Shortages, Shops and Sovetskoe foto

At the moment, many individuals are faced, for the first time, with the uncertainty of living through a pandemic and all the many the insecurities that Covid-19 has rendered visible: fearing for the health and safety of family members and friends (especially those who may be more susceptible or vulnerable), job/income security, economic instability, and the inability to access staple foodstuffs and goods. I have only encountered the most minor of inconveniences and consider myself very fortunate: My job lends itself to working from home anyway, my friends and family are safe and healthy, and the most bothersome thing I’ve experienced in mandatory self-isolation is that I’m quickly exhausting my Netflix watch list.

I am not the most diligent follower of Corona virus information, though news (and fake news) about Covid-19 is hardly avoidable. Governments and politicians (here I mainly refer to the US and the UK because I am most familiar with their responses or lack of response) have attempted to toe the line between allaying panic, emphasizing the severity of the situation and frantically trying to prevent economic collapse. Most shops have closed, most grocery stores are enforcing rationing, and essential commodities, such as personal protective equipment, have spiked in value due to shortages.

Consumer responses to goods shortages during the pandemic bear some resemblance to individual economic practices in the Soviet Union. I am not the first to make this observation, in March Zoya Sheftalovich published a light-hearted, though relevant, guide to surviving coronavirus shortages based on her and her family’s experiences of late-era Soviet socialism. Earlier in February, the Guardian published a piece on queueing for goods in Hong Kong, stating the situation was “reminiscent of the Soviet Union in the 1980s.”

This is a rough transition, and not meant to make light of how exacting the last few weeks have been and how challenging the coming months will be. But from my perspective as a historian of Soviet photography, shortages (generally) and inefficient distribution of goods reminds me of how photographers reacted to inconsistent access to materials and how those involved in the production and dissemination of photographic equipment in the Soviet Union responded to criticism. This is a topic I’ve written about in the past both in Sovetskoe foto blog and professionally.

Distribution was a major concern for amateur photographers whose “hobby,” creativity and technical ability were dictated by the goods available to them. As mentioned in an earlier blog post, obtainable equipment was not always desirable, but it could play a role in stylistic and creative choices: Lithuanian photographer Aleksandras Macijauskas’ signature diagonal perspective and grotesque subjects were the result of using an extra wide-angle lens which was initially all he had access to.

Amateur correspondence with Sovetskoe foto ranged from exhibition accolade notices, questions about aesthetics and technical equipment, and, of course, complaint letters. There have been multiple scholarly works published about the phenomenon of letter-writing campaigns in the Soviet Union and served as a direct and significant means of communication between society (particularly individuals, anonymous or otherwise) and State institutions.[1] Letter writing complicates outmoded ideas about an omnipotent Soviet State and its monolithic, top-down blanket imposition of policies on a supplicant population. Many letters to State institutions were critical of particular aspects of Soviet life and evidence that there was some faith, even if it was amongst the most ardent supporters of the regime, that problems could be easily rectified if the appropriate authority were informed. This of course is an oversimplification, but that complaint letters were written at all is telling and was a sort of “civi duty” for some individuals.

Having failed to resolve the issue of access to materials and distribution inefficiencies, and as a result of a large number of letters from readers “reporting the deficiencies in the organization and sale of photographic products and the low quality of retailers,” in 1974 Sovetskoe foto published an interview with Pyotr Mikhailovich Krimerman. Krimerman was the deputy director of the Moscow-based trade company Vesna (Spring), was a member of the Union of Journalists and the author of a number of books and articles about photographic equipment.[2]  The interview questions and responses focused on what Krimerman and Vesna were doing to improve the expertise and product knowledge of retail employees.

In the interview, Krimerman unsurprisingly acknowledged that members of the amateur photography movement were the primary customer base for Vesna supplied shops. These stores dealt largely in specialty items and rarely encountered “casual customers,” which required employees to be not only retail workers but also specialists in camera models, laboratory processing and act as consultants on image composition (i.e. selecting the correct camera and lenses for particular photographic subjects).[3] Ideally, these employees would have a universal understanding of all processes, technical and aesthetic, related to image production.

Krimerman believed that most Moscow shops dealing in photographic equipment had made incredible strides in the last two decades when it came to fulfilling the expectations of consumers. In the 1950s, according the Kimerman, the staff at the only store specializing in photography (located on Petrovka Ulitsa not far from the Boishoi theatre) were general retail workers and woefully undereducated when it came to all matters of photography. As a solution, Kimerman instituted mandatory after-hours workshops for employees which were led by photojournalists, forepersons of manufacturing plants etc. By the 1970s, the Moscow Vocational and Trade College teamed up with photographic retailers to ensure the suitability of retail employees in photo shops.[4] Some also became involved in the organization of photography competitions and exhibitions.

This specialized knowledge about which camera models and equipment functioned best in, for example, polar weather conditions, could then be used to aid amateur photographers in their purchases, though what was lacking in this discussion was the issue of distribution: In Moscow it is unlikely that amateurs struggled to find many of the camera models and materials they desired, but the likelihood that such variety existed in other cities (particularly the polar north) is quite small, and thus Krimerman’s optimism is likely the result of his proximity to the capital city.

The content of complaint letters about retailer expertise was not published with the interview, but Krimerman’s responses are calculated and diplomatic, focusing on the developments of the last twenty years without providing a clear plan for future improvements. He applauded amateurs and a handful of retail workers who had exceeded expectations and had been promoted to managerial positions (Raisa Kolganova, Valentina Kachalkina, Valentina Golodnitskaia – interestingly all women, especially considering the majority of amateur photographers and photojournalists were men and no indication was given if these women were photographers themselves).[5] He commended the career choice of photographic retail employees, whose work was “not only in the material sphere but also cultural and spiritual.” The propagandistic tone of the interview, however, was probably influenced Krimerman’s inability to solve the complications of distribution, the availability of camera equipment and knowledge of staff outside of Moscow: “if some grains of our experience are useful to colleagues from other cities, we will be happy.”[6] This was an impossible task as, at the most basic level, the planned economy prioritized the needs of Moscow first, then other major cities, then smaller cities etc.

What the interview does show, however, is that by the 1970s the editors at Sovetskoe foto (and retailers) were becoming aware of and treating amateur photographers as consumers, and specifically consumers of non-essential specialty goods. The sale of these goods necessitated, at least in the capital, skilled retail workers. As I’ve explained in a previous post, that by the mid-1970s Sovetskoe foto was catering the content of its journal to reader preferences and it would appear that the journal also began to recognize that readers needed further and immediate assistance (of photo-retail experts) to successfully practice their hobby/craft/trade.

[1] See Oleg Khlevniuk, “Letters to Stalin,” Cahiers du monde russe, Vol. 56, nos. 2-3 (2015): 327-344; See also Sheila Fitzpatrick, “Supplicants and Citizens: Public Letter-Writing in Soviet Russia in the 1930s,” Slavic Review, Vol. 55, no. 1 (1996): 78–105.

[2] “Torgovlia fototovarami – oblast’ kul’tury,” interview with Pyotr Mikhailovich Krimerman, Sovetskoe foto no. 10 (October) 1974: 38.

[3] Ibid, 38.

[4] Ibid, 38-9.

[5] Ibid, 38-9.

[6] Ibid, 39.

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