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David Hlynsky – Window-shopping through the iron curtain
Belgrade, Yugoslavia, 1989, NightclubCourtesy of Thames & Hudson

Shopping and the Soviet Union

A cross section of Communist and consumerism – browse the shop windows that sold everything from breast pumps in Budapest to selfies in Yugoslavia

The 69 year-long reign of the Soviet Union and what went on within it has always held a certain fascination for those (some say, lucky enough) to have existed outside of it. The reality of life behind the Iron Curtain in its final decades is polarised against scenes happening in cities around the world at the same time. Although, the influence of places like New York and London was far from lost on the Soviet state, it was instead hidden – Western currency and goods were traded (American denim smuggling was rife throughout) and held a higher value than its East Bloc conversion. Photographer and writer David Hlynsky’s new book Window-Shopping Through the Iron Curtain is a collection of images documenting the crossover between Communist and the consumerism at the time.

Shot on his Hasselblad between 1986 and 1990 across multiple trips to Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, East Germany, and Moscow, Hlynsky documented the shop windows, his photographs reveal an array of the everyday essential items sold at the time – from bars of soap bricked up high to sex selling juice. Drawn to the city’s lack of ‘visual seduction’ (“banality seemed to signify everything,” he reveals on his website), he found them intriguing – even calming and relaxing – in contrast to the Western streets and their corresponding shop windows, crammed full of branding, consumerism and advertising. With the Union dissolving in 1991, the shop windows have had plenty of time to play catch up with their Western counterparts, but Hlynsky’s book is a refreshing immortalisation of a now-lost time. Below, we speak with him to find out more.

What was it that sparked your interest to shoot these windows?

David Hlynsky: The colour palette of the entire cityscape startled me at first and I couldn't understand why. After a while, I realised that it was a cityscape that lacked the bright, new colours of the advertising industry. Western cityscapes are sprinkled (sometimes obsessively) with moments of visual seduction; sales pitches for products and services. There was almost none of this behind the Iron Curtain.

In spite of myself and against my own expectations, these streets felt calm and relaxed. These windows seemed so practical and unobtrusive. I discovered that the naiveté of these windows was refreshing to me. I realised that it was also frustrating to some of my fellow pedestrians. I took pictures to discover why.

In the opening pages you talk about the fascination with Western currency, could you explain that a bit more?

David Hlynsky: East Bloc currencies were seen as practically worthless in the West. It was easy to see that Western currency could buy Western goods, and Western goods were infused with fantasies of material success, sensual comfort and quality. Did American blue jeans feel better, fit better or last longer? That's a subjective question. But what was true was that many younger people felt sexier in American blue jeans. Why? It's because the advertising in Western media promised that they would. It's the old adage of selling the sizzle and not the steak. Government is always in the job of creating a culture fantasy.

Compare the North Korean mass dancing spectacles with the Super Bowl halftime show. Both unify their respective populations under illusions of unlimited prosperity. Western currency circulating in East Bloc streets threatened to bring too many Western goods into the underground marketplace thus exposing the game itself. But outright repression of Western goods couldn't work either because it was just too difficult to enforce.  Remember that East and West Berlin shared the same air, water wind and radio waves. And mass migrations following both World Wars forced millions of families to straddle the political divides.

How have the window displays changed?

David Hlynsky: The windows are gradually and increasingly more familiar to Western pedestrians. This is partly due to the influx of Western franchises and entrepreneurs. But it is also due to a sincere internal desire to join the Western materialist celebration. As the windows are filled with ready made advertising, the more naive displays are vanishing. Enterprise becomes more about corporate identity (brands) and less about personal endorsement.

And the general attitude to consumerism, particularly from outside sources such as the UK and US, since you were shooting these in the 80s?

David Hlynsky: I strongly feel that the collapse of the Soviet Empire gave Western populations and governments the green light to move further to the right. Free trade and multinational mega-corporations have now erased much of the labour movement and bought up much of the small family owned business. Ironically this threatens to lead us to a kind of corporate totalitarianism where every suburb is made from the same few dozen franchises.  We are now free to become a monoculture. We should be wary of the trend. It can become as sleepy and repressive as anything we imagined the East to be.

What is your favourite window from the book?

David Hlynsky: I have many favourites for many different reasons. Three loaves of bread… the Juice window… Yin Yang Taylor.  But the one I find most mysterious, beautiful and telling is the Vase with Small Shoes. I have to ask myself what this could possibly mean to the clerk who designed it? Perhaps that humans are humbled by the simple grace of natural things. And why would anyone usurp commercial space with such a simple spiritual message? This window seems to be a secular shrine to humble values that ought to unite us all. In any case, I felt a magical kinship with the artist who arranged these objects together. And this kinship ran against the prevailing propaganda on both sides.

If you had your own window back then, what would you sell?

David Hlynsky: Books, paper, pens, music, cameras, art supplies… anything to further self expression.  And that goes for a shop in the West, too… the tools of imagination, creativity and voice.

Window-shopping through the Iron Curtain is available now from Thames & Hudson, click here for more information. Check out Hlynsky’s personal site for more on the project