The culture mavens among us can certainly cite some of the classics produced under the communist regime – from films by Tarkovsky and Wajda to books by Kundera and Milosz. But they might have more trouble naming the highlights of post-1989 culture. Maybe Kusturica and the Romanian New Wave in film. And how many have read books by recent Nobelists like Muller or Tokarczuk? Does the lack of obvious postcommunist classics mean that the new system is bad for culture?
There have been fierce debates about the transition from communism. The positive side sees it as a triumphant end of history - a move from repression and poverty to freedom and prosperity. The negative side labels it “disaster capitalism” and highlights the emergence of poverty and the pervasiveness of corruption and oligarchical rule. Each side has its points and interestingly they tend to agree on one thing: the transition was a big deal. It changed a lot.
Does the same apply to culture? Debates about the transition have mostly ignored culture and by this I mean the production of culture - films, books, music, etc. Few have asked about the impact of the fall of communism on culture, whether it has led to more and better or less and worse cultural products, or some other combination.
My aim here is to put together some more systematic data on what sort of break 1989 caused in the cultural realm. I’m thinking both of the quantity and type of culture produced and its quality, the highlights that I mentioned at the start. As a caveat I’m not a literary or film critic, just an observer who likes to count things. For those who want a more informed and literary take, I’d recommend Andrew Wachtel’s (2006) book “Remaining Relevant”.
This is a work in progress, but I’ll put my main takes so far up front.
As far as literature goes, the fall of communism led to a massive expansion in the number of titles published, at a minimum doubling the number of domestically produced works and more often quadrupling that number. At the same time, print runs dropped dramatically. Communist regimes published far fewer titles in far greater quantities while the postcommunist ones publish far more variety in far smaller quantities.
Literary quality is a harder call. The postcommunist regime seems to have hit fewer of the heights of the communist era, but many of those heights were books written in opposition to that regime, published only in samizdat, and produced by writers who left the region whether voluntarily or forcibly. Moreover, lists of great or must-read books tend not to show enormous differences across regimes.
Filmmaking similarly saw a large fall off in quantity after 1989 due to massive transitional recessions and new economic models. But the new millennium has witnessed a recovery that has typically equaled if not exceeded communist-era levels. And this is not including the massive expansion in TV production.
Quality again is controversial. The decline in production did lead to fewer nominees at major festivals, though awards tended to remain at a similar level. Arguably there are fewer contemporary classics, but this is mainly if our comparators are to the high points of communist filmmaking - Eisenstein’s work in the 1920s and the various nouvelle vagues in the late 1960s - as opposed to the much more ordinary and forgettable production from say the 1950s or 1980s.
In short, there have been some fall offs but nothing that indicates disaster. A couple of caveats. First, I am looking only at cultural production rather than the position of artists. As Wachtel shows, it has become much harder to make a living as a “serious” artist in the postcommunist regime compared to what he calls the utopia for writers that communist regime created. Arguably, we see the same contemporary difficulties in the West. Second, I am also still trying to collect more data and would welcome suggestions for other sources.
You might ask why engage in this type of analysis. My hope is that this exercise helps us identify the kinds of public policies associated with great art. This isn’t to assume that art makes progress (a la the theme of this blog), only that great art is an achievement that we should encourage. And whether state support for free markets or conversely a centrally planned economy helps to do this is a question we should ask.
Stalin was a well-known film buff and the early days of the Soviet Union were home to such ground-breaking works as Vertov’s “Man with a Camera”, Dovzhenko’s “Earth”, and Eisenstein’s entire oeuvre. Most of the satellite countries also had their moment of international esteem, often in the 1960s, whether the Czech New Wave or Poland’s Cinema of Moral Concern. These highlights coexisted with a substantial amount of mainstream production for the masses that is frequently ignored (Bren 2011).
Structurally, the communist system of film production mirrored Hollywood in the days of all-encompassing studios. Communist regimes nationalized the preexisting studios or built their own. These studios were organized into units, “relatively permanent teams of directors, screenwriters, cameramen, and set and costume designers sharing similar interests and tastes (Iordanova 2003). These units had considerable autonomy, though scripts and personnel were vetted by the party who also ultimately decided what was released. This system put emphasis on “quality” rather than viewership. As Iordanova puts it, “Box office receipts mattered but were never of crucial importance.” The state meanwhile set quantitative targets for the number of films to be produced in their five-year plans.
