Case Studies

Consumerism in Poland

Throughout Eastern Europe, the decade of the 1980s was a time of significant change, including the everyday lives of average citizens. This case study looks at visual representations of consumer culture in Poland in an effort to examine the larger role that consumer goods played in the daily lives of those who lived in Eastern Europe.

The conflict-ridden 1980s throughout Eastern Europe affected many facets of political, economic, social, and cultural conditions, including everyday lives of average citizens. These two visual representations of consumer culture convey to students the hardships that people in Poland, and by extension in Eastern Europe, faced on a daily basis. Buying such necessities as food, clothing, and hygiene products posed serious difficulties to the average consumer. Store shelves were frequently empty, Poles waited in long lines (sometimes for hours) to buy necessities, and ration cards especially for meat products were distributed to limit what each family could purchase. As the editor of the book in which these images were published wrote: "Thanks to these photographs, young generations of Poles, and maybe even foreigners, can peek behind the curtain of oblivion and understand why older generations of Poles rebelled, why they could not tolerate this type of Poland." Such hardships in maintaining adequate living standards were one of the numerous factors that led to the fall of state socialism throughout Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. Average citizens recognized and were frustrated with the inability of the socialist state to meet their everyday needs.

Images created for official purposes in the Soviet bloc typically glorified everyday lives of common people, showing that the state provided all necessities for its citizens. States in the Soviet bloc regularly produced and disseminated propaganda through such avenues as newspaper and magazine articles, books and pamphlets, films and theater productions, posters, and photographs. This propaganda was designed specifically to spread official political ideology to the populace.

In contrast, these two photographs, produced not by party-state officials but by an independent photographer from England, Chris Niedenthal, depict the obstacles of average citizens. A Pole, born and raised in London, Niedenthal studied photography at the London College of Printing. In 1973, he went to Poland on a supposedly short trip but has stayed to the present day. Niedenthal was one of the first photographers to take photographs of everyday life during the period of Martial Law in Poland. He provided a visual representation of life behind the "iron curtain" without glorification. How might have his background as an English-raised and bred photographer influenced his subjects? Why did he choose to convey the everyday lives of Poles? In what ways might have party-state produced images of consumer culture differed from Niedenthal's representations? In what ways was his purpose different from party produced propaganda?

Even prior to the early 1980s, Poles were already increasingly exhibiting their dissatisfaction with the party-state. In 1956, for example, Poles, including many members of the Polish United Workers' Party (i.e., Communist Party), began to reveal their dissatisfaction, concerns, and desires more explicitly, and sought cultural, political, and economic changes. In 1968 students and intellectuals protested and called for political reform and cultural freedom. In December 1970, Poles protested the increase of food prices, particularly on meat. Once again, the suggestion of price increases on meat, led to strikes throughout Poland in 1976.

Solidarity, an independent movement for worker rights and more generally citizen rights, was formed in 1980 to counter these and many other problems that Poles faced within the state socialist system. To quell the growing popularity of Solidarity and more important to preclude an invasion from the Soviet Union, Poland's prime minister Wojciech Jaruzelski declared Martial Law in Poland in mid-December 1981. Borders were closed, anti-party leaders were arrested, civil rights were abolished, and Solidarity was eventually dissolved. Jaruzelski ended Martial Law one year later in December 1982. It is in this context of Martial Law that Niedenthal produced these photographs, showing the realities and limitations of consumerism under state socialism in the early 1980s.

Although shortages of consumer goods had been a problem in the Soviet bloc throughout the state socialist period, over the course of the 1970s and especially into the 1980s, these shortages grew in Poland, resulting in increasing discontent among Poles. Under Martial Law, access to various products was at an all time low, leading to greater disillusionment among average consumers.

The burden of consumerism typically fell on the shoulders of women. They waited in long lines, often with young children in tow; they networked or bartered with other women in the hopes of obtaining necessities for their families; and they adapted their meal preparations based on the foods that they were able to purchase. Women were encouraged, for example, to find proteins in foods other than meat, since meat in particular was difficult to buy. In what ways did these difficulties in consumerism affect women specifically? In what ways did these hardships affect men or children? How might have families coped with these shortages?

Using such visual representations as these photographs to examine the history of consumer culture in Poland during the economic crisis of the early 1980s conveys to students a sense of the limitations of the party-state, in particular in terms of what the system provided (and/or did not provide) to its average citizens. Combining these visual representations with knowledge about the political and economic context of the 1980s allows students to gain a clearer understanding of the effects of these limitations on Poles. A comparison with American students' expectations of their own consumption can lead to fruitful discussions of these limitations.

