In the United States, a growing number of Americans, especially young Americans, are calling for extreme personal autonomy in the guise of “freedom,” while promoting increased government control and coercion.
The left, for example, defends radical pro-abortion laws motivated by a desire for personal autonomy. Yet, they look to the government to enforce their radical individualism. Additionally, the left’s praise of democratic socialism has increased dramatically in the past decade. Now, over half of Democrats are in favor of socialism and disprove of capitalism. Something doesn’t click here. How do these two ideas–radical individualistic freedom and radical government control–fit together?
Edmund Burke, a Christian humanist from the 18th century, provides key insight into this debate. Burke presents a traditional understanding of virtue and liberty, and argues that virtue is what qualifies the individual for a free society. Liberty is not just the unbridled pursuit of passion. In fact, in “Further Reflections on the French Revolution,” Burke argues that it is inner restraint that gives one liberty from his passion: “Men are qualified for liberty, in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites…men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.” Burke argues that men who do not restrain their passions, but rather pursue them are bound to them. This binding to passion is not true freedom.
Several institutions help the individual in his pursuit of true freedom. Burke names four: social, economic, political and religious institutions. These institutions help balance out the individual’s passions, and keep them in check. In doing so, they “provide the means for him to develop fully into the virtuous, free human being that God intended.” These institutions that have developed over time and throughout tradition have freed, rather than imprisoned, man. By providing the individual with the means for virtue, these institutions have shown man how to maintain dominion over his passions.
The new left adamantly rejects Burke’s understanding of tradition, especially religion. According to Frank Newport from Gallup, only 23% of Democrats are highly religious, whereas 51% of Republicans are highly religious. This is obvious in the Democratic Party platform, which focuses more on women’s reproductive rights and the right to abortion than it does in addressing religious freedom. The left’s growing rejection of religion, and tradition in general, highlights Burke’s critique of the French Revolution: “By re-educating his sympathies away from the traditional and the familial, the habitual and the customary, the revolutionary citizen “liberated” himself from the very circumstances in which most ordinary citizens enjoyed their liberty.” Indeed, these traditions, developed over time, have proven to provide the individual with the tools necessary for restraint. Why dissolve them, for the sake of unbridled, self-seeking, passion?
Burke argues that it is when these societal institutions break down, and inner restraint is not cultivated in the individual citizen, that a strong government is necessary for order. This strong-handed federal government is a form of artificial religion which, Burke argues, replaces authentic religion: “If after all, you should confess all these Things [rejecting the lawful dominion of our reason], yet plead the Necessity of political Institutions, weak and wicked as they are, I can argue with equal, perhaps superior Force concerning the Necessity of artificial Religion.” If people let passion drive them rather than reason, Burke concedes that the force of the political institution is necessary for order. It makes sense, then, that the progressive left, in seeking unbridled freedom from all institutions, find strong government necessary for order. They need a larger, overreaching government to fund this new, unvirtuous, reckless pursuit of freedom. Freedom from themselves, from man’s nature, and from liberty.
Not all hope is lost, however. Burke’s emphasis on preserving the institutions of the past as those which have shaped civil society. Institutions worth keeping. The recent explosion of classical schools across the nation gives me hope for the future of America. Education’s role of teaching the individual about reality, presenting the world as it is to him and his place in it, prepares the individual for self-government and civil society. Classical education’s focus on teaching the student how to live well through living a life of virtue, rooted in rich tradition, provides an answer to our nation’s shift in rejecting tradition and starting over with a tabula rosa. I am confident the next generation will be dedicated to shaping the minds and hearts of good citizens.
Post first published by the Acton Institute | July 26, 2019
Featuring an image by Kencf0618 [CC BY-SA 4.0]
What is the role and purpose of Facebook?
This question has been stewing in my mind the past few days because of a strange encounter with a friend on the social media site: after this friend shared a post outlining an argument, I commented with a few questions, asking for clarification. It seemed to use an example which worked against the argument itself, and I pointed out the fallacy and asked for an explanation. I was immediately met with a curt response from a friend who did not explain the example and included some ALL CAP words. The person who shared the post only commented with the request to not comment on her posts on the issue. When I tried clicking back on the post, I met Facebook’s censorship—a page stating that the post was no longer available.
This encounter is not an infrequent one. I’ve seen many people, most recently, post warnings on their pages stating that they will unfriend people who disagree with them on certain issues. They are unable, or unwilling, to support their opinions or engage in discussion, yet they still share their opinions. This begs the question of the role of social media: If social media is supposed to mimic the real world, shouldn’t sharing posts and opinions encourage thoughtful discussion and debate?
Let’s take a look at what Facebook states of its purpose. Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, states in a letter describing the purpose and mission of Facebook that its aim is “to make the world more open and connected.” He argues that with increased access to the internet, people are able to engage with other perspectives and engage in thoughtful discussion: “Today, our society has reached another tipping point. We live at a moment when the majority of people in the world have access to the internet or mobile phones — the raw tools necessary to start sharing what they’re thinking, feeling and doing with whomever they want.” Like any conversation with friends, we have the capability to understand different perspectives. Doing so on social media widens the scope of these discussions because they aren’t limited to locational boundaries.
But is Zuckerberg’s position on Facebook reality? Is it a place to hold discussions on different topics, offering different perspectives on things?
Imagine you are in a room full of your friends. You had recently gone on vacation, and wanted to show them pictures, so you pass around a photobook. Several of your friends throughout the day come up to you and talk to you about the pictures, asking you questions about certain things and telling you what they thought of some of the shots. Facebook generally seems to have the same function and purpose as this when it comes to sharing vacation photos. People comment on the photos online instead of in-person. But what about the other things people share?
Now imagine you are in the same room with your friends and instead of bringing up your vacation photos, you start talking politics. You state an opinion, and those who disagree voice why and how they think you are wrong. Others who agree with you bring up different perspectives and additional arguments. And though you may not agree in the end, it was good to discuss the differing sides of these issues. This, at least in terms of Zuckerberg’s stated vision of exposing people to different perspectives, is how Facebook should operate, right? Why is this peaceful discussion on politics so hard to imagine?
If Facebook mimics reality, then the above described situation, in America at least, is only just that—a situation described by me, taken from thin air and written down on a Word document. It’s not real. The reality in which we live is that most people are unable to have thoughtful, in-person discussions about important things. Indeed, Facebook does seem to mimic reality now. If you do not agree with certain people, they yell in your face and don’t let you talk, or they simply just ignore you and refrain from addressing the issue entirely.
So, what are we to make of this? This question reminds me of the ageless question of art: does art mimic reality, or vice versa? How is art shaped by reality, and how is reality shaped by art? The same questions can be asked of Facebook, and other social media outlets. Though people share their realities on social media and try to represent a part of them in virtual reality, they are also shaped by virtual reality itself. The virtual world shapes and molds the physical world.
If virtual reality has influence on reality itself, how should we act on social media? Is there a problem in people being unable to discuss important things in life, and can this be fixed by trying to hold discussions online?
Zuckerberg’s stated purpose of Facebook highlights the irony of my encounter with Facebook censorship. In light of Facebook’s recent use of censorship on the site (specifically, Facebook, Google, and Youtube’s targeting of conservative sites such as Liveaction and PragerU, it’s 2016 election search results meddling, and their fact checking of only conservative posts), his attempts to counter conservative viewpoints undermines his stated mission.
