An Underground Economy

In Gregory Freeze’s book, Russia: A History, he states that the 1970s were “years of instability and conflict” (445). Seventeen Moments in Soviet History also noted that 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.” This new five year plan forecasted higher growth for consumer goods rather than capital goods. Alongside an “inefficient state economy under Brezhnev, a ‘second’ or (“black”) market emerged to satisfy the demand for deficit goods and services” (Freeze, 443).  Also, “virtually every citizen became a de facto criminal in the quest for a more comfortable life;” about “twenty million people worked on the black market to supply the demand for 83 percent of the general population” (Freeze, 443). Participation in the “black” or underground market was very common as Soviet citizens wanted to live more comfortably. 

The desire for “western consumer items such as clothing and music drew young people into the gray area of the second economy.” From The Current Digest of the Post-Soviet Press, Lev Kuklin writes about the jean culture in schools among Russia. He noted that,

“in some Moscow and Leningrad schools our children are divided into three classes according to the sort of pants they wear. The first [or highest] class includes those who [were] lucky enough to wear genuine American, “stateside” jeans with the labels “Lee,” “Levi’s” or “Wrangler.” These jeans [weren’t] sold in stores, and they carry such prestige that their price on the black market has already approached 200 rubles!”

The black market carried a variety of items, foreign and domestic, and targeted younger people. A desire for consumption developed and the idea of consumerism influenced many younger generations.

The video film above contrasts healthy and unhealthy leisure activities of the Soviet youth, and emphasizes the growing materialism among young people.

The underground economy both encouraged and hampered the growth of the Soviet economic system. The system was “more efficient when independent agents circumvented artificial price and production controls, thus buffering average citizens from the inefficient allocation of resources by central planners.” This growth in the unofficial sector far exceeded the  growth in the stagnant official economy. This type of law-breaking had a destructive effect on Soviet society, and undermined the state’s legitimacy.


Other References:

Freeze, Gregory L. Russia: a History. Oxford University Press, 2009.

Wait For Me…

Seventeen Moments in Soviet History notes that “the full-scale mobilization of men to the front [during World War II] placed women in leading roles in kolkhozes and factories, in families and communities.” Gregory L. Freeze, in his book, Russia: A History, adds that by the end of the summer of 1941 “women comprised 70 per cent of the industrial labour force in Moscow” (386). The “heightened atmosphere of wartime, when couples met with the very real knowledge that they might never see each other again, threw people into each other’s arms with a sweetness and sadness [that was] rare in less dangerous times.” The war raised the stakes for marital courtship as healthy men were in greater deficit due to being moved to the war front while many women of marriageable age were back home. Those in relationships had to wait for their loved ones to return. However, art, in its various forms, was one way Russian civilians used to cope, make sense of the war and its uncertainties, and provide hope for the troops and their loved ones to prevail in the war. 

Photo of Konstantin Simonov

Konstantin Simonov, originally Kirill, served as a correspondent for the military paper, Red Star, along with other prominent writers. His most famous piece of literature was “Wait For Me,” a personal love poem he wrote in 1941 for his crush, Valentina Serova (a rising star in the film industry), during the war. Little did he know his poem would become an instant classic and win over the hearts of the Russian troops. His poem was “recited by millions as though it were a prayer, repeated by women as tears streamed down their faces, and adopted by men as their own expression of the mystical power of a woman’s love.” His poem was also produced for stage and film and set to various melodies.

Here is the original “Wait For Me” poem in Russian.

Here is an english translation of “Wait For Me” by Mike Munford:

A common theme within Simonov’s work was the “idea of the soldier’s need for the support and love of the woman who [was] waiting for him, who [was] faithful to him in his absence in war.” The poem is very hopeful and gives reassurance to many in desperate need of something to hold on to; something to make the war bearable. Freeze notes that “the greatest credit for victory in the war surely belongs to the Soviet population itself” (390). Without the contribution of the Soviet people, many believe that “victory would not have been achieved at all” (Freeze, 388). This poem unified many soldiers and citizens under the umbrellas of hope and resilience. The soldiers, specifically Simonov himself, gained a certain confidence to try and persevere through the war and return home to his loved ones. “Wait For Me” is very romantic and vulnerable; Simonov puts his heart on his sleeve as he asks the woman he’s in love with to wait for him, that he WILL return to her, ONLY if she has the faith and patience to wait for him. “Wait For Me” is very universal and resonated with many soldiers who sent the poem home to their loved ones as a plea for their hope and support.

For more information about Konstantin Simonov’s life and accomplishments, click here.


Other References:

Freeze, Gregory L. Russia: a History. Oxford University Press, 2009.

The Scissors Crisis

The New Economic Policy (NEP) was implemented in 1921 by Vladimir Lenin as an attempt by the Bolsheviks to recover and revive the Russian economy after years of War Communism. War Communism was the economic policy during the Russian Civil War from 1918 to 1921 and its main focus was to enable the Red Army to engage in and win the civil war. According to 17 Moments in Soviet History, Siegelbaum noted that the NEP was dedicated to “reestablishing [the] link (smychka)” between agricultural and industrial production on the basis of market relations. However, the irritability of lower officials along with a limited enthusiasm at the top produced an inconsistent implementation of NEP in various parts of the country, resulting in short-term economic relief for crippling economic crises within the regions. 

