Grade 3-5

Car Shopping in a Command Economy

Updated: October 10 2019,

Contrary to US methods of distribution (namely prices), the Soviet Union used different methods of distribution of its goods during the reign of Communism. This lesson will explore the benefits and consequences of each of those methods of distribution.


Contrary to US methods of distribution (namely prices), the Soviet Union used different methods of distribution of its goods during the reign of Communism. This lesson will explore the benefits and consequences of each of those methods of distribution.

flag [Note to teacher: During Soviet times when cars were very difficult to acquire, the Soviet government used several methods of distribution, often in conjunction with each other, to determine who should receive the cars. Those methods were:

  • command – the government or managers of workplaces decided who was eligible for purchasing a car.
  • majority rule – if there was one car available, at times, the workers would vote for who should be able to buy the car.
  • contests – whoever collects the most coal in a mine, for example, would be eligible to buy a car.
  • force – similar to command, people were told who could and who couldn’t buy a car.
  • first-come/first-served – people would put their names on a waiting-list to buy a car.
  • sharing equally – ideally, the Soviet government would distribute goods this way, but there were never enough goods to distribute. Therefore, they used other methods of distribution.
  • lottery – a manager may choose to use this method to decide who should receive the car
  • personal characteristics – some people were more likely to receive goods than others based on personal characteristics such as being a veteran of war or having a physical disability.
  • other methods – personal gain: a manager may keep the car for himself or sell it to a friend.
  • price – the above methods were used to determine who was eligible to purchase a car, it was still the responsibility of the buyer to pay for it. Therefore, if the consumer could not afford the car, he or she could not buy it.]

Learning Objectives

  • Identify benefits and repercussions of various methods of distributing goods in the Soviet Union.

Resource List


 Activity 1

  1. Print out several sets of the “Biographies” which describe people in the Soviet workforce.
  2.  Divide the students into groups of five.
  3. Give a set of biographies to each group, face down. Tell students to randomly choose one biography and not to look at it.
  4. Describe how cars were difficult to obtain in the Soviet Union and that there were several ways of distributing the cars. Explain that cars were given to factories to be distributed to the workers. Unfortunately, there were never enough cars to give to everyone, so other means of determining who would get the car were used.
  5. Explain to the students that in this role-playing activity, each student will become a Soviet worker in the Osh Silk Factory. This is not the factory’s website but a collection of images of workers and working conditions in the USSR. Have students explore the website and create a list of 10 adjectives which describe how it would feel to work in a factory in the USSR.
  6. Here is a map of the region. Have students refer to the map to identify the location of the Osh Silk Factory and the surrounding cities which are referred to in the 5 biographies.
  7. A lottery has decided that these are the five finalists in deciding who will be able to buy the one car available. Click to see the car they can buy. Students will refer to this particular vehicle later in the lesson.
  8. Assign each group a method of distribution:
    • command and force
    • personal characteristics
    • majority rule
    • contests
  9. In their group, the students have to describe their biographies to each other and use the assigned method of distribution to determine who can buy the car.
  10. Reconvene as a group and reflect on the following questions:
    1. What method of distribution seemed most fair?
    2. Who do you think deserved to have the car?
    3. How do you think having a car would affect each of their lives?
    4. What other methods of distribution do you think would be better?
    5. Which method of distribution would best benefit each of the workers? Why?
      • Maria? [lottery: she would not do well in any other method of distribution]
      • Valentina? [majority rule: everybody loves Valentina, especially Igor]
      • Sergei? [contest: he is a very fast at work]
      • Ivan? [force: he is the manager in charge]
      • Igor? [personal characteristics: he is a war hero and is well-liked]
    6. Did seeing the the size of the car on the website influence your decision?


  1. How would you fare if buying a car in the Soviet Union? What method of distribution would work best for you? Why?
  2. How would not having a car affect your life? What changes would you need to make?
  3. Not everyone was honest when trying to buy a car in the Soviet Union. Do you think you would “play fair” when attempting to buy a car there?

Extension Activity

Using the National Geographic map of Kyrgyzstan, have students determine how much they would spend on gasoline to visit the following cities:

  • Osh to Kyzyl-Kyya [about 50 miles, 1 2/3 gallons, 1 Ruble, 1 Dollar]
  • Osh to Ozgon [about 30 miles, 1 gallon, 60 Kopecks, 60 cents]
  • Osh to Bishkek [about 200 miles, 6 2/3 gallons, 4 Rubles, 4 Dollars]
  • Osh to Karakol [about 360 miles, 12 gallons, 7 Rubles and 20 Kopecks, $7.20]
  • Osh to Suluktu [about 200 miles, 6 2/3 gallons, 4 Rubles, 4 Dollars]

This activity is based on economic information from the 1980s. The car drives 30 miles to the gallon and gasoline which costs 60 Kopecks per gallon. There are 100 Kopecks to the Ruble and one ruble is approximately equal to one dollar.