How did the Soviet economic system affect consumer goods?

The now-defunct Soviet Union was not a good place for its citizens, who suffered from chronic shortages of consumer goods. What goods were available to them were generally inferior to what was available in the West.

During its nearly seven decades of existence from 1922 to 1991, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was one of the two major communist powers – the other being China – that followed the centralized planning model for its economy, a basic tenet of communism.

As such, the Soviet Union's ordinary citizens were generally not allowed access to imported consumer goods, especially those manufactured in the United States. Also known as "the Iron Curtain," the Soviet economic system called for self-sufficiency in all matters, from bread to clothes to cars to fighter aircraft.

The Soviet Union failed for a number of reasons. Political analysts say that the Soviet economic system was inferior to the free market economy espoused by the United States and most of the West.

The input-output analysis developed by Nobel Prize-winning economist Wassily Leiontief sees the economy as a network of interconnected industries; one industry’s output is used as an input by another.

Centralized planning, however, left little room for quick adjustments to errors in judgment or external factors beyond the state's control. When one industry failed, the other industries followed suit.

By the mid-1980s, the Soviet Union had 98 percent control of the retail trade. Private businesses were taboo. It was only the small family farms in rural areas that remained in the hands of private citizens.

In the meantime, the countries surrounding the Soviet Union in the post-World War II years had become economic powerhouses producing consumer goods that vastly improved the quality of life for citizens who could afford them. With German cars, French perfume, Italian wines and British-made appliances, Western Europeans were living the good life compared to their Soviet counterparts, who had gotten used to long queues whenever the farm-to-market supply chain was disrupted.

Worst of all, consumers in the Soviet Union had developed a taste for foreign products, such as U.S.-made Levi jeans, despite similar Soviet Union-made attire being available at lower prices. It did not matter if the jeans were smuggled and sold at atrocious prices. Soviet consumers had just enough exposure to the outside world to be familiar with what was available and to demand better-quality goods than the Soviet economic system could provide them.

Throughout its history, the Soviet Union tried to instill in its people the message that consumerism was an evil that belonged only in the decadent West. Soviet consumers believed otherwise, which is why they welcomed perestroika and the USSR collapse.

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