The Last Years of the Soviet Empire: Snapshots from 1985-1991

By Vladimir Shlapentokh; Neil F. O'Donnell | Go to book overview

THE RUBLE ON THE VERGE OF COLLAPSE
JULY 1989

In an earlier snapshot, we saw workers unwilling to work harder because
there was nothing worth buying. Here, with the gradual expansion of private
enterprise, there are goods and services worth buying, but they are far beyond
the means of most workers. The continued inaccessibility of goods, com-
bined with the Soviet people's strong egalitarian tendencies (read: social
envy), posed a threat to continued economic progress--progress crucial to
the survival of Gorbachev's regime.

The world has come to believe of late that Soviet society, under Gorbachev's guidance, has expanded the role of its free market, with money occupying a primary position and with consumers free to pick and choose their goods. During a recent trip to Moscow, however, I found that the ruble plays a significantly smaller role in the life of the average Soviet citizen than was the case when I left Brezhnev's Russia less than ten years ago.

Radical changes have occurred even during the last year. When I visited Moscow in May 1988, the economic situation had changed little since my departure nearly a decade earlier. During my most recent trip, however, I found that soaring inflation rates (currently about 10 percent per year, an unprecedented rate for the Soviet economy) had nearly destroyed the state market, and that the list of rationed goods had expanded drastically. In many regions of the country, this list includes not only meat and butter, but sugar, soap, detergents, tea, and several other items as well. Although some people's coupon allotment provides them with much more than they need, they always fill their quota and either hoard their food or sell it on the black market. According to my friends in Moscow, sugar and soap have never been as plentiful as they are now that they are rationed.

The distribution of industrial goods, mostly of foreign origin, in enterprises and offices has swelled enormously. The state has elaborated a complicated mechanism for such distribution, which includes the use of lotteries to determine who among the workers of a given institution will be entitled to "buy," for example, one of the ten pairs of Italian women's shoes or one of the five jackets made in France that have been allotted to their institution. Winners of these lotteries rarely refuse items, even if they do not fit them or one of their family members.

The bartering of goods and services and the speculating of deficit goods-- two phenomena that were strongly condemned during the Brezhnev era-- have become increasingly important in recent years. Most Soviets rely on a network of salespeople to provide them with under-the-counter basic and "luxury" items.

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