Jan Palach 2 : Media Portrayals

The story of Jan Palach and his dramatic action of self-immolation captured a lot of hearts. Many people and media outlets wanted to retell the story and help the world become aware of his actions, and message. From documentaries, music videos to simple references Jan Palach became world known as one of the heroes that actively stood up against communist Czechoslovakia.

One of the most acclaimed documentaries that told of his story and the days following his suicide, is The Burning Bush by Agnieszka Holland. Holland is a Polish born director who having had studied in Prague at the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague (FAMU), had knowledge and interest in the Czechoslovak revolution and Jan Palach.

Many bands and musicians also wanted to portray or dedicate and tribute their songs and music videos to Palach’s actions including Kasabian’s song “Club Foot”, Francesco Guccini’s song  “La Primavera di Praga”, “The funeral of Jan Palach” by the Zippo band.

As well as documentaries and songs, statues were also erected to commemorate Palach.  Though statues and art might not be considered media, they still serve the same purpose of informing and reminding the masses of a person or event creating a collective memory. Andras Beck unveiled a statue in the city of Melnik dedicated to Palach on the 40th anniversary of his death. This statue is currently in France.

beck_andras_palach1970

Mwen Fikirini

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Czechoslovakia and the similarities to other eastern European communist regimes

Dr. Oldrich Tuma tried to explain to us that sometimes, when you’re trying to make a puzzle at different times, the pieces might work together in different ways.

“During these 40 years the situation changed.

For some periods ( after 56, early 60’s), the situation in Czechoslovakia was very similar to Poland. […] Hungary between 53 and 56, and Eastern Germany had a similarity.

Maybe the most parallel developments were in Czechoslovakia after 1969 and in Germany during the 70’s and 80’s. Similar social… ladder of social economic development and same rigid methods used by the regime to control the society […]. Preferred to send people abroad and send them to prison and things like that…

so I think you would find similar methods and general parts of the picture but it’s not easy to say that this country was the same case as the other country. After all, all the communist counties were simply based on the same communist ideology, one thing and the other thing it’s that all were based on the example of the Soviet Union. So they tried to implement the soviet reality into their countries especially in the 50’s (again with the help or with the assistance of Soviet advisors).  I think different countries had similar rates. There were many reasons why the situations were similar but together there were different phases and periods where there were loosing control and then strictering the control and so on. I think to find parallels and differences is a good thing, but it’s not so easy to say Czechoslovakia was like Poland and was different to Romania.”

 

Marina Gogeanu

Interview transcribed by: Mwen Fikirini

The Roman Arenas, Bucharest, Romania

When the communists came to power after World War II, they wrote another page in the history of the Arenas. Since 1966, for two years, Roman Arenas entered into a process of restoration and modification, any badge or ornament resembling the monarchy era being overthrown. They had to erase the memory of a glorious past from the minds of the Romanians and make them associate the “Roman Arenas” with the communist era, so they closed the amphitheatre and raised and covered the scene. They poured concrete over grass and built offices for the administrative staff behind the scenes. The porch has been closed to new large glass windows, while the royal box was increased from four rooms to six rooms. The roof of the lodge was also rebuilt, and under its terrace they arranged a room for film screenings.  At the Roman Arenas were held now, folk concerts, theatre performances or movie screenings.

arene

After the Revolution, the arenas have been forgotten and their function of amusement and recreation state was replaced with a more practical function, that of a textile production and storage.

 

Marina Gogeanu

Pitesti penitenciary – Romania

I’m supposed to write a blog post about the crimes of communism, but having lived in a country still haunted by this appalling political regime, I feel I cannot do justice and explain properly the terror that the communist era has developed into the mentality of Romanians. Some people will read this having little to no knowledge about communism; others will read it feeling they already know everything there is to know about the crimes in that time… However, I dare anyone to put in plain words the sheer brainwash activity that has happened for more than five decades (1947-1989) in a country still feeling the consequences of the Second World War.

Communism in Romania:

In the immediate years after the WWII, the communist-aligned parties gained more and more power through constant elimination of adversaries. Thus, in December 1947, the rightful king of Romania, Michael, was forced to abdicate (and flee the country) by a growing body of communists. As a consequence, the People’s Republic of Romania was formed. Although we can talk about numerous crimes in the build-up to the coup d’état that happened in 1947, the most terrifying and frequent crimes came after the regime was officially in power. Most of the intellectuals (academics, students, writers, poets, philosophers, and priests, among others) opposed the change in power vocally at first, as they were concerned that the new political regime will prove similar to the one in Russia, where J. Stalin imposed the Great Terror in the late 1930s   (The Great Terror a.k.a. the Great Purge was a series of repressive measures in the USSR that led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Old Bolsheviks – thought to be enemies of the state). Unfortunately, their worst fears turned out to be completely true.

