- Shaping the Soviet Empire from Below
In the past two decades, a growing body of scholarship has dealt with how East European societies shaped their fates within the confines of the Soviet empire. The conception that portrayed the citizens of socialist dictatorships as powerless subjects of totalitarian power has been extensively qualified. Popular strategies, both undermining and consolidating communist rule, have become the center of attention, with historians exploring cooperation rather than subjugation, self-Sovietization rather than one-sided imposition of Soviet power.1 Both Rachel Applebaum's Empire of Friends and Martina Winkler's Panzer in Prag represent valuable contributions to this historiographical revision. [End Page 414]
Applebaum concentrates on the "friendship project" between the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia from the end of World War II to the collapse of state socialism, arguing that the project was "central to construction, maintenance, and collapse of the European socialist world." Although the arrangement collapsed under the sway of the bloc's disintegration in 1989, she contends, the friendship project should not be seen as a complete failure. Across 40 years of communist rule and throughout political shifts like 1956 and 1968, the notion of Czechoslovak-Soviet friendship proved a significant mobilizing force. Applebaum holds that friendship campaigns were more than an ideological veil. Rather than asking whether people believed in the project or not, she investigates its capacity to engage citizens socially, to make them cooperate despite the steady decline of ideological zeal after 1956 and, even more dramatically, 1968. The friendship project's longevity and breadth, its capacity to outlast political ruptures and to create a "cohesive world" in everyday life, all militate against the failure interpretation.
The book is organized in chronological chapters but cuts across established period boundaries, such as 1956. The liberation of Czechoslovakia by the Red Army in 1945 constitutes the starting point and a continual red thread throughout the investigation. Did the friendship and mutual contacts between Soviet and Czechoslovak citizens, the central question goes, enhance or diminish the stability of really existing socialism? The notion of "empire of friends" itself seems a (meaningful) contradiction in terms, since empire is by definition based on domination of one side by another, on a hierarchical asymmetry between center and periphery, however "cooperative" the periphery might be. Can rulers and ruled be friends? Max Weber sought to answer this question by exploring the "motivations for obedience" on the side of the dominated, and Applebaum follows suit. Czechoslovakia seemed to possess the best chance among the "satellite" countries for the project, thanks to its genuine liberation by the Red Army and the overwhelmingly pro-Soviet attitude of much of society. As early as in the immediate post-1945 period, however, frictions in the friendship project surfaced. The initial Czechoslovak enthusiasm began to fade with the Czechs' budding sense of cultural superiority over allegedly backward Russia. Soviet films, for instance, were considered too shallow for the arguably more refined Czech cultural taste, and avantgarde artists like Vítězslav Nezval made no secret of their disappointment over the poor artistic quality of Soviet Socialist Realism. Nevertheless, this dismissive attitude did not prove robust enough in the subsequent Stalinist phase [End Page 415] (after the takeover of February 1948), when adoration for everything Soviet prevailed as a hegemonic orientation, advanced from above by a mighty ideological apparatus. Of special significance here is to what extent and how the friendship project interacted with the other essential component of Stalinist ideology: its enmity narratives. This is all the more important because even in Stalinism, as Applebaum observes, Czechoslovak society showed rather a lukewarm attitude toward the friendship project, while at the same time participating in an unprecedented hatred-driven campaign in connection with the Slánský show trial, which developed into a significant manifestation of...