The real agenda at stake: rewrite the collective memory of communism
21. 3. 2023 / Muriel Blaive
čas čtení 7 minut
We might quip that Karl Marx presciently analyzed ÚSTR already a long time ago with his famous sentence on how history repeats itself, the first time as a tragedy, the second time as a farce. Adapted to a contemporary shape, never has Pavel Karous’ artistic distortion of the name “Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes” into “Institute with a Totalitarian Regime” been more appropriate.
Lying as a managerial technique
This will not come as a great surprise on the part of an “academic” who was convicted as a plagiarizer by the former Scientific Advisory Board of ÚSTR, but Director Kudrna has been repeatedly lying since he took office, and he is arrogantly dismissive about it.
Allow me to briefly remind that in a radio interview given to Barbora Tachecí for ČRo+ after he was elected director, he accused historian Michal Pullmann, former Dean of the Faculty of Arts, and myself of being Putin supporters, because what he understands as “revisionist historians” must, in his primitive understanding of the world, be participating in Putin’s “hybrid war.”
Never mind that neither Michal Pullmann nor I are in any way supporters of Putin. Quite on the contrary, I called for and applaud Putin’s recent arrest warrant issued by the International Criminal Court and I saluted Timothy Snyder’s intervention at the UN’s Security Council which shred to pieces Putin’s denunciation of a would-be Russophobia as a pretext for invading Ukraine – incidentally the same Timothy Snyder who signed the petition against my dismissal from ÚSTR organized by Pavel Karous.
Kudrna then accused me on having cost ÚSTR more than two million crowns when my GAČR project was prematurely interrupted eight months before the end of its three-year term in 2018. Until today, this piece of “news” hangs on the Institute’s website. I demanded to know via a freedom of information request as per law 106/1999 if ÚSTR really handed back two million crowns from my grant and I received the following answer: “The institute was prevented from spending the rest of the GAČR grant in the amount of 599,000 Kč.” Thus the “two million crowns which the institute had to reimburse” became “599,000 crowns that the institute was prevented from spending in the future.” ÚSTR never reimbursed a single crown of my grant to the Czech Research Agency.
I then pleaded with the ÚSTR trade-union Kleió to intervene and they sent a letter to Director Kudrna, informing him of the misleading impression left on the official website as to these “two million crowns.”
To this day, more than a month later, Director Kudrna did not bother to answer, or even to acknowledge receipt of this letter.
Taking the personnel hostage
Director Kudrna promised to the trade-unions when he launched an academic reorganization of the institute in September 2022 that he would not fire any researcher. He lied again, since he fired me in October 2022 on top of most of the former administrative team. Now he also fired the head of the Educational Department, Čeněk Pýcha, as well as the redaction committee of the Institute’s two journals.
These dismissals were so unexpected and extravagant that they caused a public uproar. Ondřej Slačálek published an excellent piece on the chaotic current situation at the institute and raises an interesting point about the institute’s name. As opposed to him, personally I was in favor of changing ÚSTR's name to “Institute of National Memory.” My idea wasn’t particularly to imitate Poland and Hungary although it must be underlined that at one point in history, when it endeavored to corroborate the claims made by historian Jan Tomasz Gross in his volume Neighbors (2000) about the level of antisemitism of the Polish population and its collaboration with the Nazi occupant during World War II in Jedwabne, the Polish Institute of National Memory (IPN) was a respectable and respected institution. It is only when PiS came back to power that it lost all its academic credit. I was in favor of changing ÚSTR’s name only because an institute which would genuinely nurse the national memory and history of communism and Nazism would be highly welcome in the Czech context. This is irrelevant now but I will come back to it.
Back to the present, the situation around ÚSTR has become so grotesque (see Albin Sybera’s summary in IntelliNews) that we have to wonder what Director Kudrna's agenda is. Even the former colleagues from ÚSTR I spoke to recently share the belief that the institute is now standing in such a corner that the only solution left is to close it down. I read several such opinions on social media, too. It is doubtful that ÚSTR, which will soon have to move out from its current seat in Dům radosti, will receive its coveted Petschkův palác (fittingly, the former seat of the Gestapo in Prague) as a new seat. Where will it go? For what purpose?
The real agenda at stake: a museum to rewrite the collective memory of communism
That Director Kudrna, or whoever pulls his strings, is at all aiming towards such the radical "solution” of dismantling the institute is precisely testified by the fact that he is attacking the Educational Department, the most prestigious and well-known department of the institute, the only one that enjoys widespread public recognition, and by all account the one that is socially the most useful.
Here it might be relevant to remind that a new institution is in the process of being created, a Museum for the Memory of the 20th Century. This museum is strangely reminiscent of the original ÚSTR pipedream: it is a custom-made political and financial tool for the same group of activists posing as academics who have been instrumentalizing ideological anticommunism for political purposes for the past twenty years, and who have been building their would-be "scientific" careers on it (as Ondřej Slačálek convincingly analyzes it, Kudrna indeed has no idea what scientific work is.) As I have pointed it elsewhere, the Czech Republic is also conspicuously one of the rare post-communist countries not to have its own state museum of communism. This anomaly is about to be fixed, although not as a result of a social renegotiation of history: rather as a renewed imposition of a state narrative.
One of the most amusing similarities between the old institute and the new museum is the name of the new museum, which is chosen as badly as the name for ÚSTR was in its time: exactly like ÚSTR was dictating in advance the results of its would-be scientific research by claiming in its very name that the communist regime was “totalitarian”, the new museum now claims to be a museum not of history like the vast majority of museums, but of memory. What is a “museum of memory”? One might as well call it straight away the museum documenting the anticommunist ideology and its uses and abuses after 1989 – the “museum of the attempt to rewrite the collective memory of communism.”
Now that the “boys” have reorganized their aim, they seem to have lost interest in an institute which they will never again be able to manipulate as they had originally planned. ÚSTR grew out of their reach by becoming too professional and by setting scientific standards that it has now become embarrassing to ignore. The new team will certainly want to hold on to ÚSTR’s generous budget and it might not be so easy to dismantle it since it was created by a law; on the other hand, it is very much in the realm of the possible to fire all competent researchers and to replace the Educational Department with the new “museum” as the core activity of the new institute.
Conclusion: like in Poland and Hungary after all
The big loser will of course be both ÚSTR personnel and Czech society which, once again, will have very little guidance in how to overcome not only communism, but post-communism. Yet again, and this time really like in Poland and Hungary, the post-communist Czech Republic shows how difficult it is to re-build a democracy from scratch, especially in our age of populism. The post-communist period will soon be as long as communism itself; its deleterious effect is only prolonged 33 years later.