KULTURATIONOnline Journal für Kultur, Wissenschaft und Politik
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ThemaKulturation 2/2003
Die Deutschen und ihre östlichen Nachbarn: Kultur
Elka Tschernokoshewa
Born in Eastern Europe: Reality and Imagination
Great Snowfall
My paper is about difficulties in the relationship between Eastern and Western Europe.[1] I would like to raise questions about the ideas the West has about the East, how the West imagines everyday life in the East, and whether this perspective bears any relationship to the everyday life there at all. I will also ask which role the media play in this process, especially the medium of television. I shall be focussing on Germany and Bulgaria, not only because I am familiar with these countries, but also because I think they can be used as examples for other countries as well.

On March 7th, 1993 a short statement in the local German paper "Sächsische Zeitung" appeared, concerning Bulgaria. The statement read as follows: "28 bus passengers died and 19 persons suffered serious injuries after a bus accident in Bulgaria". This was the entire extent of the statement, the first news report on Bulgaria in this paper for months. Even in other newspapers or on tv not much is said about life in Bulgaria. In the entire past six months that I have been living in Germany, I have seen pictures of Bulgaria only twice. The first time was in January, when Bulgaria was not the main topic, but mentioned only in connection with the war in former Yugoslavia (the border guards along the Danube were shown on tv). At the beginning of March for the first time news began to deal with Bulgaria itself. And what was the news? Bulgaria was suffering from an untimely snowfall. All the roads were blocked. Pictures were shown of cars unable to pass through the great mass of snow. Some cars had vanished under the snow that covered them. In short, everything seemed chaotic. The next morning many people asked me what was happening in Bulgaria. "It must be awful", my neighbour said to me. "It was on television!" – At my institute I was asked: "What happened in Bulgaria?" I became so frightened that I phoned home immediately, but my father in Sofia was simply astonished that I was worried. "Yes", he said, "somewhere in the North of Bulgaria a lot of snow has fallen, but the roads are passable, the trains are running on time. Everything is functioning normally. Why are you asking about this blizzard? Of course, we have plenty of problems over here, but they have nothing to do with the snow."

The next day, I conducted a small experiment. I called some people in Germany and asked them whether they had heard about the "great snowfall". I first rang up people who have no personal contact with Bulgaria but who are interested in the country or are at least aware of its geographical location. They should have known that snow is nothing uncommon there, but all I heard from them was a repetition of the previous evening's news (something is wrong over there, a catastrophe, chaos, etc.). I then proceeded to ring up people who have a close relationship with Bulgaria through their work, their family or friends. None of them was unduly interested in the snow. They soon changed the topic, switching over to other problems.

I had conducted this little experiment because I tried to find out about the correspondence of the actual events, the tv news reports, and the viewers' perceptions on a small scale. The question I wish to raise now is the following: is television in the West able to transmit and reflect everyday life in Eastern Europe? Allow me to first clarify exactly what I mean when I refer to daily life.

Everyday Life
Many attempts have been made to define 'everyday life'. In my opinion, it does not only mean the constant repetition and recurrence of numerable situations in the life of the masses. Undoubtedly, this is an important aspect, but I think that everyday life is a point of intersection where the objective sphere meets the subjective. The term 'everyday life' implies the objective state or situation of a society at a certain time, but also how this state or situation is experienced and evaluated by the individual. Choosing everyday life as a topic of scientific research means, as Wolfgang Heise said, aiming "at the totality of the relations and behavioural patterns of individuals" [2]. It is a question of how these conditions reach the consciousness of the acting subjects and how they are experienced and judged, i.e. how the acting subjects become aware of the objective natural and the historical world, how they understand this world and how they react to it – both individually and collectively. At the same time, the question arises as to how subjective energy is used in mastering life and work processes on a daily basis. Which subjective needs are fulfilled, which potentials are realised, and which lie fallow or simply go to waste? Again, how are acknowledgements or negations, threats, menaces, restrictions etc. experienced? According to what motives and means does one react to them? In short, dealing with everyday life means focussing upon subjectivity. It means that the concrete life of individuals is the most important topic of discussion.

Media in Western Europe prefer not to focus their main interest on daily life in Eastern Europe. What consequences do the upheavals in this epoch have for the life of the masses? How did people live, work, think and celebrate before the big change, brought about by the fall of socialism, came into their lives? How do they live now? How do they define their roles in social and political life? How do they bring up their children? What do they learn at school? What do they believe in? What constitutes joy and sadness for them? What is the significance of play and recreation? What conventions and what norms do they follow? What are their needs? What do they long for? How do they fulfill their wishes?