In a perfect Communist country, the underlying Marxist ideology is “From every one according to their aptitude, to all according to necessity”. This is a very good idea for small groups of people, where public pressure and collective power prevent the creation of a privileged class. This way, communism guarantees an equal distribution of power and wealth, which can be seen as an egalitarian society. However, both the theory and the implementation of Communism in a country are flawed because of:

  1. Human nature – humans are not as group oriented in modern society as they were millions of years ago when they were required to stay together in order to survive. The consequence of this is that nowadays, humans will not work beyond the normal efforts just to get a normal reward. To be more explicit, if someone can get £5 for producing 5 items, they won’t strive to produce 10-15 items because in Communism they will only get the same reward of merely £5.
  2. Privileged class – in all communist countries, the party is solely responsible for the implementation of the communist ideology. Although ideally the party should be there to maintain the social parity and collaboration, realistically, the party is the group that dictates everything as it possess all the power. Unfortunately, there are no checks of power within the communist regime and as such, the leader becomes all powerful and terribly abusive, not to mention obsessed with his “perfect” personality.

As I said before, the intellectuals in Romania had plenty to fear about the new regime, nevertheless because of the newly created privileged class. The implementation of communism in Romania was of a very high standard. Immediately after the communists took over, a command of terror was spread across the country and the very first victims were the people who had position of power previously and the people who did adhere to the new rules. Principals of schools, with years of experience in both tutoring and running schools were dismissed and uneducated people were put in their position. The reasoning was very simple: take a detractor and destroy him and in the same time, replaces him with someone whose loyalty you can buy easily. Because people who had no power previously were tasked to run various institutions/companies, they listened blindly to what the people in power told them to do, even if that meant hurting other people. Because it was forbidden to say anything against such practices, everyone who dared to display signs of rebellion would be taken away and some of them were never to be found again.

This led in 1949 to the conception of the single most terrifying creation of communism in Europe, a place of pure horror: the Pitesti Penitentiary. On the 6th of December 1949, this place started the process of re-education with the aim to destroy any form of mental health of an individual. Most of the people who suffered this process were students, academics, intellectuals or communism haters. They were all called “enemies of the state” and the military police would force other people to say untrue stories just so they could have a claim against them. A confession taken after the Pitesti experiment had finished tells the story of a young man who was brought in for questioning for plotting against the communist party. Even though he was innocent, there were claims from secure sources that he “wanted to rebel against the party”, thus becoming an “enemy of the state”. After hours of questioning and beatings, he was finally shown who the police’s informer was: his wife, whom he married just a few months before, had been beaten and persecuted until she capitulated, lying that he was an “enemy of the state”. This is how it all began for most prisoners as the military police had no real claim against them so they had to force other people into inventing such things.

As soon as they had proof of claims against you, you were then taken into the penitentiary where the horrific process would begin. It was very detailed and aimed at destroying the innate being and beliefs of an individual and it consisted of 4 stages:

    1. External denunciation – through continuous torture, you were made to invent claims against your closest friends and acquaintances so that the military police could detain and prosecute them as well
    2. Internal denunciation – After you were made to lie about your friends, you were forced to start insulting yourself until you lost any respect for your upbringing, for your values, for the world that you constructed for yourself. One of the stories tells about a very religious man who was constantly forced to relieve himself on the Holy Cross whilst insulting God and anyone who would believe in him. The key for this process was to keep going like this until all the principles of an individual were destroyed through constant torture and unmitigated pain.
    3. Public moral denunciation – the third step of the process required the individual, again under severe and constant torture, to start criticizing his parents up to the point where the mother would become the biggest whore that ever existed and where the father would become anything as bad as a “paedophile” or “incestuous scumbag” who raised you as a “scumbag” as well.

Torture is very well spread in times of war and totalitarian regimes, everybody is aware of that. However, the difference with the Pitesti experiment was that torture was constant, it didn’t stop at all; it was continuous until the last stage of the process, the 4th step which is basically the complete dehumanisation of an individual.

                  4. The victim becomes the torturer. After you’ve gone through the first 3 steps of the programme, you were forced to do  the whole process to your best friend, thus becoming an executioner yourself. This was the final straw that ultimately destroyed the personality of all those who were re-educated. By becoming a torturer and doing the same atrocious acts to your best friend, they assured that you won’t have any chances of coming back to who you were previously. The transformation and brainwash were complete in every way and this is what made the Pitesti Penitentiary one of the most terrible places of those times.

Countless people have died before word got out of that was happening there in 1952. The government acted as if it was surprised at the activities that were held at Pitesti and they quickly condemned some of the torturers to death to silence everybody.

