Publicity and media under communism and after: the destruction of privacy

Publicity and media under communism and after: the destruction of privacy – Part II: Post-Communist Understanding of the Public and Private

Oksana Zabuzhko

AT first glance, it may seem oddly inappropriate that someone from today’s Ukraine would discuss its media in terms of the post-communist destruction of privacy rather than by examining violations of freedom of speech. The “destruction of privacy” naturally implies the encroachment of what was once dubbed the “public sphere” on the formerly “private” territories, and of all the postcommunist European states (with the understandable exception of totalitarian Belarus), Ukraine has become notoriously known for just the opposite: the state’s brutal attempts to silence the sphere of public discussion wherever it interferes with the private interests of those in power. One may say that such attempts illustrate the durability of the “good old Soviet” ways of keeping things secret. Yet, I will try to show that, paradoxically enough, it is precisely the profound current political crisis in Ukraine, unleashed by the discovery in late 2000 of the headless corpse of Internet journalist Heorhij Gongadze, that can help us reveal the transformations in the very structure of publicity and privacy that have occurred since the collapse of communism.

I will approach the problem both as an intellectual, professionally destined to hanker at the essence of things seen through accidents, and as one of contemporary Ukraine’s public figures whose past five years of life have, to a considerable extent, been spent in the media spotlight and who, therefore, has had a chance to learn from her own personal experience that which may still call for a thorough scholarly study.

My most recent experience is worth some scrutiny. On the same day I received the invitation to deliver this paper, I attended a press conference held by a public initiative group announcing “The Loser of the Year” awards (the alternative to the “Man of the Year” awards, the pompous and sumptuous “royal court” ceremony celebrating mainly pro-presidentially oriented, high-ranking officials, businessmen, and media people). The group had chosen President Leonid Kuchma as “Linguist of the Year” (“for the contribution he has made to Ukrainian public discourse,” the ironic formula referring to the tapes on which Kuchma was allegedly heard discussing the aforementioned journalist and using vulgar language), and I was asked to present the award. The room was overcrowded, the audience amused and agitated, and many (though not all) private television stations and newspapers reported the event. What stunned me, however, was something else. None of the journalists at the press conference raised the question that I was specifically prepared to answer: the authenticity of the notorious tapes tacitly taken as the main source of the president’s “innovative” discourse. There can be only one reason why this did not happen: whatever the judicial aspects of “tape-gate” may be, the language of the person on the tapes perfectly fits the president’s personality as it had been gradually revealed to the public on radio and television. Foul words notwithstanding, it was first and foremost the speaker’s personality, or, more precisely, the characteristic individual mixture of the vulgar and boorish old Soviet apparatchik’s ways with the semicriminal manners of the post-Soviet nouveau riche, that sounded so instantly recognizable that there could hardly have been any doubt concerning the speaker’s identity.

Here, I believe, lies the mark that separates us from our communist past. If we rewind the tape of history some 15 years back (to the days before perestroika), we must admit that, whatever the attitudes of the public toward the ruling elite might have been, it was altogether impossible to imagine them conversing in private. The true revolution launched by Gorbachev (a revolution still underestimated, and of which he himself certainly was not aware) consisted of the fact that he was the first communist leader in decades who had chosen to reveal himself to the public as a private person: a Soviet leader with a wife in flesh and blood who gave interviews to the press (however censored!) and met people and argued in public with his “uncensored” opponents; performing, on the whole, not as what Habermas, referring to the late Middle Ages, termed a Reprasentativ Offentlichheit, but as a living individual, and, therefore, a fallible human being. (1) For the entire caste of apparatchiks, both within the country and outside, this came as an undeniable order to follow his example. As a result, I clearly remember the indignation growing in Ukrainian society in the late 1980s after the Chernobyl catastrophe: our local “colonial leaders,” forced to endure publicity in person, no longer protected by their Reprasentativ Offentlichkeit, performed in front of the vast electronic media audience as a gang of underdeveloped sulky oafs unable to answer a single question concerning, say, the Chernobyl problems, without calling Moscow beforehand for a ready-made reply. Fearful before while in the shadow, in the glare of publicity they soon ended up as despicable. That is, briefly speaking, how Soviet power came to an end, if only in emotional terms: by having lost its decades-long–in fact, Stalinist–capacity to instill in the population an irrational sense of fear due to the meticulously and intentionally kept “impersonality” of its rulers.