Only rarely the Western media report on such aspects of life in Eastern Europe. If the East happens to be a topic of discussion, then only in relation to such themes as "Change of government in Sofia", "Gorbachev meets Kohl", "Yeltsin meets Clinton", and the like. Demonstrations are broadcast and other news sensationalised. There may be nothing special about the fact that tv news mainly report on state affairs, catastrophes, spectacular feasts, etc. They generally follow the same pattern: news of domestic politics (government meetings in Bonn), news of international politics (meeting of the European Council in Paris), catastrophes (flood disaster in the Netherlands). This holds true for news from both the East and the West. But in the West, other programmes are included. For instance, on German tv we can watch feature films and documentaries about France, family series and comedies, travel reports from Normandy, the latest fashion from Paris, vintage in Alsace, child choirs, French university life. We can look at people in the street, people at work, with friends or at home. Unfortunately, there are not many programmes which feature Eastern European countries in a similar way. In my opinion, this is a real problem. While there are no programmes featuring daily life in the East, Eastern countries are shown regularly in connection with news of political and ecological catastrophes, a quite biased perspective.

Our image of the East is distorted, not because the information we receive fails to correspond to reality. It is wrong because the impressions we get from these countries are only part of the truth. Thus an interpretational pattern evolves: We are made to believe that chaos reigns in Eastern Europe, and that there is nothing else to life besides disorder.

Generally, television implies that news relates to everyday life, simply because of the daily conditions of reception, because of the setting in which the average viewer watches his or her programmes. The viewer sits at home in his own world, in a familiar environment, she or he switches on the tv set and watches what the rest of the world is doing. The children might be playing in the next room. He goes and gets something to eat from the refrigerator, idly turns over the pages of the newspaper, switches to another channel etc. It is his or her private everyday life. Consequently, what is being shown on tv integrates itself into this routine, the everyday life-style. I call this "a touch of everyday life", a particular characteristic of tv. Intuitively, a certain impression has formed in the viewer's mind, namely, that whatever is reported on tv must be true and realistic, and whatever is said of and shown about Eastern Europe must necessarily reflect everyday life over there.

I am simplifying, of course, but I want to stress this point. In my opinion, this is one of the greatest dangers that lead to misunderstandings between Eastern and Western Europe today: the tendency to conclude that daily reality for the people living in a system corresponds to one's own images, ideas and knowledge of this system. That means that the characteristics of the political system itself are intertwined with the people living there – if the system is brutal, barbaric and totalitarian, then the people living there must also be totalitarian, barbaric and brutal.

A Failed System – or Failed People
I would like to recall what Wolfgang Thierse – a leading German Social Democrat and cultural scientist – said recently. He warned against a growing mentality amongst West Germans that refuses to differentiate between the failed system of the former GDR and the people who lived there [3]. This misleading way of thinking that makes no distinction between the system and individuals, between the policies of a country and the everyday life of its people, is not only a problem concerning the relationship between East and West Germans. It is also a pattern of interpretation that is presently quite common when Western Europeans reflect on Eastern Europe. I call this phenomenon "systemism" – an expression coined by Hans-Joachim Althaus and Bernd Jürgen Warneken, who lead a research project dealing with the narrations of West Germans who had travelled to East Germany during the years of the political transition. They understand systemism as a "way of interpretation that considers certain facts to be typical expressions of the economic, political and ideological system of the GDR without further analysing or questioning them" [4].

The authors of this study came to the conclusion that most West Germans do not bother to clarify their observations for themselves by searching for diverse explanations. It seems rather "as if the socialist system of the GDR functioned as the only frame of reference" [5]v. Moreover, some of the people who were interviewed made absolutely no distinction between the characteristics of the system and those of the people they met. They invariably expected to rediscover the "monotony" of everyday life in East Germany in the thinking and in the behavioural patterns of the GDR population.

There are more authors who have recently discovered this "systemist" attitude. In an article on "the ironic West and the tragic East", M. Weck writes:
"It is misleading to deduce the mentality of the inhabitants of the former GDR simply from the 'autocratic' character of the political order. It seems more appropriate to me to differentiate carefully between a state's policies and the practices of its citizens, which can only be understood within a tightly woven network of systemic conditions and civic reactions – a network that is historically specific for each society. This complex relation of reception makes for the soothing fact that the populations of modern states by no means respond to systemic assumptions, like Pavlovian creatures do, but rather choose their answers very specifically. The particular, often obstinate answers regulate the daily practice of society, and this practice seldom corresponds with the theories of the 'masterthinkers' of the state" [6].

I could give further examples, but I ought to come to the point: If the West really wants to understand the East, official politics must be separated from the people's reactions towards them. I am concerned that many people in the West repeat the mistakes of totalitarian thought, trying to make determinism an absolute principle, overestimating the power of governmental structures, and considering the lives and thoughts of the people as totally manipulated. From this point of view, the fact that people are very active and also very flexible in their everyday lives, is entirely ignored. In reality, there is no congruence between official policies and daily practices. As far as Eastern Europe is concerned, it would be more appropriate to speak of "double lives". Some researchers now call the socialist system a "niche-society" – a society where people can find a space of their own, where they can make their own needs reality, which, on the other hand, results in the withdrawal from the social sphere into a private one. The term "niche" may not satisfactorily define this idea, but it may contribute to a better understanding of life in Eastern Europe. Furthermore, those niches should not be regarded as existing caves in a mountain, as being naturally there and simply waiting to be inhabited. These niches first have to be made, they must be created by the people in these countries.

