“There is good, better and then there is the USSR.” – New book depicts life in communist Czechoslovakia through memories of people who experienced it

10-01-2020

A new book on Communist Czechoslovakia was launched under the auspices of the Minister of Foreign Affairs at Prague’s Czernin Palace this week. Titled Czechoslovakia: Behind the Iron Curtain, it tracks the history of the communist state, through a combination of narrative, contemporary pictures and extensive oral history in over 600 pages. It was penned by two female Slovak academics Dr Gabriela Beregházyová and Dr Zuzana Palovič. After the official ceremony was ended by a symbolic ringing of keys, I asked Dr Palovič how the idea to write the publication came about.

Zuzana Palovič: “It has been in the making for something like a decade. I am a Slovak Canadian, so I was born in Communist Czechoslovakia. My parents defected and I grew up in both Canada and the United States. However, I always found a way to return [to Slovakia], whether it was for Christmas or summer holidays.

“I found, particularly as I was coming into adulthood, that people would just kind of stop me, whether it was a police officer, notary, or grocer, and they just wanted to share their experiences of the communist with me. They would say this sentence to me: ‘I want you to know, so that you can understand.’

“At first, I was observing and absorbing this for my own understanding, but then I felt the need to share this knowledge. I just started writing it out on my computer and as the pages started accumulating, I realised that there was potential for a book here.

“Of course, the path from a few vignettes to a 600 plus page book involves a lot of work. Gabriela got involved in the project. We started applying our research skills, diving into the archives, visiting museums, but also making systematic interviews.

“While preliminary sources came organically from the ground, we eventually started targeting certain individuals not just from Czechoslovakia, but also from Moscow, Berlin, London and Washington. To put what happened here in a wider context.”

Who did you talk to abroad? Was it Czechs living in foreign countries, or representatives of those countries themselves?

ZP: “Both. It was dissidents, expatriates, captains of industry, basically Czech and Slovak immigrants who became leaders in America or the United Kingdom.

“You normally have works by Czech or Slovak authors, or a sort of global, foreign perspective often penned by amazing expatriates who have written about this region, but not the combo.”

“There were also people affiliated with various institutions as well as from the diplomatic community. It was a really wide spectrum of society and that is reflected in the book.”

You were talking about your background and as authors, you and Gabriela are quite different in this aspect. Her parents stayed in Slovakia during communism, instead of emigrating like yours, and so she grew up in the aftermath of communism in Slovakia. I was wondering, was this difference in experience useful while writing the book?

ZP: “Absolutely. It would have been incomplete without Gabriela’s story. “I have the emigrant perspective, or you could say ‘global perspective’, whereas she has the local perspective. “Her family stayed. They didn’t flee. They experienced the regime change personally.

“Meanwhile my family was across the ocean. I think that is what makes our work unique on the market. You normally have works by Czech or Slovak authors, or a sort of global, foreign perspective often penned by amazing expatriates who have written about this region, but not the combo. That is what we offer.”

Why communism took root in Czechoslovakia and the jokes it led to

Zuzana Palovič, photo: archive of Zuzana PalovičZuzana Palovič, photo: archive of Zuzana Palovič The book is divided into several parts based on chronology, from the reasons why people put their trust in the Communist Party to the eventual demonstrations that brought about the regime’s downfall. These have many chapters which focus on individual themes present in communist Czechoslovakia.

I asked the other author of the book, Dr Gabriela Beregházyová, about one of these – jokes in the communist era.

Gabriela Beregházyová: “Humour and satire was always very important in Czech and Slovak history. We tend to be perhaps a bit more calm, not indulging in conflicts, civil wars and so on.

“Our form of protest and keeping our own view is by making jokes.

“Hitler said that Czechoslovaks are laughing beasts. The worse a situation gets, the more we crack jokes and the more we laugh, the easier it is for us to come to terms with what is happening.

“The era of socialism was full of situations ripe for jokes. Whether it was the planned economy, insufficiency of things like toilet paper on the market, or politics and international meetings, people made many jokes and they did them in secret.”

“There were many jokes I heard, but one that stayed in my mind was a joke from the time after the Warsaw Pact invasion of 1968. It goes: ‘What is the most neutral country in the world? Czechoslovakia, it does not even interfere in its own affairs.’

“There were also many jokes themed around the Soviet Union. For example: ‘There is good, better and then there is the Soviet Union.’”

“Humour and satire was always very important in Czech and Slovak history. We tend to be perhaps a bit more calm, not indulging in conflicts, civil wars and so on… Hitler said that Czechoslovaks are laughing beasts.”

Czechoslovakia was not automatically destined to become a satellite of the USSR, despite war-time negotiations that led to the 1945 Košice Manifesto which provided a solid base for the Communists to gain power.

The Czechoslovak people ended up voting the party into power democratically and it subsequently took over sole leadership of the country during what is known as the Czechoslovak Coup d’état of February 1948.

In light of this fact, I asked Dr Palovič why communism was so attractive to many of the Czechoslovak citizens at that time.

ZP: “We always have to understand things in a wider context. In other words, what was happening in this region at the time when Communism was introduced and why did people actually vote the communists into power, as was the case in Czechoslovakia?

“This had to do with the fact that around a relatively short span of two decades of peace there were two global conflicts. The last one was particularly disastrous and accumulatively resulted in around 100 million dead people.

Gabriela Beregházyová, photo: archive of Gabriela BeregházyováGabriela Beregházyová, photo: archive of Gabriela Beregházyová “Many of our grandparents were directly confronted with this. For example my grandmother saw dead bodies in the river, both Slovak and German.

