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

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Perceptions … quotes from interviews

When looking into how people perceive the reminiscent of the communist architecture, Pavel Kalina stated
“The communist architecture has many negative connotations, of course. They not taken as the good address. “
And then Klara Mergerova stated
“I’m a historian of architecture, so I, myself see the qualities and of course I try to show that there are buildings which were constructed during the communist regime, but which still present some qualities, but I think the general opinion is that those buildings were there to abrupt intrusion and most people refused even to think about qualities connected to the regime”
Digging for perceptions we found different life stories and discovered true feelings and emotions that would have never been found through reading books. Books usually provide definitions which can be shallow, but it is in the emotionally charged words spoken by the people that we truly felt the depth of communism to them
In simple terms what does communism mean to them?
Cab driver: Very bad time, and very bad memories, because I was not allowed to travel, but now I can go anywhere I want to, I don’t even know where I have my passport, because I don’t need it.
Vratislav Brabenec: “Communism is something like a religion…
Vlada Zhmuro: I think the idea of communism (all people equal, share everything blah blah) is not a bad one but its utopian because it goes against human nature.
Karol Ander: It’s a very sensitive issue for anybody.

How do people feel about communism?

We’ve also asked Jan Sladek how does he think that people feel about communism now. This was his answer:

“Talking about nostalgia and about protest, I believe this goes down in the family… you can do much with education, everyone has different experience even the dissident had many faces… some part of the new life in the Czech republic, children then but now my age whose parents were arrested because  the were against communism, they reach for a new life.

What we have witnessed again the last regional election… communist parties went high and got some of the seat in the regional parliament. Young people, especially high school student, started protesting against it. Now this is called in the Czech society anti-communism. This is my own interpretation, I think it is simplifying the way communism was because anti-communism says communism is a bad thing, everyone who supports it supports something bad, this is something that cannot and do not work in the majority of the society because you have to face the fact that some people (not a large, but few amount of people) felt better in the society.”

25th of February 2013, Prague

25th of February 2013, Prague

Marina Gogeanu

Interview transcribed by: Lesoda Otu-Iso

Interview with Ivan Hurnik – perceptions of the communist era in Czech Republic

Could you introduce yourself and then relate us some experiences you had during the communist regime?

My name is Ivan Hurnik, I was born in Czechoslovakia in year 1954, September 22nd. It was really a hard time of communism. I was growing up during the time of communism in the 50s and 60s.

My father was an Army pilot; he was flying on the Mid 15 and one of the Mid15 almost killed him, so he stopped his career as an Army pilot… And processed to work for Minister of Foreign Affairs.

In the beginning of his career, as a Foreign Affairs Minister he was working as a diplomatic courier, so he visited all the countries in the world. But at the time of 1986, my father was working in Czechoslovakia embassy. My father took part in the political movement of Prague spring 1968, while he was still a minister. At the end of the spring he was sent to Africa Sudan as a Czechoslovak diplomat, so our family left Czechoslovak on the 25th of July 1968, just one month before the invasion in August. Our family was eight thousand kilometers away from Prague. Of course it was a very big surprise what happened there, we were even affected in Sudan because of the Invasion, we were imprisoned in our house in Kartun, we were guarded by Sudanese police, we were not allowed to go to school, my father was not allowed to go to the embassy for a week.

In 1969 it was exchange of the general secretary of communist party of Czechoslovakia, instead of Alexander Dubcek, Gustav Husak took over and became general secretary. He was very good friend of comrade Brenzhnev in Moscow, Gustav said it was not an invasion, it was an international help. The communist party in the year 1970 made some kind of questioning of other members of the party, and who said during the questioning that it was an inversion, was dismissed from the party. So my father did not say it was an inversion, he only asked, if it was a help, why did the come with tanks? Of course he got a simple answer; he was kicked out of the party in the year 1970, but the main reason why he was kicked out, was that he took part in the political movement of Prague spring 1986.

When he got back from Sudan in May 1971, my father was fired out of the Foreign affairs minister, and he was unemployed for three years, in a socialist country, which was officially impossible. My siblings and I were not allowed to study, travel, or have good jobs, because our father was fired out of the communist party. Just imagine we finished school in Africa, but we were not allowed to finish secondary school in our country.