Even though the Pitesti phenomenon has been finished for more than 60 years, I am still deeply disturbed by what happened merely 80 miles away from my home city. Similar experiments have indeed taken place in other countries (this re-education process started in China and was copied by others later), but none of them went through all the 4 steps in order to complete the process.

Marina Gogeanu

Communism in Ukraine

Communism in Ukraine began when Poland and the communists signed the treaty of Riga after the second Bolshevik war. The USSR did not recognize Ukraine as a sovereign state, so they attacked until the signing of the treaty in 1921 which gave them control over Ukraine. War Communism was then introduced and enforced by the Supreme Economic Council (Vesenkha), it was an economic and political system with the aim of keeping towns and the army fully stocked with weapons and food this only ended when the New Economic Policy began in 1921. War Communism was a major failure the peasants rose in a massive rebellion against the so-called “dictatorship of the proletariat” and the communist demands for grain, which deprived the peasants of their livelihood. “War Communism”, which included also the nationalisation of industry, brought about the collapse of Ukraine’s economy resulting in the famine of 1921—1923 were hundreds of thousands of people perished.

Lenin realised the failure of this policy so he created the NEP, this meant there was a return to private ownership of land, small industry and business leading to a revival of Ukraine’s economic state. The country’s cultural state also regained momentum. The policy of Ukrainisation was created to build a stronger national identity, through the promoting of culture and Ukrainian replacing Russian in schools, government, publishing and other areas. When Stalin came to power he opposed Ukrainisation due to his fear that Ukraine was trying to distance itself from the USSR. This led to individuals and organisations being accused of “bourgeois nationalism” and being “promoters of counter revolution” against the Soviet state. In 1929 the secret police (GPU) were utilised to investigate these allegations, leading to show trials of intellectuals and the termination of the Autocephalous Orthodox Church.

Church

Stalin’s reign

Stalin named the beginning of his reign as “The Year of the Great Turning Point”, he introduced collectivisation. This meant the state/ government had complete control over crops and grains. For this to work Stalin liquidised the Kulaks (peasants who were more well off),  nearly one million of them were  either sent off to prison or remote areas in the north as well as concentration camps or executed for not conforming to the collectivisation idea. By doing this Stalin had managed to almost wipe out Ukraine’s intelligentsia as well as peasants. Collective farming failed miserably, farmers were expected to just hand over all their grains to the army even if it left them with nothing for themselves. This led to the famine of 1932, sometimes referred to as a genocide that killed approximately between 7 to 10 million people.

ukraine_holodomor_monument

The 2 memorial statues signify the loss of lives during the famine

After Stalin died Nikita Khrushchev came to power, the mass murders and terror ended in Ukraine. People were once again encouraged to embrace their national identity. It’s not until after the mishandling of the Chernobyl disaster of 1986, did people freely criticise the communist government. The “Quiet Revolution” held in Kiev from September 8-10 1986 was the gathering of delegates from the provinces of Ukraine challenging the communist party. On August 24th 1991 it was agreed by the masses and parliament that Ukraine would become independent.

References:

http://www.worldstatesmen.org/Ukraine.html

http://www.lewrockwell.com/bresiger/bresiger7.html

http://www.ukrainiangenocide.org/dsovietpolicyandukrainiangenocide.html

 Mwen Fikirini

The Decree and The New Man of Romania

Ceausescu had a big dream for Romania – to create a pure communist generation – to create “The New Man”.

Marinetti suggests in his Futurist Manifesto (1909) the need for the “New Man” – an aggressive, animalistic merging of machine and human body, in the future of the human society. For example, while he notes that “Woman does not belong to a man, but rather to the future and the race’s development,” he also points out that this “future” is one entirely devoid of “every emotional morbidity, every womanly delicacy” (M 86). So women are bound to animalistic feelings and impulses which Marinetti’s “new man” is capable of overcoming. In order to overcome humanity’s physical and emotional limitations and recreate humanity, Marinetti must first recreate creation: namely, women’s “animalistic” power to reproduce. In short, Marinetti’s conception of Futurism requires that he both stigmatize and vilify that female body to achieve his prescribed vision of the future.

Ceausescu understood very well the role of women in the development of Romania’s economical system and especially for the procreation of “The new man”, so he gave the 770 Decree which forbade women to do abortions. This documentary illustrates the demographic and the psychological disasters provoked to the almost 2 millions of people born because of the decree. It is a truly terrifying documentary about “the crimes of communism in Romania” and more specifically about all the women murdered by the clandestine abortions and all the “malfunctioning” children declined by the system and then exterminated. “The new man” ideology also led to a racial purification in Romania, as unlike Romanian women, the gipsy ones were allowed/obliged to do abortions.

