Black-market jeans in Soviet Union ... what's the Straight Dope?

Everyone knows the old story that American blue jeans were a hot item on the black market in the Soviet Union. But what sort of price did they go for? I found one article from 1976 ( ) that mentions “a month’s wages.” Anyone else have any experience with this? Any former-Soviet Dopers who bought jeans on the black market? Any western travelers who sold theirs?

hurm a pair of jeans still runs a months wages. A Months Wages is not much dollar wise.

My person experience in 99 was that everything was pretty easy to find if you had the money. So no magical barter gold mine about. Things were priced very reasonable there.
[sub]* Urania pubished Sept 1999[/sub]
Edited by Irina Antonyian
Printed by: Russia Federation Defence Ministry Printing Facilities[/sub]


“IN Soviet Russia You do not bad code. The bad code does YOU!”

My good friend lived in Moscow until 1994. He said every once in a while, a van would be selling “American Designer Jeans” out of the back. He said the equivalent was about $30-45 for the real deal Levi’s, Jeordache (sp?) and Guess?. Keep in mind, you could buy a weeks worth of food for that price. A funny story, he was riding his bike and saw a BMW, he wasn’t paying attention and slammed into a concrete post, breaking his nose. Supposedly, he only saw cars like that on TV and in movies. His first “western” movie was Big Trouble in Little China on Beta. There was a huge demand for western items so people paid for them. Now, I hear they have Starbucks and a trendy clothing store on every corner.

I’ve seen Levis for sale in a Russian market for about $5. All the tags looked perfect but the denim looked a little strange and the colour was off. I tried to get some Diesels in the Ukraine last August, the dealer wanted $20 but he didn’t have my size. They were supposedly bootlegs made in Turkey.

By the time I went there the first time (fall 1989), Levi’s were usually available in state-run hard currency stores, at prices a little bit above what you would pay for them in the U.S. (I never understood the Soviet brand obsession with Levi’s, although I don’t understand brand obsessions in general, so there you have it. Nobody seemed to care about Lee, or Wrangler, or any other Western brand.)

I never heard of anyone offering $200 or other insane prices for a pair of Levi’s, but since we American students needed cash rubles now and again anyway, we used to do the following swap for our Soviet friends in the dorm: we would buy the jeans in the requested size, for dollars, (if available), and the Soviets would pay us for them in rubles, at some semi-randomly negotiated exchange rate somewhere in between the official rate and the going black market rate, depending on how close the friend and how mercenary the individual American student was. There was quite an exchange rate spread: when we first arrived in September, the official exchange rate was 62 kopecks to the dollar (100 kopecks = 1 ruble), and the black market rate was around 6-7 rubles to the dollar. Then the government devalued the tourist exchange rate (as opposed to the foreign trade exchange rate) by a factor of ten, so it was 6.6 rubles to the dollar or so, and we were all instantly filthy rich. By the end of the semester, the black market rate had stabilized somewhat at about 20 rubles to the dollar.

Why did people spend so much on jeans, as a proportion of salary? Well, keep in mind that prices, especially for state-supplied goods, were totally out of whack with what you are used to in capitalist economies. The average monthly wage back then was about 200 rubles (or $30-some at the official exchange rate), but basic goods were ridiculously cheap, when you could find them: a subway ride was 5 kopecks, bread was 25-30 kopecks (and always fresh and delicious!), and monthly dorm rent was something like 4 rubles. But God forbid you should want fresh vegetables outside the harvest season in a northern city like Leningrad: a kilo of tomatoes could run half a week’s wages, because you’d generally have to buy them on the cooperative markets, where prices were what the market would bear. Clothing was much more expensive, in general, as a proportion of salary in the USSR than it is in the West; this is still largely the case, if you aren’t filthy rich. Russians generally have far fewer clothes than Americans, but then IME West Europeans also have far fewer clothes than Americans.

Also, one reason to spend more on American-made jeans is that they wouldn’t fall apart like Soviet-made ones often did. I did buy a couple of clothing items over there, and with the exception of the woolen hat knitted by an authentic Russian grandma who was selling her wares outside the subway station to supplement her nearly nonexistent pension, they all fell apart within a few months.

For more insights on daily Soviet life, I recommend Hedrick Smith’s *The Russians, * as well as the updated version, The New Russians. Smith is a journalist who was based in Russia for a number of years, and the books are a quick and easy read.

My brother visited the old USSR several times in the 60s-70s. He wore jeans at the time and was regularly approached about selling them. IIRC, $200 sounds about right. (In 1970ish dollars.)

Brother in Russia story #271: In 1968, he crossed the border into Finland at the same time Russian tanks were crossing the border into Czechoslovakia.