Perceptions of communism – Power, Spectacle, Memory

“The term ‘communism’ can refer to any system of social organization in which goods are held in common; However, the term is most commonly used in referring to a particular kind of communal organisation that claims to arise out of the movement begun by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in the 19th century” (Cohen 1972:2).

Czechoslovakia, as well as Romania, have experienced communism and they both had dictators that were relying on spectacle in order to create and maintain their citizen’s compliance to their communist ideology.

The Czech government highly publicized the secret police and the purges, increasing the realization of the government and secret police’s influence and power through the masses. From 1949 to 1954 around 180 people were executed, as these people were believed/ portrayed to be anti-communist and therefore anti-government.

This was more severe in communist Romania led by Nicolae Ceausescu, leading to a state of people reporting each other’s anti-communist activities. The dictator Ceausescu also created a cult of personality by using mass media and various forms of propaganda to create a god/hero like image of him, making the people of Romania idolize him through weekly shows and parades dedicated to him, his wife, and the greatness of communism.

By 1988 public criticism increased and the first major demonstration occurred in Prague on 21 August 1988 in which around 10000 demonstrators mainly young people marched through the centre of Prague (Wheaton & Kavan 1992:24-25). The main revolution leading to the fall of communism was ignited by a student-led demonstration, which began on 17 November 1989. 4000 followers were expected to assemble on the day but by the afternoon 14000 people had gathered and in the end an estimated 55000 people had joined the demonstration (Wheaton & Kavan 1992:42-43).

The communism ending Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia saw protestors using specific elements in their protests that created the spectacle of a winning revolution that would gain support and also be taken seriously by the government. Symbolic acts such as the famous photo portraying protestors presenting the heavily armed police force with flowers, as well as the jingling of keys to wave off the communists furthered the significance and therefore meaning of the revolution. The Romanian revolution (16th of December to the 22nd of December), was on the other hand far bloodier and with many more casualties, ending with the most significant spectacle of all. The broadcasted show trial and Christmas day execution of the president Nicolae Ceausescu and of his wife Elena.

The terrifying news came right after the revolution when people started finding out about the crimes that were done during communism to the people who opposed the regime.

Exile prisons such as the one in Pitesti (Romania), were created to re-educate their political prisoners using violent and degrading methods known today as “the Pitesti Phenomenon”. As Guy Debord wrote “Whoever becomes the ruler of a city that is accustomed to freedom and does not destroy it can expect to be destroyed by it, for it can always find a pretext for rebellion in the name of its former freedom” (2009:113). This was also true in Communist Romania and Czech Republic; by 1989 successful revolts occurred to gain back freedom creating an obvious and significant shift of power from the communist governments to the people.

Alongside many other European cities that came across the communist regime (Moscow, Bucharest, Warsaw), Prague experienced besides communism, the communist architecture, which has been, described either as grandiose (Stalinist architecture), either as massive and grey.

The 1950s architecture and generally the Socialist-Realist style consists mainly in consciously imitating Stalin’s tastes.

One of the very few examples of Socialist Realist architecture in Prague is the Crowne Plaza Hotel.  The architectural style of the building was inspired by a series of constructions in Russia, and it fulfilled Stalin’s fantasy by becoming a miniature copy of the Seven Sisters group of skyscrapers from Moscow.

The 254-room hotel is 88 meters high and it has 16 floors along with a fallout shelter, which can get together 600+ people.  Its original Socialist Realist architecture and character is imposing, as well as the green star on the top of the hotel which was once a red one (symbol of being a communist building).

Another symbol of the power and authority in Prague is Kotva department store, one of the most famous and controversial communist buildings of the Czech Republic.  Finished in 1975, the building instigates through its 6 units, the supremacy and the uniqueness of the communist retro design.

Looking into Bucharest’s architecture, one could easily observe that it represents one of the most evident proofs of the obsession to express supremacy and to exercise control of Nicolae Ceausescu, the dictator who came to power in 1965He started by posing as chief architect of “New Romania”, but his decisions had a brutal, yet intense attack on Romania’s architecture and history, reforming Bucharest into one of the most affected communist cities in post Second World War Europe. The Romanian communist era, distorted Bucharest from the Small Paris of the Balkans to a copy of the USSR’s architectural style.

The House of the Parliament (as it is known nowadays) is one of the still living memories of a traumatic past of tyranny. Its surface (330 000 square meters) catalogues it as being the biggest administrative construction in Europe and the second in the world, after the U.S. Pentagon. The Guinness Book ranks its volume as the third in the world. The Palace’s scale, design and surroundings were the ultimate manifestation of Ceausescu’s dream which calculated this in order to express his power. In order for this construction to take place, the dictator decided entire neighborhoods to be demolished with a surface later compared with the size of Venice. Valuable historic constructions and churches were destroyed, alongside with 40 000 people that were forced to move.

Architecture finds justification here in politics not in art as even the layout with straight roads is the permanent symbol of order, control, and power.

People were not even allowed to walk on the streets outside the gates of the Palace, so there was only a large empty boulevard which was haunting the city, making them understand that any rebellion form would be pointless against the power of a totalitarian state.

In spite of what the media might convey today among the Czech general public, there is an atmosphere of profound disillusionment with the current political situation. According to an opinion poll conducted by the STEM polling agency in November, 2009, a mere 11 per cent of Czech citizens believe that the twenty years since the fall of communism ‘have been a good time’ and 57 per cent believe that it has ‘not been the happiest period in Czech history’.

People commented that they had not had a negative experience during the communist regime’s rule except for the travel restrictions; unlike today where they are free to do so but lack the money to do so. These surprising results might be due to a sentimentality resulting from the distortion of memories.

Based on the memory of those people who suffered during the communist era, Glenn Spicker (an American businessman), decided to build a museum in Prague, called the “Museum of communism” and everything was re-created in order to give the visitors the feeling of traveling back through time.  The museum is divided into three different sections – “Communism – The Dream, The Reality and The Nightmare”.

The first section (“The dream of communism”) – includes how the idealist people felt during the early days and it consists of propaganda material and classroom with communist school books.

The second section, called “The reality” has the role of conveying the harsh reality of communism consisting of empty shop shelves to an interrogation room.

The third and the last section of the museum (”The Nightmare”) emphasises on the 1989 Velvet Revolution.

It is evident from the communist era archives that in order for the communist leaders to maintain power they had to instil terror and fear through violence and that even though one of the aims was to bring about equality overall the majority of the population remained poor with barely enough to eat whilst those in power continued to accumulate vast amount of wealth.  However despite these memories, the general consensus is that life was far much better under that regime as there were more job opportunities and equality compared to life after communism.

REFERENCES

Cohen, C.  (1972) Communism, Fascism And Democracy.  Random House Inc.: New York. Toronto

Debord, G.  (2009) Society Of The Spectacle.     Soul Bay Press Ltd: East Sussex

Wheaton, B. & Kavan, Z. (1992) The Velvet revolution Czechoslovakia, 1988-1991.         Westview Press: Boulder. San Francisco. Oxford

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One thought on “Perceptions of communism – Power, Spectacle, Memory

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