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Central & Eastern Europe 1989 – ’91

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These photographs were taken during 1989 and ’91, in Poland, the former East Berlin, Budapest and Moscow. Not only was I invited to Poland on the historical day that the decision was made to hold the country’s first free elections, but just as fatefully, arrived in Moscow at the exact time in December of 1991 that the Soviet Union was officially disbanded. To me, these photographs symbolize the historical transformation that it was my privilege to witness up close. 

Other photos I took specifically in Wrocław, Poland during this period are published on this link: “Wrocław 1989 – 91”.

Warsaw Metro workers, 1989

In November of 1989, I was invited on a tour of the Warsaw Metro by one of the system’s directors, which then consisted of only two unfinished stations and an adjoining concrete tunnel. The workers did not appear to be in any hurry to complete the massive urban project that had become the brunt of Polish jokes. First conceived in 1918, construction endured countless setbacks through the Great Depression, WWII, the Cold War and ongoing economic hardship that kept progress at a snail’s pace.

Unfinished Warsaw Metro Metro Tunnel, 1989

This photo was taken inside of the unfinished tunnel, and two silhouettes can be seen where trains today are traveling. One is of the system’s foreman, the other of the project director’s daughter. The foreman told me that he had a running joke with the pastor of a new post-modern church under construction directly above – about which project would be the first to be completed. This, interestingly, plays directly into the theme of my never-ending art project, “The Underground Cathedral.”

The first, and for 20 years, only line of the Warsaw Metro opened on April 7, 1995, exactly seven years and one day after the Round Table Agreement was reached in 1989 to allow for Poland’s first free election since 1945A second line finally opened in March of 2015.

Above to the right is a memorial at Church of St. Bridget in Gdańsk for the beloved Solidarity activist priest Jerzy Popiełuszko, who, in 1984, at age 37, was murdered by secret service agents of the Polish Communist Party. In November of 1989, thousands of Poles congregated to mourn the fifth anniversary of his death at the church in Warsaw where he gave politically charged sermons. An enormous ring of candles surrounded the entire church where I photographed a young boy staring at candles that he had been lighting  (left above).

Społem wedding shop, Wrocław, 1991

“Społem” is a word that during the Communist era was likely more poignant and prevalent than any other. Imagine the Coca-Cola logo with no other competition whatsoever reproduced on shop windows, silverware, ashtrays, china and on huge neon signs. Founded in 1869, Społem (meaning “together”) had started as a co-operative retail chain, a bulwark against the economic and political oppression of the partitioning powers of Austria, Prussia and Russia. Its significance completely changed after World War II, when it became a symbol of the monopoly of the Communist Party. Eventually, it was to become at odds with another emblem of togetherness known as Solidarność (Solidarity). Today Społem is a Polish limited liabilities company with co-operatives throughout the country marketing its retail products in competition with Western companies.

Ghost station posters, Potsdamer Platz, 1991

In the summer of 1991, I was afforded a rare privilege to be taken on a private tour of the Berlin U-Bahn (metro) where I photographed a closed station under construction beneath Potsdamer Platz. This spot defined the demarcation line between East and West Berlin. Inside of that station, I discovered torn posters that are now gone forever. One bore the year 1945, the year of WWII’s end.

Ghost station posters, Potsdamer Platz, 1991

The other displayed 1961, the year that the Berlin Wall was erected. At that moment, Potsdamer Platz became one of several “ghost stations” that were closed during the era that the U-Bahn had been divided into two parts. The Potsdamer Platz station was reopened in March of 1992. Development above ground began 2 years later as Potsdamer Platz became the largest construction site in the world.

Trabant garden, former East Berlin, 1991

At that time, in 1991, above ground, East Berlin still looked like a war-torn city, with buildings showing lingering signs of war’s destruction and evidence of general deterioration during the period that the city was cut off from the world. The photo to the right is of a junked East German made car called “Trabant” which was transformed into a small garden. A product of the communist regime, the Trabant became the butt of jokes as told in History Extra:

Q. Why does a Trabant have a heater at the back?

A. To keep your hands warm when you are pushing it.

Q. How do you double the value of a Trabant?

A. Fill up the gas tank.

I then traveled to Budapest and found underground trains in dire need of repairs (upper left). The same plaque (upper right), was on the exteriors of cars throughout the former Soviet empire.

Demonstration in Moscow's Red Square, 1991

Once again, my life synchronized with destiny as I visited Moscow, December 1 – 9, 1991, and on the precise day of my arrival, neighboring Ukraine seceded from the USSR by an overwhelming 90 percent of the popular vote. One week later, on Dec. 8, Boris Yeltsin signed the Belavezha Accords with the leaders of Ukraine and Belarus, declaring the dissolution of the the Soviet Union. Before attending a spectacular ballet performance in Red Square, I captured a group of mostly elderly Russians outside protesting the end of Stalinism.

To the upper left is a woman inside of a metro car carrying a shopping bag printed with a logo of the hammer and sickle. On the upper right, could that soldier be a young Vladimir Putin?

The opulent facade of the former Soviet empire is exemplified by the background image on this page of Moscow’s gorgeous underground palace, in stark contrast to the impoverished life of those making daily use of it. Today’s conflict from Ukraine to Poland is reflected in the photo above of older Russians protesting the end of communism in 1991. The state, which had provided everyone with inexpensive public transportation, a roof over their heads and the basics of survival, had mutated into a society dominated by oligarchs profiting from the masses, as they struggle for survival. Such nostalgic yearning is conveyed in an article in Gulf News Europe, from April 12, 2014, Ukraine’s communists pine for Lenin’s Soviet utopia: 

They don’t want a new Cold War with the West — they want a return to the old Cold War, where workers thrived in utopian Soviet satellite republics and everyone was theoretically equal.

Even though neighboring Poland’s economy has boomed relatively to Ukraine’s, the same reactionary sentiment has prevailed. Poland’s current extreme right-wing government was elected in late 2015 on a wave of disillusionment over the impact of Western globalization.