Democracy and utopianism in East Central Europe: the Jeno Szucs public lecture series continued

In the May edition of the Jeno Szucs lecture series, Zsolt Cziganyik and Iva Dimovska introduced the audience into the theoretical background and novelties of their research project “Democracy in East Central European utopianism” including their original choice of geographic region, as research on utopianism often focuses on the Western, particularly on the Anglo-Saxon world. At the same time, their research inquiries related to what utopian texts have to say about democracy (its endorsed as well as contested elements) are also innovative. The project focuses on the 19th and 20th centuries.

After a literary historical as well as conceptual exposé by Zsolt Czigányik, Iva Dimovska presented her findings on utopian texts in interwar Yugoslavia, particularly those published in the avantgarde journal Zenit. The concept of the nation played a central role in utopian thinking in Yugoslavia in that period.

In the end, Daryna Koryagina, the third member of the research team, commented via zoom and briefly introduced her research topic within the project which concentrates on Soviet Ukrainian literature.

The audience commented among other elements of the lecture, on the challenges of what to include in the category ‘utopia’ and what to exclude, and on potential comparisons to be made with other geographical regions’ utopian texts.

You can watch the recording of the lecture here.

Photos by an intern of the Democracy in History workgroup

Conference report by our interns: Academics Facing Autocracy: Alternative Modalities and Transnational Resilience in Higher Education

The event took place at CEU Vienna:

Autocratic and illiberal practices are present at many levels in numerous societies, even outside their countries of origin. Academic circles across the globe have been victims of a sustained autocratic effort to suppress their freedom in order to consolidate power and eliminate the seeds of opposition and alternate thought.

This is why CEU Democracy Institute’s “Democracy in History” workgroup organized the “Academics Facing Autocracy” program and a workshop to discuss possibilities of resistance.  The OSUN Global Visiting Fellowship for the ‘’Academics Facing Autocracy’’ scheme has brought together academics with a variety of experience in the struggle against autocratic oppression in order to discuss strategies to oppose authoritarian regimes, particularly through alternative modes of education. The programme is hosted by the Democracy Institute at the CEU Budapest campus, which had to transfer its graduate programmes to Vienna as a result of illiberal Hungarian policies. As a global trend of autocratic suppression of academic freedom emerges, it is imperative that alternative and viable strategies are discussed in order to preserve and perpetuate intellectual integrity all over the world. The workshop was carried out in three different parts, starting with the transformative movement of autocracy including the different modes of autocracy in academic institutions. Then it proceeded to a discussion about the implementation of alternative pedagogies as a strategy to combat autocratic interests. Finally, autocracy and academic alternatives were considered regarding the diverse contexts, to which our strategies must be tailored to, across the world.

On the 17th of April, the following academics convened for a workshop at the CEU Vienna campus to discuss how to make academic initiatives that provide alternative education to universities occupied by autocratic regimes resilient as well as transnational. The following academics were in attendance both in-person and online and contributed to a nuanced discussion:

·   Almira Ousmanova (European Humanities University, Vilnius) 

·   Renata Uitz (Central European University, Vienna & CEU Democracy Institute, Budapest) 

·   Alexandr Voronovici (CEU Democracy Institute, Budapest) 

·   Lourdes Peroni (Paraguayan Institute of Constitutional Law, Asunción) 

·   Noémi Lévy-Aksu (Hafiza Merkezi/Truth, Justice, Memory Center, Istanbul) 

·   Balázs Trencsényi (Central European University, Vienna & CEU Democracy Institute, Budapest) 

·   Daniel Palm (University for Continuing Education, Krems & CEU Democracy Institute, Budapest) 

·   Nurzhamal Karamoldoeva (American University of Central Asia, Bishkek) 

·   Thiago Amparo (FGV School of International Relations, Sao Paolo) 

·   Milica Popović (Global Observatory for Academic Freedom) 

·   Alexander Etkind (Central European University, Vienna) 

·   Michael Kozakowski (CEU Yehuda Elkana Center for Teaching, Learning, and Higher Education Research, CEU) 

·   Rafael Labanino (University of Konstanz) 

·   Orli Fridman (Center for Comparative Conflict Studies, Belgrade) 

