Ad-hoc museums of a failing utopia: photos of Soviet shop-windows

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Photographer David Hlynsky took more than 8,000 street photos in the Eastern Bloc, documenting the last days of ideological anti-consumer shopping before the end of the USSR

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The hard currency was not the only thing that the informal economy was for. Barter, and access to regular (but shortaged) goods was thriving.

If you had a skill that was in demand, and in shortage on the official market, you had an advantage. If you were known as a TV repairman or a plumber, you had a better position for bargaining; people who ran state-owned (but people-run) shops kept the better pieces of meat or vegetables (or consumer goods) “under the table” for people like you. And vice versa. The network of relations where the official market sucks but you could get goods if you knew the right people and had what to offer (and if you had what to offer and wasn’t asshole about it you had a good chance to be known as friend-of-a-friend) was the glue that kept the society together.

There were money. But there weren’t goods.

The distinct advantage was that people had to have more time for informal relations, for each other and their families; money was not as much the choke point as it is now. You couldn’t consume so much and the cost of living was way lower. Local economy “experts” are 'splaining us now how expensive the life was back then, calculating price of bread against average (not median!) wage, not against disposable income after subtracting rent and utilities (which went WAY up); the attempt is to counter the people’s memory of “cheaper life”.

The social aspect is important to understand the Real Socialism inner functionality.

I don’t remember everything as I was just a kid for most of the time, but this is what I’d suggest as the rough direction for future inquiries.

Also, a story regarding queues. From Moscow (or so), where a gang of engineers was sent to install some equipment.

Part of the group was waiting for the rest of the group, in a small crowd in front of an almost-finished building of a new shopping center. Some native walked around, and asked what they did get (what goods were available in the store, assuming that the ones waiting are waiting for it to open).

The engineers immediately decrowded and formed a line and one of them said, “carpets”.

The line then steadily grew.

After a while, the rest of the group arrived, and the engineers left. The queue was still there in the evening.


From Sofia to Leningrad?! Sofia is not and never was a city of the USSR or Russia. Check your facts and correct the post.

And the justification for an overwhelming availability of choice of goods from various and sometimes dubious producers is “shopping therapy”? What about quality and the production of goods to last for decades, as opposed to produced to break-down and consume more? Knowing that you have three types of bread to choose from and the products to bake your own variation was rather soothing as compared to today’s bombardment of bread types full of all sorts of additives and the necessity to spend a lifetime in testing out different products from different makes just to find out which one is the quality product to fit you.

Simplicity and minimalism were not a bad thing to mock. And the abundance of products which brings with it the abundance of fakes, low-quality and trickery is not to be praised. People back then had money to buy the things they need and they had a limited choice of proven quality stuff. Today they don’t have the money to buy any of the readily available myriads of low-quality junk stuffed down the throat of consumer-society through advertisement, promises of “therapeutical effect of shopping” and “oh, your neighbour has the latest iPod, so should you.”

All matter-of-fact-ly life was simpler and people were not living on credit, buried in debt. Life was humane.


There was very definitely a consumer culture under socialism – all of the Eastern Bloc countries had special shops that sold Western goods for hard currency, because the elites didn’t want to wear the crappy socialist polyester clothing or have poorly made socialist TVs that constantly broke down. Even among the common people, getting a pair of Levi jeans (via the black market, or from a Western tourist) was a big deal.

You ninja’d me on the Sofia nitpick. Bulgaria was a member of the Warsaw Pact, and a Communist country though, but yeah, never a member of the U.S.S.R.

Also, I was going to quip that the pictures Cory selected hardly seem like “stern and minimalist” displays. They look quite warm and welcoming, to me anyway.


We had two Russian made TV sets (one color and one black and white) which would still work 40 years later if turned on. Never broke down for 40 years. The clothes were cotton, wool and no different from quality apparel today. Our Russian refrigerator lasted for 40 years and never broke down even once, and lasted well until the day we threw it away to be replaced with a western-brand made in China which broke just a few years later. Some households still use their Russian made refrigerators in their home. The original 1980’s products. Imagine that? You are so very wrong thinking that Russians preferred Western brands for the quality. Nothing breaks like a capitalist’s product aimed at a consumer society. And nothing lasts like that which is produced by people who lived in scarcity.

Did you ever own a Russian made tech from new, to claim how it breaks down. Or did you ever shop the clothing you claim the “elite” thought was crappy plastic?

Anything forbidden is going to always to be the big deal in obtaining, be it a pair of Levi’s in USSR or a Cuban cigar in USA. That is if one craves that sort of thing.


Quite warm and beautiful in their simplicity, that’s how they look to me too. Zen garden like, if you will. Those were times when there were certain values in life, and people could appreciate the simple things back then.


Yep. People are remembering the greyness of the streets. In comparison with the advertising-saturated bright and loudly colorful ones, sometimes even with large LED matrix advertising screens that are bright enough to illuminate a sports stadium, it sounds like a not-so-bad alternative.

As a kid I used to scavenge parts for electronics from discarded TV sets and other stuff. I learned the essentials of mechanical design by observation. Then the revolution came, the floodgates opened, and the shiny Western goods with modern designs flew in - and I saw that they are shiny on the outside and cheap thin plastic and underrated parts inside. And failure modes that are all the same theme; one part (“screwupper”) that dies before the others, whether an underrated mechanical one (plastic pinion against a stamped-metal rack, where the rack cuts a groove in the pinion) or an underrated electronic one (two words: capacitor plague, or the switching transistors in power supplies).

And it got worse since due to the cost-cutting disease that even the formerly reliable brands got. Sony and your ilk, I am looking at YOU.

To be fair, the Russian goods had quite high “infant mortality”. But the ones that survived the burn-in phase usually survived everything else.


Dunno man, I visited St. Petersburg in late 1991 and I found it a bit shocking from someone who had grown up in a different culture.

For example, I went into a department store and when shop assistants saw me coming, they went into the back to avoid having to serve me, only coming out again when I had left. Not sure what’s so humane about that. And they had this bizarre system where you had to wait in a minimum of 3 (three!) different lines just to purchase anything. Also, I learned that it was a really big deal when you could find eggs in the shop. EGGS! I could go on.

Nothing against your heritage and I’m glad you enjoyed that society, but to be honest because of that and many other things that happened to me, I left Russia feeling grateful that I hadn’t grown up there.


Sounds like many brick and mortar chain stores in the USA. And no, “humane” is not how I would describe how we treat our workers either.


Really? Well I can’t recall that ever happening to me in the US. Maybe I didn’t go to the right neighborhoods.

Except for oil, caviar, and to a degree military technology (although typically that was heavily subsidized for pro-Soviet governments), basically nothing from the Soviet Union and associated countries was competitive on the open market. Russian cars like the Lada were briefly imported into Western countries but their poor craftmanship and dirty emissions did not make them successful.

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They were the preferred choice of car for taxi companies in Carlisle for a while, I wouldn’t be surprised if it was the same in other British towns.

So, so humane.

Choice is such a terrible thing.


Many Eastern Bloc tractors were operating in Finland. They had and maybe still have enough cult following to have a dedicated bar in Helsinki.

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Humane, in terms of working to live instead of living to work. More actual (and actually used) vacation time than the “free” US workers can even dream about, less overtime, more time for family and friends (and more of friends’ time for you), along these lines. Less of a rat race.

What’s a bigger TV worth if you have to watch it alone?


Of course. Who needs civil liberties when you have more vacation time?

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What are civil liberties good for when you have to slave away to pay the mortgage and don’t have time to actually enjoy them?


Are you literally arguing that leisure is more important than civil rights?


Who has civil liberties?