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Culture in Central and Eastern Europe:
Institutional and Value Changes

If culture is understood simply and broadly as a way of life, then it is certainly a crucial aspect of human existence, and both politics and economy are seen as its segments. Unlike the economic and political transformation, cultural transformation has been mostly neglected or only sporadically studied. We are now well-informed about the obstacles that the East European countries encounter in their transition from centrally planed towards market oriented economies and about the transformations and problems that occur in the political system, but we know little about changes that have taken place in the field of culture. There is a notable lack of information and analysis in the literature as regards the transformation of cultural institutions and dominant cultural values in Central and Eastern Europe. This was one of the principal reasons for initiating the project on Culture in Central and Eastern Europe: Institutional and Value Changes, whose results are presented in this study. Our intention was to bring together information and experience in the field of cultural development from different post-communist societies and thus to start a discussion on the significance of culture in the period of transition.

One of the main aims of this research has been to show exactly that changes in the field of culture are not only affected by political and economic changes in these societies, but also, vice versa, that changes in culture had, and still have, a significant influence on the economy and politics. As most of the studies reporting this research show, this is equally true of both institutional changes and value changes. It is culture that can help us explain why and how some states have shown more interest, motivation and skill in adjusting their economies and political systems to those of the EU countries, while some others have developed extremely anti-European attitudes. The analysis of cultural values reveals the background of the acceptance of certain political and economic decisions and moves. The insistence on 'authenticity', 'indigenous cultural traditions' and, consequently, ethno-nationalism has become the central issue of post-communism.

This study attempts to highlight some of the problems that have arisen with the process of transition and transformation in Central and Eastern Europe. Its main preoccupation is the study of changes that have taken place in the field of culture on the institutional level and on the level of dominant values.

This project grew out of the research of Cultural Centres in Central and Eastern Europe conducted in 1994 and published in 1995 as a special issue of Culturelink1. That study aimed at identifying the fundamental structural characteristics of the Central and Eastern European cultural centres in the period of transition. The project set out to investigate how these centres operate in the new socio-political environment and also how their managers comprehend the economic, cultural and political problems of transition (Malesevic, 1995:76). Although that study concentrated exclusively on cultural centres, it soon became evident that it was necessary to analyze much broader issues that had arisen as a result of 'cultural transition'. In order to identify the overall cultural change in the post-communist countries, one had to look not only at one segment of institutional changes, such as cultural centres, but also at the totality of structural transformations in the field of cultural development and cultural policies, as well as at the change in the dominant cultural values in the Central and East European countries.

The articles presented in this Special Issue offer a detail analysis of the institutional and value changes that have taken place in the domain of culture. Some of them emphasize institutional changes while others focus more fully on changes in the value systems.

The first paper, Transition and Culture in Croatia: From Nationalistic Populism to Enlightened Democracy? by V. Katunaric, applies Volkerling's model of developmental stages in cultural policies to communist and post-communist Croatia. The author identifies the different stages through which Croatia's cultural policy has passed, starting with the idealistic socialist concept of culture in the early post-WWII years, and continuing with decentralization and slight liberalization in the 1960's, followed by the unarticulated and inefficient model of self-management in the 1970's and 1980's to end up in today's nationalistic, spectacularisation-driven, concept of cultural policy. Katunaric also shows how the new state has managed to establish a new form of cultural hegemony based on the strange but practical symbiosis of market absolutism and the perception of the ethno-national state as an unmistakable, almost divine entity. This situation is possible, according to the author, because of the persistence of high levels of authoritarian and traditionalist values among the population.

The second paper, Cultural Institutions and Cultural Values in Change: The Bulgarian Case by R. Arcova et al., gives an overview of cultural development in Bulgaria. It traces the development of cultural policy from the centralized cultural administration under state socialism to the contemporary uncontrolled and sometimes chaotic state of culture. The paper puts more emphasis on the institutional changes, demonstrating that artistic freedom was the principal victim under state socialism, while post-socialism has brought political and artistic freedom but also economic hardship for many artists. The article also analyses the relationship between culture and the market, showing how market relations have affected the cultural industries (i.e., publishing, entertainment, TV, films, and recorded music), though not the classical cultural institutions such as theatres, operas, or museums. The authors also recognize the dominance of egalitarian values and paternalistic expectations in regard to the state as a crucial cultural value of the population. The process of shrinking of the middle class poses a special problem in the reception and consumption of quality cultural products.

