2022 Book Prize Finalist - Kyrill Kunakhovich

Communism's Public Sphere: Culture as Politics in Cold War Poland and East Germany. (Cornell University Press) 

People in a confined space talking with each other.

Communism's Public Sphere explores the political role of cultural spaces in the Eastern Bloc. Under communist regimes that banned free speech, political discussions shifted to spaces of art: theaters, galleries, concert halls, and youth clubs. Kyrill Kunakhovich shows how these venues turned into sites of dialogue and contestation. While officials used them to spread the communist message, artists and audiences often flouted state policy and championed alternative visions. Cultural spaces therefore came to function as a public sphere, or a rare outlet for discussing public affairs.

Focusing on Kraków in Poland and Leipzig in East Germany, Communism's Public Sphere sheds new light on state-society interactions in the Eastern Bloc. In place of the familiar trope of domination and resistance, it highlights unexpected symbioses like state-sponsored rock and roll, socialist consumerism, and sanctioned dissent.

By examining nearly five decades of communist rule, from the Red Army's arrival in Poland in 1944 to German reunification in 1990, Kunakhovich argues that cultural spaces played a pivotal mediating role. They helped reform and stabilize East European communism but also gave cover to the protest movements that ultimately brought it down. Description from Cornell University Press.

Read a Q&A with Kyrill Kunakhovich

If your readers take away only one idea from your book, what would you want that idea to be?

In communist East Germany and Poland, cultural spaces were a public sphere: a site where different actors could debate the common good. Officials treated concert halls, theaters, galleries, and clubs as tools for shaping public attitudes and values. But various publics also used these spaces for their own ends. On stage, on paper, and onscreen, artists critiqued government policy and offered alternatives. Audiences, too, made themselves heard by clapping, booing, or not showing up. Since communist officials treated art as a political matter, its reception became a political act: an opportunity to voice displeasure or articulate demands. Under regimes that banned free speech, spaces of art turned into outlets for political debate.

What got you interested in the topic of your book?

All books are in some sense autobiographical, and that is certainly the case with mine. I grew up in the late Soviet Union before moving to the West, first to England and then the US. So I was always fascinated by the lived experience of communism, which I remembered through a child’s eyes and family stories. At the same time, I wanted to understand what happened when communism moved west, as I had. I came to graduate school to explore the process of Sovietization in Central and Eastern Europe. The more I studied this region, though, the more I realized that Soviet influence was just part of the story. East European communism was also a homegrown phenomenon, shaped by the interaction of societies and regimes, and that is what I set out to examine in my book.

For those interested in learning more about your topic, what should they turn to next (after having read your book, of course)?

The best thing to do is to visit Leipzig or Kraków! Take in a cabaret performance in the Basement under the Rams, a concert at the Gewandhaus, an exhibition in the Krzysztofory Gallery, or a play at the Schauspielhaus. These Cold-War era spaces all remain, and still function as sites of public debate. Short of that, watch a film by Andrzej Wajda or check out Bernhard Heisig’s paintings. Or simply read some of the excellent new scholarship on the two cities, from Katherine Lebow’s Unfinished Utopia to Andrew Demshuk’s Bowling for Communism. 


What work or idea or thinker influenced you the most in the writing of this book?

I’m obviously influenced by Jürgen Habermas and his concept of the public sphere. It’s in my title, after all! However, I only came to this concept late in the process, as I was searching for a framework to describe what I was seeing. I didn’t set out to explore the workings of the public sphere under communism, but rather to understand the notion of “socialist culture.” This was a phrase officials often used, and I wanted to figure out what they meant by it. I thought I could define what socialist culture was meant to look like – but what I found is that this notion was far more contested and malleable than I imagined. My project then evolved from studying cultural officials to studying cultural spaces.

Books answer questions, but they also raise new questions. What questions does your book raise?

One question I’d love to explore is how communism shaped German (and Polish) culture. My book argues that communist cultural policy was not only constrictive but constructive: as much as it limited artists, it also stimulated and inspired them. I wish I could take stock of communism’s cultural imprint and trace its legacy to the present day. Another question is about the nature of the Eastern Bloc. My book looks at two cities, Kraków and Leipzig, but what was similar and different in Brno, Plovdiv, Cluj, Leningrad? What about Beijing and Havana? 

2022 Book Prize logo with red leaves framing