To Sofia and Back
At the end of February, I flew to Sofia for five days. On the way back I met a group of bankers and businessmen from West Berlin on the plane. Since it was the first time they had travelled to Bulgaria, I asked them about their experiences: "What did you like best in Bulgaria? What was your strongest impression?" – "The people" was the answer. All of them were astonished how open-minded, modern and intelligent the people were.

Their astonishment was due to the discrepancy between their expectations beforehand and the actual reality they encountered in the country. One expects something different, strange, exotic, not just ordinary Europe, where children learn about Shakespeare, Goethe and Maupassant at school and read science fiction and Agatha Christie at home; where people watch German soap-operas like SCHWARZWALDKLINIK and HOTEL PARADIES, American crime serials like COLUMBO, or Italian programmes like OKTOPUS; where they follow the Worldcup on television, dance to Michael Jackson's music and are particularly fond of Placido Domingo. Apparently, it was just the very ordinary, the usual features of life in Bulgaria that had astonished my flight acquaintances. Only when one is no longer surprised about the usual, is one able to discover the richer layers of the specific features, the differences and the uniqueness of a culture. Only afterwards, not before, is one able to acquire a sense of understanding for another culture; for example the peculiar Bulgarian music, the Bulgarian mentality, or specific aspects of Bulgarian daily life.

Sociological surveys on the organisation of Bulgarian people's leisure time provide us with data similar to those of other European countries. Some examples are provided by the most recent empirical survey (from 1989, right before the fall of socialism) by the Department of Culture at the Bulgarian Ministry of Cultural Affairs [7]. The question "What do you usually do when you spend your free time at home?" was answered as follows: 74,9% watch television, 65,1% listen to the radio, 50,4% do nothing, just relax, 50,4% are busy with housework, 48.2% read newspapers and magazines. The question "What do you usually do when you spend your free time outside the home?" was responded to as follows: 38,3% visit friends, 24,3% go to the cinema, 24,1% attend sport events, 13,7% go to a theatre, concert or museum. Asked "what kind of art are you most interested in?", 48,5% mentioned film, 32,5% preferred music, 30,5% theatre and 29,7% indicated literature. Comparable surveys show that young people (up to 20 years) are even more interested in the mass media. 80% of them go to the movies more than ten times per year. The interest in music reaches almost 100% among young Bulgarian people, and 80% of them prefer rock and pop music. What those people watch and listen to exactly and how the programmes are integrated into their concrete daily lives, depends largely on their age, gender, level of education and profession, as well as on the conditions of reception. This is true for Bulgaria, just as much as for any other European country.

The radical socio-economic changes in Eastern Europe brought deep transformations to the conditions of people's daily lives. An identity crisis is obvious. The firm and solid – the past – has become a chasm. Much has become unstable, the future no less than the past. It is a life without tradition, without any predecessors and without heritage. During this process, many major differences are beginning to appear among the various groups and strata of the population.

It is an extreme, not a normal situation of everyday life. But it is everyday life. The people there do not have another type of everyday life. These extremes are accompanied by completely normal life expressions. One example: Bulgarian children still sign in their class mates' personal scrap books. I have studied many such books (which are called "lexicons" in Bulgaria) in different parts of the country. Tanja, an eight-year-old girl, living in Sofia, wrote in Iva's book:
Favourite dress: - Jeans and T-shirt
Favourite song: - I don't care
Favourite pop band: - Queen
Favourite book: - Pippi Langstrumpf
Favourite movie: - The Never-ending Story
Hobbies: - Biking, skiing
What is typical of you? - Dreaming
What do you dislike? - Cleaning my room
What do you dream of? - Adventures
What advice do you give to the owner of this book? - Don't give up hope!


[1] This paper is part of a research project on "Lifestyles – Entertainment styles" financed by the Research Fund of the Bulgarian Research Ministry.
[2] Wolfgang Heise (1982): Jürgen Kuczynski, Geschichte des Alltags des deutschen Volkes (Review). In: Weimarer Beiträge 3, pp. 163–164 (Translation by the author).
[3] Wolfgang Thierse in: Der Tagesspiegel, 26. März 1992
[4] Hans-Joachim Althaus, Susanne Sackstetter und Bernd Jürgen Warneken (1990): "Auslandsleute". Westdeutsche erzählen über ihre DDR-Erfahrungen. In: BIOS 2, p. 242 (Translation by the author).
[5] Ibid.
[6] Weck, M. (1992): Der ironische Westen und der tragische Osten. In: Kursbuch 109 (September 1992), pp. 133–134 (Translation by the author).
[7] Department of Culture at the Bulgarian Ministry for Cultural Affairs, ed. (1990): Development of Cultural Affairs in Bulgaria. Sofia, Unpublished Manuscript.

Dieser Text erschien in:
Watching Europe
A Media and Cultural Studies Reader
Amsterdam 1993,(S. 60–67)