I did not have a passport for nine years, when I ask for a passport from the foreign police, I was told three times to go to eastern Germany… you can’t travel with an ID card only, which means you can’t travel anywhere else because they had power to say so.

From the beginning, I was working in a company which was called Foreign Trade Corporation. Companies were not allowed to import product directly, they were doing it through foreign trade corporation. I was using English every day at work, so my boss told me to go to the management and ask to take the English exams which will give me 30 crown over my normal wage per month.  30 crowns which is approximately just one dollar more, my salary was 800 crown in the year 1971, and I was just asking for 30 crown over the wage. When I went to the management office, and said to them I want to take the exams for English, since I am using English every day, The asked me do I speak Russian and I said to them no I don’t, they said to me you can’t have 30 crown for just English.

Until the first half of the 1980s there was nothing to buy, let say the tropical fruit, oranges, bananas, melon etc, we usually have them three or four times in a year in a shop, it is not like now where we have them every day, and it was very expensive. Life was completely different.

My experience with communism is not good;[…]

I have a group of friends… we know each other from the 60s, in that group there are two friends which I know each other from the 60s, because we were in elementary school from the first class. We were always going to the pub every Friday, just for drinking, of course… and the boys were studying at the university; we usually talked about politics and other things and also singing forbidden song sometimes… And…Someone heard us and said something to the police and three boys from the group were in prison for six months!!

Later on there was a trial, but the secret police called STB made a little mistake, because during the time of communism, when the police is searching your apartment, the usually have a witness with them it could be anybody. But the police made the search without a witness, so they lost the trial.

Anyway the boys were kicked out of university. Later on one of them immigrated to Austria. Then there was another trial, it was said that the guy who immigrated was at fault. So the others were allowed to study again. It was normal.

In fact if you said political jokes and someone heard it, you will go straight ahead o prison. Also, it was a crime to have one dollar bill in your pocket, it was not allowed to have foreign currency, it was a crime.

In simple terms what does communism mean to you?

Very bad time, and very bad memories, because I was not allowed to travel, but now I can go anywhere I want to, I don’t even know where I have my passport, because I don’t need it. The last time I used it was when I was travelling to Ukraine, but now within Europe I don’t need my passport. I can now say anything I want to say, and of course if I have the money, I can buy anything I want to, But during communism, if I want to buy a car, I will have to have good friends.

During the time of communism everything that was good was only for the members of the party, we can say we had two categories of inhabitants: members of the party and non-members, if you want to have well-paid jobs, your children going to school, and travel around, you have to be in the party, really everything was just for the members of the party.

But life in Czechoslovak was best in all the socialist country, because Czechoslovak was used as a shop window of socialism, because we had boarder with western Germany and lot of people from Germany and Austria were coming here for business purposes. But the life here was best compared to other countries, let’s say in the Soviet Union it was much worst, because in the Soviet Union, everything was under control of the KGB, let’s say you were living in one city and you wanted to travel to the another city which is just 100/150 kilometres away, you will have to ask for a permit to travel around in your own country.

Marina Gogeanu

Interview transcribed by: Lesoda Otu-Iso

The amazing story of Vratislav Brabenec (Plastic People of the Universe)

The Plastic People of the Universe (PPU) is the most representative rock band from Prague, Czech Republic (1968–1989).

This avant-garde group went against the Communist regime and due to its non-conformism, its members suffered serious problems such as arrests. Banned and jailed under Czech communism, the Plastic People of the Universe helped to bring the regime down in 1989.

Vratislav Brabenec (saxophone, clarinet, vocals, composition, lyrics) and a member of The Plastic People of the Universe- told us his incredible story.

Vratislav Brabenec

“Communism is something like a religion…

It is known that the communists and the Bolsheviks and the soviet institutions were built like a catholic church. Same structure. “ I know about you, you can’t go higher because we know your sins. More sins you have, more important you are for us”. They know everything about you. […]

For me, the 70s were very bad, because I was part of a band, the Plastic People of the Universe… we had lots of concerts […] and because I was a musician, I was in jail for 8 months.