This system mostly ended with the transition as the state’s role receded and studios were often privatized. The new subsidy system tended to be less forgiving. It was allocated on a per project basis and only covered a percentage of production costs. Filmmakers thus had to focus much more on fundraising and turned to private investors, television stations, and international co-productions. They also had to pay greater attention to the movie-going public.
The post-transition era is typically portrayed as a drop-off in both quality and quantity due to economic hardship and the collapse of the old system. Yet most surveys were written early in the transition and do not cover newer successes like the Romanian New Wave. A longer view shows both a recovery in production and substantial successes.
I begin with simple quantitative indicators of film production. Figure 1 shows the number of full-length feature films made in Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland, and Romania. They all tell a similar story, though the Hungarian and Romanian data only begin in 1990. 1989 was something of a peak for production and the 1990s saw a relatively rapid decline to around half of that peak. In short, the transition took a steep toll on film production, presumably due to economic hardship and the withdrawal of state support.
Figure 1: Film Production
This has been noted in previous work on film in the region, but few studies have followed these trends to the present. As we see, the late nineties witnessed a rise in the number of domestically made films, reaching just about to pre-transition levels by the 2010s except for a dip during the recession of 2008. As in many areas, one could tell a disaster capitalism story at the beginning of the transition, but a broader view is more positive.
Of course, film is not the only form of visual storytelling. Even if these countries were producing fewer films for at least the first decade of the transition, they were ramping up television production at the same time, both serials and made-for-TV movies. Communist regimes typically featured only 1 or 2 public channels and had difficulty filling even those with original programming.
Come the transition, these numbers quickly expanded both with original programming and subtitled or dubbed foreign shows. Most countries today feature several public and even more private channels. TV production has certainly become more efficient - technological changes mean that it takes fewer workers to produce the same sort of content - but the expansion of production has still been massive. (I hope to add some data here as well.)
It is a bit harder, actually a lot harder, to say whether filmmaking has gotten better or worse. Most countries do have a set of artistic classics from the communist years. Post-transition classics are harder to find, but these films have also had more difficulties developing an audience due to the fragmentation of the market and foreign competition.
As a relatively neutral measure of the production of quality films before and after the fall of communism, I compiled data on films screened at the major film festivals and nominated for major awards. I focused on three film festivals with long traditions – Berlin, Cannes, and Venice – along with the Oscar for Best Foreign Film. I coded whether any of the films competing for the main award (Golden Bear, Palme d’Or, Golden Lion, and Oscar) were made primarily in the communist (and then post-communist) states of Eastern Europe including the Soviet Union/Russia.
Figure 2 shows the proportion of Eastern European films included among the 4,350 featured selections (along with a lowess estimate of the time trend). The main result is a post-transition decline in the proportion of Eastern European films screened or nominated at these festivals, though the decline possibly started in the 1980s. Overall, 11.3% of the films at these festivals or short-listed for the Oscar come from the region with a high of 29% in 1968 and a low of 2.9% in 2008-2009. The average declined from 14.9% in 1960-1989 to 8.6% in 1990-2019. It may be worth noting that the region’s share of world population has dropped from around 10% in 1950 and 1960 to only 6% in 2010, so the region may be holding its own in per capita terms.
Figure 2: Major Festival Nominees
Some of this decline might be due to an increase in competition at these festivals. The fall of communism roughly corresponds with the emergence of important film cultures in Asia, particularly places like South Korea, China, and Iran. In fact, the trend for Asian nominees is positive with an increase from 8.2% of nominees between 1960 and 1989 to 15.6% from 1990 to 2019, which almost exactly offsets the trend from the communist/post-communist countries.
