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Communications and media in the USSR and Eastern Europe

Technologies, politics, cultures, social practices

In the social sciences, communications are considered fundamental to the constitution of any society. The technologies and infrastructures for communications are also social institutions in their own right, with their own specific historical trajectories. With this in mind, we can assume that political regimes that abuse their control of communications engender social atomization, the rupture or weakening of social ties, in that attempts to maintain these ties via communications media may be met with repression. At the same time, however, it is social relations—“useful” connections – that allow individuals to engage in mutual assistance and to exchange goods and services in the economies of shortage typical of many authoritarian regimes.

The goal of this edition of Cahiers du Monde russe is to investigate this tension between the danger and the utility of communications in the USSR and in the people’s democracies of Eastern Europe in order to understand better how technologies, politics, and social and cultural practices in these regions determined the evolution of their communications and media systems.

Titles and abstracts submission deadline: 31 March 2013.
Short project abstracts (500 words maximum) should be sent to:
Please include name, institutional affiliation, and email address in all correspondence.
We will notify authors of selected proposals by the end of July 2013.
Languages: French, English, Russian.
Final article submission date: 1 April 2014.
Maximum article length: 11,000 words (space characters and notes included)
Publication date: first half of 2015.

For additional information, please contact:
: Kristin Roth-Ey (University College London, School of Slavonic and East European Studies, Larissa Zakharova (EHESS, CERCEC):
Or Valérie Mélikian, secrétaire de rédaction des Cahiers du Monde russe.

We anticipate that contributions will offer partial answers to the following global question: to what extent can we speak of the countries of the socialist east as communications societies, that is, as societies of dialogue in which communications went beyond the delivery and circulation of information? To answer this question means to move beyond the idea of a public space unique to Soviet-style societies and to explore the relationship between the accessibility and the uses of communications media, as well as between control and individuals’ strategies to evade it . In this way, we understand the technologies and modes of information exchange not as passive factors in everyday life, but rather as historical actors with a role to play in decision-making processes, in building social ties, and in constructing networks of sociability and solidarity. They are revealed by the social practices that fuelled their development and diffusion. The traditional periodization of the history of the socialist east, we maintain, must be re-examined in light of technological developments with histories—social, political, cultural-of their own.

This edition thus proposes to trace the complex trajectory of communications and media in the USSR and Eastern Europe in order to explore the contradictory consequences of their development. In studying the political and social appropriation of various technologies of communication, our goal is to understand how access to these tools was distributed in socialist societies and how patterns of unequal distribution influenced social dynamics, including social cohesion. To what extent did technological progress in the communications sector entail an intensification of mediated exchanges, and what influence might this have had on ordinary, face-to-face interactions? An analysis of communications practices will enable us to understand how the functions of communications and media—“tools without instruction manuals” (Emmanuel Pedler)—are transformed by the people who use them in societies under surveillance and control.

Proposed themes

Collectivism, public and private communications

From 1917 through to the mid-1930s, low literacy rates and the relative underdevelopment of communications technologies in the USSR determined the collective nature of media practices: newspapers were read and explained to peasants en masse by instructors; radio programs were broadcast by loudspeakers mounted in public spaces. The pursuit of technological progress and competition with the West spurred the expansion of media infrastructures and, particularly in the second half of the century, the displacement of the media experience from public to private spaces. Moreover, as of the 1960s, with the distribution of transistor radio and television sets, individual consumers were able to exercise choice. Expanding and diversifying the cultural sphere brought audience segmentation and underlined existing inequalities. To what extent, and in what ways, can we speak of the mediatization of everyday life in the USSR and Eastern Europe, of cultural democratization—or, indeed, of individualization? How did the fact of living in an increasingly media-saturated world effect people’s sense of community, of belonging, and of identity (e.g. gender, generational, spatial, temporal)? We might also consider the telephone-- a rarity in most (Soviet) homes until the 1960s and, at least in theory, a technology of sociability, facilitating personal contacts across distances great and small. How did these private, mediated, person-to-person communications and the experience of private, selective media consumption (particularly broadcasting) inscribe themselves in a collectivist social ideal? Which mechanisms did the authorities deploy to promote social cohesion, or its illusion, in this new context?

A fragmented communications sphere?

Despite their assertions that technological progress should serve societal needs, the Soviet authorities put the communications infrastructure in the service of the regime from the very beginning. Because centralization was essential for the consolidation of Soviet power in the civil war, their first task was to connect the capital to provincial centers. Under Stalin, constructing a ramified network in which the regions themselves would be interconnected by communications technologies was simply not priority, not only for political reasons but given the technological limitations of the day. Yet centralized, pyramidal communications systems such as that developed in the USSR impede the circulation of information: communications flow easily from top to bottom, but they struggle to move in the opposite direction. What impact did the inevitable delays, blockages, and distortions have on informational and communications systems and cultures in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe? Which spaces of autonomy did they open up? What role did alternative sources of information (foreign media, for example) play in these processes?

The rise of electronic media in the Soviet Union and the people’s democracies, particularly after the Second World War, provoked the fragmentation and diversification of the communications sphere. What was the role of mass media in the construction of new ethnic, national, and supra-national identities? The issue of centralization and regionalization, or nationalization (in the sense of socialist nation-building) in the media sector, and the tensions between them, is critical in this regard. By comparing the structures, cultures, and politics of communications in the USSR with those of the people’s democracies, we can move beyond a vision of the ‘bloc’ as a uniform entity and integrate difference and nuance.

Communications surveillance and strategies of evasion

The intensification of interpersonal contacts introduced by the growth of communications complicated the task of surveillance (phone tapping, postal censorship), demanding ever-greater human and technical resources. How did the authorities strive to meet this challenge? How did individuals seek to evade surveillance? Possible case studies in this field include: the study of samizdat and nonconformism/dissidence; the development of an underground postal network by Solidarity in Poland; the subversive activities of Solidarity members employed by Polish television.

These themes are not exhaustive. Proposals may relate to all aspects of communication practices and cultures and to the uses of communication tools in the USSR and the people’s democracies.