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Rediscovering the Hidden Paths of Samizdat and the Dissent Movements

Béla Nóvé

Béla Nóvé, a Hungarian freelance writer and historian living in Budapest. During the 1990s he worked for a while as the editor of „Beszélõ" (a liberal weekly), „Replica" (a Budapest periodical of social sciences) and became the member of the editorial board of „Egyházfórum" (Church Forum-an independent magazin written and edited by some Hungarian Catholic intellectuals in the liberal spirit of the Second Vatican Sinode). From 1995 till 1997 received a research grant from the Hungarian Soros Foundation. Since 2001 he has been teaching history and film history for American undergraduate students as a lecturer of the Central European Studies Program of ELTE Budapest and the University of California. Besides his own books (Az utcaseprõ királysága, Kétség és remény közt, Tény/Soros, A Katalán torony, Orwell-olvasó) he managed to publish a good number of studies and essays on different themes, and has written film and television scripts as well. (Életképek-1986; Holdfény ’69- 1987; Colombus, 500.-1992; A század diktatúrái-1993; A politikai merényletek anatómiája-1994; Emléktoborzó-2000.)

Fifteen years has passed only since the spectacular end of the Soviet rule and the Communist system in East Central Europe, but it often seems that it had to have happened ages ago, and the painfully long decades of „existing Socialism" was but a quickly vanished nightmare, that has nothing to do with our daylight realities.

It is in fact a dangerous self-delusion, a new type of „darkness at noon" symptom with its much alarming oblivion or historical amnesia. We all know the proverb: „Those, who fail to learn history, are condemned to relive it." But is that really true? Should not we rather trust another much quoted saying, which suggest we need not worry, since „History never repeats itself"?

Well, perhaps it never does quite the same way, but more than enough times let the skeletons falling out of the cupboard rather similarily… The reason of this is quite simple: we tend to neglect the past and to keep clear our collective memories. Just to open those badly smelling cupboards and ’learn’ what they really contain, than to air the room and let the sunshine in. To ’learn history’ after all means nothing, but to get acquainted with the past, the basic facts and events of it, however unpleasant they are. Simply to know, in the primary sense of the word ’learn’, with no rhetoric overtone, like „learning the lessons of history", etc. To be honest, it’s quite a hard work as it is, even for historians, the professional „caretakers" of collective memories.

The fifteen years that has passed since 1989 provided once again a brutal evidence that in such a rapidly changing, information flooded and many ways divided world we live it is almost impossible to keep clear the memories of even the recent past, some course of events happened less than thirty or twenty years ago. One can rightfully argue: it is something, that is far beyond our personal intentions or capacities. However, as a onetime member of the Hungarian democratic opposition, a samizdat activist as well as a historian and the father of three sons - of those two were born soon after the change of the system - I feel deep regret and certain responsibility for this evident failure. We should keep asking if this was really unavoidable or could it have happened any better? Was it a „historical necessity" that together with the remembrance of the Communist dictatorship much of our onetime efforts of a moral and political resistance had also to be forgotten? And if it wasn’t, who is and to what extent responsible for this evident loss and failure: the onetime dissidents, the surviving forces of the old regime, the rivalling new parties and the media, the „silent majority" or the nevertheless silent historians?

Many people would offer ready-made answers to these questions, which should make us all the more cautious in searching the real ones. Some of the reasons however, seem to be quite obvious. First and foremost the historical fact, that samizdat and dissent movements up until 1989 - most regretfully - remained rather limited all over in East Europe, with the only striking exception of Poland. This lack of a wider publicity and mass involvement was soon added by further damages: ardent fights, denunciations, apologies, self-fabricated legends or other sophisticated ways of forgery, which alienated further more the „silent majority" from the onetime dissident movement. At the same time the sources and documents - included the files of the onetime secret police - remained hardly available for the public, and not much efforts were made for a critical systematic reassessment by the historians either.