Now it is time to ask a question that continues to bother me: namely, was there really such a thing as privacy in communist society? Or, if you prefer, what was it that we can now describe as “privacy” under communism? What kind of privacy was acceptable in the Orwellian world where no home was a “fortress” (or, according to an old Ukrainian proverb, “a pot-lid”), and where, after 1991, when the KGB archives were opened, those curious enough to care discovered in their files records of their most intimate conversations (bugging apartments was not as rare as one may think nowadays), and, emotionally most shocking, snapshots secretly made of them at home parties? During the 1970s, notoriously known in Ukrainian history as the years of the most ruthless political witch-hunts, the Ukrainian press was obediently crowning every “open trial” with a “political pamphlet” aimed at, among other things, stripping the condemned “dissident” of his or her intimate secrets. The reading public learned about the condemned person’s divorce or separation (Soviet people did not divorce or separate), about his or her sexual affair with a colleague (Soviet people did not have sex), about the angora sweater the condemned had received as a gift from a Ukrainian Canadian tourist who must have been from the CIA (Soviet people did not take gifts from capitalists and surely did not wear angora sweaters), and so on. All so revealed could have been quite banal by itself, something that many readers secretly knew they shared, at least partly, with the victims. But it was the very fact of public exposure that immediately and undoubtedly branded the seemingly innocuous as vicious and disgraceful. Publicizing the private was in itself an evaluation, a judgment–or, more accurately, a denigration.

Paradoxically, such “pamphlets” (for they were hardly “news” in the strict sense of the word) were popular at the time; even newspapers with small runs sold like hot cakes on the day of publication. One may assume that they served as substitutes for the “yellow press,” which every mass society inevitably needs. Yet more important was their other function: they were meant to demonstrate in a most spectacular way the expectations the state had of its subjects, to show them what was, and what was not socially acceptable about their private ways.

It should be noted that the “good guys” featured in the Soviet press–predominantly in the press, for at the time the electronic media were far less used to portray “ordinary people” and “live” broadcasts did not appear until the end of perestroika–whose CVs had been meticulously checked beforehand for their ideological impeccability, were rarely presented on their home base. Just like party officials, they were chosen to be the bearers of the same “representative openness,” where the personality of the interviewed was the last thing that mattered (all things too individual, too characteristic, were intentionally omitted or obliterated during censorship). The “good guys,” performing as Token Miner, Token Milkmaid, Token Pilot, even Token Mother (with the Order of Lenin on her breast) were chosen to exemplify the full set of moral virtues as standardized in the communist program. Their home base remained untouched by the media precisely because there existed a self-evident implication that they were “ideally transparent,” “proper” and smooth, predictable–as easily pictured by an average reader as a well-lit sunny spot with no “dark sides”: no divorces, no sex (marriages and children were allowed, but only legal versions, which somehow made them asexual), and certainly no suspicious angora sweaters (what these people preferred to wear, and, still more intriguing, where and how they obtained their belongings in a world of permanent shortages of goods, were never the question anyway). In other words, the target was not to portray the “good guys” as people, but rather as ideal “media constructions,” and the degree of boredom evoked in readers by this kind of journalism totally depended on the capacity of a journalist to breathe into these virtual Galateas some semblance of life; speaking for themselves was hardly desirable. The message thus communicated by the media–or, rather, by the state through its media–to the audience was clear: “Big Brother is watching you” and the only way to protect your privacy is to be “good,” which, if translated into terms of everyday life, meant being as inconspicuous as possible–to the point of “transparency,” that is, so that there was nothing about you to hide from the “community” (which stood as a synonym for the state).

