Long Teaching Module: Everyday Life in Eastern Europe in the 1980s
Explaining the causes of an event as large, complicated, and significant as the revolutions of 1989 and the end of Communist single-party rule and the Cold War is no small task. Historians generally point to three sets of causes: 1) President Ronald Reagan's Star Wars program and the expensive intensification of the arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union; 2) the demand for genuinely democratic government institutions and citizen rights among Eastern Europeans; and 3) strong, widespread popular dissatisfaction with everyday life in the east bloc. When reading the documents in this module, ask yourself if everyday life can be a cause of massive political change and, if so, how?
This long teaching module includes an informational essay, suggestions for executing the lesson and facilitating discussion, objectives, activities, discussion questions, and essay prompts relating to the fourteen primary sources.
The Nature of Everyday Life in Communist Eastern Europe
Everyday life is made up of daily and weekly routines and experiences. In all societies the availability, affordability, and quality of life-sustaining material goods (i.e., food, water, housing, and clean air) are important determinants of everyday life and the values ensuing from it. In well-off societies, less-necessary consumer items (for example: entertainment events, weekend getaways, televisions and other electronics, and fashionable clothes) are also parts of everyday life. In poorer societies, these consumer goods can be rare to non-existent, thereby leading them at times to be perceived as exotic or adventurous and much desired breaks from the everyday. Before the 20th century, everyday life often included work routines for adults and young people alike; since the end of the First World War, the routines of school increasingly filled the everyday lives of children and teenagers.
For ordinary people living in Communist Eastern Europe during the Cold War era, a great part of everyday life consisted of searching and waiting for basic material goods, including food. Stories of people—especially working women with families—standing hours per day in long lines to purchase meat and potatoes abound, as do tales about chronic shortages of personal hygiene and health items, including toilet paper, feminine products, and medicine. Children and teenagers often saw little of their parents, who were away from home each day for long stretches of time as they worked and shopped for basic necessities.
The youngsters spent their days in school, where they routinely were given lessons punctuated with Marxist-Leninist ideology and praise of the Soviet Union. They sometimes returned home to retired grandparents and sometimes to no one. The wealthier ones could turn on radio or television broadcasts. Most programming was official and state-censored, and reinforced Communist-party views, although occasionally a western, capitalist broadcast with forbidden and often attractive images and music could be received.
The food-shopping lines alone made everyday life very challenging for most Eastern Europeans, but they were not the only difficulty routinely experienced. Few people could afford the limited numbers of available cars, so most eastern Europeans traveled to and from school and day-jobs on crowded public transportation. A common sight to which they awoke each morning and retired each evening was a small apartment in a massive prefabricated, high-rise apartment complex, where sometimes more than one family shared two or three small rooms. Many, but not all, had reliable plumbing and electricity.
For many members of the older generation, who recalled hard times before and during World War II, this housing, despite its limits, was evidence of Communist progress and benevolence. Coal was the main source of heating in the winter and of power for industrial plants, a fact that resulted in extreme air pollution blanketing Eastern Europeans through their everyday lives and water pollution so toxic that drinking from the kitchen tap could be deadly.
Opportunities to break from the challenges of everyday life in eastern Europe did exist, although they were not abundant and were generally under the control of the ruling Communist Party. Communist leaders knew well that their populations desired improved everyday lives and opportunities to enjoy breaks from routines through access to the consumer goods and entertainment commonly available to western Europeans and Americans. They established special stores, restaurants, vacations, and medical facilities. By and large, though, only party members—who made up a minority of the population—had access to these exotic places, just like by and large only their children had access to university educations and the perks they brought.
Non-party members (that is, the majority of the population) could in some instances shop at the special stores, purveying much-prized French cognac, Marlboro cigarettes, Levis jeans, and electronics, thereby making escape from the routines of everyday life sometimes possible for non-elites. However, non-party members had to pay using very expensive western or special currencies, and few could afford to routinely do so. Often times, Eastern Europeans—especially married men with families—worked two or three jobs, in order to gain the income necessary for coveted consumer items.
Sometimes, chances for escape from the everyday life of ordinary people functioned to promote obedience to the Communist Party. Sometimes, they promoted resentment towards party elites and underscored a hypocritical discrepancy between Marxist-Leninist rhetoric about the end of class differences and the actual privileges of a "new class" of party apparatchiks (professional party functionaries). This resentment grew stronger during the 1970s and 80s, when Communist leaders increasingly tried to use promises of consumer goods as a way of purchasing legitimacy—consumer goods that they could not deliver to hardworking men and women and their families due to the nature of Communist command economies.
