Behind the Curtain

Jake Tully Russian History Blog

Consumer Choice in a Planned Economy

Goods For The People

Above is an article from Pravda that addresses the inability of the USSR’s planned economy to meet consumer needs when it came to luxuries such as fashion. The main problems identified by the article are twofold: fashion trends are often fickle and unpredictable, but those designing the production plans also appeared to disregard some trends that seemed readily apparent.

Market forces in free markets or mixed economies are usually able to account for the first problem. The article gives old patterns coming back into style – “gabardine at the moment, cashmere, crepe, and certain others” – as an example of the unpredictability of fashion trends. In an economy governed chiefly by market forces, there is a huge amount of incentive for the supply side of the economy to accommodate changes like these. In the USSR in the seventies, “coats in the styles made by factories during the past two years… pile[d] up in stores and warehouses.” The article’s author chalks this up mainly to poor planning.

There is another side of this, though. The planning may not have been poor – instead, the planners may have decided that conforming to the changing tides of fashion was not worth the effort. After all, an article of clothing keeps you warm no matter the design. There is some evidence that the planners did choose to ignore the apparent trends. According to the article, “More and more often now one can see women wearing long skirts in the theater and long coats on the streets.” However, maxi-length clothes made up only 20% of women’s clothing orders that year. This prompted women to turn to homemade articles to satisfy their demands.

The gulf of consumer choice between the USSR and Western countries of the time is legendary. Even ten years after this article was written, this gulf was apparent. Boris Yeltsin was reportedly astonished when he toured an American supermarket, remarking that even the Politburo did not have options like those at the average corner store supermarket (link at the end of post). It could be the position of economic planners that consumer choice is not truly a necessity or a mark of a strong economy. After all, I only buy one brand of pasta. But the article above does illustrate a unique problem faced in planned economies.

When Boris Yeltsin went grocery shopping in Clear Lake





4 comments on “Consumer Choice in a Planned Economy

  1. kendallr
    April 26, 2016

    You’ve got some great sources her in this post. I think thgis is one of the reasons people see the USSR as a very bleak, depressing country. Yeah, the weather sucked so that helped, but there was barely any chancew for a person to show off their personality through their clothes. This alone itsn’t a reason, but it is just an example of how this type of economy doesn’t work with humans, in my opinion.


  2. A. Nelson
    April 26, 2016

    I’m with you on the planned economy not working well, but don’t agree that people didn’t show off their personality with their clothing. In fact the shortcomings of the planned economy prompted people to innovate and invest considerable energy in their clothing choices. In the late Soviet period, many people had their clothes custom tailored (which was pretty affordable) or they sewed themselves, which made for lots of originality and beautiful fit.


  3. Alexa Parsley
    April 26, 2016

    I really enjoyed reading your post! I think fashion-era of the 70s is so fascinating because staying “hip to the trends” was a staple in day-to-day life and it would be exceedingly difficult if you lived in a country where the industry to produce those new trends was lacking. However, fashion statements are made by simply putting random things together, and it would be interesting to see if Russian icons picked up on this lag and made the day-to-day lifestyle clothing chic in any way. I liked your analysis of the topic and the primary source you included was great. Again, great job!


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