If Facebook is supposed to mimic reality, what role does Facebook censorship play in the conversation? It only hides people from the opinions of others, sheltering them from reality. It doesn’t allow people to engage in contrary opinions and justly think through them, either challenging their original opinions or bolstering them. Facebook censorship seems only to perpetuate the reality in which we live—where disagreement is met with hate and racist labeling, and not discussion.
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.
Imagine you’re in the car, listening to the sports radio station. You’ve been a football fan for a long time, and usually watch the games. But today you had to pick up your daughter from the airport, so you listen to the radio instead. It’s an important football game—the semifinals. We’re at the end of the fourth quarter, tied 20-20 with the other team. Their ball, high stakes defense. The radio announcer seems a bit new to the game, and doesn’t add much commentary, just reports the calls the refs make and the score. We stopped them from running the ball, and they settle for the field-goal. We finally get the ball, and have a chance to tie. We end up in sudden death overtime, and we take the game! You pick up your daughter, who was rooting for the other team, and brag about your win. You won it fair and square, and as such a hardcore football fan, don’t give her a chance at all to complain. “Scoreboard,” you say. But what you missed was a huge no-call pass interference when it was your ball and tied at 20-20. But you didn’t know that—the radio guy was new to this and didn’t report that.
The media can be described similarly to the football radio announcer. But what makes it worse is that politics is much more than a game or a tradition—public policy affects us all sooner or later. The political news outlets today, besides a few less popular sources, chose what to report and what not to report—as long as it fits their ideology. But instead of being the naïve sports reporter, political reporters know exactly what they are doing. They see the truth for all that it is, and report just one side of it. How do they get such a strong response from people? From where do people’s emotions stem?
Recently, Gillette issued an advertisement encouraging the end of what they called “toxic masculinity.” By that term, they meant an inordinate use of strength and manipulation—placing strength used for protection into aggression, especially aggression against women and the vulnerable. But what the advertisement suggested was that only some men recognize this inordinate use of their nature as wrong, and that most men didn’t know this and acted otherwise. The goal of the advertisement was to encourage men to be virtuous, but the base of virtue is placed in the #MeToo movement and an anti-masculine ideology rather than a pro-masculine, ordinate form of strength.
Arguments crashed on this advertisement from many angles, but the response to these arguments shifted the narrative. According to CNN’s Jill Filipovic, the argument against the ad isn’t that it suggests that men don’t have a moral compass, it’s that those who disapprove of the ad somehow think that men should be able to violate other people: “It's sad but predictable that imploring men to be better -- not just for women, but for other men and boys -- is met with such hostility from people who apparently accept the lie that cruel and predatory behavior is part of men's natural makeup.” What Filipovic does is create a false narrative of the opposing side, arguing that those who oppose the ad believe that men cannot be the ones to blame for assault. She is far from correct. The arguments opposing the advertisement do not support cruel and abusive men. Quite the opposite— Ben Shapiro, from The Ben Shapiro Show, argues that masculinity is not toxic, but necessary—that society needs men to be strong and demonstrate good character. Even the advertisement shows glimpses of this as a positive thing—a dad encouraging his daughter to have strong self-esteem, another man demanding a mob to respect an individual, a father showing boys what it means to be a man, and not a bully. But when the journalist tells you that the opposing side supports abusive men, it makes it seem that all who oppose the advertisement do so based on Filipovic’s assertion.
Filipovic engages in a dangerous thing. She distorts the argument from the other side, and makes it seem like those who oppose her are the very people who fit into her narrative—supporters of abusive men. The response from Filipovic’s claim is a moral one. It is morally wrong to abuse your strength over the vulnerable. In fact, protection for the vulnerable is one of the responsibilities of society. When a naïve reader stumbles upon arguments like Filipovic’s, it is not too difficult to imagine that their opinion of the opposing side would be low. And their emotional response is one which stems from their view of the other’s moral reprehension. Thus, those supporting the advertisement on the basis of ending sexual assault and bullying are pitted against those who equally call for the end of those evils but find flaws in the advertisement.
Why would Filipovic distort the opinions of those who dislike the advertisement? Journalists are exposed to newsworthy events much more than the average Joe, and generally have more knowledge of current events than someone in a different profession. Not every Biology teacher, sports coach, engineer, or businessman has the time or education to study and report politics. Society trusts in them for their own expertise, and in turn, they trust journalists to report events truthfully. When people like Filipovic misrepresent one viewpoint, they cause the questioning of journalism, and play a dangerous game with morality.
Michael Goodwin, chief political columnist for The New York Post, contemplated the demise of journalistic standards in a speech at Hillsdale College’s National Leadership Seminar, reminiscing on how journalists had been trustworthy in the past and dramatically changed: “There was a time not so long ago when journalists were admired and trusted. Today, all that has changed…last year’s election gave us the gobsmacking revelation that most of the mainstream media puts both thumbs on the scale.” Goodwin goes on to say how the top editor of The New York Times, Dean Baquet, had changed journalism standards during the 2016 election to the point of eliminating fair reporting: “He’s the one who decided that fairness and nonpartisanship could be abandoned without consequence.” Goodwin fears that the media will never recover the trust from the public as it once had.
There is a silver lining in all of this. Though discussion of politics may divide families, and real political discussion becomes almost impossible, the signs of a fight shows promise of moral conviction. When we see something in all its tones, and chose to ignore faults, it is us who have failed. But now, when journalists withhold the whole truth, and just focus on one side of an issue, the response they get is the reaction to perceived injustice. A reaction to injustices, though based off a disproportionate presentation of reality, proves the existence of moral compasses. It is my hope that we will shed scales from our eyes, and finally see how our pursuit for justice and that which is good is manipulated, and seek truth thoroughly by other means.
A few weeks ago, my mom visited me here in Spain and we spent a day in Barcelona. We walked down the famous La rambla street, with grand and tall buildings towering around us, adventured through the narrow and hidden streets in the Barri Gòtic, wandered in the sunlight at the port, and stared at the impressive Sagrada Familia cathedral, still undergoing construction. At the end of the day we were exhausted. But our minds were elevated. Both of us were intrigued by the classical symbolism in the quite novel Sagrada Familia, the artistic curves in Gaudi’s other architectural voyages, namely Casa Batlló and Casa Milá, and the quaint Barri Gòtic we accidentally stumbled into. We will hold these memories and images in our minds and hearts for a long while yet.
In the morning, we decided to test our luck at the public transit system, and took the metro out to La Sagrada Familia. Buying our tickets only a night in advance, the only way to enter the church was to by tickets through a tour company. The company had bought an x amount of tickets ahead of time, and added the additional tour price to it, plus some. But, only five minutes into the tour, my mom and I let go of our skepticisms and realized that it was actually good we went on the tour. The tour guide was excellent, and deciphered the many modernist nods to the classics and Catholicism.
La Sagrada Familia is impressive not only because it’s huge and beautiful, but because Gaudi is able to connect such a unique cathedral with the tradition of the Catholic Church. Gaudi, a pioneer of modernism, deeply loved Jesus Christ and His Church, and studied the Bible intensively. His work, La Sagrada Familia, displays this love. You can tell that Gaudi spread his love for the Church over the cathedral, wrapping it in a mantle of tradition and beauty, but all in his own, unique way.
