Staunton, February 11 -- In both 2001 and 2011, Russians told pollsters that the change they valued most from late Soviet times to the first years of the post-Soviet period was the fact that the shelves in stores were full of goods to purchase rather than largely empty, Oleg Khlevnyukov, a Higher School of Economics professor says.
Not surprisingly, he says, this assessment of what had improved had a major impact on their attitudes about a wide variety of other issues (“The Impact of Full Shelves: Overcoming the Goods Deficit in the 1990s and Its Social Consequences” (in Russian), Vestnik Permskogo Universiteta 3 (46) (2019): 5-14 at press.psu.ru/index.php/history/article/view/2610/1984; summarized at iq.hse.ru/news/340493631.html).
An anecdote which circulated in Russia in the early 1990s captured this, Khlevnyukov says: “In Moscow, an Erotica store opened: it had naked shelves.” This captured the fact that many Russians at that time couldn’t find meat, sugar, cooking oil, or even bread on a regular basis in stores close to where they lived.
As more goods became available, he continues, Russian attitudes toward socialism and markets changed, with the population gradually shifting from being supporters of socialism “with guaranteed control over prices even at the cost of deficits” to support for the widespread availability of goods “with high prices.”
In July 1990, polls found that only 50 percent of Russians agreed with the proposition that there should be high prices as long as there were plenty of goods to buy, but by March 1994, that share of the population had risen to “almost 62 percent.” At the same time, those who favored rationing dropped from 37 percent to 12 percent.
“The majority of citizens rated highly the advantages of a market economy, despite the high social cost for it,” Khlevnyukov says. And because “memory about the chronic deficits in the USSR was still fresh, they did not want to return to the empty shelves with which they associated government regulation.”
Later, he suggests, when the memories of empty shelves faded, attitudes toward the Soviet past have changed as the issue of empty shelves has become less significant. They are evaluating that past in terms of very different issues, and thus their judgments are different as well.
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