Watching Socialism: The Television Revolution in Eastern Europe

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GENERAL INTRODUCTION Moving beyond the idea of communist television as a propaganda tool, this exhibition draws attention to its role in everyday life, its varied programming, its transnational connections, and its countercultural potential. Television played an important role in the competition between the capitalist West and the communist East as both camps claimed the upper hand in terms of progress and modernity. Moreover, for the Soviet Bloc countries, television provided a powerful instrument for furthering the communist agenda. As television sets gradually became standard items in most households, messages produced by state-controlled studios could reach citizens in the comfort of their homes. Yet, television’s relations with the communist party-state were fraught with contradictions. The very traits that promised to make television the ideal medium of communist propaganda also, paradoxically, posed a threat to communist order. Even the most carefully staged mass events could get out of control, and the fact that television was largely viewed in the privacy of the home meant that communist authorities had little control over how messages were received. It quickly became clear that viewers were not particularly interested in ideological programming but instead preferred to watch sports, game shows, and serial fiction. Moreover, audiences in several communist countries could receive television signals from the West, which allowed them a completely different view of life beyond the Iron Curtain. In sections about The Magic of Television; Domestic Life; Youth; Crossing Borders; Media Events; Alternative Currents; and Transitions, the exhibition aims to present new insights by departing from a strictly binary view of the Cold War, with an open eye for nuances and paradoxes. What dynamics determined the interactions between producers and viewers in the communist countries? Were viewers allowed to “talk back,” and to what effect? What was the impact of television signals crossing borders, and how did communist authorities try to deal with this? Finally, how was the medium appropriated by dissidents as a source for countercultural messages? The exhibition invites you to reflect on the parallels and differences between television in the East and the West, and their implications for the role of modern media in present-day democracies. Exhibition curation: Sabina Mihelj, Susan Reid, Joes Segal, and Anna Rose Canzano. Curatorial assistance: Abigail Beck, Kate Dollenmayer, Chris Hill, and Lara Mashayekh. Technical direction: Dany Naierman. The Wende Museum thanks Loughborough University, the Centre Pompidou, Paris, Paul M. Hertzmann Inc, San Francisco, Christine Evans, Anikó Imre, Stefania Marghitu, Norm Palley, Irina Reifová, Jennifer Juniper Stratford, Chris Wyrick, and Eszter Zimanyi for their generous support.


THE MAGIC OF TELEVISION Today, it is hard to imagine the sense of anticipation and excitement connected with watching television in its early days. In the analogue era, people watched TV shows at a specific scheduled time with family, friends, or colleagues. Now, TV screens increasingly serve as platforms for accessing different forms of digital and interactive content, from console games to on-demand films and serial dramas. When television was new, the medium inspired utopian dreams of a dazzling hightech world, credited with the potential to revolutionize many different aspects of life. Communist Eastern Europe was no exception: here, too, television came to function as a symbol of modernity and progress, of global connectedness, transparency, and consumption. Its impact on individual lives and on society at large can hardly be overstated.

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Mária Túry, Television 1, 1959, oil paint on fiberboard and wood, Hungary. Cubist-inspired painting of a family watching television.


Moscow Ostankino TV Tower model, undated, glass and metal, East Germany

Ivan Szkok, Martial Law, 1977, acrylic paint on fiberboard and plastic, Hungary. Szkok depicts members of the communist uprising of 1919 under Béla Kun moments before their execution. The painting suggests the scene as part of a documentary screening on television.


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Menu from the restaurant at the top of the Berlin Television Tower, undated, East Germany

Meissen Porcelain, Fernsehturm (TV Tower), undated, porcelain, East Germany

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Winterling Porcelain, East Berlin Landmarks, undated, porcelain, East Germany

Winterling Porcelain, Berlin Cityscape, 1980s, porcelain, East Germany


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VEB Colditzer Porcelain, East Berlin Landmarks, 1979, porcelain, East Germany

Weimar Porzellan, Fernsehturm (TV Tower) and Stalinallee, undated, porcelain, East Germany


The Golden, Silver, and Bronze Laurel Awards were the East German equivalents of the American Emmy Award. The porcelain part was produced by the Meissen porcelain factory.