These were the general reasons, not just in Hungary, but as I suspect, in most countries of the region. However, there are some more specific and more personal aspects as well, which should be considered no less carefully by those, who want to rediscover the hidden paths of the onetime opposition and the samizdat movement. By offering a brief introduction into the Hungarian case as well as some of my memories let me invite you for a short, but adventurous journey into the past.

The access to sources and documents

It all started with some individual revolts, and then cautious conspirations of revolters against the omnipotent rule of lies - as Orwell had long predicted in his brilliant Nineteen-eightyfour. East Europian dissidents again and again desperately renewed Winston Smith’s efforts to reclaim the past and reveal the lies of the present. Free access of information and freedom of expression had ever been the two main driving forces, which after all managed to find their own ways to an alternative publicity with no censorship or state control in Moscow, Leningrad, Warsaw, Prague, Budapest and elsewhere.

In Hungary there were altogether somewhat less then 300 titles published in samizdat, included some two dozens of periodicals, from the late 70’s till the spring of 1989, when censorship both legally and practically came to the end. Even with a daring calculation this could not involve actively more then 5 or 6 hundred people as regular authors, editors, translators, typewriters, printers, key distributors, etc., most of them of the younger generation, concentrated in Budapest. Due to the technical limits of clandestine prints and the serious risk of being confiscated even the most popular books and papers were hardly printed more than in 2000 exemplaires. Though the regular readers of samizdat year by year doubled in number, they can not be estimated more than 10,000 as a top, even as of 1989, the spectacular break through of democratic forces. Since 1989 some of the samizdat best-sellers has been reprinted together with the collected issues of a few periodicals, but the rest has long vanished even from the shelves of second-hand bookshops, and not even a critical bibliography of Hungarian samizdats has been prepared as yet. Apart from the onetime secret police archives with still a limited access, the most complete public collections of samizdats are preserved in the Rare Prints Department of the National Library and the Open Society Archives attached to the Central European University, Budapest.

And where are the heroes of the old days? My friend and fellow-citoyen Gáspár Miklós Tamás will hopefully answer the question, here I just refere to them as the authors of memoires, i. e. the secondary sources of ongoing debates.

Debates: public missuse of private memories

As a challenge to a monolit system the main feature of dissent and samizdat movements was a strong diversity. This equally stands for the ideas and the issues debated, the intellectual quality and the many different technics used for multiplications. There was also a wide range of strategies and individual attitudes as to how should the existing power treated from the radical opposition to the casual critics and disobedience of some otherwise loyal intellectuals or fellow travellers. Basically there was only one strong consent: that a free chance should be given to anyone who wished to express his or her opinion different than the officially accepted.

Up until 1990 it had a growing prestige to belong in any ways to the dissent or the oppositional movement, which had a self identity of a political avant-garde or as often referred in those days with a scent of irony: „the moral aristocracy of the country". However, this self image was soon destroyed both from inside and outside, and the basic consent on the dissent and samizdat heritage ended up in new diversity of ardent fights. Expropriating efforts of the common past - most regretfully - are still strongly present in our public life: those scandalous debates on newly published interviews, documentary films and memoirs, secret police files and old spies recently revealed.

It would be a waste of time here and now to enter in more details, for this kind of misery must be familiar for many of you coming from other countries. What is perhaps more important is to analyse and discuss together the main political, sociological and psychological reasons of this bitterly aftermath of dissident movements.

The first reason as I mentioned is that dissent or opposition activities involved only limited groups of people, mostly intellectuals. Even of those limited number of onetime activists quite a few could make a successful professional or political career after 1989 - in Hungary mostly as leaders of the newly formed liberal parties, the SZDSZ and Fidesz or in the field of arts and social sciences. No wonder, that many of the onetime activists felt frustrated or even betrayed, just like the majority of the post Communist societies, in many ways biased, suspecting and hostile towards the new elite, and its clandestine background.

