ECONOMIC LIFE IN THE SOVIET UNION

ECONOMIC AND BUSINESS CUSTOMS IN THE SOVIET UNION

Bad service was a fixture of life in the Communist era. Friendship stores, for example, were famous for their sullen, slow sales people. In hotels, the staff often seemed to were more intent on spying on you than helping you. Repairs were done with string, tape and pieces or wire.

The Soviet Union was famous for it insulting, surly store clerks. The excuse for the surliness was that sales people were never trained to be polite.

Workers were usually reluctant to perform tasks assigned to someone else out of fear of being blamed for making a mistake. This caused problems for tourists, because usually there was one person assigned to one task and one task only: one person who changed money, another who rented bikes, one person who took care of maintenance and another who checked people into the hotel. If the person assigned to the task wasn't there no else would do the task, which meant that tourists would have to wait around for the person to come back.

Non-Capitalist Mentality

In the Communist era, making profits, selling things and trading was considered exploitative, shady and sleazy. Peddling goods on the streets was against the law. When asked why he didn't start his own business, when there was clearly a demand for it, one welder in the Caspian Sea area told National Geographic, "That depends on people higher than me...They wouldn't let me. They'd beat me down, say, 'You're nothing.'"

Russians and other Slavic people have traditionally believed that buying and selling goods to make a profit or charging interest on loans was "cheating one's neighbor." This belief arises in part from the tsarist institution of mir, the periodic redistribution of land in accordance with family size. Russian anti-Semitism stems partly from the fact that Jews were the only ones allowed to lend money and trade goods. [Source: "The Villagers" by Richard Critchfield, Anchor Books]

Soviet-era scholars wrote articles suggesting that "individualistic, money-oriented mentality" of the West was alien to Russians. Historian and philosopher won awards essays in which they wrote things like: "For a European, social importance lies in business skills, in wealth, hence the guiding values: freedom and law. For a Russian, the important thing is society, motherland, glory and power."

One Russian man told the Los Angeles Times, "There's an old Soviet song, 'Everything around here belongs to the collective farm, so everything round here belongs to me. That's still the psychology of the local people." A real estate consultant told the Los Angeles Times, "There was a time when everything was forbidden and nothing was allowed. Now we've switched to a time where everything is allowed and nothing forbidden."

Some have argued that Russians don’t have a strong work ethic like some Asians and Americans. Presidential candidate and former general Aleksandr Lebed told Newsweek: "They ask a Japanese worker: 'How do you work. The Japanese says: 'I spend four hours working for myself, two hours working for my boss and two hours working for Japan.' Then they ask the Russian worker the same question. He replies: 'I spend four hours working for myself, we don't have a boss and why should I work for Japan.'”

In the Soviet era, stealing stuff and "speculation" were regarded as equally bad crimes. One guide told National Geographic Traveler magazine, “When you’ve never known free enterprise, you see, coping with it seems like an aberration of nature.”

Soviet Era Shopping

In state stores prices were fixed and supply was determined by state-mandated quotas. State stores included bakeries, milk depots, shoe stores, clothing stores. Large cities had large department stores. Consumer cooperatives included restaurants, shops, kiosks and stalls selling food and drink.

The stores tended be drab, small, cramped, and generic. They had names like "Food" and "Furniture." The signs were so small and indiscreet foreign visitors often had difficulty sorting what was a store and what wasn't. There was no advertising or neon signs. Products had names like “Butter,” “Bread” or “Milk”.

Food bought on the streets—even ice cream cones—were often measured out with little scales. In the summer, unpasteurized Russian milk has a shelf-life of only six hours.

The traditional method of Russian shopping goes like this: First a customer waits in one line to tell a clerk behind a counter what product he wants. Then he waits in another line and pays for it. With a receipt in hand, the customer returns to first counter and waits in line again to collect the item. Worse part about the whole thing is that you are supposed to go through the same process for each item you buy.