The Communist Command Economy
In a command economy, the state decides what goods will be produced, in what quantity and by what deadline; it decides which factories will produce specific goods, prices of finished goods, and wages earned for production. Stated differently, this is a dirigiste, or state-controlled, economy that is the opposite of a free-market economy run according to laissez-faire, or "hands-off" principles. Sometimes it is also called a planned economy due to state-created and directed plans for production. In Eastern European countries, following the Soviet model, a succession of five-year plans dictated production priorities from the top down.
It is arguable whether command economies can be successful, although in the context of Cold War Eastern Europe they gravely failed. Most five-year plans emphasized heavy-industrial production at the expense of consumer goods. Limited available resources were dedicated to the manufacture of tractors, trucks, and tanks, while everyday-life consumer goods like household furnishings and appliances, clothing and shoes, hygiene products, and personal automobiles were low priorities. So few consumer goods were produced that often the economies of Eastern Europe are called shortage economies.
Those consumer goods produced were generally of a very low quality. Further, some, especially clothing and shoes, were unappealing to consumers due to the nature of Communist "socialist-realist" aesthetics, which aimed to create a mass of Communist men and women uniform in appearance and values, rather than individuals who marked their uniqueness through fashion, lifestyle, and other opportunities for freedom of expression. Of course, party members could escape this homogenizing aesthetic due to their privileged access to special stores, a fact that alienated many ordinary eastern Europeans from their governments.
The Documents in this Module
What follows are documents chosen to illustrate the nature the everyday life in Cold War Eastern Europe on the eve of the 1989 revolutions. All of the documents come from Czechoslovakia, and they are a mix of government-approved reports and civil-society commentaries. While the situation in Czechoslovakia was not identical to all east bloc countries, the experiences of everyday life share enough similarities to justify the focus on one country. Further, through a single-country focus, there is more promise for the development of in-depth, multifaceted picture of everyday life in Eastern Europe. Anyone interested in learning about other individual countries is invited to examine works listed in the bibliography.
All documents also come from 1988 and the first ten months of 1989. During period, Czechoslovak and other Eastern European Communist leaders were grappling with the meaning of Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev's policies of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring) for their local situations. These policies not only led Communist leaders to examine more critically everyday life in their countries; they also encouraged and increasingly allowed ordinary men and women to openly express their views on Communist management. These changes contributed to expectations for substantive improvement in everyday life, especially concerning better opportunities to access and afford consumer goods and non-dirigiste entertainment.
In addition to illustrating the nature of everyday life in Eastern Europe, the following documents are also useful for understanding ways in which ordinary people and the government understood the power of everyday life. Its power—both as a site of control and a site of resistance—needs to be considered for a strong understanding of the role that everyday life played in the making of the history of 1989.
In 1978, one year after the creation of Charter '77, Vaclav Havel wrote his famous essay, "The Power of the Powerless." In it he argued that the countries of the East Bloc were under the rule of post-totalitarian regimes that appealed to popular desires for consumer goods, in order to secure domination over their populations. Indeed, these governments did make consumerist appeals. But they proved unable to make available and affordable the goods and lifestyles implicit in those appeals.
In this document we find an official Czechoslovak Communist comment on the state of consumer goods and living conditions in Czechoslovakia on the eve of the 1989 revolution. The speaker was Ladislav Adamec, Prime Minister of Czechoslovakia from October 1988 until December 1989.
This source is a part of the Everyday Life in Eastern Europe in the 1980s teaching module.
When teaching the history of Eastern Europe I encourage students to think about what life must have been like for ordinary people going about their everyday routines in the East Bloc during the Cold War, and also to think about what types of conditions are necessary, in order for governments to be legitimate in the eyes of their populations. I think that the communist rulers of Eastern Europe failed to secure legitimacy from their peoples, in significant part due to their inability to build and maintain healthy, comfortable, and interesting lifestyles for ordinary men, women, and youth, and that this failure greatly contributed to the revolutions of 1989. When teaching I tend to keep my view to myself, in order to encourage students to explore and construct their own views using document-based evidence and independent critical-thinking skills.
The questions found in the first paragraph of the main introduction to this module and the briefer questions specific to each individual document are designed to help students start thinking the causes of the revolution of 1989 and the role that everyday life played in this major world-historical event. I would spend 1-2 weeks (depending on time demands and student abilities) reading and discussing with students the documents in the module.
Examining the Evidence
What does this picture suggest to you about everyday life in the Soviet Union? What does it suggest to you about possible communist stances towards consumerism and popular expectations about consumer items? What do you think Hlynsky (the photographer) thinks of the power of everyday life?
