Soviet Consumerism

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Subject essay: Lewis Siegelbaum

The Soviet economy functioned essentially as a “dictatorship over needs.” The center’s appropriation of resources for redistribution according to pre-determined priorities only dimly registered consumer tastes and preferences, if they were registered at all. Whereas in advanced capitalist societies goods chased people, in the Soviet Union it was the reverse: people chased goods. This chase included foraging trips to cities by goods-starved rural residents, standing in long lines that seemed to spring up from nowhere on the basis of rumors that a “deficit” good was for sale, participating in informal networks among friends and workmates to exchange favors (blat), siphoning off goods from the state for sale “on the side” (na levo), and a variety of other semi-legal (“gray”) and illegal (black) market operations that involved enormous expenditures of time and considerable risk.

The Ninth Five Year Plan (1971-75) illustrated the Brezhnev administration’s attempt to overcome the contradiction between an increasingly urbanized and culturally sophisticated society and the centralized determination of needs. As outlined by Aleksei Kosygin in his report on the directives of the Twenty-Fourth Party Congress, sales of goods to the population would rise by 42 percent, the rate of ownership of refrigerators would increase from 32 per 100 families to 64, of televisions from 51 to 72, and of washing machines from 52 to 72. Official sources indicate that in the course of the Ninth Five Year Plan total sales of goods had risen by an annual average of 2.8 percent compared to 5.4 percent during the previous five year plan period. As of 1975, television ownership exceeded what the plan had envisioned while refrigerator and washing machine ownership fell somewhat short. Quality and reliability of service of these and other consumer items were, of course, harder to measure, but if Soviet jokes from the 1970s and the popular preference for foreign-made goods are any indication, they remained abysmally low.

The gap between Soviet consumers’ rising expectations or sense of what they needed and what was provided through the mechanisms of the state, which were at the root of experimental reforms in the 1960s, evidently widened in the 1970s, leading to the proliferation of alternative mechanisms by which people obtained goods and services, and a profound sense of cynicism about living in a “mature” socialist society.

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