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The Greengrocer and His TV: The Culture of Communism after the 1968 Prague Spring

0 Comments 🕔04.Dec 2012

Paulina Bren, author of The Greengrocer and His TV: The Culture of Communism after the 1968 Prague Spring, is the winner of the Council for European Studies’ 2012 European Studies Book Award. In this interview with CritCom, she shares her thoughts about the culture of late communism and the challenges of researching a book on Czech television serials.

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The title of your book, The Greengrocer and His TV: The Culture of Communism after the 1968 Prague Spring, is both apt and unusual. However, for those not familiar with the literature on normalization or the work of Václav Havel, it may be a bit obscure. Who is the ‘Greengrocer’? What does he symbolize within the culture of late communism?

The ‘greengrocer’ is the ordinary citizen who lived through the period of late communism of the 1970s and 1980s: he is the figure that stands at the center of my book. In Václav Havel’s seminal essay, “The Power of the Powerless,” Havel tells the story of a Czech greengrocer who receives a political banner (it reads: Workers of the World Unite!) along with that day’s shipment of onions and carrots. Without thinking about it, probably without so much as reading the banner, the greengrocer displays it in his shop window as asked. In so doing, argues Havel, he announces his compliance. More significantly still, he consents to the rituals of everyday life under communism and thus “enters the game, he becomes one of its players, he makes it possible for the game to continue being played, for it basically to continue, simply to exist.” Havel’s greengrocer acts out of fear, although never fully realizing it. Havel called on him to stop, and to begin to “live in truth.”

My purpose was to complicate Havel’s greengrocer, and in so doing also come to a more sophisticated understanding of late communism. As a holdover from the Cold War, late communism is too often equated with Stalinism. Yet the 1970s and 1980s, which followed on the heels of the Prague Spring and the Soviet invasion, were fundamentally different – and this was as much the case across the whole of the Eastern Bloc. The Greengrocer and His TV speaks against a historiography of binaries, against the idea of official culture versus unofficial, dissidents versus ‘the greengrocers’, of living in truth versus living in lies.

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The Greengrocer’s ‘television’ represents the types of programming promulgated in Czechoslovakia (particularly the television serial) and their cultural impact. Can you explain how this material was produced, who distributed it, and what its ostensible purpose was?

Certainly, although I should preface this by saying that my book should not be mistaken for a history of socialist television. Rather, I employ television (and particularly the widely watched television serials by Jaroslav Dietl) as a lens through which to view late communism from a different and, indeed, surprising angle.

Czechs had become hooked on television serials prior to 1968; after 1968, studies showed that the public preferred to watch television dramas that unfolded in the familiar contexts of their own socialist lives. The result was a steady stream of serials broadcast once a week, in the evening, with a typical run of 11 to 13 episodes. They were the talk of the week. As with all television programming during communism, they were produced by state-controlled television, and broadcast on state television. Everything was thoroughly vetted, on multiple levels.  Nothing was shown ‘by accident’.

The desire for homegrown television shows and an established fan base for serials came into play after the Prague Spring when the regime was faced with how to communicate with a disgruntled and cynical public. People turned away from television news, long a mainstay for communicating the party line to citizens. Television serials stepped in to fill the gap. They were state-sanctioned public entertainment that very effectively transmitted the ethos of late communism. The archives show how the Soviets guided Czechoslovak Television management to utilize the power of television. Eventually – for it was a long process of trial and error – these serials became effective vehicles for projecting the touchstones of this era. They were the public map for the ways in which one was now to live in a communist state after 1968. You didn’t have to like the serials; the regime only cared that citizens watched them, and 80 to 95 percent of the country did.

 

In her review of The Greengrocer, Maria Bucur writes that one of your book’s most original contributions is to provide clear evidence that “the communist leadership cared about what viewers thought of the shows they were watching.” Can you give us some insight into the kinds of viewership information collected by party leaders? What were they looking for and why did they care so much?

I would change that a bit and say that one of the things my book shows is that the communist leadership cared what viewers/citizens thought. Period. The Cold War interpretation of postwar Eastern Europe has been that the regimes didn’t care what their publics thought as long as they performed as they should. My new book, Communism Unwrapped, co-edited with Mary Neuburger, similarly aims to counter this myth; it shows that the question of consumption during communism was a constant dance of accommodation and compromise between the state and society. Sometimes one won, and other times the other did.

As for the question of what kind of viewership information was collected: all sorts. Letters from viewers were compiled, tabulated, excerpted, and turned into weekly, monthly, and yearly reports that were passed on to the Central Committee. The head of television, Jan Zelenka, frequently wrote back to viewers himself. A whole department existed that dealt with viewer correspondence, and they too wrote back – and not always pleasantly! Czech Television became a repository of citizen-viewers’ general complaints, as if the television screen was the face of a rather faceless government. Thus anonymous letters made their way to television headquarters too, with top complaints being the lack of certain products in the stores and the use of Slovak language on television (a foreshadowing of Czechoslovakia’s split after 1989…).

 

In your introduction you reveal that you received special access to the Communist Party’s Central Committee archives. Can you tell us what you found there and how it influenced (or did not influence) this book project? Also, what other sources did you use and which were most valuable in writing The Greengrocer and His TV?

