Gepubliceerd op: 1 juli 2021

More West than East? Eastern Bloc children’s television after 1989: Commercialization, merchandising and the role of nostalgia

Talitania Chomsky

Since 1989, all kinds of socialist-era TV shows, including children’s series, have reappeared on Central and Eastern European screens. These reruns act as sources of cultural memories, national consciousness and identity markers, thereby facilitating a link between television and the expression of both trauma and nostalgia.[1] Film and media scholar Alice Bardan views the rise of post-socialist nostalgia through the mediation of socialist-era television programs more so as a universal phenomenon, not necessarily tied to the political context of the Eastern Bloc:

[N]ostalgic engagements with old television programmes in post-              socialist Eastern Europe do not so much appear as an expression of a longing for a specifically socialist past, but rather articulate a more diffuse sense of longing for a generic past, seen as a time of lost innocence and security, and rooted in the domestic character of television viewing. To put it differently, the enjoyment of old television programmes is an expression of longing for one’s own childhood, spent at home watching television.[2]

Tali Chomsky is een eerstejaars ResMA History student aan de Universiteit Leiden. In 2020 rondde zij haar BA geschiedenis aan de Universiteit Leiden af met een scriptie over de impact van de zwarte lijst en anticommunisme op Amerikaanse entertainers gedurende het tijdperk van de Second Red Scare en het McCarthyisme. Ze is met name geïnteresseerd in Sovjetgeschiedenis, Amerikaanse geschiedenis en de Koude Oorlog, maar verdiept zich ook graag in andere specialisaties en vakgebieden zoals Oude Geschiedenis, archeologie, mediastudies en film- en televisiestudies.

Indeed, general nostalgia for the past and one’s childhood, as well as the recycling of old television content, are certainly not traits exclusive to the former Eastern Bloc. Yet, nostalgia in this region does have some specific functions and characteristics that cannot be found elsewhere, or at least not in the West. According to professor of media studies Anikó Imre, nostalgia in Central and Eastern Europe has become a vehicle of releasing long-suppressed emotions and fantasies, as well as the processing of communist memories. Furthermore, nostalgic feelings towards socialism might also signal that people are once again looking for “an alternative vision”; especially since it has become clear that neoliberal capitalism does not necessarily lead to democracy and social justice, and that demagoguery, corruption and authoritarianism are not the exceptional properties of communism.[3] Even Bardan herself admits that post-1989 perspectives on television might play a specific role when it comes to nostalgia in the former Eastern Bloc. Besides reflecting on the world they grew up in, as well as reminiscing of television-related interactions with family and friends, audiences from Central and Eastern Europe might feel the pleasure of experiencing themselves as critical viewers when watching old socialist programs, in some cases perhaps even rewriting their own past attitudes by emphasizing how they had always been able to deflect the power of TV propaganda.[4]

            In any case, what is certain is that in many former Eastern Bloc countries, socialist-era television programs have once again become incredibly popular, and there is perhaps no better example of this than the way characters from children’s shows are being treated. For while Central and Eastern European (television) nostalgia might show some features exclusive to the region, when it comes to commercialization and merchandising, East has without a doubt become ‘more West’ since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of the Soviet Union. That is not to say that merchandising has been a recent development. Already during the 1970s and 1980s, images from the Polish cartoon Bolek and Lolek (Bolek i Lolek, 1962-1986) appeared on items such as books, cups, figures, posters and alarm clocks. The same goes for the East German title character of Unser Sandmännchen (1959-present), whose likeness could be found on pins, picture books, dolls, postcards and even a special stamp issued by Deutsche Post. Home-made costumes, bedding and pillows with children’s favorite cartoon heroes were popular as well. Though not as many products were available as in the West, items promoted by characters from animated shows were certainly not impossible to find.[5]

            It cannot be denied, however, that after 1989, the commercialization of these iconic figures increased dramatically. The Sandmännchen, for instance, was transformed into a site of memory and ‘Ostalgie’ (pride at, and a longing for, East German goods and cultural practices). The little puppet symbolized an element of continuity and familiarity at a time when former citizens of the GDR were dealing with life-changing events. To many, he was a prime example of the idea that in the GDR, ‘es war nicht alles schlecht’. Thus, after reunification, public interest in him remained high, and the assortment of Sandmännchen merchandise was expanded with CDs, DVDs, bean bags, books, T-shirts and talking dolls.[6] Many items were added to the line-up of Bolek and Lolek merchandise as well, while the Polish WWII-themed children’s series Four Tank-Men and a Dog (Czterej pancerni i pies, 1966-1970) became a typical nostalgic consumer product, facilitating the engagement with past childhoods through reruns, DVD box-sets, documentaries about the show and plenty of online ‘curative nostalgia’ (individuals collectively gathering information or episodes and posting this on websites such as YouTube and various internet forums).[7]

