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When Buying Blue Jeans Was A Serious Crime

Updated on December 15, 2019
Chuck profile image

A part-time college economics & finance instructor who began his career in banking, Chuck frequently writes on money & economics online.

Jeans Were Created As Durable Work Pants For Laborers

Since the 1970s or earlier jeans - pants made of canvas or canvas like material - have been increasingly popular with both men and women. With few exceptions jeans are found in almost everyone’s closet.

Jeans had been around for close to a century prior to the 1960s and 70s but they were originally worn mainly by laborers in industries like mining, farming, factories and other very physical jobs that were had on clothes.

It was a Bavarian immigrant and dry goods merchant, named Levi Strauss, who came to San Francisco during the1850 California Gold Rush and began encountering miners who were having a difficult time finding pants durable enought to survive their tough working environment.

Today Jeans are easily and legally available for sale in stores
Today Jeans are easily and legally available for sale in stores | Source

Jeans Became Standard Attire For the 1960's Counterculture Movement

However, in the late 1960s and early '70’s jeans increasingly became the clothing of choice for teenagers and young adults The new jeans purchasers were generally not involved in hard physical labor, instead they saw jeans as a way of dressing down which upset many of their elders which was part of the attraction. These young people were the post World War II baby boom generation which during the 1960s and 70s was reaching adulthood in North America, Western Europe, Australia and other parts of the developed western world.

Jeans also became popular with the baby boomers reaching adulthood in Russia and its East European satellite states. Like their western counterparts these teenagers and young adults were following the same fashion trends that those in the west were following. Like their counterparts in the west, jeans, along with rock music, were a mainstay of the youthful rebellion.

My Wife’s Story About The Dangerous Crime She Commited In Her Youth

Having traveled to the socialist former Soviet Union and its Eastern Europe satellite states, I was familiar with that area’s illegal black market. During my first visit on a college study tour in 1969, my classmates and I were regularly approached by young men in the streets offering to exchange money (the Russian ruble was practically worthless outside of Russia where it was worth about twelve or fourteen cents versus the official legal rate in Russia which was $1.10 to the rubble.- exchanging this way was illegal and carried severe penalties if caught but was a very tempting deal; buy an icon (a type of religious painting which could not be taken out of the country legally); or sell some of our clothes which also was an illegal transaction.

On a recent trip with our daughter and son-in-law my wife, daughter and I decided to do some hiking in the Valley of Fire State Park outside of Las Vegas where we were vacationing while our son-in-law decided to hang out at the Flamingo Hotel and Resort where we were staying.

We stopped for breakfast on the way out and during breakfast something came up about clothes, a thing that both my wife and daughter are very passionate about.

My Russian born wife made some comment about how difficult it was to dress well when she was young because clothing was scarce and what was available was poorly made. I agreed with her saying that when I first visited all the clothes, including new ones in stores were very shoddy. Our daughter (actually her daughter and my step-daughter) expressed some surprise which was natural as she was only 9 years old when the Soviet Union collapsed and the ruling communists thrown out of power. The socialism of the communist regime was replaced by a free market system.

My Wife’s Foolish And Dangerous Decision As A Young Adult

My wife had recently graduated from college and was enjoying her independence and job as a teacher. She was living in Ryazan, Russia and her parents were in Poland where her Father was a Soviet Air Force officer flying MiG fighter aircraft.

Jeans were very popular among teenagers and young adults in what was then the Soviet Union and its East European satellite states. While jeans were as popular in Russia and its East European satellite states as in the United States and Western Europe they were not available in the Soviet Union or its communist satellite states (NOTE: I am using Russia and the Soviet Union interchangeably here as Russia is the name commonly used when referring to that country, however, from the Communist overthrow in 1917 to 1999 the country was known as the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics - USSR - or Soviet Union for short) However, some young people had them and my wife learned that to get them a person in her town had to first take a 2 hour train ride to Moscow (other than a few people, mostly government officials, cars were not generally available in Russia in those days).

