A new exhibit in Cedar Rapids explores the music, art and writing of a resistance movement forced underground by a totalitarian state.
“Samizdat: The Czech Art of Resistance, 1968 to 1989,” is comprised of clandestine materials including photos, films, cassette tapes, books and manuscripts from communist-era Czechoslovakia (ČSSR). The show opened last weekend at the National Czech and Slovak Museum and Library (NCSML) in Cedar Rapids.
Curator Daniela Sneppova began researching the project to reconnect with her past. Her family escaped the ČSSR in late 1968 when Alexander Dubček, a Slovak politician, resigned after the Kremlin applied military pressure. Dubček’s reforms, known as Prague Spring, continued through most of 1968, but in August an invasion of a half million Soviet and Warsaw Pact troops forced Czechoslovakian capitulation.
Growing up, Sneppova lived between two worlds, the old country, and the new. She’d long wondered what the old world was like after her family left, and a few years ago, she began digging in Prague archives to research an article about Czech life during Soviet rule. She soon realized that the incredible trove of materials deserved a wide audience because of the the diversity and cultural significance of Samizdat works. In short, samizdat was a form of Soviet-era dissidence wherein individuals would manually reproduced censored publications and spread the material to new readers.
Using carbon paper and working overnight, some typists would pound out a dozen copies of books like George Orwell’s 1984, its grim depiction of a dystopian future outlawed by totalitarian state censors. The works were then disseminated during the Cold War.
The NCSML show includes twenty or so copies of 1984, each bound in a different color, each slightly different, and there are over 300 pieces in the entire Samizdat collection.
In the materials, Sneppova found a spectrum of scientific, political and cultural objects, made by Czech people who worked on secret copies of banned texts, art and music.
Her first surprise was that much of the material she found was apolitical.
“Philosophy, architecture, math, cultural theory, history, sociology or ecology. Basically any genre of literature that you could name, I could probably find you a Samizdat,” Sneppova said.
She was inspired by the wide variety of Samizdat creators, from musicians to ex-communist politicians to botanists to science fiction writers.
“It becomes political by its creation,” she said. “It doesn’t matter the content.”
Independent thinking and action were risky because government censorship prohibited the open dissemination of literature not officially approved by the state and secret police were always on the lookout for long hair (banned for men), illegal music (some bands would book concerts as “weddings” to sneak past authorities) and protest literature of any sort.
Hundreds of writers had their work banned outright. Because Sneppova’s father was a writer, she believes his life would have been perilous had the family not fled.
Musicians could not sing unauthorized material and poets printed their work in secret or, in some cases, wrote from inside prison cells.
Others worked with various printmaking techniques. Clever makers would sometimes bind books and cover them with scraps of clothing or wallpaper.
Secret apartment universities held lectures and classes that would often result in arrests, interrogations and imprisonment.
One of the most important political documents on display is a copy of Charter 77, a human rights declaration written in response to the 1976 arrest of members of The Plastic People of the Universe, a rock band formed a month after the Soviet invasion.
“Samizdat” also has listening stations that play magnitizdat, which is underground music recorded on magnetic audio tapes.
Sneppova said she was amazed by the ingenious inventions and circumventions of state oppression. One striking piece at the entryway is an anti-jamming device, built to listen to Western radio broadcasts, including Voice of America, the radio mouthpiece of U.S. propaganda.
She worked in consultation with Tomáš Vrba, a Czech historian, and Jiří Gruntorád, a former Samizdat publisher, ex-political prisoner and current director of the Libri Prohibiti archive in Prague.
Sneppova, a media and installation artist herself, previously brought “Samizdat” to the Czech Center in New York in 2011 and the Czech Republic Embassy in Washington D.C. in 2012. Sneppova also gave credit to the Czech Center for their help in organizing the show and bringing the works to the U.S.
The NCSML show closes April 1, 2016.
Photos by Adam Burke