I Was Fired by the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes. I Wonder Why

10. 10. 2022 / Muriel Blaive

čas čtení 12 minut
In October 2022, I was fired by the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes, where I had been working since 2014. Seven of us, out of whom six women, were fired simultaneously, including two of my former bosses, Blanka Mouralová and the former ÚSTR director, Pavla Foglová, and the librarian Livia Vrzalová. But apparently, I was the only one from within the research departments to be thrown out. Here is the update on personnel movement we all received:

I was of course wondering why I was fired. When I was officially notified, I received this explanation:

So, I was fired in order to increase the institute’s work effectivity. It is strange, because I was under the impression I was quite productive. Notwithstanding the fact that I was the first researcher to ever receive a GAČR grant at ÚSTR, in 2016, here are the headlines of the articles I published, am about to publish, or submitted for publication only in the last two years (since 2020), all in top international journals or international academic publications, and keeping in mind that I was working only part-time at ÚSTR from September 2021 to October 2022. As it happens, this has probably been the most productive period of my life:


Perhaps my employers thought I was not engaged enough in the Czech public sphere? But also since 2020 I published not a few articles addressed to the Czech wider public:

 


Since neither my academic publications nor my publications for the wider public appear to be the problem, I reflected that my employers might have thought I did not have enough of an international profile, so I checked my status on Web of Science. Web of Science is an international metric database that measures the influence of scientists via the references to their work in other researchers’ publications in impacted peer-reviewed journals. While I have reserves about its usefulness in social sciences (it is, as often, conceived for hard sciences), its aim is to provide an immediately measurable instrument to evaluate researchers, and it is widely used by universities and research agencies. The Czech Science Agency (GAČR) uses it, too. Here is my profile:


My H-index is 2. Is it much? Is it little? Let us compare it with the director of ÚSTR, Ladislav Kudrna, who is habilitated, which is in theory a higher rank than mine:

Unfortunately, he is not indexed, i.e. his record is less than zero and he has no visibility at all at the international level. But then, international journals are usually not impressed by plagiarizers, and according to a special commission nominated within the ÚSTR Scientific Advisory Board that gave its conclusion in 2021 and was made public in 2022, this is exactly what Ladislav Kudrna is (which didn’t stop the Board of ÚSTR from electing him director):


If the director doesn’t have a record, what about other leading members of the institute? I checked:


It appears all the men at the helm of the institute have a lower scientific reputation than mine, or none at all. I checked on our most famous colleague at ÚSTR, Petr Blažek. I was impressed that he had an H-Index of 5, until I realized this is not the same Petr Blažek: this one is a biologist specialized on agriculture. I didn’t find “our” Petr Blažek in the database, but this might be a mistake – I also can’t find the director of the Institute for Contemporary History, Miroslav Vaněk, although he is widely published in English. Different universities have different levels of access to the database, so this is perhaps the explanation.

In any case, I then checked some more of my colleagues at ÚSTR:



I did not check every name. But from this preliminary search, I seem to be the most published, or at the very least one of the most published, researchers of the institute. Let me reiterate that this H-Index might not deserve the faith research agencies put in it, and it rewards age and experience. I know for a fact that some of my younger colleagues who are absent from the database or have a low score are nevertheless excellent historians. But my point is, if a Czech institution has the good fortune to hold in its ranks a researcher who has a relatively high international profile, shouldn’t it aim to keep them rather than fire them?

The rest of the world appears more aware of my value as a researcher than ÚSTR: in 2018-2019 I was granted a prestigious EU fellowship, the EURIAS, at the Institute for Human Sciences (IWM) in Vienna, as well as an equally prestigious Marie Curie Senior Fellowship at the University of Aarhus in Denmark (which I had to turn down since I couldn’t do both fellowships at once.) In 2020-21 I was granted a Senior Fellowship at the Internationales Forschungszentrum Kulturwissenschaften also in Vienna, then in 2022 a four-year Elise Richter Senior Fellowship in the Department of Sociology at the University of Graz.

My fellowship in Graz was an ideal opportunity for ÚSTR to engage in an international cooperation. The Austrian research agency FWF allows me to work for only five hours a week on top of my full-time fellowship. By working five hours for ÚSTR (12,5% of a full-time position), I would have cost the institute a negligeable Kč 6,000 a month (gross), but I would have been able to credit all my international publications to the institute, and I would have created a relationship to the University of Graz which could have proved profitable in the future to both parties. Also, my project appears to me of great interest for a memory politics institution like ÚSTR: it is about reckoning with the communist past in the Czech Republic, and specifically about resorting to the category of crime against humanity, as Romania now does, to finally punish some of the crimes committed under the communist regime that went completely unpunished after 1989.


“We are not interested”, I was told by the directorship of ÚSTR. “This is not in our purview.”

Next I offered ÚSTR to do in these five hours a week the project for which I had earned my senior Marie Curie fellowship. As the readers of Britské listy will know, I am not a great supporter of the theory of totalitarianism, but the instrumentalization of medical power to implement communist domination on the female body via the medical and social practices of childbirth is a fascinating case of what even I consider genuine totalitarianism.