Just isolating winning films, as in Figure 3, gives a slightly different impression. Now the trend is mostly flat from 1980 to the present, though we are dealing with a smaller number of films - only 267 winners compared to 4,350 nominees in the previous analysis. Overall, the percentage of winners (11.7%) is almost identical to the percentage of nominees (11.4%). The main difference is that there is less evidence of a postcommunist decline in the percentage of winners. In fact, the percentage increased from 12.3% in 1960-1989 to 14% in 1990-2019. Given the decline in nominees, postcommunist films are punching above their weight in the more recent period.
Figure 3: Major Festival Winners
To give a sense of the kinds of films that were winning awards, Table 1 lists all of them. In terms of content, the winning films of the communist era divided between WWII dramas (5 films) and the contemporary era (8 films). The postcommunist films sometimes returned to WWII (4 films) and the communist era (5 films) but more were set in the contemporary era (9 films) and of these four focused on the war in Yugoslavia or its aftermath.
There are of course a number of problems with using these selections as a measure of cultural success. The nominating committees and juries could be biased and under the communist system the decision of which films to send to festivals was a political one. Iordanova (2003) notes that there was “a tendency to judge the artistry of cinematic works coming out of the Eastern bloc by the level of dissent displayed,” though there was also sympathy for communist ideals among artists.
To get a sense of permanent worth, the Sight and Sound poll of directors and critics is considered the most authoritative measure of the world’s greatest films. The countries of Eastern Europe are fairly well-represented in the most recent version of this poll (conducted in 2012). Seven of the top 100 critics’ picks and eight of the directors’ picks are from the region. A couple were from the early experimental stage of cinematography (Eisenstein’s “Battleship Potemkin” from 1925 and Vertov’s “Man with a Camera” from 1929). Tarkovsky’s “Andrei Rublev” (1966), “Mirror” (1975), and “Stalker” (1979) also figured in both lists. All of these films scored relatively well, in the top 35. The critics also included the Armenian-made “Color of Pomegranate” (1968) and the directors chose “Come and See” (1985) and “I Am Cuba” (1964).
There was only one post-1989 film on the lists, Tarr’s seven-hour-long “Satantango” (1994), though the 1990s and 2000s were relatively unrepresented on both lists - only 8% of the critics’ picks and 7% of the directors’ picks.
To get a more general sense of critics’ views of quality, I used the database from the website They Shoot Pictures, which has compiled over 12,000 lists of best films. These lists are then weighted to produce a ranking of 20,430 films along with a top 1,000. I have coded these films as Eastern Europe by the first listed country of production as well as whether any Eastern European country was listed.
Figure 4 shows the percentage of Eastern European films out of all films listed from that year. The region scores highly both in the early period of filmmaking - when Russian auteurs like Eisenstein and Vertov produced classic films - and during the various nouvelles vagues in the late 1960s. There does seem to be a drop off in the post-1989 era as indicated by the lowess trend line.
Figure 4: Greatest Films from Eastern Europe
If we compare the thirty years of the postcommunist era (1990-2019) to the last thirty years of the communist era (1960-1989), we find that 7.3% of great films came from the region under communism compared to only 4.1% in the postcommunist era. The postcommunist era does slightly better if we consider co-productions (films where an Eastern Europe country was listed as one of the co-producers) but still lags by 5.5% to 7.7%.
In absolute terms, the final three decades of the communist era produced 548 “great films” compared to only 332 in the current era. The best year for the region in the communist period was 1967 with 38 great films, or 15% of the great films of the world from that year. By contrast, the best years of the postcommunist era were 1992 with 20 films (7.4% of the world total) or 2012 with 19 films (6.4%).
Isolating the best of the best, the top 1000 films, shows broadly similar trends. Excluding the possible outlier of the 1960s, the region produced around 6-7% of the great films in the 1970s and 1980s compared to around 4% in the three postcommunist decades.
Overall, there was a post-transition decline in filmmaking, but a recovery in the new millennium. More than other arts, film depends on money and that was in short supply in the 1990s. In terms of quality, there may be fewer classics, but this is mainly when we compare to the early Soviet experiments or the New Waves of the 1960s. Current production stands up better relative to the more typical communist eras, though there is still a decline.
The Soviet Union called itself the world’s best-read country based on the number of books that it published. And it is relatively easy to name some of the great writers of the communist era, whether Bulgakov, Pasternak, Kundera, or Szymborska though in many cases, their relations with the regime were at a minimum cool and at a maximum culminated in emigration (Milosz), exile (Brodsky), imprisonment (Solzhenitsyn), or death (Babel).