When reading the document, ask whether Adamec appears to have a realistic view of the state of everyday life in Czechoslovakia and whether his view suggests that he knows the importance of everyday life for the maintenance of government power.
This document provides insight into the relations between everyday life and pollution, and invites students to reflect about the role of daily and weekly routines in the making of major political upheaval.
This document, an article from Rudé Pravo, provides students with an insight into the impact of water pollution on Eastern Europeans. Is pollution an aspect of the history of everyday life worthy of scholarly attention and, if so, how?
How does the article from it summarized below evaluate the state of health in Czechoslovakia, and what does its statement suggest about the role of everyday life in the making of 1989?
What measures to curb alcohol, tobacco, and drug use are being proposed in the following document? Do you think these measures promised to be effective, or are there issues not addressed here that needed attention (and that contributed to the 1989 revolution)?
When reading the following document reflect on what it says about the power of everyday life, when a government fears musicians.
What explanations of youth discontent do you find in it, and how might this discontent have contributed to the end of communist domination?
Imagine yourself a youth in Communist Eastern Europe. How would the spaces described here make you feel about your opportunities for breaks from your everyday routines and about your government?
Do you think that the design of these buildings and housing estates alone could have made people dissatisfied with their everyday lives? Why or why not?
This document raises questions about the impact of perestroika and glasnost on the Czechoslovak Communist Party's concerns about everyday life. To address these questions, ask what image of living conditions emerges from this document, how strong is the evidence provided to support this image, and how might any contradictions found in the report be explained.
How do you think Tuzex affected these attitudes and how, if at all, do you think this contributed to the 1989 revolution?
Students should be asked to use this document to discuss what they have learned about everyday life and public criticism of the government, and their significance for the revolutions in 1989.
With reference to this document, ask students if and how comparisons between Western and Eastern European everyday life experiences could have contributed to the revolutions in 1989.
For Further Discussion
After examining the individual documents, I would spend 1-2 weeks using the following two sets of larger discussion questions to encourage students to synthesize and draw big-picture conclusions about the 1989 revolutions from the individual documents:
- Using evidence drawn from this module, describe an ordinary weekday in the life of an ordinary Czechoslovak teenager in 1988. Knowing that life in Eastern Europe before and during World War II was very difficult, how do you compare the everyday-life experiences of youth in the 1950s and reactions to those experiences to youth experiences of and reactions to everyday life during the 1980s? What perceptions of the future do you think an Eastern European teenager in the 1950s would have had; in the 1980s? How do you explain any differences and/or similiarites that you have noted?
- What is legitimacy; and what makes a government legitimate in the eyes of its people? Do you think that everyday-life conditions and opportunities can help or harm government legitimacy? Explain your answer. Do you think that everyday life contributed to the making of the revolutions of 1989? How important do you think this cause was compared to the other two causes listed in this module’s introduction, namely the expensive intensification of the arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union, and the demand for genuinely democratic institutions of government?
These two large discussion questions are closely related. When combined together they deepen student appreciation of how everyday life can contribute to major political upheavals and changes including, in the case of Eastern Europe, the revolutions of 1989. Furthermore, both individually and together, the questions urge students to think about what they themselves want for themselves and from their governments, and what makes their government legitimate in their eyes.
I have found that breaking students into small groups (sometimes of their choosing, sometimes assigned) to discuss questions is a very effective way to encourage thought and discussion. I require that each member of each group fill out a worksheet with discussion questions that I collect and evaluate for thoughtfulness. After spending part or all of a class meeting in small groups (depending on the questions), we then reconvene for a general class discussion.
For this teaching module, I would first ask students to work in small groups addressing the first set of questions. Due to the number and size of the questions, I would give them an entire class period to work together, after which I would collect their worksheets. At the start of the next class meeting, I would hand back their worksheets and we would have an all-class discussion about the questions. I would start by having a representative of each small group read aloud her/his group’s description of an ordinary weekday in the life an ordinary Czechoslovak teenager in 1988. After this reading, I would ask if anyone felt that they needed more information, in order to most accurately write the description, and what sort of information they felt they needed (i.e., more information on schools). Time permitting we would also discuss the uses of the expressions “ordinary day” and “ordinary teenager”.
Then we would discuss differences and similarities between youth and everyday life during the 1950s and 1980s. For this part of the discussion it would be important to be sure everyone has an understanding of what World War II was like for Eastern Europeans. We would conclude with thoughts about how generational change could have influenced Eastern European assessments of the Communist Party and Communist Party achievements, especially those related to food, housing, health, and diversions from the routines of everyday life.
