation, networking, and so forth. These phenomena, if not the term itself, have been widely discussed in the literature on Russia (Pesmen 1996; Yurchak 2003; Ries 2002), China (Yang 1994, 2002), Mongolia (Pedersen 2007) and other former Soviet countries (Nazpary 2001; Mandel and Humphrey 2002; Buyandelgeriyn 2008). This article will argue that to understand the significance and persistence of favors—despite the enormous changes that have taken place in these societies—we should differentiate among these practices and pay attention to what a favor is from an anthropological point of view.

The notion of “economy of favors” is especially prominent in sociological writings that discuss cronyism, social capital, and corruption.1 The cake is cut up in different ways, but one idea is common to this entire literature—that these informal ways of conducting economic activity are done through “personal connections” that somehow naturally give rise to favors. Yet curiously, what such personal connections consist in receives considerably less attention than the fact of their existence. Generally it is regarded as enough to describe them as “kinship and friendship” and leave it at that. As anthropologists know, however, these two categories are not unproblematic, and even if they are accepted at face value, kinship and friendship differ from one another in many ways and both include much internal variation. My suggestion will be that actually neither of them “give rise” to favors, which are an independent mode of acting that is initiatory, extra, ethical, and gratuitous, rather than being a simple expression of a previous relationship. Of course, favors are very often done among people who are either kin or friends, but a favor is only a favor if it is for some kin and some friends. So, if we think of favor in principle, it has another defining feature along with voluntary benevolence, namely that it is bestowed on some chosen person, as implied by the word “favoritism.” In fact, favor can be a vital initiating spark that changes the status of the recipient, turning them into kin or friends. I shall argue that to understand the favor as a type of exchange, as suggested by the notion of an economy of favors, is to miss these vital characteristics. Each of them—the moral (even sacred) dimension of gratuitousness and the choosing of recipients—is important for how people evaluate themselves among others and for how informal networks are formed. This paper will also query another supposition that tends to run through much of the political-sociological literature. It is argued, especially in Russian works, that just as blat (obtaining some desired good not in an officially approved way but through personal connections) arose because of Soviet shortages, such practices continue today also because of practical problems, such as lack of access to banking facilities, an unclear legal situation, or disorder in the operation of governmental hierarchies. It is as though the default position would be to do things in a straightforward, above-board way, but bureaucratic difficulties, lack of access, etcetera, make people choose to get what they want by favors. I shall argue, on the contrary, that many people prefer the “favor mode”—in other words, they will do things this way even if it is perfectly feasible to adopt the official route. Performing an action as a favor adds a “gratuitous” extra to any practical function it might have and turns the act into something that is incalculable. This is a moral aesthetic of action that endows the actors with standing and a sense of self-worth, and I shall argue that the “personal connections” in question are in fact the circles that provide the recognition on which self-estimation depends.

By doing things through favors you kill two birds with one stone: you get what you want and you take part in the “warm” and endless cultivation of relations. In such a way of thinking, the official impersonal manner of doing things is not the default mode that (as it were) everyone would prefer—a point that is well made by Yang (1994 and 2002: 468) for the Chinese case. On the contrary, it is perceived to be lacking in possibilities for personal intervention, in space to maneuver, or recognition of one’s person, and therefore unpleasantly “cold.” This is why, even in situations when “favor” has almost vanished and been swamped by naked interest, we discover, for example, that in China, Russia and Mongolia the visa regime at British Embassies is so often avoided.2 The British officials are regarded as no less pettifogging and annoying than Russian bureaucracy, but also worse, because in the Russian case “no” is never really “no”—if you know how, you can get through to them. But in the British consulate, “no” is “no”—harsh, uncomfortable, crushing. Many migrants prefer people smugglers, the local mafias with their forged or rented documents, even though they cost more. True, official channels have the advantage of being legal. But they also have a distinct lack, in that they offer no opportunity for influencing the situation, or showing oneself to be smart, and do not enhance one’s standing in the network of relations that matter to people. Indeed, doing things the official way may make people look like dummies, or at least unheroic.

This leads to the title of my paper. A Russian student told me that her grandfather often used to say: “Normal heroes always take the roundabout way” (Normal’nyye geroi vsegda idut v obkhod). Perhaps she saw me trying to absorb this idea of “normal heroes,” so she explained, “Well, I suppose some heroes get things done in an official way, but they are not normal.” It turned out that her grandfather’s phrase was a line from a song in a 1960s Soviet film, in which portly, ragged but engaging heroes, splashing about in the roundabout ways, deride the rigid straightforward types, who always lose out.3 If we think about the positive connotations of the word “normality” in Russian and the immense popularity of this song—it is posted on Russian YouTube to this day—it becomes clear that there is a long-standing set of ideas about “veering” ways of doing things, perhaps even a habitus, that needs to be explained.

The paper will first outline the present-day political-economic context in Russia, and then discuss in greater detail the notion of “favor,” which is no less motivation-ally murky and ambiguous in its implications than “the gift” or “hospitality.” Favor becomes particularly equivocal when it finds itself at the interface of rapidly advancing capitalism. At this point, interactions of various kinds, including favors and responses to favors, are recoded in new commercial forms. But favors have not disappeared, in part I shall argue because their implications are ongoing in time and cannot be cancelled out, and in part simply because people are used to, prefer, and value highly acting in this way. This prevailing personalized ethical evaluation of economic acts is a reason why what are in fact the calculating transactions of capital, greed, and power are often bathed in the warm moralizing aesthetic of favor (in Yurchak’s terms [2003: 84–6], they are “performed” as favors). At the same time, however, there are actual favors, and I shall suggest that they bring into being certain kinds of relations. At some moments favors initiate and open out new ties, while at others, particularly when these favors are illegal or seen formally as somehow corrupt, they tend to restrict networks and turn them into closed circles. I will use these ideas to analyze a particular field of informal economic relations in post-Soviet Russia and Mongolia: that of state higher education. I have chosen higher education in these countries mainly because it has been closely studied by Russian scholars and also it is a field to which I have some access. However, I hope that some of my observations will have some applicability to other spheres, too.

