New East Digital Archive

Mind your business: preserving the bargain basements of Tallinn

18 November 2015

In Autumn 2014 photographer Vladimir Ljadov embarked on a trip to the Lasnamäe district on the edge of Tallinn to document commercial basements — a distinctive feature of 1990s Estonia that signified the country’s rapid transition to capitalism. “In the 90s, the choice was between going to the basement or to the market”, explains Ljadov. “This project echoes the era when everyone was trying to build their small business.” The series was completed in only half a day: on a Saturday morning Ljadov planned a journey around the Lasnamäe district and documented around a hundred shops. “Most of the shops I photographed are still open, but some are not in use anymore,” he remembers. “I didn’t want to make my project political, but it happened that it was first published around the time that the Estonian government applied a new law, which said that shops smaller than 150m2 couldn’t sell alcohol, though almost every basement store depended on it.” Unremarkable to a regular visitor, the iron doors and old-fashioned shop signs map a personal history soon to be erased as bigger supermarkets gradually replace the local basement shops. “Revisiting the paths of my childhood was fun,” Ljadov says. “I visited more or less every street and during the walk a lot of old memories came to mind: buying candy, ice cream, potato crisps or soft drinks as a child; helping mom to carry bags with groceries back home, buying my first alcoholic drinks as a teenager.”