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.
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.
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.
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.