Interview with Karol Ander – perceptions of the communist era in Czech Republic

During the field trip to Prague we had the opportunity to interview a student attending an event to commemorate the 65th
anniversary of February 1948 when the communist party took over power.  On asked what his perceptions were on communism, this is what he had to say.

“That is a question I cannot answer in a few sentences.  It’s a very sensitive issue for anybody.  I have an opinion of mine, however I did not live through the era when the communists were in power so all that I got is the text books and the stuff I study myself and the people that I talk to about former regime and while the communist regime did a lot of bad things to this country, to the people and we have a very nasty legacy thanks to the communists in here and the society today which is not only what I think but it’s pretty clear the Society today in here is very divided on the subject of the former communist regime and the problem is that there is no effort to open the subject under public level.  Nobody really has managed to find any tools on how to debate on this subject and that’s one of the main problems I think”.

Rose Muzvondiwa

Advertisements

Jan Palach 2 : Media Portrayals

The story of Jan Palach and his dramatic action of self-immolation captured a lot of hearts. Many people and media outlets wanted to retell the story and help the world become aware of his actions, and message. From documentaries, music videos to simple references Jan Palach became world known as one of the heroes that actively stood up against communist Czechoslovakia.

One of the most acclaimed documentaries that told of his story and the days following his suicide, is The Burning Bush by Agnieszka Holland. Holland is a Polish born director who having had studied in Prague at the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague (FAMU), had knowledge and interest in the Czechoslovak revolution and Jan Palach.

Many bands and musicians also wanted to portray or dedicate and tribute their songs and music videos to Palach’s actions including Kasabian’s song “Club Foot”, Francesco Guccini’s song  “La Primavera di Praga”, “The funeral of Jan Palach” by the Zippo band.

As well as documentaries and songs, statues were also erected to commemorate Palach.  Though statues and art might not be considered media, they still serve the same purpose of informing and reminding the masses of a person or event creating a collective memory. Andras Beck unveiled a statue in the city of Melnik dedicated to Palach on the 40th anniversary of his death. This statue is currently in France.

beck_andras_palach1970

Mwen Fikirini

Jan Palach

Jan Palach was a student at Charles University in Prague that committed suicide in 1969 in protest against the invasion of the Soviet forces marking the end of the Prague Spring. His act of self-immolation was meant to remind the Czech people of their demoralisation, it was said a resistance group was set up for the purpose of acting out until these demands were met. Many different people some who spoke to Jan and knew him reflected upon their meetings with trying to explain why he did what he did. Many people spoke of his protest against demoralization of the Czech people and his hatred of the Soviet regime. These demands were abolition of censorship, the banning of Zprava (the official newspaper of the Soviet forces) also calling for the Czechoslovak people to strike in support of these demands.

The people of Czechoslovakia united in their sympathy for Palach and their realisation of what their government was doing to them.

“Last night, students in Vienna took to the streets to express their solidarity with Czechoslovak students. Equipped with dozens of banners, they organized a silent procession.”

Svobodné slovo daily, 25 January 1969

 

The world also sympathised with the Czech people, many newspapers reported of his suicide and even officials from around the world sent their condolences. Pope Paul VI paid tribute to Jan Palach’s memory in his message of 26 January 1969 when he stated: “We can uphold the values that put self-sacrifice above others to the supreme test, but we cannot approve the tragic form taken on behalf of their aims.”

Palach was buried at Olsany Cemetary, because of his politically charged suicide his gravesite became a national shrine. This scared the communist party as they did not want an anti-communist martyr, so the StB exhumed and cremated his remains sending them back to his mother. The urn with the remains was not returned until 1990.

Memorial

P1010732In 1989 people began airing their grievances in peaceful marches, these protests were named “Palach Week”, the police tried to quash these anti-communist demonstrations. Since they knew news of them might spread disobedience and revolt through the country, the Velvet Revolution occurred and less than a year later communism had fallen. In Tim Cresswell’s book Place an introduction, he states there can be “many manifestations of place” (2004:3), in Prague this can be related to Jan Palach’s (and Jan Zajic’s) memorial. After the revolution they were commemorated through a bronze cross embedded in Prague outside the National Museum, for the people this is a sign of hope and honour to their memory while for the communists it was a significant sign of the revolutions both Velvet and Prague Spring as well as the end of communism. Different spaces are made meaningful by different individuals making them places “a meaningful location” (Cresswell, 2004:7) because they become attached in a variety of ways.

