Janos Gereben
Janos Gereben

Fellowship Title:

East European Miscellany

Janos Gereben
September 4, 1969

Fellowship Year

JAN-8/September, 1969

Lerchengasse 28/43 
1080 Wien, Austria


*(No Image Available) PRAGUE: Hradcany Castle from Charles Bridge

*(No Image Available) BUCHAREST: These three ladies are substituting for a street cleaning machine, doing their job in close order along the lengths of Bucharest’s wide avenues. (Photos, except post card on p.4, by Janos Gereben)

RULING THE WAVES. Radio Prague’s strong, constant broadcasts in every language and to every corner of the world simply defy explanation. Its Afro-Asian broadcasts, for example, feature English and American pop music—so what’s in it for the Czechs?

In this corner, wearing white trunks, is Radio Free Europe. While its news and analysis programs have vastly improved in recent years, it broadcasts “modern pop music from the West” to Hungary. It’s very much like Prague’s efforts bringing contemporary American culture to Africans. Budapest’s three radio stations have a heavy schedule of Western pop at all times, making Free Europe’s spending of those “truth dollars” somewhat redundant.

FAIR EXCHANGE. Not nearly as wasteful is mighty Radio Tirana, the voice of Albania. Far from the sins of decadent Western music, it refrains from music of any kind, concentrating on two topics.  It denounces the “revisionist mad dogs” of Moscow and it explains, over and over again, how the heroic Albanian partisans won World War II single-handed. To avoid confusion, it doesn’t even mention Allied, Russian, or Yugoslav troops. There were the Nazis, see, and the Albanian partisans, and that’s how it went. Saying it 16 times a day, seven days a week, they are certain to believe it all by now.

Denouncing Moscow, Albania is keeping its end of a trade agreement with Red China. “The projects, equipment, machinery, and the raw and auxiliary materials,” wrote Zeri i Popullit recently, “as well as the technical and specialist aid rendered to our country by our Chinese friends are of a high quality and represent the last word in science and technology … It cannot happen, however, that only one party, one country or one people give aid and support to others, while the latter only receive aid and support… The giving and receiving of aid is neither a burden nor charity, but a duty and a right of every revolutionary movement.” Fair is fair, so Albania keeps Radio Tirana going. In exchange, however, for stuff from the mad dogs of the West, Albania in returning chromium, tobacco, sage, petroleum, and bitumen. The “Chinese friends” get lots of free airtime instead.

THE LATEST NEWS. During the August anniversary, Radio Prague advertised its broadcasting schedule in English in the London Times in the vein of “get the real story from the horse’s mouth,” Tuning in the first English-language “newscast” after publication of the ad, listeners found an engaging 15-minute program, entitled: “Legends of Slovakia.”

THE SILVER SCREEN. Film hit in Ljubljana (and other Yugoslav cities): “The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming.”

Romania’s magazine for movie fans, Cinema, features full-page color (not very good color) pictures of Audrey Hepburn, Margareta Pogonat (whoever she is; sounds like the title for a Walt Kelly space venture), Claudia Cardinale, Mia Farrow, Peter Fonda, Catherine Spaak, Candice Bergen, Veronica Mangano.

From the programs of Budapest movie theaters: “Can Can,” “My Fair Lady,” “War and Peace,” “The Crossbow Action,” “Barefoot in the Park,” “Born Free,” “Blowup,” “Cleopatra,” “The Quiet Man,” “Phaedra,” “A Strip-Tease Bar in Soho.”

FRANCHISE. Hungary has Coca Cola manufacturing rights now, Romania’s got Pepsi Cola. (Both used to be known here as examples of Western decadency.) A bottle of Coke in Budapest is selling for three forints—that’s 10¢, a better price than in most of the States. Poland will begin manufacturing Wilkinson’s razor blades soon.

ON THE HOME FRONT. Romania’s Nicolae Ceausescu proved his independence from Moscow once again. Wives of party chiefs in East Europe are very much in the background, seldom emerging into the public view. Elena Ceausescu, however, often appearing with her husband, has just been awarded a high national award for unspecified accomplishments. Seems like Romania’s First Lady doesn’t want to be left behind Mrs. Mao who is prone to get decorated these days.

*(No Image Available) BUDAPEST: The pride of Hungary, the National Opera, has recently undergone a multi-million dollar renovation which included the placing of these composers on the roof—in suits.

*(No Image Available) MOSCOW: These windowless balconies have appeared in the appropriately entitled magazine, Problems of Communism.

A GESTALT VIEW. On the way to Vienna and points East via the U.S. and Western Europe, to study the possibility of a Trans-Danubian Federation developing sometime in the distant future, one discovers some surprising and disturbing facts of the present.

In talks with State Department officials, newsmen, East European refugees, Kremlinologists, political scientists, the same strange concept of East Europe was heard again and again, only to be reinforced here, reading American newspapers and magazines.