The Decree was one of the largest social experiments in the human history.
The Romanian Government banned abortions in 1948 to legalize them in 1957, after the Soviet model, because of the effects on women’s health. Statistics had shown that diseases caused by illegal abortions or inadequate conditions for pregnant women led to the damage of the Romanian women’s health.
Between 1959-1965, only one out of five pregnant women gave birth whilst the others were provoking themselves abortions.
So, Ceausescu put the issue of abortion ban just a year after arriving in the management of PCR.
On the 1st October of 1966, Ceausescu gave the 770 decree, banning all women to interrupt pregnancies with few exceptions: if the pregnancy endangered the woman’s life, if one of the parent suffers from a communicable hereditary disease, if the mother presents serious disabilities, if the women were over 45 years and have already born four children or if the pregnancy was the result of rape or incest.
Women who worked were obliged to go to regular gynecological controls; the company doctors were obliged to do even 60 examinations a day;

Ceausescu also banned the sex education; books about human reproduction were classified as state secrets and used only as medical textbooks.
Contraceptive methods were not longer imported in Romania. The only women who have had access to them were just the wives of the party members, the athletes and the athletes’ wives.
This led to clandestine abortions which killed thousands of Romanian women.
According to data from the ‘Centre for Statistics and Medical Documentation’, there were 9452 women who died between 1966 and 1989 due to clandestine abortions.

But the decree has reached its goal, at least initially. In 1967, the number of births has almost doubled, from 14.3 per thousand in 1966 to 27.4.

The sociological effects of Decree 770 decreased gradually, and in 1983 reached the same figure as in the 1966 birth rate. At the same time, the number of maternal deaths due to abortion rose from 64 in 1966 to 192 in 1968.
The number of births increased but not proportionally with restrictions.

In 1989, the birth rate had risen to 16 per thousand inhabitants, but the mortality rate increased up to 170 maternal deaths recorded per hundred thousand births, which is ten times more than the highest rate ever recorded in Europe, according to a study.

The first government after the fall of the communist regime annulled the decree 770.  On December 26, 1989, Romanian women were free to do whatever they wanted with their pregnancy.

Unfortunately, the abortion liberalization triggered a demographic catastrophe: there were a million of abortions done in 1990 which led to a decrease in population, which can still be felt.

Marina Gogeanu

Media representations of communism in the Czech Republic during the 1950’s–1980’s

Communist Propaganda

Like many other communist led countries, Czechoslovakia utilised the media to spread communist propaganda to the masses. The Communist Party of Czechoslovakia controlled all mass media in the country; Private ownership was not allowed. The main aim of these media outlets was to ‘provide complete information, but it must also advance the interests of socialist society and promote the people’s socialist awareness of the policy of the communist party as the leading force in society and state.’ This meant any printed or recorded material on the government controlled television and radio network that did not fit this ideology would be censored or completely cut out; the laws were so strict it was not allowed to print or duplicate more than 11 copies of any printed material.  But unlike other communist countries, many foreign (Austrian, Polish, German and Hungarian) radio stations and television channels were not blocked and could still be accessed.

Most of the propaganda aired would either discuss the enemy that is the west or reinforce ideology of the Czech People’s strength through communism/ socialism.

The American Bug

The American Bug is a film clip about the Colorado potato beetle, a beetle that destroys potato crops. This beetle started to increasingly appear in Europe during the 1940’s. The Nazi’s and later on the communists believed that the Americans dropped these beetles using their air force to destroy their countries. The communists also believed the Americans used this method to ruin the countries crop and create food shortages, which would to a negative image of failing communism to be spread.

Spartakiada 1980

A film that shows the athletic competitions in Spartakiada, many films of this nature were created to highlight the grace and strength of the Czech people, also the importance of accepting the socialist ideology to better yourself and your country.

The Czechoslovak New Wave Cinema

The Czechoslovak new wave (1960’s) is the period were film makers created films that questioned the communist regime in an open manner. These films usually casted nonprofessional actors, contained dark humour and impulsive dialogues that weren’t previously scripted. These films questioned society, expressed political and cultural freedom while trying to make the Czech people understand the oppression that they were enduring in a way that most film makers living in communist led countries couldn’t. Film makers such as Miloš Forman, Věra Chytilová, Ivan Passer, Jaroslav Papoušek, Jiří Menzel, Jan Němec, Jaromil Jireš, Vojtěch Jasný and Evald Schorm spearheaded this movement.

Miloš Forman

Milos Forman created many well-known anti-communist films such as Black Peter and The Loves of a Blonde, as well as Hollywood films such as One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest. In The Loves of a Blonde a young factory worker Andula living in a small village with a higher number of women in northern Czechoslovakia falls for a jazz pianist. She chooses him over all the other more suitable suitors and follows him to Prague after he tells her “most women are round, like guitars but you are a guitar by Picasso”.  In this film Forman depicts the communist perceptions of sexual relations, pop culture and worker’s alienation in communist Czechoslovakia. Andula defies all this during the film; this is Forman’s message to the people to break free of social/ communist bounds.

