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March 13, 2020

Communist Luxury; or 'You complete idiot, do you think we all want to look the same?'

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Recently I was asked to say a few words at a conference held to celebrate the career of Maxine Berg, who is one of the world’s best early modern economic historians. I was on a panel about the links between economics and economic history. A theme of Maxine’s recent research in economic history has been luxury in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and especially the production and consumption of luxury objects. I thought of contributing to the occasion by saying a few words about luxury objects in another setting and in a much more recent period: the Soviet Union under communist rule.

A thing can be more than a thing

First, what should economists learn from Maxine’s writing about luxury objects? We learn, first, that a thing is much more than a thing. When we acquire a thing, we do not just acquire the thing itself, or the use of it. We also gain access to the feelings that go with owning it or using it and these feelings can be powerful factors in our choices and our behaviour.

Maxine has written about the many feelings associated with luxury objects. From one angle, they evoke “the vices of luxurious excess”: gluttony and greed. From another angle, they bring us “modern comfort and convenience, enjoyment and sociability, taste, aesthetics and refinement.” From a third angle, they raise questions about “individual and national virtue, the canons of taste, definitions of the self.”

In economics we often refer to concepts of self-interest and of stable preferences as drivers of human behaviour. Increasingly, modern economists also ask questions about the identity of the self that is self-interested; that is, self-interest may not be primitive, but may be formed in association with our feelings of identity. The idea of self implies individual difference, and this leads naturally to the question of how we differentiate ourselves from others in society through the things we consume. The evolution of style and fashion shows that our preferences are not as fixed or stable as economic theory would once have liked them to be, and economists increasingly ask questions about how preferences are formed and what economic and social pressures might cause them to change. In all of these respects, the study of luxury objects suggests fascinating lines of inquiry.

There is more. If we spend a few minutes thinking about luxury objects under communism, we’ll find that they take us in a nearly straight line to the dark heart of the Soviet system of power.

As an exchange student and later a young scholar in Moscow during the Cold War, I saw among my Russian friends a longing for luxury (the Russian words were roskosh’ or uyutnost’) that would have been immediately familiar to Maxine and her team of collaborators, working on luxury in a much earlier period. The people in my own circle showed a yearning for something more than the basic standardized means of life. They sought out small luxuries that would provide some kind of individual difference or distinction. They were fascinated especially by foreign objects of luxury, which were rarely encountered other than at second-hand through the censored media and were therefore novel and unfamiliar by definition.

I was a foreigner: what foreign goods did the Soviet people around me seem to aspire to? Denim jeans, leather goods, cosmetics, handbags, electronic goods, and also images of foreign life including Western-branded plastic carrier bags. Invited to dinner, more than once I bought a bottle of wine or vodka at the local liquor store and carried it to the apartment of my hosts in some plastic bag that had found its way from England into my luggage. When I arrived, the bottle would be accepted with a conventional thank you. The bag it came in would be snatched out of my hands, smoothed carefully, folded with precision, and placed to one side for future use on special occasions. Such things were so much more than "just things."

Approved luxury

The Soviet social order was designed and managed by a power-building party elite who believed that power lay in the production of things – especially motors, planes, tanks, and guns. These were things, too, but, like luxury objects, they were also more than just things. Like luxury objects, rockets and tanks were also valued for their capacity to evoke feelings. Unlike luxury objects, however, the feelings were of national pride and power on one side, and fear and submission on the other.

This vision of society was not just for the elite. It was for the masses too. The masses were supposed to be included into this vision of a powerful modern nation through pride in the Soviet state and party, reinforced by gratitude to the ruling party for the provision of standardized, affordable, basic household goods and services.

Within that somewhat Spartan vision, luxury did play a role. More precisely, there were two kinds of luxury, one approved and permitted, the other censured and restricted to the greatest degree possible.

Approved luxuries were goods that would encourage hard-working families to aspire to a simple, healthy, educated way of life topped off with the elements of modernity: a cooker (later a fridge, washing machine, and vacuum cleaner), soap and basic cosmetics, books and a display bookcase, pictures and family photographs, a telephone, a radio (later TV), a samovar (later an electrovar), patterned china, patterned wallpaper, household ornaments, a bicycle (later a motor car) – all Soviet made, allowing limited scope for distinctions of taste and elegantnost’ – another Russian word but interestingly one with an obvious foreign origin.

Such things were not just things; they were supposed to make you feel proud, especially given that (as everyone knew from the novels of Dickens) working families in the capitalist West lived in poverty and children went barefoot.

