kryivka Soviet-era bar

The restaurant Kryivka has a Soviet-era look, but celebrates the Ukrainian resistance army

The more technological and the spread of information speeds up, the more people look back towards the “good ole’ days”—a sentiment as common in the former U.S.S.R. as it is in the U.S. Consumers are rejecting the unnatural and low-quality products and unhealthy foods associated with the modern lifestyle in favor of older and old-fashioned brands, which are seen as simpler, healthier, and more natural, not to mention cheaper. In Ukraine, though, these nostalgic brands have a distinctive Soviet-era aesthetic.

Soviet-Era Nostalgia

The design and coloring on this can of condensed milk have inspired modern brands

Soviet-era goods are perceived as simple, unsophisticated, or cheap, but durable, natural, and even high-quality. As a result, more traditional products like foods, simple household items, and tools can benefit from “old-school” positioning. Food companies in particular are bringing back “original” Soviet brands by imitating the old-style packaging, using well-known product names, and claiming to use the original production process. Cafes and bars are also decorated in a Soviet-like style, using Soviet-era books, lamps, and other typical household items. (And as there wasn’t much variety in Soviet home electronics and furniture, everyone ended up having the same stuff at home.) These design and branding choices help create a familiar, “feel-at-home” atmosphere for their customers, who of course grew up with this aesthetic.

In post-Soviet countries, and Ukraine in particular, this vintage renaissance is most clearly represented in the renaissance of vintage photography. Enthusiasts can buy a fully functional Zenit SLR camera for as little as $20, or even a medium format system for $80, in flea markets and old photo stores. Most of the trade, however, happens on the Internet—there are countless groups in social networks and bulletin boards dedicated to trade in vintage photo equipment.

Despite the growing interest in film, most young photographers are reluctant to switch to it entirely, treating it as a space for wild creative experiments, or a tribute to fashion. An employee at a legacy camera store in Kiev noted that young photographers still tend to treat old cameras as just a way to have fun and to get an unexpected picture, or worse, just an accessory to their hip vintage outfit. “This,” he said, “is so much different from the old-school pros who come in and know exactly what they want.”

Soviet-era nostalgia cameras

There is, of course, a relatively small group of enthusiasts who use film as their main medium for both amateur and professional projects. Furka Ishchuk-Paltseva, a promising art and fashion photographer from Kiev, is one of them. “Personally I am captivated by the image, that special feeling of softness in the picture and the unique atmosphere found only in film,” Furka said. “Besides, the whole process disciplines the photographer, because he has to think very well before releasing the shutter,” as opposed to digital cameras that can take up to a dozen shots per second.

Thanks to adapters of all shapes and sizes, vintage film photography often complements, rather than competes with, the digital version. Russian inventor Victor Lushnikov’s invention of the Dandelion—a chip that, attached to a Soviet lens and adapter, will “trick” modern DSLR’s into thinking that the lens is compatible—was crucial to more widespread adoption, as mainstream digital SLR owners can enjoy automatic light metering, focus indication, and other modern goodies on Soviet lenses. This adaptation gives them an unparalleled vintage image while saving money on imported lenses, which are still very expensive for Ukrainian amateurs. In fact, the advent of these and similar innovations has surprisingly boosted the popularity of film: digitally scanned works of talented film photographers get intense exposure on the web and social networks, attracting more interest to vintage photography.

It’s quite ironic that the nostalgia for the days of analogue photography wouldn’t have been possible without the digital revolution, which gave it completely new life in the countries of the former USSR. But this is the way trends seem to work— new things so often appear to be old things long forgotten. Companies interested in tapping into this nostalgia trend should look back into their own history to find older brands that can be reintroduced to younger generations. Of course, these old-fashioned brands should be appropriate for the product category: it wouldn’t make much sense to market a “Soviet-era” TV or computer, as they are products that would base their marketing campaigns on innovation and progress. The careful application of vintage design to the right products, though, can give customers a feeling of stability and comfort in uncertain times.