Apart from the social hypocrisy engendered by such a demand, one must admit that it did contain some conceivable, however ideologically blurred, rationale. For, whether we think of the media as a means of mass communication or as a means to manipulate the masses–or both–we must not forget that, since its very nascence in the early eighteenth century, among the basic targets of the media, produced and cemented by it, have always been what Benedict Anderson has called “imagined communities,” either local, or national, or, more recently, global (Anderson, 1991: 6). By creating an invisible “mass audience” united by the same set of standards and values, the media help create public consensus. From this standpoint, the basic rules concerning media attitudes toward the privacy of a community member would remain unchangeable; namely, someone’s private concerns would constitute a subject of public curiosity (and, subsequently, of public discussion) under two circumstances: (1) when the person in question is a “celebrity,” which is inevitably tantamount to being “public property” in your public activities as well as in your private life (under a free market both turn into, so to say, “market commodities”); and (2) when the private matters in question turn “newsworthy”–that is, they are so extraordinary, encroaching upon everyday social conventions accepted within the community and breaking its regular course of things, that they in themselves are potent enough to make a story, a narrative that contributes to the community’s history.

Looking back at communist history, we cannot but agree that, for example, the defamation of political outcasts fell nicely into the latter category. With celebrities things were far more complicated, mainly because of the very communist concept of personality, which, with its prescribed inconspicuousness, was so different from what open society “celebrates” in people. Communism represented a society that for decades persistently cultivated mediocrity, a mass “man with no qualities.” There was, of course, no good reason for its media to strive to appropriate such a person’s private world, since a person simply was not regarded as emancipated enough from society to possess one of his or her own. Prior to late perestroika, the whole of Soviet society boasted but a few celebrities in the “Western” sense of the term, and Soviet Ukraine, if perceived as an “imagined community,” had close to none. (In fact, none of the present-day so-called cultural heroes, initially mythologized within the submerged network of clandestine or semiclandestine movements, groups, and circles–for example, dissidents, victims of political purges, or underground artists and poets–became known nationwide until the advent of independence).

Thus, one of the first postindependence problems the new post-Soviet media encountered was not so much a complete judicial and ethical chaos concerning privacy and its plausible intactness as a part of the human rights problem, but instead a deplorable lack of nationally recognized personalities to present to a national audience (to describe the situation roughly, who would care with whom you slept if no one cares who you are?). The early 1990s witnessed a true “media boom” in the country: new private newspapers, magazines, television channels, and radio stations proliferated daily with frantic speed.

Unfortunately, I must omit here, because it deserves a more detailed scholarly approach, the problem I believe all transitional societies share–the “semiclosed groups,” “in-crowds,” mostly professional in nature, that are dubbed in both Russian and Ukrainian slang as tusovka. From a merely sociological standpoint, an inveterate optimist (which I am) would assume that the ubiquity and multiplicity of such in-crowds, permeating all spheres of public life, and even strictly dominating some of them (as, for instance, in culture), should be taken as an undeniable birthmark of civil society at its earliest, budding stage. Quite possibly, they now play in our post-Soviet reality the same historical role coffeehouses played in Germany and France in the early nineteenth century: aiding in the development of public discussion. This is the phenomenon John Keane terms “micro-public spheres,” the sites “in which the elements of everyday life are mixed, remixed, developed and tested … in which citizens question the pseudo-imperatives of reality and counter them with alternative experiences of time, space and interpersonal relations” (Keane, 1998: 170, 172). (2) Most tusovkas have their newspapers and journals (in the realm of culture, usually numbering from 1,000 to 2,000 copies); they desperately fight for access to the national media, they squabble with each other and conduct long-term feuds, at times succeeding in attracting public attention to questions of true general importance. By their origin they are nothing else but the former Soviet intelligentsia’s “kitchens,” albeit larger in size (“second-generation kitchens”). But when it comes to things personal, even intimate, each plays by rules of its own, some denigrating their opponents with a devout gossipers’ zeal and stridency that was never matched by any old Soviet political pamphleteer. By definition, tusovka, with its generic “stress on solidarity and individual needs” (Keane, 1998: 171) within its own circle, cannot respect privacy. Members of the in-group already “know you,” and their eagerness to endow their “knowledge” with a touch of respectability through publication is totally unsurpassed. Yet, it is, of course, not this “micro-public sphere” that has most affected the very concepts of privacy and publicity in post-communist Ukraine but, first and foremost, the electronic media with its national broadcasting (during the Soviet period there was only one Ukrainian TV channel, and that broadcast just part-time).

