What goods from East Germany could Soviet people buy - and where?

Russia Beyond (Photo: Boris Losin, Viktor Khomenko/Sputnik)
Back in the day, East Germany was the USSR’s biggest partner. It supplied the country with everything from electronic equipment and furniture to chemical products and fabrics. However, actually finding these goods on store shelves was a different matter entirely. 

The Soviet Union maintained strong trade relations with other socialist countries. According to the USSR State Committee on Statistics, from 1946 to 1989, the socialist bloc accounted for 52.7-83.1 percent of the country's foreign trade turnover. Moscow's main partner was GDR (German Democratic Republic).

Where could you buy goods from East Germany?

Beryozka store in Sochi

Imported goods were sold at ‘Beryozka’ stores, which appeared in the early 1960s. They were supposed to provide the Soviet Union with foreign currency, and so were intended for foreigners coming into the country. Beryozkas sold items of higher quality compared with ordinary retail outlets. These goods - which were supposed to demonstrate the country's high living standards - were either produced abroad or made in the USSR for export.

Soviet citizens working abroad - diplomats, members of the military, journalists - were officially allowed to shop in Beryozka stores. In this way the state encouraged them not to spend hard currency on business trips abroad, but to bring it back home. Such stores sold their goods not for cash, but for special certificates or checks that became a commodity in their own right, on the black market. Speculators would buy them from legitimate holders and resell them at a higher price.

Beryozka in Leningrad

It was a similar situation with goods bought at Beryozka outlets. They ended up in commission stores specializing in second-hand goods - electronics, clothes and other items. The product range of these shops was also enhanced by the few citizens who managed to travel abroad: some people brought along clothes they had bought in a rush during a trip abroad - and that didn't fit, while others bought things specially for reselling at home. Occasionally even goods from West German trickled in here as well. To manage to buy imported goods in a "komissionka" (as commission stores were known colloquially), people needed connections among the sales assistants. They also had to know the speculators themselves - the latter often sold their goods without intermediaries.

'Leipzig' store in Moscow

Ordinary Soviet citizens could also try their luck at the ‘Leipzig’ - a branch of GUM, the country's main department store, in Moscow. Goods from East Germany were mainly sold there, while similar stores - the Polish ‘Wanda’, Bulgarian ’Sofia’, Yugoslav ‘Jadran’ and Hungarian ‘Budapest’ - sold items produced in other socialist countries. People also often learned about the deliveries of particular goods through acquaintances and, on the day the product was to go on sale, they’d try to arrive in the shop early to avoid the queues.

What could you actually buy?

A special attraction for visitors to the ’Leipzig’ was a model railroad in a glass case -  crowds of children and adults would gather around it when it was about to start up. The model was assembled from PIKO parts, and a train by this manufacturer was the  dream of many Soviet children. The luckiest ones assembled whole collections with tracks, points, level crossings, signals, stations, bridges, houses, tunnels and a mat depicting the surrounding landscape. 

Chief seller in Leipzig's toy department

German dolls - which differed from Soviet ones in appearance, materials and features - were particularly treasured possessions for young girls. In some families that could afford to buy one, it was not the done thing to take the doll outdoors or even play with it much - it sufficed to get it out and merely admire it.

The list of toys from East Germany that were accessible to Soviet children also included the ‘Grosblock’ construction kit, rubber figures of “Cowboys and Indians” and a variety of model vehicles, made with a high degree of detail - tractors, lift trucks, fire engines, police cars, garbage trucks, fuel tankers, dump trucks, lorries, ambulances and submarines. Some of them were modeled on East German vehicles, such as Volkspolizei cars, while others copied Soviet models, such as the GAZ-21 Volga. Some of them could be operated by a handset, while others had an inertia-powered motor: you pulled the car backwards, released it and it would move forward by itself. 

Barkas-1000 car model

Adults bought clothes at the ‘Leipzig’, including stockings, tights, leather coats, gloves, bags, footwear and other items. The shop was noted, among other things, for its fine underwear, and lingerie in particular. According to the reminiscences of individuals who were around at the time, when the petticoats first appeared on the Soviet market, local girls were so taken by their beauty that they would mistake them  for dresses and wear them as an item of wardrobe in their own right. Cosmetics were also imported from the GDR: there was ‘Odorex’ - one of the first deodorants in the USSR, and a little later - ‘Nezhny’, ‘Terpky’ and ‘Svezhy’ - made by a company by the name of ‘Florena’, and shaving foam and soap from the same manufacturer, as well as creams and perfumes.

The ‘Madonna’ china service was an object of particular pride for Soviet families. Although the USSR manufactured its own china, the output of GDR factories was valued particularly highly - not only because of its quality, but also its opulent decoration in a style unfamiliar to people in the Soviet Union. The services made by the German firm ‘Kahla’, decorated with semi-clad women in light and diaphanous draperies, and ornamented with abundant gilding, stood out when compared with Soviet-made ones. As it happens, "Madonna" was how they were dubbed in the USSR - the East Germans used other names. These services were reserved only for special occasions - the rest of the time they were arranged on the shelves of display cabinets. 

Soap bars from GDR

Furniture in more well-to-do families could also be made in the GDR: the Helga cabinet was a real hit, for one.

Some music lovers also had a little bit of Germany at home. Electrical equipment manufactured in the GDR included not just food mixers and other kitchen appliances, but also tape recorders. The company ‘Grundig’ (from West Germany) even made an appearance in Soviet cinema: One of the protagonists in the movie ‘Beware of the Car’ (1966) sells a Grundig tape recorder in a commission shop. Musical instruments were also made in East Germany - for instance, ‘Musima’ guitars. It was fashionable to decorate them with transfers - also GDR ones - depicting flags, electronic equipment and glamorous portraits of German actresses, singers and presenters.

Musical instruments from GDR in Leipzig

Interest in these items survives to this day: Russian online marketplaces publish listings for sideboards, postcards, stickers, cosmetics and even clothes from the GDR, while collectors and retro enthusiasts continue to be on the lookout for toys, china and figurines from that era. 

Monkey plush toy

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