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Taking Stock of Playboy Since 1989

Looking back over nearly 30 years of local editions in TOL's region, can Playboy be satisfied with its track record?

by Peter Gross 1 May 2019

Playboy is set to mark 30 years since launching its Hungarian edition in December 1989, as part of a wave of popular Western magazines starting local-language editions after the fall of communism. Such apparent endurance sounds remarkable, especially in light of the failure of many other foreign publications during the same period (women’s magazines like Elle, Vogue, Glamour, and Marie Claire being the notable exceptions).

 

As Walter Cronkite, the legendary American television journalist, once opined: “Objective journalism and an opinion column are about as similar as the Bible and Playboy magazine.” His choice of analogy may leave something to be desired, but in the absence of any study of Playboy's local editions across the region – tracking those launched, suspended, or even folded – Cronkite's sarcastic, mischievous comment is as good a starting point as any.

 

Thirty years after dead-man-walking socialism was finally shoved in its coffin and buried, and with a free, professional news media and liberal democracy having sunk only sparse, shallow roots over the grave, we have sadly found this ground overgrown with the weeds of opinion-laden, light-entertainment trash.

 

Only half jokingly, Cronkite’s comparison may explain the relatively wide distribution of Playboy throughout nearly the entire post-Soviet space – in spite of the Marxist-Leninist legacy of (officially) prudish and conservative mores. It would be unfair to dismiss the fact that some serious interviews and articles became available in the new local editions, side-by-side with the National Geographic-quality photographs – not that these interviews and articles served as correctives for the ills of journalism in these former socialist paradises.

 

Yet Playboy has by no means enjoyed nearly 30 years of unbroken commercial success. The Hungarian edition that appeared just two months after the country became a democratic parliamentary republic in October 1989 took a leave of absence in 1993, re-launching in 1999.

 

In 1991, two years after Playboy arrived in Hungary, Czechoslovakia’s version became available. When that country split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1993, each got its very own edition. Perhaps differing ideals of truth and beauty were a metaphor for the political split? The Slovaks briefly suffered without the magazine from 2003 to 2005.

 

Playboy Poland launched in 1992 and Russia’s in 1995. In case you were wondering, despite Russia President Vladimir Putin's delight in fame, glory, nationalistic pride, and his own much-vaunted tough-guy sex appeal (displayed in a variety of media), the Russian president has never appeared topless in any edition of Playboy … to my knowledge.

 

By contrast, two of Putin's challengers – women who ran against him in the 2018 presidential elections – had previously posed nude in Playboy's Russian edition. Unfortunately for Yekaterina Gordon, representing the Party of Good Deeds, and Ksenia Sobchak, the daughter of the first post-communist mayor of St. Petersburg, not even the name-recognition from their exposure in Playboy could help them eclipse the Sun King of Russian politics. Ultimately, both withdrew from the so-called race and Putin was re-elected. But that’s another story.

 

Croatia got its own Playboy in 1997, and Playboy Slovenia was made available in 2001. However, Serbia’s edition was only published from 2004 to 2015, and Macedonia's local edition for a mere year – 2010-2011.

 

Romania’s edition appeared in 1999 and made headlines itself a year later, for its article “How to Beat Your Wife . . . Without Leaving Marks on Her Body.” Despite retrospectively claiming this was an April Fool’s article, the magazine was the focus of international and domestic condemnation from women’s groups, the Open Society Foundation, and others. Shockingly, the Romanian edition's demise in 2016 was not even due to that episode but falling readership – possibly brought about by fatigue and severe eye strain.

 

The poor Bulgarians had to wait till 2002 to ogle local nudies and read some fairly decent articles. Ukraine’s local-language edition was inaugurated in 2005.

 

In the Baltic states, the Estonian version was launched in 2007, only to be terminated in 2011. Lithuanians enjoyed it starting in 2008 but for only five years, and Latvians for four years, starting in 2010.

 

Georgians only had Playboy for one year – 2007-2008 – and the Moldovan publishers only managed to keep up their effort for a year – both rising and falling in 2012.

 

Armenian Playboy has had a Facebook presence since 2016, as has its Albanian counterpart. Albania’s conservativism did not prevent the brief episode of semi-nude news announcers on Zjarr TV – a media outlet unrelated to Playboy – in 2016, but there was controversy when one of the Zjarr announcers signed up to expose more of herself in the American edition of Playboy.

 

Men in Belarus, the Central Asian republics, and the Caucasus – with the exception of Georgia – have never had their own editions of Playboy. However, on the evidence of the publishing group's first 30 years in neighboring markets, is this really such a loss?

Peter Gross
, Ph.D., is a professor in the School of Journalism and Electronic Media at the University of Tennessee in the United States. He has written extensively on the subject of East European media and its evolution since 1989.
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