The town, Ryazan, where my wife lived was home to some defense industries and for national security reasons residents had a special notation on their internal passports (national identity card different from a passport for foreign travel) which allowed them to travel outside the city and return. All others, except high level government and military personnel were denied entry to the city. The city also didn’t appear on maps which caused economic planners to overlook it with the result that in order to shop for groceries and other goods, including illegal goods, residents had to travel to Moscow.

She desperately wanted to have a fashionable pair of jeans, but was told she would have to go to Moscow, wait until dark and then walk alone down a deserted street. This was scary enough but it it worse since the dealers selling jeans were black market criminals and, instead of selling jeans, could decide to rob the buyer or worse. Worse had occurred a couple of earlier when two girls from Ryazan had gone to Moscow to buy jeans and disappeared. She was familiar with one from college or work - she wasn’t friends with the girl just recognized her from having passed her in the hall occasionally. The dismembered bodies of the two girls had recently been found in a series of trash cans in a back alley in Moscow.

Today jeans are found in stores in cities and towns all over the world
Today jeans are found in stores in cities and towns all over the world | Source

Her Desire For A Pair Of Jeans Was Greater Than Her Fears

The lure of the jeans was such that she was willing to risk her life to obtain a coveted pair. She went to Moscow, started walking down a dark street when, after a few minutes, headlights appeared behind her. Pulling alongside her the car stopped and, after rolling down the window the driver said “Dzhins?”(Jeans?) To which she replied “Da” (yes).

He directed her to get into the car and started to drive off. He drove a little way just to make sure no police were following and when satisfied they weren't he stopped the car and pointed to the jeans in the back seat.

She selected a pair but he told her no, adding that they were the wrong size for her and handed her a different pair. She paid him the 200 ruble going price which was two months wages (her salary was 100 rubles a month which was the going wage for most people.

Leaving the car with her jeans, she returned to the railroad station and returned home where she tried the jeans on and found that they fit perfectly.

Despite the outrageous price for a pair of second hand jeans (which some European or American college student had brought with them for the purpose of selling to a black market dealer to finance their vacation in the USSR (many sold enough to cover the cost of hotels, liquor and meals while they were visiting the country).

Having seen the collection side of this trade while visiting during the years the country was engaged in what turned out to be a failed socialist experiment, Having visited the country I was familiar with being approached by young men seeking to change money for me or buy my clothes. However, I found the tale of what it was like to be a buyer fascinating but scary as I realized that I could have lost my wonderful wife decades before we met.

As to our daughter she was totally surprised by the fact that buying a pair of jeans required meeting on a dark street and fearing that instead of obtaining the jeans you could be murdered or arrested. Finally the idea of having to pay two months wages for the the jeans was unbelievable..

Why Weren’t Jeans Available In Stores In Russia?

The answer to this question is that owning as well as buying or selling jeans per se was not illegal provided they were purchased in a store and not on the blackmarket. However, Russia was unable to either manufacture jeans themselves nor produce anything else that could be sold abroad to get the foreign currency needed to pay for foreign imports.

The problem was socialism which, whenever it has been tried, has resulted in economic inefficiency which ultimately leads to the collapse of a nation’s productive capacity. In addition to expanding poverty it also leads to a moral decay in the population.

A core tenant of economic theory is that people are rational and, depending upon their tolerance for risk, will go to great lengths to satisfy their wants and needs.

While my wife took a great risk in buying her jeans she was young, and, like other young people believed that death was something that happened to other people.

My wife half heartedly admitted to our daughter and me that her action was foolish and very risky. She would now be horrified if her daughter did something like this, but her desire to have jeans like other young people her age, was so strong that she felt the risk was worth it. The fact that there were many young people could be seen on the streets wearing foreign made jeans meant that not everyone who brought jeans was murdered or arrested.