·   Vladimir Petrovic (University of Belgrade & Boston University) 

·   Tena Prelec (London School of Economics & University of Ljubljana) 

·   Ligia Fabris (FGV Faculty of Law, Rio de Janeiro & Humboldt University, Berlin) 

·   Aysuda Kolemen (Bard College Berlin & Threatened Scholars Integration Initiative) 

·   Ostap Sereda (Central European University, Vienna & Imre Kertesz Kolleg, Jena)

·   Oleksandr Shtokvych (Open Society University Network)

The first panel discussed the “Autocratic transformative moments and Anti-authoritarian resilience”. In the initial stages of the workshop, Alexandr Voronovici provided a highly effective framework through which the stages of academics facing autocracy can be defined and categorized in order to more effectively identify the precursors of autocratic practices before they occur. The ‘softball, hardball and wrecking ball’ modes of autocracy presented by him serve as an effective lens through which the dynamics between academia and autocracy can be observed in order to identify patterns.

Considering the precedent set by the dynamics between the Hungarian government and CEU, a potential framework for a solution was suggested by Daniel Palm in the form of a multi-legged organization. This locational diversity would allow an organization’s weight to be shifted in response to autocratic pressures from certain regimes. The trans-national paradigm of academic reform brought about many colorful and insightful perspectives from the various participants regarding the nature and consequences of alternative pedagogy.

The second panel discussed “Pedagogical innovations in alternative educational projects”. A noticeable perspective was introduced which pressed upon the nature and form of alternative educational spaces, with convincing arguments made for both the traditional classroom and contemporary online learning environments. In a progression of nuance, alternative education was also discussed as a tool to combat inequality and as a vehicle for more progressive trauma-informed pedagogy. The role of legal infrastructure in empowering both autocracies and academics, as well as the global nature of autocratic legal influences highlighted the importance of a multi-disciplinary approach to empowering academics worldwide.

Throughout the third panel the “Transnational synergies and (In)compatibilities”, from Russia to Brazil, to Kyrgyzstan to Afghanistan, this workshop illustrated a global and interconnected network of autocratic influences threatening academic agency in every part of the world. From the great number of opinions, insights and perspectives presented, it was made clear that a trans-national strategy to combat autocracy and illiberal policies is essential to preserve academic and intellectual freedom.

Personal takes by interns of the Democracy in History workgroup


Even the university is part of liberal democracy’s epistemic foundation where students can be critical, but it did not happen in Laos where pedagogies are formed by the government, bythe  Ministry of Education in particular. Students are made to follow the pedagogy chosen by the government with the cultural and mental mind-sets ingrained therein. The problem is not only present in higher education but in the entire ingrained education structure starting with primary education. Lao education pedagogy does not encourage critical thinking. The education system affects the students with non-opinion regime.

University professors cannot teach or write about politically sensitive topics, not even foreign teachers invited from abroad to teach in Laos. Similarly to Russia and Turkey, universities do not protect students, especially not with regard to political topics. Laos is a country where every freedom is restricted, especially freedom of speech and academic freedom both offline and online. Moreover, university lecturers and administrators are perceived as civil servants who are subservient to government rules and regulation. It is very difficult to shift the control of higher education to the private sector and/or nongovernmental board.


One aspect which is highly relevant to the current and historical sociopolitical climate of Pakistan which I noticed was the need to identify autocratic influences prior to their oppression taking hold. There is currently a vast amount of ongoing political turmoil in Pakistan which are focused around the unconstitutional authoritarian interference of the military in the affairs of the civilian government. As is my own experience, academic material which is used in schools presents a highly biased and historically inaccurate narrative of Pakistan’s military which largely overlooks its role in perpetuating the pattern of political instability and incompetence in Pakistan, as well as actively hiding human rights abuses that institutions have committed against citizens. This control over academic material has allowed the military to maintain the favor of the masses for many years, which is a spell which is only just being broken at a large scale due to a former Prime Minister’s actions.

