Shortage of goods and the consumer culture in Soviet Estonia

​While in a market economy the producer’s problem is how to move goods to the consumer, in a planned economy the problem is the opposite – how the consumer can find goods. Soviet Estonia, as well as other socialist countries, was marked by a chronic shortage of goods, called a deficit.

The minimum amount of goods necessary for survival could mostly be found in shops, but there was no variety or choice. The lack of variety was justified in a scientific way: rational consumption norms, standardisation of products, functionality etc. But actually, the shortage was caused by the prioritisation of heavy industry; the production of consumer goods was considered unimportant and resources allotted for it were inadequate.

The Soviet consumption ideal foresaw the reduction of individual consumption, as it was considered to be the wasting of social resources and a ‘remnant of a petty bourgeois way of thinking’. Soviet people had to act in collectives – do their laundry at public laundries, use communal transport and eat in canteens. Therefore, washing machines and cars were in short supply and kitchens in people’s flats were very small.

As consumer goods became deficits as soon as they had been produced, buying was usually replaced by acquiring. Instead of shopping for concrete goods, people visited shops ‘just in case’, hoping to ‘find something’. In addition, they had to stand in queues, use connections and contacts, offer bribes, go on shopping tours to areas with a better supply of goods, etc. The shortage of goods led to people squirreling away all kinds of reserves in their homes – cases where, for example, matches or soap acquired at the end of the 1980s were still used at the beginning of the 2000s were not rare. Paradoxically, the shortage of goods encouraged over-consumption – having ‘found something’ in shops, it was wiser to buy even unnecessary goods just in case, or to buy everything in larger numbers than strictly necessary, because queuing up for them had taken so much time and trouble.

Such ignoring of individual wishes led to the double standards characteristic of the Soviet regime – one set of behaviour rules was valid at official collective events, while another set operated in everyday life. To cope with everyday life, one had to belong to the contacts-based services system. This social network followed the principle ‘from you to me, from me to you’, whether it was related to the arbitrary use of state resources or the fulfilling of small private dreams in the form of smoked sausages, instant coffee, rubber boots imported from Czechoslovakia, colour TVs or Polish cosmetics.

Such difficulties were non-existent for the Soviet power elite and nomenclature – for them, a parallel commercial network of special shops and imported goods had been created.

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