The Greengrocer and His TV: The Culture of Communism After the 1968 Prague Spring

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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.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"Paulina Bren uses Jaroslav Dietl's Communist-era television serials to get at the inner life of post-1968 communist Czechoslovakia, the era of normalization, and deconstruct old Cold War binaries concerning power and resistance in the East Bloc. . . . This innovative, lively study of mass media encourages rethinking about commonalities across East and West in the postwar world. Bren’s book will shape research questions about the 1970s and 1980s in Eastern Europe and inspire new uses of non-traditional sources, making it a standard setter for scholars of successor states of the Habsburg Monarchy during the late twentieth century."—Citation of the 2012 Center for Austrian Studies Book Prize Committee

"Paulina Bren has delved into the letters written to Czechoslovak TV in the communist era to paint a fascinating picture of reactions to the regime's attempt to produce programs that were both entertaining and ideologically correct."—"Eastern Approaches" blog, The Economist, 16 August 2010

"Doing the history of passivity and accommodation is not easy, and Bren proceeds ingeniously by exploring the subtle buying into the system by the vast viewing audience that embraced the lives of the characters on popular television serials, lives redolent of what 'normalization' meant. Then, in a particularly revealing step, she examines the awkward response to reruns of some of the most popular of these serials in the aftermath of what she calls Czechoslovakia's 'late communism.'"—Robert Legvold, Foreign Affairs, September/October 2010

"Paulina Bren has written an engaging, highly informative book on a period characterized by the conscious attempts of a regime to prevent anything from happening. The leaders of post-1968 Czechoslovakia were obsessed by 'normalization': their ambition was to freeze up time, to escape from the past, not to face the future,not to let histoire événementielle (a history of events, like the heroic but naïve attempt of introducing socialism with a human face in 1968) return. Paulina Bren has succeeded in overcoming the impossible: this is a serious but entertaining and readable study of a Kafkaesque rule by dullness, by boredom, the life under gray skies, reflected on the television screen. The Greengrocer and His TV helps in understanding why the extraordinary events of 1989 were so much underdetermined, but the book reminds us that careful historical research succeeds in uncovering under the seemingly uneventful surface the process that might lead to completely surprising outcomes."—István Rév, Central European University, Director of Open Society Archives

"With its subtle grasp of complexity and contradiction, Paulina Bren's book is a very smart and occasionally tart analysis of Czechoslovakia's late communist culture through the prism of television. Spurning the binaries of repression and dissidence, living in the lie and living in truth, and other mainstays of Cold War-era rhetoric, Bren surveys and brilliantly brings to light the vast gray area that comprised 'normalized' life in the aftermath of the Prague Spring. Based on her pitch-perfect renderings of the TV-serials of the 1970s and 1980s, she argues that normalization entailed the depoliticization of public life and the politicization of the private by offering a 'quiet life' of 'self-realization' in contrast to both the Prague Spring's political hysteria and Western capitalism's rabid consumerism. She also points out that the television serials placed women at the forefront of rebuilding communism after 1968 by entrusting them with key roles as retailers and consumers. Living within the lie thus became not only palatable but even appealing. Written with wit and verve, The Greengrocer and His TV is as much fun to read as it must have been to research. It is one of the very few books on late communism that truly can be described as eye-opening and paradigm-changing; it is sure to be discussed avidly for years to come."—Lewis H. Siegelbaum, Michigan State University, author of Cars for Comrades

"Communism survived in Eastern Europe for nearly a generation after Soviet tanks ended the Prague Spring. Few scholars have yet tackled the dynamics of what Václav Havel called 'post-totalitarianism,' with its myriad enticements to conformity. In this engaging, entertaining book, Paulina Bren shows us that the relationship between the communist state and Czechoslovak society was mediated by television. To understand the regime's longevity, therefore, we would really have to sit down in the greengrocer's living room and watch what his family is watching. And now we can."—Padraic Kenney, Indiana University

"Paulina Bren has written an innovative, fascinating, and readable book that both cultural and political historians should read. In The Greengrocer and His TV, she refuses to stop at the screen or even just to peer beyond it. Her arguments are supported by a rich documentary base drawing from Communist Party records, state and television archives, and contemporary samizdat, as well as memoir literature."—Benjamin Frommer, Northwestern University

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780801476426
  • Publisher: Cornell University Press
  • Publication date: 4/28/2010
  • Pages: 264
  • Sales rank: 929,923
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 0.70 (d)

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