It’s twenty years since a group of anti-communist dissidents took the brave decision to revive the newspaper Lidové Noviny, once the spiritual home of the Czech nation’s most eminent journalists and essayists. The dissidents were searching for a way of getting uncensored news and views to a wider audience. For two years, from January 1988 until December 1989, they distributed a monthly “samizdat” version of Lidové Noviny, until the paper was revived as a regular daily in January 1990. An archive of those samizdat editions has now been put online.
“Newspaper as school” is the title of the front-page editorial in the first samizdat edition of Lidové Noviny, dated January 1988. The author is one Václav Havel, and in it he expresses the hope that the samizdat Lidové Noviny can serve as a true mirror of the times, drawing on the newspaper’s prestigious reputation.
Lidové Noviny was first published in 1893, and its early contributors included the Čapeks and Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk. It quickly became known for its journalistic excellence, but fell victim to the periodic twists and turns of Czechoslovakia’s dark century. In 1952 it was shut down by the communists.
The idea of reviving Lidové Noviny belonged to former reform communist turned dissident Jiří Ruml, who was also the samizdat monthly’s first editor-in-chief. After a few false starts in 1987, from January 1988 onwards the editorial team succeeded in publishing – illegally - a monthly digest of uncensored news and comment with a print run of some 350 copies. This, in true samizdat fashion, was photocopied by loyal readers until each edition reached a circulation of some 10,000. Historian Jiří Pernes spoke about the significance of the samizdat newspaper to Czech Television:
“The opposition movement against communism in Czechoslovakia had become elevated to a higher plane, and there was a need to create their own platform for written information which would bring these people together on a different level than the previous verbal or social interaction.”
Each month Jiří Ruml tucked a copy under his arm and went off to the communist authorities in a vain attempt to have the publication registered. Each time he was turned away. The samizdat monthly continued right up until January 1990, when the first edition of the newly restored daily Lidové Noviny hit the newsstands.
All twenty-two samizdat editions – there was no Lidové Noviny in August 1988 or July 1989 – have now been put online on Lidové Noviny’s website. They make fascinating reading. February 1988’s issue features the headline “Rockets Rockets Rockets” and is a rundown of the two superpowers’ nuclear arsenals. So not that much has changed – today’s Lidové Noviny features the latest news on American plans to deploy parts of it missile defence shield in Central Europe, something bitterly opposed by her old Cold War enemy Russia.