This summer, the Wende Museum opened its doors with a new exhibition, Watching Socialism: The Television Revolution in Eastern Europe. One of its kind, the Wende is a hub for researchers of the Cold War, being an archival space with a museum. Having recently moved to a bigger venue, Wende is keen to expand its audiences. While keeping its strong dedication to research, their collection and exhibitions can be of interest for anyone looking for a more complex view of a seemingly well-known period of history. Watching Socialism is a case in point of this approach. Showcasing the diversity of media culture in Eastern Europe, it challenges the pertinent Cold War myths and triangulates the understanding of socialist culture by moving ‘beyond the idea of communist television as a propaganda tool’. Maria Kruglyak met with the two curators who worked with Wende on this exhibition, both from Loughborough University, cultural historian Professor Susan E. Reid, and media scholar Professor Sabina Mihelj. They discussed media culture on both sides of the Iron Curtain and the complicated depiction the exhibition at Wende presents.

What is the main message of the exhibition?

Sabina Mihelj: There are three main ideas that are all interrelated and aim to challenge the black and white opposition between East and West, Capitalism and Communism: the complex notion of propaganda, the similarities between East and West and the internal diversity of media cultures in Eastern Europe. It is important to recognise that television was not only a means of propaganda, but also a means of entertainment and a material object of everyday life. Television in the communist countries was not so dissimilar from television in liberal democracies. There were a lot of similarities in terms of the composition of programming, genres and narrative arches. But we should not think that the very same model was applied everywhere in Eastern Europe. There were interesting similarities but each of the countries had its own peculiarities. For example, television culture in the Soviet Union was very different from the Yugoslav one, but there were also very interesting differences even between Romania, Yugoslavia and Poland. There was also a lot of variation over time. For instance in the 1980s, Romanian television programming was limited to two hours per day and this has become the dominant idea of what television looked like throughout all the communist years. However, if you look at the TV programming only two decades earlier, it was very open, with loads of programmes from the West and even the US. 

Susan E. Reid: Those are the three main points, but we could add another one: we were also trying to highlight some of the crosscurrents, to get away from the idea that the Eastern Bloc or the Soviet Union were hermetically sealed.

Sabina Mihelj: Yes, the transnational circulation of imagery and of technology was important for us to show. Influences didn’t only flow from the West to the East, but also the other way around. We have a nice example of a famous children’s cartoon, Sandmann, which was produced in West Germany, East Germany, as well as in Sweden. Another example is a Polish cartoon which travelled to the Netherlands and was synchronised into Dutch; we have both versions running side by side in the exhibition. We wanted to show all these interconnections and transnational links indicating that the Iron Curtain — if that was ever an appropriate metaphor — was a very porous boundary, especially when it came to media. 

Courtesy of the Wende Museum

If we see this boundary as porous, there is still a question of whether the influence of transnational connection was the same everywhere, for example in mainland Russia. To what extent does the myth of the Iron Curtain hold further inland?

Sabina Mihelj: This is one of the instances where the differences within the region come into play. One of the things that I came across in my research comparing mainland Russia and Poland with Yugoslavia and East Germany, was that people in the latter had a much stronger perception of television as an international medium that crossed borders with the West. There were gradations in the extent to which Western programming penetrated into the East and we should not exaggerate it. Same with the claims of similarities with the West: we should not undermine the differences but allow for the grey areas as well. 

Would you say that there was a substantial change over time as well as over geographical space?

Sabina Mihelj: There were certainly changes over time. One of the major decisions we had to make in this exhibition is whether we would focus on change over time or cross-national differences. We decided to focus on the later so the changes over time are not so apparent in the show. The problem with periodisation is that it is very easy to present it as a linear narrative: a period of strong propaganda and control, and a period of gradual relaxation from the 1980s towards the end of the 1990s. It is however really important to understand that there were fluctuations over time. 

Susan E. Reid: There is also the issue about the inadequacies of central control in the early days of television. As Kristin Roth-Ey has shown, they weren’t yet able to fully understand the nature of the medium, so early Soviet television was surprisingly decentralised. Moreover, genres such as game shows were broadcast on early Soviet television and were very popular. We often associate this genre with America, but in Soviet Union it was an important way of engaging the audience. There was an awareness that if they only showed news, nobody would bother to listen or even turn on the TV. You cannot use television as a propaganda tool if there are no viewers. There was a balance between the control of the state and the wishes of the audience.

What legacy does the history of television in the Eastern Bloc have today? Are there lessons to be learned in relation to today’s media climate?

Sabina Mihelj: Drawing parallels is always tricky. We wanted to unsettle the perception of life in an authoritarian context as being very different from life in liberal democracies by focusing on the television audiences, rather than state policies. This is reflected in the title – ‘watching Socialism’. Hopefully this makes people think about themselves as audiences and the extent to which they are actually able to distinguish propaganda in contemporary media from a more liberal and democratic kind of circulation and confrontation of opinion. The exhibition also shows that audiences can’t just be brainwashed. Even if they enjoy the programmes shown to them and take in messages which they translate, there is still an element of negotiation.  

Courtesy of the Wende Museum

Susan E. Reid: This is where both of our research comes together: we are both interested in understanding the notion of brainwashing and exploring how different audiences interpret (or misinterpret) different meanings. Another aspect in relation to your question is how we began the exhibition with an attempt to historicise the way people perceived television. This medium has changed so much and is really dematerialised today, having gone through a period of everybody having multiple sets around the house to now, when people access television in the same way as they access all sorts of media. We began by thinking about that fascination with television and television sets as a consumer object. We included some early television sets not so much to focus on the technology, but to present it as an object of furniture, something you had in your home. One of the narratives I am very keen to challenge is the shortage narrative; that consumer choices were dictated just by what was available. People didn’t buy television sets from necessity, they bought them even before they bought washing machines for example. And then they replaced them, and upgraded them, really quite rapidly, even in the Soviet Union. 

Courtesy of the Wende Museum

During the research and preparation of the display, was there anything that surprised you?

Susan E. Reid: I think it brought things together in ways that were slightly unexpected, created interesting comparisons.  I suppose that is because we had previously discussed it so much and right from the beginning were on the same page in our understanding of propaganda and brainwashing. 

Sabina Mihelj: Looking from the outside, I am perhaps surprised of the extent to which we came to the same conclusions in terms of understanding of audience engagement and the functioning of power in Communist countries despite us coming from different backgrounds, utilising different sets of instruments and frameworks.

The author expresses her gratitudes to Professor Susan E. Reid, Professor Sabina Mihelj and Loughborough University.