‘You will be silent’: photographs from behind the iron curtain

In 1977, photojournalist Arthur Grace arrived at Berlin’s Tempelhof Airport to document “life behind the Iron Curtain” for Time and Newsweek. Taken over 12 years, the black and white images collected in COMMUNISM(S): A COLD WAR ALBUM (Damiani, $60) reflect just that: the everyday lives of citizens young and old, rich and poor, proud and powerless, against the literal backdrop of Poland, the Soviet Union, Romania, East Germany and Yugoslavia.

One of the few Western cameramen with access to these countries during this time, Grace had to face the reality that the lens was both ways: “I learned quickly that often, while I was busy watching what was in front of me, someone of state security was busy watching me.” Reaching under the veneer of officially sanctioned “Potemkin villages,” Grace captured a spectrum of psychological responses to the Marxist-Leninist pact — summed up in an introduction by Time’s former Eastern Europe bureau chief Richard Hornik, thus: , food, housing, education, medical care and a minimum of entertainment. You will be silent.”

In these mostly never-before-seen images – of weddings and posters of fallen dictators, of worshipers in Moscow and beauty pageant contestants in Warsaw, of boys playing ping-pong in a public square in East Berlin, and of so many teenagers doing normal teenager things. – we see reminders of “what autocracy was like then,” writes Grace, “and could look like again.”

In December 1981, President Wojciech Jaruzelski of Poland declared martial law, arresting thousands, cutting telephone and telegraph lines, and instituting a six-day workweek and strict curfew. In the photo above, taken at one of the many peaceful demonstrations against these conditions – to which the junta responded with tear gas, police batons and water cannons – protesters in Warsaw make the “V” sign to symbolize resistance.

A supermarket queue in Warsaw reflects the “frightening economic problems” the country faced in 1982, according to Hornik. “Everything was missing – food store windows were full of empty tea box pyramids. But shoppers, waiting in long lines to buy just about anything, didn’t understand the link between prices and supply and demand. Why should they? Communist propaganda also denied this link.”

A farmer rests his horses in a field near his home in Transylvania, Romania, in 1977. For many citizens of these countries, especially after the devastation of World War II, the Marxist pact “was grudgingly accepted,” writes Hornik. “To this day there are people in the former Soviet bloc who yearn for the good old days and the bad, when everyone had a job, a home and free medical care.”

Teenagers walk through Moscow’s Red Square in 1977, looking at young women and trying to look cool.

Doctors watch the annual May Day parade in East Berlin, honoring the international workers’ movement, in 1977.

A teenager waits at a bus stop in Sarajevo, Bosnia, next to a poster of dictator Josip Broz Tito in 1983.

Leave a Comment

%d bloggers like this: