Perceptions of Society in Communist Europe: Popular Opinion and Regime Archives

11. 12. 2018 / Muriel Blaive

(Český překlad tohoto textu je ZDE)

Muriel Blaive, (ed.) Perceptions of Society in Communist Europe: Regime Archives and Popular Opinion, Bloomsbury Academic, London, New York, Oxford, 2018.   ISBN-13: 978-1350051713. ISBN-10: 1350051713

Many members of Central-European post-communist societies know instinctively that the black-and-white image of the communist past of their countries as blunt totalitarian terror on the one hand and heroic resistance of citizens against communist dictatorship is mendacious. Czech society in particular now seems quite disgusted by the official lie and maybe this is one of the factors why the post-communist democratic regime of the past 29 years is now relatively discredited and people, in protest, vote for dangerous authoritarian oligarch such as Andrej Babiš.

It is high time that this mendacious narrative be abandoned. Let us hope that this collection of essays, edited by Muriel Blaive, will make a major contribution to this change of perspective. Blaive and colleagues, on the basis of their research in East-Central European communist archives, have found out that the reality if the relatioship between the rulers and the ruled was much more complicated.

Here is Muriel Blaive's preface to the volume, which she has kindly made available to Britské listy.

(Jan Čulík, editor-in-chief)

* * *

This text has been slightly edited before publication for Britské listy. The complete footnote apparatus is to be found in the original publication. M.B.

The research project that led to this volume (Rulers and Ruled: Practical and Methodological Challenges in the Historicization of a Complex Relationship) departed from the relative absence of society as an object of analysis in the academic history of communism in Czechoslovakia, especially as compared to the former GDR and the former Soviet Union. Although Poland and Hungary, for instance, are much better represented as far as the social history of communism is concerned, politicized patterns of interpretation tend to dominate in the countries of the whole region. The weaker representation of society was certainly caused by the impossibility for researchers to access crucial regime sources (notably the secret police files) until the late 1990s or even 2000s.


I contend, however, that two other factors have played an important role: first, the reluctance in the national public spheres to confront the question of the popularity of the communist regimes, a reluctance that is intimately linked to the post-communist political project and its grand narrative of anti-communist resistance; second, the view on the communist past is all too often clouded by national perspectives. The invariable ‘national exceptionalism’ still prevents a systematic approach to understanding communism as an international social phenomenon. Many historians have dismissed the methodology worked out in German or Soviet studies on the pretext that their country is different. Yet Alf Lüdtke, who himself departs from the work of anthropologist James Scott, shows that the communist regimes principally found a basis of legitimacy where their aspirations converged with the traditional values (‘transcripts’) of a nation. Our volume points to such transcripts in each national case. That communist propaganda consistently attempted to adapt its content to each national context is a common characteristic and not a differentiating one.

Political science’s failure in the 1990s to articulate a continuity between communism and post-communism was another source of inspiration. As simple as it may seem, the knowledge of the relationship of the people to communism before 1989 is the only way to understand their attitude toward the communist past after 1989. If there is little or no social historical knowledge to be mobilized in order to analyse the pre-1989 attitudes, the necessary continuum between the pre- and post-1989 period cannot be reconstructed. This is why ‘memory’ infiltrated social sciences and history and attempted to fill the void. Inspired by the memory turn of the Holocaust studies but disregarding its rich history, academic discussions on ‘dealing with the past’ or ‘duty of memory’ partly took the place of a painstaking, old-fashioned historical research. Social sciences and history often turned to activism and transformed ‘memory’ not only into an object of study but increasingly into a moral, if not institutional, necessity. The ubiquitous presence of memory studies does little to refine the historical knowledge over this period. As historians and social scientists we are not invested with any ‘duty of memory’, but with a duty of history.


In East-Central Europe, the fall of communism and the return to democracy in 1990 eventually translated into the opening of the former communist regimes’ archives. However, and apart from the case of East Germany, a country that was dissolved, the moral obligation to make documents accessible did not coincide with the need to understand and accept the communist past in the sense of a true Vergangenheitsbewältigung. For such a process to happen it would have been necessary to document, on the basis of archival evidence, more than acts of communist terror and heroic anti-communist resistance. The way in which the citizens of communist countries might have individually and collectively accommodated themselves with the regime in power, or endowed it with a varying measure of legitimacy, would have been equally important. Instead, the memory policies in the region generally condemned the old regime while ignoring the issue of mass collaboration. A few prominent personalities in the political and cultural world were publicly exposed for their contacts with the secret police and served as scapegoats; meanwhile, post-communist states placed the emphasis on narratives that privileged repression and resistance.


Naturally, how the people viewed their communist rulers, and vice versa, is difficult to reconstruct. At first glance, to question this relationship might even appear counterintuitive: how were people supposed to manifest their potentially negative opinion of their leaders in a dictatorship? Why should we give any credit to positive opinions? Why would rulers who had the armed forces and police at their disposal bother to take potential popular disapproval of their policies into account? How can we view the rulers and the ruled as having developed any kind of relationship, even a begrudging one, when everyday life was clouded by fear? How can we take the forms of compliance at face value when people felt largely compelled to act the way they did?


Beyond fear


In any history of communism focused on social processes rather than repressive policies, fear and its root causes, repression and violence, is the elephant in the room. Fear was a facilitator of political submission and it defined to a large extent the relationship between the regime and the citizens it claimed to protect. But it is not only the people who feared the regimes: the regimes feared their people, too. Accordingly, this volume’s objective is to investigate the relationship between the rulers and the ruled, to deconstruct the power relations under communism.


We are fully aware that some lives were ruined, other people died or were killed, still others were imprisoned, sent to labour camps or deported. This violence did take place, and the victims deserve full recognition and compassion; they have all our authors’ attention in this volume. Yet it is important to state that the victims’ pain should not confiscate the need for historical knowledge of these regimes and societies. While adequately factoring in repression and the fear it provoked, it is not the purpose of this volume to pursue a witch-hunt and assign responsibility for the implementation of the communist rule. We aim even less at establishing a would-be ‘historical truth’ – which is an artificial construct by nature regardless (Marc Bloch). The legitimate pain that victims of communism, as well as their families and friends, have experienced must be clearly separated from our endeavour to understand how these regimes functioned on an everyday basis. This pain must not exempt us from pointing out the occasional successes of communist rule; it cannot serve to hide the conflict of loyalties between what people experienced as positive aspects of life under communism and the present, anti-communist political climate. Post-communist states have established institutions to pay tribute to the memory of victims and heroes and this legitimate function must be clearly separated from that of historical research. Even though communism was a flawed, repressive system and democracy a better one, former communists were not all bad and new democrats are not all good. Most importantly, they are often one and the same people.


What has been often missing in the historical literature of communism on East-Central Europe (again, excepting the East German and Soviet cases), on the other hand, is a definition and epistemology of what constitutes both a victim and a perpetrator. A blanket rehabilitation led to a blanket condemnation – a striking feature of the Czech policy of dealing with the communist past, for instance – neither of which can ever be fully accurate. Most of our chapters attempt to replace the ‘systemic’ with the ‘individual’, which is the only way to pass a fair(er) judgement on the behaviour of social actors. Ideally, no communist dictatorship should have come into being. Once it did, ideally people should not have collaborated. Once they did, at least they should not have lived a good life. But since they did, we have to understand why and how. Dismantling a certain tyranny of idealism concerning the past is in fact an ever more pressing task. Jan Tomasz Gross, the American historian of Polish origin, was nearly thrown in jail in Poland for having pointed to the extent of anti-Semitic crimes committed by Poles during the Second World War.


As Veronika Pehe demonstrates in her chapter, the post-communist search for heroes, promoting positive models and the notion of a nefarious, repressive regime, has prescribed and manufactured a pre-ordained historical narrative. Archival documents were used for purposes that were anything but strictly academic. Just as was the case under communism, she points out that those who control the past think they control the present.


The rulers and the ruled


This is why in this volume we are studying the ordinary people, or at least keeping them as a strong component of our analysis. We are no more turning victimhood into resistance than we are celebrating heroes. Our objective is to show how ‘conjunctures of hope and despair, doubt and relaxation had simultaneously existed, as two parallel realities’ (Alf Lüdtke). Not only do we endeavour to restitute a missing analytical dimension, we additionally wager that it is fruitful to study society from the point of view of regime archives. We want to study in our chapters how workers, functionaries, random ordinary people, politicians, intellectuals, listeners, viewers, children and academics interacted with the communist state in their everyday lives. This approach tells us, with all necessary caveats, not only about society and how it viewed the communist regimes in its multiple layers, but about how regimes viewed society, and how both parties, privileging stability, individually and collectively tried to make the best from this unequal and uneasy relationship.


Indeed, the concept of modern dictatorship (Jürgen Kocka) leaves space not only for an undeniable degree of domination of the communist system, but also for society’s relative autonomy (Konrad Jarausch). The enforcement of the communist domination system implied, according to the circumstances, resistance at the individual level but also compliance and tolerance. A ‘tacit minimal consensus’ (Thomas Lindenberger) was established between the people and the regime, and the notion of ‘popular opinion’ (Paul Corner) becomes indispensable in this account if we are to understand the nature of this power relationship. Such a social historical approach also gives us the opportunity to introduce into the equation the notion of ‘Eigen-Sinn’ or ‘sense of oneself’ (Alf Lüdtke), sometimes translated as ‘agency’, i.e. that of small, autonomous spaces carved out by individuals in their own lives, away from the prying eyes of the regime.


Politics were to some extent ‘privatized’, providing individuals with strategies of avoidance, withdrawal and shutting down from the regime. Sandrine Kott even speaks of the ‘socialization of the state’: ‘The state machinery’, she writes, ‘functioned thanks to arrangements made within society. At every level, these arrangements were often actually informed, client-based relations.’ The communist state did not exert its power in a strictly top-down direction; on the contrary, it was penetrated by tensions and contradictory social and group interests, including in official institutions such as the Communist Party and the secret police.


Numerous studies of East German and Soviet communism have demonstrated that a permanent negotiation process was at play between the regime and society (Mary Fulbrook, Gareth Dale, Thomas Lindenberger, Alf Lüdtke, Konrad Jarausch, Paul Corner, Sandrine Kott, Sheila Fitzpatrick, Wendy Z. Goldman, Stephen Kotkin). Communist authorities had to legitimize their domination and to keep the political and social situation under control. They were concerned with the approbation, or lack thereof, that the citizens, ordinary people or, in communist parlance, the ‘workers, peasants and intellectuals’, might have conferred on their policies. The violent protests that periodically emerged (the Hungarian 1956 revolution is an emblematic example) confirmed that stability was the most desirable state for regimes that maintained themselves by force – or by the threat of force. People accepted this rule on conditions which they themselves negotiated to some extent: ’I sign this paper, but you let my child go to university’; ‘I write reports on this colleague but you promote me to the position which I deserve’; ‘I join the Party but you let me buy this plot of land to build my house’, etc.


People sometimes even engaged in repressive policies, for instance by practicing denunciation or by entering the workers’ militia. To be sure, terror and state repression did play a crucial role in creating a particular atmosphere in which people felt entitled and even compelled to denounce their fellow citizens. But the regime lasted in time and was rooted in society only because the people themselves, willingly or not, contributed to perpetuating these repressive practices, contributed to their own domination. Moreover, small aspects on the everyday level that many of them viewed through a non-ideological lens (children participating in the Pioneers movement or families going to a mass gymnastic Spartakiáda event, for instance) significantly helped maintain and stabilize the regimes. Even people who hated the leadership or complained about the communist rule engaged in this particular form of everyday compliance. The result is that the border between the ruler and the ruled ran through each individual – or, as a person I once interviewed in the small Czech border town of České Velenice poetically put it: ‘Where is the border between good and bad? It has always been blurred. Can we draw a thick line? It’s not possible. Nothing is like this in life.’


