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Utopia and Democracy in East Central European Utopianism

Tuesday, May 23, 2023, 5:30 pm – 7:00 pm

The CEU Democracy Institute’s Democracy in History Workgroup launched a public 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 historian Jenő Szűcs, 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 lecture will introduce the work of the ’Democracy in East Central European utopianism’ research group that has been a part of the Democracy Institute with the support of the Gerda Henkel Foundation since September, 2022. The goal of our research project is the systemic analysis of utopian and dystopian texts, focusing on the problems and conflicts utopianism highlights concerning the ideals of democracy. We investigate what elements of democratic societies have been endorsed and / or criticised by utopias, which we understand as social and political structures presented as alternatives to historical reality. The novelty of the investigation lies not only in the focus of the research -- democracy in utopianism -- but also in the scope of research: rather than focusing on Western, particularly Anglo-Saxon texts as most projects of such type do, we analyse East Central European utopian texts. This way the project contributes to the mapping of the intellectual history of Central Europe.

All the three concepts that appear in the name of our research group are complex and contested. In the current talk we will focus on our understanding and use of the most controversial of them, utopia. We will start by reflecting on the history of utopianism, looking more closely at how the various literary and political elements intersect. We will also reflect on the various attitudes concerning the interpretation of the different phenomena of utopianism and highlight how literary hermeneutics and the attitudes of historians and political scientist may differ, especially in the role of the author and the concept of fictionality.

Beyond the more abstract issues of interpretation and sketching out our main conceptual, theoretical, and methodological framework, we will introduce some samples of actual utopian writings and movements, mainly from Hungary and the former Yugoslavia. Zsolt Czigányik will introduce in short the Hungarian utopian scene, mostly focusing on 19th century writers, such as György Bessenyei and Imre Madách, and reflect on what role the concept of democracy plays in their understanding of an ideal political structure.

When it comes to the former Yugoslavia, Iva Dimovska will reflect on the role utopia and utopian ideas play in building (or solidifying) a sense of collective identity in the former Yugoslavia in the interwar years (from the 1920s to the early 1940s). In doing that, she will focus on a couple of significant writers and movements originating in Belgrade, Zagreb and Ljubljana– the political and cultural centers of the Federation, examining the importance of a number of concepts that are central to our study, such as East and West, Central Europe, the Balkans, or socialist vs. democratic processes.

If you would like to follow the event online, the Zoom meeting will be available here.


Zsolt Cziganyik is a literary scholar, and a Research Fellow at the CEU Democracy Institute. He holds an MA from ELTE's English Department and a BTh from Pazmany Peter Catholic University in Budapest. He began teaching at the English Department of ELTE in 2008, while still a student of the Doctoral School of Literature. Between 2013 and 2020 he worked as a Humanities Initiative Fellow at CEU, and also participated in Erasmus exchange programs in the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki and Royal Holloway, University of London. He is the treasurer of the Utopian Studies Society. His research focus is utopian and dystopian literature and the social and cultural phenomena related to utopianism. He recently completed a monograph investigating the utopian tradition in Hungarian literature. 

Iva Dimovska is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the CEU Democracy Institute. She holds a BA and an MA degree in Comparative Literature from the Ss. Cyril and Methodius University and an MA degree in Gender Studies from CEU. She defended her PhD thesis “Queer(ing) Time in Modernism and How to Read it: James Joyce’s Ulysses and Virginia Woolf’s The Waves” in 2021 at Department of Gender Studies at CEU. She was a visiting scholar at the University College Dublin and at the Zurich James Joyce Foundation. She has also taught courses in modernist literature, feminism and queer theory at CEU and ELTE’s English Department. Iva’s research interests include: modernist literature, utopia and utopianism, socialism, 19th and 20th century literature, gender studies and feminism, and queer theory.