When considering place it is also important to highlight that John Agnew (1987) defined place as having 3 components making it a meaningful location these are location, locale and sense of place. Cresswell also discusses the issue of gaining a sense of a place from filmic representations of the place, this relates to hyper reality. If you look into the previously linked BBC video of Jan Palach’s funeral which was broadcasted across the world, it is important to realise to the western world this was one of the few representations of war torn Czechoslovakia. This sense of place proved to be very different to what we came across when we travelled to the Czech Republic.

As well as this memorial, Jan Palach was also honoured through different places, streets and squares being named after him in Czechoslovakia, Luxembourg, France, Poland, Netherlands, Italy, Bulgaria, United Kingdom and even Mauritius.

References

Cresswell, T. (2004) Place: a short introduction. Blackwell Publishing Ltd:Oxford

Mwen Fikirini

The Fall of Communism in Czechoslovakia

Velvet Revolution

Unlike any other communist country that had to go through a violent revolution, Czechoslovakia fortunately had a non-violent revolution. The non-violent revolution which saw the overthrow of the Communist government took place on the 17th of November to the 29th of December 1989 was named the Velvet Revolution.
On the 17th of November 1989, a group of students held a peaceful demonstration in Prague but was suppressed by the riot police. A student was attacked by the riot police (Tim Lambert, N/A). Following the incident, it sparked a lot attention and ignited the anger within the people thus causing a series of demonstrations that continued until late December. On the 19th of November, human right activist formed the Civic forum (Tim Lambert, N/A). The number of peaceful protestors in Prague grew from 200,000 to 500,000 in merely two days. Although the government resigned on the 24th of November due to the pressure, that was not the end as the demonstrations went on.

On the 27th of November, all citizens of Czechoslovakia took part on a two hour general strike. Eventually, the Communist party agreed to end the 1 party rule and promised to form a coalition government (Tim Lambert, N/A). The citizens of Czechoslovakia were not satisfied with the new government as they were still under the power of the communist party. So, the citizens held more demonstrations. Due to the pressure, a new government was formed on the 10th of December where the Communist became the minority. On the 29th of December, Vaclav Havel a playwright and leading opponent of Communism was elected as the president by the Federal Assembly.

Finally for the first time in 40years, Czechoslovakia held its first multi-party elections and a new government made up of a coalition of parties opposed to the transitional government and Havel was re-elected (Howstuffworks, (N/A).

Tim Lambert. N/A. The Fall of Communism In Eastern Europe. [ONLINE] Available at:http://www.localhistories.org/communism.html. [Accessed 15 April 13].

How Stuff Works. N/A. History of Czechoslovakia. [ONLINE] Available at:http://history.howstuffworks.com/european-history/czechoslovakia3.htm. [Accessed 15 April 13].

Foong Lin, Liew

Jan Sladek about the Plastic People of the Universe

Jan Sladek is a  lecturer at Charles University- Department of Sociology, Faculty of Arts and Philosophy. During our stay in Prague, we had the pleasure to meet and interview him. One of the very first questions was about the Plastic people of the universe as we were very interested in finding out what’s his opinion regarding the way the communists treated the dissidents. Here is what he said:

Source: Museum of communism

Source: Museum of communism

“This is a paradigm case of the totalitarian regime. Harriet a famous thinker of the 21st century, had this idea about totalitarian regime. She said “in a normal democratic regime you can separate private sphere, public and state sphere. Example in universities you have private, public and state universities. You can have your private life and have public.  For example, I am a teacher and lecturer, and if I go to a political party I will try to get some share of the state power… that is how it works.

In totalitarian regime one of the best pictures you can find in 1984 by Howell, it basically sees no difference between this. In Howell there is a quote where he said “sex is an empty state thing”, that is to say your private intimate thing is seen by the state as an offensive.  This is what happen to Plastic People of the Universe- a bunch of crazy guys making songs or singing songs de-picturing the consummate society. There was a great joke about this consummate in a country with shortage economy. A group of people who say we are consuming in the society, they didn’t even have strong anti—regime or anti political quotes but the regime was so sensitive to its opposition and felt it everywhere.

Even these things that are seen as just a normal, public expression is seen offensive and felt as an ethic on the state. Even the fact that the people choose to have long hair (which is a private thing)… the regime felt it  has a state opposition. what happened was that they went into trials, most of them went to jail, this was what triggered the opposition and charta 77, which was the appeal to the court for human right and the appeal was based on the ground that Czech Republic sign a treaty saying as a country that they would defend civil liberty.