From the outside, the onlooker sees a massive building that, from afar, reminds one of the muddy castle creations a child makes with sand by the sea. With a closer look, and a trained eye, the pilgrimer can see the various nods to scripture and dogma. On one side, Gaudi shows the nativity scene above the side door, with various separate altars of praise for Mary, Joseph, and other major characters of the nativity. The interior of the church on this side floods in joyful green colors. The side, facing the East, lights up the cathedral in the mornings, and is the celebratory side of the church. On the exterior of the other side, Jesus’ death, his passion, is painfully reconstructed. As this side was built after the death of Gaudi, a different sculptor took the reigns, Josep Maria Subirachs. The statues on this side are quite strange; they are faceless, and have some non human characteristics besides this. As the tour guide points out, because of the attention and dispute this brings up, it ignites questions regarding the Church. These images are doing something right, then. The stained glass on this side is red, and fills the church with bright crimson when the sun goes down. It sheds its light on the prayful inside, and bring them into a participation with Christ. According to the Church, Christ’s death is the love which brings the sinner eternal life. When the sinner is covered in the red light, he is reminded of Christ’s outpouring love, and invited to participate in that love, shedding his own life in love for others.
The interior of the church is quite bare. Gaudi loved nature, and thought that the nature is one of God’s beautiful gifts to us people. Through meditating on the beauty of nature, we may come into a fuller understanding of God’s love. Gaudi wanted his cathedral to emulate nature, and give the visitor a place to meditate and pray in silence without distraction. Thus, the only decoration in the cathedral are the carved leaves near the top of the interior pillars and the canopy of Christ’s crucifixion hanging above an altar.
We left the tour spiritually lifted up, but temporally in need of some good grub. After settling for some tourist paella and arroz negro, we continued our tour of Barcelona. On La Rambla, we paused in front of Casa Batlló and Casa Milá. The former I had already been to, and in fact toured, a few years back. But just staring at it from the outside is enough. It appears like its moving. The walls curve in and out and are multicolored. As the house is designed with an underwater theme, it is no wonder that the outside appears like waves flowing in and out above a beautiful underwater reef. Venturing a bit further up the street, Gaudi’s Casa Milá stands in sharp contrast. Hard cream-colored stone stands solidly up in the sky, with metallic balconies dancing upon its facade. Though like Casa Batlló’s outside, Casa Milá has walls which ebb in and out, its single color lends the house a much more serious look.
Later in the day, we both headed down to La Barceloneta, Barcelona’s port. But, us California girls felt just at home, and didn’t stay too long. We decided to try to find an art studio I had had my heart set on, and took the narrow streets in the Barri Gotic up to try to test my luck. This ended up being one of the highlights of the trip as the narrow streets displayed Barcelona’s quaint mediterranean lifestyle. Laundry hung from house to house, different colors streaming through the air. Plants and flowers decorated tiny balconies up above us, and both the Catalonia flag of separation and the Spanish flag of a United Spain flew from apartments left and right. Little stores housing unique styles inhabited these narrow streets, and invited those seeking an alternative to the big grand stores of the city centre. The art studio was closed, but it did a fine job in inspiring us, at least.
We ended the day with the long metro ride back to the airport, and the parting of a mom and her daughter. It had been a great day, and a good visit.
The day I moved into my apartment in Tarragona, I cleaned my room, unpacked some of my things, and settled into my new home for the year. I created a space that was mine; I was to inhabit this place, these bare walls and windows made colorful by me. I was to think in it, dance, create, and pray. It was a special place--one which reflects its inhabitant. Only after creating my this space which reflected me and made me comfortable to call my own, was I ready to go out and explore the new city, walk on novel streets, and attach a part of myself to this new place. The first thing I learned was that there was going to be a huge city festival, Santa Tecla, and that I moved just in time.
Santa Tecla, Tarragona’s principal festival, is the pride and joy of its people. Like my room, the festival reflects the spirit of the city. It celebrates the lively spirit of the townspeople, and carries the celebrations deep into the Spanish nights. Lasting over a week long, with activities for kids during the day, concerts, castelles (human towers), dances, and parades, the town doesn’t put any limits on the celebrations of Santa Tecla. I was lucky to attend several events of the festival, including the parade in front of the cathedral, the castelles, and several concerts. Although my exhausting teacher/basketball-filled week didn’t allow me to stay out as long as the average Juan, I was able to capture and understand a little more the spirit which molds and upholds the festival.
On the first day of the festival, the town initiated the celebration with a series of castelle constructions. Els Castells, as they call it in Catalan, are towers made up of people standing on each others’ shoulders. The construction of this tower is one of unifying effort. The people at the base of the tower all squish together. Those on the outside push up against the people in the center. The very last people who form the circle extend their hands on the others’ backs and push as hard as they can. This base is essentially a big blob of people, pushing and sweating towards the center. In the innermost circle, depending on the style of the tower (some can be 8 levels x 4 people per level, others 6x7, and still others), the second layer stands up on the shoulders of the first. This stage is considered the beginning. If the tower falls during this time, it doesn’t reflect the tower as a whole, and the team tries to form the base anew. Once the second layer stands still for a few minutes, and the team is ready for the big show, the rest of the construction follows quite quickly. People from the outside climb over the base of people and quickly climb up the human towers, forming a new layer. Each person in a layer stands on the shoulders of the layer beneath him, and grabs onto the shoulders of his neighbor in his level. Once most of the levels are formed, two children climb up the tower. The first child who gets to the top spreads his arms and legs across the two people in the level horizontally, and the second child climbs over the first, raises his hand, and passed over to the other side, continuing his journey down on the other side of the tower. Once the child raises his hand, the crowd cheers, and watches as the tower quickly dissolves back to the base. When the tower diminishes into two layers again, the crowd cheers on the completion of the tower, and the glob again becomes individuals, walking through the crowd.
The work and risk Catalans pour into els castells reflect their pride in the Tarragona traditions. They are willing to risk safety just so they can create a visual spectacle for their city. They are willing to let their young children climb great heights, and contribute to the overall celebrations around the town. But, much like some American sports which are dangerous, like American Football, performing castells creates an event which unifies the people behind one thing. Castells aren’t the only unifying event of the week.
Parades occurred just about everyday. Different giants mimicking animals, famous people, and mythical creatures, waltzed through the streets, with small bands of musicians laying down tunes. The largest parade, though, occurred on the last weekend of the festival, starting at midnight in front of the cathedral. At midnight, the townspeople squeezed in the streets to see the giants pass by. At each intersection, the parade paused and each giant danced around and around while the audience chanted a catchy melody. A giant horse, made up of around five people, fills my memory. A little child, miniature compared to the horse, sat atop it and enthralled the crowd. An eagle, lion, and a bottle of Chartreuse followed. After the parade left the cathedral, it headed to a plaza nearby. The giants were parked by the wall, and a concert started. At around 2 or 3, after a couple of hours of music, the parade continued through the town, heading to another plaza. Supposedly the parade went from plaza to plaza all night, but I was too tired to participate in the rest of the festivities.
The energy in the crowd is truly amazing. Everyone is so positive and trusting, people call their friends out in the crowd, and join together in chants. Nobody seems to have a care about anything else but Santa Tecla-hanging out with their friends, dancing, watching the parades, and performing or watching the castells.
At first glance, it may seem like hard work is absent from this society. How could you have a week-long party, a party which lasts until the late hours of the night, every night of the week? The hard work is reflected in the many events of the fiesta-the castells, parades, the instrument playing. Its hard work that’s manifested in a different way than American hard work. Yes, the result of hard work has a product. But, the product of American productivity is financial success, skilled athletics, excellent marks in academics. Here, the product is a successful tower, good music, lifelong friendships, and a fun party. Santa Tecla, thus, creates an avenue for this type of productivity. At it, people meet up with friends past, join their neighbor in the common goal to create a fun environment for the rest of the town, and party until the wee hours of the morning. When I tried staying up for one of the nights, I wasn’t able to. I was too tired to keep on standing, and left the festivities several hours before they were over. To think that people can do that, and do it again, and again is crazy. It’s hard. But something hard in a different way than I imagined.