I was working as a landscape architect for the historical garden; one day they came and put me with the other people, in interrogations (very heavy interrogations) and they put me in jail.

They didn’t want to put in jail people that were workers, but intellectuals. I didn’t finish the study at theology, another guy from the band didn’t finish the architecture… but our manager finished the art history. So, I was in jail  for just 8 months, but our manager spent 8 and half years in the heaviest jail. Our manager wasn’t a performer, he was an organizer and also an art historian and jail happened because of his activity, the influence for the younger generation. So it was an example of how some fucking intellectuals wanted to have an influence on the younger generation with their crazy music, with their crazy poetry.

In the 80s I was kicked out of my country, striped from my citizenship, I was moved to Austria …Yeah.. they kicked me out . The secret police told me “you have two possibilities: to go to the jail again or to go abroad”. My daughter was 2 years old, my wife thought it would be better to move abroad, to go somewhere else…

In the beginning they told us that they would imprison us for 5 years or more , and after that they changed because a lot of things about our band , our cultural activities were published into the west, it helped us , and a lot of writers from the west helped us, because they wrote some protests to the communism government and they didn’t expect that… the communists didn’t expect that. Especially our former president… Vaclav Havel helped us a lot, he helped us after the jail again. We were recording in his farm, we had some secret concerts in his bar, and other things were happening, we were funny lucky people.!”

Marina Gogeanu

Interview transcribed by: Eduard Vasile

25th of February 2013, Prague

Hundreds of people protested in Prague´s Old Town Square against the Czech Communist party (KSCM) and its participation in regional councils;

25th of February 2013 also represents the 65th anniversary since the beginning of the totalitarian Communist regime in then Czechoslovakia.

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1-15 (2) 1-16 (2) Marina Gogeanu

Interview with Vlada Zhmuro – perceptions of the communist era in Ukraine

1.       To you, what is communism?

I think the idea of communism (all people equal, share everything blah blah) is not a bad one but its utopian because it goes against human nature. In communism all people are supposed to have access to the same goods/ services, have similar living conditions no matter how educated you are or what position you hold in society.  In reality this did not work because higher educated people and people with power still wanted to be richer, have better things such as food, education and medical care and not mix with factory workers and bus drivers.  Soviet Union Ukraine was still a society with class divisions because certain people especially those in the government lived like kings of soviet luxury life, while everyone else lived in despicable conditions were food and a lot of products were unavailable.  This relates and has been seen in China, Cuba and North Korea…So I think communism always fails.

 

2.       Do you think your country has improved since the communist era?

I think yes… Because it has become more European, making certain important services available for all. Such as you can travel abroad, you can buy property/ cars, have your own businesses and make money, we have a higher degree of freedom of speech. No ridiculous censorship for TV, films and books. Unlike when under the USSR’s control all films/books had to be approved by a special committees which banned a lot of films/books because they saw them as immoral or anti soviet/written by enemies of the state, same people who would be sent to the Gulags.

Also there is less importance put on race, in the Soviet Union they used to write your “race/nationality” in your passport (Russian, Ukrainian, Jewish, Armenian, Georgian etc.). Jewish is not a nationality, but somehow they did write Jewish in passports!  This meant it was more difficult to get into a good university or get a good job if you were Jewish or Georgian.

Other improvements include being able to criticise the government openly, people don’t spy on each other, a sexual revolution attitudes towards sex are far more liberal and foreign products are freely available. Basically Ukraine became almost like Europe in terms of culture, economics etc. Of course it is far from Europe if you really compare standards of living and wealth but comparing to the USSR it is like Europe now. So in generally it has definitely improved but obviously there are things that have got worse.

The quality of education and public healthcare has significantly worsened; there is a higher crime and unemployment rate. Different from during the communist era since you could actually go to prison for not working.

