Doing Business: A Cultural History of Late Socialist and Postsocialist Entrepreneurship

Lecture format: on site + online.
Room: 2R-EG-07 (lecture hall of the Institute for Eastern European History).
Street address: Spitalgasse 2,  Campus of the University of Vienna, Hof 3.

Although the 1990s in Eastern Europe are often associated with a business “boom”, entrepreneurial behaviours did not arrive overnight and have longer histories. This is the case also for Czechoslovakia. Unlike neighbouring countries such as Poland and East Germany, where forms of private enterprise persisted throughout the socialist period, Czechoslovakia had one of the most thoroughly nationalised economies in the Eastern Bloc. Even so, large numbers of people engaged in various informal “entrepreneurial” activities within the grey economy.

Various coping strategies and informal economic activities used to circumvent the shortage economy in different state socialist countries have been extensively studied, but the question remains to what extent these acquired and often embodied forms of knowledge and patterns of thought survived and co-constituted the new business culture after 1989. This question is all the more pressing as the figure of the new entrepreneur functioned as a role model for the (re)emergent middle class in contemporary media and visual culture, embodying the promises the free market, and indeed economic reform as such, was meant to bring. 

This talk investigates the place of former informal socialist “entrepreneurs” in the new business environment after 1989. I make a case for studying private enterprise from a cultural history perspective, suggesting that this topic represents a useful prism for looking into how the normative ideological messages of the transformation era were articulated, lived, and squared with everyday experience. Drawing primarily on a set of oral history interviews with small-scale entrepreneurs, as well as period magazines and television programmes, it proposes viewing 1990s Czechoslovak private enterprise as a specific “thoughtworld” (Sinnwelt) where social actors construct the meaning of the prevailing – and in this case also emerging – social order. More generally, the talk will address what this tells us about the perceived legitimacy of the free market and democratic reforms by a social group that was meant to be one of its main protagonists.

Veronika Pehe is a researcher at the Institute of Contemporary History of the Czech Academy of Sciences, where she leads the Research Group for Historical Transformation Studies. She received her PhD from University College London and held a postdoctoral fellowship at the European University Institute in Florence. She is the author of Velvet Retro: Postsocialist Nostalgia and the Politics of Heroism in Czech Popular Culture (Berghahn Books, 2020).

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