Laurel TV Awards, undated, metal and porcelain, East Germany

TV Tower Toothpicks, undated, plastic, East Germany


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KVN TV set, 1955, Soviet Union

Postcard with illustration of KVN TV set, 1955, Soviet Union


This travel TV set could operate either from electricity or from an external car battery. It was first produced in 1970 to mark the 100th birthday of Vladimir Lenin (hence the name VL-100). It was sold both in Eastern and Western Europe, sometimes under the name “Rigonda.�


Elektronika VL-100 portable TV set, 1970s, Soviet Union

16 Tele STAR 4004 portable TV set, late 1970s to early 1980s, Soviet Union

Tesla Color 110 ST TV set, 1988, Czechoslovakia


17 18 Crocheted television-cover doily, 1975–1977, cotton, Romania, donation from Romina Surugiu

Silelis (Shiljalis) 405 D portable TV set, late 1970s, Lithuania, Soviet Union


Tesla Manes TV set, 1960s, Czechoslovakia


TV game consoles were out of reach for average consumers. They were mostly used by educational institutions and youth organizations, and functioned as “collective” consumer goods.

TV game console, early 1980s, East Germany


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Junost-406W TV set, 1980s, Soviet Union

23 Sharp SQ-46D portable TV set, 1972, Japan Imported to East Germany from Japan.

24 Combi Vision 310 portable combined radio and TV set, 1975, East Germany

25 Indoor TV antenna, undated, Soviet Union

Installation with an Iskra 130-1 “Trim� Portable TV set, early 1980s, Yugoslavia, and Chris Wyrick, artistic impression of a Soviet living room, 2019, United States



Carelessness with fire ‌ sets the house on fire!, 1976, poster, Soviet Union

Boevoi Karandash, The Fighting Pencil Collective, 1975, poster, Soviet Union, donated by Christine Evans


Margit SĂĄndor and Fazekas Janosne, The whole wide world in your home, 1968, poster, Hungary



A well-to-do couple in an elegant apartment watches a ballet performance on television while an older woman, presumably one of their mothers, looks on in humble clothing. The image suggests that the new generation would rather live in luxury than care for their elders.


Slideshow showing photographs of television studios and televisions for sale



Reporter Tamás Vitray on the 12 Chairs cultural quiz show, 1967, photo facsimile, Hungary, Fortepan/Rádio és Televízío Usjág

32 Rutowska Grażyna, XII National Festival of Polish Song in Opole taped with a Philips TV camera, 1974, photo facsimile, Poland, Narodowe Archivum Cyfrowe/National Digital Archive

Taping of Family Circle, MTV (Magyar Televízió) Studio, 1974, photo facsimile, Hungary, Fortepan/Rádió és Televízió Újság


33 34 TV sets for sale in a department store, 1972, photo facsimile, Hungary, Fortepan/Tibor Erky-Nagy

35 Café with a TV set on the counter, 1972, photo facsimile, Hungary, Fortepan/ Sándor Bauer

36 Cooperative department store, 1974, photo facsimile, Hungary, Fortepan/Sándor Bauer


Karl-Heinz Finke, Praktische Fernsehreparatur (Practical TV Repair), 1966, book, East Germany

Otto Ackerman, Fernsehen in Farben (Television in Color), 1972, book, East Germany



Novye Tovary (New Goods), 1978, catalog, Soviet Union

39 Jugend und Technik (Youth and Technology), 1965, magazine, East Germany


Neues Leben (New Life), 1977, magazine, East Germany



Neues Leben (New Life), 1972, magazine, East Germany

Neues Leben (New Life), 1982, magazine, East Germany


DOMESTIC LIFE While communist television was an integral part of a political system that strove to surpass and eliminate capitalism, it nonetheless had surprisingly much in common with television in the West. As in the rest of the world, audiences in countries under communist rule became accustomed to television as a domestic object and a focal point of family routines. The TV set occupied a central position in family homes, dictating the arrangement of furniture. Moreover, television began to play an important role in everyday schedules. In spite of communist officials’ high hopes of using television as a tool of political propaganda, audiences in Eastern Europe, much like everywhere else in the world, regarded the medium primarily as an instrument of entertainment and relaxation. The domestic setting of the television experience meant that the authorities had little to no control over how people engaged with political messages. More and more, communist state television felt the need to take consumer wishes into account and turn away from direct propaganda, toward more enjoyable, entertaining formats, albeit often with clear educational messages.