Santa Tecla has a rather religious background. In fact, the saint which coins the festival, Saint Tecla, inhabits the cathedral as one of the statues. The chapel, the ultimate part to be built in the medieval cathedral, features Saint Tecla as well as four other statues representing the four cardinal virtues. In the letter two weeks past from the Archbishop of Tarragona, he states that the festival should serve as a reminder of Saint Tecla’s evangelization efforts in the early generations of Christianity in the world. “The root of the festival is the joy and gratitude blessed upon us throughout the generations, and in this case, we celebrate the example of Saint Tecla in the beginnings of Christianity and the merciful assistance of the Virgin Mary on the city as a whole.” He doesn’t condemn the festival, but sees it as a way to remember great people of the past, and bring the townspeople into a participation of joy.
This past week, I had the honor of speaking to Mr. Martin Masat. Born just six months before the Prague Spring invasion, Mr. Masat grew up during the 'normalization' period in Czechoslovakia. Communist indoctrination was a normal thing for him, and he didn't really notice a lack of freedom until he was a young adult. When he was a student at the University of Economics in Prague, he experienced the fall of communism first hand. He more than experienced it, he aided in its destruction. Presenting about the student's strike to outside villages, Mr. Masat tried to spread the truth to the people around him. And that's what we want to do today--spread the truth about communism. In the words of Mr. Masat, "the basic idea of communism is to help the poor people. It's difficult to understand that maybe the basic idea might be nice but it will never ever work in practice, and what will always happens is that some totalitarian state will evolve from it." Peak into the life of someone shaped by communism. The very life which was molded by communist teachers and pionyr scout leaders, then beaten by the law behind closed doors, without a trial.
The following conversation has been edited for clarity.
Part I: Childhood to Young Adulthood
D: Welcome back to Life during Communism: a Conversation Series. Today I have with me Mr. Martin Masat. He was born in January 1968, putting him at 6 months old during the Prague Spring invasion. He studied at the University of Economics in Prague. He currently works as a transaction advisor for the KP and G international company. He currently lives in Czech Republic with his family. Thank you for being with us today. To start off, I’d like to ask you about your childhood, youth, and your experience with school. What were some of the communist influences in school? Did you enjoy school?
M: Hi Jessica, hi everybody. I would say when you were a child at that time, when I was, meaning the 70s, you wouldn’t really think that something is not normal, or that something strange is going on. You would just live your childhood, have your normal problems. School, I don’t know. Now I think that I enjoyed school, but then I probably wouldn’t say that I like school. When you speak to children, not many say they like it--it’s kind of a duty. There’s nothing for me that would be not normal. One of the influences, obviously, there was a youth organization for the children which was called Pionyr. It was kind of obligatory, a very small percentage of children didn’t attend. Normally, about 90-95% of children in schools were members in this organization. It really depended on the teachers and people involved. At summer schools I heard stories that people had to spend an hour a week, with boring stuff, sitting in the class and hearing about the greatness of the Soviet Union. Another classroom would have a couple of meetings, a couple of trips. It wasn’t as seriously taken. That’s something you would notice-another duty on top of school-but again nothing markable. My parents didn’t really want to mess me with politics or anything, so they didn’t talk with me or in front of me about politics. Obviously they didn’t want me to say something wrong in school, or want me to lie in school. Some of the teachers were communists and were promoting it. But most of the teachers were silent. They did their jobs and taught the students. It wasn’t something you would notice as “oh, I’m locked, I’m not free.” Most children didn’t notice it. The second thing you noticed were Czech flags. It was 30 years after WWII. All the people still had memories about it. When we started drawing pictures, we always drew soviet or Russian tanks freeing us from the Nazis. It was always something which influenced the children, the young people. On TV there were movies about brave Russian soldiers. There was a famous polish series about four brave russian soldiers and a dog. So it was kind of made for children. Kind of difficult to compare. You guys have superman, we have russian soldiers fighting Nazis. In the second part, the years when I attended 5,6, and 7th grade you started noticing some things. You spoke to people who knew about Prague Spring, or found some old magazines. So obviously you started thinking about these things. However, it was not black and white. The idea of communism is very different from fascism. The basic idea is to help the poor people. It’s very hard to change your opinion because the basic idea is something that everyone can believe in.
D: You talked a little bit about the Prague Spring invasion. Did you learn about it in school or did anyone mention it?
M: No. The Russian army freed us in 1945, and from then on we had been friends.
D: In class, did you ever talk to any of your classmates about communism, or did you know not to ring up?
M: Well, you could meet occasionally some people with a strong mind, one way or the other. But most people didn’t speak about it. At the elementary school, we didn’t even learn the 20th century. Even Masaryk and the first republic. Obviously we were taught about the second war but it wasn’t really a part of the history or studies, it was a part of everything. Regarding communists, I can tell you our class teacher was a very strong communist teacher and she was really believing in communism. Trying to persuade us that everything is good. And, to be fair, she was a good teacher in terms of her being professional and her effort to teach us something. When I spoke to the guys, you know how in every class you have bad boys who always have troubles. I was not one of them. But when I spoke retrospectively to one of them they said she was very tough but she fair. If there was one of those good guys, who are very proactive, and made some problems, she was hard on them as well. So you could say she was tough, she was communist, but she was a good teacher. Maybe even a good person. Difficult to see from the point of a child. When you speak to people later, you realize that in the 70s, there weren’t many communist believers. The people simply realized that something was wrong. People in the 50s and 60s believed in it, but after 1968, 90% of those people realized that there was something wrong. At the same time it’s an example that the Communist Party ruled the country. They had a system of head hunting relatively good people. If you were good in your profession, you had a chance that people would come up to you, say that you’re good, you’d classify to be a communist, and offer you a position in their business. You can join us and become a high director, or you don’t have to. And that happened to me at the university. In my first semester, I was nervous and made a big effort, and was one of the top two in my class. And one of the teachers (and 90% of the teachers in the University were communists, not at the elementary school, but the teachers at the university had to be) came to us and offered us a position in the Communist Party. And we both told him no. And there were no consequences. I can imagine if it were some other person it would maybe be an issue. But many of them were reasonable and didn’t do anything.
D: I’m glad you started talking about the University because I have a few questions about those. Did you have to take any special exams and tests to enter the University, and did any of those have any special communist influences?
M: At the University we had normal exams. We studied at the University of Economics so some of our questions were based on Marxist and Engels theories. Some of our exams were part of the economics incorporated in the socialist/communist theories. If you were asking to join the University, you had normal exams with Mathematics, maybe Russian--Russian was common, you had to learn Russian--and such, but nothing special really. Obviously you had to present your CV and you had to have some commentary from your school. So, if you were a child of some dissidents, so obviously the university would be told. And you wouldn’t get in, the University would make it so that you didn’t pass the exams. Regarding university, the socialist economics was funny. There was something called Political Economy of Capitalism which was the Marx/Engels and Political Economy of Socialism which was complete nonsense but you had to pass it. And there was something really strange, like the History of Communism, which you somehow passed. It was nonsense. There was no logic in it, no benefit in it, and the people who taught were ok. They were the old people who fought in the Slovak Revolution against Nazis, and they didn’t know how to teach, but they had good qualification from fighting. It was partly fun, partly nonsense, you had to suffer through it. If you did it, you did it. It wasn’t the biggest pain. What was more painful were the soldiers classes, which we had to attend in the second and third years. We had to spend one day a week practicing to be a soldier, and you had to pass an exam. If you didn’t pass the exam for these classes you couldn’t graduate the University. So it was a pain, it was a difficult time. Also, survival.
