Hessler on Applebaum, 'Empire of Friends: Soviet Power and Socialist Internationalism in Cold War Czechoslovakia'

Rachel Applebaum
Julie Hessler

Rachel Applebaum. Empire of Friends: Soviet Power and Socialist Internationalism in Cold War Czechoslovakia. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2019. Illustrations. 294 pp. $49.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-5017-3557-8.

Reviewed by Julie Hessler (University of Oregon) Published on H-Diplo (February, 2020) Commissioned by Seth Offenbach (Bronx Community College, The City University of New York)

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=54329

The past several years have witnessed an efflorescence of scholarship on interactions between Soviet citizens and foreign citizens and cultures. Whereas foreign relations were once treated as an isolated subfield of Soviet history, limited to high politics, recent works show that transnational encounters affected Soviet citizens on many levels, particularly in the post-Stalin period. These studies have widened the field’s geographical scope, bringing into sharper focus Soviet cultural interactions with, and attitudes toward, regions as diverse as Western Europe, Latin America, China, sub-Saharan Africa, and East-Central Europe. Rachel Applebaum’s new book, Empire of Friends, offers an insightful look at Soviet cultural contacts with Czechoslovakia between 1945 and 1989 in this vein.

Applebaum echoes other scholars in placing ideology at the center of her story. Her signal contribution is to frame cultural interactions within the socialist bloc in terms of a “friendship project,” which she defines as a set of strategies officials deployed to embed the socialist alliance in everyday life (p. 8). Through “friendship,” it was hoped, ordinary Soviet and Czechoslovak citizens would help cement the political ties between their two countries. Of course, the friendship project was a masking ideology: it portrayed an actual relationship of domination as one of intimacy and reciprocity. Still, Applebaum argues that it put down roots in both societies, shaping the identities of Soviet and Czechoslovak participants in cultural exchange and involving them in the construction of the socialist bloc.

The friendship project began in the atmosphere of goodwill created by the Soviet liberation of Czechoslovakia in May 1945. Soviet soldiers remembered the heroes’ welcome they received in Czechoslovakia, which was unlike their reception in Hungary, Germany, or Poland. Many of them were nursed back to health in Czech and Slovak homes. Czechoslovakia erected memorials to the Red Army, often on local initiative, as early as during the summer of 1945. The most prominent of these memorials, the Monument to the Soviet Tank Crews in Prague, serves as a metaphor for Soviet-Czechoslovak friendship throughout Applebaum’s book. At the time of its construction, Soviet and Czechoslovak views of the memorial were aligned; this Soviet tank (supposedly the first to enter Prague) on a massive granite base represented the gratitude of a liberated people, illustrating the Soviet bloc’s special quality as an “empire of liberation,” in Applebaum’s phrase. Soviet commentators were loath to relinquish this concept, but a Soviet tank in Prague held an utterly different meaning for Czechs and Slovaks after 1968, and memorials to the Red Army in a number of cities were defaced that year. In 1991, this symbol of Soviet-Czechoslovak friendship took an additional battering when an art student stealthily painted it pink and added a papier-mâché finger, raised in an obscene gesture, on top. Eventually, to the consternation of Czechoslovakia’s Russian “friends,” it was relegated to a military museum as a relic of a bygone era. 

Between 1945 and 1968, Soviet-Czechoslovak friendship charted an upward trajectory but not without ambiguities. For example, the inaugural Soviet art exhibit of 1947, though well attended, did not instantly convert the local art public to socialist realism, and while Soviet films were appreciated on account of their anti-German sentiments, they could scarcely compete with Hollywood offerings as entertainment. They did not have to compete for long, though. After the February 1948 coup by the Czechoslovak Communist Party (KSČ), which disbanded the country’s coalition government in favor of one-party rule, Czechs and Slovaks had few options besides Soviet imports in the cultural sphere. The main theme of the friendship project became Sovietization, or the “expression of fealty to the USSR” (p. 49). This might seem to indicate that Czechs’ and Slovaks’ performance of friendship was largely instrumental, but that is not the author’s conclusion. 