3.       What do you think were the most obvious advantages and disadvantages of communism?

Advantages – As I previously mentioned no unemployment you were guaranteed a job after university or some other training, good education and healthcare, free kindergartens, very cheap basic food (bread, milk, baby food). There was also free housing, you had to wait sometimes for like 6-10 years and the quality wasn’t great, also you couldn’t choose the location but all flats were given for free. A disadvantage of this was you couldn’t sell it if you didn’t like the flat of it was too big you could only change it with someone else if you wanted their flat and they yours. Sometimes people changed one big flat for to smaller ones (e.g. after divorce) or vice-versa.

People had long compulsory vacations you had to take each year, could be up to a month. There were free trips to the sea, or other resorts, your children got free trips to summer camps. The public transport was cheap even flying and on fixed prices, that were cheaper than today.

Disadvantages – All houses, flats, factories, businesses and land was owned by the government so a normal citizen couldn’t sell or privately own them.

After university you had to work for 3 years in a designated company/factory / hospital depending on what your profession was. It was compulsory and you could get sent to any corner of the country. Only After that you could come back and choose where you want to work.

A lot of goods were really hard to get even if you had money. Like cars, house electronics, foreign clothes, furniture etc. You had to have connections. There was even a saying “It’s better to have 100 friends than 100 Rubels.”  There were serious laws against bribing so people usually bartered instead of bribing with money (also a lot of people had no money but had access to some goods they could use bartering). Even products from countries that were seen as allies such as the Czech Republic, Poland and East Germany were hard to come by.

The government had unlimited power and often abused it. Example not valuing human life and just sending masses of soldiers to death in WW2 or when Chernobyl blew up instead of telling people the truth and protecting them from radiation by imposing rules that everyone should stay inside they made everyone including children go out and celebrate 1st of May! Because they wanted to conceal the incident, sending people unprotected to extinguish the fire in a radioactive reactor.

People were not allowed to travel abroad, there was no freedom of speech, and all information on television / films/books was heavily censored. There was no adequate knowledge of the west other than what the government wanted people to know. Which was the west was evil, and that the rest of the world was dying and life in the USSR was the best in the world.

You had to be a member of a party to get a good job or get a promotion to a high position, young people aged 14- 28 had to join the Pioneers and later on the Komsomolec. These were strict groups were if you got expelled for some wrongdoings it caused bad consequences for the rest of your life. Also if your parent/ parents were sent to prison for something especially something that was considered anti USSR and especially if they were proclaimed an enemy of the state you had to publicly disown them in front of everyone in your school/ university. If you didn’t you could get expelled from Komsomol or Pioneers . And even if you did it was a really negative influence on your life. If you were a child of the enemy of the state it was almost impossible to get into university or get a good job.

 

4.       Are the opinions of your parents/ grandparents different to yours?

The opinions and perceptions I have expressed are mine and those of my parents. But my grandparents have completely different opinions as they lived most of their working lives within the communist regime. Especially when it was at its strongest and most idealistic stage.

My grandparents miss the USSR because they miss low prices on food and transport, pensions on which you could live on. I forgot to mention pensions in the advantages and disadvantages; it is a very important advantage of the communist regime. Elders could live normally now elders can’t, if they don’t have a family to support them they can’t afford anything and die in poverty.

Also moral factors such as no sex before marriage was highly advocated back then unlike now. No one is responsible for anything e.g before if for example a director of a sausage factory was caught making sausages of a bad quality he would go to prison for 25 years. Also morally questionable things such as paedophiles, drugs and other things were not reported on so they believe they didn’t exist in those days.

They also say (especially from my dad’s side because they were educators) that people were more cultured read classics, loved poets , were interested in meaningful debates about science and literature now everyone is only interested in music, sex and money. Also they believe western influences have brought negative consequences to Ukrainian society. Both my grandparents say that in the Soviet Union people were more friendly and helpful and there was a very strong sense of community. People didn’t care so much about material things and money. Also both of my parents love their childhoods and university years in USSR and they say it was very good and they loved it even though they didn’t have all the stuff kids have today.

They do still acknowledge though that its good now we have freedom of press, information, travel, can make good money if we can, buy everything we want and have choice in everything.

5.       Do you know of any specific experiences your parents/ grandparents/ family encountered during the communist era?