The second set of discussion questions could first be discussed in small groups and then among the entire class; or it could simply be discussed during one class period among the entire group. In the latter case, for reasons of time, it would be best to come to class with a useful definition of legitimacy and a suggested list of conditions necessary for legitimate government. After encouraging students to think about legitimacy, then the questions of the relationship of legitimacy and everyday life, and the role of everyday life in the making of the 1989 can be discussed.
If there is any time remaining for further examination of everyday life and making of 1989, then I would show the film “Good-Bye Lenin.” This film offers interesting visual insight into the nature of everyday life in communist Eastern Europe. Further, it raises the issue of nostalgia (or Ostalgie) for the communist period that some Eastern Europeans felt after the revolutions. After watching the film students can discuss what caused this nostalgia. This discussion can help them to explore how despite the grave flaws of communist single-party rule, this system did offer something positive to some ordinary people. It also invites the presentation or exploration of material on the state of everyday life in Eastern Europe since 1989, a topic that fascinates my students.
Three 90-minute class periods and DBQ as an independent assignment.
- One set of copies of primary sources for each group (the number depends on how many groups the class will be broken into)
- Lecture materials on Everyday Life in Communist Europe
By the end of the lesson, students will be able to:
- define common elements of a society’s “daily life,” in its material, intellectual and informal aspects.
- understand and communicate the basic elements of a Communist political and cultural system.
- discuss the roles and relationships that impact upon how “daily life” was constructed in a communist regime in Europe in the 1980s.
- interpret the challenges and issues facing ordinary people living in a communist country and how they experienced their lives as the transition to democracy happened in the late 20th century.
1. Opening Activity: Begin by asking the entire class “What is (or was) Communism?” Record and organize student responses. Allow the students to struggle, wander and reflect. Be sure to direct the conversation so that the essential elements of a communist government and social structure are commented upon and recorded. Corollary questions might include:
- What is daily life like in a communist country?
- What social challenges does a communist country face?
- What are politics like in a communist country?
Keep in mind the connotation of “normal”: what is normal for the U.S. is not normal everywhere else. Students often equate different and bad” and that ethnocentrism will be a common response during these activities. Note and comment upon this tendency as it appears throughout this lesson.
Change directions by asking students what an average or routine day is like for them? For their parents? What kind of goods/materials make up that life? How do they go about obtaining those goods? Each question focuses on creating a clear picture of daily life in America today and the materials associated with that life.
The goal of both of these exercises is to begin the process of identifying two kinds of structures that help a historian define daily life in any period: the formal and informal structures of a society. Examples of formal structures include economic conditions, government policies and laws, as well as social norms. Informal structures are less-direct and include the material culture of the society along with the tones and color-words that people use to describe their society (“healthy,” “diseased,” “challenged,” “prosperous”)(“color words” are words that carry descriptive meaning beyond their precise definition. Thus, the difference in meaning between “problem” and “challenge” reflects more than meaning but also a tone).
Another way to describe these structures of daily life might be the rules of the social game (formal) and the material aspects and tone of the language used to describe those rules (informal). The importance of these structures will become clear when the primary sources are investigated.
2. Small Group Activity: Divide the primary sources into groups. Note that Primary Source 2 is the longest document of the set and may be difficult. Suggestion: Read document 2 aloud as a round-robin in class and highlight important sections via pre-prepared PowerPoint or overhead slides. The remaining 13 documents easily break into sets such as:
- Consumer Goods: Documents 1, 12, 13, 14
- Health: Documents 3, 4, 5, 6,
- Youth: Documents 7, 8,
- Social Life: 9, 10, 11
- (there are other possible groupings)
Divide the class into groups and assign each a set of documents. Their task is two-fold:
- identify the challenges and issues observed by the authors of each source and
- identify the language (color words) used to describe those challenges and issues.
Students should choose important details as well as powerful phrases (or ‘color words’) that were used to define the set of sources. Have each group record and be prepared to share their findings. Using a common set of focusing questions might help the students, such as:
- What is the author’s overall view on daily life?— what main point the author is trying to establish about that life?
- What are the important parts of the author’s argument or description concerning daily life?
- What evidence is used to support the argument or description?
- How successfully does the author support his/her thesis?
- Does the source convince you? Do the sources support the argument or description adequately?
- What is the tone of the piece?
- Who is the author’s intended audience?
- What additional questions does the source raise for you?
Again, the overall direction of these analyses and reviews should be towards identifying the formal elements of daily life in communist Czechoslovakia as well as the informal elements i.e.: how people felt about their lives.
