West in the Soviet ‘Kingdom of Mirrors’: Simulation of Popular Culture in Soviet Lithuanian Television

 

Tomas Vaitelė

 

Soviet Union presented television as one of the main technological achievements that represented not only a major technological breakthrough, but also marked a shift from collective to individual leisure. As Kristin Roth-Ey suggests, the new medium not only had to inject propaganda into the veins of Soviet citizens, but also played a major role in making entertainment accessible to the masses (Roth-Ey 2011: 176). At the same time, television also played a role in a jamming battle that turned television into a weapon against hostile broadcasts from the western world. The local government, together with the Lithuanian SSR Radio and Television Committee, not only had to incorporate socialist, atheist values into programmes, but also do it in a more attractive way. At that time, television had reached a controversial point: brainwashing citizens about toxic values from the West, fostering socialist ethics against western popular culture and at the same time carefully analysing western forms of entertainment, trying to produce content that had a direct connection to popular culture behind the Iron Curtain.       

 

This paper analyses two main examples of the so-called socialist westernisation in the Lithuanian SSR Radio and Television Committee. In 1965, the first short episode of a family situation comedy (sitcom) was broadcast on television, which later became a widely popular, long-running series Petraiciai family (Petraiciu šeimoje). It was one of the first commonly known examples of television production that was influenced by its western rivals and was successfully broadcast in socialist media. Another example is a four-part television film Tadas Blinda (1973) about a 19th-century local outlaw that became legendary by ‘robbing the rich and giving to the poor’. Such local version of Robin Hood was not an accident as the director and the Committee’s chairmen had been looking for a topic to make its own successful local adventure film based on a commonly known legend about a local robber from a small village.

 

Based on these examples, this paper analyses their influence, popularity and relations with the ruling regime. How did the chairmen of television, LSSR ruling elites (Central Committee, Council of Ministers) react, and how were the popular television programmes received by the public? Was it really considered a western form with socialist content or socialist form with national content? These questions are key in trying to determine the real purpose and influence of those TV series and films.

 

Reference

Roth-Ey, Kristin 2011. Moscow Prime Time: How the Soviet Union Built the Media Empire That Lost the Cultural Cold War. Ithaca, London: Cornell University Press. 

 

Tomas Vaitelė is a PhD candidate in history at the Vilnius University, working on his doctoral dissertation Soviet Television in Lithuania (1957–1991): Between the Regimes’ Goals, Public Expectations and Professional Ambitions. His research interests include control and censorship of media in the Soviet Union, popular culture during the Cold War, and film and music history.