D: Survival classes?
M: I mean, yeah in those times it wasn’t very good times from the democracy or freedom perspective, but you could live. You weren’t afraid that you would be killed from your dissidents.
D: Thank you so much for taking your time.
M: Of course
Part II: Young Adulthood
D: Welcome back to the Life during Communism: A Conversation, I have with me Mr. Masat. Earlier we discussed his experience with communism when he was a child in elementary school. Fast forwarding to his early teen years and young adulthood, he looks at the situation much differently.
D: In the 80s, what did you think about communism?
M: If you speak about official propaganda, it was very clear. It was part of daily life. Everyday you heard on the news that life is so great in our country, thanks to the Communist Party, thanks to our soviet union friends, where the Western Imperialists, like USA, France, UK, and other countries, are only trying to make war. So it was a very black and white diction of how the world is. Obviously in our country everyone had to have a job, it was a law that you had to work. On the other hand we were told that there was so much unemployment. There were very big differences between the rich and poor people in the Western world. So, that was the official propaganda in our country
D: What were the sources of propaganda?
M: TV and newspapers. Obviously it was not possible to get foreign or Western newspapers. It was illegal even to bring any into the country. Although you could listen to a couple of radio stations. Radio Free Europe and Voice of America. They broadcasted in the Czech language. The Communists were trying to, not really shut them down, but damage the signal. But it was kind of like, I even don’t know if it was illegal to listen to them. Obviously if you were caught, you would find difficulties in your job, in your work, but you wouldn’t be arrested. You weren’t supposed to listen to it, but it was possible. That was the source of information from the other side. The travelling was limited. We were basically free to travel to the Eastern part of Germany, so it was really difficult to get direct experience. On the one hand, you understood that the official propaganda was lying to you, but on the other hand, you didn’t really know the truth. So it was difficult to make your mind. There were a couple of phenomenons that you really noticed. Emigration. There were some famous sportsmen, tennis players, hockey players, singers. If life is so good here and not there, why are people leaving here, and not the other way around? That was one aspect of it. So, some information was limited and you had to make your mind with limited knowledge. The vast majority of the people understood that the freedom here is limited.
D: How impactful would you say was Radio Free Europe and Voice of America. How impactful were their broadcasts in changing the opinion of the people from official propaganda to the truth?
M: It was really important. Otherwise, you would have really only limited rumors. So it was important. Many people were listening to it. This was a source of information where I learned that there is some dissent. There is Mr. Havel. There are people being arrested not just for their thinking, for their mind. I would say it was important. Itself wasn’t necessary to change things, but it was important in keeping people's’ eyes open.
D: Leading up to the Velvet Revolution, did you sense the fall of communism from the atmosphere of the people?
M: The atmosphere in the late 80s was definitely changing. It was not changing too much. Just in little strides. In our country in the 80s, folk music and country music became popular. It’s slightly different than folk music in your sense. It’s not really the old music of the nation, it’s more like Bob Dylan, and these kinds of singers. There was a boom of this kind of music. Here there were big festivals. They were official festivals. In the first plan, or first idea, it was nothing controversial. But you could see that some of them started to be a little bit more brave. To start putting hidden messages in their songs. There were continuous pressure. You could see that it was evolving and it was more and more possible to be open about things. If it was too much, then some censura came in and the singer was prohibited to sing. On the other hand, you could see that some of the previously prohibited singers were suddenly allowed to sing. One of them, was prohibited many many years and then suddenly, in 1988, I went to one of his live shows, official, or semi-official. To be very frank, all of this was because of Mr. Gorbachev and his Perestroika. What was happening in the Soviet Union at that time and other countries was not really happening here. But, I went to Poland and Lietuva in 1989, and I was shocked by the life there. There was freedom. There were official newspapers describing things really shocking to us. I realized, there are big things happening around us, we must also receive change. Another thing which helped was the visit from the French president, Mr. Mitterrand. One of the promises the Communists made was that they allowed him one official dissident formation. For the first time in my life I saw with my own eyes Mr. Havel, yeah. From those, you could really predict that something was really happening.
D: It must have been a really awesome thing to be a part of. An awesome feeling.
M: Yeah, and then there were some unofficial protests which started in 1988 for the anniversary of Mr. Palach. So there were so called “Palach week.” So especially in 1988 and 1989 there were very big protests. I personally did not attend them, but they were really close to my house, so from my window I could see some of the people running and policemen chasing them. Then there were protests in the Northern part of the country where there were bad situations with the pollution. And there were protests with the factories. You could call them environmental protests. But obviously the Communists forces took them as protests against the Communist Party. They were protests where people were arrested. There were protests where there were policemen with water guns. So you could predict that at one point something will happen.
D: During the Velvet Revolution, did you ever attend any of the protests?
M: Yes, I attended the manifestation on the 15th of November. A couple of friends told me about it. It wasn’t officially promoted. But it was officially out. It was the anniversary of the Nazis killing a couple of students and closing the University during the occupation. But the thing was that it was co-organized by a couple of independent student organizations. There were some people who spoke who were very open with their criticism of the current situation, of zero freedom. So it turned out to be a very anti-communist protest. So it became something that students didn’t want to end, and we decided to march. And the police forces were following the march and stopped it at some point. And I was arrested and locked in the police house until midnight.
D: Were you beaten by the policemen?
M: Yes, not in the streets, but in the police station, yes. You know, I don’t like a big number of people together, so I was in the end. So they took me.
D: You were an easy target.
M: So to speak. So that was my experience. It was Friday. I didn’t know what was happening in the streets, but later I knew that there were lots of beaten students. Because it was in the city centre, close to some theatres, it was spread to the artists, actors. So the next day, the artists started a strike. The strike was like this: the shows were not canceled, but people came to see some theatre, and the actors would go on the stage and say we are not going to act, but we will talk about what’s happening in the streets. And then the students went on strike on Monday. It was very difficult to communicate. But some students ran from one University to another and spread the news. And, one thing was, there was spread fake news. And it’s still unclear how it was spread, but the fake news was that one of the students was killed. I personally think that for some people it was the catalyst or the point when they said they needed to do something. And that was the point where on the other side the Communists started to be afraid, to say they did too much. So the strike was where we went to the Director and said we will not go to school but we’re occupying it. At most schools this really happened. And you spent a couple of days and nights in the schools, locked sometimes. You could go out but you didn’t want to because you didn’t know what would happen. After the artists got more brave, some of the newspapers printed what happened on the 17th of November. They started to publish the requests of the students. One of them was to change the base law which stated at the time that the ruling party needs to be a Communist Party. To obviously that was difficult to swallow. So at that time you didn’t really know if the army would come and force us from the school. Or if they’d only accept five of the ten terms. There were a couple of days where we felt really nervous. We spent the time by taking trips to the country. We didn’t have internet. What happened was that there were lots of posters, we want to change the system, we want freedom, students are on strike. In the small towns outside of Prague it was more difficult to persuade the people that things were changing. So we did some trips, some road trips, to present there.
D: That’s awesome, that’s really inspiring. It sounds like it was primarily a student-run protest.