The “ball” model provides a good framework to help recognize the initial stages of interference in academia before it is too late, and the general discussion also provoked thoughts about how different the country may have been now if the populace had collectively come to its current conclusion much farther in the past. Early interception of such illiberal forces is necessary and so is alternative pedagogy which deviates from the traditional educational systems, which are tied to larger compromised political institutions. It is crucial to intellectually liberate the masses so that they are allowed to make well-informed political decisions.

However, much of alternative pedagogy is tied to technological advances and a country such as Pakistan is sorely lacking in both the infrastructure and technological literacy required to engage with such practices. In a country in which alternative pedagogy which deviates from the accepted political and religious narrative is extremely dangerous and technological systems which provide much-needed anonymity are inaccessible, how can illiberal influences be viably fought in the short term?

Second Jenő Szűcs Lecture by Alexandr Voronovici

Our research fellow, Alexandr Voronovici, gave a lecture in the framework of the Jenő Szűcs Lecture Series on March 21, 2023, entitled: Secessionism and Historical Politics: Instrumentalizing the Past in the Unrecognized Republics of Donbas and Transnistria. The speaker compared these two para-states (also called “de facto” or separatist states) and their historical-cultural narratives. The (ab)uses of historical memory by separatist politicians and historians who support their agenda was analysed as a consequence of unrecognized status and as a tool of justifying separatism and legitimization of the regimes concerned. In lack of clear linguistic-ethnic borders and durable precedent of existence as a recognized state, both de facto states lean on arguments of “moral superiority” to justify why the great powers should recognize them. Therefore, they apply some of the keywords of Western liberal democracies such as tolerance and democracy and multiethnicity, while also lean on Soviet traditions of regionalism and internationalism. In the end, Voronovici drew attention to the surprisingly intense presence of Holocaust memory in both separatist territories -surprising in lack of large Jewish population – Holocust memory is also a tool to appeal to EU partners as civilized and moral entities. The historical participation of many Ukrainians in the genocide of the Jews is now exploited as a rhetorical tool to justify armed conflicts with the central government.

Summary by Bence Bari and Agnes Kelemen.

Upcoming Public Lecture: Secessionism and Historical Politics

The Democracy Institute’s historians launched a public lecture series–Jenő Szűcs Lecture Series–to bring together international as well as local scholars of history and related fields in Budapest as well as online to exchange their results on the interplay between democracy and histor(iograph)y in a broad sense. The series’ title honors the legacy of Jenő Szűcs historian, an advocate of recognizing Central Europe as a historical region and a major critic of the misuses of national past in his native Hungary. The series was launched on February 21 by CEU professor Gábor Gyáni who discussed dilemmas of public history and the marginalization of professional history writing in his talk: Telling the truth (or not) about history.

The second lecture will be held by our research fellow and CEU alumnus Alexandr Voronovici: Secessionism and Historical Politics: Instrumentalizing the Past in the Unrecognized Republics of Donbas and Transnistria. The event takes place in Nador street 15m room 202 from 17:30 on March 21, 2023. Registration for in-person participation here. You can join online through zoom here.

Further information:


New Lecture Series dedicated to Jenő Szűcs

The Democracy Institute’s historians launched a public lecture series–Jenő Szűcs Lecture Series–to bring together international as well as local scholars of history and related fields in Budapest as well as online to exchange their results on the interplay between democracy and histor(iograph)y in a broad sense. The series’ title honors the legacy of Jenő Szűcs historian, an advocate of recognizing Central Europe as a historical region and a major critic of the misuses of national past in his native Hungary. The series was launched on February 21, 2023 by CEU professor Gábor Gyáni who discussed dilemmas of public history and the marginalization of professional history writing in his talk: Telling the truth (or not) about history.

“Lost in Transition” – Closing conference

On March 3-4, 2023, the Democracy in History working group hosted the closing conference of a four-years long (2019-2023) research project entitled Lost in Transition: Social Sciences, Scenarios of Transformation, and Cognitive Dissonances in East Central Europe after 1989 coordinated by the Centre for Advanced Study in Sofia, financed by the Porticus Foundation. DI’s lead researchers Violeta Zentai and Balázs Trencsényi served as senior facilitators in the project which placed place the current anti-liberal and anti-democratic backlash in Eastern Europe, into a comparative historical perspective.

