The consumer activity
of a Soviet citizen was not wholly a matter of money. In an economy marked by shortages of goods and services, an equal role was played by knowledge about where something could be bought (or more likely, because a different verb was used, "gotten"). The possibility of "getting" or buying something scarce assumed the intervention of acquaintances, rather than the anonymous buyer-seller relationship of a store. The word "blat" was used for alliances of this kind, which could be activated to buy things not available in stores, like pantyhose, meat, or boots, and also to get a child into a good school, get yourself a good job, or get an appointment with a good doctor. Good things were not available to just anyone. The language reflected this, using verbs like "get" ("dostat'"), "set yourself up" ("ustroit'sya"), or "get in somewhere" (popast') together with the prepositional phrase "through blat" (po blatu) to describe the situation. The word comes from the Yiddish "blat" (piece of paper), meaning, apparently, a letter of introduction that one person would write for another.
This system of unofficial economic ties allowed people to compensate at least partially for the unavailability of goods and services in the open market. Items that should have been available in stores were often available only in theory. If, for example, a store got a shipment of something in short supply, the manager of the store, the sales clerks, and the store buyer would all direct part of that shipment to their own channels and only what was left went out on the shelves. In return, as a matter of politeness, they might receive, from acquaintances of their acquaintances, perhaps a theater ticket that was destined not for the ticket booth but for sale "privately" (literally, "from [someone's] hands) or "under the table."
A person's access to desirable goods or services constituted a kind of social capital. Almost everybody had something: a teacher, for example, had no access to scarce commodities but could get a tutor for the child of someone who did. In that way, ties were established on the basis of reciprocity. If there was nothing "useful" you could do or "get" for someone in return, then you could respond with a box of chocolates or a bottle of cognac.
The network of ties included family members, friends and schoolmates, colleagues at work and—not to be overlooked—co-tenants in your apartment. And also their friends.
In the market economy of contemporary Russia, blat has undergone changes in its functions.