Gregory Freeze in his book, Russia: A History, noted that in 1921 Russia faced an almost total economic collapse: “gross industrial output had fallen to less than one-fifth of the level before the First World War, production in some industries such as textiles was a mere one-tenth” (322). This scarcity led to famines and epidemics. By 1922 hyper-inflation drove prices (particularly those for agricultural products) to astronomical heights. In response, “the government created a new currency backed by gold, the chervonets. This tight money policy caused difficulties in wage payments at many factories, triggering strikes and disorders” (Freeze, 322). 

By 1923, the famous ‘Scissors Crisis’ emerged, as an economic problem, which was a complete reversal of the price relationships the previous year. In essence, “agriculture had now begun to recover more quickly than industry” (Freeze, 322). Food was not abundant but the shortage was no longer a desperate situation. The supply of agricultural products “outstripped the production of manufactured goods; as a result the index for industrial prices in 1923 rose to a level three times higher than agricultural prices” (Freeze, 322). The NEP “pulled the state and society in contradictory and frequently conflicting directions” (Freeze, 326). The Bolsheviks were divided on how to solve the problem. Orlando Figes noted that those on the “left of the party favored keeping agricultural prices low and taking grain by force when necessary to increase industrial production, whereas those on the right advocated paying higher prices to the peasants for their food, even if this entailed slowing down the rate of capital accumulation for industrialization, in order to preserve the market mechanism as the fundamental basis of the state’s relationship with the peasantry.” While the NEP ended outright starvation, it did not eradicate hard times. It also “renewed social antagonisms: most Russians still struggled to subsist, while private traders- the Nepmen- often made exorbitant profits and enjoyed a lifestyle suspicious of consumption” (Freeze, 326).

The graph illustrates the price increase and decrease of agricultural and industrial products. As agricultural production rapidly increased, food prices fell. In contrast, shortages of industrial and manufactured goods caused their prices to rise. When plotted on a graph, “these prices -indicated industrial prices rising, agricultural prices falling- resembled scissors, hence the name” (Freeze, 322). This widening gap between agricultural and industrial prices led to urban fears of a ‘grain strike’.

Historian Geoffrey A. Hosking summarizes the government’s response to the ‘Scissors Crisis’:

     “In 1923 the government reacted to the crisis by imposing price controls on urban products commonly consumed by villagers, and in the following year, it resumed grain exports, thus raising food prices. In that way, it restored some equilibrium to rural-urban trade at the cost of urban consumers… But no foundation had been laid for long term growth, while party members were given economic reasons to resent the NEP, to add to the political ones.”

The impact of the ‘Scissors Crisis’ was felt heaviest by ordinary Russians, especially the farmers “who received little in return for their surplus food crops and could not afford to purchase manufactured goods.” The economic ‘Scissors Crisis’ sharpened opposition to the NEP and resulted in further exposing its fragility, which suggested an incompatibility of private agricultural and industrial sectors, and (perhaps of greater long-term significance) reinforced chronic fears of the kulak” (Freeze, 322-323).


Other References:

Freeze, Gregory L. Russia: a History. Oxford University Press, 2009.

Tea Time!

A tea factory with fermenting tea leaves. Chakva, Georgia (1905).
A group of women harvesting tea. Chakva, Georgia (1905).

Sergei Prokudin-Gordskii was a Russian photographer who was hired by Tsar Nicholas II to travel around the Russian Empire and photograph urban and rural scenes, the up and coming railroad, people, factories, and natural scenes. His ability to develop the photos in color made his collection more visual. A pair of images I found very intriguing while looking at his collection in the World Digital Library was a tea factory and a tea plantation in Chakva, Georgia. Tea was a popular commodity throughout the Russian Empire because of its taste and accessibility. By the early 20th century however Chakva became one of Russia’s main suppliers of tea. Georgia’s humid climate made it easy to sustain and cultivate tea bushes in mass production. However, discontent held by Georgian farmers grew into a national movement by the late 19th and early 20th century. Gregory Freeze noted in his book, Russia: A History, that “new social classes emerged during the Russian Imperial period due to industrialization and an agricultural crisis who were ready for change” (213). 

The first image shows a tea factory with bins of fermenting tea leaves. Behind these bins appears to be machines that could have been used to process the leaves and make the tea. I would assume the tea factory is close to the tea plantation so the freshly plucked leaves could stay as fresh as possible. The second image depicts workers, I would assume mainly women, picking tea leaves. It looks to be laborious work as they constantly have to bend over and pick the top leaves from the mature plants to ensure the best tea quality. On the far left of the image there appears to be a man in a white tunic and cap who I would assume to be a supervisor. 

Before the Russian empire expanded into Georgia, the Ottoman Empire had dominated the area in the 16th century. Georgia had a majority peasant population and had been exploited for their labor by invaders. The emancipation of the serfs, by Tsar Nicholas II, “freed” many peasants but did little to alleviate their poverty as they were still assigned to plots of land to work. The growth of capitalism created an urban working class in Georgia. Economic conditions continued to worsen and growing discontent contributed to the growth of revolutionary movements such as strikes and revolts within the Russian Empire.


Other References:

Freeze, Gregory L. Russia: a History. Oxford University Press, 2009.

Hello World!

Welcome to my blog about 20th Century Russia! I am super excited for you to follow me on my journey of Russian history through blogging.

My posts on the ‘Scissors Crisis’ and ‘Wait For Me’ earned a “Red Star” award from the editorial team. My remaining posts ‘Tea Time!’ and ‘An Underground Economy’ earned recognition in our “Comrade’s Corner” on the Motherblog! I can’t wait for you to check out my posts and dive into different aspects of Russia’s history in the 20th century. Enjoy!