Czech Institute of Totalitarian Regimes embroiled in controversy again

Czech Institute of Totalitarian Regimes embroiled in controversy again
The USTR has often been accused of acting as an extended arm of rightwing governments rather than a scientific research body. / bne IntelliNews
By Albin Sybera March 17, 2023

The management of the Czech Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes (USTR) has fired most of the editorial board of its journal Pamet a dejiny (Memory and History) and the head of the education department that works on projects with the Czech Ministry of Education and with European partner institutions.

Director Ladislav Kudrna, who was appointed last year by the rightwing-dominated Senate, has been accused of making a series of staff changes motivated by an ideological agenda to use the institute as an anti-communist propaganda vehicle rather than for research.

Some of the USTR employees issued an open letter that accused Kudrna and his deputy Kamil Nedvedicky of failing to provide any reasons for the recent dismissal of the head of the educational department and for ungrounded criticism of the acclaimed textbook Soudobe dejiny (Contemporary history). “The team of authors is shocked by the management's decision,” co-editor Tereza Arndt stated in the letter signed by another 18 colleagues and published on the website History under pressure.

The textbook has been compiled by “twenty experts and tens of pedagogues”, according to the letter, and Fraus publishing is going to print another round of accompanying workbooks. Soudobe dejiny was also recognised at an award ceremony at Frankfurt am Main in Germany last year as the second-best European textbook.

“The [USTR] management has repeatedly refused to meet and explain the reasons for their criticism,” Jaroslav Pinkas, head of the textbook’s authorship team, is quoted as saying in the statement. Employees also point out that Kudrna’s management is preventing further advertisement of the book compiled in cooperation with the Czech National Museum 13 objektu z (ne)stastneho muzea [13 Objects from a (un)Happy Museum].

“Management is incomprehensibly ignoring common effort of the education ministry" on another project Dejepis+ [History+], and “puts in danger other domestic and international cooperation” including axing the distribution of an already printed book, said the deputy of the education department at USTR Vaclav Sixta.

Kudrna’s management issued its own press statement in which they “reject the lying statements and unfounded accusations from persons not respecting rules of decent discussion”.

This is not the first time Kudrna and his policies have come under fire. The scientific council body of the USTR resigned over his appointment and Czech Radio has aired an accusation of plagiarism against Kudrna, which he denies.

In October 2022, Kudrna’s management fired French historian Murial Blaive together with six other workers as part of an effort to “increase the effectiveness of work”.

Kudrna made comments on Czech Radio in which he claimed he has a different “vision of history” than the historians. 

Blaive also ran for the post of the head of USTR against Kudrna, and following her firing, Blaive was supported by an open letter signed by Yale historian Timothy Snyder and several hundreds of international and domestic historians, researchers and journalists.

Blaive argues the institute’s new leadership only see communism in black and white terms, as a battle between good and evil, with perpetrators and victims. She says this ignores the fact that Czechs were often willing participants. It creates a “twisted” narrative that is a “parody of history”, she says.

USTR was founded as a state institution in 2007, aiming to research communist and Nazi regimes in Czechoslovakia. Since then it has often been accused of acting as an extended arm of rightwing governments rather than a scientific research body, focussed on shaping rather than researching the complex legacy of the communist past and the Czechs’ attitude towards it.

The communist past continues to be a powerful factor in Czech politics, as the recent presidential election shows, where examination of the communist pasts of the candidates often took precedence over their current political qualities.