The third paper, The Czech Republic and Slovakia: Two Different Roads to Cultural Development by S. Malesevic, presents a comparative analysis of cultural policy developments in the post-communist Czech Republic and Slovakia. The author concentrates on the different strategies of political and cultural development adopted by the two societies after the break-up of the common state. He argues that the transformation of cultural institutions goes hand in hand with the political and economic policies of the two states. Thus, the cultural policy of the Czech Republic has been characterized as developing in the direction of neo-liberalism, with the state pulling almost completely out of art and culture, whereas the Slovak cultural policy is nation-state-centred and is as such an instrument of political manipulation. The paper gives more attention to changes in cultural values, demonstrating that both societies are characterized by a low level of economic egalitarianism in comparison with other post-communist countries and by the dominance of socially shaped materialist values. The author also emphasizes the differences in cultural values that exist between the two populations, with Czech society being more individualist oriented and Slovak society being more paternalist and conservative.

The fourth paper, The Cultural Institutions and Cultural Values in Lithuania by J. Oskinis, presents an extensive analysis of Lithuania's cultural development from the establishment of the independent Lithuanian state until the presentday. The author pays particular attention to Soviet attempts to crush the Lithuanian identity and to the cultural results of the 'Singing Revolution' of 1991. Oskinis provides also a very detailed analysis of the cultural infrastructure in contemporary Lithuania, indicating that the paternalist form of cultural development still prevails in many cultural institutions, with market mechanisms developing slowly and only in selected areas (i.e., publishing industry, television, video, and music recording). The author emphasizes the gap between older artists who are accustomed to the predictability and stability of socialism and feel completely dependent on the state, and younger artists who appear to be more adaptable to the new chaotic situation and market oriented cultural production. The author detects the economic factors which are crucial for the transformation of cultural institutions.

The last paper, Changes in the Cultural Values and Cultural Institutions in Russia by G. Mendjeritsky and S. Petkova, interprets a number of data on changes in the cultural infrastructure and dominant values in Russian society. The authors focus almost exclusively on changes in the field of cultural values. They speak about the identity crisis that has beset Russian society, pointing out significant shifts that have taken place in the last five years. The authors single out the rise of individualist and materialist values and the lack of trust in other co-nationals over the previously dominant spiritual and community oriented values. Although spiritual harmony, clear conscience and everyday/liberal humanism are identified as the dominant values among the population, they are conceptualized and perceived by the public on the personal and family level rather than on the level of society as a whole. The authors also note that modernist values have gained the upper hand over the traditionalist values in Russian society.

These five case studies show that although each East and Central European society faces its own set of problems and obstacles in this period of cultural transformation, there are also many features that are common to all post-communist states. These common characteristics are noticeable in both institutional and value changes. In fact, these two spheres of cultural change are deeply connected. Among the processes that are taking place and that affect both of these spheres, two stand out as crucial: (a) the change in the relationship between individuals and the state, and (b) the chaotic and conflict-ridden relation between the globalist tendencies and the struggle for the preservation of authentic cultures.

The nature of the individual perception of the state has changed together with the changes that have occurred on the institutional level. As various surveys interpreted in these five case studies show, individualist and materialist values predominate in the field of economic relations, and, as some of the papers demonstrate, individual achievement is almost regularly preferred over equality. Although the 'socialist legacy' is still strong in many respects, there is a firm rejection of collectivist values in the economic life. Paradoxically, at the same time there is considerable support for state intervention in the domain of social welfare, and state paternalism is often preferred to individual responsibility. The state is hated and loved at the same time. One could say that the attitude of people towards the state in the former socialist countries is comparable to a teenager's attitude towards his/her parents. The state/parent is not trusted, the citizens/teenagers would like to get rid of it, but at the same time its economic and physical protection is expected and demanded.

The introduction of the laws of the market has brought about a radical change in the social environment. There is no predictable relation between individuals, groups and society; there are no protected and privileged state artists as there used to be under state socialism; the state budgets for culture have drastically shrunk; profitable cultural projects have replaced those based solely on artistic quality or political correctness, and so on. All these changes have had an impact also on the individual's feeling of insecurity and consequently on the search for protection and security in some other form of collective membership. Among those groups, ethno-national collectives, whether in the form of the nation-state or simply as ethno-culturally shaped units within the larger society, are often perceived as the only reliable source of security.

This brings us to the second important process that is taking place in the field of institutional and value changes and that could be defined as globalisation vs. nationalism. The societies of Central and Eastern Europe are today stretched between globalist ideas and practices reflected in the tendencies towards regional integration, mostly for economic but also for political ends; they are caught in new types of communication that minimize the distance between countries and continents, such as the Internet; they are exposed to hyper-production of new information from all over the world and to the development and influence of new technologies; and they receive new ideas often perceived or interpreted as common problems of all humanity, such as ecology, human rights, gender and sexual equality, and so on.