Experience N1:  My Granddad from dad’s side got his first flat for his family by basically doing this barter thing with one of his students. The student happened to be a boss and my granddad made a deal with him. The student needed to get this education to get promoted/keep his high position and my granddad got him good grades in exchange for a flat. Then the second better flat he got using a similar method.

Experience N2:  Same Granddad was a lecturer at university and he was really good but he couldn’t become a professor because he wasn’t a member of the communist party.

Experience N3:  No adequate sex education under communist rule, my grandma’s friend was shocked when after her wedding her husband tried to have sex with her. She was so scared she ran away to my grandma’s house. She didn’t know sex existed!

Experience N4:  Though this was after the fall of communism in Ukraine, things still took a while to change. After I was born my parents wanted to get a flat but even through it was in 1993 it was still very hard to buy a flat just with money. So my dad found this 50 year old Jewish woman who was emigrating to Israel, and he arranged it so that he gives her money and in exchange she marries him and leaves the flat as sort of inheritance to him when she leaves . So he divorced my mom, married that woman and then she emigrated and left the flat to him. That’s how we got our first flat. He then divorced her somehow.

 Mwen Fikirini

Interview with a 57 year old Romanian woman – perceptions of the communist era in Romania

What do you think was good about communism?

Maybe the fact that the kids with poor families benefited from free camps and that the kindergarten taxes were cheap. You were able to give your children an education without being wealthy.

What was bad about communism?

What I hated the most during the communist era was the lack of privacy and the in-existent access to information. Me and my husband used to lock up in the kitchen in order to listen to “Free Europe”, a radio station with international news which was forbidden during communism. We would do the same to listen to rock music which we enjoyed, but was really hard to find. My husband used to invite his friends over, and listen together to those foreign radio stations, even though they weren’t allowed to do that. We lived in a building with lots of flats where all the other owners were working for the security, so we had to be very careful each time we were doing that.

When it comes to food, I don’t even want to remember how much time I spent waiting in queues in order to buy some. At one point, they introduced queue tickets. But you couldn’t find food any-more  People would do anything for food; they were capable of anything because they had to eat and there was nothing at the markets.

Besides that, we didn’t have heating in our homes. Me and my husband had our first kid in the ‘80s when we didn’t even had any heat in the apartment, so we got hold of a diesel oil heater. We used to steal fuel every day from our workplaces in order to heat up the baby’s room, but it was very risky because we could start a fire in the building and everyone would have been in danger, so we had to be very careful who sees us when coming back from work.

It was a time when they wouldn’t allow curtains in restaurants. All the restaurant owners were instructed to take off all the curtains as they had to be aware if there was someone drinking alcohol early during the day or late during the night. The communist party’s observers had to watch closely people coming in restaurants and interrogate the ones choosing to drink alcohol.

Because Ceausescu’s wife, Elena, hated how churches looked, many were either demolished, moved away or surrounded by blocks of flats. People didn’t have to believe in God, but in Ceausescu and communism.

If you wanted to buy yourself a book, you were obliged to buy another 5,6 books with Ceausescu’s discourses.

Ceausescu’s portrait was on each first page of the textbooks. You weren’t allowed to destroy that page or draw/write on it. Also, every classroom had a painting with Ceausescu.

When watching television, all we could see were communist films. They would start broadcasting at 6,7 in the evening with a cartoon programme and afterwards start the news which lasted 2 hours, until 10 o’clock when they also switched off the electricity. All the news were about Ceausescu and his discourses, walks, controls. And all of these were lies.

We had to watch all the time on the news, Ceausescu “having fun” while hunting. His results were always remarkable for the camera, even though the boars were bounded in order to stay still. We all knew this, but we used to find it funny, especially because we found out that Ceausescu always had someone else shooting in the same time with him to be sure he was successful.

His visits to various workplaces (refineries, industrial warehouses, etc.) were also lies, as we were all rehearsing everything before his arrival. I remember that it was very annoying when he was coming in control because we would work full weeks in order to clean and re-paint the place, to write down messages and to create expositions with everything that we had in the enterprise.

