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Culturelink review, Special Issue 1995 - imprint - archive

Some Cultural Aspects of the Transformation in Central and Eastern Europe

Far-reaching changes are taking place in Europe, the continent of old cultures rooted in strong traditions, and affecting every sphere of life - political, economic and cultural. Processes of integration in Western Europe and restructuration in Central and Eastern Europe raise a host of new questions and present new phenomena. The building of a united Europe and of the European cultural identity is based on the respect for cultural diversity and cultural pluralism (languages, religions, ways of life), which help to make 'European culture' a mosaic of cultures.

Cultural diversity and pluralism became very visible after the breakdown of socialism in the Central and Eastern European countries who have long histories, strong cultural traditions and rich cultural heritage. They have preserved their specificities despite the fact that in their recent past they all lived under similar, i.e. socialist, systems. But that system assumed different forms and operated in different ways in different countries. The processes of transformation that began with the collapse of socialism have brought into a sharper focus the question of cultural identity of these countries. At the same time, the emergence of a number of new countries in Eastern Europe has drawn attention to societies which seek to assert their identities, which re-examine their history and search for new values and new modes of linkage and cooperation on the global (particularly European) level.

The historic changes raised great hopes in Central and Eastern Europe, but these countries soon began to have serious doubts, asking themselves whether this process opened the prospect of a different, authentic development for them, or whether it simply required that they should adjust and adapt to Western models. Many people in these countries faced such existential problems as employment, adequate wages, survival... Indeed, the process of transition, that is, adoption of market criteria, brought the whole social structure into a state of uncertainty and tension. Changes in culture are taking place throughout Central and Eastern Europe, but in different ways from country to country. Societies react differently, but there are also some common features.

In the process of democratization, the role and influence of the state in culture undergoes a change. The state tries to reduce its own funding of cultural institutions and artistic creation, leaving them to the action of the market forces and private initiative (government budgets for culture are more than modest in most countries in transition, averaging between 0.6 and 0.8 per cent of the annual budget).1 An increasingly important role is played by regions and local communities ('territorial collectivities'); new forms of support for culture are sought (sponsors, foundations, patronage) and attempts are made to privatize and commercialize parts of the cultural infrastructure. The Polish historian Bronislaw Geremek describes the situation in the following terms: 'Today, the state no longer has a bad conscience, and sponsors and patrons do not have it yet. Neither the one nor the other support culture.' 2

The relations between culture and the state have indeed become ill-defined, giving rise to a variety of views. Thus, for instance, the Czech Prime Minister, and before him the Minister of Culture, proposed in 1995 that the financing of culture by the state should be abolished, expressing a doubt as to the need for the existence of the ministry of culture. They explained such a view by citing changes in the system of financing of cultural institutions, stressing in particular the role of sponsorship and patronage, both of which have a long tradition in the Czech society. They also expressed their opposition to cultural policy, 'which means centralized management of culture'.3 Similar sentiments were voiced by the first Minister of Culture in Poland following the democratic change: he stated that 'from this moment on, the state will no longer run any cultural policy. It will limit itself to the guarantor of freedom in this sphere.' 4 In a situation when the cultural and arts market barely exists, such views must be regarded as unfounded.

Transforming a way of life and changing a society's norms, values and spiritual patterns is a long process, but even the relatively short experience since 1989 proves that new values and new regulation of cultural activities are brought about by processes of transition.

It is not uncommon in the countries in transition today to see theatres - symbols of resistance in earlier times - being closed for lack of funding, while the traditional audiences are turning away from the (now) expensive theatrical performances to the mass media. At the same time, the nature and expectations of the audiences change as well. New, younger audiences in Poland, for instance, take a different view of the theatre and look for new theatrical forms. A similar development has been noticed in Croatia, where several new theatre groups have appeared and proved quite successful. The appearance of new, independent theatres, established as associations or foundations, is a feature of theatrical life in Hungary in the mid-nineties.5

The 'exodus to the West' of large numbers of artists, particularly musicians, is also disrupting the system of values. In the past, despite the ideological motivations, education and training of artists used to be consistently good, producing high-quality artists and professionals in the field of culture.