Academics Facing Autocracy Program Description

Illiberal practices and autocratic pressure have been targeting higher education as a pivotal place of intellectual, ideological and sociocultural contestation — as liberal democracy’s epistemic foundation and a site of its renewal.

Illiberal and autocratic policies are skillfully manipulating the structural problems of the higher education, privatizing or etatizing universities and research institutions. The emerging soft authoritarianism is marked by parallel structures that undermine self-governance and quality assurance practices of academic communities. Such reforms are easy to defend in an era marked by the commercialization of the higher education, the hierarchical stratification of the faculty, and the growing gap between the activist networks and academic knowledge production. In doing so, they seek to marginalize universities as loci of democratic resilience and anti-authoritarian resistance in national cultural and political spaces. While autocrats avidly learn from each other, academics under siege scramble for self-preservation, caught between prospects of existential threats and surviving in exile. Local anti-intellectualism has been turned into a global salami-tactics, leaving behind intellectual enclaves and fragmented diaspora communities sharing the fate of former allies in a shrinking civic space.

The OSUN Global Visiting Fellowship for “Academics Facing Autocracy” scheme brought together at the Democrcy Institute colleagues from the hotspots of this struggle an opportunity for critical reflection and dialogue, to explore sustainable global strategies that create new links between research, teaching and civic engagement in response to a global challenge. In particular, we seek new insight on recent efforts that offer „hybrid education for students in hybrid regimes” and academic sanctuary.

The program is hosted by the Democracy Institute on the Budapest campus of Central European University, which itself had to move its traditional gradute programs to Austria as a result of the illiberal Hungarian political regime’s pressure manifested in the infamous “Lex CEU” of 2017. CEU remains committed, however, to maintain research and non-degree educational activities in Hungary and thereby also keep its Budapest premises meaningful.

The fellows’ first meeting took place on February 23 where right after a round of introductions, the team set out to establish a framework within which to study the various cases they know of academics resisting authoritarian regimes’ attacks on education by creating alternative ways for it. The program’s fellows have first-hand experiences with such cases and are committed to share their knowledge and help victims of similar attacks by participating in a new initiative to examine how can models be applied in different contexts and thus functional practices transferred transnationally.

Current Fellows (2023)

Noemi Levy Aksu

Noemi Levy Aksu has a first-hand experience of illiberal and autocratic attacks on higher education. In 2017, then an assistant professor in Ottoman and Modern Turkish history at Boğaziçi University (Istanbul), she was dismissed for signing the Declaration for Peace (January 2016, a criticism of state violence against civilians in the Kurdish region). She became involved in the solidarity network of the Academics for Peace and was one of the founders of the Centre for Democracy and Peace Research (CDPR) in London, a registered charity which promotes independent knowledge production in Turkey. In 2019-20, she coordinated a CDPR capacity building project, aiming to support eight solidarity academies in Turkey, which enabled her to work in close collaboration with scholars and activists throughout the country. As a CDPR trustee, she remains involved in two current local initiatives: the Center for the Right to the City of İzmir Solidarity Academy; and the “100years100objects” project, a critical digital encyclopedia of Modern Turkey, developed by Kültürhane in Mersin. In 2020, she joined the Truth, Justice, Memory Center (Hafıza Merkezi) in Istanbul. There, she has developed the original “Memory and Youth” program, which brings together young citizens from different backgrounds and articulates workshops, field visits and mentorship for their projects addressing various aspects of Turkey’s contentious past.

Thiago Amparo

Thiago Amparo – conducted his master and doctoral studies in Hungary – and in both he has focused on how right-wing movements have taken up the law to reinforce discrimination in countries like Brazil, South Africa and the United States. More recently, as a professor at FGV Law School,  he has founded a research center on racial justice and the law, in which democracy and race are key areas of research, as well as ha has conducted legal clinics related to discrimination against LGBTQIA+ people. Alongside with his academic work, he has been acting as an advocate and public intellectual in issues related to illiberalism and human rights violations in Brazil, closely collaborating with civil society organizations and writing for Brazil’s main newspaper on weekly basis.

Nurzhamal Karamoldoeva

 Through her creative film work Nurzhamal Karamoldoeva reinforces the importance of transformative role media plays in rethinking and reshaping social gender norms in a society.

