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Thursday, May 19, 2022

‘You Will Stay Silent’: Photographs From Behind the Iron Curtain

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In 1977, the photojournalist Arthur Close 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, set against the literally colorless backdrops of Poland, the Soviet Union, Romania, East Germany and Yugoslavia.

One of the few Western cameramen granted access to these countries during this era, Close had to confront the reality that the lens went both ways: “I learned quickly that often while I was busy observing what was in front of me, someone from state security was busy observing me.” Reaching underneath the veneer of the officially sanctioned “Potemkin villages,” Close captured a spectrum of psychological responses to the Marxist-Leninist pact — summarized in an introduction by Time’s former Eastern Europe bureau chief, Richard Hornik, thus: “We will provide jobs, food, housing, education, medical care and a modicum of entertainment. You will stay silent.”

In these images, almost all previously unpublished — of weddings and posters of fallen dictators, of churchgoers in Moscow and beauty pageant contestants in Warsaw, of boys playing Ping-Pong in a public square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 regular teenage things — we see reminders of “what autocracy looked like then,” Close writes, “and could look like again.”

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

A grocery store queue in Warsaw reflects the “daunting economic problems” the country faced in 1982, according to Hornik. “Everything was in short supply — the windows of food stores were filled with pyramids of empty tea boxes. But shoppers, waiting in long lines to buy practically anything, did not understand the link between prices and supply and demand. Why should they? Communist propaganda also denied that link.”

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

Teenage boys hang around Moscow’s Red Square in 1977, eyeing young women and trying to look cool.

Medics stand by during East Berlin’s annual May Day parade, honoring the international workers’ movement, in 1977.

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



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