This socio-historical theoretical standpoint wrong-foots the ‘totalitarian’ characterization of the East-Central European communist rule: if we focus not on the mechanical conformity to rules and orders but on the realm of other forms of behaviour (Thomas Lindenberger), we see that these regimes might have been a dictatorship with totalitarian intentions but that totalitarianism in its narrow meaning is something which could hardly have been fully implemented, even less so for any longer period of time.


Popular opinion’ and the limits of dictatorship


In this volume, we employ the central concept of popular opinion to investigate the relationship between rulers and ruled. This concept, a methodological breakthrough of the past decade, was developed in Paul Corner’s edited volume, Popular Opinion in Totalitarian Regimes: Fascism, Nazism, Communism, published with Oxford University Press in 2009. While we leave aside the notion of totalitarianism, we do prefer ‘popular opinion’ to ‘public opinion’ for the analysis of one-party systems because, as Paul Corner emphasizes it, the latter ‘carries suggestions of pluralistic debate within the public sphere of civil society’, a concept which is ‘hardly appropriate’ for the cases that concern us. However, because they were notions that were carved out and reflected upon for decades, public sphere and public opinion imply a level of objectivity and competence that does not characterize ‘popular opinion’; on the contrary, popular opinion directly derives from the communist understanding of what the public was. To work on popular opinion thus amounts to working on, and within, a communist category, or one that was shaped by the communist practice. By putting ourselves in the social actors’ shoes, we reconstruct the public sphere as a popular sphere, a nest from which we try to gauge the influence of communist rule on everyday behaviour. Although it might be difficult to quantify a phenomenon that was part and parcel of everyday life, popular opinion is thus a crucial tool in advancing historical research on dictatorships. Regimes were acutely aware of its importance, calling for multiple mood reports and opinion research, while analysing mail, letters of protest, and petitions, in addition to outright spying on their citizens. Incidentally, leaders also ‘sought ways to instrumentalize popular opinion in their internecine conflicts’ (Shawn Clybor).


It is perhaps the greatest paradox of communist regimes that while they devoted considerable resources to investigating the state of popular opinion, they failed to assuage it in the latter part of their lifespan, when they were in no position anymore to satisfy their populations’ expectations in terms of standard of living. For a long time, their knowledge of popular opinion served as both a safety valve and surveillance mechanism (Jill Massino); however, the more they perfected this knowledge, the less they were able to use it to their full advantage.


Our reference of choice for understanding how the regime tried to gauge popular opinion has been regime archives. These sources have often been dismissed as mindless propaganda, flawed or irrelevant, lacking authenticity and truthfulness. Our purpose is not to take them at face value but to deconstruct how the rulers operated in order to try and extract conformity from the ruled (Adrian Grama). In this sense, in combination with other types of sources and provided that they are submitted to a suitable source criticism, regime archives are invaluable. The ideological language that permeates them does not preclude the communication of genuine knowledge concerning the state of popular opinion. Quite the contrary, a realistic image of society does emerge from these documents in many cases (see in particular the chapters by Rosamund Johnston, Adrian Grama, myself, Machteld Venken, Martin Dimitrov, and Jill Massino).


Things were complicated: on the quest for boundaries


All the chapters in this volume analyse the bargaining power and strategies of the ruled, in all their diversity, but also of the rulers, in both parties’ endeavours to negotiate the terms of this rule. Using Ministry of Information archives, Rosamund Johnston studies Czechoslovak radio listeners in the post-war period and their agency, namely their attempts at negotiating programme content with the communist authorities. Meanwhile, Adrian Grama is concerned, on the basis of regime archives, with workers in post-war Romania and their usage of strikes to secure better living conditions. Marián Lóži studies regional Party archives to illuminate the power practices of midlevel Stalinist functionaries after the communist takeover in Czechoslovakia and their sometimes despairing attempts to instil some order in the regions. Molly Pucci draws on secret police archives to analyse the role of the Czech secret police functionaries delegated from the centre for the same purpose: re-establishing order, as well as instituting a dignified and efficient operation of the dictatorship.


