In Eastern Europe before 1989, the state held a near-monopoly on all forms of public expression. Censors wielding red pencils checked every message that went into print. Fearful of the spread of free opinion, the authorities controlled the use of even the most basic office printing equipment. In Ceausescu’s Romania all typewriters, for instance, had to be registered with the State. As Hans Magnus Enzensberger noted in 1970 of another machine,
The Soviet bureaucracy, that is to say the most widespread and complicated bureaucracy in the world, has to deny itself almost entirely an elementary piece of organizational equipment, the duplicating machine, because this instrument potentially makes everyone a printer. … It is clear that Soviet society has to pay an immense price for the suppression of its own productive resources—clumsy procedures, misinformation, faux frais.
During the period of Martial Law in Poland after 1981 when the government stamped down on Solidarity, the anti-communist alliance of intellectuals and workers, the police raided art schools to take away the screen-printing equipment. Nevertheless, samizdat production (self-publishing) continued illicitly there and throughout the Bloc. At the same time, what Tom Kovacs called the ‘spirit of metaphor’ shaped dissenting culture in the Eastern Bloc. When, for instance, the famous Solidarity logo was banned, the Poles invented new symbols which did not draw the rancour of the state. Ordinary people would wear electronic resistors in the ‘national’ colours of red and white. Everyone knew what this gesture meant but for the state and its henchmen to act against those wearing these tiny pins would have revealed the absurdity of the situation. ‘Aesopian’ parables and allegories found their way into many different kinds of posters. In a 1983 theatre poster for a performance of a work by Gombrowicz, Henryk Tomaszewski sketched the image of a foot apparently making the ‘V’ gesture with its toes, a symbol which Solidarity leaders had adopted during the heady days of its rise. This was read as an allusion to the irrepressible spirit of the Trade Union then under prohibition.
In many science fiction films of the Cold War period the cosmos is represented as an extra-terrestrial space in which international rivalries have been overcome. ‘Der Schweigende Stern’ (The Silent Star) depicted a world in which communism had swept the planet and mankind now enjoyed the benefits of nuclear technology, social equality and international fraternity. Internationalism was not only the theme but also the method of this movie: it was based on a book by Polish science fiction writer Stanislaw Lem and shot in East Germany with an international cast.
The film depicts the discovery of a mysterious object in 2003 which contains a coded message threatening the Earth’s destruction. A spaceship is dispatched to Venus, the source of this message, with an international crew. There, they find only the ruins of the warlike civilization which had itself already perished in a nuclear civil war. The Cold War message was clear to all.
Interestingly, the film was distributed in America under the title ‘First Spaceship in Venus’ where its latent communist message was less important than its capacity to satisfy the tremendous popular demand for science fiction. The poster distributed in the USA stressed the dramatic experiences of space travel which could be enjoyed from the comfort of the cinema seat: ‘You are there …, You are there …, You are there …, You are there …, You are there …’. Not surprisingly Polish designer Wojciech Zamecznik’s horizontal poster capture Lem’s intentions best. The ‘star’ – which has sent the message has fallen silent, a deathly planet on which life has been extinguished. It is presented as lifeless face. The only allusion to the ideodological subtext appears in red trail which follows the cosmonauts as they fly through the dark night of space.
Roman Cieślewicz's poster for Dziady, 1967
This poster produced by Roman Cieślewicz in 1967 has become an iconic image in the history of the People’s Republic of Poland. Designed to promote a new performance of Adam Mickiewicz’s nineteenth century poetic drama, Forefather’s Eve (Dziady), Cieślewicz’s design captures the simmering frustration with Soviet control over Poland. The central motif seems to be a desiccated landscape or a figure with a hole where a heart might be. In its mirrored composition, Raoul-Jean Moulin found a ‘hallucinatory symmetry.’
Performance of Dziady, National Theatre, Warsaw, November 1967 (photographed by Mariusz Szyperko).
Dziady opened in the National Theatre in November 1967. It had been programmed to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the October Revolution in Russia. The play’s references to dull-witted bureaucrats and Tsarist despotism were in tune with Lenin’s attack on imperial repression. But the Polish audience read the performance as allegory for the present. They jeered the imperial characters and applauded anti- Russian sentiment. The early closure of the play in late January 1968 – allegedly at the request of the Russian Embassy – was the trigger for loud calls for freedom of speech. The Writers’ Union drafted a motion criticizing this act of censorship and, ultimately, the legitimacy of the Sovietbacked authorities.
- Attack on protestors on Krakowskie Przedmieście near Warsaw University, 3rd March 1968 (photograph by Tadeusz Zagoździński).
Warsaw University students marched through the city and strung banners across the city-centre campus objecting to Soviet interference in Polish life. ‘In fighting for Mickiewicz’s play’ they declared, ‘we are fighting for independence and freedom and the democratic traditions of our country’.
With the temperature high, the authorities repressed writers, students and university lecturers. Hundreds of helmeted militiamen were drafted in to subdue the university with truncheons and tear-gas. This period of high tension has come to be known as the ‘March events.’