[Marxism] Fwd: H-Net Review [H-Diplo]: Hessler on Applebaum, 'Empire of Friends: Soviet Power and Socialist Internationalism in Cold War Czechoslovakia'

Andrew Stewart hasc.warrior.stew at gmail.com
Sun Feb 9 08:17:50 MST 2020



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> From: H-Net Staff via H-REVIEW <h-review at lists.h-net.org>
> Date: February 9, 2020 at 7:22:27 AM EST
> To: h-review at lists.h-net.org
> Cc: H-Net Staff <revhelp at mail.h-net.org>
> Subject: H-Net Review [H-Diplo]:  Hessler on Applebaum, 'Empire of Friends: Soviet Power and Socialist Internationalism in Cold War Czechoslovakia'
> Reply-To: h-review at lists.h-net.org
> 
> Rachel Applebaum.  Empire of Friends: Soviet Power and Socialist 
> Internationalism in Cold War Czechoslovakia.  Ithaca  Cornell 
> University Press, 2019.  Illustrations. 294 pp.  $49.95 (cloth), ISBN 
> 978-1-5017-3557-8.
> 
> Reviewed by Julie Hessler (University of Oregon)
> Published on H-Diplo (February, 2020)
> Commissioned by Seth Offenbach
> 
> The past several years have witnessed an efflorescence of scholarship 
> on interactions between Soviet citizens and foreign citizens and 
> cultures. Whereas foreign relations were once treated as an isolated 
> subfield of Soviet history, limited to high politics, recent works 
> show that transnational encounters affected Soviet citizens on many 
> levels, particularly in the post-Stalin period. These studies have 
> widened the field's geographical scope, bringing into sharper focus 
> Soviet cultural interactions with, and attitudes toward, regions as 
> diverse as Western Europe, Latin America, China, sub-Saharan Africa, 
> and East-Central Europe. Rachel Applebaum's new book, _Empire of 
> Friends_, offers an insightful look at Soviet cultural contacts with 
> Czechoslovakia between 1945 and 1989 in this vein. 
> 
> Applebaum echoes other scholars in placing ideology at the center of 
> her story. Her signal contribution is to frame cultural interactions 
> within the socialist bloc in terms of a "friendship project," which 
> she defines as a set of strategies officials deployed to embed the 
> socialist alliance in everyday life (p. 8). Through "friendship," it 
> was hoped, ordinary Soviet and Czechoslovak citizens would help 
> cement the political ties between their two countries. Of course, the 
> friendship project was a masking ideology: it portrayed an actual 
> relationship of domination as one of intimacy and reciprocity. Still, 
> Applebaum argues that it put down roots in both societies, shaping 
> the identities of Soviet and Czechoslovak participants in cultural 
> exchange and involving them in the construction of the socialist 
> bloc. 
> 
> The friendship project began in the atmosphere of goodwill created by 
> the Soviet liberation of Czechoslovakia in May 1945. Soviet soldiers 
> remembered the heroes' welcome they received in Czechoslovakia, which 
> was unlike their reception in Hungary, Germany, or Poland. Many of 
> them were nursed back to health in Czech and Slovak homes. 
> Czechoslovakia erected memorials to the Red Army, often on local 
> initiative, as early as during the summer of 1945. The most prominent 
> of these memorials, the Monument to the Soviet Tank Crews in Prague, 
> serves as a metaphor for Soviet-Czechoslovak friendship throughout 
> Applebaum's book. At the time of its construction, Soviet and 
> Czechoslovak views of the memorial were aligned; this Soviet tank 
> (supposedly the first to enter Prague) on a massive granite base 
> represented the gratitude of a liberated people, illustrating the 
> Soviet bloc's special quality as an "empire of liberation," in 
> Applebaum's phrase. Soviet commentators were loath to relinquish this 
> concept, but a Soviet tank in Prague held an utterly different 
> meaning for Czechs and Slovaks after 1968, and memorials to the Red 
> Army in a number of cities were defaced that year. In 1991, this 
> symbol of Soviet-Czechoslovak friendship took an additional battering 
> when an art student stealthily painted it pink and added a 
> papier-mâché finger, raised in an obscene gesture, on top. 
> Eventually, to the consternation of Czechoslovakia's Russian 
> "friends," it was relegated to a military museum as a relic of a 
> bygone era.  
> 
> Between 1945 and 1968, Soviet-Czechoslovak friendship charted an 
> upward trajectory but not without ambiguities. For example, the 
> inaugural Soviet art exhibit of 1947, though well attended, did not 
> instantly convert the local art public to socialist realism, and 
> while Soviet films were appreciated on account of their anti-German 
> sentiments, they could scarcely compete with Hollywood offerings as 
> entertainment. They did not have to compete for long, though. After 
> the February 1948 coup by the Czechoslovak Communist Party (KSČ), 
> which disbanded the country's coalition government in favor of 
> one-party rule, Czechs and Slovaks had few options besides Soviet 
> imports in the cultural sphere. The main theme of the friendship 
> project became Sovietization, or the "expression of fealty to the 