The Loves of a Blonde (1965)

Milos Forman left Czechoslovakia in 1968 for America; his films had gained international success and even Oscar’s (The Loves of a Blonde and Fireman’s Ball). The same trend followed with his Hollywood film One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest. He continues to be attracted to films about a single person fighting societal oppressions and refusing to conform. It is obvious his past in communist Czechoslovakia has influenced him greatly. In an interview with John Tusa of the BBC, Forman speaks about his experiences dealing with the communist censorship and bureaucrats when filming as well as the Czechoslovakian communist era’s effect on his work.

An excerpt from the interview:

So you had the experience of living under Nazism, and then from 1948 onwards the experience of living under Communism. There are quite a lot of people, and I think of course as time goes by people forget what the experience of living under Communism was, how would you convey the essence of living in that sort of regime to somebody who doesn’t know about it and didn’t live in that way?

Simply said it’s living in fear, which is boring. Because you are afraid to lose the chance to go to school, to have a job, to do things so you have to censor yourself what you say, what you do, you know, how you behave. But it’s not an exciting kind of rebellion against the regime …it’s a very boring rebellion because…I guess any totalitarian system is basically very, very boring.

 What about the people who actually ran the party, the bureaucrats, what sort of people were they?

 Well I guess they are people who their only pleasure in life is power, nothing spiritual, just power, and they… I don’t even know if they believed in it or not, they just did it to keep themselves in power and keep everybody away who could disturb their power.

So how did you deal with this when you started making movies which were going to be mainstream movies?

 Well my situation was sort of lucky because we started right at the moment when there was a certain kind of a relaxation of this strict ideological………

Late 67, early 68.

Early ’67 after Khruschev, you know, denouncing Stalin and telling “comrades we have to give a little more confidence to young people and like that, that was a little more relaxed period and we started. Fortunately for us because as much as the communists denounced the decadent West you know, which is falling apart and very soon will disappear from the planet, nothing they like more than the success in the West and hard currency of course, which usually comes with some success, you know. So because our first films were fortunately, you know, were successful and brought some hard currency, so they started to tolerate us, you know.

But always looking very carefully at what you were saying so that you didn’t overstep the boundaries of what they would regard as politically acceptable?

Oh of course, of course. With this little relaxation of course everybody who had a little freer way of thinking was trying, trying pushing the boundaries, right, and they became very sensitive … but it was the time when it was not very popular to ban like films in an administrative way. So what they were doing is that they…usually when they saw a film and they didn’t like it and they thought that it should be, you know, banned, so they arranged a screening for working people, for people, and they always planted it, you know, one or two people there who, you know, “okay comrades let’s have a discussion about the film” and here they are, you know, yes, yes, I would like to say, and now they attack the film and finally, you know, the result was, well the people rejected the film. [laughter] And this has supposed to happen to my film which I was told, the film, the name is Fireman’s Ball and it’s kind of a comedy, you know. And I was told that when the President and the First Secretary of the Party and his, you know, cohorts saw the film, that he climbed the walls, you know, and…

 So he wasn’t that stupid, Novotny that he could see exactly what was going on in that film, he wasn’t so stupid?

Oh no he knew exactly, right away, right away.

So did he say ban it, or what did they do?

 They immediately ordered this kind of screening and they decided, now listen he is making fun of these fireman because… the whole film was shot in a small town …there was not one professional actor, all the people are from the town and mostly they are the real firemen from that town. So he said, we’ll show that film there, and then these people will see how this film is mocking them, making fun of them, making them look ridiculous, they will tell the film makers what kind of a dirty job they did. So they arranged the screening in that little town, everybody was there, everybody who was in the film was there…

 Except you?

I was advised not to go there because I might be attacked, the enraged mob of very angry firemen, could beat me up. I didn’t go, but I was told what happened. That the film ended and of course immediately the planted man, you know, got up and said, “well comrades, I think this film is a disgrace, full of lies about our heroic firemen who are fighting to keep our lives and our properties intact from fires. And here look what they did and they are making fun of them, with these lies.” Like that. So he’d finished and then one of the firemen, a local fireman, you know, his hand went out and said, “well, comrades, I don’t know why are you saying it’s a lie, do you remember when the shack of, you know, this old man was burning and we couldn’t get there because I was drunk and we couldn’t get the car out of the garage, you know, my God.” And people started to applaud and laugh, because what they didn’t realise, the communist organisers of this screening, that they are not showing this to local people, they are showing it to the actors, to people who were immortalised on the screen, they were proud to see themselves on the screen. And I think that they understood that the film is a comedy, is a satire, that they didn’t take it personally. So it was total fiasco, but they banned the film anyway.