            Krtek, the famous little mole and title character from Krtek (1956-2000) has come to symbolize the entire Czech animation industry, even growing in popularity in both the West and the East after 1989. Once a ‘socialist’ alternative to ‘capitalist’ cartoons, he has now become familiar with the market economy, and merchandise of him and his friends, from stuffed animals and DVDs to posters, toys, bed linen and toothpaste tubes can be found in souvenir shops all over the Eastern Bloc.[8] In 2010, Krtek was the main attraction of the Czech section at the Shanghai World Exhibition and in 2011, American astronaut Andrew Feustel carried a plush version of the mole with him aboard the International Space Station. In 2019, it was announced that Krtek would be the new team partner of Alfa Romeo Racing.[9] As journalist Kasumi Borczyk has poignantly stated: ‘Over half a century on, late capitalism trades in the currency of dramatic irony as Krtek becomes subsumed by the very systems he set out to critique.’[10] Indeed, the character even became the center of a profoundly capitalist legal dispute when family members of animator Zdeněk Miler vied for control over his million dollar-business empire and the right to issue out contracts for Krtek merchandise after his death in 2011.[11] 

            How can we explain the ongoing popularity of cartoon characters from the socialist era? Diving back into nostalgia, the concept of a lifelong ‘media friend’, coined by professor of communication Joshua Meyrowitz, might prove helpful. According to Meyrowitz, audience members develop relations with celebrities and fictional characters that become a fixed part of the emotional and social spheres in which they live their lives and negotiate their identities.[12] Since some of the shows and characters mentioned above have been such a constant factor in people’s lives, becoming inextricably linked to not only their childhoods but also their identities shaped within the context of living under an authoritarian regime, it is not surprising to find that figures such as Krtek and the Sandmännchen easily qualify as lifelong ‘media friends’.

            Akin to this is the idea, put forth by film scholar Ülo Pikkov, that animated characters can take on the role of modern-day totems. In fact, we could almost literally speak of totems, as various cartoon figures are not only hailed as national heroes through merchandise and brand deals, but have also received statues all over the Eastern Bloc. Ewa Ciszewska has linked such activities to the process of heritage-making, which ‘challenges questions of who, how and why choices are made about specific elements of the past that should be remembered and helps to explain why other elements sink into oblivion.’ One way to develop heritage is to continuously study and interpret the past, for instance by putting it on display for the public. That is why characters such as Bolek and Lolek, Krtek, Reksio the dog from the Polish animated show Reksio (1967-1990) and Professor Balthazar from the Croatian series Professor Balthazar (1967-1978) have all been immortalized through statues, and why many museums have dedicated entire exhibitions to these beloved cartoons.[13] 

            Even here, though, in what might seem like nostalgically-informed, heritage-making educational and cultural celebrations of childhood ‘media friends’, there are signs that East is becoming ‘more West’ through the process of commercialization. In the Polish city of Łódź, the ‘Łódź Fairytale Trail’ has been created to boost the tourist potential of the city based on its film and animation heritage. The trail is a typical tourist product, showcasing local film history within a commercial frame, symbolized by a ‘Walk of Fame’ and a series of statues of well-known animated characters. The cats Filemon and Bonifacy, protagonists of the television series Philemon the Cat’s Strange World (Dziwny świat kota Filemona, 1972–1974) and Adventures of Philemon the Cat (Przygody kota Filemona, 1977–1981), can be found in the courtyard of the Museum of Film, while internationally renowned character Miś Uszatek (Teddy Floppy-Ear, 1975-1987) stands in front of a Tourist Information Centre.[14] It can only be described as ironic that a longing for socialist times is producing such capitalist situations.

Bibliografie

[1] Timothy Havens, Anikó Imre and Katalin Lustyik, ‘Introduction’ in: Idem, Popular Television in Eastern Europe During and Since Socialism (New York-Abingdon 2012) 3, 5; Ülo Pikkov, ‘On the Topics and Style of Soviet Animated Films’, Baltic Screen Media Review 4:1 (2016) 31.

[2] Alice Bardan, ‘Remembering socialist entertainment: Romanian television, gestures and intimacy’, European Journal of Cultural Studies 20:3 (2017) 344.

[3] Anikó Imre, ‘Television and the Good Times of Socialism’ in: Aga Skrodzka, Xiaoning Lu, and Katarzyna Marciniak eds., The Oxford Handbook of Communist Visual Cultures (New York 2020) 612; Anikó Imre, Identity Games: Globalization and the Transformation of Media Cultures in the New Europe (Cambridge-London 2009) 75.

[4] Bardan, ‘Remembering’, 345-346, 349-350, 355-356. It is also important to note here that nostalgia through television did not have the same impact in every former Eastern Bloc country. Professor of television studies and journalism Dana Mustata has described how in Romania during the 1990s, attempts were made to re-popularize programs and genres from the communist era. All these efforts failed, however, as there was no interest in media associated with Ceaușescu’s regime. See: Dana Mustata, ‘Television in the Age of (Post) Communism: The Case of Romania’, Journal of Popular Film & Television 40:3 (2012) 138.