The second reason, I have also mentioned before, is the limited access to the primary documents, included samizdat prints, protest and solidarity declarations as well as the secret police files with their agent reports. This is still a hotbed of endless manipulations in Hungary: political blackmails, scandals, accusations, etc. Furthermore, the lack of controllable facts and events of the past gives much way to the doubtful secondary sources, like interviews, memories, etc. often with highly subjective and arbitrary interpretations. During the past fifteen years hundreds of such interviews and dozens of memoires were published on the „glorious" or the „gloomy" secrets of the „movement", in fact establishing a new genre of „political thriller". Here I must mention one of the recent attempts to „rewrite the past": a 4 hours long documentary film entitled „The Years of Samizdat", first screened on the n1 national tv chanel in last December. The film made by Ádám Modor and János Gulyás is full of malevolent deheroisation, and presents an extreme case of political paranoia. Editing nietly together the „testimonies" of some less known and frustrated samizdat activists the filmmakers suggest, that they were the real heroes who took much of the risk, yet they were badly missused and betrayed even in those days by some prominent figures of the democratic opposition, such as Gábor Demszky, the best known samizdat publisher, the mayor of Budapest for fourteen years now or the editors of „Beszélõ„ (Speaker) the most influential Hungarian samizdat paper.

This reflects to another reason, why the onetime minimal consensus vanished by now: the sorrowful fact, that many authentic and integrative onetime activists have either retired from public life, or died during the years past. We badly miss, I think, their factual and moral control in those unfortunate debates, which could help a lot to keep alive the real heritage of the onetime democratic movement. Let me mention here just a few names of those who parted since 1989: the engaged sociologist Ottília Solt, the founder of Beszélõ and the SZETA (a volontary organisation aiding the poor), György Petri, the mot popular poet of the Hungarian democratic movement, Zsolt Csalog, another sociologist and writer or György Krassó the intransigent 1956 veteran and samizdat publisher.

There could be found, of course, further reasons, if we dared to have a closer look to the recent political and intellectual changes. But instead of that, let me return to the problems of sources and some still not completed tasks in order to reclaim and rediscover our real recent past.

What shall we leave behind us?

There is a diverse, often controversial, but uniquely rich tradition of free thinking, free press and free association, that could successfully survive even the hardest pressure of tyranny - a tradition which in many aspects seems to be more hidden and less known by the public now than it used to be in the days of forced conspiration.

We are all responsible for what we leave behind us… The Hungarian samizdat literature and the dissent movement, although less extensive and colourful perhaps, than the Polish, Russian or even the Czech one, well worth to survive. It covers all important issues, which were considered as taboos, and thus excluded from the officially controlled sphere of publicity. Documents, studies and free discussion on World War II, the Hungarian Holocaust and the 1956 revolution; lively debates on human rights and minority questions, on the chances of an independent peace movement or the growing protest against the officially forced power plants on the Danube, regular reports on church dissents, victims of the police harassment, or students’ attempts for autonomy, revealed scandals of censorship and the poverty in the „existing socialism". These were added by some brilliant books of banned literature by such authors like Orwell, Kostler, Bulgakov and Solzenitzin or the Hungarian ones: György Konrád, István Eörsi, Miklós Haraszty, György Petri and György Dalos.

What is missing then? To put it simply: the proper assessment and transfer of this rich tradition. So far there was not much efforts were made to investigate a number of important issues: the much informal links to the western media and the Hungarian emigrant press in Vienna, Munich, Paris, London and the United States (tamizdat), the network of international solidarity and the Hungarian role in some common actions with Russian dissidents, the movements of Czech Charta or the Polish Solidarnoœć. Similarily it would be highly interesting to launch a comparative research on the different ways how censorship worked country by country, or on the reception of some banned writers. A historical almanac or an International „Who is who in samizdat?" could also be of great use in order to have a much broader sight on these movements. Furthermore, I even dare to propose to launch new series of books booklets preferably in English with two main profile: 1) to make available some basic texts of international samizdat to the larger public; and 2) to provide a new forum for publishing recent results and scolarly debates. For both I could suggest a number of exciting topics, like „Free debates on - censorship, civil rights, freedom of religion, freedom of arts, workers and students association, social solidarity, disarmament and peace, democratic and national traditions, etc.