This is one of the trigger and one of the pictures of how silly the regime reacted to any kind of unconformity to identity. Fighting against music group and make it triggers the biggest opposition in the Czech republic/Czechoslovakia at the time “I think this a joke of history”

To conclude this, even though we have many face of communism and many face of dissident,  one thing was sure that the regime in Czech republic was very sensitive, it was very paranoid and this is what basically, with together in the shortage economy lead to the end because if you go against people who play music then no one feels safe in the country because they were not politicians and they were not political. So if you fight this people will be afraid, and when people start getting afraid due to what they say, insecurity comes in.”

Marina Gogeanu

Interview transcribed by: Lesoda Otu-Iso

Ceausescu against the invasion of Czechoslovakia (1968)

We’ve asked Dr. Michal Pullman to think about 1968 and Romania which was against the invasion of Czechoslovakia.  What did that say about Ceausescu which was against any freedom in Romania and now he was suddenly approving freedom of press, freedom of speech, etc in Czechoslovakia? Do the Czech people remember this and consequently perceive Romania in a different way?

Here is what he said:

“The perception of Romania and Czechoslovakia was also ambivalent in this way; on the other hand Romania was perceived as a country where the communism had the most violent practices.  The Securitate was very well known in the whole Eastern block and was referred to as a kind on non-human or was synonymous for non-human approach of the system towards its inhabitants, towards the people.

At the same time, the Czechs and Slovaks saw the social situation of Romania which belonged to the worst ones in the whole Soviet block and it was very bad but on the other hand they knew the political representation who was very violent and repressive at home refused soviets in 1968 to invade Czechoslovakia and Romania even did not provide any technical, nothing… cause as we know the Germans did not come because it was not acceptable till 20 years after the war that the East German army to come to Czechoslovakia, so the East Germans stayed at home but provided, they provided  technical equipment for the Soviets; but Romania refused even that and this was the main ambivalence of perception of Romania  at the end of the 80s and it was of course, no public topic in the time of the 70s and first half of the 80s because of the brotherhood of Ceausescu and Hauseck… or both of these political representations with were strongly (specially the Czechoslovak one was) strongly bound to the Soviet politics but to some kind of hard administrative line of building socialism with a hat of communist party… so it became a topic in the very days of upheaval or in the splendid days of November 1989,  the fact that the Romania had not invaded Czechoslovakia.[…]  The people knew somehow but did not care too much because Romania is not the direct neighbour so they accepted the fact that Romania was not participating in any way at the occupation fell into oblivion a little bit in the public sphere.”

Marina Gogeanu

Transcribed by Rose Muzvondiwa

Comparison between communist Romania and Czechoslovakia

We’ve asked Dr. Michal Pullman if there can be made a comparison between communist Romania and Czechoslovakia. This is what he answered:

“Of course and the comparison is fantastic on various levels.

Primary level is the violence at the very end of the regime whereas the Czechoslovak is closely bound to the ideology of non-violence and brotherhood.  The Romania was very violent and this was already at the time a tension that was not too much discussed cause people did not know how to articulate this huge difference but the violence outlook of the 1989 revolutionary upheaval. How can we talk about the Romanian events of December 1989 was really perceived at the moment. There are also other important differences… we can talk about 1989 whereas Romanian revolution began with an idea of religious freedom it was of course reduced freedom was one of the many topics in Czechoslovakia but the most important notion was non-violence not the idea of violence in religious life as was the case in Romania and also there are many other differences in the everyday life.

[…] we don’t have to compare only violence and nonviolence not only civil rights and religions rights but also can compare things like drug culture and everyday life.  But this is something we have to do now. Unfortunately I do not speak Romanian but I would introduce immediately these comparisons because they are extremely interesting especially Czechoslovakia and Romania cause it was so different in many respects but both with similar outcomes I mean with demise on the system and the introduction of the neo Liberal capitalism which the people did not want neither in Czechoslovakia nor Romania.”

Marina Gogeanu

Transcribed by Rose Muzvondiwa

How did people perceive Alexander Dubcek after Prague Spring?

Dr. Michal Pullman related to us how popular Alexander Dubcek was back in 1968 and the cruel life he had after what was known as Prague Spring.

(Alexander Dubcek) “was extremely popular in the time of Prague Spring. People were shocked there can be someone who is open minded, who is flexible in ideas and can talk in variety of languages… who has fantastic contacts in the whole world and is recognised as the person who represents the Democratic Socialism which was an idea broadly acceptable in 1968, the very notion of democratisation, of solutions. He was the person who was also admired at that time.

Everything changed with the Soviet occupation in August 1968. Already this negotiation of the Soviets political representation and the Czechoslovak one was very difficult because both sides had to do some compromises that were not perceived positively in their home countries.  Alexander was pushed afterwards to be an ambassador to Turkey because it was a way of removing him from political negotiation.   Eventually he was dismissed from this position and became a forest worker in Slovakia… and had to do a hard job. Afterwards he rose again in the second half of the 80’s on the background of renewed attractiveness of the idea of democratic socialism, of course.