Why Jeans Were Legally Unavailable In The Old Soviet Union

Unlike the physical sciences which involve the use of experiments to test theories, such experiments are rare in the social sciences like economics, for ethical and other reasons. However, in the case of socialism we do have the results of Russia’s 75 year experiment in socialism which shows how socialism destroys a nation’s economy .

Unlike the free market in which information about what to produce, what resources are used in production and where the final product is wanted is provided by prices in the market, socialism relies on professional government planners to make these decisions.

When Levi Strauss, the inventor of blue jeans, saw the need for a more durable type of pants for miners during the California Gold Rush he invested time and money in researching, developing, manufacturing and marketing of what came to be known as blue jeans. Once he became aware of the need he took the risk that the pants he sought to develop would either be rejected as unnecessary by the miners or not be as durable as he envisioned. His gamble not only paid off well for him but also resulted in a company that has continued to thrive producing and selling jeans for over 100 years.

This risk / reward process is in contrast to the socialist model which stresses fairness rather than efficiency which is the hallmark of the free market system. Socialism, on the other hand, stresses fairness and equlity. The goal of socialism is to replace the free market’s reliance on rewarding risk takers whose ideas succeed by giving them profits and punishing those whose ideas fail with financial loss. Instead of efficiency and economic growth socialism seeks to create a society in which everyone shares equally in its economic output.

Instead of using the free market’s price system socialist economies rely on professional planners to determine what and how to produce as well as where the final product is distributed. The planners are government bureaucrats trained in economic planning. All productive property - factories, mines, farms, railroads, air transport, etc are owned by the government and every worker is basically a government employee.

Despite their training, the job of managing a modern economy of any size, even with the aid of computers is impossible due to its complexity. The USSR (which was basically Russia and the pre-World War I Russian Empire all of which was ruled from Moscow.

In 1980 the USSR or Russia was a nation of 270 million diverse people with different histories and cultures, living in a nation that stretched from the Arctic Ocean on the north to the Black Sea on the south and eastward across Asia to the Pacific Ocean. It covered 22,400,000 square kilometres (8,600,000 sq. miles) or almost one-sixth of the Earth’s landmass. A Time Magazine article in the 1970s estimated that planners would need the assistance of a computer the size of planet Earth to handle all of the calculations needed to effectively manage a modern economy.

Russia’s economy at that time was horribly inefficient with shortages of all types of goods produced. In addition to shortages in what they did produce, ther were many products available in the West that Russia lacked the capability to produce as well as the fact that what they did produce was usually of very poor quality.

Difference Between Socialism And Free Market Production

The December 1958 issue of The Freeman, a free market publication, contained an essay by Leonard Edward Read titled I, Pencil in which the author explains that despite its simplicity and few parts, it is impossible for any single individual to know how to, much less actually make, a pencil despite the fact that millions of pencils are produced and sold every year.

The author’s point is that the division of labor and specialization which involve dividing up the manufacture of a product into smaller segments with each worker producing just one part of the final product rather than having each worker build the product individually.enables more of the product to be produced overall. This is known as the division of labor.

Socialism in the Soviet Union used the division of labor in the actual production process however, it was still up to the central planners to plot the entire complex process from beginning to end. Just as in the case of the pencil or smartphone examples above the manufacture of the final product requires an untold number of processes required to be completed prior to the actual production of the product and then additional processes needed to get the product to consumers.

Why Nobody Knows How to Make a Smartphone

Planning Wa Not The Only Problem

One of the main attractions of socialism is its focus on reducing or eliminating the unequal distribution of income in society. Income inequality results in those with higher incomes being able to consume more of society’s economic output than those with lower incomes. While this is a noble idea it runs counter to human nature in that humans tend to act out of self interest - that is doing what they feel will benefit them or those whom they are responsible for such as their children or other family or friends.

In theory, most people agree that income equality is a good thing. However, in practice, except for a few unique exceptions, it has almost always failed.

