Today, the Czech Republic more or less has the same bustling consumer markets that everyone else has. But when the Czech Republic was Czechoslovakia, existing in the economic isolation of a communist regime, there wasn’t a whole lot of selection at the local stores. But there was Tuzex.
Wanting to throw people a bone, the Czechoslovak government introduced the Tuzex shops; A state-run chain of shops where foreign products like booze, cigarettes, vinyls, jeans, and anything else you couldn’t find in the domestic markets.
The communists kind of shot themselves in the foot on that one, because the shops’ products revealed how much better everything was outside of the castle walls, discrediting their narrative about equality and class; Czechs started seeing that they may have all been equal, but some people were more equal than others…
In order to buy stuff from a Tuzex shop, you had to convert money into Tuzex vouchers, also known as Tuzex crowns. In the beginning, the state made it so that you could only buy vouchers with hard money (foreign currencies) as a way to funnel superior currencies like the American dollar into the government’s pockets. These currencies usually made it through the Czech borders from tourism or people working abroad.
The Tuzex shops and their vouchers created a “grey market” of people who smuggled in illegal goods, and shady money changers who converted the vouchers from foreign currencies way above the set market rate. It was a “grey market” because the state was well aware of what was happening but allowed it to go on.
In 1975, the New York Times reported on the Eastern Bloc’s black markets, and quoted one of their “Czech experts” as saying:
“Our black market gives the authorities a big hammer to hold over the heads of anyone with a guilty conscience, it gives the state a continuous flow of hard currency, and it gives the rest of us a better life than we could ever hope to have under real Communist puritanism. So everyone benefits.”
“Someday, socialist righteousness may reassert itself, and a lot of people will go to jail or get shot, especially in Russia. But we’ll worry about it when it happens. Marxist-Leninists are just as keen on the good life as anyone else, and not likely to kill the corrupt goose that lays golden eggs.”
Tuzex shops and the black markets of communism could be viewed as an Achilles’ heel to isolationist, communist regimes; People would rather buy nice things than be “equal.”
Featured archive image: repro from the book Procházka Plzní before 1989, published by Starý most/retrieved via Plzeňský deník