Wachtel (2006) has written most powerfully about changes induced by the transition, though he focuses mostly on the corporate position of writers. He calls the communist system “an almost utopian system for writers of imaginative literature, one that provided a significant segment of the educated elite with both high status and high incomes relative to the rest of the population.” This elite, defined by membership in official writers’ unions, was provided with secure work and salaries along with other access to consumer goods. And the benefits extended even to non-official writers who could either find work in adjacent fields like translation and research or take no work or little work jobs that left time for writing. According to Wachtel, the line between official and oppositional writers was ambiguous and the latter were often parasitical on the former – one could earn a living in the official sector and still write in the oppositional sector.
Of course, writers and other artists embraced the revolution almost universally even though it hurt both their material well-being and exalted social position. Wachtel goes on to eloquently describe the difficulties of writers of serious fiction when faced with the transition. Now they would mainly have to earn their living on the market. This meant that many of them stopped producing serious fiction, which did not sell well, and instead turned to better-selling genres like detective novels, thrillers, and fantasy. Others left literature altogether and devoted themselves to politics. Those who wanted to remain serious writers had to turn to better-paying foreign markets.
Wachtel makes fewer judgments on changes in quality. He notes that the average samizdat work was arguably worse than the average officially published work under the communist regime, but he does not pay as much attention to the high end. His main conclusion is that “Pluralism has been the mark of literature in the post-communist era.” Writing literary fiction has become more onerous, but there has been a boom in genre-fiction which was mostly suppressed under communism.
Again, I begin with a quantitative assessment of the production of literature. Wachtel has already conducted this sort of analysis for the period up to 2000. I extend these figures to the present, but my conclusions are almost identical to his. Many more books and literary works are being published than under the communists but in much smaller print runs.
Figures 5 and 6 present data on book production from Hungary, Poland, Romania, and Russia. We see a massive expansion in the number of overall titles and literary works in all of these countries immediately after the transition. These numbers tripled for all works in Russia, doubled (for all books) or tripled (for literary works) in Hungary, quadrupled (for first editions and literary works) in Poland, and quintupled in Romania. The free market provided readers with much greater selection and much greater literary production than the communist system.
Figure 5: Number of titles published
Figure 6: Number of literary titles published
The communist system could claim priority in one area. Though the communists published fewer titles, they published many more copies of those titles. As Figures 7 and 8 show, print runs tended to be very large presumably because of a general numerical obsession built into the planned economy. We thus see very high numbers of copies in the eighties and then a swift fall and plateau after the transition.
Figure 7: Total copies of books
Figure 8: Total copies of literary works
There are some questions about the reality of demand for these copies. The Czech writer Oldřich Dudek (2009) relates the story of the head of the Association of Czechoslovak Writers, Jan Kozák calling the main bookstore in Prague to ask how his book was selling. They tell him that it is not, so he orders the copies to be pulped. Later he calls the bookstore again and they tell him all the copies are gone, so he orders a reprint. After another round of this, he collects triple his original royalties.
But there was some reality to the large print runs as compensation for the paucity of titles. Wachtel (2006) writes that although popularity with readers did not determine what was published or how many copies, “Most [books] were sold, not pulped.” Older Czechs meanwhile remember “Book Thursdays” (Knižní čtvrtky), the day that new books arrived in stores and needed to be snapped up before they sold out.
As with film, I tried to perform a similar evaluation for the quality of literature. Wachtel (2006) notes that publishing under communism tended to be “literocentric”. The regime mostly suppressed popular and pulp genres like detective novels, thrillers, and romance in favor of traditional standards of quality. Not surprisingly, popular genres experienced a boom after the transition. It is above my paygrade to say that this was a bad development. As Wachtel points out, some of this genre fiction was quite good – consider Akunin’s detective series (set at different levels of literariness) or Sapkowski’s fantasy work. The public got what it wanted. The question is whether this came at the cost of high-quality literature.
