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Sellers’ Commercial Activities in the Soviet Union Essay


The idea of public and hidden transcripts was proposed by James C. Scott who suggested that people are often engaged in passive resistance to a social situation. From this point, public transcripts are open interactions between authorities and their subordinates, and hidden transcripts are usually presented in the form of leaders’ or subordinates’ visions of these interactions, but are ideas that cannot be revealed openly because of their social provocativeness (Scott, 1990; Scott, 2009).

There are also situations when hidden transcripts become integrated into public transcripts, modifying them and changing the nature of interactions between two social groups. One such hidden transcript, which changed the public transcript when becoming a part of it, is shadow economic relationships and sellers’ commercial activities in the Soviet Union during the period of the 1970s-1980s.

The purpose of this paper is to describe the case study related to the shadow economy in the Soviet Union with reference to the fact that, in the 1970s, this was a hidden transcript that became integrated into the public transcript in the 1980s, leading to the development of the first signs of the market economy in the country.

Introducing the case

Differences between classes of dominant social groups and subordinates are typically accentuated in any society without dependence on a time period or a country. There are also many cases where subordinates are inclined to demonstrate their passive resistance to authorities in the form of specific hidden transcripts (Courpasson & Vallas, 2016). In the 1970s, middle-income citizens of the Soviet Union had limited access to different groups of goods that could be openly sold in shops.

This situation provoked the development of the phenomenon known as speculation in the context of a market. The official economy and market developed according to the plans set by the authorities, and goods for production and sale were determined according to the state plan. Shortages were observed in relation to all groups of goods, and the proposed supply could not cover the public’s demand (Bova, 2015). Constant shortages of goods led to the development of the shadow economy with its typical features, such as speculation (Joo, 2010). Thus, speculation was a commercial activity of some middle-income individuals, and it can be discussed as a hidden transcript.

Speculation as a hidden transcript

Those people who had access to popular or foreign goods in the Soviet Union began to organize illegal commercial activities or businesses for which purpose they illegally bought and sold different types of properties. As a hidden transcript, speculation can be defined as the purchase of goods for the purpose of reselling them to set higher prices and make a profit. Illegal sellers promoted alcohol, tobacco, food, home electronics, and clothes, as well as other items (Cracraft, 2014). For instance, “workers at meat stores brought out meat and other related products for illegal sale as well as their own consumption” (Joo, 2010, p. 291). These activities associated with the illegal promotion of certain goods were known in middle-class social groups, but they were not emphasized or openly discussed.

Commercial sellers

Commercial sellers could not open shops to enter the market officially, and all these activities were illegal and prohibited. It is important to note that, for the social group of Soviet people who had limited access to goods, speculation became “a necessary part of daily lives” (Joo, 2010, p. 290). The reason for this was that these people needed to overcome the shortage of goods, and they did not regard speculation and commercial activities of that type as unlawful.

Almost every adult in the country was interested in purchasing the resold goods that were not available in shops, and this procedure became a hidden transcript developed in society (Cracraft, 2014). Consequently, “there soon emerged a group of enterprising shadow operators who utilized the existing situation to their advantage with ingenious ideas to make profits” (Joo, 2010, p. 293). Thus, it is possible to note that a hidden social group of sellers or speculators actively developed.

Powerful and powerless persons

In spite of the fact that this shadow economy and the activities of illegal sellers belonged to a hidden transcript, middle and lower social classes were not the only ones involved in these activities. The representatives of the Soviet upper class interacted with speculators as well, and there were cases when these individuals also participated in commercial activities or performed as speculators on their own because they had access to goods that could be successfully sold in the Soviet Union (Bova, 2015; Cracraft, 2014; Joo, 2010).

As it is noted by Joo (2010), “the powerful did the same things as the powerless, only better” (p. 292). From this point, not only powerless persons were involved in the hidden transcript, but powerful persons also contributed to developing the shadow economy that made it possible to integrate the specific hidden transcript into the public one.

Integrating the hidden transcript into the public one

Speculation and illegal commercial activities as a hidden transcript became integrated into the public transcript in the 1980, when the focus on promoting commercial activities within the state’s legal market was declared by the Soviet authorities (Bova, 2015). According to Joo (2010), “the role of the shadow economy was so important that the Soviet regime eventually incorporated it into the official system by legalizing it” (p. 290).

As a result, a kind of private entrepreneurship became allowed, and the first cooperative shops appeared. In these shops, owners could set prices independently within certain limits, and this activity became the improved and legal version of speculation (Cracraft, 2014; Joo, 2010). Thus, the discussed hidden transcript was not only integrated into the public one, but the hidden transcript in the form of the commercial activities of sellers also modified the public transcript related to the Soviet official economy because commercial relationships organized according to the principles of the market economy were no longer prohibited.


The case of speculation in which primarily middle-class citizens of the Soviet Union were involved in the 1970s developed as a hidden transcript and became further discussed as a public transcript in the 1980s. Thus, the shadow economy based on the idea of shortages and speculation became transformed into the cooperative movement and establishment of many private and cooperative shops, which became a new phenomenon in the Soviet economy.

Consequently, after becoming a part of the public transcript, cooperative shops were associated with the market economy typical of the capitalist countries. It is important to pay attention to the fact that the principles of speculation were used in the development of new cooperative shops because those commercial sellers who were representatives of the country’s middle class and who were identified as speculators became co-owners of these cooperative shops.


Bova, R. (Ed.). (2015). Russia and western civilization: Cultural and historical encounters. New York, NY: Routledge.

Courpasson, D., & Vallas, S. (Eds.). (2016). The SAGE handbook of resistance. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.

Cracraft, J. (Ed.). (2014). The Soviet Union today: An interpretive guide (2nd ed.). Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Joo, H. M. (2010). Hidden transcripts… shared?: Passive resistance in the Soviet case. The Korean Journal of International Studies, 8(2), 277-298.

Scott, J. C. (1990). Domination and the arts of resistance: Hidden transcripts. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Scott, J. C. (2009). The art of not being governed: An anarchist history of upland Southeast Asia. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

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