Can you just, …..can you remember what you felt and what you thought when the Red Army marched into Czechoslovakia in the Autumn of 1968?

Well I was, at that moment I was in Paris working with Jean Claude on the script for Taking Off, and well, I’ll tell you. For me the biggest shock was my brother, who was, who is a home boy, he lived in a small, tiny little place…a village, you know, far from Prague . And to travel to Prague , for him, that was a big undertaking, you know. And now the Russians came to occupy Czechoslovakia , I’m in Paris I don’t know what to do, I am trying to find my brother, I find out he’s on his way to Australia . And I reach him and said, what are you doing, and he said, he said, look, you know, I remember when in 38 a friend of our parents came to our father and said listen, I am leaving, I am leaving for England, as a matter of fact, and if you want I can arrange for you to leave too. And I remember our father who said, No, no, no, no, I have a clean conscience here, nothing will happen to us, and they both paid for this decision of our father with their lives, the father and the mother. And who knows what will happen now with the Russians, and I will not take the responsibility if something bad would happen. That for me, was okay, this must be serious.

 Did you even consider going back and saying, there will be some kind of resistance or political resistance and I will be part of that political resistance?

No, I was in a very particular situation because I was outside legally, so I didn’t really have to consider defection yet, because the contract to let me… let me make a film in the United States which was Taking Off, was signed by the previous Dubcek communist regime, you know, during the liberalisation. If the new communist regime wouldn’t honour the contract they could be sued for a lot of money by Universal, right, who they’ve got the contract with. So I finished the film outside of Czechoslovakia legally, but then I was asked to come back and I knew that the moment I come back because meanwhile I learned that the Fireman’s Ball was banned forever, that I would not be able to work in the…in the cinema, so I asked for extending my exit visa and they fired me, and that’s how.

From that point of view it was a comparatively easy decision?

Right, they made the decision for me.

You have this record, and I wonder whether it has been overt in your mind, of heroes who are active counter-heroes. Larry Flynt is certainly one, McMurphy in Cuckoo’s Nest is certainly another – were you aware that you were producing this extraordinary canon of heroes who stand up to oppressive society, or was it just instinctive and it emerged?

Well I would like…I would like to say that, you know, yes I am showing the world the conflict between an individual and an institution, but in fact, you know, I think I just glorify this rebel because I am myself a coward, you now, and I would like to be a hero but I, you know, I don’t have courage to do that. But on the other hand, this is the eternal conflict between individual and institution, because we create institution to help us live. We pay them with our taxes, and we end up very often being dictated by them, how to live, you know.

And the last scene in Cuckoo’s Nest, though there you are, this most American of films, overtly, but I believe that you see the end when McMurphy’s friend, the Indian, picks up this huge safe, throws it through the windows of the mental institutions and suddenly they are all out in the countryside, free. That’s not, as far as you’re concerned, just about America?

No, no, no, no. That was the dream of, I would say, 99% of the young people in Communist countries, you know. Because we were not allowed to travel, you know, we were in a cage like in the zoo, you know, and we all dreamt about, one day to take that thing and throw it through the barbed wire fences and go and run to see the world.

So that was a universal gesture both about the oppressions of capitalist societies and Communist societies as well?

Any kind of oppressive society, yes.

You said just a few minutes ago that you make these films about heroes are people who rebel against society because you’re not heroic yourself. Now the question which is almost always asked of a Czech sooner or later, and so I apologise for asking it to you, but because our national archetype is Schweyk who is the ultimate evasive hero…anti-hero, do you feel there is something of Schweyk inside you?

Oh very much so, this kind of humour, that’s what, I think, made the Czech nation survive centuries. Because, you know, Bohemia , or Moravia , you know, small entity in the middle of Europe surrounded by very powerful neighbours, who are always, you know, through the last 2000 years trying to dominate this part of Europe . And this small entity can’t protect itself through power, well it’s survived through humour, otherwise we would be dead.

The full audio interview can be found here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/p00nc1xp/The_John_Tusa_Interviews_Milos_Forman/

Věra Chytilová

Věra Chytilová was another pioneer of Czech cinema; she created the famously controversial film Daisies in 1966. She believed it was critical to reflect on society, morals and oneself. Her films do not rely on conventional cinematography cues, but more hysterical scenes of visually manipulations to get her message across. Chytilovás most acclaimed film Daisies is a depiction of two girls both named Marie realisation of how wasted the world is so they decide to follow suit. She criticises hedonism and consumerism but also in a masked manner the government’s ideology. She has expressed her views on the Soviet Union and in this film specifically towards the “rehabilitative” actions towards the Czech people who were deemed anti-communist. The film was banned from 1966 to 1967 and continues to cause controversy due to its scenes depicting food wastage.

