/ Cory Doctorow / 4 am Sat, Feb 28 2015
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  • Ad-hoc museums of a failing utopia: photos of Soviet shop-windows

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

    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


    Introductory essays for photographic collections often fall flat, but David Hlynsky's brief remarks on the opening pages of Window-Shopping through the Iron Curtain -- a beautifully made hardcover book featuring brilliant, sharp photographic prints -- are nothing less than brilliant.

    In the late 1980s, Hlynsky began to visit the USSR with his Hasselblad, ignoring the overblown warnings about the political risks of street photography, and shot over 8,000 exposures of the last days of the USSR, with an emphasis on its shop windows, which stood (and remain) the most enduring symbol of the ideological difference between Soviet socialism and winner-take-all capitalist consumerism.

    The empty shop window was a lazy, easy way to sketch out the problems of the planned economies of the USSR. A store with nothing to sell -- or better yet, a store with some fresh goods in, marked by a queue snaking out the door and around the block -- was a sure-fire way to make Americans recoil in horror, especially during the 1980s, when mega-malls came to dominate American life and leisure.

    Soviet anti-consumerism simply didn't acknowledge the idea of retail therapy, the notion that shopping could be a sport or a passtime. There was no explosion of goods marked out by tiny differences in their design: "a radio was a radio, milk was milk," and the stern, minimalist, naive shop-windows reflected this reality. In a way, Hlynsky's photos invoke the hanging signs of pre-literate medieval villages: if you sell pens, you put a pen in the window; if you sell underwear, you put a pair of underwear in the window.

    But that wasn't the whole story, of course. The reality of Soviet corruption included a thriving, semi-licit underground in hard-currency goods imported from the west, from the canonical blue jeans and bubblegum to booze and Marlboros. The goods on sale in the licit, open shops were not intended to serve as anything but inert, non-symbolic things. Positional goods and status items and markers of social identity came from the black market and hard-currency stores, and for Hlynsky, the experience of using black-market money-changers led him to discover more about these.

    Our modern world shows a curious convergence with Soviet high streets. As chain stores choke out the mom-and-pop and indie shops on all our cities' streets, the goods on offer wherever you go take on a sameness that is positively Soviet in scope. From Sofia to Leningrad, the same kinds of goods hung in the same kinds of windows. Today, every high street looks like the shopping area at Heathrow Terminal 5: the same major brands, arranged to three-ring-binder house-style perfection, hung in just the same way everywhere.

    The future of retail devotion is up for grabs. With less variety on the street, and with more intense work-schedules than ever, there's hardly any reason to go to a shop anymore, and many of us buy practically everything through an Internet connection today. Will the most capitalistic institutions of this century -- the voracious, remorseless electronic retail giants -- finally abolish retail therapy in the triumphant capitalist world?

    Window-Shopping through the Iron Curtain [David Hlynsky/Thames & Hudson]

    -Cory Doctorow


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