In search of 'Soviet Retro' in Estonia

  • 2006-07-26
  • by Joel Alas

ANOTHER KIND OF SHOPPING: Estonia is filled with second-hand shops that offer some Westerners a chance to taste Soviet culture, something many Estonians have gladly shaken off.

TALLINN - There's a lucrative profession in the fashion world known as "cool hunting." Cool hunters are the trend-spotters who are paid big dollars to pick tomorrow's craze today. It's only a matter of time before the cool hunters of the world hone their radars on the Baltics, an untapped goldmine of retro style and culture. And in a few years, when "Soviet Retro" dominates the world, the Baltics will most likely be at the epicenter of the movement.

"Look at these ugly old lamps," my friend Kaidi said as she gave me a tour of her Tallinn apartment. She pointed at a collection of frosted glass lamps and lampshades hidden away in a cupboard.
"The owner put these all around my apartment, but the first thing I did was collect them all and put them away. They are very Soviet, very ugly."

I disagreed. To me, the lamps were the essence of retro-cool, with their funky '70s bubble designs. Such lamps would go down a treat in any hip decorator store in Australia or America.
"You only say that because you didn't grow up here," Kaidi explained. "In Soviet times, these were everywhere, and we hated them. They were all we could buy. I never want to see them again."
Kaidi's hatred of her lamps explains precisely why the region is a cool-hunter's dream - there's lots of it, and nobody here wants any of it.

To those who grew up in the West, the fashions of the Soviet era are still a novelty.
While some might contend that the communists had no fashion sense, there is a growing school of design that appreciates some of the period's style.
But for locals, Soviet design came hand-in-hand with occupation and oppression. Following liberation, many people expressed their newfound freedom through redecoration, if they could afford it.

The old wallpaper that typified apartments was torn down. "In the shops, there were only five types of wallpaper, and everybody's house looked the same," another friend told me as she prepared to renovate.
I browsed through one of Tallinn's second hand stores, and purchased a set of funky orange-spotted coffee cups. My housemate Mai looked at me with surprise when I showed off my find. "Those things? Everybody had them. My parents have boxes full of them. We packed them away and bought new cups after independence," she said, her voice thick with pity at my foolish purchase.

If Estonians don't want their funky old items, somebody will.
Last weekend, that somebody was me. Inspired by my friends' opposition to "Soviet Retro," I went on a tour of Estonia's many second hand stores in search of kitsch.
My quest began in Viljandi, a beautiful lakeside city in the center of Estonia.
Viljandi is renowned for its yearly folk festival, the biggest of its kind in the country, that attracts tens of thousands of music lovers over four days.

But to those in the know, Viljandi is also regarded as the second hand shopping capital of Estonia.
I counted at least ten such stores on the quiet streets in the center of the city, but locals told me that many more existed elsewhere in this town of 20,000.
Exactly why they clutter here is unknown. The population base is hardly enough to explain the mountain of donated or discarded clothes that fill the trestles and tables. The town is home to a small number of arts students who study at the Viljandi Culture Academy. The tiny university faculty teaches music and art, and its students are by nature the creative types who enjoy second hand shopping. But that only marginally explains the existence of so many retro shops.

Within two minutes of strolling through Viljandi's stores I had found a prize-worthy item 's a gaudy felt orange narrow-brimmed beehive hat. I immediately visualized a musician friend who would look right at home in the hat while strumming her ukulele. It cost all of 5 kroons (30 euro cents) a bargain in anyone's language or currency.
In the next store I found yet another present, this time a pair of cute red-and-white shoes with a low heel. Not for me of course 's they were far too small 's but for yet another friend who I knew would adore them. I wrapped the shoes in a red scarf, decorated with angular designs, another 5 kroon bargain. My shopping partner Johanna looked surprised.
"These are very typical of Soviet clothes," she said with slight disdain. "I would not buy these." That's fine, I replied, leave them for the westerners. We'll have these and much more by the container load.

But there's more to Soviet retro than clothes, shoes and household items. Electronics are yet another resource waiting to be pillaged by trend-spotters.
Vilmaar, an Estonian musician and student introduced me to Soviet-era electronics.
A man ahead of his time, Vilmaar has recognized the potential future value in old instruments and stereo systems, and has begun collecting them in anticipation of a boom.
He proudly showed me his 1980s Estonian-made record player, explaining how its glass top and steel components made it superior to modern plastic equipment.

"I got it from a friend who didn't want it. It was just sitting in a corner gathering dust. I swapped it for a bottle of vodka," he laughed.
Next came his collection of Russian-made keyboards and guitars. While American musicians fell in love with brands such as Fender, Marshall, Roland and Ziljdian, musicians behind the iron curtain had to make do with inferior products with brand names such as Univox or Unost, which happens to be the Russian word for "Youth."
Despite their very poor quality, Soviet-era instruments were tuned to create fascinating sounds. The keyboards emanate cheesy noises which sound so bad they are good. With the new wave of '80s disco music sweeping the US and the UK, it won't be long before bands discover these amazing pieces of instrumentation.

"You can find these instruments everywhere," Vilmaar said. "People have them in the cupboards because they are embarrassed about them now. I'm not embarrassed, so I buy them whenever I see them."
He is even considering starting a band which exclusively uses Soviet instruments, but admits he might have to buy three of each item to ensure there are enough working parts to maintain them.
Vilmaar is a rarity 's an Estonian who appreciates Soviet retro. He says there is a growing subculture of young people who are starting to realize the potential in the nation's abandoned fashion and household items, and predicts the world will soon start to pay attention to the region.

In the mean time, I'm hiring a shipping container and starting my own stockpile. Send any unwanted Soviet instruments, lamps and mugs to me, care of The Baltic Times. I'll be glad to take them off your hands and pass them on to the cool hunters.