The political-economic context of favor in contemporary Russia

A recent book, Russia as a network State, edited by Vadim Kononenko and Arkady Moshes (2011), provides a convincing account of the situation that has crystallized since the end of socialism. Arguing that the state in Russia approximates neither to the Western democratic ideal, nor to the Weberian model of the “patrimonial” state, the editors point out that key state institutions, such as the federal structure, the bureaucracy, the army, and the judicial system are deeply problematic because they hold to mutually exclusive principles—of the market and bureaucratic control, not to speak of authoritarianism and democracy, or anti-Western and pro-Western trends in foreign policy, and they also have to operate with basic contradictions between the stated goals of the regime and its practices. It is in this situation that the “network state” has come into being, that is, one in which public institutions and interpersonal networks operate in dialectical fashion within the Russian state (ibid.: 34). To answer the question of how things actually get done in Russia, the authors focus not on institutions but on practices, the ways in which informal interest groups have infiltrated state institutions, while at the same time maintaining their own position unaccountable to these institutions. The state is thus weak in relation to the networks, “yet it is kept afloat as a kind of institutional carcass that the networks need.” The networks do not operate from outside exerting influence on the state. Rather, since the members of the networks almost always hold a high position within the state sector, the Russian elite networks are an integral element of the state—hence the expression “network state” (ibid.: 6–7). This situation obtains throughout the country and at all levels of government, and a version of it operates also in higher education.

What, however, do we know about these networks? Kononeko and Moshes define them rather vaguely as “a means of social interaction which is less formal than those within and between state institutions” (2011: 6). Evgenii Kovalev (1999: 127) describes them as “unregulated interactions between economic subjects of a patron-client type.” Alena Ledeneva (2011), on the other hand, describes a situation that is far from unregulated. Rather, she suggests that the networks operate according to their own sistema, and this has several definite characteristics: these include the need for “loyalty” and compliance with unwritten rules; the vulnerability of all members to being pulled up by the formal rules; nepotism and clan-based appointments; the use of kompromat (socially compromising information) as a means of social control; and the importance of “personal vouching” for people involved in deals, which legitimates them as ones who will not rock the boat (ibid.: 42–4). This is to suggest the existence of corporative, somewhat closed, network entities. Independent-minded people are kept out at all costs. Ledeneva remarks that the sistema uses “pre-modern” means of pressurizing people through kinship and social ties to ensure compliance, and indeed, she suggests at one point that “just like families,” these “corporate” networks have a capacity to propagate themselves (ibid.: 46). In Klavs Sedlenieks’ account of the discourse of corruption in Latvia, such networks are actually called “families,” this being a derogatory term used by people from outside the networks to imply corrupt insider dealings (2004: 129).

Very broadly, since there are after all actual families and other non-profit oriented social groups in Russia, we can picture the context as follows. Here I adopt the view, put once by Meyer Fortes4 and taken up by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, that we do not have to have an “exchangist” view of society, that is, to assume that social relations necessarily consist of exchange. Rather, we need to explain the structures that channel, control, and make claims on economic flows. Spontaneous flux arises from the variety of human desires—movements of women, children, money, herds, goods, grains, ideas, sperm, producers, and consumers, and all this is “coded” (as Deleuze and Guattari put it) in particular ways by different languages and “social machines” (Deleuze and Guattari 1972/3: 164–6). Families and kinship groups have certain ways of marking, steering, motivating, initiating, appropriating, and stopping this flow, and their goals and ways are of course different from those (let us say) of state institutions, or the networks mentioned earlier. But all of these institutions, which are partial objects distributed in the social totality, inscribe the fluxes, differentiate goods and mark human bodies. There is no circulation except that enabled in some way by the “machines” of inscription.

Now, obviously, this is extremely schematic, but the advantages of setting the scene this way are several: first, we do not need to find a theory to explain the dynamism of actuality, for the movements impelled by human desires will always try to find ways to escape a burdensome or outworn inscription; second, it enables us to conceptualize actions that have economic effect without themselves having to be seen in terms of exchange; and most fundamentally for this paper, these ideas link economic actions to the channeling of human desires and motivations, and thus provide a ground for recalling “economic sentiments.” Adam Smith’s idea is often forgotten in the general twentieth-century agreement to regard capitalist economics as “disembedded.” Smith wrote in the Theory of moral sentiments of the desire to be attended to, and taken notice of, which is the fundamental object of worldly toil and bustle (Smith 1976a: 50):

All individuals in their economic relationships, as in the rest of their lives, are interested in what Smith describes as “the characters, designs, and actions of one another.” They feel shame and seek respect, and think about esteem. They have “anxious and desponding moments.”… The “man of society” in Smith’s translations of Rousseau’s Discours sur l’ inégalité, is “always out of himself’ he “cannot live but in the opinion of others, and it is…from their judgment alone that he derives the sentiment of his own existence.” (Rothschild 2001: 9, quoting Smith 1976b: 25–6; 29)

The fact that capitalism substitutes abstract numbers for the tradition-laden codes of other formations does not relieve it from the recoding of these very numbers by “sentiments,” the intentions attributed to others and felt by the actor (Zaloom 2010). Even the most naked monetary interest cannot be divorced from the general human condition of judgment described by Smith, and indeed—to the contrary—we know that it invokes judgments in the most acute way. Any economic action, in effect, has moral implications, and this applies both to the impetus for taking action at all, as well as to the interpretations of the results of those actions. Favors, I shall suggest, are a particular type of action that have moral value by virtue of not being conceptualized as exchanges. In this, they are like gifts (see discussion below). But favors have a nuance that differentiates them from gifts: they also imply a benign partiality to a particular recipient and recognition by the beneficiary of the graciousness of the act.