M: Like what I said it was just chance that it happened like that. The catalyst could have been the environmental protests. At that time, yeah. You can see it once in your night, yeah. I was walking around Prague at night, told the taxi driver that I was a student, and got a free ride.
D: Wow, that’s a lot of respect. Do you remember celebrating the end of communism? Do you remember the point at which communism fell?
M: We speak about the Velvet Revolution, which was the 17th of November, which you know at that time the Berlin Wall had already fallen. So we were one of the last countries before Romania. So I would say that the really deciding date it was the last day, the 29th of December, where Mr. Vaclav Havel was voted president. It was very clear. Now the world would really change.
D: How soon did you see change? We talked about the Velvet Revolution being the 17th of November and Vaclav Havel becoming president in December. That’s a short amount of time, politically speaking. How soon did you see change in everyday life? Did you still have to wait in cues for food?
M: Definitely no. The economical situation didn’t change from day to change. Definitely there was change in your mind and change with what you could say in public. But, for example, if you wanted to travel during communism, you had to submit an official application for travelling abroad, and an application for exchanging money. And you had to simply wait. The answer from the officer could be, sorry, we don’t have enough Hungarian money, you cannot go there. And that changed relatively immediately. Simply, they said we don’t have much foreign currency. So they split the package and gave out the calculated quota per person. So everyone didn’t really have a lot of money but everyone was in the same situation. So I immediately went to Greece in 1990 with just a couple of Euros in my pocket. But I was free to travel.
D: Oh, interesting. Do you see any lasting effects of communism on people? Are some people still affected by communism, and wear an affected attitude?
M: It’s difficult to say. I would say that in the 70s and 80s noone was really believing in the idea of communism anymore. In the 90s you suddenly could do your business on your own, be an entrepreneur, that was illegal before. So people who used to be less risky started to be more brave with their money. But, it’s a difficult question. There are many aspects, and it’s hard to say what was the cause of change. During communism, you had one or two or three choices. Now you have big supermarkets, with lots of choices. So people started to change, started to be numerous. There are many possible changes.
D: Looking at the world right now, do you think a conversation about communism and Czechoslovakia have a role in society, and how big of a role does it have?
M: Yeah, people tend to remember the good things and forget the bad, especially from their childhood. I think it’s definitely important to have this in mind. It’s obviously difficult to capture all of the aspects. It’s difficult to be fair and explain everything to people who didn’t live during communism. Now, where there’s lots of social media, what I call the Twitter period, where people are used to expressing themselves in one sentence, it’s very easy for propaganda. If you want to confuse people, it’s really easy to just post on Facebook “it was much better at this time.” without explanation. There’s room for lots of garbage on the social networks.
D: I agree with you, people have become dull to doing their own research. If it’s so easy to just click on the phone, they won’t do more research.
M: IN my country, I’m surprised by how many positive messages you can find about Russia and China, and you don’t know who’s writing them. There are still some kind of Cold War or, we have to fight for the democracy still. It’s not automatic.
D: Right, freedom’s not free, you have to fight for it. I love it! To close the interview, do you have anything you’d to add?
M: I might think about something later, I’m a little bit exhausted. Sorry for my English. I’m not a native English so sometimes I don’t express myself very well. It’s still a big topic, unfortunately. You can imagine that the basic idea of communism is to help the poor people. It’s a very basic idea, so it’s very difficult to understand what is wrong with it. And that’s something which we discussed at the University, but for some of the less educated people it was difficult to understand. It’s difficult to understand that maybe the basic idea might be nice but it will never ever work in practice, and what will always happen is that some totalitarian will evolve from it. Although you can point to some of the short, limited periods or areas where the communist idea, where everyone shares everything together, might come to practice, like some of the Jewish cities, or the city of Tamor in the Hussite land in old Bohemia in the beginning of the 15th century. Apart from the Jewish villages, the experience is always that the outcome of trying to introduce this into practice will be a disaster.
D: Well thank you so much for talking with me. It’s been really interesting to hear about your experiences, and thank you so much for sharing with me and others about communism.
M: Thank you for being interested.
Dr. Zbynek Skvor grew up in Czechoslovakia during communism. He was born in the early 1960s, and has experienced many of the different phases of communism in the country, including a brief period of liberalization during the Prague Spring, the communist's strict reinforcement of censorship during the 'normalization' period succeeding the Prague Spring invasion in 1968, the Velvet Revolution, and the democratization of the country once freed from communism's grip. His story is an inspiring one. When he was a little child, he went to celebrate Dubcek's more liberal government in his father's arms. One of the first words he wrote was "Democracy." Later, not allowed to continue his studies in secondary school, he was forced to work in the underground metro system. Nonetheless, he pursued his love of Electromagnetism and found a way to study. Now, he is the Department Chair of Electromagnetic Fields at the Czech Technological University in Prague, along as the Vice-Rector for Scientific Research and Creative Activities and the head of the Vice-Rector's office for Scientific Research Activities. Today, close to 30 years after the fall of communism, he deals with ex-communists on a daily basis.
D: I have with me the head of Vice-Rector’s Office for Scientific Research activities at the Czech Technological University in Prague, the Vice-Rector for science and creative activities and PhD studies, the department chair of Electromagnetic Field studies, and my uncle, Zbynek Skor. He was born in the early 1960s in Czechoslovakia, putting him at around 8 years old during the Prague Spring Invasion and grew up during the normalization period in Czechoslovakia post-Prague Spring invasion. Thank you for joining me today. To start off, what was everyday life like under communism?
S: Well that’s difficult to tell in a few sentences. First, everyday life means that you have to get food, get some place to live, if you would like to raise your children, you would like to get them educated, and some entertainment. And all of that was somehow possible, but all of that was somehow difficult. For example, Czech Republic was quite lucky in the fact that it had enough food in the shops. That does not mean that you could buy meat everyday. There was some meat, but not good meat. There was one day a week and then you had to queue. But they were short queues like 20 minutes. And you could get the meat. And you could get other things. There have been some countries which the situation was quite different. But, Czech Republic was lucky. We had enough potatoes. There were no bananas or oranges, but you could live without bananas and oranges. Of course, sometimes if something was missing in the markets, like toilet paper, for example. Then you had to queue because you could only buy two rolls per person. Of course, this would consume so much of your time. Then sometimes you had to queue if you wanted a bed. You had to queue several times. But it was probable that sometime the bed would arrive. And after queuing several hours in the queue several times, and sometimes queuing overnight, you were in the position to get a bed. Of course this system had consequences, like slowing down your work. But you still could get along with. Of course there were people who were privileged who didn’t have to queue because they were somehow well established in the system. There were some people who had better access to medical care than others, although officially everything was, every person in the republic was equal to another person. But for example, you wanted to raise your children and get them educated. The worst things that were before, at the beginning of socialism, at the beginning there were some people who could not study at any case. For example there were some people who have sinned by having their parents own a shop. Although it still was somehow terrible. There have been real entrance exams which had 100 points for maximum. In my case when I wanted to enter secondary school, like high school in the US. If a parent was a communist, you had 10 points more, if both parents were communists you had 20 points more. But you could still get there. Unless there were some exception. Sometimes it could happen where some of your relatives said something that was incoherent with the regime. You would never find out what they did, but you were never admitted. For example, I wanted to study at gymnasium, the classic secondary school, but somehow it did not work. So finally I got skilled and I repaired the underground cars in Prague. The metro. That was my primary education. I somehow managed to get to the University. But others did not. It was quite funny. For example, when I was getting skilled for repairing the metro cars, for the whole time we were sitting in the classroom. My colleague on my left hand side was Ladislav Medved. And his family was, by the way he got a secondary degree in mechanical engineering, but anyway he was from Plzen. In Plzen he could not even get an apprenticeship. And that was because his father in 1968 was responsible for the newspaper in Plzen. He printed there, it’s difficult to say in English. The word for a big gun and an artistic picture is the same. So he had printed in the newspaper a picture with the caption of this is a collection of soviet arts, and the guns were the picture. So after this neither he, his family, although he loved the work in the newspaper, his son or daughter could not get educated in Plzen. Fortunately in Prague there was two places where a professor, although communist, took the risk to educate those people. By the way today he works with the newspaper in Plzen again. Although formerly everybody was equal, the equality was not so much equal as one would think. We had also elections. Everything was controlled. It would be a very difficult thing to vote for anyone not proposed by the communists. My best, most funny, or most strange elections was the -------. We had been marching, and we had to pick up the voting ballots, and without stopping we had to walk to the other side of the room and put the ballots in the voting booth. We could not change anything, we could not even admit it. And if there were problems, they just sent a group of soldiers who voted and changed the result. I don’t mean that it would be at that time possible that elections would work. Things were normal at the first side, but then something was behind which was somehow manipulated.
