From Samizdat to Tamizdat: a Vienna meeting


From September 12-15, 2006 the Austrian capital of Vienna played host to the first-ever international conference devoted exclusively to the phenomenon of central European samizdat and tamizdat networks. Hosted by the Vienna Institute for Human Sciences, in cooperation with German, American and Hungarian-based scholarly institutions, the meeting brought together a group including members of the former democratic opposition in communist Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland, Romania, and Russia, as well as scholars and journalists who write about this period of contemporary history. The four-day conference entitled 'From Samizdat to Tamizdat: Dissident media crossing borders before and after 1989' offered a chance to discuss topics of common interest pertaining to a historical period still little-explored.

As it so often happens in academic circles, a chance meeting at Oxford in 2001 is responsible for the collaboration between Jessie Labov, a literary scholar from the United States, and Friederike Kind-Kovacs, a historian from Germany. The two young scholars met at a conference, decided to collaborate in their work on tamizdat topics, and Friederike Kind-Kovacs describes how the idea for the 'From Samizdat to Tamizdat' conference came about during a phone conversation in January 2005:

"We discussed the idea of bringing our PhD topics together and making a conference out of it. And then, we had always been working on tamizdat, but it was so closely connected to samizdat, and we thought: it's perfect to make this conference about the transfer of literature from the underground to the West."

What resulted was the first-ever international conference devoted to the history and legacy of central European samizdat, and its interaction with western-based tamizdat periodicals such as Aneks, Lettre Internationale, Listy, Kontinent, or Kultura.

Panel proceedings,  photo: Linda Mastalir
Central European samizdat and tamizdat may seem far-removed from the world of an American graduate student, but Jessie Labov, a literary scholar now based at Stanford University in California, talks about how she became interested in the subject:

"It happened mainly because I was working on all kinds of different literatures of immigration. So it started with tamizdat for me in a big way. I was mostly interested in activity in the United States, but as I got to know émigrés and learn more about their general outlook, I realized that it wasn't limited to the States. Nothing about their world was on one side of the Atlantic—everything was trans-Atlantic. So, I guess that I became more and more interested in trying to make some connection between the underground in the East, and let's say, the above-ground in the West."

To be more specific, were you interested in any particular émigré communities in the United States?

Jessie Labov and Friederike Kind-Kovacs,  photo: Linda Mastalir
"Yes, I was mostly interested in the Polish émigré community to begin with. But the journal that I wrote my thesis on—it's called Cross Currents and was published at the University of Michigan in the 1980s—it actually contains articles from all of the countries in central Europe, from Poland and Lithuania, all the way down to Yugoslavia. And it was in English, so it was directed towards many émigré communities at once."

And Friederike Kind-Kovacs, a historian now working on her PhD in Potsdam, remembers how she discovered the world of central European intellectual thought while working on her M.A. in Scotland:

"I think it was in 2001. I was at St. Andrews University in Scotland, working together with a Czech professor and I got really interested in the central European idea. And then because I didn't really speak any of the central European languages, my professor suggested, 'Why don't you have a look at this New York Review of Books.' Me, as a German, had no idea what that magazine was. I went to the archive of St. Andrews University and looked at these big issues and I got really excited about it, and then I read this huge amount of articles and I thought, why the hell did all these American intellectuals get interested in this stuff? So I wrote my Masters thesis about the New York Review of Books, and then in the next step I thought that perhaps I could develop it into the question of why intellectuals in the West get interested in the underground."

Paul Petzschmann,  photo: Linda Mastalir
Paul Petzschmann, who is finishing his PhD at Oxford University and presented on dissident writing and political theory in the German Democratic Republic, shares what he found noteworthy about the Vienna conference:

"Well, the first thing that struck me at this conference was that there was a very interesting mix: not only were there academics working on samizdat and tamizdat publications and authors, but there was also a surprising number of activists who were active dissidents in eastern Europe at the time, and of journalists, of people from Radio Free Europe and other media outlets which I think made for a very creative mix.

The one thing that I would personally take away from the conference is surprisingly, things I learned during the session on the new media and the relevance of samizdat and tamizdat in the 1990s. Because if now, as so many people said at the conference, the medium now seems to be the message, what does this leave us, as political theorists, to do, really? So it's really left me with some profound questions which I'm going to puzzle over for the next couple of months to come, I'm sure."

Antonin Liehm,  Eugeniusz Smolar,  and Jirina Siklova,  photo: Linda Mastalir
Among the older generation present—those who actively participated in the production and circulation of samizdat, and in tamizdat publishing—was also the Paris-based Czech journalist, film critic and writer, Antonin Liehm, who left Czechoslovakia after 1968 and among other things, established the periodical Lettre Internationale. Now 82 years of age, Antonin Liehm shares his impressions of a conference devoted to themes that dominated his activity in exile:

"I didn't learn very much because all these things have been not only discussed, but archived and everything, so you don't learn very much. What is interesting are the people who have never lived through it, but who know about it from books and so forth, and then eventually they write dissertations on these subjects, which is the thing because good historians are those who didn't experience the event, who were born after and write later. So in this respect it was interesting.

I was a little bit disappointed because it was not specified very much that the period we are talking about is the period of the 1970s and 1980s. And the second thing is that, you know, the thing is the history is interesting because it's a history of contradictions. We still live very much in a period of political correctness, and that means that we still live in a period of consensus and conformity. And so I believe that a conference like this in ten or fifteen years, when people like myself or even younger people will not be here any longer, that would be in a way interesting because people will not have the sense of being involved personally."

Eugeniusz Smolar,  Linda Mastalir,  Irena Grudzinska-Gross
On the last evening of the conference, organizers Jessie Labov and Friederike Kind-Kovacs reflected on how the meeting in Vienna turned out:

Labov: "Well, it really startled me, how many of these people hadn't met each other before or had a conversation with each other before about parallel activities. I kind of assumed that they all talked about it amongst themselves and we just hadn't heard the conversation, but apparently not."

Kind-Kovacs: "We just picked out people from our research topics and invited them together, and I think that it really worked out. There was an inter-generational dialogue, and I thought that it could have been really conflictive if the old ones tell the young ones how they should do it, or the other way around, but they sort of got together and really discussed the topic."

Any inspirations here for topics that you may want to take-up in future research?

Labov: "Absolutely. In fact, I am now ready to write a paper that I proposed six months ago, about broadcasting amplification and distortion, and every single paper I heard here gave me a new idea for it. So now it will be too long, but now I really have a paper."

Kind-Kovacs: "And I think that I would like to do something on 'from tamizdat to samizdat,' and I don't mean the texts, but broadcasts. What effect did broadcasting have on the societies inside? Because we always were only addressing the questions regarding the western audience, but I think that if it gets back there are many questions to solve."

Four days of discussions proved that the community working on and related to the history of central European samizdat and tamizdat has many rich topics to explore, some of which we'll look at in future programs here on Radio Prague.