These notions of luxury went back to the 1930s when the Stalin regime began to design the legitimate aspirations of young, skilled, highly productive workers – the Stakhanovites. You work hard and fulfil or overfulfil the quota, so you get a bonus – but what’s the point if there’s nothing to spend it on? The 1930s answer was: spend it on permitted luxury. That was then, but it was followed by the war and a 20-year pause of living standards, so permitted Soviet luxury was not remotely widespread until the 1960s.

The approved luxuries were priced to be within the budget of a skilled worker household, but from in the 1950s even through the 1980s they remained in chronically short supply. Worst in that regard were apartments, cars, and phones, for which waiting lists ran to years or decades; a second-hand car could cost you much more than a new one, regardless of condition.

The effect of chronic shortages was that, if you met your friend in the street and saw they had acquired something desirable or pretty or unusual, you did not ask: — Where did you buy that? That was not even a question, because you already knew it could not be bought. So instead you asked, with a lowered voice: — How did you get hold of that?

And the answer to that question was that your friend got hold it either through “special distribution,” which allowed them to exercise the privileges of party membership or key-worker status, or else they had worked their connections to some semi-legal or even criminal under-the-counter network.

Forbidden luxury

From another world, there were also forbidden luxuries. Foreign literature, clothes, cosmetics, and electronic goods were available only to people with privileged access, or with private connections to foreigners, which were discouraged.

This might make you wonder how the forbidden luxuries were different from the permitted ones. The answer is that the permitted luxuries were on sale to domestic residents in government outlets – in principle. (Just not in practice, the shelves being bare for the ordinary shopper.) The forbidden luxuries were not available in that way, even in principle.

In rare cases a few forbidden luxuries could be found on sale in the so-called “currency stores.” These stores were not open to the public. Ordinary people could not see them and did not know they were there. Their street doors were unmarked and their windows were curtained. No one was admitted who could not show papers proving their right to hold foreign currency. On sale inside, along with caviar, cameras, furs, and the best vodka, could sometimes be found the works of Akhmatova, Pasternak, and other "edgy" authors, whose works were printed and published in the Soviet Union but sold only to the export market. Because I was a Westerner with foreign currency in my pociet, I could go in and buy them; occasionally my friends would ask me -- beg me -- to get hold of copies for them, which I did gladly.

Another way in which the forbidden luxuries were different from the approved ones is that you were not supposed to show interest in them or accept them, even if offered.

The forbidden luxuries were proscribed because they were so much more than just things. They too evoked feelings, but these were feelings that the party and state stigmatised as disruptive and dangerous: desire to escape the limitations of Soviet life, admiration of foreign technologies, and interest in Western ideas of free choice (which the Soviet press would call "so-called 'freedom'"). For this reason, the loyal citizen was expected to spurn them. When this did not happen, the KGB would regularly pull in people who praised Western consumer goods or the quality of foreign cars (not for a beating, but at least for a ticking off).

Everyone belonged to the mass

This was how the ruling party controlled Soviet identity: everyone could aspire to Soviet luxury, but only if it was the same luxury for all. In luxury, people could find distinctions, but only within the narrow limits permitted by the ruling party. Beneath that, everyone belonged to the mass.

In conversation with a female acquaintance, I once remarked: — Sitting on the Moscow subway, I like it that I can look around and not know who’s rich or poor. People dress the same. My friend replied, or rather she shouted back at me: — YOU DON’T UNDERSTAND! YOU COMPLETE IDIOT, DO YOU THINK WE ALL WANT TO LOOK THE SAME? THE UNIFORMITY THAT YOU LIKE IS FORCED UPON US. WE HAVE NO CHOICE.

From this I understood that beneath the surface of uniformity, there was a deep inequality that was hidden from the naïve observer. There was inequality of choice. Even more, there was inequality of power. The aspirations of millions were restricted by the self-interested decisions of a tiny, power-building elite. It’s something I think about when I come across complaints that today’s formerly communist societies used to be so much more equal than they are today.

Anyway, the point of this story is to confirm what Maxine Berg has already proved to us with such talent and energy, that the origins of modern luxury and the attributes of luxury objects are fascinating and well worthy of the attention of both economists and economic historians.

I am a professor in the Department of Economics at the University of Warwick. I am also a research associate of Warwick’s Centre on Competitive Advantage in the Global Economy, and of the Centre for Russian, European, and Eurasian Studies at the University of Birmingham. My research is on Russian and international economic history; I am interested in economic aspects of bureaucracy, dictatorship, defence, and warfare. My most recent book is One Day We Will Live Without Fear: Everyday Lives Under the Soviet Police State (Hoover Institution Press, 2016).

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