D: Wow, that sound horrific!
S: Well you wanted to have an interview so I should probably let you ask questions.
D: Haha, no I’m glad you mentioned all of those things. I want to touch upon some of the things you mentioned later on, too. First of all, do you remember Prague Spring at all and the USSR and Warsaw Pact invasion?
S: Yes, I remember that. One of the things that hits me is when I was a child, one of the first words I had written as a child was the word “democracy.” I had painted a box, and I remember that I had put there a big sign “democracy.” From which now I know that when 1967 came around Czech society started to change and be somehow allowed to say things that we had been thinking about. It was a big thing for a child who maybe only had 6 years. Then the second thing I remember of course some things that people were enthusiastic. During the communist era there was some manifestation that was more or less compulsory. But that year in 1968 on the first of May people were really happy to see their government. People were in a big queue and there was a manifestation for the government. And they wanted to. Two or three times. I was there, carried by my father. And I remember that. People were very enthusiastic. Then I remember the morning the soviet army. I went out of Prague for my eyes, it was a bit troubling because the best doctor was in Olomouc, so we started in the morning, and we had been going to the railway station in Moravia. And there someone told us “Where are you going, don’t you know that Prague has been overtaken by the Russians?” And we switched on the radio and, even though the radio station had already been blasted some people still found a way to broadcast. So sometimes they had been able to broadcast independent news. This is what I remember as a person. I also remember that we did not return to Prague when school started, so I started school in the village school. I remember when we returned to Prague, the Russian guns, Russian tanks, things destroyed by the tanks running over it. I remember a house who has left its roof and utmost floor by gunfire. And I remember things that had been destroyed and repaired, but you know if you have guns shooting into houses, you could repair it, but things would show up again. For example, the National Museum. We weren’t allowed to talk about how it was destroyed by guns, so we normally told and it was normal to say that pigeons destroyed it. Nobody believes that pigeons would destroy it. So that’s it. The other thing is that I went back to Prague when there was no more shooting so I didn’t see any dead people, but I have spoken to people who had seen dead people. So yes, although there had not been mass murders, there were gunshots.
D: Did you personally know anyone who was killed?
S: no, I was lucky that the range of shooting was not that big, at least in Prague.
D: hmm, ok. Do you remember normalization and returning back into more censorship after the invasion?
S: Yes, I remember it. It was quite strict. It started slowly but then it was quite fast. Also after the first year, there were protests in Prague, like one year after the invasion, with some shooting of guards against the protests and destroying aeroflot by the crowds and so on. I remember there was a ---for young people up to the ages of 8 years. I remember one was saved because two short young children who have some short memory. It was something like 50 years each. It has been so dangerous to the government and soviet army that all the people working there were changed. Two years later we had a teacher who taught us singing and works like that. Then he had used his words to create a song and he told us a song. Then we had another teacher. I still remember the song. One of the things I will never forget.
D: So was he making fun of the soviet union? That’s why he was replaced?
S: Yes. One of them was about a (technological glitch) that lives on the tree and it only said that he (technological glitch). Well in each street there was a number of the communist party who each year wrote something about you. You are doing well, putting out flags, etc. Generally they were very well educated and very strictly communists. Many times we would read something translated. It was very dangerous. As a child I could see that everyone was afraid. After some people being shot, after many people losing their jobs. I could see some soldiers. In many cases someone might say its only a temporary solution, but 22 years is not temporary. As a child, I could see this. I saw some other things. For example some of my classmates had parents who decided to leave the communist party and join the contra-revolution. We were told that in the school. As children we didn’t have to declare that we like it (communism). I was happy to take classes on foreign language. Luckily for me I started with English but the year later the students had to start with Russian, and then only learn English later.
D: Do you remember you teachers having to publicly profess their trust in the Soviet Union?
S: Yes, I remember all the teachers. We had a teacher who was responsible for class and she was also the head of the communist party at the school. And so she did often try to teach the good parts of the soviet union at the school. She taught us Russian meals, to know how to prepare them. It was difficult for me because it was hard to imagine how the food actually looked it. So she was a strange person because she actually believed in that. She finally resulted in the situation that she was not from the -----. She finished the year out with me but then after she could not find any job.And this was not because of her belief, but just she and her husband had been trying to get a better position among the communists so that was it. It was difficult, but yes. Some of the teachers proclaimed their love for the soviet union. Some of them really did that, most of them said that just to be able to be a teacher.
D: That scary. You talked about earlier how in school you got bonus points if your school was part of the communist party.
S: That was just for the admission. I could get excellent marks without having my parents be part of the communist party.
D: Can you talk a little bit more about your education. You first had to work in the metros underground instead of going to the University. Was it difficult to pursue your degree?
S: I went to the basic 9 years school which was what everybody did. I was lucky because I didn’t lose any time as far as getting my degree because I still took the entrance exams at the same time as my peers. But I just had less time to study because I was working in the metros. School was always available for people who were not afraid. Out of the 32 apprentices, there were about 20 cases of that kind-they could not study in secondary school because they were punished somehow by the communists. Sometimes I went to school to learn how to work and do labor, but the other days I went to work. In some manner I had less time to get my education, but I managed to finish going to the University.
D: Oh ok that’s amazing.
S: If I was one year younger, they would have accepted me to the secondary school because they did competitions. One year later, they issued a command that people who got first or second place in the competition must be excepted to study. The regime found that it had been a problem that these kids didn’t go to school. I have a strange story about the access to education. There had been people who were actively opposing the regime. Some of their children wanted to attend the university. And at the Czech Technical University, after the revolution, they released all of our files. And we found out that some people were expelled from the University for some reason. And some were not accepted. At that level, because the secret police on the entrance examination day, came to the University, this person was able to find the unwanted student, falsify his test, and interchange his test. And for three years this person was blocked from entering the university by this trick of the secret police. So if you were going to invent something, you could not invent it.
D: Leading up to the Velvet Revolution, did you expect the fall of communism?
S: I could not imagine that communism would fall down. I never wanted to enter the communist party because I didn’t like it, but I couldn’t imagine it ending. I was prepared for life that I wouldn’t be able to work anywhere in management and that it would be hard to study. At the end of my studies, someone in the University said that there would be a place for me at the University if I caved to the communist party, and the next day the place disappeared. You could chose, you could make it a career in the communist party, or you could survive.
