The perception of Communism–particularly coming from the US, the global capital of red-baiting–is one of deprivation. Life under Marxist-Leninist command economy is miserable, repressive, defined by scarcity, and above all, drab. Those who could escape forced collectivizations had to deal with the more quotidian, grinding horror of state-enforced tedium.
That’s the message echoed in a title like “The Bleak Banality of Shopping in Communist Europe.” A piece that was recently shared with me by a fellow Amerikanka, the article highlights a new photobook, Window-Shopping through the Iron Curtain, detailing the lives of consumers within the Soviet bloc.
However, looking at the actual photos, it looks less like the hellish drudgery one might expect from Communism’s reputation. Instead of bleak banality, the photos look beautiful, in a very contemporary way. Shopping in Communism looks more like something out of one of Wes Anderson’s wet dreams.
The above picture from Yugoslavia is evocative of the Communist-era aesthetic highlighted by the book. There are some shared elements that pop up throughout the Eastern bloc countries: basic neutral tones, minimalism, intricate craftsmanship, and a few visually appealing organic elements. Like in this photo from Poland, 1988:
If this aesthetic looks familiar, it’s because the same sort of display graces hundreds of thousands of Tumblr dashes and Pinterest boards. Seeing these photos, it’d be easy to play a game called “Pinterest or Communism?,” in which pictures of storefronts in the COMECON states are mixed in with widely liked photos from modern-day social media.
This design–simple, meticulous, and twee–is one of the most popular contemporary styles. There is a magazine, Kinfolk, that is a sort of Bible for votaries of the minimalist style, and a satirical site, The Kinspiracy, that documents how widely replicated this look is.
This isn’t just popular on social media, either. Anyone who’s been into an Apple store knows how big minimalism is these days. As someone who’s does a lot of online copywriting for a living, I’ve dealt a lot with the world of web design. Consequently, I’ve written thousands of words extolling the virtues of minimalism, simplicity, and clean design. I’ve praised blank white space more than a salesman pushing dry-erase boards.
Similarly, the simple cartoon glyphs used on storefronts to draw customers in are indistinguishable from the symbols used on countless smartphone apps. Somewhere in the San Francisco Bay Area, a team of artistic millennials is designing symbols just like these for use in the next hot “disruptive” tech gizmo:
Despite Communism’s faults, one advantage it has over Capitalism is the lack of an incentive for creating forced scarcity. During the Cold War, the US and its allies competed with the USSR and its satellites by promising that Capitalism would bring plenty and convenience. This is embodied by exchanges like the impromptu kitchen debate between then-Vice President Richard Nixon and Premier Nikita Khrushchev. Held in an extravagantly stocked model American home at the American pavilion of an international expo being held in Moscow, capitalism sold itself as a system that could meet all of someone’s material desires. In the mid-20th century, as advertising “move[d] from the cognitive to the emotional,” in the words of professor Sut Jhally, capitalism promised to fulfill all a customer’s emotional and spiritual desires, too.
Today, the Cold War is over, and Capitalism has no powerful competitors. It doesn’t need to promise plenty. However, it’s been something of a victim of its own success. Americans, whose lives revolve around work, hate their jobs more than anyone in the world. The minimalist aesthetic is a response to tthese conditions–with its simplicity promises peace and tranquility, which Americans have far less of than they do cheap gizmos. So when it was visible in Communist Europe, it’s sad; today, it’s the hottest look around.