Video mania is gripping Eastern Europe, brought on by a booming black market in VCRs and a desire of millions to see movies banned in state-controlled theaters.
Clearly worried, the communist governments are going on the attack against them, but at the same time they are trying to corner some of the lucrative market.In Poland, some Roman Catholic parishes organize video showings of religious and dissident films, and they draw large audiences.
Any Hungarian can get a fill of gut-wrenching violence, group sex, anti-Soviet sentiment and other East bloc taboos.
A newspaper in Romania shocked readers recently with the account of a rapist who lured a victim to his home by offering to show her Sylvester Stallone in "Rambo."
"Video is a powerful weapon," the Czechoslovak Communist Party daily Rude Pravo said recently.
"Video must no longer pass unnoticed," complained the Polish weekly Politika. "Its scale has become far too big. The video market has managed to escape any control by the state and perhaps this is the reason why it is flourishing."
According to semi-official estimates, at least 2 million video recorders have made their way into the six Soviet bloc countries, which have a total population of about 110 million.
The scarcity of video recorders and the lure of the independent entertainment they offer means millions of East Europeans are hunting for VCRS.
East Europeans who travel to the West often buy VCRs for themselves or to sell on the black market back home where they fetch many times their Western price.
In Romania and Bulgaria, for example, an inexpensive Western VCR can cost the equivalent on the black market of $4,500 - 15 times the average monthly salary.
In East Germany, Hungary, Poland and Czechoslovakia, VCRs are available in special hard-currency stores, with prices ranging from $400 in Poland to $1,200 in East Germany.
"It's a lot of money, but it's the best entertainment we've got and a kind of escape from the daily fare of state-owned culture," said a doctor in Romania, where the state television is on the air just two hours a day on weekdays.
Like other East Europeans with friends or relatives in the West, the doctor paid a hefty customs duty - $700 - to get a Japanese VCR sent by his sister in West Germany.
The demand matches the high prices.
In Bucharest, the classified-ad pages of the government newspaper Romania Libera are devoted almost exclusively to offers to buy or sell videos.
In Poland, public video showings have moved from X-rated films like "Emmanuelle," "Caligula" and "120 Days of Sodom" to regular shows in cultural centers in housing projects or villages that have no movie theaters.
The Polish underground publishing house Nowa has released at least 12 video cassettes, including the American movies "Moscow on the Hudson" and "Sophie's Choice."
It also has distributed banned Polish films, such as Ryszard Bugajski's "Przesluchania" (The Interrogation), which is about a woman imprisoned in the Stalinist era.
Some Catholic parishes in Poland have VCRs, which they use for public showings of religious and other films. A church in Bialystok had an Easter showing of "Yentl," the Barbra Streisand movie about Jews in Poland.
The Polish underground publication Video Narcomania estimated last year that more than 70 percent of video cassettes in Poland are pure escapism: pornography, science fiction, horror movies, other thrillers and comedies.
That pattern holds across the bloc, where the most popular movies are Western box-office hits like "Top Gun" or "Platoon." Recordings of American television series like "Dallas" and "Dynasty" are also well-liked, as is soft porn and anti-communist films such as "Rambo II" and "Rocky IV."