On the other hand, there is a strong desire among communities and states to preserve their uniqueness, their own cultural traditions, languages and customs. Globalisation is thus often strongly opposed and rejected as being nothing but Westernisation. On the institutional level, functional and successful systems of organization are often rejected as representing the Western model that will necessarily undermine 'our own cultural specificities'. This counter-reaction against modernity and globalisation is mostly articulated in Central and Eastern Europe as ethno-nationalism. The driving force of ethno-nationalism is a certain nostalgia, a desire to preserve something that has been gone for decades, or has never even been there in the first place. It also includes the latent recognition of defeat and economic backwardness, which is regularly countered with the idea of moral superiority: the West is economically advanced, but is also decadent, while 'we' are economically inferior but are morally pure. What nationalists offer is a sense of community, idealized traditional utopia of harmonic and ethically clean collective, but what people really get is a modern, individualistically and egotistically shaped rationalized society. In Gellner's words (1997:44), 'nationalism is a phenomenon of Gesellschaft using the idiom of Gemeinschaft: a mobile anonymous society, simulating a closed cozy community. It is engendered, basically, by two facts - the dissolution of the old rigid hierarchical order in which most men knew their place and were glued to it, and the fact that the new order, because of the nature of work within it, needed to operate in a High Culture. These high cultures then serve as boundary markers for both cultural ('national') and political boundaries, the two being required to be as congruent as possible.' This is exactly the situation of contemporary Central and Eastern Europe after the collapse of the old, stable and predictable order and the establishment of new political entities whose new main source of legitimacy is their ('own') culture.

However, globalism and nationalism are Janus-like phenomena and have their nice and ugly faces. The ugly face of nationalism shows itself in the parochial ideas of self-sufficiency and sectarianism that uncritically glorify everything with the label 'ours'; it shows itself also in the populism that opposes and treats as dangerous any cultural contact and exchange of ideas and values, in the closing of ranks against the other and different, in the de-professionalization, kitsch and low quality of artistic and scientific work, and finally, at its worst, in racism, ethnic cleansing and genocide. The ugly face of globalisation is its uncritical and superficial insistence on unification, imposing one culture, one language, one way of dressing, or one type of music as the only legitimate medium of expression; it shows itself in the soulless rationalization that intends to standardize or, as Ritzer (1993) would say, McDonaldize every segment of society, in the hyperproduction of needs and consumerism that sells Hollywood films, MTV music, video games, Sprite and Burger King in a single common package2 and which glorifies quantity over quality, in the globalist kitsch that prefers imitation to originality, and finally in the building of a world where all cultural differences would disappear and we would all speak the same language, listen to the same kind of music, attend the same schools, and enjoy the same type of entertainment, like in Huxley's Brave New World.

Nevertheless, there are also the pleasant faces of globalism and nationalism. Globalism brings also the freedom of choice from among a variety of possibilities in deciding how to organize and live one's life, it liberates us from the chains of authority and tradition, it shows us that there are more efficient ways of solving our problems, it restrains us from forming closed and mutually hostile communities, it gives us the opportunity to express ourselves freely as individuals, it brings us artistic and academic competition that often results in quality products, it helps us to establish links all over the world, and so on. Nationalism, for its part, does not necessarily appear in its parochial and xenophobic form. It often opens the way for different models of group and societal organization of life, it sometimes brings cultural richness with different cultural products, languages and customs, it demonstrates how particular cultures deal with some universal human problems, it occasionally invents and produces new cultures that enrich our world society, it also gives rise to, and keeps alive, deep and positive emotions and feelings of solidarity with other people, groups and communities, and finally it strives to give meaning to human existence.

Both faces of globalism and nationalism are present in Central and Eastern Europe and the crucial problem now is how to bring together, if that is at all possible, the good side of globalisation with the positive side of nationalism. However, this question remains outside the scope of the present study. Only time will tell which tendency will prevail and which face will smile or frown at us in the next century.


We are grateful to the European Cultural Foundation for making the realization of this project possible and UNESCO's Programme for Central and Eastern European Development (PROCEED) for its support for the publication of this Special Issue of Culturelink.


Sinisa Malesevic
Culturelink Network



1. Cultural Centres in Central and Eastern Europe, Culturelink, Special Issue 1995, 142 pp.

2. Thus, buying a hamburger you do not buy just a product, you buy the entire culture.


Eyal, G., I. Szelenyi & Townsley, E. (1997). The Theory of Post-Communist Managerialism. New Left Review. March/April (222), pp. 53-92.

Gellner, E. (1994). Encounters with Nationalism. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Gellner, E. (1997). Nationalism. London: Weidenfeld Publishers.

Malesevic, S. (1995). Changes in the Status and Functioning of Cultural Centres in Central and Eastern European Countries in Transition. In: Cultural Centres in Central and Eastern Europe, Culturelink, Special Issue, pp. 9-82.

Ritzer, G. (1993). The McDonaldization of Society: An Investigation into the Changing Character of Contemporary Social Life. Thousand Oaks: Pine Forge Press.