Buying food in a cafeteria was equally troublesome. First you have to wait in line and pay the cashier. Then you wait in another line to get to the service counter. At the service counter you present you ticket and an employee reaches into a trough and plops some mashed potatoes and stew on a plate. Then you wait in another line to get soup and if you want bread it is necessary to queue up in a third line behind a girl who measures it out by the gram. Many cafeterias fail to supply forks and knives and customers are inevitably left trying to tear tough meat into pieces with a spoon.¤

Rations and Lines

Meat was sold at a cheap price mandated by the government, using ration coupons. Typically a family was allocated 2.5 kilograms of meat a month and had to wait in lines to get it. On the black market meat was often sold for dollars.

People spent hours waiting in line to shop in ill-stocked stores; pushed and shoved to get a few sausages; and waited in line for hours outside stores only to reach the inside and find there was nothing left but sacks of potatoes. Bread sold in bread stores often sold out with minutes after the store opened, purchased by people who waited for hours before the store opened.

The supply of goods used to be so poor that people lined up around the block just to buy a newspaper and getting a snack could be an hours-long ordeal. One Russian man told AP, "When I was little people spent the whole day in line to get bread. They came, marked their place, went home and then came back. Buying bread took all day."

Not every one loathed the lines. One diehard Communist told Newsweek, "The lines were romantic. You found out all the news while waiting on line, and you didn't lose half your salary when you bought something."

See Food

Shortages

Shortages were common. One of the first Russian words that foreigners became acquainted with in Russia was defisitnii, meaning "in short supply." Toilet paper, vegetable oil, aluminum foil, bricks, can openers, sausage , vodka, potatoes, eggs, bread, cigarettes, bananas and fish were among the things that were frequently in short supply. Basic parts to fix things were often not available. Most coffee shops didn’t have any coffee. Many Siberians went years without seeing any cheese. About the only things that could be reliably found on store shelves were tomato sauce, jam and pickled squash.

People in Moscow hoarded sacks of potatoes so they didn’t go hungry. Panes of glass in the telephone booths were stolen to repair windows at home. When department stores got in shipment of new clothes the clerks often didn’t bother to put them on the shelf. People line up outside the store and when the store is opened they make a B-line straight for the boxes and start grabbing shirts and shoes out of boxes caring less about the size or color.☹

Savvy travelers to Russia brought their own soap and toilet papers and even light bulbs,—items which were often next to impossible to buy or find in hotels. Sometimes there is a shortage of flour and bread is made from ground up peas. When eggs start arriving in the springtime everyone in Moscow was talking about. The one problem was there are no cartons and customers walked home with their limit of 30 eggs stacke din a bag or piled up in their arms.

Every year there were shortages and every year foreign journalist predict food riots in the cities in the winters, but these never materialized.

Black Market

With all these shortages it was no surprise that the black market thrived. Often it seemed like every other person was a black marketeer, with much of the trade conducted in dollars. People with dollars can buy anything they wanted and were willing to pay up to ten times the official price for items to avoid waiting in long lines.

On the black market blue jeans went for as much as US$200. Coveted items included bras, foreign razor blades, choice cuts of meat, fruit and records by the Beatles and Rolling Stones. Black marketeers sometimes ran around with blood stained backpacks with entire calves inside selling veal. The black market was especially active in border towns. Things like coffee were hidden under the fenders of cars and resold on the other side of the border.

Underground Economy

Because the government had difficulty providing basic goods and services to the people, food and other commodities were exchanged and shared in informal networks of friends and relatives. Many of the material goods owned by families, such as cars, appliances and attractive clothes, was earned by moonlighting in the "underground economy."

Much of the underground economy consists of service sector jobs such as plumbing, drapery and Venetian blind sales, and home repair. Many of the homes built were constructed by people working in the underground economy.

In some places in the mid-1980s, some 75 percent of all families had at least one member who worked an extra job and some worked two or three. Instead of private companies, the system operated through associations of builders, plumbers ad other trades.

