Jan Palach

Jan Palach was a student at Charles University in Prague that committed suicide in 1969 in protest against the invasion of the Soviet forces marking the end of the Prague Spring. His act of self-immolation was meant to remind the Czech people of their demoralisation, it was said a resistance group was set up for the purpose of acting out until these demands were met. Many different people some who spoke to Jan and knew him reflected upon their meetings with trying to explain why he did what he did. Many people spoke of his protest against demoralization of the Czech people and his hatred of the Soviet regime. These demands were abolition of censorship, the banning of Zprava (the official newspaper of the Soviet forces) also calling for the Czechoslovak people to strike in support of these demands.

The people of Czechoslovakia united in their sympathy for Palach and their realisation of what their government was doing to them.

“Last night, students in Vienna took to the streets to express their solidarity with Czechoslovak students. Equipped with dozens of banners, they organized a silent procession.”

Svobodné slovo daily, 25 January 1969

 

The world also sympathised with the Czech people, many newspapers reported of his suicide and even officials from around the world sent their condolences. Pope Paul VI paid tribute to Jan Palach’s memory in his message of 26 January 1969 when he stated: “We can uphold the values that put self-sacrifice above others to the supreme test, but we cannot approve the tragic form taken on behalf of their aims.”

Palach was buried at Olsany Cemetary, because of his politically charged suicide his gravesite became a national shrine. This scared the communist party as they did not want an anti-communist martyr, so the StB exhumed and cremated his remains sending them back to his mother. The urn with the remains was not returned until 1990.

Memorial

P1010732In 1989 people began airing their grievances in peaceful marches, these protests were named “Palach Week”, the police tried to quash these anti-communist demonstrations. Since they knew news of them might spread disobedience and revolt through the country, the Velvet Revolution occurred and less than a year later communism had fallen. In Tim Cresswell’s book Place an introduction, he states there can be “many manifestations of place” (2004:3), in Prague this can be related to Jan Palach’s (and Jan Zajic’s) memorial. After the revolution they were commemorated through a bronze cross embedded in Prague outside the National Museum, for the people this is a sign of hope and honour to their memory while for the communists it was a significant sign of the revolutions both Velvet and Prague Spring as well as the end of communism. Different spaces are made meaningful by different individuals making them places “a meaningful location” (Cresswell, 2004:7) because they become attached in a variety of ways.

When considering place it is also important to highlight that John Agnew (1987) defined place as having 3 components making it a meaningful location these are location, locale and sense of place. Cresswell also discusses the issue of gaining a sense of a place from filmic representations of the place, this relates to hyper reality. If you look into the previously linked BBC video of Jan Palach’s funeral which was broadcasted across the world, it is important to realise to the western world this was one of the few representations of war torn Czechoslovakia. This sense of place proved to be very different to what we came across when we travelled to the Czech Republic.

As well as this memorial, Jan Palach was also honoured through different places, streets and squares being named after him in Czechoslovakia, Luxembourg, France, Poland, Netherlands, Italy, Bulgaria, United Kingdom and even Mauritius.

References

Cresswell, T. (2004) Place: a short introduction. Blackwell Publishing Ltd:Oxford

Mwen Fikirini

‘Eastern Bloc’ Central and Eastern Europe Communist Countries

‘Eastern Bloc’ refers to the former communist states of Central and Eastern Europe, generally the Soviet Union and the countries of the Warsaw Pact.  These countries include Czechoslovakia, Romania, East Germany, Bulgaria, Poland and Hungary.  The term Communist Bloc was used to denote the groups of states associated with the Soviet Union.

eastern bloc

European Communist Countries (sourced 22 april 2013)

These European countries experienced communism and their dictators relied on spectacle in order to create and maintain their citizen’s compliance to their communist ideology and used fear, oppression, arrests and killings to suppress the public but in the end mass revolts helped restore democracy. “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” (Debord 2009:113).

“Communist states claim to be guided by a specific law of interpretations and goals  – these are Marxism-Leninism” (Wesson 1978:13) and there is quite a lot of similarities within these countries during the periods they experienced communism.  These similarities include totalitarian rule, dictatorship, food shortages and terrible war crimes.

