Video May Have Killed The Radio Star, But Did Popular Culture Kill Communism?
Actor Larry Hagman has recently reiterated claims that glitzy 1980s American soap opera ‘Dallas’ helped topple communism. 79 year old Hagman, famous for playing villainous oil baron JR Ewing in Dallas, is probably best remembered for his character’s involvement in one of the earliest soap cliff-hangers, the ‘Who Shot JR?’ storyline that ran 1979-1980. He is currently filming a comeback series of the soap.
Hagman has argued that Dallas successfully opened the eyes of many East Europeans to the superior quality of life in the West. Famous for its depictions of gratuitous wealth, sex, intrigue and power struggles, at its peak in the mid-1980s Dallas was translated and dubbed into 67 languages and shown in over 90 countries on both sides of the iron curtain, attracting global audiences of over 100 million. Even hard-line communist leader Nicolae Ceausescu allowed Dallas to be broadcast in repressive Romania. Ostensibly, this was in order to illustrate the corruption and moral decadence of capitalism, but the soap attracted a huge following, quickly becoming the most watched TV show in Romania. As a result, after the collapse of communism and the execution of the Ceausescus in December 1989, the full-length pilot episode of Dallas – including a previously censored sex scene, which could now be edited back in – was one of the first foreign shows to be broadcast on Romanian TV.
In an interview recently published in Australian newspaper the Fairfield City Champion, Hagman claimed:
“Romania put on Dallas to try and show how corrupt the American system was and it ended up with them lining up Ceausescu, who was the dictator, and shooting him 500 times – they wanted all that stuff they didn’t even know was out there … He let that show in to show how decadent we were and they said, ‘Yeah, we want some of it’.”
Despite the vast gulf between people’s lifestyles in the Soviet bloc compared to the glamour portrayed on screen in Dallas, Hagman argues that there were elements of the show that had a more universal appeal and transcended the iron curtain, claiming that “Everybody has a jerk like JR in the family, and somebody like a Sue Ellen and a Bobby.”
Hagman’s recent comments have been reproduced by the tabloid media in the UK, including The Sun and The Daily Mail. However, in an earlier article entitled ‘How Dallas Won the Cold War’ published in the Washington Post in 2008, Nick Gillespie and Matt Welch have also argued that Dallas may have played an important role in the fall of communism, claiming that:
“The booze-and-sex-soaked caricature of free enterprise and executive lifestyles proved irresistible not just to stagflation-weary Americans but to viewers from France to the Soviet Union to Ceausescu’s Romania … ‘Dallas’ wasn’t simply a television show. It was an atmosphere-altering cultural force (which) helped define the 1980s as a glorious decade of greed, ushering in an era in which capitalism became cool, even though weighted with manifold moral quandaries”
In actual fact, glamorous and fantastical TV shows such as Dallas painted a highly unrealistic picture of the lifestyles enjoyed by the majority of citizens in the West and there is an argument that this led many in the communist bloc to have inflated expectations about what life under capitalism would be like – believing that in the West everybody lived in a mansion and had a swimming pool in their back gardens – perceptions that led to subsequent disappointment and disillusionment in the years following the revolutions of 1989.
Hagman is not the only celebrity to claim to have made a contribution to the collapse of communism in recent years either. In a 2004 interview with German TV magazine ‘Spielfilm’ Actor, singer and recently turned reality TV judge David Hasselhoff also suggested that his 1989 hit ‘Looking for Freedom’, may have played some part in bringing down the Berlin Wall. The song was Number 1 in West Germany in the autumn of 1989, when waves of protest began to mount in the GDR and Hasselhoff has argued that his lyrics inspired East Germans to push for change. ‘The Hoff’ has even suggested that this contribution should be recognised by the inclusion of his photograph at the Checkpoint Charlie museum in Berlin! His comments were subsequently picked up by the BBC Magazine who ran a story asking ‘Did David Hasselhoff Help End the Cold War?’
