David Priestland
The Red Flag

In 1983, a new, genuinely amusing romantic comedy was released in the USSR, though one with a strong ideological message. The Blonde Round the Corner told the story of the romance between Nikolai, an astrophysicist who decides to become a warehouseman in a large Moscow shop, and the real heroine of the film, the shop-worker Nadia, a larger-than-life wheeler-dealer who can fix anything through Moscow's black economy. Her life and relationships turn on her ability to secure 'deficit' goods: she introduces her friends to Nikolai not by name, but by what they can get for her—one is 'theatre tickets,' another 'holidays on the Black Sea,' and so on. In this parallel consumerist universe, the materialistic Nadia, not the party secretary is boss. She has so much faith in her influence that she tries to find out whether she might be able to procure the Nobel Prize for Nikolai by bribing the committee members with caviar and other luxuries. Light comedy ends in heavy moralizing: Nikolai, at first captivated by this new world, abandons the monstrous Nadia on the eve of their marriage and, by implication, the selfish and shallow pleasures of consumerism.

The Blonde Round the Corner displayed all of the Communists' anxieties about consumerism: it was a rival universe, with its own hierarchy and values antithetical to those of Communism. Soviet bloc countries all had flourishing black economies by the 1970s; some, such as those of the USSR, Poland and Hungary, were largely tolerated; others, such as the East German, were treated less liberally but flourished all the same. These parallel economies covered a significant proportion of economic activity—surveys showed that in the USSR of the 1980s, 60 per cent of all car repairs, 50 per cent of shoe repairs and 40 per cent of apartment renovations were done on the black market, many by people moonlighting from their official jobs. But socialist states also legitimized this corrosive consumer culture by establishing special shops where luxury goods could be bought. For instance the GDR's Exquisit and Delikat shops sold such goods for much higher prices than in normal shops, and the Intershops sold goods for Western currency, acquired from relatives in the West.

Consumerism established a different world. People spent a great deal of their time tracking down 'deficit' goods for their apartments, or finding fashionable clothes—especially Western ones. It is no surprise that those jobs which gave access to consumer goods became much more popular in the 1970s. Sociologists found that shop sales jobs like Nadia's, looked down on in the early 1960s, were now much more attractive, whilst conversely higher education was becoming less popular. White-collar workers still generally earned more than their blue-collar counterparts, and some groups, such as the army and top party bosses, were relatively well paid in money and perks. But a new status hierarchy founded on access to consumer goods, began to rival the old paternalistic one based on service. A survey of Soviet teenagers in 1987 showed that they regarded black-marketeering as the most lucrative job in Soviet society followed by work for the military, car servicing and bottle-recycling; at the bottom came pilots, actors and university teachers. Similarly in the GDR, where access to foreign currency sent by relatives was so crucial, the joke went that German socialism had reached a new phase in the Marxist scheme: 'from each according to his ability to each according to the residence of his aunt.'

As The Blonde Round the Corner showed, this challenge to the old order was resented by those without access to consumer goods. In Poland, where parry apparatchiks were themselves involved in the black market, it damaged their prestige. Elsewhere, it was more difficult for middle-ranking party officials to nurture foreign contacts, and consumerism antagonized those who did not have the opportunity or desire to participate in the parallel economy; whilst they had status in the old hierarchy, they were very lowly in the new one.

It was perhaps inevitable that consumer goods would become so central to people's lives when they became more widely available. Most people, in most societies, try to acquire status. But that status was only likely to become associated with consumerism when official socialist hierarchies became less important, and, crucially, when consumer goods were within the reach of ordinary people. People compete with their peers; when the very top elite, remote from most people, had these goods, it was less important to have them, but from the 1950s Communist regimes created the ideal conditions for an obsession with consumer goods. They made greater efforts to spread these goods around, but failed to produce nearly enough to meet demand.

Fascination with consumer goods clearly showed that many Soviet bloc citizens were moving into the Western cultural orbit. Youth culture revolved around Western clothes and music; even though socialist states produced their own clothes (sometimes with Western brand logos on them, such as 'Marlboro' or 'Levi-Strauss'), only foreign-produced clothes were fashionable. However, we should not exaggerate the power of consumerism; Communism was not brought low by the Marlboro cowboy. A survey of attitudes to social prestige in Hungary—the socialist economy with one of the most developed market economies—showed that jobs associated with knowledge (like doctors) had the most prestige attached to them. Commerce and high incomes were much less prestigious.

Also, an interest in consumer goods did not necessarily lead to anti-socialist attitudes. A minority of people were actively involved in the black market—an estimated 15 per cent in the USSR—and they were generally regarded as being an unusual group, more materialistic than normal people. So even though official propaganda relentlessly attacked youths obsessed with Western clothes as materialistic and work-shy, the youths themselves did not see the world in such Manichaean, black-and-white terms. Enthusiastic Komsomol activists were as likely to buy jeans from black-marketeers as dissidents.

The same can be said of that other hugely influential Western import: rock music, though in this case Communists did sometimes have more cause for concern. Rock music was, of course, strongly associated with the youth rebellions of the 1950s, and its lyrics were often imbued with a hedonistic Romanticism—as hostile to the principles of state socialism as technocratic capitalism. In some countries rock music became explicitly oppositional. The Punk group Perfect provided the soundtrack to Poland's Solidarity movement in the early 1980s, and the post-invasion Czechoslovak group The Plastic People of the Universe was explicitly dissenting. One of its 1973 songs included the verse:
Bring your kilogram of paranoia into balance!
Throw off the horrible dictatorship!
Quickly! Live, drink, puke!
The bottle, the Beat!
Shit in your hand.
Some of the group were arrested and tried, accused of 'extreme vulgarity with an anti-socialist and an anti-social impact, most of them extolling nihilism, decadence and clericalism.' During the trial, the defence did not deny their vulgarity, but ingeniously argued that they were just following Lenin's Bolshevik forthrightness, quoting his supposed maxim of 1922, 'bureaucracy is shit.' They failed to convince the judge, however. The musicians were imprisoned, and their case became a cause celebre, attracting international attention; it also led to the creation of Charter 77, a dissident group committed to forcing the regime to observe law and the constitution, whose most famous member was the playwright Vaclav Havel.

Most pop and rock music, however, was not so explicitly anti-Communist, and most Soviet bloc regimes in the 1970s were willing to tolerate it—as they rather had to, given the huge numbers who listened to Western radio stations. The East German party sponsored 'socialist realist rock,' whilst the Soviets had their own anodyne, politically correct bands,like the Happy Guys—named after the 1930s socialist realist
comedy film. The Komsomol produced long lists of banned groups: the heavy metal group Black Sabbath was accused of promoting 'violence' and 'religious obscurantism,' whilst the crooner Julio Iglesias, bizarrely, was categorized as a promoter of 'neo-fascism.'

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.