Socialism in Russia included income equality with little if any difference among people’s incomes. Except for those in prison or asylums or those too old or ill to work all adults had jobs. With all jobs paying basically the same the only way to reward good work was things like certificates, pins, etc.

Working hard resulted in little if any increase in pay due to the need to maintain income inequality. Poor work, absenteeism, arriving at work drunk and other things that would result in being fired in other economies was tolerated as everyone was entitled to a job and firing was generally not an option for managers. Over time this resulted in a decline in both the quantity and quality of the output in production of both products and services.

Even after planners spent years of work trying to plan the process for making jeans and then incorporating this into the next five year national economic plan the jeans that Russia began producing new for consumers were of such poor quality that people continued to prefer second hand jeans from the West despite the danger and high cost involved in buying the second hand jeans of the black market.

Why Didn’t The Authorities Enforce The Jeans Law Or Repeal It?

As mentioned above, jeans themselves were not illegal, it was the selling and buying of them on the black market that was illegal. Jeans just happened to be available only on the black market.

The black market in Russia at that time was a vast underground economy in which almost any type of product or service could be purchased. In addition to jeans people could buy food, clothing, furniture and other scarce products. Services available included things like getting an apartment or receiving healthcare in a few days or weeks rather than a few months or years (expect to see services like these appear in the U.S. if Senator Bernie Sanders, Senator Elizabeth Warren or any of the other left wing candidates seeking the Democratic nomination get elected and succeed in passing their Medicare for All plans.

Free Healthcare could turn out to be very expensive in terms of both money and personal choices
Free Healthcare could turn out to be very expensive in terms of both money and personal choices | Source

The black market did add a degree of efficiency into the system which helped to reduce people’s frustration as well as avoid economic collapse

As far as not repealing the law making the black market illegal this was not an option as the black market was basically a free market guided by the price system which would have driven the socialist model out due to its better response to consumer wants. Keeping the law in place served to both help keep the black market in check as well as remain as a tool that those in power could quickly use to crush the black market any time they wished.

Black Market Ended With The Fall Of Communism And End of Socialist Planning

Immediately following the December 25, 1991 fall of communist rule in the Soviet Union a free market replaced socialist planning. All types of business and other property became private property. Individuals were free to buy or sell anything and many became entrepreneurs.

People could move and change jobs as they wished while newly privatized businesses were free to pay market wages as well as hold employees accountable and fire those who didn’t perform. Working hard and earning a higher wage or starting a business and becoming wealthier by making profits as well as failing and losing money.

The black market emerged from the shadows and operated legally while black marketeers who had secretly, and illegally, stored up wealth from their black market activities were now able to legally invest those riches in starting or buying businesses and potentially making more money.

However, after three generations of operating illegally operating in the shadows without access to the rule of law for protection many former black marketeers found themselves unable to change and continued operating as in the past relying on violence, theft, bribery and other criminal activities. This was the part of the legacy of three quarters of a century of socialism.

Anti-Socialism Sign at a 2009 TEA Party Event
Anti-Socialism Sign at a 2009 TEA Party Event | Source

A Couple Of Links For Further Reading.

This Hub is based upon my wife's experience buying jeans in the communist ruled Soviet Union as well as my experience from visiting Russia and Ukraine (both of which were major parts of the otd Union of Soviet Socialist Republics or USSR for short as well as a trip through Soviet controlled Eastern Europe a decade later.

For more reading on this here are two good articles from the web relating to jeans and the old USSR:

Black Markets Bloom in Eastern Europe Behind Facade of Strait-Laced Marxism, by Malcolm W. Browne which appeared in the September 9, 1975 edition of the New York Times newspaper.

Soviet Denim Smuggling - The History of Jeans Behind the Iron Curtain, by Katherine Damm which appeared on the clothing site on September 14, 2014.

Both of these links provide additional insight into this unique aspect of Cold War history.

© 2019 Chuck Nugent


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