 Looking at film as both a social practice and a cultural product provides a framework to her increasing desire of establishing a safe environment for visual arts in Kyrgyzstan. The overall goal of establishing such framework is the creation of a new awareness of film not so much as an entertainment but a cultural and social capital. Using film as an interdisciplinary instrument of a wider field of cultural studies she would also envision including historical revisionism in the approach to study film as part of representation of a certain epoch.

Almira Ousmanova

When CEU was forced to cease its operations in Budapest under the pressure of Hungarian government, and later on relocated to Vienna, Almira Ousmanova was struck by the commonality of institutional trajectories of CEU and her home University – European Humanities  University (EHU), that  became the first University in Exile  in the XXIst century’s Europe, since its closure by Belarusian authorities for political reasons in 2004. The history of EHU spans over virtually the entire thirty-year period of postsocialist development ( as in case of CEU)  and is full of dramatic twists and turns. EHU succeeded to survive and develop further despite  the obstacles, caused by the authoritarian regime of Lukashenko, starting from the beginning of the 1990s. During 17 years of exile the faculty of EHU gained a unique experience of cross-border functioning,  of intellectual nomadism and  civil activism, while working in between Belarus and Lithuania; creating new educational programs in a foreign country; conducting research on the postsocialist political, cultural and scientific transformations; providing liberal education, based on democratic values and academic freedoms, to the  young people  from the region, and creating the infrastructures of solidarity and support for both students and scholars (before and after the political crisis in Belarus in 2020 and the war in Ukraine in 2022).

Alexandr Voronovici

Alexandr Voronovici is writing a book that analyzes memory politics in the secessionist republics in Donbas and Transnistria, putting them also within the larger context of separatism and non-recognition in the post-Soviet space and beyond.

Nikita Bogachev

Nikita Bogachev is a graduate of Higher School of Economics in St. Petersburg (2018) and the programme “Comparative History: Late Antique, Medieval, and Renaissance Studies” at CEU, his background is in History and Byzantine Studies. In 2020, Nikita has defended master thesis in which he explored how Byzantine monastic literature shaped the penitential behaviour and practices related to body in the medieval male monasticism. Currently, his research interest is in exploring mutual determination of fiction and reality, relation of literature to collective trauma, and the ways literary and historical, especially neo-medieval, narratives are abused to justify and shape politics.

The Historical Construction of National Consciousness – Book launch

A new English translation of selected writings by the famous Hungarian historian of Central Europe (and this concept) Jenő Szűcs (1928-1988) was recently published by CEU Press. The editors and translators of the volume are CEU professors Gábor Klaniczay, Balázs Trencsényi and Gábor Gyáni. The book was launched at CEU’s Budapest campus (and online) on December 1 with a discussion with CEU Press director Emily Poznanski and the the volume’s editors and several other historians. The participants reflected on the importance of the historical work of Szűcs and on the role of translation in the dissemination of academic books. At several occasions during Szűcs’s lifetime, the pioneering nature of his research and publications remained under-appreciated by the international academic community, because by the time they were published in French and German, they had almost become outdated. Thanks to CEU Press, the entire volume is available online with open access.

Book cover image:

The volume’s editors discussing the legacy of Jenő Szűcs:

(Photos by the Democracy in History working group)

Gábor Gyáni, Gábor Klaniczay, Balázs Trencsényi (from the left)
Gábor Gyáni, Gábor Klaniczay, Balázs Trencsényi (from the left)

Sport and politics conference


On the 15th of November we hosted a conference (in Hungarian) co-organized by the Institute of Political History and CEU’s Democracy Institute about the popular and timely topic of the relationship of sports and politics. The lectures concentrated on the 20th century, several of them on the role of sports in Cold War politics. Balázs Trencsényi and Ágnes Kelemen from the Democracy Institute’s working group served as panel chairs. The last panel of the event was a roundtable discussion by Róbert Takács historian, Péter Pető and Viktor Egri journalists and Ferenc Dénes sport economist where mainly the football world championship of 2022 and the current Hungarian government’s sport-related policies were discussed. The video recording of the roundtable is available at the YouTube channel of the Institute of Political History.