Home video of Christmas and New Year’s Eve celebrations, 1962 and 1964, East Germany

Home video of Christmas and New Year’s Eve celebrations, 1962 and 1964, East Germany Wojna Domowa (Domestic War), 1965–1966, Poland A show about two Polish families trying to raise their teenagers. Toate Pînzele Sus! (All Sails Up!), 1977, Romania The animated opening sequence of a series about a ship crossing the world. 40 Latek (The Forty-Year-Old), 1975–1978, Poland This television series follows the fate of a family in Warsaw, exploring topics related to midlife crisis, such as extramarital affairs, an obsession with health and fitness, and a search for social relevance. A remake screened in the mid-1990s. Pozorište u Kući (Theater in the Home), 1972–1984 (with interruptions), Yugoslavia This television series follows the Petrovic family in Belgrade, and the action takes place almost entirely in their apartment. A remake aired on Serbian television in 2007. Chto? Gde? Kogda? (What? Where? When?), 1975–present, Soviet Union A trivia game show that is still on the air in several post-Soviet countries. Throughout the game, a team of six experts attempts to answer questions sent in by viewers. If a question stumps the experts, the person who sent it in earns a prize. The team of experts earns points if they get the correct answer. 12

Kola Beldy, “I’ll Take You to the Tundra,” Pesnya Goda (Song of the Year), 1972, Soviet Union Galina Besedina and Sergei Taranenko, “So I Want to Love,” Pesnya Goda (Song of the Year), 1980, Soviet Union Song of the Year was a Soviet televised music festival that is still popular today. It is aired annually as part of New Year’s festivities. First held in 1971, it became the main event of the year for Soviet singers and musical groups, akin to the American Grammy Awards. Kola Beldy was a Soviet pop singer of indigenous Nanai ethnicity, from the easternmost part of Siberia. Commercial for Junost-402 portable television, c. 1976, Soviet Union Harry Egipt, Selections from commercials produced by Eesti Reklaamfilm, Estonia The Accordion Family, 1979 Save Energy!, 1982 Apple Bomb, 1983 Become a Shoemaker in Trade School No. 43, 1986 Orto Shoe Cream, 1987 Baltic Textile Factory, 1987


Broth Powder, 1988 Video Center of Tallinn, 1989 Young Smoker, 1989

The photo shows a characteristic domestic arrangement from the period, with the TV set placed on a shelf as part of the modular shelving system. Family sitting on a sofa watching TV, 1981, photo facsimile, Hungary, Fortepan/György Gárdos


4 Woman watching General Secretary Nicolae Ceauşescu giving a speech during the XIII Romanian Communist Party Congress, 1984, photo facsimile, Romania, Historical Press Photo Archive of the Minerva Cultural Association

New Year’s Eve, 1977, photo facsimile, Hungary, Fortepan



6 Rutowska Grażyna, living-room gathering with Topaz TV set, 1970, photo facsimile, Poland, Narodowe Archiwum Cyfrowe/National Digital Archive

Photo slideshow of TV sets in domestic spaces


Claus Bach, The Dummer Family, part of the photo series “Paare” (Pairs), 1986, photograph, East Germany

8 I.V. Barannikov and L. A. Varkovitskaya, “Electricity in the Home,” page in Russian Language in Pictures, 1965, book, Soviet Union, loan from Sabina Mihelj


YOUTH Whereas prime-time evening programs were focused on adult audiences, daytime and early-evening programs often catered to families and especially children. Although often educational in character, these programs usually abstained from more direct ideological messaging, instead conveying general “socialist” values like kindness and care. Some of these programs, like Krtek (Little Mole), which first aired on Czechoslovak television, became immensely popular all over Eastern Europe and sometimes even beyond. In the GDR, Sandmännchen (Sandman) was eagerly watched by whole generations of East German kids. Its appeal even spread across the border between East and West Germany. In response, West German television produced its own version of Sandman, but it never approached the popularity of the original socialist version. Some programs inspired the creation of popular merchandise such as dolls and games. Another category of children’s television was School TV. It originated in France but quickly spread all over both Western and Eastern Europe as a way to support the school curriculum, with TV sets becoming an extension of the classroom. Educational programs explained the secrets of science and helped students prepare for professional life after school.