Well, when I started the research for this book, the process was far less formal than it is today.  The archive was still housed in a historic building in the beautiful Little Quarter of Prague, although the heating was touch and go by then. So access meant that I stayed long enough, badgered enough, and fortunately spoke Czech fluently enough that I was eventually allowed to see materials that other (but strictly homegrown) historians were being shown. I thought it would be smooth sailing after that, but instead I found the Central Committee documents were full of official speak, simultaneously guarded and verbose, and had little to no story to tell in and of themselves. This forced me to look toward less conventional avenues for archival research. And as I spoke to friends and acquaintances about normalization, they would almost inevitably end up talking about these serials by Dietl, which led me to the Czech Television archives, where the staff was remarkably accommodating. It was still not easy research to do (lots is missing, whether intentionally or not), but by having access to some of Zelenka’s personal files, I was able to see many of the more direct communications he had with members of the Central Committee.

In addition, the book uses a vast variety of other sources, in large part because my book also asks why the dissidents had so little resonance. Why did their message mean so little when Dietl’s meant so much? Havel and other dissidents around the Charter 77 opposition group were intellectual rock stars in the West, but their position was more complicated back home.

 

How does The Greengrocer and His TV fit into the arc of your intellectual development? You, along with Mary Neuburger, are also the editor of Communism Unwrapped: Consumption in Cold War Eastern Europe, which looks at “the complex world of consumption in Cold War Eastern Europe.” In what way, if any, do these two books connect or overlap? What do they tell us about your intellectual passions?

As I mentioned earlier, the new book is part of an effort to look beyond the assumptions of the Cold War period. The book is meant to interrogate the clichéd image we all have of long lines and empty stores during communism. This was undoubtedly also a reality – and in no way are we revising it. But the point is to think about consumption rather than merely consumerism because the two are clearly different. Socialist citizens learned to become consumers during the postwar period, just like their Western counterparts, through an equivalent fixation on consumption. It was a more politicized and creative path, certainly, but, as in the case of television, postwar Eastern Europe was just as affected by the major forces shaping the West – namely, media and consumption.

 

What was the greatest challenge you faced in researching The Greengrocer and His TV? If you had a chance to go back, what would you do differently?

It would certainly be much easier to do the research now. Time has passed, and there is now full access to documents from this period. Moreover, secret police files are more readily available – which was out of the question when I was doing this work. Lastly, it was important that I see the television serials about which I was going to write, but initially I was only able to sample a few here and there on 8mm film, courtesy of the Czech Television archive director. Yet within a couple of years I could switch on the television and see any number of them: these very same serials that had ignited my research quickly became a nostalgia phenomenon. They also instigated the first – and, in many ways, only – public discussions of the recent past in the Czech Republic.

At the same time, I’m so glad that I did this research when I did. I was enormously motivated by writing a new history of late communism when there was almost nothing out there other than studies of the dissident movement. Also, the spotty access to sources, and the then unusual sight of an American investigating the recent (and prickly) past, forced me to become creative in my work as a historian. I think this creativity has much to do with how well received the book has been.

 

Your work focuses on the relationship between the citizen and the state, particularly how state-controlled television was used to help encourage stability in the aftermath of the Prague Spring. In light of the many crises and challenges that have buffeted Eastern Europe since 1993, including the contemporary challenges of austerity, how would you assess the role television now plays in defining political culture? Are there notable continuities or discontinuities?

I’m not sure about today’s role of television generally, but there has certainly been continuity in terms of television serials: the Czechs’ love of them, and their role in politics and society. As mentioned, the Dietl serials have been the lightening rod for discussions of late communism.  There were attempts to continue the most popular serials from the communist period, and to bring them into post-1989 (but with different writers, since Dietl died in the mid-1980s). I think these televisual reincarnations ultimately failed, but a recent contemporary serial that has done very well reprises the everyday experience of an ordinary family during normalization. And that, too, has led to some public discussion.

A year ago, a journalist from the Czech weekly, Respekt, wrote to me with a set of interview questions about the rebroadcasting of these socialist television serials, even the highly ideological ones. She asked if I was surprised by their enduring popularity. I am not. Shared experience is at the center of the Ostalgie phenomenon, and the serials are nothing if not that. Moreover, what is often overlooked is that the world sped up for everyone in the early 1990s with the widespread use of new medias (personal computers, the Internet, etc.). This meant that Czechoslovakia and the rest of the former Bloc were not only facing vast political, social, and cultural changes, but also had to cope with the enormous changes that Western citizens were finding difficult, too. Just as I found in my early research that these serials were the only shared articulation of late communism available to those who had lived through it, now it might be their only way to experience that lost sense (whether real or imagined) of community.

Either way, I’m sure I’ll be hearing more on that when my book comes out in a Czech translation in 2013. The difficulty in writing contemporary history is that most of the witnesses are alive to tell you that you’re wrong! Certainly, the wounds of the recent past are often still sore. I was therefore enormously relieved this past week when my translator – a former dissident and one of the first signatories of Charter 77 – wrote to tell me how much she’s been enjoying The Greengrocer and His TV.

 


Paulina Bren is a historian and writer who teaches at Vassar College.  Her book, The Greengrocer and His TV: The Culture of Communism after the 1968 Prague Spring (Cornell University Press, 2010) was winner of the 2012 Council for European Studies Book Prize.  The prize is awarded every two years for the best first book on any topic involving substantial research on Europe. Her second book Communism Unwrapped: Consumption in Cold War Eastern Europe (Oxford University Press), co-edited with Mary Neuburger, was released in July 2012.

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