One petition from the National Assembly for the film to be banned read, “We ask these cultural workers: How long will they poison the life of working people?”

Though this films confusing narrative still remains a mystery, the Czechoslovakian government could still understand the primary message of the girls defying social and therefore communist convention by acting in such a liberal way. They did not understand it but they knew it questioned ideologies they were trying to spread.

The Czechoslovak new wave ended in 1968 when the Soviet Union took control over Prague.

References

BBC (2010) The John Tusa Interviews. [online] available from < http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/p00nc1xp/The_John_Tusa_Interviews_Milos_Forman/ > [07 February 2013]

BBC (2010) Transcript of the John Tusa Interview with Milos Forman. [online] available from < http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio3/johntusainterview/forman_transcript.shtml > [07 February 2013]

Chytilová, V (1966). Daisies [online] available from < http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zm9Gh8Fpy0c > [06 February 2013]

Forman, M (1965). The Loves of a Blonde. [online] available from < http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xvXY7qnKgTg >  [07 February 2013]

Parvulescu, C. (2010) ‘Milos Forman’s Loves of a Blonde: Pop Culture, Rebellion and Sexual Liberation in the Eastern European Bloc’. Senses of Cinema [online] 11 July. Available from < http://sensesofcinema.com/2010/cteq/milos-forman%E2%80%99s-loves-of-a-blonde-pop-culture-rebellion-and-sexual-liberation-in-the-eastern-european-bloc/>  [06 February 2013]

Rapold, N. (2012) ‘An Audience for Free Spirits in a Closed Society’. The New York Times [online] 29 June.  Available from < http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/01/movies/daisies-from-the-czech-director-vera-chytilova-at-bam.html?_r=0>  [07 February 2013]

Mwen Fikirini

Interview with Vlada Zhmuro – perceptions of the communist era in Ukraine

1.       To you, what is communism?

I think the idea of communism (all people equal, share everything blah blah) is not a bad one but its utopian because it goes against human nature. In communism all people are supposed to have access to the same goods/ services, have similar living conditions no matter how educated you are or what position you hold in society.  In reality this did not work because higher educated people and people with power still wanted to be richer, have better things such as food, education and medical care and not mix with factory workers and bus drivers.  Soviet Union Ukraine was still a society with class divisions because certain people especially those in the government lived like kings of soviet luxury life, while everyone else lived in despicable conditions were food and a lot of products were unavailable.  This relates and has been seen in China, Cuba and North Korea…So I think communism always fails.

 

2.       Do you think your country has improved since the communist era?

I think yes… Because it has become more European, making certain important services available for all. Such as you can travel abroad, you can buy property/ cars, have your own businesses and make money, we have a higher degree of freedom of speech. No ridiculous censorship for TV, films and books. Unlike when under the USSR’s control all films/books had to be approved by a special committees which banned a lot of films/books because they saw them as immoral or anti soviet/written by enemies of the state, same people who would be sent to the Gulags.

Also there is less importance put on race, in the Soviet Union they used to write your “race/nationality” in your passport (Russian, Ukrainian, Jewish, Armenian, Georgian etc.). Jewish is not a nationality, but somehow they did write Jewish in passports!  This meant it was more difficult to get into a good university or get a good job if you were Jewish or Georgian.

Other improvements include being able to criticise the government openly, people don’t spy on each other, a sexual revolution attitudes towards sex are far more liberal and foreign products are freely available. Basically Ukraine became almost like Europe in terms of culture, economics etc. Of course it is far from Europe if you really compare standards of living and wealth but comparing to the USSR it is like Europe now. So in generally it has definitely improved but obviously there are things that have got worse.

The quality of education and public healthcare has significantly worsened; there is a higher crime and unemployment rate. Different from during the communist era since you could actually go to prison for not working.

3.       What do you think were the most obvious advantages and disadvantages of communism?

Advantages – As I previously mentioned no unemployment you were guaranteed a job after university or some other training, good education and healthcare, free kindergartens, very cheap basic food (bread, milk, baby food). There was also free housing, you had to wait sometimes for like 6-10 years and the quality wasn’t great, also you couldn’t choose the location but all flats were given for free. A disadvantage of this was you couldn’t sell it if you didn’t like the flat of it was too big you could only change it with someone else if you wanted their flat and they yours. Sometimes people changed one big flat for to smaller ones (e.g. after divorce) or vice-versa.