Transport with the Help of Technology

Nobi, 1963, East Germany This animation, produced by the DEFA Studio für Trickfilme (DEFA Studio for Animated Cartoons) and directed by Günter Rätz, follows the young African blacksmith student Nobi and his friend, the gorilla Mafuka, in their eventually successful attempts to expel European slave traders who assault and murder the local populations. Pistruiatul (The Freckled Boy), 1973, Romania This show centers on a 13-year old boy during the historical events of World War II. An example of how television was often singled out as a particularly effective means of historical awareness, it was popular among both general and elite audiences. Nu, Pogodi! (Well, Just You Wait!), 1969–1986, Episode 9, “It’s Hard to Be a TV star,” 1976, Soviet Union Animated series produced by Soyuzfilm, following the adventures of the Wolf and the Hare. In this episode, the Wolf chases the Hare throughout a series of TV studio sets. Yozhik v Tumane (Hedgehog in the Fog), 1975, Soviet Union This meditative Soyuzfilm-produced short film, directed by Yuri Norstein, is highly regarded in animation history. It follows a hedgehog who gets lost in the fog on his way to visit his friend the bear cub. “Hairdresser,” Berufe im Bild (Professions on View), c. 1979, East Germany A monthly career-profile program made for East German TV, with advice on further education and training. 15

“Transport with the help of technology – Part 2: Construction lifts,” 1969, East Germany This school TV film was made by the DEFA Studio for Animated Film for the German Pedagogical Institute. It combines a stop-motion story about construction workers learning about lifts with real-life construction-site footage. “Chemical Equilibrium,” 1981, East Germany A chemistry school TV film produced by the DEFA Studio for Documentary Film.

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Zbyszko Siemasko, Children watching a Rafena Record 4 TV set, 1955–1965, photo facsimile, Poland, Narodowe Archiwum Cyfrowe/National Digital Archive


School pupils watching the XIII Romanian Communist Party Congress, 1984, photo facsimile, Romania, Historical Press Photo Archive of the Minerva Cultural Association


Use of television in kindergarten teacher training, 1973, photo facsimile, Hungary, Fortepan/Rádió és Televízió Újság Toddler with a Videoton 4206 Record TV set, 1972, photo facsimile, Hungary, Fortepan/Rádió és Televízió Újság


6 7 I. Solomennyi, We Are for Peace, 1951, poster, Soviet Union

Dollhouse with television sets, undated, East Germany


Sandman, Dear Sandman!, board game, 1980s, East Germany



Sandman children’s lamp, undated, East Germany

Soft toy Pittiplatsch, Sandman’s friend, undated, East Germany



Buttons featuring cartoon characters popular in the Soviet Union, including the wolf from Nu, Pogodi! (Well, Just You Wait!), Gena the Crocodile from Cheburashka, the scarecrow from Wizard of Oz, and Little Red Riding Hood.

Cartoon buttons, 1980s, Soviet Union


Little Mole was a popular Czech animated figure. Creator Zdeněk Miler first premiered the little mole in 1957 at the Venice Film Festival. It expanded into a long-lasting cartoon series that was exported to various countries in Eastern and Western Europe.

