Arthur Grace’s images capture humanity amid waning days of Soviet empire
By Stephen Wolgast
Before the May Day parade starts in East Berlin in 1977, a teenage girl stands in her place among the rank and file. Several young women are similarly dressed in gray three-button jackets, black miniskirts and white boots. A gray apartment building rises behind them.
Identical uniforms are typical in any parade, but what stands out is her empty gaze. She may have simply been tired of waiting for the parade to kick off, or perhaps she’d marched in so many Communist Party extravaganzas that the thrill was gone.
Just look at her contrapposto stance, the inanimate girls around her and that ennui. You feel that she’s just going through the paces of what should be a celebration of life in the workers’ paradise.
But as we know, communism didn’t live up to the paradise the party promised. Instead, it robbed its citizens of their intellectual independence and economic motivations and required everyone to endure it silently. As a political system, communism was doomed to fail.
Arthur Grace (an NPPA member since 1974) reported on the vast Soviet empire in the 1970s and ’80s when its infrastructure was beginning to crumble under the weight of moving from an agrarian economy to one hungry for military expenditures to defend itself from NATO. His new book, “Communism(s): A Cold War Album,” cuts through the typical examples of Moscow’s maladministration of the 15 Socialist Republics and its satellites in the East bloc and beyond.
Life in the Soviet empire wasn’t without joy, but every day had its fill of mundane indignities. Goods were scarce, the necessities in particular. As the worker’s maxim had it, if you see a line, get in it. Whatever it is people are waiting for must be worth the time.
Grace shows women in Warsaw in an orderly queue waiting on the sidewalk to enter a grocery store. He goes into a butcher shop crowded with customers even though no cuts of meat are available — only sausage (above).
On the Western side of the vanquished Iron Curtain, we’re accustomed to going to the store or logging in to Amazon to buy virtually anything right now and don’t realize that keeping the customer happy is a goal made possible by capitalism. True, it’s a system with its shortcomings.