The Greengrocer and his TV

The Greengrocer and his TV: The Culture of Communism after the 1968 Prague Spring

Paulina Bren
Copyright Date: 2010
Edition: 1
Published by: Cornell University Press
Pages: 264
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  • Book Info
    The Greengrocer and his TV
    Book Description:

    The 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia brought an end to the Prague Spring and its promise of "socialism with a human face." Before the invasion, Czech reformers had made unexpected use of television to advance political and social change. In its aftermath, Communist Party leaders employed the medium to achieve "normalization," pitching television stars against political dissidents in a televised spectacle that defined the times.

    The Greengrocer and His TV offers a new cultural history of communism from the Prague Spring to the Velvet Revolution that reveals how state-endorsed ideologies were played out on television, particularly through soap opera-like serials. In focusing on the small screen, Paulina Bren looks to the "normal" of normalization, to the everyday experience of late communism. The figure central to this book is the greengrocer who, in a seminal essay by Václav Havel, symbolized the ordinary citizen who acquiesced to the communist regime out of fear.

    Bren challenges simplistic dichotomies of fearful acquiescence and courageous dissent to dramatically reconfigure what we know, or think we know, about everyday life under communism in the 1970s and 1980s. Deftly moving between the small screen, the street, and the Central Committee (and imaginatively drawing on a wide range of sources that include television shows, TV viewers' letters, newspapers, radio programs, the underground press, and the Communist Party archives), Bren shows how Havel's greengrocer actually experienced "normalization" and the ways in which popular television serials framed this experience.

    Now back by popular demand, socialist-era serials, such as The Woman Behind the Counter and The Thirty Adventures of Major Zeman, provide, Bren contends, a way of seeing-literally and figuratively-Czechoslovakia's normalization and Eastern Europe's real socialism.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-6215-3
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-10)

    Walk through the city of Prague and you will encounter the elegant nineteenth-century street Pařížská ulice, one of the main arteries leading out from the Old Town Square; follow it to its end (passing the old Jewish cemetery and synagogue on your left) until you come to the Vltava River. Across the river is a steep hill with a large park that overlooks the city. This was the official marching ground for May Day Communist Party parades from 1948 to 1989, and it was on May Day in 1955 that an enormous statue of Stalin was unveiled right there. Measuring...

  5. 1 “A CRIMINAL COMEDY BUT OF A REVIVALIST SPIRIT”: The Beginning and the End of the Prague Spring
    (pp. 11-34)

    A day after St. Nicolas Day, when the streets were overrun by men posing as St. Nick in bishops’ hats, accompanied by red-horned devils, the Ideological Commission met in Prague. It was December 7, 1964, and the commission, appointed by the Communist Party’s Central Committee, was charged with keeping the lid shut on Pandora’s box of postwar revelations about Stalinism.

    As in the rest of the Eastern Bloc, Nikita Khrushchev’s disclosures about Stalin’s crimes had forced the Czechoslovak government to open up its prison doors and send home those political prisoners now known to have been falsely accused. But that...

    (pp. 35-60)

    In April 1969, when Gustáv Husák was named the new general secretary, most citizens let out a sigh of relief. Here was a man who represented political moderation; a committed communist, certainly, but also a close friend of Dubček, a supporter of reform communism, and, perhaps most important, a survivor of Stalinism. Imprisoned in the 1950s on the trumped-up charge of “Slovak bourgeois nationalism,” Husák had experienced the full reach of the Communist Party: first from the highest echelons of power as a prominent Slovak apparatchik and then from the inside of a jail as one of the party’s political...

  7. 3 INTELLECTUALS, HYSTERICS, AND “REAL MEN”: The Prague Spring Officially Remembered
    (pp. 61-84)

    In Milan Kundera’s novel The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, written when the author was already living in France, one of the characters describes 1971 as the year of forgetting and proclaims, “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.”¹ It was a favorite theme of Kundera’s. At the 1967 Writers’ Congress, when writers en masse defied the party leadership, Kundera had stood up and warned against the country’s “vandals,” who “lack awareness of historical continuity and culture, who want to change their nation into a desert without history, without memory, without resonance, without beauty.”²...

