The Slovaks among you will be more than aware of the 600 or so words that are about to follow, and will surely have better things to do on a national remembrance day than read my squiggles. The foreigners residing in the Slovak state may be less aware, so allow me to tell the story of arguably the most important Slovak cultural institution in the history of Slovak cultural institutions – Matica Slovenská.
In the middle of the 19th century, the Slovakians were in a bit of a pickle. Slovakia itself was a part of the Kingdom of Hungary, which itself was a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The mid-19th century saw minority nations throughout the empire kick up a fuss and stake their claim for more autonomy, and Slovakia was no different in this regard. 1845 (not the song) saw the first periodical in the Slovakian language published, and it was at this time that Slovakia’s Slovakian Ľudovit Štúr was getting down to business championing the cultural existence of the Slovaks.
Influential Slovaks had been attempting to organise some sort of cultural organisation for some time, but their attempts had been rebuffed by the somewhat hypocritical Hungarians. Ján Kollár famously conceived Matica Slovenská as a publishing institute, but the fact that his name isn’t followed by ‘founded’ in that sentence tells you how that went. The dam broke eventually however, and in 1863 Matica Slovenská came into being.
The name wasn’t thrown together out of the ether. It was inspired by the establishment of Matica Srpska in Serbia in 1826, which in itself was followed by similar institutions in Bohemia and Moravia. This brings forward a fairly funny quirk with regards to the name. ‘Matica’ is the modern Slovak word for ‘matrix’, denoting an environment in which something develops. The influence of the previous organisations suggests that it was the Serbian word that was being used, itself translating as ‘Queen Bee’. I didn’t promise that you would find funny what I did.
Matica Slovensksá was tasked with laying the modern foundations of Slovakian culture, of taking the wonderful ideas and creativity of the Slovaks and getting it all organised. Libraries and museums celebrating the past, present and future of Slovakian culture were planned. The organisation even had an initial boost from the Emperor himself, who donated a healthy sum of money to the burgeoning institution.
Matica’s first chairman was a Slovak bishop by the name of Štefan Moyzes, who had long been a major supporter of using the Slovak language in education. The institute was to unify the ‘lovers of Slovakian life and (the) nation’, and was founded in the northern Slovakian town of Martin, which led to that 55k strong town becoming the cultural centre of the nation. They came from all over the nation, and they didn’t waste a moment.
Matica Slovenská was forbidden from taking part in politics and was also denied the opportunity to establish local brands, but word spreads fast when a national awakening is involved. Matica soon became a symbol of Slovakian cultural independence, and less than a decade later the group numbered some 1300 members. Matica developed a broad educational program for the public, and was key in developing amateur theatre and social singing.
It wasn’t all social and creative activity however – Matica established the first Slovak scientific journal, in which it published the findings of its various researches. The journal was called Letopisy, which the Slovakian speakers reading will known means ‘Annals’. 12 volumes were published, and added to Matica’s growing library of books. The group published 41 titles in total, but had a collection of over 10,000 books in its library.
It couldn’t last forever of course, hence the ‘First’ in the title of this article. Matica Slovenská was abolished by force in April 1875, with the Hungarian government confiscated all of the organisation’s property. This mostly amounted to the library and the huge amount of monetary donations that had come the institution’s way. The reason for the shutting down of Matica was charges of ‘anti-government’ and ‘anti-patriotic’ activity, although there sure as shit wasn’t any evidence to support this. It didn’t matter. Matica was done. The Hungarian prime minister was later asked why he didn’t give the property back to the Slovaks, to which he replied that he wasn’t aware of a Slovak nation. Harsh.
The first incarnation of Matica Slovenská only lasted 12 years, but these 12 years were as important as any in the history of modern Slovakia. This was the beginning of an organised national consciousness with a universal appeal, an institution with positive intentions and a progressive mentality. It kicked national cultural activity in the butt, giving artists and scientists a new enthusiasm to kick on. It attracted young people, giving renewed energy to the cause. It accomplished the fundamental task of nation building and national revival, making it easily the most influential institution in Slovakian history.
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