Referring to the two lines of publicizing or “mediaizing” the private as indicated earlier–that is, focusing on a person of general (public) interest, and focusing on an appealing (or, more than once, appalling!) life story of a “nameless” person–it must be said that the first line dominated the country’s electronic media for some time. The media were busy with making familiar public figures–those of politicians–resemble living individuals, and, at the same time, were rapidly producing new “civil” celebrities who did not belong to the political establishment, people who were artists, singers, athletes, intellectuals–the vacancies were abundant. The nineties became a time for skyrocketing public careers that were launched by journalists (being one of those so “mediaized,” I can say this with total honesty) simply because, nursed on a meager diet of Soviet “impersonal” journalism, journalists professionally suffered from what can be described as “personality hunger” and kept milking, insatiably, those who (as it is usually put in the journalists’ jargon) “have an opinion of their own on everything”–and could, therefore, become a source of animated broadcasting.

As a result, in today’s Ukraine one encounters a particular kind of publicity that is specifically postcommunist: national recognition won through television, radio, and glossy magazines by professionals whose activities were never meant for the mass audience, such as the high-brow literary scholar, the vanguard theatre director, or the cinema critic. What they all have in common and what makes them a type (apart from their professional successes, of which the vast majority of the public does not know much about, nor truly cares), is precisely something so much once hated by the Soviet state, namely, their self-assertive, provocative (even if unpurposeful) personal conspicuousness–in how they look, in how they talk, and, last but certainly not least, in what they say.

Judging from audience feedback, there is still a profound and yet unsatisfied need for such “personal performing” in Ukrainian society, especially in the provinces: it demonstrates to the public not only changed behavioral standards but, above all, a new model of what is socially successful; its principal message is “staying like everyone else is bad, being yourself is good.” These “models” have to sacrifice, to a considerable degree, their privacy for this purpose. Under the circumstances, questions like “Why did you divorce?” or even, “Did you have to sleep with your publisher/producer/director at the beginning of your career?” asked by the public during what is called “live street TV” broadcasts (where people gathered on squares in different cities ask questions of the celebrity guest in the Kiev studio), cease to be personal in the narrow sense and are not meant only to satisfy common curiosity. Their true meaning in a society not yet accustomed to the encouragement of individual enterprise is rather “How did you make it?” with a full accounting, behind the question, of the complexity of “making it” as a woman, or by staying alone, or by not belonging to any influential group. Therefore answering these questions, though with a certain measure of detachment, is tacitly perceived by both sides–that is, by the inquired as well as by the inquiring–as a kind of moral obligation, a moral tax paid to the community by its member who has made his or her career by breaking rules and establishing new ones instead of following “the old lines.” It is a new type of openness; no longer “representative,” in a Habermasian sense (for these “media heroes” do not represent anyone but themselves), but, I daresay, “symbolic”: presenting independent and challenge-loving individuals as part of a new collective identity (the typical reaction from the audience to this kind of appearance is, “It is good we in Ukraine have such people”). One may say that we are dealing with privacy consensually destructed for the sake of a political purpose: to help spur the slack and sluggish process of de-Sovietizing Ukrainian society.

The risks and pitfalls of such mediaizing reside mainly in the deplorable lack of legislative protection for new “cultural heroes.” No law presupposes the existence of, for example, schizophrenic stalkers following celebrities (of both sexes) in their everyday life, even though such stalkers have become a virtual nightmare for only too many. The other problem is, of course, the validity of journalists’ ethical codes, especially those in the yellow press who obey the one and only rule, that of “creating a sensation,” regardless of expense. (Apart from politicians and their family members, no Ukrainian public figure has summoned a “yellow” journalist for libel, probably due to the awareness that, with the regard to the publicity effect, no report of court hearings could yet match the initial lie once published).

