On the Czech periphery: Communist-era hippie communes, samizdat, and post-’89 zine culture

Photo: Miloš Hroch / Czech Radio

Translator, literary scholar and historical sociologist Martin Tharp’s current research focuses on the working-class counterculture of post-1968 Czechoslovakia. He finds that – dissident groups such as Charter 77 aside – the “underground” social movement comprised a diffuse and generalised sentiment of an “emotive-artistic resistance to state cultural control” and censorship.

Martin Tharp,  photo: archive of Radio Prague
Almost invariably, Martin Tharp says, rock musicians, hippies, and even samizdat authors making up the “peripheral intelligentsia” outside of Prague, at least initially, were expressing aesthetic dissatisfaction with the sanctioned cultural world presented by the Czechoslovak Communist Party.

Most were not challenging specific policies or actions of the regime, he says, but rather disgusted by its prefabricated and restrictive cultural production. I caught up with Martin Tharp to talk about his work on the working-class counterculture, dissolution of the Czech samizdat scene, and the growth of “fan/zine” Culture in the 1990s.

“The Czech underground of the 1970s tended mostly to be working-class youth without any real exposure to higher education but with a great hunger for genuine cultural output – not what was being fed to them either through the regime’s high culture or popular culture. And it was a hunger for both high and popular culture – for new literature and rock music – that led them to create samizdat, first of all, as a way to get information.

“Secondly, and this is what I found even more interesting, growing out from that, was how they organised themselves as a group; how it was in fact a kind of proto-civil society; that the operation of samizdat formed a kind of autonomous space within the regime that allowed for both a kind of adequate connection, but equally an adequate distance between people.

“They knew each other largely by nicknames. They didn’t necessarily keep secrets from each other but they were aware they could always be infiltrated by the secret police or that someone could simply be turned to become an informer by whatever pressures could be put on them. And that got me interested in an entirely different direction, which is the constitution of social organisations, social networks, how it became possible in conditions of ‘unfreedom’ to create freedom.”

Martin Tharp says the forcible “proletarization” of the Czechoslovak pro-reform intelligentsia during normalization – the writers and scholars forced to work menial jobs – has become almost a cliché, the experiences of leading individuals from the “peripheral intelligentsia” outside the capital, in places like Teplice or Chomutov, is less examined.

František Stárek,  photo: Šárka Ševčíková / Czech Radio
“They’d grown up, very often, in the industrial cities of the former Sudetenland, in what was essentially a kind of tabula rasa for building the new Czechoslovak socialist society. The ethnic Germans had been expelled; it was an empty landscape needing to be filled.

“The regime had also paid very little attention to popular culture up until then. It had the entire cult of youth, Young Pioneers and all the rest of that. And of course starting in the sixties you had the first hippies, vlasatci – young men with long hair, standing around in a public space who were seen, of course, as a great challenge to the regime, even though they couldn’t adequately explain why, but seemed Western and decadent.”

“You had some influences from the West, but also it was an area where the regime hadn’t been really been able to create, you could say, a kind of youth culture. You had been with a certain amount of discretionary income and leisure time – we should keep this in mind. It was not a situation of impoverishment or precarity, though there were certainly shortages.

“In many ways the regime was extremely moralistic in what it allowed. A planned economy is in many ways a moral one. It’s always a moral judgment what is to be produced, what is right to produce. They did have a certain kind of security – the post-war compact – but at the same time a very strict surveillance and a far harsher form of ensuring moral conformity than in the West.”

‘Easy Rider’, piglet, and the rise and fall of Vokno

According to Martin Tharp, a seminal point in the transition from counterculture to movement came with the start of an organised samizdat “journal” called Vokno, produced on a fantastic variety of ancient typewriters, vintage silkscreens, and eventually mimeographs. It was organised by members of an underground commune in north Bohemia, and distributed nationwide until its editors were arrested in November 1981.

“One of Vokno’s chief organisers, František Stárek – known as “Čuňas” (piglet) – happened to see the film ‘Easy Rider’, in Budapest in around 1970, and remembered it as some kind of ideal – the American hippie, and American hippie commune, as well – and this led him and others to create their own quasi- or entirely-communal living arrangements.

“Because in the Sudetenland they had all these empty farmhouses, it was relatively easy to buy a place and live in it – until of course, the police came. There were many cases where these were seized by the local authorities, demolished, and harassment on a very wide scale.”

And those communes or pseudo-hippies in the Sudetenland, was publishing samizdat really a big part of it?

“First was the establishment of the communes. But Vokno was actually founded in one of these baráky, ‘houses’, in Nová Víska, near Chomutov. It was more of an attempt at creating communication channels, trying to put it into a more organised form but also just allowing people to write what they wanted.

“The idea of just being able to see your own words on paper was another factor behind the generation of samizdat. Seeing your words on paper was one thing. But above that, it was communicating it to other people you might not have known but have something in common with. At the same time, they were organising concerts, events.”

