In all the years of official Soviet-American exchange programs, consumer groups have been conspicuously absent. Musicians, legislators, corporation executives, farmers, jurists, scientists, physicians, athletes, mayors, writers, governors, industrial specialists, religious and ethnic leaders and even labor union chiefs (most have declined) have been invited to visit the Soviet Union. But not representatives of consumer action groups. It is rather puzzling — the Soviet Union courts the moguls of big business in the United States royally, but shows no interest in even facilitating a visit of consumer group leaders. Many a multinational corporate executive has narrated tales of sumptuous dinner with caviar and toasts by their Soviet hosts. Many a time have the wine glasses clicked between communist commissars and capitalist merchants in jovial moods following the shaping of a business deal.
THE EMPHASIS IN the Soviet Union has been production of equipment and products font heavy industry. Consumption problems of the people have received little high level policy action and less theoretical analysis. However, consumer dissatisfaction is on the minds of Soviet leaders and the Soviet press because it is considered a key index of public morale that is not to be pushed to the breaking point.
Recently, a government decree calling for new steps to deal with “serious deficiencies at stores, restaurants and other service establishments” was published in Pravda. The problem is not new. For many years, Soviet satirical journals like Krokodil have printed searing cartoons about the notoriously indifferent service in retail outlets and the legendary long lines of patient Russian consumers. Shoddy merchandise has also come in for its share of criticism by Soviet commentators or satirists.
The official decree indicated some of these problems that irritate consumers — crowded stores, long lines, discourteous service and waiting lists for scarce items. Apparently, residents of towns outside of Moscow often travel for hours to the Capital to obtain canned milk, fruit or eggs because they are unavailable locally. Clothing quality has been a serious problem as well as appliance breakdowns.
What seems to be absent is any organized consumer feedback and action. Individual complaints on specific items OK, but not any organized effort toward improving the process from the retail outlets back to production facilities. That is why there could some assistance from U.S. consumer groups whose experience with General Motors, Sears, Safeway, and Citibank could come in handy. Russian consumers no doubt do not have
to worry about credit card problems or the loss of their life savings due to the costs of a catastrophic illness. Nonetheless, there are approaches to consumer justice and consumer power in different economies which could be communicated. Regardless of ideologies, sellers in all countries tend to disadvantage buyers who are not informed and equipped with rights and remedies.
IMAGINE WHAT SOME seasoned tenant organizers from New York could tell the long suffering Russian apartment dweller. Or, what the organizers of the meat boycott a few years ago could relate to food consumers in Leningrad or Kiev. American consumer activists would learn something also — about the remarkably low price of books and other educational materials, the efficient service of the subways and the standards testing work that is going on there. They would learn how many consumer product hazards simply do not exist in Russia because the production and advertising machines have never been able to produce and sell them.
It would be particularly interesting to see how consumer grievances are settled and td learn whether there is any possibility of consumers organizing to protect their interests vis a vis sellers.
So what do you say, Soviet Union: consumers of the world unite, all you have to lose is the laxity of the producers?