Shawn Clybor introduces a hitherto forgotten Czechoslovak Stalinist musical and analyses its originally welcome criticism of the official ideology as can be retraced in the national archives. I study the behaviour of Czechoslovak society during the 1956 Hungarian revolution on the basis of secret police reports and show that the communist regime was monitoring popular opinion intensely in these crucial weeks and it did manage to take the necessary measures to appease it. Martin Dimitrov goes on to explain, on the basis of Party archives, how the Bulgarian Communist Party became acutely aware, in the 1950s and 1960s, of the necessity to properly assess and satisfy the consumer preferences of its population and to create the appropriate institutional tools. Sonia Combe’s chapter examines, using secret police archives, the East German intellectuals who were simultaneously faithful to the Party line but critical of it. Who was afraid of whom, she asks, because fear was shared by both sides.


Moving away from the period of Stalinist terror, the second half of the East-Central European communist regimes’ lifespan was characterized by an even more obvious negotiation process. Machteld Venken analyses the way in which children’s programmes on Polish television communicated the regime’s values and historical reconstruction through a hit series that peaked in the 1970s. The authorities went so far as to poll children for their preferences so as to maximize the effect of communist propaganda. Libora Oates-Indruchová demonstrates, on the basis of the Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences archival material, that academic authors and editors entered a protracted negotiation process in the 1970s, in which ideology did not always play the main role, and the search for academic quality sometimes did. Jill Massino offers a refreshing analysis of complaint letters addressed in the 1970s and 1980s to the Romanian leaders Nicolae and Elena Ceauşescu; she shows the full extent of the bargaining strategies adopted by the people at the bottom (including their occasional successes) and by so doing, paints a complex portrait of Romanian society shortly before the fall of communism. Finally, Veronika Pehe deconstructs the fetishization and instrumentalization of the archival document, mostly for political purposes, in the post-communist period.


All of these chapters, despite studying different countries and time periods, portray the ruled as active social agents rather than passive recipients of the communist dictatorship. They reflect on the dichotomy between fear of the masses and popular consent (Adrian Grama). As already discussed, they show that complaints and grievances were often a safety valve (Jill Massino) rather than a destabilizing factor. They underline the importance of idealism, which went hand in hand with fear, opportunistic loyalty, and particular egoistic interests. Moreover, several authors crucially emphasize that the very nature of complaints was based on an assumed, shared understanding of what socialist legality should be. To call for socialist legality was itself predicated on loyalty, or so the people hoped: their displayed loyalty allowed for the manifestation of their discontent, at least to some degree. Individuals learned to express themselves in the language of the regime (Stephen Kotkin’s ‘speaking Bolshevik’). In other words, appropriating the ideological worldview of the regime allowed them to function within, not against, the normative framework established by Party elites (Shawn Clybor). Let us never forget that, until almost the last day, people did not expect that the communist regimes would come to an end; they defined their survival strategies accordingly.


It is a tribute to this volume’s endeavour to restitute the complexity of life under communism that all chapters point to the incessant quest for boundaries on the part of both the rulers and the ruled, as well as to the blurring of moral categories. Circumstances changed over time; individuals did, too. Behaviours evolved and might sometimes appear contradictory but they reflect the polymorphous shape of a dictatorship constantly seeking legitimacy. There are no ideal types here: on the contrary cognitive dissonance reigns between desires and reality. Communist dictatorships learned how to tolerate, and indeed even encouraged, the hidden transcript of citizens so long as they respected the normative political and ideological boundaries of the public transcript. The borderline between collaboration and resistance, constructive criticism and subversion, culture and politics is by no means easy to establish. Sonia Combe points to the intricate intertwining of conformism, freely consented submission, accommodation, acquiescence, blindness, and sincerity. By the same token, the traditional chronology of the communist rule in terms of crises (1948, 1956, 1968, 1977, 1980, 1981, 1986, 1988) is seriously contested here. New continuities and discontinuities appear.


