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Who is Who in the Culturelink Team

Culturelink review, Special Issue 1994 - imprint - archive

The Culture of Transition

Dr. Nada Švob-Đokić is Senior Research Fellow at the IRMO. She holds Ph.D. in African studies from the University of Zagreb, and is the author of many books, studies and articles on international cooperation, particularly in the fields of science, technology and culture. She coordinates research on development theories and development studies, which is also dedicated to the transition processes and recent changes in Central and South-East European countries.


Processes of transition and transformation have greatly influenced the history of the twentieth century. These are global processes affecting the Asian, Latin American, and more recently Central and Eastern European countries. They are understood as part of the modernization drive, and are supported by the ever-greater global exchange and communication.

Transition and transformation differ in meaning. While transition is supposed to be a type of change that takes a society from a defined social and economic structure, through a planned structural change, to another defined structure, transformation implies a less defined and possibly more chaotic change.

Transition and transformation in Central Europe have so far been almost fully identified with the change from a centrally planned to a market economy and with the introduction of Western-style democracy. There is almost no knowledge about the cultural aspects of these processes. The breakdown of the socialist systems and the 'big bang' introduction of transition happened within less than two years. Major changes were under way before the conceptual frameworks that would facilitate the understanding, and eventually directing, of these processes could be clarified. Culture was completely marginalized in the process.

It would be difficult to classify the cultures of the ex- socialist countries as either 'national' or 'ethnic', although they cherished the elements of both national and ethnic identification. It could perhaps be said that in the former multinational countries the newly developing cultures did not reject authentic heritage, but they tried to balance it so as to provide for a kind of sharing of the cultural values among the nations. Rather high cultural standards provided the basis for the development of an elitist culture that was accessible to almost any interested person. In this way, the exclusive values were widely shared, and therefore largely underestimated. Most cultural activities, institutions and individual artists, writers etc. were generously subsidized, precisely in order to allow for all types of cultural production to be widely shared and appreciated. Examples are abundant: tickets for opera and other stage performances were practically free, museums were open to the general public, workers were encouraged to enjoy cultural events and participate in cultural creation. Artists went to factories and workers flooded cultural institutions. The illusion was complete and very appealing. It would have represented a great achievement had it not disguised the invisible hand that was paying for it, and consequently trying to control the stimulated creativity. That hand was the hand of the state, the para-statal cultural organizations, or the party.

Two major elements contributed to the breakdown of the illusion: the induced excessive spread of cultural products, values and creativity, which practically devalued culture and made it almost meaningless in the context of societies that were bent on suppressing consumption; and the fact that culture could be controlled by the state only when, and if, it renounced creativity and accepted to endlessly repeat the same archetypes.

The development of cultural industries was limited, owing to technological underdevelopment and the lack of cultural markets. Culture, or archetypal socialist culture, was so heavily subsidized that no realistic prices could be set, and no practical values discerned. However, cultural industries were an inevitable part of cultural development, and in many countries they proved to be more profitable than many other industries. They largely supported the democratization of culture, but their incentive was not strong enough to change cultural values.

The living, everyday culture became neglected: low standards of habitat, of services, etc. steadily widened the gap between the elitist cultural performances and everyday life. The elitist culture enjoyed the privilege to communicate internationally. It was easy for it to forge global partnerships and find audiences who were able to recognize its values. Gradually it lost the local feedback and became increasingly global. Even its inspiration became global in origin. Such culture existed in an unknown land, from which some messages were sent to common people. Deprived of local communication, it turned to foreign elites, gradually losing its roots in the countries of origin. While the ex-socialist countries became known in the world as a pool of excellent artists, brilliant performers, etc., the interest of their own societies in their achievements was diminishing. People turned to populist cultures, a mixture of imported technologies and ethnic values, tending to ignore the culture that was not able to communicate and influence the country in which it existed. Thus, extreme material poverty and high professional performance went their separate ways and lost any contact with each other.

The systemic change (transition or transformation) marked an end of such cultural production and such cultural attitudes, and brought many cultural institutions and organizations to the point of collapse. The end of the system was also the end of the internally divided cultures. The elitist culture found its market value in the West, while the local cultures started searching for their national or ethnic identifications. In this process they often abandoned the previously respected quality standards, and their communication shrunk to the limited circles of people who shared the same national or ethnic origin. The hitherto neglected historical values were rediscovered. National and ethnic values are being over-emphasized even now; the cultural industries remain technologically underdeveloped; the war over the media has started, and the imports of foreign or 'global' cultural values go unchecked.

What can the culture of transition mean in this context? Could it exist?

If transition processes are the reality that the peoples of Central and Eastern Europe are living, a set of newly formed values serving as the framework of the new transitional cultures should be identified. This might help define new identities and open up possibilities for new developments.

In this context, liberalization is necessary in order to strengthen and widen cultural communication and exchange of cultural goods and values. It would help cultures in the ex- socialist countries to get in touch with global exchange and values and facilitate an unbiased flow of ideas and information. In the area of culture, liberalization should be helped by communication and the media, and practically supported by translations and open-type linguistic and education policies providing for the learning of foreign languages.

Cultural industries should be supported in order to develop a technologically and industrially based cultural consumption. The links between the media and cultural industries are important in this respect as they might stimulate the market orientation and advertise and present innovations, new cultural values, genuine achievements in the arts and cultures, etc. Cultural industries can also introduce a new notion of cultural growth, which is reflected both in the production of cultural goods and in cultural creativity.

New choices of cultural values lead to the creation of new cultural identities. Re-evaluating cultural heritage is important in this context, as are also concepts on the future development of cultures. New cultural standards of creation, communication, identification of values and of individual performance are needed. They cannot be imported from other cultures, but must be developed through a process of exchange. They should pertain to the local, national and ethnic values, as well as to the global trends.

A culture of transition would therefore be a concept of creativity and cultural sustainability, allowing for an interplay of different values and different needs before new cultural identities are forged in the Central and Eastern European countries. We do not know much about the way that transition is proceeding in the areas of culture. The results of change are not obvious, and the processes are hardly followed or analyzed. Culture, however, provides a subtle context for the way we live and think. The way we eat is related to culture, and the way we perceive the world is also related to culture. If this subtle context is being so vigorously changed, the least we can do is to direct our energies and our interest towards understanding the potential of this change and helping to create new supportive cultural values.

Transition and transformation processes are taking place within the cultural frameworks. Disruptions that have been caused so far are very often the result of the marginalization of cultures, stemming from the conviction that modernization does not tolerate cultural pluralism. Quite the contrary is true, however: only the type of change that respects authentic cultural values may lead to a successful transformation of a society. This is why the culture of transition may evolve to be a meaningful concept that would localize the process of change.