Everyday Life in Eastern Europe
Samizdat, Houses of Culture and Entertainment
During the Cold War era an interesting public space called "the house of culture" (or sometimes "the palace of culture") proliferated throughout the East Bloc. Sometimes they existed as free-standing buildings, sometimes as parts of factory complexes, and very often they were buildings within the massive housing settlements were millions of Eastern Europeans awoke and retired to rest each day. Communist leaders constructed houses of culture with the goal of promoting working-class leisure and entertainment, albeit within the constraints of Communist cultural values. But the leisure and entertainment was not offered for its own sake, but rather it was to help teach ordinary men and women how to be good Communists. Cultural activities in the houses of culture included government-approved movies and concerts, dance, arts, and craft lessons, lectures, and sporting activities. Some were aimed at children or youth; others were aimed at older groups. Some had pubs and restaurants attached to them. Below you will read one description of activities in houses of culture in Prague. It comes from the samizdat publication, Lidové noviny.
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Michal Sedloň, "Concrete Culture [Betonová kultura]," trans. Cathleen M. Giustino, Lidové noviny, June 1988, nr. 6, p. 19.
Primary Source— Excerpt
It's stuck in the middle of almost every housing estate. It's the maximum one-story-high, grey house of culture. Sometimes it has an attached pub. In it are a couple of people who endure its dehumanized space. In the assembly hall is a course on sewing, English, or yoga. At the strike of 8 o'clock in the evening the building empties. On the occasion when a concert is to be held a ticket-taker stands before the entrance and waits for those who come. That is when someone comes at all. . . .
For the most part, residents of the housing estates ignore their assembly halls. Perhaps, to be sure, this is understandable for those courses on aerobics. But an evening at a concert? Why miss that? Residents usually sit in front of the television, and when they desire to go somewhere, the town's center isn't that far away. There was that time two years ago when the weekly jazz show took place in Litochlebech (Prague 4) and a total of 8 people showed up. Often not even stars have it easy at housing estates. Mišík has to be happy in such a Prague venue when 12 people show up. Michal Prokop can sell out Lucerna, but for his housing-estate concert only a handful of people attend. And groups like Nahlas or Krausberry? They haven't yet been on television, so who would go see them! . . .
The program director of a house of culture out in the suburbs doesn't have it easy. He has to show a profit. But how, when other than the Saturday showing of children's films (daddies lead their offspring here, then hurry to the adjacent pub), not even a leg turns up?
Live music is dieing at the housing estates. We do find a couple of exceptions. In Prague, for example, there is the Junior Club at Na Chmelnici or the generally reasonable folklore club Petynka in Břevnov. But those are specially oriented affairs with long-standing continuity, the reputations of which are high among musicians and the public. Furthermore, they are more like suburbs than housing estates. The houses of culture in Prague 4 or the newly developing South Town [Jižní město] have nothing in common with this cultural prowess.
We find two types of consequences. A vicious circle -- no spectator, no money, nothing invites us, no spectator, etc. Not only is the dead social life of the housing estate damaged. At the same time opportunities for less known, but often very interesting artists are destroyed. In many cases professional groups quickly break up, because without records or television no one would come to a housing estate to hear them. . . .
It's peculiar that, despite it all, a lot of young people can be found who go to work in these facilities with the image that they will waken the heights of the housing estates. Generally they last a year before another idealist replaces them, who then soon is also cured of the illusion that something of quality will attract at least a couple of visitors to the dear concrete churches of our age.
How to Cite this Source
Michal Sedloň, "Samizdat, Houses of Culture and Entertainment," Making the History of 1989, Item #276, http://chnm.gmu.edu/1989/items/show/276 (accessed February 23 2017, 3:45 pm).