“B” for Beatles, “B” for Boris, “B” for BBC
In the time when hybrid wars and information warfare are gaining momentum, there is nothing more natural for reminiscences of Cold War propaganda to appear. Of course, for those born earlier, they reappear with the bold presence of emotionally spiced personal memories.
Some might remember, for example, that in the East European countries the songs of these boys
were considered an ideological threat of high priority. Upon strict instructions from the Communist Party Headquarters, any behaviour associated with “The Beatles” was prosecuted. Their “long hair” trade mark was a special target: we were not allowed to attend our high school classes if the duty teacher judged our hair was long enough to advertise the popular music band. With a punishment – unexcused absence from school – included.
That is exactly what happened one day to me and a classmate – we were not let into the school building classes because of our hair not being short enough. I have to admit that at the time I was not crazy about the Beatles, but as a “Grade A” student I felt offended to be treated that way for something so unessential. I persuaded my friend, we went to the nearest barbershop and instead of cutting hair, we had our heads shaved to the skin. Which, formally, was not against the rules. But it was a revolt, and when they saw us, everyone in the school knew very well that it was a revolt.
None of our classmates would dare at that time to openly support us, but we were distinctly feeling their silent approval. As a bonus, we were satisfied that the shining bulbs of our shaven heads brought some enlightenment into the dark corridors of the old building where our school were situated.
A year later, in the same high school, a copy of a strictly prohibited book was discreetly circulating among us – Boris Pasternak‘s “Dr. Zhivago”.
Understandably excited and eager to read “Dr. Zhivago”, I was caught reading it during the lessons. The book was immediately taken away from me, with more than half of it still unread. The rest of the book I could read only twenty years later, after I bought my own copy in 1989, during my first travel beyond the Iron Curtain.
This book has always had a very special personal meaning to me, because of my family background: when I was born after WW2 in the agricultural area of Karapelit, the communist regime had already expropriated all our family’s lands, livestock and farming machinery. All the wealth piled by my father’s ancestors for centuries of hard labour was gone. I clearly remember from my early childhood the days when my grandfather occasionally took me along on donkey driven cart when he went to cut some grass in the meadows near the village. Taking a brief rest, he would lean on the pole of the scythe, and say, looking at the green fields before us: “This land too, belonged to me. We had everything we needed. To support your future too. But incapable, good for nothing lazy people came with their guns and took from us everything.” And he would wipe with the back of his thumb a tear rolling down his cheek. These memories later on made for me “Doctor Zhivago” a beloved reading for life.
Another story was from my draft service in the army, when I got caught with a small transistor radio on the roof of the army barracks. The officers presumed that I have been listening to the BBC news (even if then Western radio stations were jammed), and as a result I was incarcerated for three days.
During the Cold War people in the communist countries had many unanswered questions. Why music with no political content whatsoever would be treated as a threat to the system and banned? Why some world literature masterpieces would be banned? Why information about what is going on in the world should be inaccessible? Tons of paper and barrels of ink were wasted at that time for printing in the national and local newspapers that “we are the better system”. Newspapers that many bought, but nobody opened – you did not need to open the paper if you read only the sports news on the last page. People no more trusted what was written there, and the sensing of propaganda issued the death certificate of all communist media.
Those were circumstances of involuntary isolation (internet was yet to be invented): jammed foreign radio stations, strictly controlled import of newspapers, magazines, books, etc., with borders sealed for ordinary people to travel abroad. In the long run, however, under such circumstances people developed some sort of supernatural sensitivity to receive knowledge and information about what is happening in the world out there.
It was not an issue of information only. For many of us the massive process of awakening evolved into the nebulous expectation that no matter how strong the police network and the Warsaw pact military power was, a system that does not support the basic human values of freedom, truth, justice, and beauty of music, art and literature, had no future. But we had no idea how long of that future was still ahead.
Some twenty years later the Berlin wall fell. Without a single gunshot fired.
No one has summarized the essence of what had taken place better than Abraham Lincoln: “You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time.”
In times of Grand Ideas epic standoff, when civilizational value concepts clash to forge the future of Humankind, if you are the one who resorts to the shabby propaganda tricks, you are the one who is finished.
You are already dead; you just don’t yet know it…