> USSR" (p. 49). This might seem to indicate that Czechs' and Slovaks' 
> performance of friendship was largely instrumental, but that is not 
> the author's conclusion.  
> 
> Applebaum segues from a somewhat inconclusive discussion of 
> Stalin-era cultural exchange to the first cohort of Czech and Slovak 
> students sent to the USSR for higher education. These students, 
> numbering several hundred between 1948 and 1953, were true believers 
> who sought enlightenment as much as career advancement. Although many 
> were startled by the low living standards they found in the Soviet 
> Union, chafed at the ban on intermarriage with Soviet citizens (in 
> force from 1947 to 1953), and experienced political oversight of 
> their national student association by the Komsomol as intrusive, 
> Applebaum emphasizes the extent to which they internalized Soviet 
> modes of behavior. Criticized for allegedly "bourgeois" ideological 
> errors in 1952, Czechoslovak students reaffirmed their need to learn 
> from their Soviet hosts. Indeed, they went so far in their ritualized 
> self-criticism that both Soviet and Czechoslovak officials felt the 
> need to put the matter to rest. Here, as at other points in 
> Applebaum's analysis, one could read the evidence in divergent ways. 
> Study in the USSR created both "future functionaries and future 
> screwups," in the words of a self-identified "screwup," who later 
> crusaded for political reform (p. 79). Applebaum is persuasive that 
> the 1952 episode shows how Czechs and Slovaks assimilated skills 
> central to the Stalinist order, such as the ability to carry out an 
> inquisition. Still, it also highlights the real tensions that existed 
> from the start between the Czechoslovak students and the legitimation 
> narrative of the Soviet Eastern European empire during this period, 
> encapsulated in the KSČ's slogan "The Soviet Union Is Our Model." 
> 
> Soviet suspicions of outside influences inhibited the development of 
> Soviet-Czechoslovak friendship until after Stalin's death. Now, with 
> the new watchwords of multilateralism and equality, Sovietization 
> could be replaced with reciprocity. Tourism, pen pal correspondences, 
> friendship societies, and cultural exchange all flourished in the 
> 1950s and 1960s, giving the citizens of both countries a sense of 
> intimacy and familiarity with each other. The friendship project thus 
> expanded considerably, but the utopian vision of a transnational 
> socialist community forged through friendship remained elusive, 
> Applebaum suggests. For one thing, Soviet suspicions of foreign 
> influences, even from Eastern European allies, persisted. For 
> another, the significance of cultural ties within the socialist bloc 
> paled by comparison with the ground-breaking expansion of cultural 
> ties between the socialist bloc and the West. 
> 
> One of the more intriguing chapters of Applebaum's story concerns the 
> aftermath of the Prague Spring. Soviet soldiers encountered universal 
> hostility when they arrived to crush what Czechs and Slovaks viewed 
> as a process of democratic renewal. The Union of Czechoslovak-Soviet 
> Friendship virtually collapsed overnight, and Czechs and Slovaks 
> boycotted Soviet films the next year. Yet, incongruously, the Soviet 
> Union continued to send tourist groups to Czechoslovakia throughout 
> the crisis to reaffirm the interpersonal ties between the two 
> countries' citizens. Applebaum concludes that on the Czechoslovak 
> side, too, friendship was gradually restored during the 1970s and 
> 1980s, creating something of a shared world of material goods, 
> cultural artifacts, and transnational personal encounters but without 
> the utopian illusions that characterized its earlier phase. The 
> normalization period exposed the true nature of the friendship 
> project as an "authoritarian version of internationalism" (p. 199), 
> which undergirded an empire based primarily on military might. 
> 
> Applebaum makes a valuable contribution to our understanding of the 
> cultural dynamics of the socialist bloc. Her concept of the 
> friendship project is likely to resonate with scholars working on 
> diverse aspects of socialist countries' international relations. The 
> timing, social reach, and intensity of "friendship" at its zenith 
> could have emerged a little more strongly. Applebaum shows that 
> countercurrents to the friendship project existed at every stage in 
> its development, so it is sometimes difficult to gauge who exactly 
> was invested in it and how deeply. That caveat aside, her book will 
> be read with interest by specialists and could be successful in 
> graduate courses on Eastern Europe or the Cold War. 
> 
> Citation: Julie Hessler. Review of Applebaum, Rachel, _Empire of 
> Friends: Soviet Power and Socialist Internationalism in Cold War 
> Czechoslovakia_. H-Diplo, H-Net Reviews. February, 2020.
> URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=54329
> 
> This work is licensed under a Creative Commons 
> Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States 
> License.
> 
> 



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