The second line of publicizing the private is presented by a number of talk shows, of which the most popular, as well as the most interesting both for sociological and cultural analysis, is Olha Herasymjuk’s Bez Tabu (No Taboo) on the 1+1 channel, a show that can be duly regarded as a national soap opera. It enjoys the highest ratings on national television, even beating those of the world football championship, taking from 28 to 36 percent of the national audience. (3) The guests here are “ordinary people” with some “extraordinary” life stories: a gay husband who has invited his lover to live in his family house with his dumped wife and two teenage kids (all five of them appear in the studio to tell the story); a Romeo and Juliet couple in their sixties who had fallen in love at first sight forty years ago, thirty nine and a half of which the woman spent in a wheelchair; three black children, now adults, who shared the same birth mother and had been orphaned at birth, coming to tell how they found each other after lonely years of growing up black in small-town Ukrainian communities; a drama of conflict and reconciliation in a family where one of the two daughters discovered, by chance, that she had been adopted as a newborn baby (she has left her parents to look for her natural mother, and then returned pleading for forgiveness). All the stories are moving, even melodramatic enough to bring the women in the studio (as well as those in front of their TV sets) to tears (incidentally, if structured by gender, the audience of the show is 62 percent female). Thus, in terms of genre, “Bez Tabu with Olha Herasymjuk” appears at first glance to combine the characteristics of American talk shows and Mexican soap operas. Yet, at the same time it differs from both, first and foremost with regard to its principal message: the hostess chooses her heroes to attract public attention not so much for their “shocking” private experiences, but for the lack of social support and understanding for their problems (interestingly, after the show the position for most within their communities has improved; apparently, in postcommunist society, publicizing is still associated with respectability, rather than with sensationalism).

Surprisingly, people who agree to reveal their most intimate personal dramas to tens of millions come not only from big cities, as one might assume, but from small communities as well (about a quarter of the characters are villagers, another quarter suburbanites). And it is not for respectability that they hope to justify their traumatic experiences. According to Olha Herasymjuk, their principal motive is “to help others in the same predicament”–an argument that works like magic even for those initially reluctant to appear in front of the camera, not to mention the true believers.

We may thus infer that this type of “privacy destruction” in fact helps to prevent social alienation and even partly substitutes for the professional social and psychological assistance that the contemporary Ukrainian state does not supply society with. Unable, of course, by itself to create a viable “imagined community” out of a chaotic “transitional society” plunged into severe economic and political depression, it contributes considerably to preventing the decline of civic membership–and, very likely, serves the purpose of cementing the latter on a basis that, “private” as it could be, at least appears strictly and undeniably human.


(1) According to Habermas, the medieval “publicity” or “publicness” of a supreme sovereign was impersonal, aimed at mere demonstration of power, and developed itself through the attributes of a sovereign’s person (habitus, rhetorics, etc.), rather than through the person himself–the description perfectly fitting the behavioral model of the post-Stalinist communist elite. See Habermas (1990).

(2) “The coffeehouse, town-level meeting and literary circle, in which early modern public spheres developed, today find their counterparts in a wide variety of local spaces in which citizens enter into disputes about who does and who ought to get what, when and how” (Keane, 1998: 170).

(3)Data was given to the author courtesy the Bez Tabu program. Source: AGB Ukraine.


Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London and New York: Verso, 1991.

Habermas, Jurgen. Strukturwandel der Offentlichkeit: Untersuchungen zu einer Kategorie der burgerlichen Gesellschaft. I, 2. Frankfurt am Main: Surhkamp, 1990.

Keane, John. Civil Society: Old Images, New Visions. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1998.

Oksana Zabuzhko’s recent works in Ukrainian include Shevchenko’s Myth of Ukraine: Toward a Philosophical Verification (1997), the collection of essays Chronicles of Fortinbras (1999), and the best-selling novel Field Work in Ukrainian Sex (1996).

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