Jan Kavan - Part 1

10-05-2005

Jan Kavan is one of the most interesting and controversial figures in Czech society in recent decades. The son of a Communist politician sentenced in the Slansky show trials of the early 1950s, he himself spent decades in Britain as a leading figure in Czech émigré circles. After his return in 1989, Mr Kavan was accused of having collaborated with the secret police but cleared his name and later became foreign minister and was president of the United Nations General Assembly. In the first of part of this two-part interview, Jan Kavan told me about his family.

"My mother was English and she met my father during the War. After the War my father was appointed to the Czechoslovak Embassy in London and therefore myself and my year-younger brother were born in London. And in 1950 when my father was recalled back to Prague by the Czech foreign office the whole family for the first time came to Czechoslovakia.

"From the high position of an important diplomat and a decorated soldier, an officer, he suddenly was accused of a being a traitor, an imperialist, Zionist agent, and imprisoned. And he was sentenced to first to life and then it was commuted to 25 years imprisonment."

In those days there weren't many foreigners here I'm sure, now there are lots of us - I'm curious how your mother Rosemary found adjusting to life in Czechoslovakia in the 50s.

"It was extremely difficult. As you say foreigners are now used to Prague and Praguer are used to seeing many foreigners. In the '50s there were very few. And some of those who came here as wives of Czech soldiers left again when life became very difficult during the Stalinist '50s.

"And a lot of Czechs were afraid, in particular dealing with my mother, who was labelled as the imperialist British wife of a Czech traitor. So she couldn't find a job and eventually worked as a labourer in a factory; even from that she was eventually expelled. So life was extremely difficult for her while her husband, my father, was in prison.

"She had to find a living to keep me and my brother and herself alive. But she was a very strong character and she survived. And I have still thanks to her sense of humour and strength, despite all of these objectively tough conditions of the '50s, I still have relatively warm memories of my childhood."

As you say your father Pavel was imprisoned, and he died young I know. You yourself briefly became a member of the Communist Party before you were kicked out. Why did you join the party considering what they had done to him?

"Because in the '60s when I was growing up as a student the Communist Party had a total political monopoly. So you basically had a choice of either ignoring politics and deciding that the whole political life is so corrupt and dirty, and supervised by a hostile force, that the best way is to find some very non-political way of living so that one can look at one's face in the mirror in the morning, without feeling ashamed. That was one possibility and many people chose it, and sometimes they described it as a kind of internal exile.

"The other possibility as we saw it, rightly or wrongly, was to join the Communist Party and work within the Communist Party with the reformist wing which from the mid-'60s was quite well known and obvious, and therefore one knew with whom one was working.

"I strongly believed that what eventually culminated in the so-called Prague Spring - the attempt to form communism with a human face, a kind of reform communism - I believe that those ideas are worth helping.

"I was given a party task to try and restrict the influence of the radical student group of which I was myself a member, so it was a stupid if not frustrating and impossible task. Within a few months I was expelled, precisely because I continued to support the radical student group."

When the Prague Spring was crushed by the Soviets you went to England the following year?

"That's correct. I went to England in the spring of 1969, after being in England briefly at the time of the invasion, immediately after the invasion. But I then returned to Prague hoping that I could help my colleagues the radical students and the emerging resistance movement to stop making concessions to the occupying forces.

"But when the reformist government led by [Alexander] Dubcek was finally crushed in spring 1969 and the so-called normalization, as they called the onslaught of totalitarian measures against all the reformers and their supporters, started in spring 1969, it became virtually impossible for me to function; I was expelled from the university, so I emigrated to London."

And in London you were very active in Czech émigré circles. Could you tell us please about your activities in London?

"Yes, when I arrived in London besides enrolling at university my main activities were centred on trying to help the emerging Czech clandestine opposition.

"In fact I followed a kind of rule, or message, which I received at the time from my friend in Prague saying, stay abroad, because you can be more helpful to us outside than inside, given these new conditions, and meet our needs as we define them. Which they defined as first books, all the way to duplicating machines, eventually video recorders, financial support for persecuted dissidents, etceteras.

"I was basically trying during those years to meet all those needs. And in order to do so I established a press and literary agency called Palach Press, and eventually established a charity called the Jan Palach Research and Information Trust.

"And also later with my Polish and Hungarian friends I established a charity called the East European Cultural Foundation which besides helping these dissident activities throughout - and I stress throughout central and eastern Europe, not only in our three countries.

"I was also publishing a prestigious quarterly called East European Reporter, which became the main source of authentic information to the west from east European dissident sources. And I was basically doing that all the time until November '89, when as the first Czech re-émigré as they called it, I returned to Prague."

Next week in the second part of our interview Jan Kavan talks about accusations he collaborated with the StB secret police, and other controversies which have dogged him over the years.

10-05-2005