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My understanding of life in the USSR was that both the salaries and living costs were more or less state controlled and fixed with very little variation.

I wanted to ask about the sizes of peoples salaries and how those compared with the living expenses.

Knowing that USSR itself was very large and had a lot of local variation on some living expenses (e.g. perhaps people on the countryside owned their homes and did not pay rent?), approximate ranges or localized examples would be sufficient.

What kind of salaries did people have in USSR in the 1980's and 1990's (before it collapsed) and how was the income allocated between the different expenses (rent, food, transportation, etc)?

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I can share some experience of my own. I lived there from the 1950s to the 1990s.

Salaries (in roubles) slowly increased. In the 70s a worker without special qualification could make about 100 roubles/month. Workers with high qualifications were payed more. An average teacher/doctor made 100-200. My starting salary as a researcher in the early 80s was 130, then it grew (with my rank and qualification) to 200+ in the end of the 80s. A full university professor made 400-500 and this was one of the highest salaries.

Most people rented apartments from the state, at a moderate price (the main problem was availability, not the cost). The price of a 3-room apartment grew from about 10 roubles in 1970s to 20 roubles per month in 1980s. It was possible to rent privately but this was expensive and few people could afford this.

To rent an apartment from the state one had to a) qualify, that is to prove that you had less than 7-9 square meters per person, this norm depended on the city, and b) once you qualified, you were registered, and waited in line, sometimes for 10 years, sometimes more. Factories and other institutions had dormitories, with shared rooms, sometimes small separate rooms and common, shared kitchens and bathrooms. I know some people who lived all their life in these dormitories.

The result was that grown up children frequently lived with their parents and grandparents.

Most of the salary of most people was spent on food. Public transportation was cheap (3-5 copecks, 1 rouble is 100 copecks). A good new TV could cost 300 roubles, and a car several thousand. Nevertheless there was a huge shortage of cars. One could stay in line for many years.

Important notice: medicine and education (on all levels) were free. Moreover, students with good grades were paid a stipend.

All people who worked for the state a sufficient number of years (more than 10 if I remember correctly) qualified for retirement at a certain age, paid by the State. The State also paid for disability benefits.

Of course I do not mention income from illegal business which grew quite a lot, especially in the 80s. For example, US-made jeans was a common item of illegal trade in the 1980th. You could pay 100 roubles for a pair of genuine Levy Strauss or Wrangler, average monthly salary!

  • For comparison, I just bought a pair of Wrangler jeans the other day, at about 15 minutes income for a professional in a tech field. – jamesqf Dec 17 '17 at 4:21
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    This is unfair comparison: jeans were illegally imported items in SU. You will pay a lot in the US for some illegally imported items:-) – Alex Dec 17 '17 at 4:29
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You can find measures of personal income and disposable income in the 1989 CIA paper, USSR: Estimates of Personal Incomes and Savings (I had to look in the Wayback Machine to access the paper). The tables there cover the period 1967-1987.

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A few points in addition to the excellent answer by Alex.

While salaries have gradually risen, prices rose as well, so it is not obvious that the real wages rose in 1960-1980.

The relative salary size was very different from what a Westerner would expect. E.g., workers made more than engineers (ostensibly, "because education is free and the state has to recover the expense"). The low salary of physicians drove medicine to be a largely "female profession". The "skill gradient" was huge: while junior researchers were paid less than workers, professors were paid twice that and Academy members twice again.

The state tried to suppress private enterprise, but "personal services" were really expensive. 1:1 tutoring for college admission started at R5/hour. A visit to a Professor of Medicine, while officially free, would really cost you, and one was expected to "compensate" physicians with presents (joke: a note on a doctor's door: "I don't drink flowers and chocolates"). Privately sown dresses, fixing cars...

Often alcohol was used a currency between individuals, especially when dealing with unskilled labor.

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