This discussion brings me to favors, which are economic actions imbued with sentiment in a very particular way. Favors seem to be free-floaters—in Russia they are spread over the entire landscape, linking actual families with businesses and institutions, with the informal circles derided as “families,” and with state organs. However, they are not essentially “cultural,” in the sense that we can say they exist only in some religious, occupational, familial, or ethnic repertoires and not others. Of course, favors will have some specific cultural coloring and a vocabulary, and they may be encouraged within certain traditions (perhaps especially Christianity), but—since it is difficult to imagine any human society in which there is not the possibility of a gratuitous action for the benefit of someone else—we must, I think, see them as a sui generis, all-human potential for action.

One of the first anthropologists to have thought seriously about gratuitous action is Julian Pitt-Rivers. In his article on grace ([1992] 2011), he observes that favor is of its nature incalculable, intermittent, and unpredictable, and therefore that, if it can be considered an exchange at all, it is one of a strange kind that often has no economic justification. He writes:

The only general rule that can be cited is that grace is always something extra, over and above “what counts,” what is obligatory or predictable; it belongs on the register of the extraordinary (hence its association with the sacred). Nevertheless, whenever a favor has been done, the return of grace is always expected, whether in the form of a material manifestation (regardless of the material value of that which is returned) or in verbal expression. ([1992] 2011: 425)

The acknowledgement of the verbal expression of thanks for a favor, however, in many different languages consists in conventions denying that a favor has been done: “Don’t mention it”; “it was a pleasure”; “it was nothing,” and so on. This is a refusal of the idea that the interaction was an exchange: you owe nothing for this favor. Pitt-Rivers here quotes Emile Benveniste’s discussion (1969) of favors in the context of the Latin language:

Everything that refers to economic notions is tied to much vaster representations which bring into play the totality of human relations with divinities.

Over and above the normal circuit of exchanges, that which one gives in order to obtain a counterpart, there is a second circuit, that of bounty (bienfait) and acknowledgement, which is given without any consideration of a return of that which is offered, as an act of thanks. (quoted in Pitt-Rivers [1992] 2011: 430)

Thus, a clear distinction is made between two “circuits” of reciprocity, that which is properly an exchange, calculable and often subject to contract, and that which is inspired by a generous impulse, gratuity, which demands only a reciprocity of sentiment. In the latter, there is no need to determine in advance what the value of the return shall be, nor when it shall be made, since none is envisaged, even though it may be hopefully expected (ibid.). Thus, the reason for doing a favor is not the return. Nevertheless, doing a favor is rewarding in the following sense. The gratuitous nature of the gesture not only maintains the purity of motives of the giver, it maintains his/her moral supremacy; it launches out “vertically” to the sacred, and yet “horizontally,” it leaves the actor a creditor should the occasion ever arise where, over and above thanks, a more serious return of grace is possible.

If favors are poorly explained as self-interested transactions, the same is true of economic activities within families, but for different reasons. It is worth discussing this point, in view of the “familial” images used for informal networks mentioned earlier. Pitt-Rivers, Fortes, as well as Deleuze and Guattari, all argue—in a variety of idioms—that “exchange” is not an appropriate way of conceiving the flow of goods and services within groups in which the familial roles imply obligations. The point is perhaps put most clearly by David Sneath (2006), who observes in the case of Mongolia that honorable responsibilities are contrasted by the actors with self-interested practices, and rather than describing all of these as exchanges, he argues that the former are “enactments,” the materializations of social relations, whereas the latter are exchange “transactions.” He suggests that, unlike contractual transactions based on self-interest, the provisioning of kin and the reciprocity of relatives and friends should be seen as the material flows of obligation, such as the custom of providing food in winter (idesh) in return for labor help with herding tasks during the summer. These materializations of social relations are so common and so much expected, that they cannot be seen as exchange (ibid.: 96).

This is a just observation, but favors, however, are different from Sneath’s case. They are exactly not the manifestation of obligation and do not consist of the enactment of previously established relationships. Indeed, an unexpected boon can initiate a new relation. As Pitt-Rivers writes, “Grace is a free gift, a favor, an expression of esteem, of the desire to please, a product of the arbitrary will, human or divine, an unaccountable love. Hence it is gratuitous in yet another sense: that of not being accountable to coherent reasoning, un-justifiable, as when an insult is said to be gratuitous, or when a payment is made, over and above what is due” ([1992] 2011: 431). Favors may or may not be repaid, and they cannot be counted upon to produce a return.5 I would now like to give an example, which will initiate my discussion of informal economies within the sphere of contemporary higher education. The case concerns a student in Mongolia, where the education system was set up along the same lines as in the Soviet Union and has experienced the same kinds of transformations in the post-Soviet period. I intend to show here something of the untidy, incalculable, long strung-out character of favors, and also how they can be intertwined with kinship while still being kept conceptually separate from the give and take of family obligations.

