Negotiating Goods and Language on Cross-Border Retail Markets in the Postsocialist Space

  • Dieter Stern


The breakdown of the socialist order, almost overnight, turned long-established supply chains, personal careers, and life plans into nothing. At least, this is how the situation was likely to be perceived from the outside. There were definite portents of the cataclysm, which, though they might not have been realized as such, actually coaxed the citizens of the socialist states into practices that prepared them for what was looming on the horizon. It is common knowledge that, while the social order of career paths was still intact, the supply systems had already started to crumble, which left the population of the socialist countries to fend for themselves in the face of the increasing disintegration of the official economy. Thus, alongside the official channels, informal networks emerged that filled the gaps in the market left by the first (official) economy.1 While the first economy required citizens to abstain from any private initiative and turned them into passive consumers of goods, the emergent second (unofficial) economy demanded the agentivity of everyone in need of particular scarce goods (Sik and Wallace 1999: 700). The forms of clandestine, small-scale, barter-like trade exchanges (popularly referred to as the ‘black market’) were thus well established long before the demise of the Soviet Union2 (Sampson 1987; Shlapentokh 1989: 190–195; Łoś 1990). Thus, it was quite natural that the opening of the hitherto hermetically closed borders of the Soviet bloc polities was immediately perceived as an opportunity to turn private exchange initiatives inside out and to search for goods outside the disintegrating and inefficient state (Neef 2002: 7–8). The citizens of the socialist countries only had to extend their usual activities to a different space, giving rise to a reinterpretation of state borders from forbidden outer limits to transitional spaces in-between polities. The new opportunities for movement and action were readily seized by an ever-increasing number of bankrupt3 and socially downgraded citizens.


Chinese Character Informal Economy Retail Trader Language Choice Informal Market 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


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