Abstract: Resilient Dependents: Scale and Control in the Retail History of Socialist Eastern Europe

Patrick Patterson


Examining sources from four comparatively East European countries (Yugoslavia, Hungary, East Germany, and Czechoslovakia), this study analyzes the durability of small-scale retailing alongside much-vaunted, attention-grabbing experiments in "modern" store design. State planners and enterprise managers laid heavy emphasis on the importance of the large department store and the supermarket (and on self-service more generally) as institutions that could be imported to the socialist context without major threats to socialist values. The new rhetoric of modernization put small stores in an uncomfortable position: if pronouncements about the wave of the future were to be believed, then implicitly these small-scale outlets were essentially relics, dragging down the national economy with their inefficiency and "backwardness." If they were not to be ignored entirely (as was sometimes the case), such contradictions had to be reconciled, if possible. The presentation explores, in economic, political, and cultural terms, the trajectories of these small-scale retailing forms, emphasizing both the tensions that they encountered and the possible reasons for their persistence (including, for example, state subsidization of less productive small units, the lack of capital for investment in the new grand-scale models, consumer expectations, bureaucratic inertia, and connections to the urban-services and provisioning logics of state socialism).