Outside of the Nobel, there are relatively few global literary awards that span the communist and post-communist periods. The region has punched above its weight in terms of Nobels as shown in Table 2. This success spans both the pre-communist (when Tolstoy and Chekhov are considered some of the award’s greatest snubs), the communist, and the postcommunist era (though some postcommunist awards were for work produced under communism).
Many of the key works (not to mention authors) were quite critical of the communist regime (while drawing their subject matter from that regime). Among the communist-era winners, most had a fraught relationship with the regime. Pasternak was nearly exiled, while Solzhenitsyn and Brodsky were both forcibly exiled. Milosz and Muller similarly left their home countries. Seifert meanwhile joined the main dissident group in Czechoslovakia, Charta 77. Sholokhov was the only one to have had good relations with the regime. Among the recent winners, only Tokarczuk published primarily after 1989, but Muller and Alexievich mostly made their reputations in the post-transition era.
For a more general evaluation of literary worth, I turned to the Greatest Books website which compiles 130 best of lists weighted by the number and expertise of their raters and the scope of the lists. This produces a ranked list of 2,706 greatest books, which I again coded by whether the author came from an Eastern European country. (For a handful of emigres, like Nabokov, I coded them as 0.5; I did the same for Kafka who is more affiliated with German culture, which is not included here.) Because of the smaller number of books than films, I aggregated them by decade which roughly corresponds with the fall of communism in 1989.
Figure 9 shows the percentage of Eastern European and Russian books across four periods. Russia’s Golden Age was clearly the long 19th century when overall around 8% of that era’s great books were Russian, though only a handful of Eastern European novels from that period show up. The communist era appears to be a drop-off for Russia with a bit less than 2% of the world’s great books both before and after WWII and the postcommunist period is even worse with only two novels by Victor Pelevin making the list.
Figure 9: Greatest Books
The Eastern European experience is slightly more successful. Its literary emergence happened during the non-communist interwar and war years with around 5% of the great novels coming from the region. This percentage falls to 2.6% and then 1.9% over the communist and post-communist eras, though it is more successful than Russia despite a smaller population.
I also came across a survey of Czech literary critics who were asked to name the Czech novel of the century. As Figure 10 indicates, most of the top 50 choices, led by Hašek’s “Good Soldier Švejk”, were published before the onset of communism in 1948. The 1930s in particular saw the most classics, including multiple entries by Karel Čapek and Vladislav Vančura.
Figure 10: Best Czech Novels
Of those from the communist era, several were published abroad (Hostovský’s “The Plot” and Škvorecký’s “Engineer of Human Souls”), only in samizdat (Vaculik’s “Czech Dreambook” and Gruša’s “The Questionnaire”) or long after the author’s death (Durych’s “Divine Rainbow”). The fifties and eighties were fairly grim eras for the production of classics, though the postcommunist era is also light on them. Of post-1989 production, only Topol’s “City Sister Silver” received a significant number of votes. Unfortunately, the poll was conducted in 1998, only eight years after the transition, but it is hard to imagine many subsequently published books breaking through, perhaps works by Patrik Ouřednik and Michal Ajvaz.
Overall, the transition has given us a massive expansion in the variety and quantity of literature available to readers even if print runs have shrunk. The literary scene has improved for readers though many writers find it harder to get by. It is more difficult to identify the new classics, but the communist-era classics often had an antagonistic relation to that regime while benefitting from a very different marketplace. It is hard to imagine something like the Philip Roth-edited “Writers from the Other Europe” achieving high sales today.
I’m hoping to expand this survey to a few more arts, but I haven’t had much luck finding good or interesting data. There is a bit of data on theaters and performances and Eastern Europe’s theatrical tradition is a rich one including Stanislavski and the Moscow Art Theater plus interesting experimental work in Poland and Prague.
Visual art tends not to be tracked by governments. I considered the Venice Bienniale, but relatively few awards were given and their content changed over time. Plus, none were won by artists from communist countries. Something similar plagued the Carnegie Prize (1896-Present) where the Hungarian émigré Victor Vasarely was the only Gold Medal winner who was associated with the region.
