Comrades of the Traveling Pants

V. Kunnap: The Plumbing in our house (1979) Caption from poet S. Smirnovskii. From “The Fighting Pencil Group” (1979).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Imagine a world where the bare necessities like water, shampoo, or even jeans were beyond your grasp. What lengths would you go to obtain these simple consumer goods that we have come to take for granted? In the image above, Russian poet Smirnovskii sums it up quite bluntly:

The plumbing in our house is in a state we cannot bear

And the Department of Waterworks almost a year

Just answers our letters in bold and vigorous papers…

While we carry the water on our backs and shoulders

By the 1980s, the Soviet Union’s “second” economy, which existed in the shadows of state-run communism was a part of virtually every citizens life. The black market was used to obtain everything from shaving cream to jeans, and such deals turned nearly everyone into a criminal in the eyes of the regime, who were often the worst perpetrators of these acts. Western goods were caused the greatest buzz, and jeans in fact became indicative of one’s class. How did it get to this point in the wake of Soviet reforms? Ironically, the issue was that people had more leisure time and money that ever before, but at the cost of their devotion to the Party and its ideology.

B. Semenov: Invisible Hats (1974) Source: “Fighting Pencil” Group: Red Tape from Red Square (1998) [In the hat store there is a sign that says NO HATS]

 

 

 

 

 

 

The trafficking of jeans was a symbol of freedom and class status during the 70s and 80s. In certain Moscow schools, there was even a trend where schoolchildren were ranked by jeans: with those wearing American jeans at the top and those with Soviet-made jeans snugly at the bottom. Obviously this seems like a massive failure of the Soviet economic system to compete with capitalism, but there was more to it than that. Brezhnev’s zeal in dismantling Khrushchev’s reforms did little to address the endemic issues in the economy. During his reign, agricultural and industrial growth continued to decline, and only massive government subsidies halted collapse. This resulted in a massive amount of inflation, which combined with the low worker productivity and a focus in raw output to create a deficit in consumer goods (Freeze, pg. 442-43). While the people continued to receive a moderate amount of government care and increasing free time, the black market grew to accommodate their growing needs. In this specific case, jeans became a highly sought and dangerous venture for grass-root capitalists.

Punish Those Who Do Not Work! Source: Posters from the Former Soviet Union. 2000.

The driving argument for why one would risk prison time and hefty fines for such items was answered in an interview by the Komsomolskaya pravda and a Russian youth who stated “Just try getting something you want in the stores.” While the Russian media and government saw the “secondhand” economy as a disease among the youth, some of the worst perpetrators were at the highest levels of government, including, allegedly, Brezhnev’s own family. Periodic government repression of black markets merely created more methods of conducting them, and bureaucratic corruption undermined the government’s “moral authority” wholesale. The result was that the private economy flourished at the cost of Soviet rule of law and its economy. While the older, conservative citizens couldn’t understand the “strange young fellows in jeans” and their new free-market moralities, they were but perpetuating the Soviet hypocrisy as they themselves dipped their hands into the cookie pot. The failings of Communism were becoming increasingly evident as the people lost faith in the system from the 70s onward, and even after the Soviet Union’s fall in 1991, the black market would still remain.

 

Sources: 

Freeze, Gregory, L.  Russia: A History, Third Edition. Oxford University Press [New York]. 2009.

In the CPSU Central Committee: On Improving Work to Safeguard Law and Order and Intensifying the Struggle against Law Violations. September 11, 1979 Original Source: Pravda, 11 September 1979, p. 1, 3; Izvestiia, 11 September 1979, p. 1.

Leonid Zhukovitsky. “We Continue the Discussion on How to Write for Young People: THESE STRANGE YOUNG FELLOWS IN JEANS”. Current Digest of the Russian Press, The ,  No.36,  Vol.29, October  05, 1977, page(s):11-12

Lev Kuklin, A Writer’s Notes: Knights of the “Jeans Culture”. October 1979 Original Source: Zvezda, No. 10 (October 1979), 188-195

Yu. Shchekochikhin. “AT THE SECONDHAND MARKET”. Current Digest of the Russian Press, The ,  No.31,  Vol.25, August  29, 1973, page(s):21-21. 

Images: 

 

Underground Economy Images

 

 

11 Replies to “Comrades of the Traveling Pants”

  1. Ethan, this was a great post! I think the emergence and importance of the black market is really interesting. You brought up a lot of great points– in many cases, the black market was the only way to get goods. I also think that the hierarchy of jeans is really telling of the importance of Western influence, despite how much the government discouraged it.

  2. This was very interesting and something that I have never heard of! When i think of the black market i don’t think of buying things like shaving cream or jeans but rather drugs or weapons. It was also very interesting how social classes were divided by the type of jeans they wore!

  3. Fantastic post! Using the popularity of jeans as a means of a case study is a great lens to observe the black market. I’m curious, though, about whether the Soviet Union made any efforts to compete with the black market rather than simply oppressing it. Another thing that interests me is the popularity of American cultural icons despite the tension between the United States and the Soviet Union at that time. Did this popularity weaken the Soviet’s in the Cold War and play a part in their concession?

  4. I really appreciate the way you’ve delved into the ironies of the black market and the tastes of Soviet consumers. The whole jeans thing is really fascinating — because, then and now, it couldn’t be just “any” pair of jeans. There was a hierarchy of desireability — from Soviet made jeans (least desireable), to East German (and other Eastern Blok) products, to Chinese (American knock-offs), to LEVI’s the genuine article.

  5. Ethan, I really enjoyed your post. I had heard stories about the Black market(s) in the Soviet Union but did not understand how large or popular they were until I read your post. The stories about how jeans came to symbolize status is quite intriguing and was a great way to show how western influence still seeped into the Soviet Union despite the governments attempts to quash it. My question is was there any other type of good that was found on the black markets during this time period that were as valued as Jeans? Rather, what other western goods were popular on the black markets in the Soviet union?

  6. I like how you started this post so that it connected us to the story that you were telling. Were there any repercussions that civilians would face when they were caught after buying things off of the black market? It would be interesting to research how the black market operated during this time period.

  7. Ethan, I thought both your post and title were very entertaining! I thought the discussion of the black market in a communist regime was very interesting to learn about, and how to access to some of these goods, like jeans, could be indicative of someone’s status. I guess what I would like to learn more about after reading your post, is if people ever got in trouble when they were obviously utilizing the black market, for example if someone has American jeans, could they get in trouble for them?

  8. We are always taught about the economic and cultural strains the soviets faced but to think it got as far as to rank by jeans is insane. People always associate things like guns and drugs on the black market and I would have never thought to associate it with jeans. Really interesting choice in topic and well done.

  9. It’s really interesting how western culture played a small role in this. The factor that jeans and the black market played in economics at this time brings up a really interesting point about how the market worked back then.

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