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Pictures from the Eastern Bloc in the 80s (chrisniedenthal.com)
201 points by danielam on Dec 15, 2018 | hide | past | favorite | 113 comments

University in '80s Warsaw - a math professor realizes he would make more money if he worked in the docks, so he quits his job and goes working in docks. And truly his first paycheck is double that of a university professor.

Party wants to increase education of working class so they offer 10% bonus to those who would visit evening school. So the professor sign up for it.

Very first day, the first class is math. But the subject is so simple that professor becomes bored and starts reading book under the desk. Teacher notices that and call him up to calculate area of circle on the blackboard.

Professor is taken by surprise and suddenly cannot remember the formula, so in his head he transfers circle to polar coordinates and uses integral to get the formula and starts writing on the blackboard: -πr²

Then he scratches his head and start thinking where the minus came from when suddenly from the back row someone shouts: flip the interval of integration, colleague.

Guy dies. Goes to gates of heaven. Gets choice: communist hell, or capitalist hell. Choses capitalist hell. Loud screaming heard everywhere.

Next guy in line. Chooses communist hell. Silence.

Two guys in line. First asks, “Why is capitalist hell so painful?”

“They nail you to the cross, burn you alive”

“And communist hell?”


“Then why no screams from communist hell?”

“When they have wood, they have no nails. When they have nails, they have no wood. When they have nails, and they have wood, fire out”

(Heard in East Berlin, ca. 1986)

International Championship for Tonsil Removal is held among USA, UK, and DDR teams. Results: US 5 min, UK 4 min, DDR 4 hours.

“Well you see in DDR you can’t open your mouth, so they had to go in the other way”

I've already heard this as "engineer in Russia quits to do non-intellectually stimulating job, finds a bunch of engineering 'comrades' already there"

your version is a ton more verbose though

As with cryptography, a critical part of a good shaggy dog story is the padding.

That actually reads like a sort of meta-joke, on the central planner’s obsession with efficiency.

I tried that derivation along with finding the length of the sinus curve.

Damn, those pictures really show my childhood (I'm born 1978 in Silesia which then already was part of Poland).

I was on a used car marked like that with my dad, my parents had the same car as those people with the pigs in the car, my grandma had the same cupboard as the boys rearing chicks, I lived in one of the panel house like in the picture of the Moscow suburb, my aunt was a egg saleswoman, my dad worked in a coalmine, the church was present constantly in all parts of our lives, my mum worked at one of those car factories, etc. ...

Oh, my! The panel houses where you could hear everything, the omnipresent elevator engine sound, neighbors fighting or making love or basically anything else, sounds of life, anonymized by concrete ... Sometimes, I ponder renting a flat in such a house for a week just to listen and dream of my childhood.

Several years ago I rented an apartment in which you could hear people through the walls, and the cherry-on-the-top was a neighbor from below who early on weekend mornings played wartime songs on a bayan.

I'm not an early bird.

They had the same panel houses on the outskirts of Leningrad. Sometimes I'd conspire with a girl to skip school and we'd hang out on those flat roofs.

"No, my friend, we will not live long enough to see communism, but our children will!"

It seems the pictures are mostly from Poland. For more perspective, here is a large collection of old pictures from Bulgaria:

http://www.lostbulgaria.com/index.php?cat=9 (You can see the translated descriptions with the language combobox on the top)

Love the gritty aesthetic of old photographs like this. Actually prefer it to modern, razor-sharp photography. Or maybe analogue just fits the image we have of the past better?

I wonder what kind of equipment was used for these photos.

“Whatever you now find weird, ugly, uncomfortable and nasty about a new medium will surely become its signature. CD distortion, the jitteriness of digital video, the crap sound of 8-bit - all of these will be cherished and emulated as soon as they can be avoided. It’s the sound of failure: so much modern art is the sound of things going out of control, of a medium pushing to its limits and breaking apart. The distorted guitar sound is the sound of something too loud for the medium supposed to carry it. The blues singer with the cracked voice is the sound of an emotional cry too powerful for the throat that releases it. The excitement of grainy film, of bleached-out black and white, is the excitement of witnessing events too momentous for the medium assigned to record them.”

― Brian Eno, A Year With Swollen Appendices

>CD distortion, the jitteriness of digital video


Not exactly the same but there are devices used when restoring arcade games that simulate the scan lines of the original CRTs on a modern display, e.g. https://paradisearcadeshop.com/en/home/electrical/video-conv...

the quote is from the mid-90s

I completely agree, I'm personally partial to the medium format cameras. From this interview, it looks like he used Nikon cameras: http://www.obstundmuse.com/chris-niedenthal/

> Jens Pepper: What camera did you use at that time?

