From socialist product deficit to shops trading in foreign currencies

In Estonia, the commercial and service sectors have undergone some radical changes during the past 10–15 years. Like the Estonian economy in general, trade and services were also transformed on their road to the market economy and the business culture of the developed countries. Photos picturing shelves laden with golden bananas, or colourful neon signs illuminating the night scene taken in neighbouring Finland, are no longer perceived as shocking by Estonians. Only fifteen years ago such things seemed to be characteristic of exceptionally luxurious lifestyles and, as such, absolutely unattainable.

Back in the Soviet times (Estonia was annexed to the Soviet Union from 1940 to 1991), and especially immediately before the collapse of the Union, money earned for one’s work was not the only prerequisite needed to obtain consumer goods or luxury items. The personal car was considered to be one of the most luxurious items someone could possess. In order to obtain one, ordinary people had to wait on special lists kept by the trade unions for decades before they could finally make their purchases. Of course, one also had to have the required amount of money. State enterprises also organised lotteries to pick out the employees who would be awarded the right to buy a car within the quota allocated to that particular enterprise. The same policies applied as far as the right to buy furniture and other consumer goods was concerned. Naturally, rules were different for those in power: they had official cars, special shops, etc.

Laymen used their networks of acquaintances: if someone could obtain something because of their job then they could exchange it for something else that they needed. It was extremely prestigious to have friends who worked in retail chains – the majority of goods that were in short supply never reached the shops because they had already been sold unofficially. When some goods did reach the shops, however, this made people queue for hours, with everybody buying as much of anything as they could afford at the moment. In this way they could share the “loot” later with their friends. In the 1980s, for example, the following goods were hard to come by: salami, frankfurters, tangerines, chocolate gift boxes, panty hose, car tyres, etc. A couple of times a year, people were allowed to buy “Brezhnev” packages via their place of employment; some of the products in such a package were foodstuffs that were usually hard to find.

A very colourful example of Soviet commerce in those days was the book trade. Contemporary Estonian authors and publishers can only dream of the situation back then: copies were printed in large numbers, books written by approved local authors were cheap and people bought huge numbers of them. At the same time, translated literature of good quality was published in smaller quantities and in order to get a copy one also had to purchase an obligatory piece of ideologically acceptable writing. Furthermore, it was required to submit a certain number of coupons that one could get in exchange for recycled paper. Even when all these conditions were fulfilled, it was possible to buy translated books only “under the counter” i.e. if there was a salesperson you knew. Stationery departments often witnessed people queuing for hours if a limited amount of toilet paper had arrived in the store.

The shortage of goods became worse at the turn of the 1980s and 1990s – back then the sale of many food products and other goods was limited by the use of ration stamps distributed to people. People were given an extra ration of alcohol for weddings and funerals – a crate of vodka, for example. Estonia had already managed to separate itself from the Soviet economic space to a certain extent but no real borders yet existed between the two countries; thus the Estonian government introduced a purchasing card system to protect the local people. The purpose of these cards was to prevent tourists from Russia or elsewhere taking goods out of Estonia.

By the end of the 1980s, approximately a dozen shops had been set up in Tallinn for foreign tourists. The shops dealt in foreign currencies and sold Western goods for Finnish marks; US dollars or other convertible currencies. A small number of locals who had received some foreign currency for trading with foreigners could also go and make their purchases in such shops. However, to do so was dangerous because it could bring one to the attention of the Soviet authorities – after all, conducting business on one’s own initiative was prohibited in the Soviet Union.

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