He was the person most popular in the days of November 1989 because everyone knew him as the representative of what people really wanted at that time (in 1968), that was the democratic socialism but now, he was much older and had less personal/physical power or possibilities and then, the developments did not go towards the democratic socialism but rather towards democratic capitalism or privatised  which was not his idea and unfortunately came his death on the highway.”

Marina Gogeanu

Interview transcribed by: Rose Muzvondiwa

Why did Czechoslovakia split and what effect did it have on people?

The Czechoslovakia’s split and its effects on people are some of the topics we covered in the interview we took to Dr. Michal Pullman:

“This is a very complicated, hard and complex topic and we need […] long time to explain precisely post war period when the Slovak political representation hoped to have some kind of autonomy even though they did not agree with the split of Czechoslovakia in the 1938 and then especially in 1939.

They hoped to keep some kind of autonomy they were not successful at the time between 1948 and 1968 did not recognise any special rights for Slovakia then the federation came.  Federation was one of the most important things taken from the Slovak perspective.  October 1968 the introduction of the federation, of some rights in Education and culture was perceived positively. that was one of the reasons why the normalisation regime was so much more accepted in Slovakia than in the Czech land.

This of course had radicalised after 1989 when the public space was opened, not only for democratic forces but also for regressive movements such as the national one.  And the Czech Neo Liberal ruling elite was able to take part or to do some kind of agreement with the Slovak political Elite and to split the republic because this was somehow attractive for both side.

The Czech were not limited in their attempt to introduce neo liberal system in the Czech land and the Slovaks political elite were not limited in the introduction of their Nationalist Populist national; it was a kind of deal between these two elites in 1991/92 and they suddenly realised it was attractive for both sides so they just did.

At the same time I just want to add just one idea (not resisting the split) it was unconstitutional, I have to say it openly because there was no poll about that, because it is written in the constitution that when the sovereignty of the state changes there must be some kind of referendum but this political elite I was talking about it in 1991/92 knew that majority would reject that so they did not do any kind of popular decision making they just decided.  But with that I do not want to be under thin eyes because it is difficult to talk about these things, today the Czechs and Slovaks approve of this because they see somehow it brought bad things but also good things and best thing was there was no war. The Elite knew, the popular rejection of the split would come which led them to do split technocratic ally, from that point of view, the split even though its acceptable now has a big deal of internal legitimacy problem. ”

Marina Gogeanu

Interview Transcribed by Rose Muzvondiwa

Crimes of communism

It’s estimated that throughout the world there have been more than a hundred million of victims of communism, so we’ve asked Dr. Oldrich Tuma about the crimes of communism and how they were dispersed.

“Historians already speak about the Olympiads of victims in different countries, trying to get their country not to have more victims than the other countries. […] hundred of millions of victims […] 95% are in Soviet Union or China, perhaps Cambodia  These countries participation was really very different from Eastern Europe.

Even in Czechoslovakia it’s hard to say (how many victims of the communist regime were)…. we know exactly something like 250 people got sentenced to get executed for political reasons… it’s not such a great number. Definitely in some cases there was a mixture of different details…sometimes criminality was involved and so on. 500 or 700 people were shot on borders but many were East Germans or Poles who tried to escape through Czechoslovakia. So that led to lots of incidents on the Czechoslovakian borders; they were definitely crimes of the Czechoslovakian communist regime but the victims weren’t always Czech or Slovaks. Perhaps a few 1000 people died in prisons especially in 50’s, there were tens of thousands of people in prison at the same time and the conditions were not nice especially in the uranium mines; and many people died there or after they were released from there because of the diseases they got.

So in terms of victims, people who lost lives… there will be hundreds or few thousands of people who had something to do with this very violent and repressive period of just five years or so from 49 to 54, something like that. In 51, 52 – people realised that if they’re going to provoke resistance, uprisings or demonstrations, they are bringing themselves to a danger of being sent to prison. So from mid 50’s for 35 years they used different methods compared to the other ones as you know as the existential pressure. […]

(I think) everyone was a victim (of the communist regime). Even the communists were victims of the regime; their life was deformed by it; they had to lie, they had to muddle through it. So I think that just for numbers of repressions…repressions based on imprisonment and executions, perhaps Czechoslovakia is not such an exception if compared Hungary or eastern Germany.”

Marina Gogeanu

Interview transcribed by: Mwen Fikirini