13 Puzzle featuring the cartoon character Krtek (Little Mole), undated, Czechoslovakia


Sandman toy, undated, East Germany

Pat & Mat plush toys, 2019, Czech Republic


CROSSING BORDERS Contrary to stereotypical conceptions of communist media as self-enclosed and hostile to foreign influence, communist television frequently transcended national borders within Eastern Europe and even across the Iron Curtain. Television schedules included substantial proportions of imported material, and audiences often thought of the small screen as a means of connecting with distant corners of the globe. In a context where Cold War politics imposed travel restrictions, television offered opportunities for imaginary “armchair travel.” Broadcasting organizations from communist countries eagerly participated in transnational exchanges of programming, technology, and know-how, and became involved in co-productions with countries on both sides of the Iron Curtain. While not all of the communist countries were equally open to foreign programming and influences, particularly those coming from the West, formats like quiz shows and family series were eagerly copied, while American programs from Peyton Place and Dallas to Columbo and Starsky & Hutch found enthusiastic audiences in Eastern Europe. Moreover, many East Europeans were able to access West European television. Hungarians watched Austrian TV, Slovenians and Albanians had access to Italian programs, Estonians received Finnish signals, and with the exception of the region around Dresden, humorously referred to as the “valley of the clueless,” almost all East Germans had access to West German television.



Airport, Sandmännchen (Sandman), West Germany

Lunochod II, 1973, Sandmännchen (Sandman), East Germany

1. “Mole and the Umbrella,” 1971, Krtek (Little Mole), Czechoslovakia, 1957–1975 2. “Mole and the Umbrella,” after 1971, East Germany Little Mole was a popular Czech animated figure. Creator Zdeněk Miler first premiered the little mole in 1957 at the Venice Film Festival. It expanded into a long-lasting cartoon series that was exported to various countries in Eastern and Western Europe. New episodes were created from 1995 to 2002. The Czech version of Krtek is shown here with a version exported to East Germany for DEFA Heimfilm home movies. 1. “Airport” and “The Adventures of the Spaceship Coffee Pot,” Sandmännchen (Sandman), West Germany, 1958–1991 2. “Lunochod II,” 1973, Sandmännchen (Sandman), East Germany, 1958–present Sandman is a German children’s bedtime stop-motion animation, based on the Ole Lukøje fairy-tale character by Hans Christian Andersen. There were two versions of Sandman, one East German and one West German. The East German version premiered three weeks after the West German Sandman, and became the more popular version both in East and West. The East German Sandman was exported to Finland, Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, and reruns are still broadcast today. 19

1. “Gym,” 1983, Pat & Mat, 1976–present, Czechoslovakia 2. “Malfunction,” Buurman en Buurman (Neighbor and Neighbor), created 1985, the Netherlands Lubomir Beneš and Vladimir Jiránek created these clumsy but always optimistic handymen for Czech Television. The show lacks dialogue and has been exported worldwide. It became known as Zingo and Ringo in Arabic-speaking countries, and Neighbor and Neighbor in the Netherlands, the only country to give the characters voices. 1, 2. Jaak Kilmi, Disco and the Atomic War, Estonia and Finland, 2009 This documentary recounts memories from the filmmakers’ childhoods growing up in Soviet Estonia in the 1980s, and how they gained access to pop culture via illegally intercepted Finnish TV broadcasts of Western media like Dallas and disco shows. 1. Danijel, “Džuli,” Eurovision Song Contest, 1983 2. Marion Rung, “Hyvästi Yö” (Where Is the Love), Intervision Song Contest, 1980 From 1977 to 1980, TV Poland rebranded the Sopot International Song Festival as the Intervision Song Contest as a counterpart to the European Broadcasting Union’s Eurovision Song Contest. Finnish singer Marion Rung placed 7th and 6th in Eurovision contests in the 1960s and ’70s, but won 1st place in the 1980 Intervision contest. Yugoslavia, on the other hand, was part of the EBU and participated in the Eurovision contest. Danijel, Yugoslavia’s entry in the 1983 Eurovision contest, won 4th place. 1, 2. Khrushchev - Nixon “Kitchen Debate,” 1959 A series of exchanges between U.S. Vice President Richard Nixon and Soviet First Secretary Nikita Khrushchev at the American National Exhibition in Sokolniki Park, Moscow. It was recorded on the new TV technology of Ampex color videotape, and was also distributed for screening later in black-and-white newsreels.


Gericke depicts a city wall with an opening revealing a caressing couple. The numerous TV antennae on the roofs might refer to the fact that almost everyone in the GDR – with the exception of those who lived in a small region around Dresden, jokingly referred to as “the valley of the clueless” – could receive West German television, and could thus transcend the confines imposed by the Berlin Wall and the Cold War division of Germany.

