The Post-Stalin years in the Soviet Union are often viewed as an era of “stagnation”, but nothing could be further from the truth. The USSR was on the rise economically, and by the early 1970’s this growth began to come to a point. On a cultural scale, the impacts began to become very evident. For the first time, wages were up as were pensions. Job opportunities were abundant and the population was on the rise. With the increase in monetary earnings, demand for goods of a more “luxurious” nature spiked drastically. This resulted in situations much like the one pictured above. Rumors would fly around cities and friends would talk to friends about a certain store having a “rare” commodity in. The results were mass lines waiting for something as simple as a new pair of shoes. The questions then arise, where did this demand come from and what implications did it have on the USSR as a whole?
In the Pravda article from April 6, 1971 helps provide a better insight into the initial impetus to this surge in demand. The article deals with the parameters and reforms of the then new (ninth) Five Year Plan. This plan would raise the minimum wage by 70 rubles while simultaneously increasing the pension pool for state workers. Economics 101 tells us that supply begets demand. In this case, however, the situation is flipped. In the United States (a primarily capitalist nation), goods chase the people, however in the USSR at this time people were chasing the goods. We see a situation begin to develop where the people had more money and wanted better more luxurious commodities, but the producers of the USSR simply were not keeping up with demand. Sakhnovsky, the Minister of Trade in the Ukraine during the mid 1960s wrote in Pravda of the issues the USSR was facing with regards to demand. He stated:
If demands for clothing, shoes and other goods are not satisfied, the reason is certainly not that not enough are produced. The reason lies elsewhere: Customers are becoming more demanding about the quality of goods, they want fabrics of good color and clothing and shoes that are attractive, comfortable and economical. Production must quickly adjust to changes in demand and in fashions. But that it is precisely what many enterprises fail to do. They are too slow in changing their ways when the market and people’s demands change.
This provides a perfect lens for which to view the dilemma the consumer-producer relationship was facing within the USSR at the time. The people were on the rise and the producers desperately needed to keep up.
This change in the demand of society would come to effect the USSR on a deeper social and cultural level as well. The party had long tried to present the idea of consumerism as one tied to capitalism and therefore a representative of the Bourgeois culture they aimed to avoid at all cost. Despite their efforts however, a middle class began to form and create a separate identity for itself. In Maya Turovskaya’s article, The Soviet Middle Class, she describes makes a point that begins to show the inception of a distinctly middle class in the USSR. She states that the Soviet middle class’s “survival kit”, or stereotypical items they strove to obtain consisted of a dacha (summer house), an apartment and a car. While these things may seem basic to a westerner at the time the idea that someone had the means to own these and found a separate social standing in doing so represented the shift in social status and norms.
While there is evidence to suggest the emergence of a Soviet middle class, this middle class looked very different from what many westerners then and now consider to be a middle class. It is important to define what this middle class was in terms of its relationship to the USSR. In the Soviet Union, according to the traditional Marxist values the Party supported, they hoped to create a classless society in which all were essentially equal. However, as evidenced in Turovskaya’s article as well as the parameters for the Ninth Five Year Plan, the economy of the USSR was shifting as a result to increased demand. This demand came from a bolstered economy that offered more job opportunities and higher average salaries. All of this resulted in a distinct societal shift. A more distinct dichotomy was created between the “haves” and “have nots”. We see the emergence of a standard for a “happy” family that not everyone was able to obtain. This set the tone for the creation of a middle class in a society that aimed for none to exist. All demanded more “bread”, but only a few could access that reality.
Check out the source material below!
Russia Reader pages 650-657: Maya Turovskaya’s The Soviet Middle Class (2002)