The first photograph, taken in 1982, shows a large crowd of people, many of whom are women, standing in front of a department store (Dom Mody) in the city of Wrocław in Western Poland. The image does not indicate why these people are waiting, for how long they had been waiting, and what they acquired after their wait. Was the store having a grand opening or some special promotion? Did the store just get a shipment of some desirable product (perhaps soap, shoes, or even toilet paper)? In the early 1980s, it was quite common for Poles to wait in long lines in front of stores. Waiting was one of the most time consuming activities especially for women during these years of economic crisis. Consumers adapted to these shortages in various ways. Some of these consumers may have received news from a contact that a shipment of a specific product came in. Some waited for whatever came in, often not knowing what they were actually waiting for. Some decided to wait because they saw that others were waiting. Some bought as much of the product as they could and then traded it for other products with friends and/or family members or sold them on the black market. Why did Niedenthal choose to take this photograph from above? What impact does that angle have on the viewer? What did he want to convey about consumerism to the viewer by choosing this subject? What is the general demeanor and body language of those who were waiting? Are these people interacting with one another? If so, what types of conversations might they have had? How did such standing and waiting affect people's everyday lives?

The second photograph from 1982 points to a common problem of consumerism in the early 1980s in Poland. Taken in a butcher shop in Poland's capital city Warsaw, this image clearly conveys the difficulties of acquiring basic necessities, such as meat. With the exception of some slabs of what looks like fatty bacon, the store shelves in this shop are empty. The two female shoppers purchase (possibly with ration cards) this meat because that was the only product left on the shelves. Women consumers had to be resourceful with the food items that they purchased. Since it was most commonly women's responsibility to prepare meals for their families, they had to adapt their cooking to the products that were accessible on the market. Who are the shoppers? What is their relationship with the employee? In what ways is this shopping experience gendered female? How did these difficulties in shopping affect their everyday lives? Why did Niedenthal choose to photograph this butcher shop?

Both photographs exhibit the economic crisis that Poles faced on a daily basis as consumers in the 1980s. Following a discussion of each visual representation, I ask students to analyze the images together to show the similarities and differences between the images.

  1. In what ways are these two images similar? In what ways are they different?
  2. What is the background of each photograph?
  3. What meaning did the average Polish citizen attribute to the act of consumption based on these images?
  4. How might have these empty shelves and the long lines affected consumers' personal well-being, psychological well-being, and sentiments about the party-state?
  5. Are these photographs a form of propaganda?
  6. For whom were these images intended? In other words, who was the intended audience? And, how might that audience have shaped the subject of these images?
  7. In what ways would each photograph look different if party-state officials created it?
  8. How does this consumption look different from consumption in the West (in the United States) at the same time? How does it look different from what American students are used to today? Have students ever experienced inaccessibility to specific products? Have they waited in line to buy a product, and if so, what was the product?
  9. When examining images, it is important to think about what is left out of the image. What is omitted from these photographs and why? What do the photographs not tell us? What conclusions can we draw about consumer culture in Eastern Europe based on these two photographs?

Photographs such as these are a useful tool in courses on Eastern Europe for a number of reasons. Students learn about the lack of consumer goods and the difficulties that Eastern Europeans faced not only during the 1980s but throughout the state socialist period more generally. They read about this information in textbooks and hear about it in lectures, but visualizing this issue allows students to gain a firmer grasp on these hardships. Problems that average citizens faced as consumers in the Soviet Bloc led to their growing dissatisfaction and frustration with the socialist system. In the end, the effects that state socialism had on everyday life led to its final demise in the late 1980s.

In today's Poland, consumerism resembles consumerism in the United States and Western Europe. Not only is there a presence of American and Western stores and goods, but shelves in stores are also filled with a vast array of products. Supermarkets, especially from Germany, and small expensive boutiques are mixed in with Polish department stores, open-air markets, and local shops. In general Poles no longer have to wait in long lines to purchase products, and they do not have to make do with the limited items that are available. They can find products quite easily, even in smaller towns.

However, average citizens continue to experience difficulties in consumerism but those difficulties differ from the 1980s. During the 1980s lack of available goods (in particular basic necessities) was a significant obstacle for consumers, whereas today lack of sufficient financial resources is a persistent problem. While products are plentiful and easily accessible, low wages and high unemployment preclude many Poles from purchasing these items. Everyday life of average citizens has been altered since the fall of state socialism but hardships for consumers have not been altogether alleviated.


Document 1: Shopping queue in Wrocław
Document 2: The Butcher Shop, Warsaw

Basia Nowak
Ohio State University
Columbus, Ohio