Singing for Communism

In an era when the Communist countries of the Soviet Union and eastern Europe sought to rival the west in everything, how did they respond to Eurovision? Did they mockingly highlight its kitsch naffness as demonstration of all that was wrong with capitalism? Or did they manage to create something even more awful behind the Iron Curtain?

The Cold War was a period of sustained tension, hostility and rivalry between the USA and its NATO allies and the communist east directed by the Soviet Union. It was a period of time marked by opposites, contrasts and intense competition – west versus east, capitalist versus communist, the free market versus command economy.

The intensity of the rivalry ensured that developments or projects in one camp were matched as closely as possible by innovation on the other side. In 1949, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) was formed as a defence club for the western democracies. It was to be replicated in the east by the formation of the Warsaw Pact in 1955. The European Economic Community (EEC) was actually preceded by the east’s Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (Comecon), itself a Soviet-led response to the USA’s Marshall Plan.

So it should come as no surprise that the most glittering display of kitschy excess in the whole of Western Europe, the Eurovision Song Contest, was emulated in the east. The Eurovision Song Contest began in 1956 and remains as one of the annual fixtures in the schedules for its European Broadcasting Union members.

How could the east respond to the devastatingly effective cultural onslaught of Dana, Lulu and France Gall? The Soviet bloc’s International Radio and Television Organisation and its television network Intervision came up with the decidedly unoriginal Intervision Song Contest – a solidly Soviet version of the bourgeois, capitalist Eurovision spectacle.

The Intervision Song Contest developed from the Sopot International Song Festival and would remain in the Polish town of Sopot. This provided Intervision with a fixed host and avoided the costly travelling circus of Eurovision. There were a number of other differences; most notably that it only aired four times – in 1977, 1978, 1979 and 1980. By 1981, Polish agitation manifested through the Solidarity movement made it politically dangerous to allow such a high profile programme to be broadcast from politically unreliable Poland.

The most interesting difference between the contests speaks volumes about comparative economic development in the blocs. Because lot of citizens living behind the Iron Curtain did not yet have telephones, viewers would turn on lights if they liked the song and turn them off if they didn’t. The electrical load detected on each country’s electrical network determined the number of points that would be granted to each contestant.

This certainly puts a different spin on Lenin’s famous quote that: “Communism is Soviet power plus the electrification of the whole country”. In the same way, Intervision was Eurovision via a light switch and a captive audience.

The BBC News Magazine piece on the history of the Intervision Song Contest is worth reading if you are interested in this quirk of European history. One of the most memorable comparisons is on timings – Eurovision’s entrants are strictly limited to three minutes. Intervision was a little looser with timings:

“One Czechoslovakian girl went on the stage and stayed on the stage 45 minutes singing. She was singing, singing and singing,” Gruza recalls. “My job was to get her off the stage and I almost had a heart attack. In the end she got tired and walked off.”