The Research Center for East European Studies in Bremen : A Look into its History and Holdings

One of the world’s largest collections of dissidents’ inventories and samizdat or tamizsdat literature is located in Bremen, Germany. With over 600 personal archives from the former Soviet Union alone, it is not only large, but due to its variety of different national origins – beside the Soviet Union, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and GDR – its holdings are also unique.

The Beginnings of the Centre

The decision to found the “Research Centre for Independent Literature and Social Movements in Eastern Europe at the University of Bremen” was taken in December 1981, on the eve of the proclamation of martial law in Poland, in the town-hall of Bremen. The Prime Ministers of the German states had been asked who would care for such an institute, and the Bremen mayor Hans Koschnick offered to host it. The decision was political and its significance should be understood against the background of the Cold War. The aim of the project was namely to research the societies of the “Eastern bloc” beyond the party and the state: to analyze cultural developments and grass-root initiatives in the societies and in the underground. Accordingly, a massive storm of outrage arose in countries of the Warsaw Pact when the center started operating in May 1982 under the name Forschungsstelle Osteuropa (FSO). The Polish ambassador demanded the immediate closure of the institute. Soviet newspapers retorted that Bremen had fallen under a revanchist spell and affiliated it with the bad example of Munich, where Hitlerism had first appeared. The West German government was accused of not respecting the Final Act of Helsinki, since the center could be interpreted as a move aiming to the collapse of socialist states. Up to 1989 the institute remained under the surveillance of the secret services of the Communist bloc, who endeavored, but never succeeded in infiltrating the staff.

The Origins of the Archival Collection

The FSO received the task to collect, research, and inform about all materials related to independent literature and culture in Eastern Europe. The documents were smuggled out from behind the Iron Curtain in the most diverse ways: sometimes diplomatic posts were used; journalists helped; the documents were received via a sea passage through Scandinavia to Germany, and sometimes they were smuggled behind mirrors in the lavatories of trains that went through the border control. Naturally, after 1989 it became possible to transport the political writings, literature and underground artworks through legal means. Most decisively, in 1990 the exiled dissident in Germany Lev Kopelev (1912−1997) donated his personal papers to the FSO and as such gave it a form of a seal of approval. Many immigrants and dissidents followed his example; especially those who preferred to have their papers within reach in Europe and not far away in the United States.

The institute’s collection is still growing today. In most cases the archive is contacted by older emigrants or by relatives of deceased emigrants.

The Soviet and Post-Soviet Collection

Among the over 600 archive-originators are the publicist Vladimir Maksimov (1930−1995), the editor of the journal Kontinent who emigrated to Paris, Natalya Gorbanevkaya (1936−2013), activist for Human Rights and co-editor of the Chronicle of Current Events (Khronika tekushchikh sobytiy), the art historian Igor Golomshtok (1929−2017), Ala Sariban (b. 1948), feminist from Leningrad, the authors Chingiz Guseynov (b. 1929) and Juriy Trifonov (1925−1981), the avant-garde composer Edison Denisov (1929−1996), the artist-couple Ry Nikonova and Sergey Sigey (1942 or 1947–2014) and many more.

Their papers consist of diaries, manuscripts, numerous correspondences, and also letters from the Gulag. Furthermore there are inventories of relatively unknown samizdat typists and collectors such as Maya Berzina (1910−2002), whose private collection includes e.g. petitions in favour of the exiled Andrey Sakharov to Leonid Brezhnev and the General Secretary of the UN. There are original copies of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s novel The First Circle and poems that were personally graphically designed by Josef Brodsky. Next to the original Khronika tekushchikh sobytiy there are also uncountable other Samizdat journals. These are joined by sculptures and graphics by Vadim Sidur, works by the concept artist Dmitriy Prigov and audio documents.

For the Perestroika period and the Yeltsin years, numerous documents from different political, human rights, and environmental groups have been collected.

The East-Central European Collection

The Polish and Czechoslovak collections are also extensive, while the inventories for Hungary and the GDR are rather small. The Polish collection consists of drugi obieg (“the second circle”) and documents mostly related to the Solidarność movement: pamphlets, leaflets, journals, badges, around different 3,000 underground postage stamps, posters, caricatures, photographs, and others. But there are also some dozen personal archives, mainly from emigrants to Germany who continued their work and support for Solidarność abroad.

Moreover, the Czechoslovak collection consists mostly of various collections and series of underground printed books banned after 1968, for example the collection of Edice petlice. Furthermore, the archive holds the negatives of the Charta-photographer Ivan Kyncl (1953−2004) and the artworks, poems and posters of the performance artist Karel Trinkewitz (1931−2014).

Finally, there is the mail-art collection, with pieces from all over Eastern Europe gathered by the German collector Klaus Groh.

Access to the Archive

All information on how to organize a research stay at the archive can be found on the homepage of the FSO in German, English, Russian, Polish and Czech. There is also a link to the online-catalogue available. Although all collections are listed here with at least a short annotation, the majority of the holdings are not yet processed and described in detail up to the level of every single file or document. Consequently, additional information about the collections can be asked via email from the archivists. Just please make sure you have first searched the catalogue before addressing the archivists!

To prepare a research stay at FSO, users have to fill in the respective form, which can also be found on the website. The request should be sent at least 4 weeks in advance and the dates of the stay have to be confirmed by the archivists. In busy times, it may take three month before a place in the reading room is available. So please plan your research trip in advance!

The reading room is open Monday through Thursday, 10 a.m. to 5. p.m., German holidays excluded. The archival material is handed out only in the morning from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m.

By Susanne Schattenberg,
Director of the Research Centre for East European Studies at the University of Bremen


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