  8. 4 THE QUIET LIFE VERSUS A LIFE IN TRUTH: Writing the Script for Normalization
    (pp. 85-111)

    With the absence of postwar idealism to forge political unity, and with the suppression of a reformed communism that might have reshaped ideology and its practical application, the question was, what was communism to be, and for whom, after 1968? The purge had recast late communist society; the official rewriting of the Prague Spring had introduced the necessary paradigms; but what remained was to define everyday life in the years ahead. The question presented itself early on at the Czechoslovak pavilion of the 1970 World Exposition in Japan. The national pavilion, on display halfway across the world, exhibited a significantly...

    (pp. 112-129)

    The Prague Spring propelled the Communist Party into the media age. Overwhelmed by the rapidity with which television, radio, and print had broken free of state censorship in 1968, taken aback by the force of the visual image in revealing the underbelly of Stalinism and its aftereffects, normalization’s leaders unanimously agreed that they themselves must exploit the media for their cause. This revelation about television’s political potential was repeated, mantra-like, throughout the 1970s and well into the 1980s. “Experience from the crisis years has taught us,” reported one such official analysis, “that television, with its potency, persuasiveness, vivid description, and...

  10. 6 JAROSLAV DIETL: Normalization’s Narrator
    (pp. 130-158)

    Jaroslav Dietl, author of A Young Lady for His Excellency, Comrades!, the 1960s theater play that had been banned by the Central Committee’s Ideological Commission,¹ excelled at the socialist television serial. In large part, it was his serials broadcast in the 1970s and 1980s that remade television into what Czech literary critic A. J. Liehm described as “the main and the most useful of normalization’s media tools.”² By transforming the pedantic and officious socialist-speak of the television news into entertaining limited-episode soap operas watched by millions of citizens, Dietl and his work became practically synonymous with normalization.

    Dietl was not...

    (pp. 159-176)

    Television was late communism’s ideological soapbox favored by a regime that had slowly but certainly recognized the reality of post-1968. The so-called transmission belts of the early communist period—most notably the unions organized by occupation, generation, and gender role and meant to communicate political messages from government to people—were now deflated, filled with as much vim and vigor as the Central Committee’s octogenarians. Instead, through the rethought medium of television, Jaroslav Dietl, normalization’s narrator, outlined the state-endorsed quiet life and the principle of “privatized citizenship,” which turned the notion of a functioning public sphere upside down and glorified...

    (pp. 177-200)

    Jaroslav Dietl’s television serial The Engineers’ Odyssey is a fairy-tale fantasy.¹ The world described is a rarefied one of international business, top socialist enterprise management, and high-level party functionaries. Here, the East-West borders are fluid, the airport is accessible, and passports are in hand. These engineers do not have to heed reality; when Zbyněk parks his car, he does not—like ordinary citizens during normalization—have to take his windshield wipers with him so they will not be stolen because spare parts are impossible to purchase. He is impervious to the everyday inconveniences behind the Iron Curtain.

    This is most...

  13. Conclusion
    (pp. 201-208)

    Remembering late communism has not been easy. In part, willful amnesia is the inevitable result of the black line drawn by all revolutions, which, as Orlando Figes writes, “are conceived as a spiritual renewal, a moral resurrection of the people, in which all sins vanish with the old regime and virtues are restored.”¹ Thus, bringing up late communism means revisiting the sins of the old regime and consequently of its participants, most of whom are still alive. When in 1997 the film The Unbearable Lightness of Being (based on Milan Kundera’s novel of the same name and starring British actor...

  14. Notes
    (pp. 209-238)
  15. Bibliography
    (pp. 239-246)
  16. Index
    (pp. 247-250)