4 Lothar Gericke, Cityscape with Lovers, 1978, oil on canvas, East Germany

Italian opera singer Tito Schipa, MTV (Hungarian Television) Studios, 1962, photo facsimile, Hungary, Fortepan/Rádió és Televízió Újság



By the late 1980s, video recorders became increasingly common in Eastern Europe, and were used to distribute and view materials unavailable through state television channels, including pornography, Western films and series, and content produced by dissidents and exiles. Due to the unavailability and high prices of domestically produced video recorders and videotapes, equipment was often smuggled into Eastern Europe from the West.

Contraband TV sets, video recorders, and videotapes from the West, c. 1987, photo facsimile, Romania, Historical Press Photo Archive of the Minerva Cultural Association

Map of cross-border TV signals in Eastern Europe


All European countries were members of either the EBU (European Broadcasting Union), indicated in blue, or the OIRT (International Radio and Television Organization), indicated in red. The division corresponded roughly with the political divide in Europe during the Cold War. Yugoslavia, a socialist country that was not part of the Soviet Bloc, joined the EBU. Finland joined both organizations and is therefore color-coded in purple. The arrows on the map show the border crossing of television signals: who could watch programs from other countries? The arrows do not indicate the intensity of televised cross-traffic. We know that generally speaking West European programs were much more popular in Eastern Europe than vice versa, but there were exceptions, such as the children’s program Sandmännchen.  21


Roger Moore starred as a 1960s Robin Hood in the British mystery/spy thriller The Saint, originally broadcast from 1962 to 1969. The show aired on prime-time American television, and was popular in Romania. The headline on this Romanian film and TV magazine is about the rivalry between the followers of The Saint and the followers of the British spy show The Avengers.


Cinema, 1970, magazine, Romania, loan from Stefania Marghitu

British actor Joan Collins was widely known among Yugoslav audiences through her role as Alexis in the American soap opera Dynasty, which originally aired on NBC between 1981 and 1989 and was broadcast in Yugoslavia from the mid-1980s onwards.

TV Novosti, 1989, magazine, Yugoslavia

Studio, 1998, magazine, Yugoslavia


TV schedule showing channels from Slovenia, Austria, Hungary, and Italy.


Peyton Place aired from 1964 to 1969 in the United States, and in the early 1970s in Yugoslavia. The show was set in a small New England town founded by the Peyton family, and features scandalous affairs, murder, and secrets. In Yugoslavia, watching it was a popular weekly ritual until it was cancelled for spreading petitbourgeois values that conflicted with socialist ideals. Studio, 1970, magazine, Yugoslavia


MEDIA EVENTS As elsewhere in the world, communist television schedules were punctuated by extraordinary events. On major public holidays, such as Labor Day or New Year’s Eve, broadcasters abandoned their usual schedules and aired special programs to commemorate past revolutionary achievements, to celebrate progress toward the communist future, or simply to create a festive mood. Major sporting events like the Olympic Games or the East European “Spartakiads” could also disrupt regularly scheduled programming. In addition to such pre-planned celebratory “TV holidays” and international sports events, television played a major role in both reflecting and shaping collective responses to the key historical events of the era, such as the deaths of communist leaders, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Romanian Revolution, or the August 1991 military coup against Mikhail Gorbachev’s leadership in the Soviet Union.



Protesters in Romania occupying the TV studios in Bucharest, 1989

Ceauşescu’s last speech, 1989 TVR clips from the Romanian Revolution, 1989, Romania On December 22, protesters occupied the TVR state television headquarters and issued live broadcasts, beginning with speeches by dissident poet Mircea Dinescu and actor Ion Caramitru. In the background, one of the protesters sticks his head through a hole cut in the center of the national flag to remove the communist coat of arms. The TV channel also broadcast live footage from the streets of Bucharest. Press conference with Günter Schabowski, November 9, 1989, East Germany. In this televised press conference, Schabowski inadvertently set into motion the opening of the Berlin Wall.