The mass media and new communication technologies are oriented almost solely to importing cultural contents from the West, which has a direct effect on the cultures involved in processes of transformation. With rare exceptions, the television organizations in Central and Eastern Europe invest very little in their original production, preferring to fill their programmes with imported, particularly American, productions and serials. In the process of transformation of state-owned television and the establishment of public and commercial broadcasting organizations many issues having to do with the relations between the public and the private sector remain unsolved.

Film production had a long tradition in these countries, and it actually increased immediately after the fall of the Berlin wall, but in the last two to three years it has been drastically reduced. Thus, 'the Czech Barrandov Film Studios, which are among the biggest in Europe, have lost much of their productivity: in 1990 the studios were producing twenty-five films a year; in 1991, twelve; in 1992, barely five or six films were made in the studios.' 6 Some 90-95 per cent of the films shown in Central and Eastern Europe are American movies. Still, it has been observed that the screening of old locally made films on television (for instance, in Russia) is proving very popular with the viewing audiences.

The Central and Eastern European countries face great difficulties in the publishing sector, since publishing is governed almost wholly by market considerations. There are difficulties in the production of school textbooks, book distribution and supply of books to libraries. All this is due to the fact that there is no policy for books and reading. The criteria of evaluation on the book market have also changed, with a marked shift towards 'lighter' literature.

Cultural heritage - that 'expression of identity and the constitutive element of society' (R. Weber) - is suffering from problems of a legislative and financial nature, as well as from pollution and other forms of destruction; when it comes to movable heritage, it is exposed also to piracy. On the other hand, the Central and Eastern European countries emphasize their traditional values and seek to re-evaluate them. The importance that the countries in transition attach to cultural heritage is best illustrated with the example of Estonia, which established its own Heritage Society in 1987, wishing 'to preserve the cultural identity and to start the people's movement to revitalize Estonian national values'.

The present situation highlights the need for a redefinition of cultural policies, legislative reforms (for instance, the legal regulation of the ownership status of cultural property), support for private initiatives and for various associations, unions, groups of artists, etc., and training of cultural and arts managers. 'In the present cultural situation,' says Emmanuel Wallon, 'these countries must not be allowed to find themselves in the position of consumers of Western products or their adaptors - what is at stake is the integrity of their languages, the vitality of their cultures, their dignity.' 7

The European culture implies interaction and mutual influence, circulation and exchange of cultural values and experiences throughout Europe. In recent years, the interest in intercultural communication and international cooperation has found its expression in the spread of networks for cultural development and cooperation. Processes of de-institutionalization favour such informal types of cooperation. The establishment and development of cultural networks in the countries in transition, in which many old structures have collapsed and new ones are slow in emerging, is of particular importance, since thanks to their openness, flexibility and dynamism, cultural networks stimulate cooperation and partnership among individuals, groups and societies and make possible a dialogue of cultures.

Changes in Central and Eastern European countries in transition have had repercussions also for the work and role of their cultural centres, which is the subject of the present study. Although the study covers only one (European) region, we trust that it will be of interest for cultural workers and scholars on other continents, in Asia, Africa, Latin America, where the position and funding of cultural institutions - analyzed here on the single segment of cultural centres - appear vital for the overall cultural development and cooperation on the global level.

We wish to gratefully acknowledge the support of the Pro Helvetia Foundation, Switzerland, which has made the realization of this research project possible.

Biserka Cvjetičanin
Culturelink Network


  1. For more information on this topic, see Stuart Gibson, Financing culture in the period of transition to a market economy, Culturelink, Dossier, no. 15/1995, pp. 135-160.
  2. Europe Horizon Culture, Ministere de la Culture et de la Francophonie, Paris, 1995, 172 pp.
  3. Czech premier threatens to abolish cultural ministry, International Arts Manager, December 1995, p. 7.
  4. Dorota Ilczuk and Maciej Mrozowski, A few steps towards the new system of financing the culture in Poland, Instytut Kultury, Warsaw, 1994, 9 pp.
  5. For more information, cf. Tibor Varszegi, Hungary and the performing arts, Inform-IETM, Spring edition, 1994, pp. 11-13.
  6. Cultural Management in Central and Eastern Europe, Council of Europe, DECS-Cult/P 94, Strasbourg, 1993, p. 60.
  7. Emmanuel Wallon, A continent ouvert. Les politiques culturelles en Europe Centrale et Orientale, La Documentation Française, Paris, 1992, 161 pp.