"You Can Buy Almost Anything with Potatoes": An Examination of Barter during Economic Crisis in Bulgaria

By Cellarius, Barbara A. | Ethnology, Winter 2000 | Go to article overview

"You Can Buy Almost Anything with Potatoes": An Examination of Barter during Economic Crisis in Bulgaria


Cellarius, Barbara A., Ethnology


This article investigates bartering practices in rural Bulgaria during 1997, an exceptionally bad year in the nation's economy. First, it describes the types of barter transactions observed in terms of participant identities, the goods and services exchanged, their sources, and the circumstances of the transactions. Second, it considers the extent to which these exchanges were the result of near hyperinflation and economic chaos early in 1997. Alternative explanations view barter as part of a longer-term social and historical context or as a function of general postsocialist economic conditions. Thus, barter may be one solution to some of the problems of a money-based economy under conditions of economic restructuring. The article also considers barter's implications for understandings of life in postsocialist Bulgaria more generally. (Barter, economic restructuring, exchange, Eastern Europe, Bulgaria)

This article focuses on two issues in exploring barter, by which I mean the exchange of often unlike goods and services without the direct use of money by free and voluntary participants (Humphrey and Hugh-Jones 1992a), in postsocialist Bulgaria. Bartering practices were observed in rural Bulgaria during 1997, a year in which the nation experienced its most significant economic crisis in the postsocialist period thus far.(1) In the postsocialist economy in Rhodope Mountain villages, barter was a significant and visible feature. The trade of produce or firewood for land and labor is just one example of the nonmonetary exchanges of goods and services that took place. On a visit to this area in late 1996, a village mayor explained that one could acquire "almost anything" in exchange for potatoes--wine grapes, fresh vegetables, cooking oil, sugar, concentrated livestock feed, fertilizer, the list went on--and he hoped that his office could help organize the exchange in a more efficient fashion for the benefit of local residents. Later it became apparent that such barter was common, often taking place alongside cash sales, and that several different varieties of such transactions were occurring.

Reflecting on the "revolutions" of 1989, Klingman and Verdery (1999) suggest that close empirical investigations of what is happening in particular places regarding phenomena like barter are critically important for understanding post-1989 transformations in Central and Eastern Europe. Writing that good macrotheories require knowledge of microvariation, they suggest avoiding an ideological lens and categorizing and prejudging issues like market economy, democratization, and civil society. Instead they recommend an examination of political dynamics and the effects of economic restructuring at the level of daily experience. What do things like barter, property titles, and voting patterns actually mean? they ask. Rather than seeing barter as an indicator of the absence of a market economy or in opposition to the emergence of a market economy, for example, they suggest a consideration of the role of barter in postsocialist economic relations, and indeed economic survival.

This article first describes the types of exchanges observed in terms of the identities of the participants, the goods and services exchanged, their sources, and the circumstances of the transactions. Second, it considers the extent and way in which such exchanges were the result of near hyperinflation and economic chaos early in 1997. Alternative explanations considered see barter as part of a longer-term social and historical context or as a function of general postsocialist economic conditions. Thus, barter may be a solution to some of the problems of a money-based economy under conditions of economic restructuring. The discussion of barter also provides insights for understanding life and economic change in postsocialist Bulgaria more generally.

VIEWS ABOUT BARTER

Barter and other forms of exchange without the use of money have been important topics for anthropologists like Malinowski (1922) and Bohannan (1955), and more recent scholars like Humphrey and Hugh-Jones (1992a; also Humphrey 1985). …

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