In some places factory worker were let out of work at 2:00pm, allowing them to hold second jobs, rent rooms to tourists, make souvenirs and tend small garden plots outside their village which produce much of the fruit and vegetables

Labor in the Soviet Era

In the Soviet era, everyone had a job. Workers got paid whether they worked or not. Nobody had to worry about being thrown out of work. Factories often provided summer camps, cultural center, sports facilities, rehabilitation spas and in some case soccer teams for their workers. The average worker was paid about US$500 a month, received up to four weeks of paid vacation and could retire between the ages of 53 and 60 with 75 percent of his or her pay.

In the 1970s lathe workers had it pretty good. Their salaries were 25 percent higher than physicians and their rent and utilities only used up seven percent of their monthly earnings. Productive workers were given cars, free Black Sea holidays and bonuses that could be applied towards an apartment.

Promotions were determined more by party allegiance than hard work. Jobs were sometimes given out the basis of one’s working class heritage. Applications for jobs asked for the applicant's "social origin," the political affiliations of his or her mother-in-law as well as "political posture during the critical period 1968-69." The easiest way to get ahead in life, no matter what your background, was joining the Communist party.

Poor Work Habits in the Soviet Era

Work life in the Soviet Union seemed to characterized by lethargy. Except perhaps in wartime or under the gun of achieving Five-Year-Plan goals there was never a sense of urgency or making the most of one's time. There were no incentives. Workers seemed to move in slow motion and people did as little as possible, ascribing to the motto "Your pretend to pay us and we pretend to work."

Morale was low. A government economist said, "We have a situation where people come to work—rather than actually work. It's a marvelous society where you don't have to work to get paid."

Stealing, loafing , absenteeism and drinking on the job were common and no matter how outrageous or irresponsible the behavior, getting fired was almost impossible. People routinely called in sick to get away for long weekends or to visit the hairdresser. Stores were often packed during hours when people were supposed to be working and state equipment like tractors and backhoes were "borrowed" to do work on a new house or dacha.‡

Thefts at factories were common and some workers supplemented their incomes by selling items that they stole. It was not unusual for a factory to send home several dozen workers because they were too drunk to work.

Good Jobs in the Soviet Era

Coal miners held some of the highest-paying and esteemed jobs in the Communist era. Recognizing the dangerous conditions they had to work in everyday, their salaries were about twice that of other workers and they were put at the top of the waiting lists for houses, cars and holiday homes.

Some of the most sought after jobs were ones that allowed people to dispense favors and collect bribes. Taxi drivers, bartenders, waiters and doormen had desirable “under the counter jobs” that gave them access to foreign tourists and allowed them to get paid with foreign currency.

In a favorite joke a father complains to his daughter about her husband-to-be. You lied to me, he tells his daughter, you told me he was a waiter but in reality he's nothing but an engineer. Restaurant doormen had a an inflated sense of importance because they could decide who was allowed in regardless of how full or empty the restaurant was.

A waitress at a good restaurant in East Germany told National Geographic, "I had to serve two years as an apprentice. It wasn't like being a servant. People would promise me a pair of jeans if I could get them a table in a restaurant. If my watch was broken, I could get it fixed right away because I could get the repairmen a table." Customers sometimes waited for hours to get into restaurants. [Source: William Ellis, National Geographic, September 1991]

Working Women in the Soviet Era

Every woman had the right to a job and free child care. At the same time the state forced her to work. If a woman didn't work she could be imprisoned.

Women made up about half of the work force in many Communist countries. They were employed primarily in manufacturing, agriculture and forestry. Many were secretaries and factory workers. Others were laborers, crane operators, machinists, truck drivers, street sweepers, and lumberjacks.

There were also many professional women and women with advanced degrees. Women made up one half of the economists and teachers and one third of its engineers, lawyers and judges. In some places, 59 percent of the graduates from medical school were women and 50 percent of the graduates in pure sciences were women. Russia had more women doctors than men doctors. In some places over 80 percent the doctors were women.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2016

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