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From Soviet to Post-Soviet Consumerism

In a sense, life was relatively simple back in the Soviet Union days. Consumers had few choices, and material aspirations were limited to the unholy trinity of “apartment, car and dacha”. That said, homo Sovieticus spent enormous amounts of time and energy in chasing material goods ranging from potatoes to nylon stockings and cars.

A part of Soviet consumer behavior was about satisfying basic needs (as in the potatoes example above). But there was a discernible element of conspicuous consumption as well. Possession of a luxurious Pobeda car was deemed an enormous achievement for my grandfather Paladi Chitanava, chairman of the local village council in Chkaduashi back in 1950. The picture of him buying a Pobeda, published in the “Soviet Union” magazine, is still hanging on the wall of my native Chkaduashi house. Likewise, our village house had all the requisite decoration elements: crystal chandeliers and vases, porcelain tableware, and a “stenka” (an enormous cupboard occupying an entire wall in our living room).

There was a special twist to Soviet consumerism. Coming into possession of material goods and services was not so much a question of money as of connectedness. The so-called “deficit goods” (дефицитные товары) were to be acquired under the counter (“по блату”), through informal networks, intermediaries and re-sellers (“speculators”). Mimino, the 1977 Soviet classic by Giorgi Danelia, provides a great caricature of this grotesque reality in which Bolshoi opera tickets are traded for hotel Rossiya accommodation, and car tires are used as currency.

Ludicrous as it was, Soviet consumerism was a major departure from the ascetic revolutionary ethos. The pursuit of material goods was granted a degree of legitimacy in a 1935 speech by Stalin in which he rebutted the notion that socialism is about achieving equality among equally poor citizens.

“This is the petty-bourgeois view of socialism”, he claimed, “in reality, socialism can only win on the basis of high labor productivity – exceeding that achieved under capitalism, and contingent upon abundant supply of consumer goods, on the one hand, and a rich cultural life for each member of our society, on the other”.

Thus, after 1935, images similar to that of my grandfather acquiring a luxurious Pobeda car came to embody the new ideal of the Soviet Man, soon to be used as a means of Soviet propaganda.

The thaw that followed Stalin’s death in 1953 brought with it great thirst for everything Western, starting with Rock & Roll music, dancing and hair styles, all the way to consumer products. From 1960s onwards, Soviet men and women were no longer satisfied with Soviet goods despite marketing slogans such as “Soviet means quality!” (Советское – значит отличное!). Vladimir Vysotsky, a legendary Russian bard, was famously driving a blue Mercedes. Soviet women were yearning for French perfume, Italian boots, American nylon stockings and jeans. Soviet kids would die for chewing gum and Pepsi.

Consumerism thus defeated socialism, first in people’s minds, and later in its economic and political form.


POST-SOVIET TRENDS IN CONSUMER BEHAVIOR

In 1990s, the Soviet men and women found themselves in a consumer paradise. Not the major constraint in the past, money has now become the main “deficit good”. The thirst for anything Western could be easily satisfied, provided one had a job (preferably with a Western company). Cheaper Chinese equivalents came handy for those with lesser earnings.

The post-Communist world was certainly a paradise for companies selling Western goods as well. In his 2001 interview, Anders Juhlenius, director of IKEA at Khimki (a Moscow suburb) proudly reported: “our sales are four times in excess of predicted, and we are the best-performing IKEA store in the world, followed by Spain”.

The result was an unremitting consumer boom, supported by bank lending at ridiculously high interest rates. Twenty years later, consumer loan bubbles are potentially one of the greatest threats to the stability of financial systems across the post-Communist world.

Twenty years later, material consumption is still the predominant concern of the vast majority of my friends and colleagues. Many young men of my generation would spend all of their meager earnings on a 12-year old Mercedes (which they may not be able to service). And they would have a hard time understanding my personal interest in meeting people and traveling the world rather than improving housing conditions or buying the newest Apple gadget on the market.

With my interest in diverse cultural experiences, social interaction and emotional fulfillment, I feel like an exotic species, out of place and out of time. What makes things even worse is that people around me have very little time to actually acquire experiences and do things (as opposed to ‘having things”). They are too busy earning money, and so the only thing they can do with it is buy stuff.

Yet, possession of material items is no substitute for acquiring experiences and spending time with friends.  Just like buying a toy for one’s kids is a poor emotional equivalent for engaging them in meaningful communication.


BACK TO THE FUTURE?

Ironically, despite spending a lot of time in queues, Homo Sovieticus had enough of it left for cultural and social endeavors. As a well-known joke goes, the Soviet state pretended to be paying people’s salaries, and people pretended to be working. As a result, they could read, develop hobbies, spend time with their families, engage in poetry and bard music, tourism and sports. Consumption of culture and literature had a very interesting “conspicuous” aspect among the Soviet intelligentsia. A question such as “haven’t your read this poem by Osip Mandelstam” would be frequently used in a social situation to demonstrate own prowess and humiliate an opponent.

Such a question would not be asked today. Instead, I hear people bragging about the size of their houses and car engines, the watches they wear on their wrists and the smartphones they carry in their pockets. For me, this suggests that the freedom to consume, which we acquired with the collapse of the Soviet system, is yet to be translated into something more meaningful, helping people realize their true potential and fulfill their (non-material) dreams.

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Guest - Levan Pavlenishvili on Thursday, 13 November 2014 14:48

In my undergraduate years one of my lecturers was ex prime-minister of Georgian SSR, Mr. Nodar Chitanava who appears to be a neighbor of the author. He used to say: "Soviet Union Managed to send men in the space and build enormous amount of nuclear weapons, but it did not managed to create very basic products of any economy, such as shoes."

Now I believe, main reason of USSR collapse except for lack of freedom was inability of the country to produce proper consumer goods: cars, television, radios, etc. This problem still applies to modern Russia, that is unable to manufacture any quality goods for the simple folk. Simply look at Lada Kalina and everything is clear. Very roots of this problem is mentality. Homo Sovieticus was/is oriented on a process of manufacturing, working and it does not care about the result, quality and excellence. This is seen everywhere around post-soviet states.

We should certainly change our attitude towards everything we do.

In my undergraduate years one of my lecturers was ex prime-minister of Georgian SSR, Mr. Nodar Chitanava who appears to be a neighbor of the author. He used to say: "Soviet Union Managed to send men in the space and build enormous amount of nuclear weapons, but it did not managed to create very basic products of any economy, such as shoes." Now I believe, main reason of USSR collapse except for lack of freedom was inability of the country to produce proper consumer goods: cars, television, radios, etc. This problem still applies to modern Russia, that is unable to manufacture any quality goods for the simple folk. Simply look at Lada Kalina and everything is clear. Very roots of this problem is mentality. Homo Sovieticus was/is oriented on a process of manufacturing, working and it does not care about the result, quality and excellence. This is seen everywhere around post-soviet states. We should certainly change our attitude towards everything we do.
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