Soviet Union as “Empire of Friends”

A review of Friendship of the Peoples: Soviet-Czechoslovak Cultural and Social Contacts from the Battle for Prague to the Prague Spring, 1945-1969, by Rachel Leah Applebaum.

Rachel Applebaum’s dissertation is a history of a momentous and now nearly forgotten cultural experiment: the communist Cold War-era attempt to construct a common socialist culture for the countries of the Soviet Bloc. Her case study is Soviet-Czechoslovak cultural relations between the Soviet liberation of Prague in 1945 and the aftermath of the Soviet occupation of the same city in 1968.

For very good reasons, both the historiography and the popular memory of the Soviet Bloc focus on the political oppression, occasional foreign invasions, and economic dysfunction that Eastern and East-Central European countries experienced under communist rule. Applebaum reminds us that, to the extent their geopolitical interests, resource constraints, and ideological limitations allowed, Soviet authorities sought not so much to dominate an imperial periphery as to construct an “empire of friends” (p. 3); a commonwealth based on shared socialist ideology, cross-fertilization of Soviet and Eastern European cultures, and direct individual contacts between Soviet and Eastern European peoples. In the Czechoslovak case at least, Applebaum argues, this “friendship project” (p. 2) was not solely a foreign imposition, but rather was an undertaking in which local communists and a significant proportion of the general public were genuinely invested for a large part of the period the dissertation covers. Furthermore, despite the ultimate failure of this project, the massive efforts by both Soviet and Czechoslovak authorities to promote it indicate the extent to which the Marxian ideals of internationalism and the eventual erosion of national borders were still part of the fabric of communist ideology well into the Cold War. This is a strong counter-argument to those of many scholars who maintain that great power Realpolitik rather than ideological considerations was the driving force of postwar Soviet foreign policy.

The starting point of Applebaum’s narrative is 1945: the Soviet liberation of Prague. The Soviets, acutely aware of the significance of culture for the promotion of their diplomatic goals, quickly moved to sway Czechoslovak public opinion. In this task, they had the great advantage of the historical affinity of Czech elites to the Soviet Union, the gratitude of the Czechoslovak people for Soviet liberation, and the genuine popularity of the Czechoslovak Communist Party (KSČ). From the earliest days of the outreach effort, however, it was hampered by several difficulties that would haunt the friendship project into the late 1960s. First, Soviet cultural production was affected by resource constraints, seriously limiting the supply of the Czechoslovak market with Soviet cultural products. Second, despite the best efforts of the KSČ, the Czechoslovak public obdurately found American culture, particularly Hollywood films, more attractive than Soviet offerings (pp. 49-67). Worse still, while the Soviets considered themselves the carriers of a superior culture, Czechoslovak cultural consumers found Soviet films, books, and art hidebound and primitive, even when they supported the Soviet Union politically (pp. 68-82).

The tasks that Soviet cultural activists and local officials faced were simplified in the wake of the 1948 coup that made the KSČ into a Soviet-style ruling party. In some ways, the problems of competition and supply were eliminated by the closure of Czechoslovakia to anything but Soviet cultural imports as “friendship” was redefined as simple emulation and ritual worship of the Soviet Union and its culture. On the other hand, the problems of the supply and quality of Soviet cultural offerings remained for some years and were only exacerbated by the Cold War-inspired wave of Soviet xenophobia that made contacts with even Eastern and East-Central European foreigners suspect. In the case of the Soviet film industry, for example, “even when the Soviets were able to forcibly exclude all the competition for their films in Czechoslovakia, they could not force Czechoslovak audiences to like their films” (p. 67).

The second chapter of Applebaum’s dissertation deals with the one group of Czechoslovak citizens who experienced Soviet culture directly in the late Stalinist period: exchange students sent to the Soviet Union. The aim of this project was to forge Czechoslovak elites fully versed in the workings of the Soviet way of life to serve as emissaries for the friendship project upon their return home. However, here too the complicated relationship between “friendship,” perceived Soviet backwardness compared to Czechoslovakia, and actual Soviet xenophobia greatly impaired successful achievement of Soviet goals. The material conditions in the war-devastated Soviet Union dispelled any notions of the superiority of the socialist economy that Czechoslovak students might have entertained, while Soviet fear of contact with outsiders insulated these students from real immersion in the Soviet society into which they were supposed to be integrated. Applebaum finds, however, that Czechoslovak students did embrace Soviet identity in one crucial regard. Following the major purge trials in Prague, in which many of the officials in charge of the exchange programs were accused of being spies and saboteurs, the Czechoslovak student community tore itself apart in a witch hunt for ideologically suspect, class alien, and otherwise unreliable students, who were then denounced in “criticism and self criticism” sessions. These rituals, borrowed from the Soviet practice of ritualized political violence, were proof that just like back home, to borrow Stephen Kotkin’s famous formulation, the Czechoslovak students quickly learned to “speak Bolshevik” (pp. 129-142).

In the third chapter, Applebaum explores the effects of the “Thaw” on the friendship project. As she documents, the relative opening up of the Soviet Union to the outside world led to a total reformulation of the Soviet notion of friendship. Now it was no longer defined by emulation of the Soviet Union, but rather by mutual learning meant to effect a process of sblizhenie (rapprochement) between the two peoples (p. 13). In practical terms, this meant greatly expanding cultural imports and exports and person-to-person cross-border interactions. Soviet and Czechoslovak citizens were encouraged to consume each other’s books, magazines, and films, to become pen pals, to travel to each other’s countries, and generally to celebrate friendship in all its forms. Unlike the imperial phase of the “friendship project,” sblizhenie did provoke genuine popular interest, especially among the generation that experienced war and liberation (pp. 166-175).