Children play near the Brandenburg Gate in East Berlin, 1989, East Germany


Fall of Berlin Wall, 1989, Germany Spartakiad, 1975, Czechoslovakia May Day Parade, 1974, Soviet Union Moscow Olympics Closing Ceremony, 1980, Soviet Union Border guards at an official opening of the Berlin Wall, 1989, East Germany



During the Romanian Revolution, which culminated in the execution of state leader Nicolae Ceaușescu, protesters cut out the communist coat of arms at the center of the national flag. In the video clip, one of the protesters sticks his head through the hole.

Flag of the Socialist Republic of Romania, 1989

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May Day page from a scrapbook, East Germany, 1987

Spartakiad Trophy, 1961, metal and paint, Soviet Union

7 Olympics Vase, 1980, porcelain, Soviet Union

8 VEB Colditzer Porcelain, Moscow 1980, 1980, porcelain, East Germany


ALTERNATIVE CURRENTS Throughout the communist period, television sometimes served as a means of critique in spite of party control. In the 1980s, television reported on and often even propelled the political changes taking place across the Eastern Bloc. Dissidents and artists adopted TV as a tool and as a subject. In some cases, they just sought to open a space for expressive mediaart-making, though this activity often crossed over into pointed commentary that paralleled the countercultural art and literature of the period. U.S.-sponsored radio stations Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty famously amplified the voices of self-published writers, re-transmitting subversive texts that had been smuggled out to the West back into their countries of origin. In a similar vein, but relying solely on transnational person-to-person networks that operated completely independently of the broadcast airwaves, dissident programs and video magazines, documenting unfolding political and social transformations, were produced and secretly distributed in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and East Germany. Some of these programs were shown on state television prior to the peaceful revolutions of 1989.



Alternatywy 4 (Alternative 4), 1986, Poland

Sanja Ivekovic, Personal Cuts, 1982, Yugoslavia


Alternatywy 4 (Alternative 4), 1986, Poland This satirical comedy series was completed in 1983 but, due to censorship, first aired in 1986. Many famous Polish actors appeared in the series, which revolves around inhabitants of a newly built apartment complex on Alternative Street in the outskirts of Warsaw. It was highly critical of political life, and was a subversion of the classic “block of flats” genre. Selections from Kanal X, 1990-1991, East Germany Kanal X was the only pirate TV station in East Germany, located in Leipzig. The idea was born on November 9, 1989, the very day of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Video artists Ingo Günther and Norbert Meissner, together with art historian Jörg Seyde, developed the concept of an autonomous television station to offer a platform to grassroots and opposition movements. Kanal X screened between March 1990 and February 1991. Originální Videojournal (Original Video Journal), Czechoslovakia Original Video Journal was a dissident video magazine initiated by František Janouch and Václav and Olga Havel in 1987. It was edited and copied secretly on school equipment. Seven regular and two thematic programs were produced between autumn 1987 and November 1989, followed by nine special volumes made during and shortly after the 1989 revolution. With financial aid from Czech exile centers abroad, the Original Videojournal editorial group acquired a Sony Video-8 videotape recorder. This led to the production of video news about dissident and alternative culture. 25


Personal Cuts, Sanja Iveković, 1982, Yugoslavia, Centre Pompidou, Paris Artist Sanja Iveković broadcast her video art piece Personal Cuts on prime-time national television on TV Zagreb. The video intercuts footage from a state television program produced shortly after Tito’s death in 1980, with images of the artist cutting holes into a mask covering her head.

Andrej Paruzel, Video Installation Exercise “Supplement”, 1978, Poland, loan from Susan Herzig & Paul Hertzmann


In the late 1970s, Andrej Paruzel created a series of video art installations reflecting on the transformation of real space into the projected world of the television.

4 Alternative Currents Installation Collectives like Original Video Journal documented unfolding political and social transformations at home and made unauthorized VHS dubs that they distributed by hand, copying them over many times until the video signal became distorted, acquiring a visible signature of its ad hoc course of communication. This installation recreates a video dubbing station used by underground video groups. It shows the visible effect of repeated copying on the analog video signal, which breaks down successively with each copy.