A favor and its ramifications

A school graduate, whom I shall call Baatar, was applying to the National University, where a difficult entrance examination awaited. Unexpectedly, Sharhüü, a junior lecturer at the university offered a favor: he would take Baatar under his wing and coach him for the exam, giving special insider advice and smoothing Baatar’s way with the other teachers. This is widespread practice in Mongolian education and is called mor’ soih—hardening up horses for a race. Baatar and a chosen few other students became the “horses” and Sharhüü was their “herder” (malchin) or trainer (uyaach). Now Sharhüü was counted as kin; he was Baatar’s father’s brother’s former girlfriend’s son. But he had been abandoned as a child by his father, Baatar’s uncle, who married someone else, and it was certainly not the case that he was obliged to help anyone in his deserting father’s wider family, such as Baatar. So this was definitely a favor to Baatar, who had five brothers and sisters who might have been chosen, and from whom no recompense was expected of any kind. As for the other “horses” under training, their families had agreed to pay idish to Sharhüü in due course, that is, a whole cow for his winter supplies. But the arrangement was still considered a favor, since, while there was any number of students willing to pay, Sharhüü had chosen just one or two of them. One was a girl who was slow at her lessons. Her family was not expected to pay any idish, but this was because her father had previously lent a large sum of money to Sharhüü, and because the teacher was repaying a debt, his training of this girl was not seen as a favor.

In the case of Baatar, however, Sharhüü went further. As the exam approached, it turned out he had gone to “drink vodka” with officials at the Ministry of Education in order to obtain the exam questions in advance. The day before the exam he rushed over to Baatar’s flat with some papers and said, “You see here are the questions, so you must urgently read this book for that question and that book for [this] one, and then you will pass.” Baatar had not expected this and did not get around to reading the necessary books. He failed the exam and also did not thank the teacher. Sharhüü was furious, and later Baatar overheard him having a row with Baatar’s father: the father was angry because while the “training horses” favor was acceptable and normal, since everyone would do it if they could, getting the questions in advance was a shameful way to get into university. So the whole episode of Sharhüü’s favors seemed to have ended.

But it turned out that the episode was related to other favors, both long before and long afterward. Years later, Baatar, having succeeded in getting in, graduated with flying colors. But Sharhüü’s other “horse,” the dim girl, was still in difficulties with her studies. No one said a word to Baatar. He decided to help her—or more exactly, to do a favor for their common “herder,” Sharhüü, whose debt to the girl’s father would not be extinguished until she passed. Baatar arranged to be allowed illicitly to sit next to her in her exam, write the answers, and feed them to her. She (or rather Baatar) passed and Sharhüü’s debt was canceled. This last episode again shows the difference between a contract, such as that made with the girl’s father, and a favor. Baatar did not have to sit the exam for her and he neither expected, nor received, any recompense for doing so; but he felt he had behaved as a good person.

Sharhüü now mentioned one of his most precious childhood memories to Baatar, and it revealed a lot. Thirty years earlier, Baatar’s father had come home from working abroad, and he visited Sharhüü specially, bringing him a shiny leather briefcase filled with unheard of and beautiful German toys. It seems that Baatar’s father felt sympathy for this boy who had been abandoned and was now living under the harsh hand of a stepfather. Sharhüü never forgot this generosity out of the blue. But nor, on the other hand, did he ever mention it, or even consciously think of it as a “reason” for favors he later did for Baatar. In fact, Baatar surmises that by the time the university episode came up, Sharhüü may have had another motive: seeking good relations with Baatar’s father, who at that time was the government official disposing of the apartments and property left behind by Russians when they went home in the early 1990s. This was a post from which favors certainly could be dispensed. But as it happened, the father did not reciprocate Sharhüü’s favors to Baatar.

Some relevant facts emerge from Baatar’s story and they are interrelated. First, favors involve not just two but several people—parents, other teachers, Ministry officials, the country relatives providing idish, and so forth—the network of all those who form the intervening links or are party to the favor-giving and the receiving. As the literature on Russia also notes, these people are diverse because they have different functions in accomplishing the favor (Leont’yeva 2008a). Furthermore, acting as a favor, as in other roundabout ways (to recall the song), has a tendency to improvisation, since the usual channels are exactly what are being bypassed. Baatar told me that one has to have some talents to be able to perform favors effectively. Sharhüü, for example, was fluent and skilful in the use of language, and he was confident that even with only one “drinking vodka” session he could persuade the Ministry officials to hand over the exam questions. Second, we see from Baatar’s story that favors may have what we might think of as a “pure form” (e.g., the generous present of the German toys), but by and large they take place amid unspoken and mixed motives. Even so, operating as they do in a field of sentiments, favors have some limits, and acts morally unacceptable to the participants (e.g., providing the exam questions) are no longer seen as favors. And finally, we see that plain obligation (to repay a debt, or overtly and immediately reciprocate one favor by another) is ruled out if the act is to count as a favor. There has to be some element of spontaneous choice or decision. This last point of course reminds us of Pierre Bourdieu’s (1990) reworking of Mauss’s theory of the gift, which is cited by Alena Ledeneva in her discussion of blat as “the economy of favors” (1998: 59) and Oleg Kharkhordin’s discussion of friendship in Russia (2009: 19–20).

Bourdieu writes that for an action to be seen as a gift or an act of friendship it must be separated in time from previous gifts, must not be calculated, nor subject to balancing against earlier acts. He sees gift exchange as a “social game” that cannot be played unless the actors refuse to acknowledge the objective truth of the game (1990: 105). Ledeneva’s analysis of blat follows Bourdieu, citing his idea of misrecognition [of actual reciprocity] (1998: 59), while Kharkhordin writes in a similar vein that acknowledgement of acts as friendship depends on the participants joining in active forgetting [to weigh up these acts]. They invest in the relationship, and one way this is done is by together refusing the activity of critical evaluation of the equivalence of their investments (Kharkhordin 2009: 20). Ledeneva and Kharkhordin thus subscribe through such ideas to the reductive and materialistic aspect of Bourdieu’s theory, which reworks Mauss’s general notion of reciprocity to imply that beneath the surface something else is really going on, either calculative exchange (Ledeneva) or investment in various sorts of social or cultural “capital” (Kharkhordin). We could say that it is this kind of economistic understanding that underlies the expression “economy of favors.” I would like to argue, however, that such a reduction is not appropriate for favors.

