“Farewell Comrades!” A Television Series Sheds Light on the Collapse of Communism

What brought about the system’s collapse – glasnost, Western pop culture, or even alcoholism?
What brought about the system’s collapse – glasnost, Western pop culture, or even alcoholism? | Photo (detail): © Gebrüder Beetz und Artline Films

The Soviet Union came to an end 20 years ago. What brought about the system’s sudden collapse? “Farewell Comrades!” traces the extraordinary stories of ordinary people.

A Czechoslovak band, an exchange student in Moscow, one of the many members of staff of the Russian secret service – the six-part television documentary Farewell Comrades! appears to be about relatively insignificant people, but that is deceptive. The men and women who tell their stories in the series experienced the collapse of the Eastern Bloc. Their accounts cover a period of 16 years. The eye-witnesses knew the system well, whether they were for it or against it, or both. The KGB man, for example, changed sides at some point.

The documentary visits the original sites - the apparatchiks’ offices, dissident salons and farmers’ stables. But it is not only these people who tell us about change. Change is also reflected in apparently trivial things, such as the Polish aerobics movement or the first avocados on sale at Hungarian markets. The images used come from contemporary television news broadcasts, photographs from military archives or taken by the secret services, and films previously unpublished because they were originally censored. Private super 8 films, letters and personal items capture the atmosphere of the period. Farewell Comrades! was produced by Artline Films, Gebrüder Beetz Filmproduktion and Arte, and is to be broadcast in a dozen countries.

Sixteen turbulent years

The first film in the series is the episode entitled Erste Risse im System, (First Cracks in the System), covering the period from 1975 to 1977. The politbureau, police and secret services controlled all areas of life, but the human rights movement, economic problems, and also pop culture were beginning to undermine the system. Das Polnische Abenteuer (The Polish Adventure) is about events in Poland. The period between 1978 and 1983 saw the election of Pope John Paul II, Lech Walesa’s foundation of the trade union Solidarity and Wojciech Jaruzelski’s imposition of martial law. Gorbatschov (The Gorbachev Moment) (1985 – 1988) is about Michail Gorbachev’s visions of glasnost and perestroika and first contacts with political dissidents.

The programme entitled Das entscheidende Jahr (The Acceleration of History) is about the key period of a few months when the whole Eastern Bloc collapsed. In 1989, Solidarity formed the first democratically elected government, tens of thousands of East Germans fled to the West, and the Berlin Wall came down on 11 November. The next day, the Bulgarian dictator Shivkov was toppled. Shortly afterwards, Vaclav Havel was elected president of Czechoslovakia, and on 22 December, the Romanian dictator Ceausescu was arrested - all that in a single year. The aftershocks in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and other Eastern Bloc countries are the subject of Das Imperium zerfällt (1989 – 1991) (The Empire Collapses). Das Ende der UdSSR (The End of the USSR) sheds light on the events of 1991, when the Soviet Union was officially dissolved and there was already talk of “the end of history".

Book links Internet and television

The documentary is supplemented by a book accompanying the series by Hungarian historian and writer György Dalos. As well as recounting the major historical events, it also contains less familiar stories, such as that of medical researcher Foydor Uglov. Uglov published a study in 1981 on the state of health of the Soviet people. In it, he highlights the alcohol problem, which affected not only the country’s leaders, but also large parts of the population. Dalos also presents the lives of Ernö Rubik, the inventor of the Rubik’s Cube, and Sergiu Celac, Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu’s interpreter. Dalos was sentenced in a political trial in 1968 and was banned from publishing. He joined the democratic opposition movement in Hungary in 1977. Since 1984, the award-winning writer has lived in Vienna, Berlin and Budapest.

The Internet teaches history

There is not just one truth; there is not just one story – what is yours? This is the underlying theme of the Farewell Comrade! website. The interactive site, which will be available in at least three languages (English, French and German) is attractively designed and investigates the personal recollections of some 15 protagonists. Each of them shows postcards of their trip across the Soviet Union, giving the user valuable information about their story. Together with many official souvenirs, the website gives an insight into life behind the Iron Curtain. The aim is to draw the audience into the story through interaction and to make them rearrange their knowledge. The postcards will link the three media of television, book and Internet. They are at the heart of the Internet project, are to be found in the book and are also to be part of a planned exhibition. The historical documentary Lebt wohl, Genossen! takes an approach that will also appeal to a young and Internet-adept audience.