Russia Overtaking USSR, Converging With West, On Food, Housing Consumption

Just to hammer down the myth of Russian impoverishment one more time (with the help of graphs from Sergey Zhuravlev’s blog)…

In the past few years, in terms of basic necessities (food, clothing, housing) Russia has basically (re)converged to where the Soviet Union left off. Here is a graph of food consumption via Zhuravlev. At the bottom, the dark blue line is represents meat; the yellow, milk; the blue line, vegetables; the pink line, fish; the cyan line, fruits and berries; and azure line, sugar and sweets. At the top, the purple line are bread products, and the dark blue/green line are potatoes.

Meat consumption has essentially recovered to late Soviet levels, although it still lags considerably behind Poland, Germany, and other more prosperous carnivorous cultures. Milk fell and hasn’t recovered, but that is surely because it was displaced in part by fruit juices and soft drinks (which isn’t to say that’s a good thing – but not indicative of poverty either), and the fall in sugar consumption is surely a reflection of the near doubling of fruit consumption. We also see that bread and potato consumption peaked in the 1990’s, especially in the two periods of greatest crisis – the early 1990’s, and 1998. This is what we might expect of inferior goods like bread and potatoes.

There is a broadly similar story in housing construction. The chart left shows the annual area (in m2) constructed by 1,000 people. As we can see, after holding steady from the mid 1950’s to the late 1980’s, it more than halved by the late 1990’s; since then, however, construction has recovered almost to Soviet levels, the recent crisis barely making a dint.

Note that during the Soviet period, however, there were tons of peasants migrating into the cities, whereas today the urban population is more or less stable (after having declined by about 5 million). In general, mass housing construction once it got started in the 1950’s was one of the overlooked but significant achievements of the Soviet era – this, along with population migration controls, allowed urban Russia to avoid the slums you see even in relatively rich Third World places like Mexico or Thailand today. Nonetheless, apartments were cramped, and there were long waiting lines; while prices might be high today, the rationing in the Soviet period was just as real – it just took the form of scarcity and long queues. Today a big chunk of the new construction involves knocking down and replacing the Soviet-era housing stock with better buildings.

As shown in the graph above, also compiled by Sergey Zhuravlev, Russian consumption of food products, meat, fish, milk, and fruit was by 2008 essentially equal to US and West European levels. (Consumption of tobacco and alcohol is unfortunately significantly higher). But spending on clothing, housing, furniture, healthcare, transport, holidays, and restaurants is below 50% of US levels, even after accounting for price differences. (The situation vis-a-vis Western Europe is slightly better). On the one hand, this means that whereas Russians now have full bellies, the country still lags on life’s perks and luxuries – most especially on restaurants and holidays. On the other hand, it may well presage strong growth in the years to come.

The final graph shows the housing area constructed in 2012 per 1,000 people (red, upper axis), and the total number of apartments built per 1,000 residents (green, lower axis). Much maligned Belarus emerges as the star performer, building more housing than any other country listed. Whatever one’s thoughts on Lukashenko’s rule but this along with its (surprisingly good) overall relative economic performance should give one pause before insisting on privatization and deregulation as a sine qua non of socio-economic development. Russia is second after Belarus, followed by Kazakhstan; Poland; Slovakia; Denmark; Uzbekistan (also a socialist economy albeit a very poor one); Azerbaijan; Ukraine; Hungary; Estonia; Latvia; Armenia; Bulgaria; Lithuania; Moldova; Kyrgyzstan; Tajikistan.

This is part of a long list of basic indicators on which Russia in the past few years on which Russia has either caught up with (e.g. life expectancy) or far exceeded (e.g. automobile ownership) Soviet levels.


  1. All of this is extremely good news. In so far as it shows how far Russia still has to go it also shows why for the next decade at least economic growth will surely remain strong.

    On the subject of slums in countries like Mexico, Thailand and elsewhere you should also include Greece (specifically parts of Athens). If you consider Istanbul a European city (I don’t) then you should include that too.

    • I sometimes feel you’re rather too harsh on your country Alex! 🙂

      I Googled Athens slums and found this, for instance. Those are not slums. They are just derelict and dirty urban areas. There are tons of these in Russia. And in America too for that matter.

      When I hear “slums” I think of shit flowing down the streets; dwellings jerry rigged out of corrugated sheets and scraps of tarp; midden heaps in the middle of the streets; land belonging to nobody and liable to seizure without recompense by developers; not infrequently, no go areas to law enforcement.

      You still tons of these in Third World areas like India and Africa, though they are becoming less frequent – though they still exist – in richer Third World places like Mexico, Thailand, Turkey. In both Greece and Russia however I doubt there is a single instance of truly Third World slums (as described above).

  2. Mark Sleboda says:

    In which Anatoly flips from “The Soviet Economy – Charting Failure” to 20 years later the Capitalist economy of the Russian Federation is almost back on a par on the consumption of basic foodstuffs and housing as in the USSR, with your added reflection, that the almost unreformed state economy of Belarus is still surpassing Russia and most of the rest of the former Soviet Union on a number of key socio-economic indicators. 🙂
    Can’t say I’m not glad to see it, but sometimes Anatoly you drive me crazy.

    • That is because I look at issues multi-dimensionally Mark.

      (1) The quality of the food and housing consumption basket is undeniably a lot higher now than in the USSR.

      (2) My criticisms of the Soviet economy wasn’t that it didn’t provide the basics, at least from the 50’s or so, but that:
      (a) Living standards remained far behind the developed world, whereas today they appear to be on a sustainable convergence path.
      (b) The observation that had the pre-Revolutionary, or even the NEP model, been preserved (i.e. markets continued to exist) – then Russia could have converged to developed country living standards.