Freedom to be your own boss

In modern society, working is something we take for granted. We’re able to go to school, go on to further education, and choose a career path for ourselves based on our skills and ambitions. We’re free to start businesses of our own – whether that’s a new app or a hairdressing salon. Often, we can even get funding to help us on our way. We’re free to make a life for ourselves by working at almost anything we want.

However, during the Soviet era, entrepreneurialism was non-existent. Each and every business, job and pay packet was controlled by the state. The idea of owning private property was anathema to the communist system. This meant that it was illegal to own any kind of business, a factory or even land that could generate revenue.

Businesses weren’t called businesses, but enterprises, and these enterprises were owned and run by the government. Everything from the ice-cream kiosk to the factory was publicly owned.

When it came to getting a job, the role you were given would depend solely on your credentials rather than your own personal ambitions or preferences. The Soviet Union was renowned for its bureaucracy and endless paperwork, so once you’d finished school, you’d be assigned a job and that was it.

Business weren’t called businesses, but enterprises, and these enterprises were owned and run by the government. Everything from the ice-cream kiosk to the factory was publicly owned.

Enterprises would be run by managers who were often members of the Communist Party; who would deal with salaries, equipment and other outgoings. Every single item was manufactured based on what the state decided everyone in society needed, rather than what they wanted. This meant that in theory, there’d be no surplus, no wastage, and most importantly, no profit.

The reality was somewhat different.  Today, economies operate on a supply and demand basis; but in the Soviet Union, accessing anything above and beyond the daily essentials was almost impossible. Knowing the right people in the right places was essential if you wanted to procure the finer things in life, which is why the black market and corruption thrived in the USSR.

The black market served as a welcome antidote to the abysmal quality and variety of merchandise available in government-controlled stores. Shops would be named after what they sold, like ‘Food’ or ‘Furniture’, and would often be drab with limited stock.

While the black market thrived, the government-run shops were incredibly inefficient. Soviet countries were famed for poor customer service, as thanks to the not-for-profit economy, there was little incentive to treat customers well.

In fact, when the first McDonald’s opened in Moscow in 1990 staff had to be trained to smile at customers as it was so out of the ordinary. Even landing a job at the Soviet Union’s first McDonald’s was no easy feat. The first workers were the best of the best of Soviet youth – students from prestigious universities who could speak foreign languages were top of the list. On the first day of trading, the branch served over 30,000 people and had a queue running for miles through the streets of Moscow.

Real people: The Wool Entrepreneur

There’s a story in Russian folklore about a resourceful man who managed to create an underground wool enterprise in the Soviet Union; only to land himself in prison.

The man’s job was to drive a van transporting wool between various locations in the Soviet Union. Back then, wool was a useful commodity and after doing his rounds there’d be some ‘surplus’ wool left in his van.

Realising there was an opportunity to make a few rubles by selling this on the black market, his private enterprise began. Within a few years his underground wool business was operating in five different countries, aided and abetted by dozens of accomplices.

Unable to hide his accumulated wealth from the authorities, he was found guilty of embezzling money from the state and imprisoned. Allegedly his spell inside was no obstacle to his status as entrepreneur extraordinaire, as he simply set up another business venture while behind bars.

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