Nowadays we use the terms “totalitarianism” and “dictatorship” widely and indifferently to refer to Nazi, Fascist and Soviet regimes and the political experiences of the different Eastern-bloc countries during the 20th century. Though we could express some reservations about this generalization, it is nonetheless true that daily life in the Eastern-bloc countries was marked until 1989 by features typical of authoritarian regimes: the oppressive weight of a single-party system, the cult of personality, the role of the army and the political police, and severe repression of opponents. The Communist Party was the only political party authorized in any Eastern-bloc country. While at times the Communist Parties of some satellite states did try to distance themselves from the Soviet “big brother,” they nevertheless hewed to the pyramidal organization of society, with strict control at every level of the pyramid. In fact, some of them became even more conservative than the CPSU (Communist Party of the Soviet Union), particularly under Gorbachev, when leaders like Erich Honecker in East Germany, and even more so, Nicolae Ceausescu in Romania clung to power. The cult of personality reached its paroxysm in Tito’s Yugoslavia, through 1980. Until the last two decades before the fall of the Berlin Wall, any public or even private opposition to the regime was liable to provoke a reaction from the political police, via phone tapping, arrests – like those performed by the East German Stasi – or even executions, like those carried out by the Romanian Securitate. Until Gorbachev’s rise to power, opponents to the regime were routinely incarcerated in psychiatric hospitals or placed under house arrest.
Brezhnev era poster exalting the values of the Unique Party
"Our duty is to protect the firmness, the coherence and the purity of our party.”
country: Soviet Union / year:
"Our duty is to protect the firmness, the coherence and the purity of our party.” Initially a Marxist concept, the dictatorship of the proletariat remained at the heart of the Socialist system for Lenin and his successors and would eventually lead to Communism. It was the result of the victory of the oppressed classes (workers, peasants) over the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie. In order to defend this historical gain, the (sole or dominant) Party – itself the enlightened avant-garde of the working class – was entitled to use any means possible, including force (the KGB, Stasi and other security services considered themselves as “the sword and shield of the Party”). However, opponents of Leninism, from Boris Souvarin to Leon Blum, denounced Soviet power as “dictatorship over the proletariat”.
Delegates voting at the 26th Congress of the CPSU- 1981
In 1981, the CPSU (Communist Party of the Soviet Union) was still the country’s sole party, in control of the entire decision-making structure.
country: Soviet Union / year:
In 1981, the CPSU (Communist Party of the Soviet Union) was still the country’s sole party, in control of the entire decision-making structure. Since the start of the “Brezhnev era” in 1964, the role of the “Central Committee,” the heart of the Soviet political machine, had grown. The regime had then settled into a bureaucracy controlled by a gerontocracy under the sway of Brezhnev. At that point, Party Congresses, as this picture illustrates, were stiff official gatherings approving the administration’s choices with a display of hands rather than true sessions of exchange and debate. Displaying the multiple medals that proved their loyalty to the regime and their membership in a certain elite, delegates were obliged to express their unanimous support of the government’s decisions.
Writer Andrei Sinyavsky’s account of his imprisonment in a camp.
Sentenced in 1965 to five years in a camp for having published
country: Soviet Union / year:
Sentenced in 1965 to five years in a camp for having published – in foreign countries – works hostile to the regime, writer Andrei Sinyavsky, alias Abram Terz, went into exile in France and wrote A Voice from the Chorus in 1974. In the form of a letter to his wife Maria, he drew inspiration from his experience to denounce the repression in places like Camp Perm-36, in the Ural, where he was interned with other political prisoners. The very existence of this camp, which wasn’t closed until in 1987, is a reminder that the regime’s repression against its opponents did not come to an end with Stalin’s death, and that the early 1970s saw great voices, like the scientist Sakharov and the Nobel Prize-winning novelist Solzhenitsyn oppose the government in power.
An automobile check in the streets of Warsaw under martial Law in Poland in 1981
Established in Poland on December 13, 1981 by Polish General Jaruselski, the state of siege (or martial law) was an authoritarian response
country: People's Republic of Poland / year:
Established in Poland on December 13, 1981 by Polish General Jaruselski, the state of siege (or martial law) was an authoritarian response dictated by Moscow to restore order in the country and oppose the growing influence of the dissident trade union Solidarnosc. Out of fear of direct intervention of Soviet troops, a great number of Poles resigned themselves to this military coup, which led to the reestablishment of censorship and a curfew. Many opposition members were arrested and interned in camps, and the population was subjected to strict control of its movements, as these images from the official television show. The trade union Solidarnosc was officially dissolved in October 1982, and its members forced to go underground.
Ceremony for Ceausescu’s birthday in 1988
Nicolae Ceausescu ruled Communist Romania from 1965 to December 25, 1989, the day on which he was overthrown
country: People’s Republic of Romania / year:
Nicolae Ceausescu ruled Communist Romania from 1965 to December 25, 1989, the day on which he was overthrown by the opposition and immediately tried and executed. For practically a quarter of a century he controlled both the Party and the country with an iron fist, eliminating his opponents and forcing the population into a boundless cult of personality. He wished to be referred to as “Conducator,” or “Genius of the Carpates,” and had glorious ceremonies organized in his own honor, particularly for his birthday. These massive gatherings of static young people in uniform standing under Ceausescu’s portrait singing songs of praise composed for the occasion echo the classic aesthetics of mass events typical of Eastern-bloc countries.