In summer 2012, a small group of CEU history graduates, scattered across Central, Eastern, and Southeastern Europe for their holidays or fieldwork, photographed themselves holding the sign ‘Free Čačak’ in celebration of a joke they had shared repeatedly while pursuing their MA. The invented secession of the Serbian district of Čačak/Ceaceac/Csácsák/Tschatschak—a region overwhelmingly inhabited by Serbs—had become, for us, an absurd and versatile shorthand for nationalisms of all kinds in the region. In acknowledgment for holding up the sign in Revolution Square in Timişoara, Romania, I was thanked for proving the Romanians’ commitment to the secession cause and was ensured it would not be forgotten when the time came for the Transylvanians to break their bonds. The sign appeared in photographs taken in front of the Serbian embassies in Kiev and Bucharest, the portrait of our university’s founder at CEU, the Mathias Corvinus House, the amphitheatre in Pula, the streets of Lviv, the center of Belgrade, and Istanbul. ‘Čačaka un Brīvībai’ (‘Čačak and Freedom’), reads the inscription on the Freedom Monument in Riga in one of the photographs.
The story of Čačak’s fight for secession (it might as well have been Severodvinsk or Vaslui) resonated with the work of deconstruction we were all doing with respect to our nation-building foundational narratives: cultural, political, and historical. At the same time, it also spoke to a crucial sense of responsibility that we shared in understanding our region from each other’s perspectives, and also by learning each other’s languages. There must be countless stories such as this one in the history of our department, and of our university, which have provided over the years a space for such responsible irreverence. It also allowed us to rehearse the political thinking behind some of the most spectacular historical arrangements in the region, some of which were yet to happen.
This is partly made possible by the engagement with historiography in all its guises, postmodern penchant for irony and play included. It subsists on a constant exchange of information about our region, which requires an appreciation of strangeness, and estrangement, too, as well as empathy and historical imagination. As for the work of reconstruction, which we attempt in our theses as much as in everyday interactions, it rests on our ability and willingness to allow conversation—which also means seeking and giving space to voices that have not been heard in the past or that have been marginalized in the present.
For many, this is at the same time a work of self-emancipation from the economic, social, ethnic, and cultural hierarchies played out within regions, within Europe (variously defined), and as part of global regimes of inequality. For those who shared their experience with me, the formative challenge was not having to change one’s deepest convictions (the always unfulfilled threat—and promise—of propaganda) but acknowledging the social responsibility for self-reflection. One might have to face their own ethnocentric biases when part of an ethnic minority attuned to the ubiquitously reproduced majority bias. Translating one’s critical position, self-evident in its local context, might require first defending the object of criticism itself. Solidarities based on the shared social experiences of transition, austerity, or war, and class identification, might first develop in the process of social mobility; at the same time, the diversity of social backgrounds in a transnational setting might highlight unacknowledged local privilege. In a post-Yugoslav, postwar setting, the constant play of divergence and identification calls for shared methodologies. Conversely, for those investing in the aspired-to neutrality of methodology, it simultaneously makes overt enduring inequalities and the layered reproduction of cultural hierarchies within and outside Europe.
As an MA and PhD student in the Department of History for the past six years, I have found it to be a privileged place for such self-reflection, not just as a personal but also as a shared social practice across different generations. In his last lecture at the Department of History in 2014, the late Professor Jacek Kochanowicz reflected on his academic career as ‘an escape into history’—not a flight—the carving of space to understand the present within the various academic, social, and political arrangements that he had lived through. Many of the research topics pursued by my colleagues require the same boundary work, both within their respective academic traditions and also within the existing epistemic assumptions of their field. This need not be done in isolation, but with support and inspiration from others passionately immersed in seemingly remote research. To conclude this article, I would like to briefly discuss the example of one of the many fields of research pursued in our department—by necessity, the one I followed the closest—the history of state socialism in Central, Eastern, and Southeastern Europe.
My own research is on socialist Romania, a period I have only known because of the strange quality of historical time to pass at different speeds across the region, and exceptionally slow where people are otherwise busy surviving poverty. ‘There is just a small step from picking mushrooms to political activism’, once joked Prof. Kochanowicz about the belief, in 1950s Poland, in the permeability of seemingly mundane collective actions to political engagement. This insight was largely lost to most of the local historiography of the state socialist period at the time, invested as it was in a region-wide drive for retroactive justice. Research into women’s, workers’, artists’, and youth collectives in the region in the postwar period found a place, however, in our department. The conversation extends over several cohorts of students and across disciplines, and speaks to what are becoming, again, formative generational concerns. The rediscovered interest in purposeful political engagement and in democratic, collective self-organization against oppressive political and socio-economic arrangements, we found, had its own history, fraught with hope, disillusionment, and an ethics of care and solidarity.
Research on practices of collective action has been coupled with interest in the political languages of the state socialist period and their postsocialist afterlife. This requires a collective work of translation across the different temporalities in the so-called Eastern Bloc, the insight and tools for which came from an impressive body of work on the mid-nineteenth and mid-twentieth century intellectual discourses in Central, Eastern, and Southeastern Europe, and the ensuing five-volume collection of source texts and commentaries prefaced by Balázs Trencsényi and Michal Kopeček. Among the most spectacular works of rediscovery inspired by it are feminist and women’s rights discourses in the region, starting with the former Yugoslavia and extending through comparative, collaborative research to intellectual discourses across the Eastern Bloc.
Much of the work on state socialism is heavily based on painstaking archival research, which has proceeded in parallel to the opening (or, in some cases, closing) of repositories of documents from the recent past across the former Eastern Bloc. These have been in an asymmetrical but closely intertwined relationship. Almost every thesis I have read was simultaneously a reflection on the social practices of archiving and archival research, memory politics, the epistemology of the archive, and the historian’s craft today. An ongoing conversation with students of the Department of History on issues of evidence, the production, collection, and classification of knowledge, truth and objectivity, and the role of different media, as well as the social embeddedness of archives, has also been sustained by the Vera & Donald Blinken Open Society Archives, holders of the archives of the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Research Institute. It can also happen, however, that a course with the title ‘Archives of Living and Dead Things’, already surrounded by mystery and promise, becomes mid-way a passionate discussion about the role of academic libraries, plans of the future CEU library in hand, where students meet the architects of a building several years from being built and make their own case for a self-reflexive institution, exhibiting its own conditions of knowledge production and democratizing knowledge through its practices.
Now sitting in the very building the future of which we imagined four years ago, surrounded by the many visible and invisible traces of the past, and pondering yet again about its future, it is difficult not to appreciate the freedom that we enjoyed and that we stand for—the freedom to explore, to reflect, and to create.