Applebaum segues from a somewhat inconclusive discussion of Stalin-era cultural exchange to the first cohort of Czech and Slovak students sent to the USSR for higher education. These students, numbering several hundred between 1948 and 1953, were true believers who sought enlightenment as much as career advancement. Although many were startled by the low living standards they found in the Soviet Union, chafed at the ban on intermarriage with Soviet citizens (in force from 1947 to 1953), and experienced political oversight of their national student association by the Komsomol as intrusive, Applebaum emphasizes the extent to which they internalized Soviet modes of behavior. Criticized for allegedly “bourgeois” ideological errors in 1952, Czechoslovak students reaffirmed their need to learn from their Soviet hosts. Indeed, they went so far in their ritualized self-criticism that both Soviet and Czechoslovak officials felt the need to put the matter to rest. Here, as at other points in Applebaum’s analysis, one could read the evidence in divergent ways. Study in the USSR created both “future functionaries and future screwups,” in the words of a self-identified “screwup,” who later crusaded for political reform (p. 79). Applebaum is persuasive that the 1952 episode shows how Czechs and Slovaks assimilated skills central to the Stalinist order, such as the ability to carry out an inquisition. Still, it also highlights the real tensions that existed from the start between the Czechoslovak students and the legitimation narrative of the Soviet Eastern European empire during this period, encapsulated in the KSČ’s slogan “The Soviet Union Is Our Model.”

Soviet suspicions of outside influences inhibited the development of Soviet-Czechoslovak friendship until after Stalin’s death. Now, with the new watchwords of multilateralism and equality, Sovietization could be replaced with reciprocity. Tourism, pen pal correspondences, friendship societies, and cultural exchange all flourished in the 1950s and 1960s, giving the citizens of both countries a sense of intimacy and familiarity with each other. The friendship project thus expanded considerably, but the utopian vision of a transnational socialist community forged through friendship remained elusive, Applebaum suggests. For one thing, Soviet suspicions of foreign influences, even from Eastern European allies, persisted. For another, the significance of cultural ties within the socialist bloc paled by comparison with the ground-breaking expansion of cultural ties between the socialist bloc and the West.

One of the more intriguing chapters of Applebaum’s story concerns the aftermath of the Prague Spring. Soviet soldiers encountered universal hostility when they arrived to crush what Czechs and Slovaks viewed as a process of democratic renewal. The Union of Czechoslovak-Soviet Friendship virtually collapsed overnight, and Czechs and Slovaks boycotted Soviet films the next year. Yet, incongruously, the Soviet Union continued to send tourist groups to Czechoslovakia throughout the crisis to reaffirm the interpersonal ties between the two countries’ citizens. Applebaum concludes that on the Czechoslovak side, too, friendship was gradually restored during the 1970s and 1980s, creating something of a shared world of material goods, cultural artifacts, and transnational personal encounters but without the utopian illusions that characterized its earlier phase. The normalization period exposed the true nature of the friendship project as an “authoritarian version of internationalism” (p. 199), which undergirded an empire based primarily on military might.

Applebaum makes a valuable contribution to our understanding of the cultural dynamics of the socialist bloc. Her concept of the friendship project is likely to resonate with scholars working on diverse aspects of socialist countries’ international relations. The timing, social reach, and intensity of “friendship” at its zenith could have emerged a little more strongly. Applebaum shows that countercurrents to the friendship project existed at every stage in its development, so it is sometimes difficult to gauge who exactly was invested in it and how deeply. That caveat aside, her book will be read with interest by specialists and could be successful in graduate courses on Eastern Europe or the Cold War.

Citation: Julie Hessler. Review of Applebaum, Rachel, Empire of Friends: Soviet Power and Socialist Internationalism in Cold War Czechoslovakia. H-Diplo, H-Net Reviews. February, 2020. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=54329

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