[5] Beata Dorota Lakeberg, ‘Lolek und Bolek und Sandmännchen: Süße Kindheitserinnerungen’ in: Hans Henning Hahn and Robert Traba eds., Deutsch-Polnische Erinnerungsorte: Band 3: Parallelen (Paderborn 2012) 455, 459, 461; Susanne M. Barrett, Das Sandmännchen: Examining East Germany through children’s television (Dissertation, University of Colorado, Boulder 2007) 37, 67-68. One sidenote is that not all popular children’s series received merchandise during the communist years. The puppet figures from the Hungarian shows Futrinka utca lakoi (The Futrinka Street Neighborhood) and Mekk mester kalandjai (The Adventures of Maestro Goat), for example, were never available for purchase in the form of toys, nor were they used to decorate children’s products. See: Katalin Lustyik, The transformation of children’s television from communism to global capitalism in Hungary (Dissertation, University of Colorado, Boulder 2003) 90.

[6] Marie Cronqvist, ‘From Socialist Hero to Capitalist Icon: The Cultural Transfer of the East German Children’s Television Programme Unser Sandmännchen to Sweden in the Early 1970s’, Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television 40:4 (2020) 2; Dorota Lakeberg, ‘Süße Kindheitserinnerungen’, 459, 461; Barrett, Examining East Germany, 25, 67-68.

[7] Dorota Lakeberg, ‘Süße Kindheitserinnerungen’, 455; Justyna Deszcz-Tryhubczak and Mateusz Świetlicki, ‘Introduction: We Are the Children of the Transformation: Post-communist Children’s Cultures in Central, Eastern, and Southeast Europe’, Miscellanea Posttotalitariana Wratislaviensia 2:7 (2017) 10; Machteld Venken, ‘Did Communist Children’s Television Communicate Universal Values? Representing Borders in the Polish Series Four Tank-Men and a Dog’ in: Muriel Blaive ed., Perceptions of Society in Communist Europe: Regime Archives and Popular Opinion (London 2018) 169-170.

[8] Philip J. Heijmans, ‘Eastern Bloc Mole Inspires a Capitalist Dispute’, The New York Times (October 24, 2017); Imre, Identity Games, 77; Anikó Imre, ‘The Lost World of Socialist Children’s TV’ (September 3, 2009) Flow, http://www.flowjournal.org/2009/09/the-lost-world-of-socialist-children%e2%80%99s-tv-aniko-imre-ucla/ (consulted January 1, 2021); Riikka Palonkorpi, ‘Mole holes in the Iron Curtain: The success story of the Krtek animated films’ in: Katalin Miklóssy and Melanie Ilic eds., Competition in Socialist Society (Abingdon-New York 2014) 142, 144, 156.

[9] Palonkorpi, ‘Mole holes’, 156; Sauber Group, ‘Little Mole goes from stars to cars with Alfa Romeo Racing’ (May 23, 2019) https://www.sauber-group.com/motorsport/f1-news/little-mole-goes-from-stars-to-cars-with-alfa-romeo-racing/ (consulted January 14, 2021); Leos Rousek, ‘Space Shuttle Stowaway Is a Commie Mole: A Venerable Czech Cartoon Character Infiltrates NASA’, The Wall Street Journal (March 22, 2011); Kasumi Borczyk, ‘Lessons in Capitalism from the Soviet Cartoons of my Youth’ (February 27, 2020) Kill Your Darlings (KYD), https://www.killyourdarlings.com.au/article/lessons-in-capitalism-from-the-soviet-cartoons-of-my-youth/ (consulted January 14, 2021); Heijmans, ‘Eastern Bloc Mole’.

[10] Borczyk, ‘Lessons in Capitalism’.

[11] Heijmans, ‘Eastern Bloc Mole’.

[12] Kinga Bloch, ‘The Life and Afterlife of a Socialist Media Friend: On the Longterm Cultural Relevance of the Polish TV Series Czterdziestolatek’, VIEW Journal of European Television History and Culture 3:2 (2012) 88.

[13] Ewa Ciszewska, ‘Who Benefits from the Past? The Process of Cultural Heritage Management in the Field of Animation in Poland (The Case of the Se-Ma-For Film Studio in Łódź)’, Animation: An Interdisciplinary Journal 14:2 (2019) 122-124; Barrett, Examining East Germany, 5-6; Dorota Lakeberg, ‘Süße Kindheitserinnerungen’, 455, 457, 459, 461.

[14] Ciszewska, ‘Cultural Heritage Management’, 124, 127.

Image 1 A statue of Professor Balthazar in Zagred, Croatia. Silverije, Wikimedia Commons (2017).

Image 2 Capitalizing on cartoons. Statues of Bolek and Lolek in the Polish town of Bielsko-Biała. Plushy, Wikimedia Commons (2011).

Image 3 Krtek merchandise in a souvenir shop in Prague, Czech Republic. El Nino, Wikimedia Commons (2017).

Image 1 A statue of Professor Balthazar in Zagred, Croatia. Silverije, Wikimedia Commons (2017).

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