> Chris Niedenthal: Ever since my last year at college, I was a Nikon man. First it was a simple Nikon F, then I bought the Photomic prism with lightmeter. I later added a somewhat cheaper Nikkormat (though I had the Japanese version that was called the Nikomat. So those were the two cameras I used for my first years in Poland. Later came the FE, then the FE2, and also an FM, usually with winders (early motordrives). Next came the beautiful Nikon F3 with motordrive, and later the F4. I always used a separate lightmeter, never trusting the camera meters when shooting on colour slide film. At first I had the British Weston Master meter, but eventually graduated to the Minolta Flashmeters.

I love this series of photos. Kodachrome doesn't have the grain of some other films, and many photos could be mistaken for staged modern reproductions.


Indeed Kodacrhome really "pops." Might you or anyone else know what the dominant film stock would have been in the Eastern BLoc during this time?

I wasn't there, but there would have been imported Agfa film and the local color film was called Smena, I think.

Probably a 35mm Praktica, made in Dresden. At one point they had 10% of the world market, and probably nearly all of the market in the Soviet sphere.


A fellow in my unit in Sacramento had one. It was solidly built, but the East German battery for the exposure meter was weak - he got a ride in a HH-53 to take aerial photos of the unit building, and the downdraft from the rotors chilled the battery below where it would provide any power, so all his pictures came out nearly black.

Maybe all the market in East Germany but in USSR proper Zenit (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zenit_(camera)) was the absolute market leader.

Maybe it's because people didn't take zillion photos a day to chose the "best" ones based on how much likes they would get on Instagram. The content is different, the dynamics is different, but grit is probably the first thing we notice.

I agree. I really don't need my great grandchildren to see my pores.

One of the photos is from my hometown - Sibiu, Romania: http://chrisniedenthal.com/en/works/sibiu-1978. I'm sure I recognise the area, it's in the historical center.(https://www.google.com/maps/@45.7991068,24.150571,3a,75y,11....). Surprisingly well preserved.

A bit different, Poland in the 80s https://imgur.com/gallery/960KNrY

People relying so much on horses in the 1980s is a pretty surreal thing to see.

Was anyone here alive in Poland in the 80s (doesn't seem like such a long shot)? Would love to hear your experiences with transportation.

I was, but I lived in east Silesia in the south which had the best infrastructure of Poland because of the coal mines and a lot of industry. As far as I remember only really old farmers still had horses. My parents once borrowed our neighbors (who must have been around 70 years old) horse to plow their field because they didn't have the money to pay someone to do that with a tractor. But the poor horse was old too and not used to such hard work, so after a couple of rounds he was so exhausted that he needed to lay down and their were afraid that it would die of exhaustion. So at least in Silesia you would rarely see horses used for transportation.

Instead both of my granddads bought this weird half a mini-tractor https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RoGGe9PBQWo but they both changed it to a custom version with 4 wheels, they came up with totally different designes for it. Actually I have a home video which showcases the one which my dads dad designed: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vN0J7Wg_V54

That tractor is wild, thanks for sharing!

From memory as a western kid on vacation in 1980's Hungary: transportation use of horses existed, but as a bit of an outlier. But photogenic outliers tend to be wildly overrepresented in travel photpgraphy, I know what I would have aimed my camera at, had I had one.

The first time I was in Romania, in 2013, we drove on a provincial road and there were people in BMWs driving 100km/h taking over horse carriages going 10km/h. It was "pretty surreal" to me (I'm Dutch) and it also seemed extremely dangerous.

Ah well you can get the same experience in Amish country today in the U.S. Midwest. I pass a horse and buggy every couple of weeks at least; rider on a horse less frequently but still occasionally. It's best to drive slower. Most people in cars are idiots though.

I was in rural Romania in 2013 as well and I remember thinking that the horse carriage just has a much easier time avoiding all the potholes.

In big cities, the sight of horses was not common at all and horses were actually banned in Warsaw (except for tourist carriages). Overall, the cities were fairly modern, but gray and in constant state of mild disrepair. On one hand most big cities had electrified suburban trains, trams and very extensive bus network, while on the other hand, small towns and villages operated steam locomotives and people commonly used horse carriages. Also, the country side was quite diverse. Most small village farms operated with 19th century technology, even into the 1990s (in a style that we would today call organic). However, the large collectivized govt owned farms were fully mechanized. Overall, it was quite a 2nd world experience - we had a bit of the 1st and a bit of the 3rd world all crammed into one!

Selection bias. Photographer primarily captured the unusual/interesting things that stood out to him.