For the desired consequence of doing a favor could be self-worth and worth in the eyes of others, rather than the return of the favor.6 If we set aside his language of “investment,” this in fact appears in Kharkhordin’s discussion of friendship in Russia. There, as Kharkhordin argues, friendship (druzhba) has an extraordinarily high and altruistic value, and it is through the mutual regard of friends above all that people acquire a sense of self-worth.7 This came about historically. Unlike in Western Europe, where Protestant traditions encourage people to analyze their feelings and trials by lone introspection, or at best with the help of a moral guide/therapist, in Russia, both the Orthodox tradition and Soviet practice assumed collectives as the site within which each person should strive for sanctity: self-evaluation was to be achieved through pervasive horizontal surveillance of the members of one another. But friendship as a practice came to run counter to the official and oppressive Soviet judgments. You were evaluated (and evaluated yourself) first of all by reference to your friends, neighbors, or colleagues, and only secondly by the Party-State. These practices of collective assessment and testimony have not ceased in Russia in the present day, but only changed their sites of operation—which now include the friendship circles of entrepreneurs, bureaucrats, criminals, or security personnel. Even here, Kharkhordin maintains, “The goal remains the same—as in the traditional Eastern version of Christianity—to strengthen your sense of yourself as a person (lichnost’), confirming your value through the approval of your actions by the relevant community” (Kharkhordin 2009: 16–17).

The implications of this argument can be related to the notion of the “network state” mentioned earlier. Strong personal friendships were abhorred by the Soviet powers, since it was held that they would give rise to “false collectives,” which some day might rise up and oppose the state (ibid.: 13). Today, the same circles of close friends are suspect (provided they are other people’s circles) not only because their practice of refusing to reckon equivalents runs counter to new goals of transparency and calculability, but also because others’ incalculable and unmanageable loyalties are locked within them.

Favors in the market economy

What happens, though, when everyone wants to make money and the market economy has expanded practically everywhere? In higher education, to judge from a remarkable series of papers by E. O. Leont’yeva about the situation in the city of Khabarovsk (2006, 2008a, 2008b, 2010), the main change is that the system of “favors” given to selected students has massively expanded. Many more students make use of it, and it now applies to every stage of the educational process: entrance exams, marking coursework, special coaching, exam falsification, positive reports, transferring to graduate courses, grants and stipends, and so on. Sometimes the said student does not even attend the university but works elsewhere, and the favor is to put him on the university’s books so he can avoid the military draft (Leont’yeva 2008b: 151). In effect there is a competition for favors. The whole practice has become monetized, with standardized charges usually cited in euros or dollars. The vocabulary has changed in a way that reflects commercialization: so students and their parents talk about many of these services as “insurance” (strakhovanie) or even more frankly as “shopping” (shoping, using the English word) (Velikovskii 2010: 24). Meanwhile, the system now recognizes the costs to the teachers for providing services, so payments for “guardianship” (opekunstvo8) are divided into “fees” and “expenses,” and the rates depend on the risk involved and the length of time agreed (just for one exam, for example, or for a whole course).

One might conclude that the word “favor” is no longer appropriate. This is just a shadowy market for special services. Some Russian scholars indeed argue that “guardianship” in higher education is no more than disguised bribery. They note that while direct bribery tends to be condemned in principle, using money to obtain guardian-type “services” for one’s children is seen as acceptable for two thirds of parents and three quarters of children, according to one large survey in 2004. Parents are prepared to give even undisguised bribes in 57percent of cases (Shevchenko and Gavrilov 2005: 2–3). These illicit practices take place in a situation where many institutions charge money more or less openly for everything: control papers, mark sheets, practicals. As one student said, “To try to get through without paying is not realistic. I paid for a practical. And then I asked when it would happen. The teachers looked at me in surprise, as if I had said something stupid. They replied, ‘To actually take the practical, you have to pay again. Do you really need it?’ So the system was to pay twice if you actually wanted to learn anything” (Velikovskii 2010: 36).

Nevertheless, I shall argue that even in this monetized—yet in fact incompletely marketized—situation favors are still in play and that a given action can be both a transaction and a favor. Let me return to Baatar to explain how this happens. One of his younger brothers wanted to enter the engineering institute, but his math skills were not very strong. He arranged for a friend to sit beside him in the exam and provide backup answers to the difficult questions. The normal payment for this was US$600, but because it was a friend, Baatar’s brother was charged only $300 to be paid after success in the exam. The principle of “discounts for one’s own” (svoim skidki) is also the norm in Russia (Leont’yeva 2006: 152). When I asked why, if it was such a good friendship, any payment was made at all, it was explained to me that because it was a friendship Baatar’s brother had to take into account that his friend was losing the chance to make $600 from someone else. In effect, the two were doing favors for one another. Despite the fact that people talk about standardized tariffs, this is in practice not a mechanical system but a matter of personal agreements, where who someone is allows favors to be done.

