Moscow, 1990 (©2015 David Hlynsky)

Window display of uniforms in Moscow, 1990 (all images © 2015 David Hlynsky and courtesy Thames & Hudson unless otherwise noted)

“In a cityscape largely without commercial seduction, the banality of the shop windows underscored a real cultural difference between East and West,” photographer David Hlynsky writes in his introduction to Window-Shopping Through the Iron CurtainThe new book out this month from Thames & Hudson includes more than 100 shots of window displays taken between 1986 and 1990 in Communist Europe.

Cover of ‘Window-Shopping Through the Iron Curtain’ (click to enlarge)

The American-born, Toronto-based Hlynsky took about 8,000 photographs in East Germany, Moscow, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Poland, and Bulgaria, concentrating on details of everyday life. This included the rather somber store windows, where a simple abstract ham hints at a butcher, or a pair of shoes dwarfed by a giant vase of flowers suggests more footwear indoors. A trio of bread loaves before a lace curtain has a restrained domesticity without being quite clear about what is sold. Nowhere are prices advertised.

With his Hasselblad camera, Hlynsky focused on the subdued commercial life in the Communist countries, where people needed and wanted to buy things but the Capitalist fervor of shopping in the West and its aggressive displays were absent. There are creative touches in the shop windows, like pajamas seemingly posed in-flight in Budapest, or simple wooden chairs and folded napkins at a table for a Yugoslavian restaurant. All of the displays are from the end of the Cold War, leading up to and right after the fall of the Berlin Wall, when the Iron Curtain was already crumbling to outside influences. The muted colors and sometimes bleak displays are reminders of the often limited availability of products in these countries at the time, but also are calm captures of the daily lives of an era of isolation that was already opening.

Pages from ‘Window-Shopping Through the Iron Curtain’ (photo of the book by the author for Hyperallergic)

Krakow, Poland, 1989

Bulgaria, 1989

Krakow, Poland, 1989

Moscow, 1990

Moscow, 1990

Pages from ‘Window-Shopping Through the Iron Curtain’ (photograph of the book by the author for Hyperallergic)

Moscow, 1990

Budapest, 1989

Yugoslavia 1989

Krakow, Poland, 1988

Moscow, 1990

Moscow, 1990

Yugoslavia, 1989

Prague, 1988

Window-Shopping Through the Iron Curtain by David Hlynsky is available from Thames & Hudson.

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Allison Meier

Allison C. Meier is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Oklahoma, she has been covering visual culture and overlooked history for print...

2 replies on “The Bleak Banality of Shopping in Communist Europe”

  1. I
    liked the shop windows in Poland while I lived there, especially at
    Christmas time. The shop windows were all lit up with lights and tinsel.
    I really appreciated the lack of advertisements and commericals- it
    made the holidays feel very special in a personal way.

  2. Many memories. Good riddance of the Communists, but beware the Socialists on the march today….especially in USA!

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