Changing Goals: Consumerism in the Soviet Union under Stalin

Under the first five year plan, industrialization of the “backwards” and agrarian Soviet Union was paramount. For most of its existence, the Soviet economy functioned (and would continue to function) as a “dictatorship over needs.” (Soviet Consumerism) It’s not until the rule of Khrushchev with the Kitchen Debate and the Seven Year Plan that consumerism would be addressed more than half-heartedly. However, in the postwar years, Stalin began to hint at this consumerist movement by making plans for the production of “high-grade food products, fabrics, clothing and footwear” during the Fourth Five-Year Plan. However, these promises turned out to be falsehoods, as “even by 1950 the Soviet masses will not get the quantity (let alone the quality) of the consumers’ goods they obtained as far back as in 1937 – toward the end of the Second Five-Year Plan.” (The Fourth International Newspaper, Sep. 1946)

TheGAZ Podeba was one of the first consumer cars produced in the Soviet Union. However, it was priced at 16,000 rubles when the monthly wage of the average worker stood at 600 rubles. If that ratio were extrapolated to US wages, the car would cost upwards of $65,000.

One of the earliest instances of this attempt at consumerism was the production of non-military cars. Vehicle production until this point was mainly for military-grade trucks, which were very important to the Soviet war effort. As a result, consumer cars were an extreme rarity in the Soviet Union. The USSR’s inability (or unwillingness) to produce consumer goods at the expense of industrialization led to public transportation becoming the main mode of transport in urban areas. As a result, cars were not an important element of Soviet society until long after the war (contrast this with the car culture built in the United States during the 1950s). This is also evidenced by the fact that over the decade that the GAZ Podeba was in production, not even a quarter of a million were produced and sold. Many of these were not even sold in the USSR, most were given to other Soviet bloc countries, as the car was built to withstand rough terrain. In many ways, consumer goods production lagged far behind industrial production, as the Soviet Union was constantly focused on competing with the US militarily. Cars were no exception to this, and in fact serve as a perfect example of the inefficiencies that the Soviet command economy produced.

9 thoughts on “Changing Goals: Consumerism in the Soviet Union under Stalin

  1. Bryce, from the start, I think your title points out the important contradiction of consumerism in a “socialist” society – I almost wish you’d explored that a little bit further! But, your discussion of Soviet cars is really fascinating, especially your comparison to “car culture” in the postwar US. Good job!

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    1. I’ll definitely try to talk more about consumerism in my next blog post with Khrushchev and the Kitchen Debate! It is a really interesting topic economically and ideologically speaking, and it had a big impact on Soviet politics especially in the 60s and 70s.

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  2. I really liked your post! I thought the caption to the photo you used was really interesting since it gives us a better context to just how much the cars would have cost.

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    1. It’s insane how expensive consumer goods were in the Soviet Union, and it really helps contextualize the grey and black markets that appeared during its existence.

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  3. I loved your post. The Soviets cared about capital goods, production, and growth. The focus on private wants were not that high on the totem poll. After their fast industrialization, they slightly leaned off this economic view for private growth.

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    1. That was definitely the case! It becomes even more interesting as Khrushchev comes to power and tries liberalizing the economy even more by spending more on consumer goods at the expense of industrial and military goods, which was one of the things that lead to his ouster in the late 60s.

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  4. Thanks for this, and I’m so glad you found Carolyn’s post about cars as well! Cars for comrades is a complicated topic — where you see the nexus of economic and cultural pressures. The Pobeda was indeed a beautiful machine — but most people went for a more modest vehicle, like the Moskvich, or, my favorite, the “Zaporozhets.” http://sovietcar.com/zaz-968a-1980-white/
    Check out the “ears” on the back — that’s where the radiator is!

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    1. I find the topic of consumerism in the Soviet Union really interesting because it seemed to have gone against everything the socialist economy stood for. In my opinion, it becomes even more interesting in the Khrushchev Era, and I can’t wait to talk about that on my next blog post!

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  5. I really liked your post! I can’t wait to talk about that in my next blog post! see more consumers goods.

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