The leeway in such agreements also applies to the wider skein of relations in which the actors are involved. In a recent case, a lecturer called Polina was caught with EUR 35,000 in her handbag, received for help in assuring the admission of a candidate to a fashionable higher education institution (VUZ). A student observed, “That Polina was one of a network is a fact. If she had taken the money only for herself she couldn’ t have helped the student. To do that, you have to make agreements with people, with the junior teachers on the admissions committee and with the father-dean. Everyone knows that. But for some reason they arrested only her” (Velikovskii 2010: 23). We can surmise that the arrest happened because of the relation between this massive fee and the particular situation inside Polina’s institution. For not all VUZs allow such practices, and when they do, the arrangements between professors, administrators, and students differ. With the end of Soviet uniformity, institutions have become isolated from one another, and as Dmitrii Velikovskii puts it, “the evolution of morals has therefore developed in different directions for each one, depending on the conditions and the personal quality of the leaders” (2010: 24). Perhaps EUR 35,000 was a bit much even for the classiest institute. This differentiated moral landscape explains the nuanced idea of risk (risk)—the English word) that has now appeared among the teachers.

Back in the early 1990s, exactly how Sharhüü obtained favorable marks for his “horses” or dealt with the Ministry officials was left hazy and unexamined. But now, the interpersonal difficulties of such dealings are reflected in the price. Leont’yeva’s material shows that built into the “guardian’ s” agreement with the parents are the compensation for the time spent getting information about which of the academic colleagues will or will not play along and the potential “moral loss” of getting this wrong. Teachers said that the risk is not so much of exposure to the law as of loss of professional reputation by being seen as too greedy. What they were primarily concerned with was “What will people think of me?,” “They will stop respecting me,” and so on. (2006: 154). If “people” and “they” refer to academic colleagues, then the amount of such “risk” clearly relates to the prevailing practices in the given institution, in particular to the attitude of the director and the dean.

If the circle in which reputation is at stake is wider, to include parents, children, neighbors, secretarial staff of the university, the media, the judiciary, and the police, a solution has been found to lessen “risk”: the use of middlemen. It is well established that in the wider economy government officials use intermediaries to cover their traces in the pervasive practice of receiving kickbacks (otkat) from firms (Polishchuk, Shchetinin, and Shestoperov 2008). The same is true in higher education. Here intermediaries have become ever more common, and this is not only because they protect the higher academic officials but also because of increased demand from parents. Desires swirl around the most prestigious institutions. But many parents have no connections of their own with the academic world. So they seek to make new “friendships” with intermediaries with the sole aim of connecting to teachers and officials in order to establish a “guardianship” for their child.

Thus the string of intermediaries becomes longer at each end. The ethnography indicates that along this chain the links are not at all uniform. Leont’yeva’s materials from Khabarovsk show that some of these are what she calls “strong ties,” measured by their intensity, mutuality, and the time spent together, while others are “weak,” when the parties barely know one another. Interestingly, the weaker the link the more likely is “guardianship” to be seen as a favor. Indeed, Leont’yeva writes that teachers rarely even try to wangle advantages for their own child, and she suggests that this is because everyone knows about the relationship and it all becomes too obvious and awkward (2006: 149). We can conjecture that another reason is that it is difficult to think of illicitly helping one’s own child as a favor—it is more like an obligation or a responsibility. Leont’yeva continues that the teachers have no problems in “speaking for” a more distant relative or the child of an acquaintance. This can be represented both to the other teachers and to herself as a praiseworthy freely chosen act, even if everyone knows she is simultaneously receiving money.

Significantly, such cases also show how doing favors can create kinship or friendship in certain conditions. Since almost no one knows what the actual relationship is, the teacher can represent it any way she thinks will be most persuasive. In Khabarovsk, sometimes the story will be of a poor child from a distant village with no proper facilities and who therefore needs extra help; but, equally, the teacher might present a child, whom she had taken on only for the money, as her “nephew” or the son of her dearest friend, sketching in a flattering self-portrait of kindly concern (2006: 150). The desire to present an act as a favor is very strong. In Russia, it seems that such metafavors remain in the realm of persuasive narratives, but in Mongolia they can have real relationship-forming consequences. This can happen because the Mongols have a category of elective kin, called “dry” (huurai) relatives, along with their “moist” (blood, flesh, bone) kin. To go back to Baatar, during the period when he was Sharhüü’s horse under training, he was introduced to another teacher, Sharhüü’s friend, who would also help him. This man not only started to call Baatar “dry younger brother” (huurai duu), but even now continues to act toward him as a brother long after the training episode had ended. This is an example of how favors can be innovative and productive of relationships, and how they linger on in time.

Favors and power

I would like to end this paper by considering the role of favors in situations where power as well as market forces are in play. In a recent paper, Ledeneva (2011) shows that power hierarchies in various forms, such as the criminal gangs of the 1990s, the security organs (siloviki) that came to dominance under Putin, or the closed networks of elite business graduates so important today, are invariably—and perhaps increasingly—intrinsic to the operation of informal networks in the wider political-economy. They operate as protection (krysha—roof) that uses the inducement of political influence as well as sheer threat to extort a flow of resources, money, favorable decisions, et cetera, from those under the canopy. These hierarchies tend to be highly gendered: in Russia male company directors have important careers, while their wives/girlfriends are allowed small “women’s businesses” to run more like a hobby (Yurchak 2003: 84–6). In China women as sexual objects are often the very sweetener offered to the partner in some deal (Yang 2002: 466). It is easy to see why people in powerful positions would also turn to the use of favors, since the whole idea of open-handed generosity, not expecting a return, out of the goodness of my heart, and so on, sits so well with a self-image of being on top. “Of course I am doing this for you as a favor; why should I (great as I am) expect anything back from little you?” But in contemporary Russia, as a large literature has described, these hierarchies work not just through legal, economic, or administrative power, but also by means of physical force and threat. So “favors” in this situation have the implicit message that acceptance means at the same time subordination—or it will be the worse for you. Or to put this in transactionalist language, there is a “return” for such quasi favors, which is providing the appearance of loyalty, obedience, or weakness at the very least.