People had long compulsory vacations you had to take each year, could be up to a month. There were free trips to the sea, or other resorts, your children got free trips to summer camps. The public transport was cheap even flying and on fixed prices, that were cheaper than today.

Disadvantages – All houses, flats, factories, businesses and land was owned by the government so a normal citizen couldn’t sell or privately own them.

After university you had to work for 3 years in a designated company/factory / hospital depending on what your profession was. It was compulsory and you could get sent to any corner of the country. Only After that you could come back and choose where you want to work.

A lot of goods were really hard to get even if you had money. Like cars, house electronics, foreign clothes, furniture etc. You had to have connections. There was even a saying “It’s better to have 100 friends than 100 Rubels.”  There were serious laws against bribing so people usually bartered instead of bribing with money (also a lot of people had no money but had access to some goods they could use bartering). Even products from countries that were seen as allies such as the Czech Republic, Poland and East Germany were hard to come by.

The government had unlimited power and often abused it. Example not valuing human life and just sending masses of soldiers to death in WW2 or when Chernobyl blew up instead of telling people the truth and protecting them from radiation by imposing rules that everyone should stay inside they made everyone including children go out and celebrate 1st of May! Because they wanted to conceal the incident, sending people unprotected to extinguish the fire in a radioactive reactor.

People were not allowed to travel abroad, there was no freedom of speech, and all information on television / films/books was heavily censored. There was no adequate knowledge of the west other than what the government wanted people to know. Which was the west was evil, and that the rest of the world was dying and life in the USSR was the best in the world.

You had to be a member of a party to get a good job or get a promotion to a high position, young people aged 14- 28 had to join the Pioneers and later on the Komsomolec. These were strict groups were if you got expelled for some wrongdoings it caused bad consequences for the rest of your life. Also if your parent/ parents were sent to prison for something especially something that was considered anti USSR and especially if they were proclaimed an enemy of the state you had to publicly disown them in front of everyone in your school/ university. If you didn’t you could get expelled from Komsomol or Pioneers . And even if you did it was a really negative influence on your life. If you were a child of the enemy of the state it was almost impossible to get into university or get a good job.

 

4.       Are the opinions of your parents/ grandparents different to yours?

The opinions and perceptions I have expressed are mine and those of my parents. But my grandparents have completely different opinions as they lived most of their working lives within the communist regime. Especially when it was at its strongest and most idealistic stage.

My grandparents miss the USSR because they miss low prices on food and transport, pensions on which you could live on. I forgot to mention pensions in the advantages and disadvantages; it is a very important advantage of the communist regime. Elders could live normally now elders can’t, if they don’t have a family to support them they can’t afford anything and die in poverty.

Also moral factors such as no sex before marriage was highly advocated back then unlike now. No one is responsible for anything e.g before if for example a director of a sausage factory was caught making sausages of a bad quality he would go to prison for 25 years. Also morally questionable things such as paedophiles, drugs and other things were not reported on so they believe they didn’t exist in those days.

They also say (especially from my dad’s side because they were educators) that people were more cultured read classics, loved poets , were interested in meaningful debates about science and literature now everyone is only interested in music, sex and money. Also they believe western influences have brought negative consequences to Ukrainian society. Both my grandparents say that in the Soviet Union people were more friendly and helpful and there was a very strong sense of community. People didn’t care so much about material things and money. Also both of my parents love their childhoods and university years in USSR and they say it was very good and they loved it even though they didn’t have all the stuff kids have today.

They do still acknowledge though that its good now we have freedom of press, information, travel, can make good money if we can, buy everything we want and have choice in everything.

5.       Do you know of any specific experiences your parents/ grandparents/ family encountered during the communist era?

Experience N1:  My Granddad from dad’s side got his first flat for his family by basically doing this barter thing with one of his students. The student happened to be a boss and my granddad made a deal with him. The student needed to get this education to get promoted/keep his high position and my granddad got him good grades in exchange for a flat. Then the second better flat he got using a similar method.

Experience N2:  Same Granddad was a lecturer at university and he was really good but he couldn’t become a professor because he wasn’t a member of the communist party.

Experience N3:  No adequate sex education under communist rule, my grandma’s friend was shocked when after her wedding her husband tried to have sex with her. She was so scared she ran away to my grandma’s house. She didn’t know sex existed!

Experience N4:  Though this was after the fall of communism in Ukraine, things still took a while to change. After I was born my parents wanted to get a flat but even through it was in 1993 it was still very hard to buy a flat just with money. So my dad found this 50 year old Jewish woman who was emigrating to Israel, and he arranged it so that he gives her money and in exchange she marries him and leaves the flat as sort of inheritance to him when she leaves . So he divorced my mom, married that woman and then she emigrated and left the flat to him. That’s how we got our first flat. He then divorced her somehow.

 Mwen Fikirini