The role of midlevel, intermediate social actors, who moved information from top to bottom and vice versa, is another common feature of our chapters. Trade-union delegates were often caught in the crossfire between violent workers and a violent regime and subjected to the pressure stemming from both superiors and workmates (Adrian Grama). Midlevel actors gathered feedback on how the policies were implemented on the ground (Molly Pucci). They served as the target of public criticism in order to get in the good graces of the centre (Marián Lóži). They cushioned the interaction between rulers and ruled, as in the case of communist, yet critical, intellectuals in the GDR (Sonia Combe). They also served as outlets for public frustration (Jill Massino): the people from ‘below’ could blame them while complaining to the highest leaders.


Last but not least, studying the regime from the bottom up also allows us to paint a picture of a rule that was not only successful. The ‘culture of Stalinism’ (Molly Pucci) did not spread easily at first. In fact the situation was sometimes outright chaotic. The level of violence at the bottom led to the communist functionaries’ fear (Adrian Grama). Heavily dysfunctional bureaucratic processes and domination instruments left these functionaries struggling to exercise minimal control (Marián Lóži). The rulers could not prevent people from listening to foreign broadcasts (Rosamund Johnston), they had no idea how to concretely implement a police dictatorship (Molly Pucci), they could not force even Party intellectuals to support their Middle-Eastern policy (Sonia Combe), and they admitted that the publishing situation had gone from ‘unfavourable’ to ‘catastrophic’ (Libora Oates-Indruchová).


A reevaluation of the Slánský trial?


As a post scriptum, perhaps the clearest example that this volume can offer so as to illustrate the usefulness of studying regime archives in a bottom-up perspective is our almost unwitting discovery of a stunning new logic to the political and social usage of the Slánský trial in 1952 Czechoslovakia. The current academic wisdom is that the Slánský trial was an epitomized expression of random, Stalinist terror under the guidance of Soviet ‘advisors’ sent by Stalin (Karel Kaplan). The public had no real role to play in this interpretation, apart from that of a passive recipient of blind terror, or alternatively as a semi-active anti-Semitic supporter (Kevin McDermott).


Marián Lóži’s chapter suggests quite a different interpretation, which is backed by the context brought by Molly Pucci, Shawn Clybor and myself. Lóži shows that the violence applied against (regional) Stalinist elites, a number of whom were present at the Slánský trial (notably Brno leader Otto Šling), won a significant amount of popular approval and indeed was a request from the social actors from below. Some of the Stalinist elites under trial, pupils of Slánský’s, had implemented a ruthless dictatorship at the regional level after 1948; in fact they could be considered as small dictators of their own. They were thus blamed by popular opinion for not living up to Stalinist standards. Marián Lóži contends that what was essential for the functioning of the Stalinist dictatorship was its ability to achieve legitimacy rather than to implement violence. If so, we see that the Slánský trial was a way, among other dynamics at play, for the regime to regain popularity by deposing regional leaders and taking the dictatorship back under control for a more reasonable exercise of Stalinist rule. In other words, the trial attempted in a convoluted way to right some wrongs and it boosted the popularity of Stalinism hence the regime’s reluctance to relitigate it in 1956.


This is of course only the first step towards a new historical interpretation but, precisely like Wendy Goldman in the Soviet case, we can at least now claim that there seems to have existed a palpable logic to the terror, one in which social actors played a role at all levels. The Slánský episode is but one example, albeit a spectacular one, that shows how our socio-historical approach of the political realm has yielded new and promising results. The other chapters follow suit and deconstruct a complex relationship between the rulers and the ruled, that brings the agency of ordinary social actors to the fore, while exploring the more and less effective domination mechanisms of the representatives of power. As editor of this collective volume, it has been my ambition, by offering such nuanced understanding, to contribute to a less polarized memory debate on what communism in practice has meant for generations of East-Central Europeans.

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