3. Lecture: Drawing on images such as Primary Source 1, present a lecture on images of daily life in Communist Eastern Europe. Materials from this website abound as do textual materials and video interviews. The goal is to build on the students’ understanding of communist daily life developed in Activity 2 and anchor that understanding in materials beyond text. Allow students to use the primary sources to link their work to your lecture (“which one of our sources does this remind you of? How/why?”).
- Key Points: the Case Study will provide a short overview for this:
- If necessary, briefly review the Communist Consumer structure (i.e., how supply is decided, priorities for production assigned, etc.)
- Review work-structure and education routines for a communist worker.
- Describe access to housing, food and other necessities in Communist culture.
- Summarize access to higher-end consumer goods and Western products in Communist countries.
4. Group Role-Play/Debate: Assign roles to students in groups in order to form a debate about how to improve daily life in Czechoslovakia in 1989. Roles might include teenagers, factory managers, state leaders (of various roles and levels), state news agents, working mothers, working fathers, elderly or retired parents and the like. Doubling (or tripling) up on roles will allow for fuller development of questions and observations. One group should include a panel of State Planners (i.e. judges) whose task is to listen to the debate and form a prioritized list of actions to be taken in order to meet the demands of Czechoslovakian society.
Give students access to the primary sources to allow them to direct their demands, questions, and fears based upon the sources. Thus, no plan should be directed without a reference such as “as all Czechoslovakia knows from
Give the students time to reflect on the debate, elucidating the elements of daily life. What has the debate added to their understanding? How important were the roles to their participation and understanding?
5. Homework: Give each student a copy of the prioritized list of action steps. As homework have them reflect on how accurately and efficiently they track the observations made in the primary sources. An informal writing would assist in their keeping track of these reflections. Which action steps really address the concerns of the source creators? Which really miss the mark? What might explain both hits and misses? Have students come prepared to share these reflections.
6. Discussion: Allow the class to share their informal reactions to the State Plan created during the debate. The focus here, again, is to root out the formal and informal elements of daily life.
Return to the Opening Activity. How would students define communism now? What have they learned about daily life in Eastern Europe at this time? What might this mean for the sustainability of communism? Using notes from the second part of that activity, have students reflect on the differences between daily life in America and in Czechoslovakia? Importantly, look for common experiences as well as differences. What, now, can the students observe about daily life?
Document Based Questions:
Choose any grouping of the documents referenced in the Lesson Plan (or create new ones). Using at least 7 of the documents:
- Summarize the central concerns of the authors about the challenges facing Czechoslovakia in 1989. Students should be able to accurately and directly review the main points in every document.
- Analyze the features of daily life in communist Czechoslovakia, drawing upon the information contained in the primary sources.
- Explain how these issues might have affected the attitude of people in Czechoslovakia toward their government? What kind of informal tone is present in the documents and what impact might that have on the future of communist rule in that country?
- What differences and similarities can be seen when comparing daily life in Czechoslovakia to daily life in the United States?
Provide summaries or highlighted redactions of the documents to assist students in processing the primary sources used during the activities. Similarly, pre-organized note sheets (containing key words, ideas, and foreign topics) will aid in comprehension. For the mock debate, provide some short suggestions or summaries to guide student participation. When administering the Document Based Question, allow additional time and provide outline guides for student responses. Allow for differing types of responses rather than simply essay format (editorial cartoons, short audio news “programs,” dictated responses, etc.).
Document Based Question
Using the primary sources in this module, answer ONE of the following prompts:
1. While the fall of communism is often examined exclusively from the perspective of political leadership and decisions, the changes in 1989 were often driven by long-standing and powerful popular everyday concerns in eastern Europe. Given the concerns expressed in these documents, which of the everyday life issues is the most responsible for the fall of communist rule in 1989?
2. There was a clear division between the qualities and goals of everyday life in the East and everyday life in the West, a division that was played up by politicians during the Cold War period, 1950-1989. Which differences do these documents reflect? Discuss what social realities are most responsible for those differences.
About the Author
Cathleen Giustino, Associate Professor of History at Auburn University, is author of Tearing Down Prague's Jewish Town: Ghetto Clearance and the Legacy of Middle-Class Ethnic Politics around 1900. She has been given numerous awards and grants, including fellowships with: American Council of Learned Societies, Woodrow Wilson Center , International Research and Exchanges Board, and Fulbright Institute of International Education. Dr. Giustino is currently a Review Editor and Editor for HABSBURG, an H-Net discussion list.
About the Lesson Plan Author
Tom Rushford is a Postdoctoral Fellow at George Mason University. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst in 2006. He is currently working on a manuscript based on his dissertation, entitled Burnings and Blessings: The Cultural Reality of the Supernatural Across Early Modern Spaces.
This teaching module was originally developed for the Making the History of 1989 project.