The Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes is an institutional fiasco

ÚSTR was given a clear assignment. For some contemporary agitators, the entire historical period merges into one “totality”, in which there is no place for the pursuit of deeper knowledge and understanding. Photo by Miloň Novotný, WmC

Winston Churchill once said, addressing the troubled Balkans, that it produces more history than it can digest. If we were to paraphrase it in relation to the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes (ÚSTR), we could say that ÚSTR creates more of its own history than it is capable of digesting the one it is supposed to research.

Rebellions regularly break out in the institute against this or that management, we learn that this or that new director is completely incompetent, or even a plagiarist. Some time ago, the scientific council of the institute resigned in protest against the appointment of a new director, Ladislav Kudrna.

The new management accused the previous one of trying to prevent Kudrna’s appointment by accusing Kudrna of plagiarism. After his appointment for a change, Kudrna began to carry out purges in ÚSTR — as his critics describe the personnel changes.

He recently dismissed, for example, the head of the education department, Čenko Pykha. His former colleagues sent a letter to the ÚSTR Council in which they object to Pých’s dismissal, and claim that the institute’s management behaves in a directive manner, bullies subordinates and tries to censor their work. The management of the institute rejects the accusations and wants an apology.

Kudrna also dismissed the entire editorial board of the journal Memory and dějiny, which is published by the institute. Editor-in-chief Petr Zídek was among those dismissed. He claims that Kudrna told him through his deputy Kamil Nedvědický that he was dismissing him “due to ‘grossly unconstructive behavior'”.

Nothing new under the sun

If the internal war in the ÚSTR flared up for the first time, it would undoubtedly cause a much greater uproar than what we are witnessing now. Even the media seem to be somewhat exhausted by what is happening at the institute — we are just watching another round of internal conflicts that regularly break out at the institute. There is no point in listing them anymore.

What is certain is that the internal wars and the often bizarre mutual accusations of various groups in the institution make it to the newspaper pages much more often than its production.

The institute publishes a number of publications, organizes seminars and conferences, organizes exhibitions, or offers educational projects to schools, but if we type “ÚSTR” into the search engine, we will come across articles about another internal war in the institute rather than the results of the work.

The Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes is not a historical institute in the true sense of the word, it is rather a memory institution whose publications are sometimes not perceived by the historical community as real historical research. Even such an institution could be respected and fulfill an important function in conveying recent history to the public, if it did not tarnish its reputation by constantly producing its own scandals.

The problem of the institute is, so to speak, structural. It was established by the state as an institution whose council is elected by the Senate, so it has been the subject of political wrangling since its inception. It was also established as an a priori anti-communist institution, so it attracted researchers of a certain type — often ideologues rather than scientists. Even people who fought against the former regime found work in it, but some of whom, due to the lack of professional education, would find it difficult to find employment in a truly scientific institution.

The staff of the institute sometimes behaved as if the institution belonged to them, so changes of directors and other senior staff repeatedly became the reason for internal conflicts, in which the “staffing” played and still plays an important role, as cut from the times before 1989. As if the institute, which has examine the period before 1989, paradoxically the spirit of intolerant conditions from the communist era took over.

Politicians today make decisions about the past

Politicians already created problems by the way they defined the subject of investigation. Instead of the name reminding us that it is a memory institution, not a scientific one in the true sense of the word, they decided on the pompous-sounding name of the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes.

Leaving aside the fact that the very concept of totalitarianism is considered problematic among historians and is the subject of a long-term professional debate, there was another problem: politicians had to decide when and how long the totalitarian system actually prevailed in our country. They decided that the year 1968 was also the time of totality, for example.

If what the ÚSTR is supposed to investigate is “totality”, which included the entire era of the communist regime from 1948 to 1989, it can hardly tolerate a more layered view of the communist era. The prism of examining “totality” is hardly sufficient to comprehensively cover intellectual history, everyday life and many other aspects of the pre-1989 era.

It is certain that whoever heads the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes, the dramas that take place in its bowels will continue, because the problem lies in its flawed institutional and programmatic definition. It is absurd when a state institution, which has received a politically motivated definition of its activity and which is under indirect but constant political pressure, tries to examine history “objectively”.

Source: Deník referendum by

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