Communist societies are very militaristic and include long periods of military duty, glorification of military heroism, cult of leadership and of violence and loyalty is the basic virtue (Wesson 1978:12-13). 

Rose Muzvondiwa

The Parliament Palace of Romania

The Parliament Palace is an unwavering, oppressive, white symbol of the communist era in Romania. It doesn’t represent neither purity nor grace, but a giant white display building which celebrates the era of tyranny in Romania. In order for this construction to be built, there were over 7 square kilometres of the old centre demolished and an artificial hill created.

Ceausescu came through with The Futurists’ idea that there is no need or time for God/Gods or religion and initiated the destruction of some of Bucharest‘s churches and monasteries.

Vacaresti Monastery Photo: buciumul.ro

Vacaresti Monastery Photo: buciumul.ro

Vacaresti monastery was one of the most valuable historical monuments from Bucharest and also the biggest monastery in the South-East Europe. It was an architectural masterpiece and it was used as royal court, cultural center, school and prison. On 2nd December 1984 Ceausescu visited the monastery ordering the demolition of the whole compound, under the pretext that on that place will be build the new Palace of Justice. The monastery was demolished in 1987, but the palace was never built in that place.

Churches were moved away and then enclosed by blocks so that they wouldn’t be seen. The “New Man” of Romania should not waste time praying to God; He had to celebrate the speed, machinery, youth and industry as per The Futurists’ manifesto.

The chief-architect of the construction was a young woman, Anca Petrescu, of only 28 years old, but the one in control of everything was actually, Nicolae Ceausescu.

Initially, the project presumed 7000 real-estates to be destroyed, but as the plan was chaotically evolving because of the “Prime-architect” of Romania, Ceausescu, the number of the buildings demolished raised to 9000. Anyone was able to understand the plans, apart from Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife, Elena. What the constructors build one day, they would tear it down the next day and completely change and rebuild the day after. There is not one imported item in the whole palace. If they needed a material that was only produced abroad, Ceausescu would give orders so that a factory would be built to produce it in Romania. He was very adamant that he didn’t want any imports to be used in his palace.

“The moral white” (Ripolin) of the building was adapted to Le Corbusier’s beliefs, even though Le Corbusier didn’t intend his ideas about a better tomorrow to be extended in such an extreme way by the totalitarian states. He saw white as a colour of clearness, innocence and virtue, but also as a sign which marks the transition from the old world to a new world. Romania was stepping into a new world and this was marked through the construction of “The House of People”.

The huge, white governmental building can be seen from any location in Bucharest and this has a huge impact on the way the citizens behave. The semiotics of its massive scale (power) and its design (order) give the Romanians various sensations making them unconsciously behave in a different way.

Parliament Palace - InteriorThe cold, sterile, austere and completely unwelcoming whiteness of the building was accomplished by using one million cubic metres of marble. The marble used is also white and obviously it wasn’t decided to be like that for no reason. The marble had to be white and there had to exist columns, because of their association with the great qualities of the Ancient Greek civilisation.

For the ultimate note of elegance, the place was covered in crystal lamps and crystal chandeliers (one of them weights 2, 5 tons).

 

The Parliament Palace also contains 2 anti-atomic shelters that Ceausescu built, a symbol of his prolific paranoia, at the basement of the Parliament Palace where he could snug in case of a tragic event. The chief-architect, Anca Petrescu, also relates about some secret roads that led to the metro. The army made these secret roads completely hidden to the public eyes when the construction started. According to Anca Petrescu, the construction is not finished even today as the underground plans are still not complete.  However, this wasn’t an impediment for Ceausescu to inaugurate the building, and the words he said when he did that still rules over the time: “What your father built in 7 years, you won’t be able to paint in 20”.