“Women are very interesting, but we are not interested”, said the directorship again.

I work on little projects here and there that could easily occupy me five hours a week (recently, one on Rudolf Slánský, one on an ordinary family who emigrated in the 1970s, one on the concept of “totalita”, one on Václav Havel’s essay The Power of the Powerless, and I will also soon go back to České Velenice to continue my oral history study at the border.) But I never got a chance to offer to work on these projects as I received notification of my being fired without any further negotiation. Had ÚSTR kept me on board while demanding that I work more hours, I would have gone back to FWF and asked for an exemption from the five-hour rule – especially since the Czech salary I am getting is, from an Austrian point of view, negligeable: contrary to what Mirek Vodrážka once accused me of, I was really not in this job for the money. However, it all ended differently. Director Kudrna had promised the trade unions he would not fire any researcher, so the trade unions are fulminating; but then, can one ever trust the word of someone who was proven by an expert commission to be a plagiarizer?

Since it appears difficult to justify that my publication record, my international profile, or my research projects could really hamper the “work productivity” of the institute, what could possibly be the reason for my being fired? Journalist Barbora Tachecí of state public radio might have the answer. She has a limited understanding of my research, but a strong opinion as to the opportuneness of ÚSTR hiring me as a researcher.


In March 2022 she interviewed newly elected director Ladislav Kudrna and had with him the following exchange concerning my research, which starts at 15’07’’:

Tachecí: I can't help it, because that Ms Blaive, who is most famous for her statement that there was no violence at all during the Communist Party rule here, but everything was part of a broad agreement between the population and the state leadership, so this lady was and maybe still is, I ask you, a collaborator of ÚSTR?

Kudrna: If I have the correct information she is still an employee of the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes.

Tachecí: Which you are the head of.

Kudrna: Of which I am now the head, yes.

Tachecí: Well, how are you going to deal with this?

Kudrna: (laughing) How do we deal with it... Well, look, there's no doubt that my colleague Blaive is an educated woman. She undoubtedly understands her craft, I have no doubt, but I have no doubt that our vision of the past is vastly different, and I for one ... I don't want to have statements made on the floor of the Institute that just don't take its statutory mission into account. That sort of puts us in a cul-de-sac. (...)

Tachecí: No, I mean, it's terribly interesting what's considered revisionism and what's considered fabrications, or untruths, or outright lies, yes? At what point do you consider statements that evaluate the past in contradiction to all historical facts to be, in a relatively conciliatory way, revisionism, and at what point do you say “you're just a researcher who doesn't stand for anything if you don't base it on known facts“, do you understand me?

Kudrna: I understand.

Tachecí: (...) A mathematician can say, I don't allow anybody here at the institute who doesn't know that 1 and 1 are 2, and you say, but he can have the opinion that 1 and 1 are 3, but I don't allow that at the institute. Do you understand me?

Kudrna: I understand, I understand (laughter), we understand each other on that point.

Was I not, in reality, fired for political reasons? This is what I want to argue in a court of law since I intend to sue ÚSTR. I have worked and written on the policy of dealing with the communist past in the Czech Republic since 2002, i.e. for exactly twenty years. I have quipped during the last election of the ÚSTR director, for which I applied, but my application was discarded on technical grounds, that I was the only one among the candidates who actually cared about history, and the same could probably be said about the previous election in 2014. I could not be less interested in Czech politics, and/or in positions of power or prestige. I only want to do my job as a historian.

Indeed I care greatly about history. Why? Because one of the very first persons I met in Prague was a woman who had been threatened by the StB and blackmailed on account of her children, and after 1989 she saw this StB agent pursue his career without the least impediment. In 1996 I read Josef Škvorecký’s novel Two Murders in my Double Life, in which he describes the ordeal experienced by his wife, novelist and publisher Zdena Salivarová, after she was accused of being on the Cilbulka list of collaborators – she won her trial, but not before being heartbroken. Over the years I witnessed multiple scandals in Czech (but also Polish, German, and Hungarian) public life and was also made privy to heartrending private stories of injustice in dealing with the communist past, either because people were wrongly accused of being collaborators, or because the communist officials who had ruined their lives never had to account for their actions after 1989. I led oral history interviews and listened to ordinary Czechs angrily recount the level of asset-stripping and corruption, and the rise of social inequalities, that accompanied the so-called transition to democracy. I saw this country squander its egalitarian heritage and plunge into historic levels of individualism and selfishness, not only leaving behind an impoverished part of its population but endangering, because of the level of popular anger that this resulted in, the European Union that I have always supported.

Because identity is so intimately linked to history in this part of Europe, historians can and should have much to say about memory politics. Contrary to many, I remain convinced that ÚSTR was very much needed as an institution and has a strong cohesive role to play within Czech society. What I have had to witness, deconstruct, and write about so far, unfortunately, is rather the instrumentalization of the communist past for present political purposes that have nothing to do with history, and even less so with the well-being of the Czech population. And just like the ordinary Czechs I regularly interview, I don’t like hypocrisy.

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