No horses in cities, tons of mostly domestic cars. New sedan was ~$1500-2000 in the eighties/early nineties. Average 1986 wage was $350/year, but by 1992 went up to ~$1500, so the cheapest Polish sedan, Fiat 125P, was 60 to 12 monthly wages. Western sedan would cost >$15000 before 1989 (end of Russian occupation). Officially only a handful of people made enough money to afford a car. You had privileged blue collar jobs like miner, foundry worker, sailors on border crossing ships, airplane crews. Then there was totally separate, protected class - high ranking party officials, directors of state run companies, security apparatus, diplomats etc. Unofficially almost everyone had an angle, smuggling, making moonshine, running unregistered slaughterhouse, farming on a side, stealing from state owned enterprises, taking bribes etc. My father got first car, brand new domestic sedan, as a present from his parents, paid by bribes (undertaker). Crashed it promptly and was forced to start working, we moved to Silesia for a year which made enough money to buy another new car and rent big apartment in the capital city. After that he started smuggling crystal glass, jewelry and furs to Germany/Turkey, making ~100x average official wage, but that ended quickly after communism fell.

For anybody who is interested here is the bio of Chris Niedenthal. He is one of the most respected photojournalists covering the Eastern Bloc in the 1970 to 90's. https://culture.pl/en/artist/chris-niedenthal

Most pictures are from Poland which was relatively better off than USSR at the time. My childhood memories from USSR are way grimmer than these pictures.

Any idea why this was? Was it just a more manageable population size? I believe the then Czechoslovakia and Hungary were similar in terms of being "better off" no?

They were “independent” countries, so they had more freedom. Of course, no travel to the West, lots of bullshit, but still free. Countries incorporated in Soviet Union were blindly following orders from Moscow.

More strict version of socialism. E.g. private business was flat-out outlawed in USSR until the very end. Other eastern bloc countries had more lax rules.

On top of that, USSR was actively trying to incorporate newly acquired territories and assimilate non-Russian people to build the Soviet Man. Significant part of population wasn't very happy about it. Meanwhile satellite countries were busy building nation states and had less internal struggle.

IIRC, Soviet budget was much more military-oriented as well. More money towards budding regimes in Africa, Asia and South America too. Meanwhile satellite countries in eastern bloc were neutral or even received some resources from Moscow.

There was more economical freedom in Eastern European countries compared to those incorporated in Soviet empire. At least small private initiative was somewhat tolerated. Also, in countries like Poland communists weren't able to completely suppress religious attachments of populace. They had to accept the existence of alternative, competing moral, and cultural values, and it had the general effect of less-controlled cultural, and private space. Very unlike the strict USSR model where everything had to be in line with central-planned norms.

Well, technically USSR didn't succeeded in suppressing religious attachment either. But they tried much much harder, creating more resentment and wasting a fuckton of resources.

For example... What do people love drink on Christmas eve? Poppyseed milk! Guess why schools had mandatory dentist exams the next day...

Parts of Poland were under Prussian rule and had some accumulation of industry, infrastructure and expertise. Russia was an agrarian country before communism.

Specifically the concept of "Poland A" and "Poland B", where Silesia and "Poland A" had been in Prussia and the eastern half "Poland B" in Russia before 1919.

Somehow, they seem far more "real" than the actual photos I have taken or seen from my relatives in the last decade. And no, it's not just the gritty analog fell, it's the content.

Edit: Although, the lack of digital artifacts definitely helps. Digital smoothing or digital noise is something I can still see on a lot of photos from last-generation cameras. Maybe we should stop throwing so much procesing on top of "raw" images.

Edit 2: It feels like these photos have a very distinct color palette. But do they, really? Honestly, I spend so much time looking at digital images, it's becoming hard to judge what's "realistic" anymore, especially when you can't look at the scene in real life.

It might also not be the editing but just the content and framing, etc. It's quite obvious that the person who took those photos were a professional (street) photographer(s). If you're not one, it would be expected that your pictures would not match that quality.

I was surprised to see the pic - "TV antennas directed towards the West, Neustrelitz 1984, East Germany."

Was that forbidden? It's seem like that would have been influence the government would have tried to filter out no? Or was it forbidden but just not enforced?

It wasn't forbidden for the general public, no (I think right after the wall was build there were some crackdowns on it, but hugely unpopular and ineffective, and it was banned for soldiers and some officials). It of course wasn't officially supported in any way and under the table, but it clearly was easy to do in many areas and couldn't really be stopped, so it was widespread and people build their own antennas etc if they needed to. I read stories like that a radio technician somewhere build a small-scale "cable TV" network redistributing west TV from his home and in later years things like that were tolerated. The area around Dresden was known as the "valley of the clueless" ("Tal der Ahnungslosen") because it was one of the few major areas where you couldn't receive West-German TV.