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

Prague Spring

Alexander Dubcek

Alexander Dubcek

In January 1968, Alexander Dubcek comes to power when he was elected as the First Secretary of Communist Party of Czechoslovakia. Alexander Dubcek tried to liberalise the country’s communist regime by introducing free speech and freedom of assembly. Dubcek wanted to democratise the nation and lessen the stranglehold Moscow had on the nation’s affair. The Prague Spring of 1968 is a term used during the brief period of time when Alexander Dubcek led the government of Czechoslovakia. The Prague Spring ended with a Soviet Invasion, the removal of Alexander Dubcek as party leader and an end to reform within Czechoslovakia. The Soviet Union and all members of the Warsaw Pact except Romania intruded Czechoslovakia to halt reforms. Over 100 people were killed and the Communist leaders, including Alexander Dubcek were arrested and taken to Moscow. Alexander Dubcek attempt to grant additional rights to the citizens (less restriction on the media, speech and travel) through the Prague Spring reform.

crushing of prague spring

The Prague Spring reform also caused the country to be divided into a federation of three republics, Bohemia, Moravia-Silesia and Slovakia, where Dubcek oversaw the decision to split it into two, the Czech Republic and Slovak Republic. The split was the only change that survived the end of Prague Spring.

Foong Lin Liew

Interview with a 57 year old Romanian woman – perceptions of the communist era in Romania

What do you think was good about communism?

Maybe the fact that the kids with poor families benefited from free camps and that the kindergarten taxes were cheap. You were able to give your children an education without being wealthy.

What was bad about communism?

What I hated the most during the communist era was the lack of privacy and the in-existent access to information. Me and my husband used to lock up in the kitchen in order to listen to “Free Europe”, a radio station with international news which was forbidden during communism. We would do the same to listen to rock music which we enjoyed, but was really hard to find. My husband used to invite his friends over, and listen together to those foreign radio stations, even though they weren’t allowed to do that. We lived in a building with lots of flats where all the other owners were working for the security, so we had to be very careful each time we were doing that.

When it comes to food, I don’t even want to remember how much time I spent waiting in queues in order to buy some. At one point, they introduced queue tickets. But you couldn’t find food any-more  People would do anything for food; they were capable of anything because they had to eat and there was nothing at the markets.

Besides that, we didn’t have heating in our homes. Me and my husband had our first kid in the ‘80s when we didn’t even had any heat in the apartment, so we got hold of a diesel oil heater. We used to steal fuel every day from our workplaces in order to heat up the baby’s room, but it was very risky because we could start a fire in the building and everyone would have been in danger, so we had to be very careful who sees us when coming back from work.

It was a time when they wouldn’t allow curtains in restaurants. All the restaurant owners were instructed to take off all the curtains as they had to be aware if there was someone drinking alcohol early during the day or late during the night. The communist party’s observers had to watch closely people coming in restaurants and interrogate the ones choosing to drink alcohol.

Because Ceausescu’s wife, Elena, hated how churches looked, many were either demolished, moved away or surrounded by blocks of flats. People didn’t have to believe in God, but in Ceausescu and communism.

If you wanted to buy yourself a book, you were obliged to buy another 5,6 books with Ceausescu’s discourses.

Ceausescu’s portrait was on each first page of the textbooks. You weren’t allowed to destroy that page or draw/write on it. Also, every classroom had a painting with Ceausescu.

When watching television, all we could see were communist films. They would start broadcasting at 6,7 in the evening with a cartoon programme and afterwards start the news which lasted 2 hours, until 10 o’clock when they also switched off the electricity. All the news were about Ceausescu and his discourses, walks, controls. And all of these were lies.

We had to watch all the time on the news, Ceausescu “having fun” while hunting. His results were always remarkable for the camera, even though the boars were bounded in order to stay still. We all knew this, but we used to find it funny, especially because we found out that Ceausescu always had someone else shooting in the same time with him to be sure he was successful.

His visits to various workplaces (refineries, industrial warehouses, etc.) were also lies, as we were all rehearsing everything before his arrival. I remember that it was very annoying when he was coming in control because we would work full weeks in order to clean and re-paint the place, to write down messages and to create expositions with everything that we had in the enterprise.

I remember that one time he visited an apple orchard. The president of the co-operative declared that he had the biggest production of apples in the orchard’s history and when Ceausescu decided to control it, he asked his employees to tie apples in the trees, so the first 3 rows of trees would have lots of apples. And this was not a one-of-a-kind situation. The farms did the same as cows, pigs, sheeps were moved from a place to another depending on Ceausescu’s controls.

How do you think communism affected Romania?

I definitely think that Romania would have been better now if it wasn’t for the communist era.