If we turn again to higher education, we can see that “the roof” has come down low and operates in various ways in a large number of institutions, almost always in combination with material and economic interests. In banal instances it is clear that status and power have almost snuffed out favor, even if the language of favors drifts around as an ancient relic and as a performance. The banquets provided by graduating research students are one instance. Features of European universities since mediaeval times (Osipian 2004), such banquets are couched as thanks to teachers for the favor of having been taught and examined. In practice, however, they are obligatory. At Moscow State University graduate students have to scrimp, save, and borrow to provide tables groaning with delicacies and vodkas on two occasions: the predefense and the defense examination itself. Or to take another case, sometimes the “guardian” arrangements I have been discussing are organized top-down by someone powerful. The director will have a list of student candidates he wants to promote for his own political reasons and personal gain. He simply allocates them to compliant teachers and orders them to push these students through, with some threat to the teachers’ positions implicit in the arrangement (Leont’yeva 2006: 156). However, there is convincing evidence that even in such rapacious circumstances, favors remain essential to the formation of the very illicit groups that wield power and economic clout. This is because favors choose people and make them feel special.

This can be seen if we closely examine a recently described case in Kazan University. Here network links consist of more or less pure extortion at some points, and some unholy mixture of political weight combined with greed lightly dusted with favor in others. Organized By The Deputy Head Of The Department, The Chosen Middlemen Are Graduate Students Or Undergraduate Student Leaders. One such intermediary explained:

Our first task is to find out which students are having difficulties with their studies, usually newcomers in their first year. Then we will go up to them in the corridor and ask in a friendly way, “What are you going to do about that exam? It is a very difficult subject, you know.” He gets even more worried. Then we say we can help him. The dimwit is delighted, and we count him in. If he hesitates, we will go to the parents, letting them think we are doing them a favor by giving kindly advice as older students. They usually agree—having already paid 10,000 for entrance, why abandon their “investment” for the sake of a few kopecks? There is no fixed price, and actually we, graduate students, have a game to see who can extract the most. We then take the sucker to an interview with the deputy head of department, who informs him officially that there is nothing he can do about his low marks. The student goes out sadly. I run after him, collect the money and his mark sheet and say, “I’ ll be in touch.” The money goes to the department. A fourth person then hands back the mark sheet with the changed marks. We get 35%, but how the deputy head divides it up with the teachers I don’ t know. (Velikovskii 2010: 25)

This is clearly a well-organized scam in which the deputy director has protected himself well. But it is by favor that certain teachers are chosen to form the inner circle around the director, and only certain graduate students and not others are selected as the accomplices who can earn money. Such a selection cannot be done transparently among all comers, for many people would indignantly refuse to join in. The favor has to go to those people who would take it as such, that is, for whom joining in would be a favor.

The circles so formed are not identical with the full range of the network. They channel and make breaks in the mobility of money, information, and services. This can be seen in the Kazan case from the fact that the deputy director and teachers, as the inner circle, do not disclose their division of the spoils to the graduate student intermediaries, and the latter, forming an outer circle, of course keep their economic motives hidden from the parents and student patsies. Such a social form is like a microcosm, I guess, of a pattern to be found in various sectors of the Russian economy, where a circle of officials and executives buffer themselves by a wider circle of broker companies, and these together “provide services” for (alternatively, they fleece) the businesses that can be seen as customers. Socioeconomic studies have shown that the relations between the officials and the intermediary broker firms are much closer, more long-lasting, and trusting than those between the bureaucracy and the business customers. This, they suggest, provides evidence of bureaucratic corruption (Polishchuk, Shchetinin, and Shestoperov 2008: 120–1)—among the many forms of which we can deduce that favoritism figures. In the Kazan case, the student intermediaries certainly think in terms of favors, for they assured the journalist that they expected their own exams to be passed by favor since they were, after all, the chosen few.


I have argued that favors are a particular sui generis way of acting. They work in a moral environment in which gratuitous beneficence is a virtue, and which rules out any obligatory return. They confer a boon on some person(s), usually chosen because for them the act, service, or gift is desirable, and hence they will be grateful. But favors in themselves always leave something open and uncertain: what people may hope for or expect might not happen. This is why I like Leont’yeva’s attempt to get to the bottom of informal networks. She writes that fundamentally they are based in the mundane ad hoc activities of everyday life, and they are not so much “informal” as unformed. As she puts it, they are “natural” and “self-generating” (samoproizvol’nye), and happen in themselves outside any separate act that would define them as a type (2008a: 78). This seems right to me, since the actions I have called favors are not necessarily named or recognized as such by the actors—indeed, I am not sure there is an exact translation for “favor” in either Russian or Mongolian. Yet, there still may be an analytical value in attempting such a “separate act” of definition, if only to make the point that not all acts in the economic sphere have to be thought of as transactions through and through.