Watching Western German television was not officially forbidden and in the 80s most people did it. It was, however, frowned upon and seen as suspect by the authorities. Imagine having to justify yourself in a discussion with the Stasi for consuming the enemies' propaganda.

I think that there is a lot of confusion between what was actually forbidden and what was merely making people more suspect of getting recruited by enemy intelligence and the like. And that this confusion wasn't at all exclusive to outsiders looking back, but was present, or even dominant, within Stasi itself.

"Make a list of people to check in the emergency of a CIA counterrevolutionary project" can quickly turn into "Make a list of people to crack down on for lack of ideological commitment", particularly in an organization in the spy game, where need-to-know must be the norm.

Great pictures, thank you for sharing. Loved the C64 pic and the guy walking his pig home.

To some, these might infuse some level of specific nostalgia[0], which is in many respects picking up steam in these regions in the last few years.

[0] https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Communist_nostalgia

I was born in Russia in the late 80's, but I guess it's a similar feeling of an entire generation's childhood, lost. (I imagine this phenomenon is exacerbated by the fact that so many families basically had all the same stuff.) Can't wait to read more of Svetlana Alexievich's Secondhand Time, which covers this topic in interviews with people who survived the collapse of the Soviet Union.

I believe that nostalgia about the (supposedly) better times is a constant in most cultures.

Why is this comment getting downvoted? I found that Wikipedia article quite interesting.

"Moscow suburbs" pretty much sums it up.

Something I noticed: nobody seems to have acne

Bloody hell, there were food stamps in 1980?! What did I miss?

Not this kind. You didn't pay for food with them. You paid normally but also had to provide the stamps, as a sort of a rationing mechanism.

In Perestroika times there was a brief period when there were _vodka_ stamps in Russia. There were problems with both food and spirits, but only the latter was rationed through stamps.

In the early nineties. The implosion of the USSR caused hyperinflation and disrupted the supply chain. Luckily it went back on track quite quickly, at least on the European side.

It did not disrupt the supply chain, it was already non-existent. At no time in USSR's history were there full shelves anywhere except for Beryozkas (stores for party members.) It was a political system without any credit of legitimacy and political credibility.

The state system of Bloc countries was completely unredeemable.

That is not true. In Bulgaria there were generally full shelves in the grocery stores during socialism. There were some hard to get things like coca kola that caused lines but otherwise all basic foodstuffs were easy to get and quite affordable.

However I have heard from other people that grew up in socialist countries that Bulgaria had it easier than most in that respect.

In the transition to capitalism things got quite worse. Then there were empty shelves there was rationing, prices went up drastically, etc.

The photo caption says Food stamps, Warsaw, 1980s, Poland.

Food stamps appeared before the collapse of the USSR. Most places in USSR proper had them in late 80s, and a few even in late 70s.

Gas, meat, all rationed, you still had to pay on top of stamps. Great "opportunity" for black market.

the central planned economy just ground to a halt

You've missed the wonders of socialism.


Edit (for the down voters): I observed these "wonders" first-hand, since I grew up in the Eastern Bloc.


It’s downvoted for the same sort of tired ideological jingoism your post engages in.

Socialism is a wide category that includes things that are wildly different from Eastern European communism.

It’s like sarcastically saying “the wonders of capitalism” when talking about a 19th century workhouse filled with laboring children.

I imagine the downvotes are for your generic use of "socialism" instead of a more descriptive "Eastern Bloc Communism" or similar. Socialism can be implemented in many ways, just as capitalism can.

But, your point still stands. The flavor of socialism encountered in the Eastern Bloc from post-WWII to the 90s was by all accounts completely dysfunctional.

But in what ways is it implemented that doesn't lead to this?

Most countries with material wealth that are advertised as being "socialist" or "social democratic" are actually bog standard capitalism, perhaps with a marginally better funded welfare system than average.

Think of it as a spectrum. Control vs laissez faire on one axis and liberal vs conservative on the other. Norway and the US might fall in a similar spot on the control axis (or not), but quite different on the liberal vs conservative.

One way to implement socialism is to simply withdraw protection for private (as opposed to personal) property on state level. A subset of that is to get rid of the state altogether, which obviously withdraws all protections that state might provide. Capitalism requires the ability to own and accumulate capital, but that only works if you can rely on the security of what you already own - and if society refuses to recognize your ownership, it's pretty hard.