In the inter-war period, Romania was well rated by Europe because it was much evolved culturally and industrially. We would have been a very rich nation.

My grandmother used to tell me that before the communist era, everyone in the country had a house and all kinds of animals, so they didn’t feel the need for food. The entire surplus was going to the citizens which were able to buy everything they wanted to. Romania used to be known as “Europe’s granary” during that time. We had petroleum, salt, iron, ore, coal. Also, the relief favoured us: rivers, mountains, fields, seaside so the Romanians had everything they needed for a living. The industry was very developed and people used to live well.

In the inter-war period, Bucharest (Romania’s capital) was known as “The little Paris” of the Balkans, because the wealthy people of the city constructed for themselves really nice houses. The communists said that they are going to modernise it, but actually, they destroyed it.

Ceausescu demolished everything they built, and constructed lots of grey block of flats, which we called “boxes of matches”.  Many of the rich people from the pre-communist era were obliged to move out of their house for various reasons (“enemy of the state”, “traitor” and so on). Because of this, entire families lost their homes, their possessions and it led to exasperation and even to suicide.

There were many people who killed themselves because they lost their houses. Ceausescu’s strategy was to put all the people at the same level in order to control them. People would have little to no freedom in a building full of flats as most of the neighbours actually worked for the police and if someone would do anything out of the ordinary, he would be classed as “a threat” for the party and he would end up really bad.

I met a family which used to be very wealthy, but because the communists took everything they had, they ended up living in a basement. The woman, Florence still had her old dresses and she used to wear them and talk by herself on the street. Her husband was one of the few still wearing hats and tailcoats – from aristocracy  they became the laughing stock of everyone else. She ended up getting a job as a “shopper” for anyone willing to give her a few coins. She would wait in long queues for hours to get someone else’s food and she ended up carrying lots of bags everywhere she went. That’s how we started sarcastically to compare ourselves with Florence every time we had more than 3 or 4 bags in our hands.

Marina Gogeanu

Communism in Poland

The rise of Communism in Poland after WWII followed Soviet occupation and the increase in authority of Poland’s Communist Party. While other political parties vied for power, it was the Communists who established a new government with help from Stalin and the USSR in the mid 1940s.

Communism’s rise began with the Soviet occupation of Poland during WWII. Stalin had, through the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, divided up Polish territory with Hitler so that Germany and the USSR would each get a piece of Poland. When Germany invaded Poland in 1939, the USSR waited until the Polish military had reached defeat before taking up position in its allotted territory. During and after the war, the USSR worked behind the scenes to secure a political foothold in Poland during its occupancy.

In 1942-43, the USSR began a series of tactics to intimidate or Poland’s government. Stalin first exhibited unwillingness to cooperate with Poland’s acting government. The Polish embassy in the USSR was repressed. Citizens of former Polish lands that were absorbed into the USSR upon border re-negotiations were refused permission to return to Poland. The Polish government, which maintained its status in exile in London during the war, struggled to sustain diplomatic relations with the USSR.

The Polish government-in-exile began to question the disappearance of thousands of Polish military officers. During the Katyn Massacre of 1940, the officers had been executed by Soviet troops (the graves had later been discovered by German troops). When the Polish government sought to investigate the matter, this was the excuse Stalin needed to cut off diplomatic relations.

Stalin manipulated the situation, indicating publicly that he was interested in seeing an independent Poland established. Stalin also stated that he would only resume diplomatic relations with Poland once the government was restructured according to the will of its people. While some officials may have taken these statements at face value, they were effectively part of a stall tactic to give Communist political parties time to organize.

Polish Communists prepared for the formation of a new government by organizing the Polish National Committee in Moscow. The plans made by this committee included the creation of a government that appeared, from the outside, to be multi-party and a coalition, when in reality it would be monopolized by Communists with support from the USSR.

A group called the National Council for the Homeland (KRN), a Communist organization, supplanted the Polish National Committee. The KRN made a journey to Moscow in 1944, and after some back-and-fourth, Stalin indicated that a new government for Poland should be created out of the KRN and acknowledged its authority. This created a gateway for Communists,who were closely tied to policies of the USSR, to take power in Poland.

Lesoda Otu-Iso