This paper has shown that favors live alongside economic and political activities, and indeed can fade out in their surroundings. But the strength and persistence of favors lies in the fact that they perform two vital tasks in even the most rapacious or threatening environment. They bring into being indefinitely lasting relationships and circles of relations, and they confer a sense of self-worth within these arenas. It is important to point out that this “extra” of worth is graced not only on the giver of favors, but also on the receiver. The exchange or transactional mode of thinking is so engrained in social sciences that we are not used to seeing this. We are so accustomed to the Bourdieusian orthodoxy that we assume the only benefit to the giver of a favor is a return of one kind or another, and that gratitude will invariably bring about a response. As my examples have shown, this is indeed often the case. But the point is that it is not invariably so. And in any act of favor there is something else going on. Let me draw a parallel, unlikely as it may seem, with mediaeval church indulgences. These granted the remission of temporal punishment for sins already forgiven by God, and they are commonly thought of as fictive documents, bought to legitimize illegal acts and sold to fill the coffers of the church. But such an interpretation is to forget that in a devout Catholic environment such a document would also convey the blessed feeling of having been forgiven. In just such a way, the receiver of a favor—whatever else is going on—experiences the small inner thrill of having been favored. This is a sentiment that can only occur amid “society.” Here I would like to recall Adam Smith’s observation quoted earlier, that a man “cannot live but in the opinion of others, and it is…from their judgment alone that he derives the sentiment of his own existence.”

Now it is this very “society” (whether just a few people, or large and amorphous) that also establishes the relevant meanings of normal, the exception, difficulties it is worth overcoming, straightforwardness, the heroic, and so forth. And so I return to the “normal heroes” of my title. Doing things by granting and being granted favors, skirting around lawful bureaucratic procedure, is one of their veering routes to accomplishing their desires. A “normal hero” in Russia is someone who carves out a certain freedom of action, and what better way to do this than by spontaneous and gratuitous favor?


I am very grateful to Baasanjav Dune, Lena Manzanova, and El’ vira Chyuryumova for discussions about favors in higher education, and to James Laidlaw and two anonymous reviewers for insightful comments on an earlier version of this article.


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Faveurs et « héros du quotidien » : le cas de l’ enseignement supérieur post-socialiste

Résumé : Cet article réexamine l’ expression « économie de faveurs » qui s’ est répandue dans les travaux portant sur les sociétés postsocialistes pour désigner un ensemble varié de pratiques illégales telles que des faits de corruption, pots de vins, népotismes, etc. L’ idée défendue ici est que les faveurs peuvent être considérées en elles-mêmes d’ un point de vue anthropologique. Les faveurs sont accomplies dans des économies par ailleurs principalement conduites selon d’ autres modes qui ne sont en rien des faveurs. À partir de matériaux récoltés en Russie et en Mongolie, il est donc suggéré que les faveurs sont d’ une nature différente de celle des échanges transactionnels. Les qualités qui les définissent sont la gratuité et le fait que le bénéficiaire doive être choisi à titre personnel. Aucune de ces caractéristiques ne correspondant à celles d’ une économie de marché, elles tendent à être décrites comme informelles, ou comme des actes de corruption. L’ idée proposée ici est que leur persistance est liée au fait qu’ elles permettent aux acteurs d’ améliorer leur perception de leur propre valeur dans les cercles sociaux concernés. Elles sont sources d’ estime pour les « héros du quotidien » de ces mondes sociaux. Analysant les faveurs dans la sphère de l’ enseignement supérieur, l’ article suggère également que les modes d’ application concrets des faveurs, dans un environnement de plus en plus commercial et où le pouvoir est de plus en plus différencié, permet aussi de comprendre comment des réseaux sociaux sont formés.

Caroline Humphrey has worked in the USSR/Russia, Mongolia, Inner Mongolia, Nepal, and India. Her research interests include socialist and postsocialist society, religion, ritual, economy, history, and the contemporary transformations of cities. Until 2010 she was Sigrid Rausing Professor of Collaborative Anthropology at Cambridge and she is currently Director of Research at the University of Cambridge. Her recent publications include: The unmaking of Soviet Life: Everyday economies after socialism (2002); and Urban life in post-Soviet Central Asia, edited by Catherine Alexander, Victor Buchli, and Caroline Humphrey (2007).


1. Various aspects of the theme are analyzed alternatively in terms of Soviet-era blat (Ledeneva 1998) and its post-Soviet transformations (Ledeneva 2006), business styles (Kizima and Kizima 2009), social capital and networks (Levin and Kurbatova 2011; Kononenko and Moshes 2011); administrative rent-taking (Oleinik 2011); corruption (Polishchuk, Shchetinin, and Shestoperov 2008); patron-client relations (Kovalev 1999), or extralegal practices (Li and Ryzhova n.d.).

2. Personal communications from citizens of Mongolia now in the United Kingdom

3. The English subtitles for the song go: “The normal life-size heroes will always go around / Sometimes it will wear you down, sometimes it is a bore / But he who veers is always on the ball / […] A brave straightforward hero would vanish walking tall.”

4. Fortes wrote, “The problem is not the circulation of women…a woman circulates by herself. One does not dispose of her but the juridical rights on her progeny are fixed to the benefit of a specific person,” quoted in Deleuze and Guattari (1972/3: 166).

5. I am grateful to James Laidlaw for pointing out that what makes the favor unlike a “free gift” is that the possibility of a return is left, in this way, very open, rather than being precluded and closed off (more or less convincingly) by moral precepts. See discussion of the “free gift” in Laidlaw (2000).

6. In this case, the coaction of forgetting previous favors, which we saw so clearly in Baatar’s story, would not best be seen as misrecognition but rather as a reflection of the lack of anticipation, or even sometimes any interest, in the favor being returned. Such open-endedness of the favor, the acceptance of nonreciprocity, as well as the personalized choice of recipient, differentiate it from “the gift” as that is usually conceptualized in anthropology.

7. This is confirmed by many writers, among them Fran Markowitz, who quotes a Soviet emigrant to Israel saying: “First, I should say that friendship there was all-encompassing both because you wanted it to be and because there was no other way for it to be. With your friend was the only time you could be absolutely yourself. Because they are your friends you trust them and because you trust them they are your friends” (Markowitz 1991: 638).

8. Also known as kuratorstvo (supervision) or shefstvo (sponsorship).