There should be some way to gather data on music, but I’ve come up empty so far. I considered the Grammys’ classical awards (1962-2011) and the Gramophone magazine awards (1977-2019). For the first, there were few awards for Eastern Europeans and for the second there was variability in the names of the awards and it was difficult to attribute many recordings to a particular region, especially in today’s globalized music scene.
Finally, I wanted to find data on numbers of artists and on state support for the arts, but it is difficult to construct time trends that extend across the transition. I managed to make some comparisons between postcommunist countries and their Western European neighbors and it appears that postcommunist countries tend to outspend their Western peers as a percentage of GDP, but they also employ a lower percentage of the population in culture. This says less about the communist era.
I’ve portrayed the transition from communism as something of a mixed bag for cultural production. The negatives would be the drop-off in film production in the 1990s and the lack of contemporary classics in film and literature to compare with some of the icons of the communist era. The positives would be a massive expansion in literary production from the get-go along with an explosion in variety. Meanwhile, conditions certainly became harder for cultural producers. The security of the old regime has disappeared, but conditions for consumers have improved immeasurably.
The tradeoff between variety and quantity might be one worth a few words. It is easy to make the case for the greater variety that the postcommunist era has produced. Let a thousand flowers bloom and all that. But could one make a case for the common public culture that the communist regime produced, everybody reading the same things, watching the same shows, and wearing the same clothes? Valerie Bunce (1999) has argued that these similarities led to solidaristic publics that ultimately overthrew the regime. Maybe this is a backhanded compliment (something bad leading to something good), but a common public conversation might have its own benefits. Of course, it is hard to put this genie back in the bottle.
It is worth mentioning another factor that may explain the advantage enjoyed by communist-era artists. I am thinking here of the fact that many of these artists lived through one of history’s greatest social experiments. This should have been an enormous source of original stories and ideas (and one might add the social experiment that was World War II, another source of material). Yes, postcommunist artists had access to these experiences as well, but their access was not as topical or immediate. Art mattered under communism in a way that it could not matter after the fact. One might call it the problem of art at the end of history.
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Bren, Paulina. 2011. The Greengrocer and his TV. Cornell University Press.
Bunce, Valerie. 1999. Subversive Institutions: The Design and the Destruction of Socialism and the State. Cambridge University Press.
Burian, Jarka. 2002. Modern Czech Theatre: Reflector and Conscience of a Nation. University of Iowa Press.
Dudek, Oldřich. 2009. Hořký smích totality, aneb, Čítanka pro Husákovy děti. Česká Kamenice: Polart.
Ghodsee, Kristen, and Mitchell Orenstein. 2021. Taking Stock of Shock: Social Consequences of the 1989 Revolutions. Oxford University Press.
Haraszti, Miklós. 1988. The velvet prison: Artists under state socialism. IB Tauris.
Iordanova, Dina. 2003. Cinema of the other Europe: the industry and artistry of East Central European film. Wallflower Press.
Milanovic, Branko. 2019. Capitalism, Alone. Harvard University Press.
Roberts, Andrew. 2005. From good king Wenceslas to the good soldier Švejk: A dictionary of Czech popular culture. Central European University Press.
Schneider, Stephen Jay and Ian Haydn Smith. 2019. 1001 Films You Must See Before You Die. Cassell.
Wachtel, Andrew B. 2006. Remaining relevant after communism: the role of the writer in Eastern Europe. University of Chicago Press.
Andrew, this is a great post. I have little to add, but I was struck by this late question:
> But could one make a case for the common public culture that the communist regime produced, everybody reading the same things, watching the same shows [...] a common public conversation might have its own benefits.
The same theme comes up in American politics. Markus Prior's Post-Broadcast Democracy (2007) points to the Balkanization of the U.S. television landscape that arose as the three big TV networks ceded ground to cable TV channels. Nicholas Negroponte voiced a similar concern about what the Internet would do to our common culture when he wrote about the Daily Me. And there may be a strong connection here to some of Michael Chwe's work, though I don't know it well enough to say more.
Impressionistically, I'm guessing that many of us who lived through the "before" and "after" periods in the U.S. would find it hard to say that nothing meaningful was lost when the number of television channels grew exponentially, or when the Internet led to an enormous proliferation of news outlets.