TRANSITIONS The story of communist television does not end with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 or the dissolution of the Soviet Union two years later. Many of its traits are still visible in present-day state television in countries like China and Cuba, not to mention the Stalinist regime in North Korea. Moreover, some aspects of communist television survived the end of state socialism in Eastern Europe. Television personalities and fictional characters from earlier days are still fondly remembered, and some popular programs outlasted the watershed period of political transformation. But the media landscape also underwent a profound transformation. While the growing public disillusionment and resistance against state communism impacted television culture in the late 1980s, state-controlled broadcasting monopolies gave way to public broadcasting institutions and a range of commercial channels in the 1990s, making Western programs and formats much more dominant. Moreover, in many of the former Eastern European countries, an ideological shift has taken place toward nationalism, sometimes coupled with xenophobia. It has significantly colored the messaging of television, and progressively obscured the borders between reality and fake news.



Allan Chumak, early 1990s, Soviet Union/Russia

Nostalgia Channel, 2010s, Russia


Elf99 (Eleven99), 1989, East Germany Elf99 was a youth program that in the year the Berlin Wall came down tried to win back young viewers who had turned their backs on East German television programs altogether. The series was named after the ZIP code (1199) of the Berlin television studios. The program survived the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and German reunification in 1990, to be terminated in 1994. Clips from the Open Society Archive, Central European University, Hungary Selection of excerpts from Soviet and Russian TV programs broadcast during perestroika (reform), illustrating the changing nature of television culture at the time, its opening to the West, and the gradual embrace of taboo topics. Curated by Simon Huxtable. Vzgliad, current affairs show, 1987 Utro, daytime news show, 1992 Spokoinoi Nochi, Malyshi (Good Night, Little Ones!), followed by advertisements, 1993 Pokolenie 93 (Generation 93), 1994 Allan Chumak, early 1990s, Soviet Union/Russia Allan Vladimirovich Chumak (1935–2017) was a Russian faith healer who came to prominence at the height of Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (reform). When he appeared on television, his fans would hold water next to their televisions, hoping to charge the water with healing energy. Chumak appeared on the television program 120 Minutes. 27


In four episodes, The DDR Show catered to nostalgic feelings among former East Germans, discussing GDR music, fashion, consumer culture, and television history. Presenters were West German television moderator Oliver Geißen and East German figure-skating legend Katarina Witt, who won two Olympic gold medals and four world championship titles for the GDR. Opening sequences from Nostalgia Channel, 2010s, Russia Nostalgia Channel is a Russian TV channel that features studio interviews about the past and reruns of socialist programs with a touch of irony. Hungary Reports, December 2, 2016, Hungary Hungary Reports is a daily English-language news program for Hungarian expatriates and people interested in the country, which started in 2015. It expresses the political views of the right-wing Orbán administration in a time when Hungarian television is strongly controlled by the government, echoing communist times.


A woman turned to stone watches the Soviet television show 120 Minutes, featuring parapsychologist Allan Chumak, who would practice “distance healing,” asking viewers to place jars of water or cold cream near the television screen in order to use the static electricity at the curve of the screen to transmit his healing energy. Apparently, in this case something went seriously wrong in the process.

Mikhail Rozhdestvin, They Say It Helps, 1990, tempera on fiberboard, Soviet Union


Four sets of ballerina legs are drawn in a television-screen frame; the dancers stand before a camouflage-print stage curtain. The ballerinas’ legs spell out the Russian acronym for the State Emergency Committee that staged the failed coup to overthrow Gorbachev on August 19, 1991. The painting references how the State Emergency Committee occupied the Moscow television studios and interrupted the scheduled program with a performance of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake.

Mikhail Rozhdestvin, Quiet Please—Rehearsal in Session, 1991, tempera on fiberboard, Soviet Union



The first letter makes the phrase a play on words. It can be read as either Glasnost, referring to Mikhail Gorbabchev’s policy of openness, or as V glas nost, meaning to punch in the eye. Vaganov may be criticizing the policies that would have allowed more offensive and violent programming on television.

Alexander Vaganov. Glasnost on TV, 1991, tempera on fiberboard, Soviet Union

Chris Wyrick, TV towers in Moscow, Berlin, Prague, and Vilnius, 2019, vinyl, United States

6 Audio Station: Three Polish, three Serbian, and three Russian interviews of TV viewer recollections, from the research of Susan Reid and Sabina Mihelj, Loughborough University.



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