Nevertheless, the friendship project during the Thaw was still plagued by many of the same difficulties that had dogged it since 1945. The Soviet Union was able to produce neither media products nor consumer goods that could interest Czechoslovak citizens who had growing access to Western goods. Latent Soviet xenophobia made Soviet cultural authorities reluctant to allow unsupervised personal contacts or to allow the free exchange of cultural products that were not state-approved between the two countries (p. 187). Finally, while even in this enlightened phase of the friendship project its implicit assumptions made the Soviet Union, at the very least, the first among equals in the socialist camp, Czechoslovakia’s growing prosperity and Westernization challenged the cannons of socialist friendship. For example, Applebaum shows that Czechoslovak glossy journals meant for Soviet readers increasingly came to celebrate superior Czechoslovak fashion styles, movies and music, implicitly arguing that it was Czechoslovakia, not the Soviet Union, that stood at the apex of socialist modernity (pp. 164-166).

In the fourth chapter, Applebaum investigates the complex interaction of superiority and inferority, friendship and xenophobia, as they played out in the statistically most significant manifestation of sblizhenie: Soviet tourism to Czechoslovakia. While many aspects of the story Applebaum tells resemble the conclusions of historians like Anne Gorsuch, Sergei Zhuk, Vladislav Zubok, and others on the impact of exposure to the outside world in general and tourism in particular on Soviet popular opinion, some details of Applebaum’s narrative significantly alter our understanding of Soviet tourism within the Eastern Bloc. While, like the scholars mentioned above, Applebaum finds that Soviet tourists were often seduced by the material comforts that awaited them in Czechoslovakia, she also finds that many of them severely denounced Czechoslovak deviations from socialist orthodoxy. While for much of the 1950s and 1960s, this phenomenon was expressed in irritation over the massive presence of castles and churches instead of socialist objects on tourist itineraries (pp. 206-207), by the late 1960s Soviet tourists were issuing denunciations of degeneration (namely, boys with long hair and girls with short skirts), ideological subversion and ingratitude for wartime liberation that they found in their travels (p. 218). For these Soviet tourists, friendship still meant emulation.

The fifth and last chapter of Applebaum’s dissertation is devoted to the moment when the hidden debates about superiority and the nature of socialism that underlay the friendship project burst into the open: the Prague Spring and its aftermath. By this point in time, she argues, the concept of friendship had evolved into several competing discourses. To the great dismay of Soviet authorities, Czechoslovak newspapers, radio programs and exchange students helped convey the ideas of the Prague Spring to the Soviet Union (pp. 252-253). The ideals behind the Czechoslovak reformulation of the socialist project found enthusiasm among dissenting Soviet intellectuals, but, Applebaum finds, they were vehemently rejected by most Soviet citizens who were in contact with Czechoslovaks and exposed to their new ideas. On the Czechoslovak side, prior to the Warsaw Pact invasion of August 1968, the open discussions characterizing the Prague Spring revealed that the knowledge of Soviet life facilitated by sblizhenie did not turn Czechoslovaks anti-Soviet so much as it led them to articulate fundamental differences between the cultures of their country and of the Soviet Union, and to argue that greater respect be paid to those differences.

Given this disintegration of the friendship project, it is perhaps surprising that, very shortly after the invasion, both Soviet authorities and the “normalized” (i.e. re-Sovietized) Czechoslovak leadership quickly revived it, restoring Soviet tourism, cultural exchanges, and other forms of sblizhenie while Soviet soldiers still occupied Czechoslovakia, even going so far as to draft the latter into their outreach efforts (p. 269). Despite the initial resistance of the Czechoslovak population to the Soviet overtures, the process of normalization revived Soviet-Czechoslovak cultural relations in their old form, though the content was now little more than a ritualized exercise (pp. 285-287). Despite the hollow form it took, however, Applebaum argues that the friendship project had a historical role to play, yet. Just as in 1968, when the dense web of connections between the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia was a major cause for Soviet fears of ideological contamination, the same infrastructure served to convey Soviet notions of perestroika and glasnost’ to Czechoslovakia in the late 1980s. In a sense, therefore, she concludes, the “very success of the friendship project may have helped contribute to its own demise” (p. 283).

Applebaum’s dissertation greatly expands our knowledge of an understudied phenomenon. Her focus on the surprisingly internationalist underpinnings of the friendship project emphasizes the extent to which, until the late 1960s at least, Marxist-Leninist thinking was still an important determinant of Soviet foreign policies in the cultural sphere. In another important contribution, she reminds us that Eastern and East-Central Europeans were not passive victims of foreign imposition, but were also active participants in the construction of the culture of the Eastern Bloc. Perhaps most importantly, her dissertation is a reminder that the history of the late Soviet Union cannot be comprehended without understanding the domestic impact of its role as an imperial hegemon, nor can the history of late twentieth-century East-Central Europe be understood without pondering the transformative effects of the cultural, economic, and political integration wrought by the Soviet takeover of the space from, as Václav Havel put it, “‘Berlin to Vladivostok’” (p. 291).

Alex Hazanov
Ph.D. Candidate
Department of History
University of Pennsylvania

Primary Sources

State Archive of the Russian Federation (GARF)
National Archives of the Czech Republic (NA)
Archive of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Czech Republic (AMZV)
Sotsialisticheskaia Chekhoslovakiia
Svět sovětů

Dissertation Information

University of Chicago. 2012. 323 pp. Primary Advisor: Sheila Fitzpatrick.

Image: Svět Sovětů, September 29, 1955 (Národní archiv, Česká Republika).

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