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Through the Back Door

The Black Market in Poland 1944–1989


Jerzy Kochanowski

This book analyzes the history of the black market in Poland before the 1940s and the development of black-market phenomena in post-war Poland. The author evaluates the interrelation between black-market phenomena and historical and geographical conditions. At first, the black market stabilized the system by making it more flexible and creating a margin of freedom, albeit in the short term. In the long run, the informal economic activities of the people ran counter to and undermined the official ideology of the state. The author concludes that in post-war Poland, owing to a singular coincidence of historical, political, economic and social factors, the second economy had its own unique character and an endemic presence that loomed large in the Soviet Bloc.

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7. Gasoline


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7.  Gasoline

Automobiles and, as a result, the fuel that they ran on were probably the leading commodities traded on the black market in the Soviet Bloc countries. The mass prevalence of the automobile as a private means of transportation did not arrive there until decades later than in the capitalist world; this delayed gratification only reinforced the symbolic status of car ownership. Unlike in the West, where the automotive industry had long been considered the motor of the economy, and where a brand-new car was available for less than the average annual wage, in the countries behind the Iron Curtain it was a truly onerous endeavor to buy a vehicle and the coveted goal considerably more expensive, often involving a multiple of the Western price. Prospective buyers had to commit themselves to long-time money-saving, often taking a second job and making numerous sacrifices. In the Eastern bloc shortage economy, the automobile was not a commodity that was universally accessible. “To buy a car in Eastern Europe,” wrote the British journalist Roger Boyes, “you need the patience of a Franciscan monk, a pocket full of dollars or the sixth sense of a horse trader. Sometimes – all three.”882

In the Soviet Bloc countries, the government aspired to a tight grip on the carefully managed automotive market. The commodity was allocated on the basic of a complex system of formal and informal rationing aided by priority lists, car coupons and individual allocations based...

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