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And that got me interested in an entirely different direction, which is the constitution of social organisations, social networks, how it became possible in conditions of ‘unfreedom’ to create freedom.” Martin Tharp says the forcible “proletarization” of the Czechoslovak pro-reform intelligentsia during normalization – the writers and scholars forced to work menial jobs – has become almost a cliché, the experiences of leading individuals from the “peripheral intelligentsia” outside the capital, in places like Teplice or Chomutov, is less examined.“They’d grown up, very often, in the industrial cities of the former Sudetenland, in what was essentially a kind of tabula rasa for building the new Czechoslovak socialist society.“Because in the Sudetenland they had all these empty farmhouses, it was relatively easy to buy a place and live in it – until of course, the police came.
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And it was a hunger for both high and popular culture – for new literature and rock music – that led them to create samizdat, first of all, as a way to get information.
“Secondly, and this is what I found even more interesting, growing out from that, was how they organised themselves as a group; how it was in fact a kind of proto-civil society; that the operation of samizdat formed a kind of autonomous space within the regime that allowed for both a kind of adequate connection, but equally an adequate distance between people. They didn’t necessarily keep secrets from each other but they were aware they could always be infiltrated by the secret police or that someone could simply be turned to become an informer by whatever pressures could be put on them.
“In many ways the regime was extremely moralistic in what it allowed. It’s always a moral judgment what is to be produced, what is right to produce.
They did have a certain kind of security – the post-war compact – but at the same time a very strict surveillance and a far harsher form of ensuring moral conformity than in the West.” According to Martin Tharp, a seminal point in the transition from counterculture to movement came with the start of an organised samizdat “journal” called Vokno, produced on a fantastic variety of ancient typewriters, vintage silkscreens, and eventually mimeographs.
Almost invariably, Martin Tharp says, rock musicians, hippies, and even samizdat authors making up the “peripheral intelligentsia” outside of Prague, at least initially, were expressing aesthetic dissatisfaction with the sanctioned cultural world presented by the Czechoslovak Communist Party.
Most were not challenging specific policies or actions of the regime, he says, but rather disgusted by its prefabricated and restrictive cultural production.
Translator, literary scholar and historical sociologist Martin Tharp’s current research focuses on the working-class counterculture of post-1968 Czechoslovakia.
He finds that – dissident groups such as Charter 77 aside – the “underground” social movement comprised a diffuse and generalised sentiment of an “emotive-artistic resistance to state cultural control” and censorship.