And what they were writing was not typically political in nature, other than it not being officially sanctioned, or that they were discussing artists, music, literature and things that were frowned upon. Is that accurate?

Photo: Miloš Hroch / Czech Radio
“That is the case. It was not about ‘This regime is terrible’ but what we’d like to know about. Someone might write about a record [LP] that someone they knew was about to get. It was more like that. More a sense of just bringing new impulses in.

“I would say in that respect it was not --- well, it’s hard to say what’s explicitly ‘political’ or not because, of course, the regime politicised everything. That is the main difference with totalitarian regimes as such. Even the non-political does become politicised, like it or not.”

Maybe if we could jump ahead a bit – and stop me if there’s an important part of the story that should be discussed first. How does this bridge between samizdat and the fanzine culture in the 1990s come about, at a time before the Internet but in a time of freedom?

“That’s a very good question, and I actually gave a paper on this topic in February [at a conference on fan/zines at Charles University]. Just how did this end? Well, I should say things changed a great deal over the course of the 1980s. There’s a certain received idea both internationally and nationally that the period between 1970 and 1989 was a great period of immobility, stillness, nothing changing – that’s actually not true.

“A lot changed, and during the 1980s things changed a great deal. First of all, there was the StB [secret police] Asanance or “slum clearance” operation, which drove a great many dissidents abroad, and in particular focused on participants in the working class Underground. People involved with Vokno were brought on trial. Afterwards, many of its participants were basically forced to go abroad.”

Bolzanova Street: or the institutionalisation of samizdat

Before 1989, Czechoslovak dissidents used samizdat to distribute manifestos, foreign magazines, letters, literature by ostracized or banned authors, retyping them on carbon paper. More efficient means of printing were strictly controlled – until suddenly they weren’t, and publications like Vokno suddenly went from underground to an open shared office, noted Martin Tharp.

“During the 1980s, the regime did allow more of a standard, less politicised popular culture that matched what was known from the West, including increasingly greater freedom for popular music.

“And then there’s the question of what happened in 1989. As I said in my paper, essentially, most of the samizdat publications were suddenly granted their own space, in a former Czechoslovak railway building right across from the main station on Bolzanova Street [in Prague].

“Vokno, with a somewhat newer composition of members – it had begun to revive at the end of the 1980s – was given space there, as was Revolver Revue and the future [investigative magazine] Respekt. Samizdat, all at once, was given the chance to become a legitimate tribune, literally, for society as a whole – for the part of society that saw itself as independent of the regime.

“And in many cases, either the world of samizdat became institutionalised – in the way that say Revolver Revue became this kind of central cultural journal of the ‘90s and continues to hold this position today – or as with Vokno, there was too much disagreement about which way to go with it and basically fell apart.

“So, I’d say there was very little continuation between the two [samizdat and fanzines]. The generation producing fan/zines tended to be born in the early 1970s and too young to have been much involved with samizdat – under actual communist rule.

“The other problem, even at the time, as I can remember, there were also certain disputes between the younger and older generations – who were asking, ‘Why are you doing this [making fanzines]? You can do it meaningfully now – why are you reinventing the wheel?’ as it were.

“What’s interesting is that music publications were the most prominent ones, the ones people most often know about. At the same time, football fanzines were of equal importance. And you didn’t really find those in Prague – you’d find them in the provinces and primarily in Moravia. FC Baník Ostrava, for example, had its own entire subculture of fanzines devoted to the team.”

Libri Prohibiti library,  photo: Eva Turečková
The Libri Prohibiti collection in Prague of samizdat monographs and periodicals contains over 17,500 texts by publishers made from the 1950s to the 1980s, and more than 440 Czech samizdat periodical titles. I asked Martin Tharp what he imagines a scholar would make of a comparable, comprehensive collection of 1990s’ Czech fanzines.

Looking at a time capsule from the 1990s, if someone had managed to collect all of these fanzines, what do you think a visiting historical sociologist would now make of them?

“It’s an interesting question. In some ways, I think it’s even harder to conduct research on the 1990s than on the previous period – because it’s so much more fragmented. It’d be much harder to make a single judgment about it.

“But the one thing about the 1990s, if I were to say this as a kind of wider judgment, all of them [fanzines] existed more or less within a sense not of isolation but of a strong individuation. They were created for a small group of people within a setting where no one really knew the rules of what was going to come next.

“And this is something that I do remember – that there was very much as sense of improvising, but also a kind of general… how to put it? As much as everyone was talking about civil society – on a higher level newspapers and magazines were always saying, ‘We need to build civil society’ and so on – a lot of people were very much afraid of anything that seemed too collectivist.

“This is why many of these fanzines had such small circulations, and were really only for a small group of friends that did not have the ambitions that samizdat did. It was more about doing something for one’s own group but about keeping it somehow on a very modest scale. I would say that was the biggest difference.”