I remember that one time he visited an apple orchard. The president of the co-operative declared that he had the biggest production of apples in the orchard’s history and when Ceausescu decided to control it, he asked his employees to tie apples in the trees, so the first 3 rows of trees would have lots of apples. And this was not a one-of-a-kind situation. The farms did the same as cows, pigs, sheeps were moved from a place to another depending on Ceausescu’s controls.

How do you think communism affected Romania?

I definitely think that Romania would have been better now if it wasn’t for the communist era.

In the inter-war period, Romania was well rated by Europe because it was much evolved culturally and industrially. We would have been a very rich nation.

My grandmother used to tell me that before the communist era, everyone in the country had a house and all kinds of animals, so they didn’t feel the need for food. The entire surplus was going to the citizens which were able to buy everything they wanted to. Romania used to be known as “Europe’s granary” during that time. We had petroleum, salt, iron, ore, coal. Also, the relief favoured us: rivers, mountains, fields, seaside so the Romanians had everything they needed for a living. The industry was very developed and people used to live well.

In the inter-war period, Bucharest (Romania’s capital) was known as “The little Paris” of the Balkans, because the wealthy people of the city constructed for themselves really nice houses. The communists said that they are going to modernise it, but actually, they destroyed it.

Ceausescu demolished everything they built, and constructed lots of grey block of flats, which we called “boxes of matches”.  Many of the rich people from the pre-communist era were obliged to move out of their house for various reasons (“enemy of the state”, “traitor” and so on). Because of this, entire families lost their homes, their possessions and it led to exasperation and even to suicide.

There were many people who killed themselves because they lost their houses. Ceausescu’s strategy was to put all the people at the same level in order to control them. People would have little to no freedom in a building full of flats as most of the neighbours actually worked for the police and if someone would do anything out of the ordinary, he would be classed as “a threat” for the party and he would end up really bad.

I met a family which used to be very wealthy, but because the communists took everything they had, they ended up living in a basement. The woman, Florence still had her old dresses and she used to wear them and talk by herself on the street. Her husband was one of the few still wearing hats and tailcoats – from aristocracy  they became the laughing stock of everyone else. She ended up getting a job as a “shopper” for anyone willing to give her a few coins. She would wait in long queues for hours to get someone else’s food and she ended up carrying lots of bags everywhere she went. That’s how we started sarcastically to compare ourselves with Florence every time we had more than 3 or 4 bags in our hands.

Marina Gogeanu

Interview with bulgarian student– perceptions of the communist era in Bulgaria

1.       What is your knowledge of Communism?

My knowledge of what Communism is  definitely biased and shaped through the perspective of a country that has been ruled under this regime and from the point of view of my family which weren’t living a good life then. However, some benefited a lot from communism and their families are still enjoying the ‘joys’ of it.

2.       From your knowledge of communism do you think your country was better off then or now?

It is better now, though as explained above, my opinion is subject to the ways I was being raised  and the situation in which my family has been during the period of Communism.   Bulgaria’s  views on communism vary. For some the fall of communism was something to celebrate, for  others it was a disaster.

3.       Do you think going through communism helped your country and if so how?  What would you say where the benefits of communism or the communist era compared to now?

No. Maybe it just helped my country to appreciate Democracy.

4.       Have you ever spoken to any of the older generation (who experienced communism) and how do they account their experience of communism?

I have yes. My father use to tell me how both him and my mum had to wait in endless queues in order to buy food. There used to be a censorship on the press and the freedom of speech. My dad used to hide with his mates and listen to radio ‘Free Europe’ which was illegal then. (I don’t remember everything my parents used to tell me so I will have to get back to you on this question. I will ask them a few stuff on the topic when I speak with them next and will tell you some more things).

5.        Any other information you would like to add on?

What is interesting in regards to Bulgaria and communism is that there is still a communist party which has a very strong support (the ex- president was a representative of the communist party), mainly by older generations. However, there are still young people who support communism (I am not one of them) and who believe in the communist ideology. I don’t think my opinion is representative of Bulgaria’s opinions towards it and it shouldn’t have that much of a weight to your research project.

Rose Muzvondiwa