A “Trans-Danubian Federation” meant to all these experts some form of Soviet device. The point made in clarification that what is being discussed should be viewed as a voluntary economic and political federation, neutral if not anti-Soviet in nature, drew blank looks.

East Europe, to state an overwhelming but not incorrect generalization, is viewed in the West as some sort of unit in the East-West confrontation, something quite faceless and impotent, at the mercy of Moscow and a small wheel in the global machinery of the Cold War.

Of course, East Europe also means well over 100 million people, the experts allowed; of course, it consists of seven countries with their separate and intertwining histories of a thousand years; of course, we are talking about a land area larger than the whole of Mexico, etc., etc.

These facts are known, accepted, understood… but they are not taken into consideration in discussions about the political present and future of East Europe. Nobody underestimates the importance of this part of the world but, generally speaking, the view from the West is that of “those countries” between the Soviet Union and West Europe, rather than that of seven separate, different countries.

One wonders if people in Central and South America, Africa and Asia have the same kind of funny feeling when reading about themselves in the U.S. media.

THANK HEAVEN FOR SMALL FAVORS. It will be almost impossible to return to the language and Maoist idiocy of Stalinism in East Europe even if there is an ominous trend discernible in Moscow itself. In a recent speech, for example, Gyula Kallai, the speaker of the Hungarian Parliament, came right out and said: “Nothing could be more harmful and alien to the ideas of Socialism and Communism than the cult of the leader, the exaggeration of the role of certain leaders. We will never return to the use of such phrases as ‘the great son of the workers’ class,’ ‘the great leader of our people,’ ‘the great helmsman.’”

It is true that such phrases are not to be found in East European media and much fun is made of the Red Chinese who talk today in the manner of East Europeans in the early 1950’s. Even references – ever-present references, to be sure—to the Soviet Union appear in near-normal phraseology. The non-dogmatic approach received its most memorable, if slightly silly, expression in a program on “Kossuth Radio,” Budapest’s main station. A concert of the Red Army’s great Alexandrov Choir (a steady and enjoyable staple of radio during the Stalinist period) was broadcast last week – from London, complete with BBC commentary, in English!

*(No Image Available) BUDAPEST: The “Nemzeti,” or the National Theater, pulled down a few years ago to make way for an underpass complex in the center of the city. Nostalgic Hungarians are still saying to their dates to “meet at the Nemzetil” although only a park stands there now.

DOUBLE FEEDBACK.  What does a Hungarian newsman may returning from the United States after a year’s stay there on a grant?

Miklos Marton, a reporter for Nepszabadsag, summed up his impressions in that newspaper (the central organ of the Hungarian Socialist Workers /Communist/ Party), after a year in the States on a Ford Foundation grant.

“American newspapers, radio, TV,” Marton reports, “are faster, fresher, more ‘on the scene’ than our own media.

“Newsmen in America have extensive and easy-to-use morgues which allow them to color and spice their reporting with background material. They know their readers and listeners much better than we do; their knowledge includes the areas of information and rumor-mongering, opinion forming, and the technique of changing public opinion.”

Marton says the science of communications is “intensive” in the U.S. (“since World War II when Americans found themselves face to face with the Nazi propaganda machinery of Gobbels”) and public relations and market research are all-pervasive from politics to the selling of soap or jet planes.

Newsmen are trained together with public relations and advertising executives, according to his report, and newsmen are ever aware of the importance of advertising in their media. The result is that businessmen are determining editorial policy but only through an indirect manner. The publisher does not issue orders, Marton says, editors and reporters learn to anticipate what they are to do in order to gain recognition and promotion. Employees accept their employers’ political ideals instead of following their own moral convictions.

Marton’s example is the coverage of space flights. Hungarian newsmen, he writes, are on the side of the Soviet Union in the “space race,” yet they give objective coverage to American efforts. Not so in the States, Marton claims, where “Soviet space success is always denied good display.”

Marton’s biggest complaint about the American media is the “complete neglect” of Hungary’s third place in the 1968 Olympia Games. “Not one word about this fantastic accomplishment,” he claims.

Professionally, Marton summarizes, U.S. newsmen are excellent, however the cause they serve is second rate. “In our country,” he muses, “the situation often the reverse.”

There is an unavoidable feeling while reading Marton”s report that he is trying to anticipate what would please his publisher.

Perhaps one year in the U.S. made him too “American.”

*(No Image Available) BUDAPEST: “Vasar” means sale and this is part of the New Economic Mechanism, along with advertising and buying on credit. Below, an attempt to picture the city’s air which is heavily polluted, This picture was taken in August—coal heating in the winter makes things much worse.

*(No Image Available) FACES: Romanians in the three pictures above, taken in Bucharest; Yugoslavs, below, in Ljubljana; and two Hungarian children, to the right.

Received in New York on September 4, 1969.

© Janos Gereben

Mr. Gereben is an Alicia Patterson Fund award winner, on leave from the Honolulu Star-Bulletin. This article may be published with credit to Janos Gereben, the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, and the Alicia Patterson Fund.