Window Shopping in the (Former) Soviet Empire

I shop comfortably, mindlessly, compulsively; sometimes purposefully; often in a daze. I scrutinize merchandise with the privilege and prejudice of a Westerner. Consumption is my cultural responsibility and patriotic duty. This cornucopia is my birthright and I understand it well. Shopping synchronizes my heartbeat with the rhythms of industry. It teaches me my place in the social hierarchy. It initiates me into my many temporary tribes. Watching television is shopping just as reading the news is shopping. Meeting people is shopping. Travel is shopping. Shopping is choosing a momentary self out of a ceaseless catalog of disposable identities.

To not shop is to not pay attention.

Between 1986 and 1990, I made approximately 8,000 color, Hasselblad images on the streets of Communist Europe. I purposely avoided dramatic moments and newsworthy events. In a cityscape without commercial seduction, banality seemed to signify everything. At first I was interested in simple pedestrian traffic. Later I doggedly documented store windows. These seemed to signify the real difference between East and West. Without the garish ad campaigns of the West, these streets felt more neutral... devoid of trumped up and pumped up urgency.

If I had been born in Eastern Europe in the middle of the 20th Century I might have read these windows more pragmatically; perhaps even critically. But in the dying days of the Cold War I saw a vast, ad hoc museum of a great failing utopia. The Socialist dream had been made fragile by a simple but terminal misreading of human desire. Suddenly in 1990 this museum closed without fanfare or notice. History rightly marks that moment by what was born rather than by what fell away... but what did fall away?.

Once upon a time in the Cold War we tempted global suicide over the content of our respective shop windows. Perhaps this is too simplistic. Dramatists called it a fight for freedom. But that seems like a line from a Disney trailer, too. As it happens, the East collapsed not because it was "evil" but because its own marketplace of ideas and things finally ran out of promise. For now at least... and for better or worse, Free Enterprise has proven itself one of the grandest freedom of all. Eastern windows are already filling with the Western simulacrum... a new utopia built out of flash and seduction. But the East Bloc windows I photographed were far from bankrupt. Yes, they were unpretentious, naive and seemed ironic. But they also contained an inventory of our most common human needs. That alone ought to have brought us together. — David Hlynsky