There are some other efficient ways also to bring the past more close to us. Such were those spectacular international samizdat exhibitions organised in the past few years by the Bremen Institute (Forschungstelle Osteuropa an der Universitat Bremen) in four European capitals: Prague, Berlin, Bruxelles and lastly in Budapest this Spring. Together with their many side programs, screenings, concerts, discussions and training of selfmade prints, they managed to address the wider public, especially the young generation fairly successfully. As the Hungarian expert and coordinator of the Budapest show I wonder if we could see any similarily attractive, international venture in the future, or this was the last reminder of an age of great hopes and nevertheless great sufferings.

Epilogue: the troublesome aftermath of Samizdat

Ironically enough the aftermath of Samizdat sometimes seems to be more troublesome, than those busy years of underground activities. Let me briefly show this on two cases only.

In early 1987 together with some friends we launched our „Transsylvanian Monitor", which lived for two years with its 9 issues until the Spring of 1989. During this period this was the only independent paper available in Hungarian, that regularly reported about the daily terror and misery of Ceauºescu’s Romania, and the human violations against the 2 million Hungarian minority. Ten years later with a slight nostalgy we decided to reprint our samizdat paper in a collected edition of a book. It was a far too naive idea, as we soon had to realise with my friend, Berci, a secondary school teacher and a Hungarian emigrée from Transsylvania, with whom we both initiated the original and reprint editions. Suddenly we had to understand, that he time of voluntary support and the busy actions in public interest was over. The fundraising and technical preparations took more than two years - the whole lifetime of our samizdat paper - and my friend Berci never saw the collected version. He died of cancer at the age of 41 a few months before the book came out. Thus all I could do instead of passing a copy, was to dedicate it to his great memory.

The other case is no funnier either. It also reflects to the bitter experience, that people and documents with their unique values could just vanish once and for all… A year ago I was asked by the Bremen Institute to assist to the Budapest samizdat exhibition as a local expert. I checked all possible private and public collections in order to select the best archive copies to be presented. As a part of my job I went to the National Library, the 1956 Research Institute, the Warfare Museum and managed to borrow some rare and prescious prints: among others some leaflets, posters and underground papers of the Hungarian Revolution, which as a kind of „pre-samizdats" were also to be shown to the public. Before I could take them to the exhibition site, I had to arrange something, so I left the whole collection in a suitecase on the back seat of my car parking in a silent street of Budapest. You my guess what happened after… Yes! When I returned a half an hour later, I found the window broken and the suitecase stolen with all the neetly selected documents. I rushed desperately to the police, searched for traces - but all in vain: not a single leaflet I could see again, let alone my own samizdat copies. It had to be a delayed revenge of fate, I shighed bitterly. After all I was for many years lucky enough to escape of being caught with such corpus delicti by both the Hungarian and the Romanian secret cops. And finally some street kids just took them and most likely through out some corners away as a rubbish.

Could we do anything to prevent that dangerously spreading ignorance towards the real values of the past?

Here are my conclusions together with some practical proposals:


Fifteen year after the end of Communism in Eastern Europe there is an obvious need for more complex and broader approach of these movements based on systematic and comparative research work;


In practical terms this requires regular workshops, conferences, publications, etc. - a more intensive cooperation of both the individual researchers and the institutions concerned, such as the Centro (CSSEO) in Trento, the Forschungstelle Osteuropa in Bremen, the Central European University and the Open Society Archives in Budapest, etc.;


In order to save that can be saved the systematic collection and the critical (re)publications of the onetime samizdat documents should be completed as soon as possible both on the national and the international levels;


Thematical selections of some samizdat and dissident documents as well as the results of recent research could be regularly published in newly launched series of books or booklets, preferably in English or in multilingual editions. Simultaneously new websites could also be launched to support these publications and thus help to generate a wider public and scolarly discourse on the subject.


Although the state of the world has much changed since 1989, Communist rule still not ended in countries like China, North Chorea or Cuba. We should therefore provide an active support to those who are fighting for truth and freedom of expression in the best spirit of international solidarity demonstrated by the onetime East European democratic opposition.

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