From a cult of imported goods to finding value in local production

The border controls between Estonia and Finland became slightly more relaxed at the end of the Soviet period and Estonians developed closer contacts with their neighbours. At that time, a common method for procuring Western goods was to get an invitation to visit Finland and then take along a certain amount of vodka and other goods that were cheaper in Estonia than they were in Finland and sell it all over there. In this way people interested in culture could, for example, buy records of better quality than those available in the USSR and also by musicians whose work was not released here.

n the Soviet Union one could not travel out of the country freely – in order to get a visa for private travel one had to receive an official invitation from a resident of the particular foreign country. Looking for pen pals was a wide-spread method for finding new acquaintances abroad.

At the turn of the 1980s and 1990s, the use of foreign currencies in trade became more and more widespread and people started to travel to Finland to work in illegal menial jobs. One of the most popular jobs used to be strawberry picking during the summer months – the most hardworking berry pickers earned enough to buy a used car. Foreign money earned abroad was then used as a means of payment for buying and selling goods via newspaper notices; the goods were of course such that one could not obtain them for roubles.

The first places in Estonia where one could receive a part of one’s salary in convertible currency instead of the continuously devaluing rouble were the first joint companies owned partly by Finns or Swedes. One of the first such companies was the Finest Hotel Group, which opened the first four-star hotel in Estonia: the Hotel Palace on the main square, Vabaduse Square, in Tallinn. These first joint companies started to change and reshape the image that businessmen had in Estonia: until that time a businessman was considered to be someone who speculated in foreign currency, clothes, alcohol, prostitutes, etc near hotels.

At the end of the 1980s, the Soviet Union’s restructuring reforms allowed local businessmen in Estonia to pursue their activities in cooperatives. These cooperatives tried to find a place for themselves amidst the limited and low quality services offered by state enterprises. Business cooperatives in those days were symbolized by people baking waffles or offering shashlik by the roadside. Small private kiosks started to emerge alongside the still largely state-controlled retail trade system. The nineties brought along privatisation of state-owned stores and service providers, heralding the beginning of privatisation reform.

The transition from a socialist economic environment to a capitalist one also meant profitable times for enterprising wholesalers. The first Western businessmen, believing in the stability of the Estonian kroon in comparison with the earlier Soviet rouble, also arrived hoping to make their fortune here. The shortage of goods could still be felt, but Estonia had already started to import different products (from surgical cotton to motor fuels) from all sorts of countries, and all the goods were sold on the retail market fairly rapidly and made a healthy profit. Second-hand sales, mostly in clothes and home appliances, gained popularity in the middle of the 1990s.

Customers seemed to favour anything coming from the West they had not been able to buy before; goods from south-eastern Asia were also popular. Imports from Asia included, among other things, clothes and digital watches. Initially, Estonians even preferred food products (cookies, for example) that were imported from Finland or other Western countries. However, since Estonian producers worked hard to lobby the government to impose additional customs taxes (despite their efforts, the taxes were not imposed), the campaign “Buy Estonian” and an increase in the quality of local goods made local production more attractive to consumers.

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