- A Social History of Soviet Trade: Trade Policy, Retail Practices, and Consumption, 1917-1953
Julie Hessler's work is the first comprehensive history of the first thirty-five years of Soviet trade written after the opening of the Soviet Union's archives following that nation's collapse. It will, without doubt, become a standard work of reference. Hessler gives due credit to the Soviet historian G. A. Dikhtiar's three-volume work on Russian and Soviet trade published in the 1960s (in Russian). Despite the book's obvious ideological overtones, it deserves to be read alongside Hessler's work. Hessler's study is particularly interesting since it is not only a detailed history of the distribution of goods, but it also presents an interesting interpretation of the wider workings of the Soviet economic system. As Hessler agues, Soviet economic policy was caught up in a vicious circle that reproduced its own crises. Its main problem was how to regulate the exchange between the town and the country.
The Soviet organization of trade consisted of four institutional arrangements: private shops, bazaars and markets, cooperatives, and state shops. In the absence of a comprehensive network of state shops, cooperatives, with prerevolutionary origins, became a cornerstone of trade during the revolutionary period. Under the new imperatives of bureaucratic state regulation, they increased their share in trade. According to the official doctrine, cooperatives were to cater to the rural consumers, whereas state shops would take care of the urban market. More luxurious state shops and department stores [End Page 189] opened in the mid-1930s. From then on, one can speak of a peculiar Soviet culture of consumption.
An interesting result of Hessler's work is the predominance of private trade all through the period under study. Private shops were licensed by the state during the short period under the New Economic Policy. Paradoxically, as private shops disappeared later in the 1920s, Soviet citizens spent an increasing proportion of their income and time on private sector transactions. Bazaars and kolkhoz markets, baggers and peddlers, took care of a major share of the distribution of food and other consumer goods all through Soviet history. The networks of official trade organizations were sparse. Workers of trade were treated with suspicion and often accused of corruption and speculation. In practice, the Soviet state strengthened the bazaar, preserving, contrary to its modernizing intentions, a traditional form of face-to-face interaction.
Factory outlets were another Soviet peculiarity. Such stores were open to a limited circle of customers who were entitled to goods and services in exchange for rationed coupons. Their share increased during economic crises when ordinary shops stood empty or had long queues in front of them. Factory directors used wages in kind to cope with problems of labor productivity and turnover.
In recent studies of Soviet history it has become common to point out that a reorientation took place in Stalin's politics in mid-1930s, after the forced industrialization and the collectivization of agriculture, with millions of casualties. According to this interpretation, which I have advocated in my study on Soviet luxury consumption (Jukka Gronow, Caviar with Champagne, [Berg Publishers, 2003]), Stalin and the Communist Party abandoned their ideals of revolutionary asceticism and encouraged consumerism. This new spirit was captured in Stalin's slogan from 1936: "Life has become more joyous, Comrades!" Sheila Fitzpatrick, Hessler's doctoral advisor, is a prominent proponent of this view. According to her, Stalin changed the main reference group of his politics from the working class to the new Soviet middle class. Hessler shares this view but modifies it with the advancement of her own research. According to her, Stalin and his economic advisors never opted for a bureaucratically rationed system of distribution but favored "cultured trade" with commercial shops open to anyone and, at least, with rudiments of customer service and freedom of choice. Not until the mid-1930s did Soviet leaders have any chance to clarify what they really wanted. At...