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the tone of the article suggests that the BBC posed this question with its tongue very firmly in its cheek. Similarly, Hagman’s view that it is possible to somehow trace a direct consequential link between Dallas and the execution of the Ceausescus is both vastly over-simplistic and slightly ridiculous! At the same time however, there is a real case to be made about the role that popular culture played in helping to undermine communism in the USSR and Eastern Europe. There is a growing body of academic work relating to aspects of Western popular culture and its role in influencing and radicalising communist youth, and Gillespie and Welch make a serious point in their Washington Post article when they state that:
“The impact of ‘Dallas’ on people’s worldviews reminds us that the ‘vulgar’ popular culture that left-wing highbrows and right-wing cultural conservatives love to hate is every bit as important as chin-stroking politics in fomenting real social change.”
During the Cold War period, Western culture was portrayed as subversive and as a potentially dangerous influence by the regimes in power in the USSR and Eastern Europe. High levels of censorship and media restrictions were enforced to try to prevent people gaining access to non-communist culture, which propaganda presented as ideologically inappropriate and morally corrupt. As a result, anyone who openly displayed their liking for Western music, fashion or ‘unsuitable’ Hollywood movies were marked as ‘subversive’ by the state and became likely targets for repression and harassment. However, the regimes were never able to prevent people gaining access to popular culture and their task became increasingly difficult during the latter years of communism as numbers of privately owned television sets and video recorders steadily increased across the block.
The enforcement of cultural controls had always been particularly problematic in the GDR, where citizens could pick up Western transmissions by tuning their radios to the relevant frequencies and turning their TV aerials to point westwards. But elsewhere in Eastern Europe, the authorities also found it increasingly difficult to maintain the necessary levels of control over their citizens’ listening, viewing and reading habits. From the 1960s, popular black market items included prohibited Western music and films (which were smuggled in on cassette and VCR and then copied for illegal distribution), magazines and fashion. Westerners who were able to venture ‘behind the iron curtain’ were likely to be approached on the street and propositioned about the sale of any branded clothing they were wearing – particularly Levi jeans, which were seen as a ‘status symbol’ in the 1980s. One report from Poland described how, in the early 1980s customers at a Warsaw market would ‘pore over second hand Beatles records and Playboy magazines smuggled from the West’. A second report published by RFE/RL in 1985 outlined how the booming informal trade in such ‘subversive items’ operated, describing exchanges at a Hungarian bar frequented by foreign truck drivers:
“American cigarettes and prewashed jeans, the most coveted articles on the black market, exchanged hands, The Jukebox blared out the latest hits, the air was thick with smoke, it was difficult to hear oneself speak”.
The same was true in the Soviet Union, something which was addressed in Mikhail Safanov’s 2003 article ‘You Say You Want a Revolution’. In this thought provoking piece, Safanov argues that The Beatles may actually have done more for the collapse of totalitarianism in the USSR than high profile dissident intellectuals such as Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Andrei Sakharov.
Safanov describes how The Beatles were proscribed by the Soviet authorities to such an extent that youths who sported ‘Beatles-style’ haircuts would be stopped on the street by policemen, who would accompany them to the nearest police station and forcibly cut their hair! Despite this however, ‘Beatlemania’ developed as a popular underground culture among Soviet youth, with their music disseminated in the form of illegal cassettes:
“The apolitical Beatles slipped into every Soviet flat, packaged as tapes, just as easily as they assumed their place on the stages of the largest stadia and concert halls in the world. They did something that was not within the power of Solzhenitsyn nor Sakharov: they helped a generation of free people to grow up in the Soviet Union.”
Safanov therefore concludes that:
“The history of the Beatles’ persecution in the Soviet Union is the history of the self-exposure of the idiocy of Brezhnev’s rule. The more they persecuted something the whole world had already fallen in love with, the more they exposed the falsehood and hypocrisy of Soviet ideology … Deep down, the Communists felt (though no-one expressed it openly) that the Beatles were a concealed and potent threat to the their regime. And they were right.”
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