Or one could go further and actively prosecute people who try to do anything "capitalistic" (e.g. offer services for pay). That is the model that USSR, and all countries in its sphere of influence, used.

How is the extreme version (no state) different from Ancaps who want private police, fire, roads & private ledgers of property?

Encouraging individuals or groups to have their own notions of who owns what seems like a surefire way for warlords & petty tyrants to take over local economies.

It's different in the expectations from such a society by adherents. Ancaps believe that private property can exist in the absence of a state protecting it at scale. Anarcho-socialists think that private property is a social construct that requires the state to prop it up, and that would disappear if you removed the state.

There is a book by Ursula Le Guin, "The Dispossessed", that describes an utopian (to some extent; the book subtitle is "an ambiguous utopia" for a reason) anarcho-socialist society. Anarcho-syndicalist, to be precise. It's fiction, of course - but if you wanted to get the gist of how people who believe in this sort of thing imagine such a society would work, it's a great introductory crash course; kinda like "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress" is for ancap.

So what forms have you lived under?

What forms of government? Dubai, Germany, UK, Hong Kong, and USA. So, no Eastern Bloc “communist” regimes. Not sure what that has to do with my statement?

>just as capitalism can

I disagree with that statement, because capitalism is just a market and markets arise and behave the exact same way whenever and wherever they are allowed to. "Implementing capitalism" isn't a thing you do: it means that you stop doing something (suppressing market activity).

Markets existed long before capitalism. So saying "capitalism is just a market" is just plainly incorrect.

Markets couldn't have existed before capitalism, because capitalism is just a market.

Capitalism developed within the past 400 years or so. Markets existed for millenia. I don't want to sound rude, but these are just basic facts.

Why do the "Pilgrim Girls" have bloody knees?

There's certain Catholic pilgrimages where you're supposed to complete a journey on your knees, usually to commemorate someone's martyrdom. The 'Sancta Scala' in Rome is the most famous example but I can think off a bunch in different countries.


Probably from kneeing and praying outside a lot.

perfect. Just got a monthly pass at


for the holidays.

sorry, 490 euros? what?



Your comment is probably unpopular because it's transparent baiting that adds nothing to the conversation.

Answer: Detroit Michigan, USA

You seem to make the rather strange mistake of thinking these photos portrait a purely negative view of the political system of the time, which you consider rather positively.

I believe the best, and actually somewhat obvious, message of these photos would be to show the humanity of the people of the time, without hiding their relative poverty. That way, they would challenge the clichés on both sides of this particular ideological divide.

The comments so far mostly prove me wrong. But as they say in both communism and Disney movies: there is always hope.


How about not going down that particular flamewar right now? Maybe find something actually interesting in those photos, instead of tenuous evidence for the ideological blinders shaping your every perception of the world?

Yeah, well, for you maybe this is a flamewar, for me it's my life.

Don't forget skateboarding[1,2]. This Ain't California captures the uptake of skateboarding culture and friendships that formed over it in East Germany.



Strange, I send the same link 1 day before. 3 points...

I like this collection. They complement the more recent series like Simon Roberts' Motherland (mid Aughts). Also some have an echo of Chris Killip's In Flagrante's aesthetic.

Wonder if any of it might get published by Steidl, as a collection.

Aside from the clothing, it looks like the Eastern Bloc now.

No, actually, it doesn’t. Warsaw, for example, makes many western cities look dirty, old and outdated. Compare the Warsaw metro to the Parisian one sometime.

Except Warsaw metro has 1.5 line, 32 stations, compared to Paris 16 lines and 300 stations


Are you arguing that racial diversity is the reason Paris' metro is dirtier than Warsaw's?

What’s the relevance of that to the modernity of their subway?

Even the clothing - such as the uniforms that people are wearing (military and civilian), the older fleet of cars present on the roads in many post-Eastern Bloc nations, the wonderful architecture from the pre-1990's still extant, and more, there are large similarities between the photos and the what things look like today.

Of course, things have changed, but to a large degree, the images presented have so much in common with the present.

Not sure where you've been but it looks nothing like the countries I've seen (Lithuania, Slovenia, Czechia, Slovakia, Croatia, Hungary, Former GDR)

This is a historic city centre, a change there would actually be bad.

It wouldn't, and it hasn't. It's been renovated and reinvigorated.

That’s renovation - a restoration to a previous historic state (it wouldn’t be even necessary if communists didn’t neglect it).

The bell tower is rebuilt, incomplete in the first photograph.

And not only that, and not only in this picture. I was being ironic.

The Eastern Bloc was a big bloc. Some countries are completely changed, some not that much.

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