“When the Russians came, not only did they liberate us from the tyranny that the Nazis were inflicting on our region, but they also brought with them an ideology which they had already tried and tested in the Soviet Union.

“They came with a whole new world order that they offered to us and people were desperate for change. They saw that the way the old world was organised obviously did not work if it caused so much death. A lot of blood had just been spilt.

“They were therefore looking for hope, for change. However, unfortunately, in a very short time span this change showed itself as not as ideal as it presented itself to be.

“Yet by the time this became apparent the systems of control had already been put in place to silence the people.”

The communist experience and its lessons for the West today

Many of the reviews on this book stress its relevance right now. Why do you think they say that?

ZP: “I think a lot of these people are referring to the American context and the sort of flirting with socialism that is happening there.

“Socialism, communism, was always attractive to the creative class and the intelligentsia.

“I completely understand. Why not after all? A more just and egalitarian society is the way forward to a more ideal world.

“However, the way communism was implemented in our region, in Eastern Europe, in China, or anywhere else resulted in murder, repression and, I would say, a quite depressing environment.

“That is what these reviewers are referring to. They want the youth particularly in America to become aware of just how flawed and dangerous this ideology can become when it goes wrong.”

“Socialism, communism, was always attractive to the creative class and the intelligentsia.”

The Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation (VOC) published a poll result in their 2019 report according to which communism is viewed favourably by more than one-in-three millennials. Do you think that is potentially dangerous?

ZP: “I do not think it is potentially dangerous. I just think that there needs to be an awareness raising campaign done in the United States that informs how communism failed in this region of Europe.

“It is necessary to differentiate between communism and socialism, but also to see the limitations. When you try and equalise society it kind of does go against the natural hierarchy and natural order.

“I am not advocating some sort of extreme liberalism, capitalism or free trade. There definitely need to be checks and balances. The rich do need to care for the poor. However, based on the way it was implemented in the 20th century, [communism] certainly has not worked.”

The simultaneous importance and danger of ideals

Launch of the book at Prague’s Czernin Palace, photo: Tom McEnchroeLaunch of the book at Prague’s Czernin Palace, photo: Tom McEnchroe The authors said that the various Central European states often ended up finding their own ways of mobilising themselves and expressing disapproval with the Communist regime. I asked if Slovakia’s opposition had any specific character.

ZP: “There was also a religious movement. The first public manifestation [in Slovakia] took place in 1988 – the Candle Manifestation - and it was believers coming together also.

“Grandmothers coming from villages came in on busses into one of the main squares in Bratislava in the city centre. They sang songs from the church, recited prayed together and held candles in their hand. Then the police surrounded them and doused them in water from water cannons in order to dispel the crowd, so the first manifestation against the regime was religious and that is a reflection of just how much more religious Slovakia is compared to Czechia.

“The second manifestation was in 1989 and that was also led by students [as in the Czech lands].

“The regime change only came about when the young people came out onto the streets, supported by the parents. It was when these two generations came together that the regime knew they could no longer control them.”

GB: “I think that the Velvet Revolution was not just against the regime, but that people were really fighting for something, for freedom, for a greater ideal, a better life. That is what gave it power.

“The rich do need to care for the poor. However, based on the way it was implemented in the 20th century, [communism] certainly has not worked.”

“It is also perhaps what people are lacking now, a greater vision, believing in something, fighting for something. Not just this push and pull but having a something greater to live for.”

ZP: "That is why there is so much disillusionment in our part of Europe.

“As Gabriela says, there is a lack in purpose and vision. People always need these in their lives.

“There is a related statement in this context which I like: ‘There is freedom from, and freedom for’.

“What is this freedom for? What is our aspiration? That is much more difficult than just having freedom from when you have these baddies over there, and you are resisting them. You want to take them away? Well, great, now we’ve taken them away, now what?

“We have to build a country. And a part of building a country is not just building infrastructure or the economy, it is a vision, a purpose. Why do we exist?”

GB: “That is not just relevant to the Czech Republic or Slovakia but the whole Western world. What is our vision?”

“There is a lack in purpose and vision. People always need these in their lives. There is a related statement in this context which I like: ‘There is freedom from, and freedom for’.”

We just had someone at a discussion about the book and the world we are currently living in speaking out against ‘ecology’. They were saying that it is similar to the past. There are cases of people in the Czech Republic speaking out against environmentalism with a fear that it is an ideology.

For people who have experienced the previous regime, is there some sort of fear of a vision, an assumption that it is a new ideology, that ‘they are bringing us towards something’? Did you find out during your research and interviews for the book if there is something in this phenomenon? If and why people who have experienced the previous regime have this fear?

ZP: “I think they are sceptical.

“For example, Slovakia has had six regime changes in the past century. From the Nazis to the Communists, from Austria-Hungary to Czechoslovakia, so we have been exposed to a lot of different belief systems, ideologies.

“Because we have been through so many tectonic shifts we can identify when a new ideology is being presented to us and we can be sceptical towards it.

“Countries which have perhaps been under one ideology: capitalist, individualist, free market for generations – they can’t even see how they are living within a civilisation ideology.”

“Again, that is something I feel our region can offer to the world. Countries which have perhaps been under one ideology: capitalist, individualist, free market for generations – they can’t even see how they are living within a civilisation ideology.”

GB: “Yes. It is to raise awareness. Those people see through the labels. The words may be pretty but what lies behind them? That generation remembers, so they are very sensitive towards it.”

Czechoslovakia: Behind the Iron Curtain is available internationally via Amazon.com in Czech and English, as well as in some regional bookstores. The authors hope it will come out in many other world languages as well.

10-01-2020