D: What were you doing the evening of the first protests of the Velvet Revolution?
S: The first evening started with a student manifestation which was allowed ---When I arrived, it was really something which I had not been reading such stuff the whole life before. Somehow people had banners which was evident it was against the regime. One of the speakers was speaking so openly against the regime, that it was something which I couldn’t imagine. Then the students managed to get to the Wenceslas Square. At that time, I had to leave. I left and went to a different square-I did not know that people had been blocked and for some time many of them had been beaten. It was close to Wenceslas Square. After I went to the underground metro, I could not find anything, and so after a half-an-hour I went home. Then I listened to messages. The fact that there was no internet in the Czech Republic, although the internet was young. We listened to a broadcast from America. The broadcast from the Czech Republic was jammed so it was easier to receive the broadcast from America.
D: Well it’s good you weren’t there when they started to beat up the people in the crowd. How did things change after the revolution? Did it happen suddenly?
S: Well after two weeks, things changed drastically. We could say anything we wanted. The worst and first thing (during communism) was that family members would be punished. That was quite an effective means of resisting it and speaking openly. Well I was a scout leader. Well, scouts were forbidden at that time, so we were somehow surviving. There were some children who were actively protesting the regime. These are children. 8 years old. They were so dangerous, that when they went home from the meeting of the scouts they had two secret policemen walking with them. So you can imagine many people would be really afraid and not accept them to anything. My 5th scout group did accept people, knowing that sometimes our club room had some visitors. You know, it was that way. I understand that many people have been afraid just to talk with people under such communist supervision.
D: ok. Continuing the discussion about the Velvet Revolution and the return to democracy, who was Vaclav Havel to you?
S: Vaclav Havel was an excellent, outstanding person, a humanist, he was imprisoned several times by the communist government. And I think he did a big job in the beginning of Czechoslovakia and Czech Republic.
D: Do you remember anyone you personally knew who stood up to communism?
S: At first I knew the parents of those young guys in my scout group who were signing those anti-communist documents who were talking to radio America or Radio Free Europe. So I did know several such people.
D: Today, 50 years after the Prague Spring invasion and close to 30 years after the fall of communism, what is life like, and do you still see the effects of communism in Czech people?
S: Although you get freedom, you can’t wash everything down of you. There are still some things that originated during communism. Some people thinking that after all there were some people who had better times under communism than later. Yes, it is a long process, which is difficult to speed up. Although now we are close to a democracy, we still have some problems here. Second thing is that Czech Republic was one of the first (technologically advanced) countries before Soviet Union freed us from Hitler. For being a country who was extremely technologically advanced, we had not much advancement during communism so we fell down in the competition. The other thing is we also did not really have any money after the fall of communism. So this is a result which is not devastating but it’s here.
D: In your work, have you ever encountered ex-communists?
S: Yes, it wasn’t true before 1968, but after there was a big resistive place. After the 1968 some of the communist party decided that they would hire professors who didn’t even have to defend their dissertation. They have changed the numbers this way. Some had to leave because students didn’t like them. Some of them remain there. Some of them are still pretty important. We are currently fighting with some of them.
D: Wow, that’s crazy. That’s all the questions I have today. Thank you so much for taking my call.
S: Thank you. This is something that happens only once or twice in your life. It’s quite interesting to have lived during that time.
In January of 1968, Alexander Dubček was selected as the first secretary of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia (KSC). At this time, Brezhnev, the leader of the USSR, trusted Dubček and allowed him to maintain power in Czechoslovakia. Brezhnev did not anticipate Dubček ’s democratic-leaning reforms.
Soon following his assumption to power, Dubček attempted to decentralize the government and grant more rights and freedoms to the people. He coined this “socialism with a human face,” giving the cogs in the machine some liberty once again. Censorship stopped. Restrictions on media, speech, and travel were partially lifted, and the people experienced a brief breath of fresh air from the twenty some years of harsh oppression. Czechoslovakian films were some of the important, creative products of the Prague Spring, in which directors radically affected film styles around the world with their use of absurdity, humor, and critique of communism. Additionally, the Czech radio took advantage of the increase in freedom, and broadcasted anti-communist sentiments. This eventually made it a big target in the Prague Spring invasion.
The USSR was not pleased with the growing freedom in Czechoslovakia. As Czechoslovakia was known as the connection between the East and the West, its leaning towards the West with growing freedoms and rights threatened communism in Europe. Brezhnev met with Dubček to try to stop the democratization of the country, and called him multiple times after, when Dubček hadn’t changed his policies. As a response to Dubček’s strong stance against censorship, some 650,000 men from Warsaw Pact troops, including soldiers from the Soviet Union, Bulgaria, Poland, and Hungary, invaded Czechoslovakia. They were coming to save Czechoslovakia from the evil West, from freedom. The invaders killed over 130 people in the immediate attack, leaving over 260 people seriously injured, and some 140 slightly injured.
When the Warsaw troops entered Czechoslovakia on August 20th, they first had some trouble reaching Prague. Citizens in outside towns realized what was happening and went out to the streets to either fight or confuse the soldiers. Some painted over street signs, while others met the troops outside to fight. In Liberec, a small town to the north of Prague, citizens threw tomatoes and anything at hand at the tanks rolling in. Nine were killed here, some 45 seriously injured.
The troops finally made it to Prague early morning on August 21. Here too, citizens met the tanks out in the streets. They tried to stop the tanks with makeshift barricades, even using their own bodies to form barriers on the roads. Some flipped military vehicles.
The most violence happened in front of the radio building. Citizens tried to defend the building, and fought the troops back. Here, 17 were killed, but eventually a tank destroyed the radio building. Once the radio was down, it was easier to control the rest of Prague. Alexander Dubček and other politicians of importance were arrested, and sent back to Moscow for interrogations. They were forced to sign the “Brezhnev Doctrine,” and bring heavy censorship back to Czechoslovakia.
The Warsaw troops were coming to help their brothers against the counter-revolution. Soldiers in the invading camps had been told that they were helping their brothers in Czechoslovakia against the dangerous revolutionaries-that they were there to rescue their friends. Tanks and censorship was their offering in friendship.
After the invasion, the USSR set up the government in Prague, bringing back censorship in a period of what they called ‘normalization.’ At the onset of their new government, around 70,000 people fled the country, while more than 300,000 people left in later years. They were fleeing a killing machine. Perhaps the numbers of the invasion-less than 200 deaths, seems low for an invasion thus remembered. But, the invasion represents a much higher number of deaths. The re-implementation of Communism meant the snuffing out of freedom. It meant that people were no longer able to be people again; to have a conscience, think what they want, say what they think. It also meant physical death. According to Victims of Communism, the overall death toll of communism worldwide spans from 42,870,000 to 161,990,000. In Eastern Europe alone, communism is responsible for over 1,000,000 deaths.
After Dubček was removed from office, Gustav Husák took his place as first secretary. He led the process of ‘normalization,’ restoring censorship, purging the political system of anti-communist sentiment, and strengthening the country’s ties with other socialist nations. Of the 115 members of the KSC Central Committee, Husák replaced 54. Throughout the nation, top levels of leadership were purged. According to the US Country Studies on the Czech Republic, professors, scientists, and social leaders who did not show full support of normalization lost their jobs and were forced to do menial work.
Soviet control permeated Czechoslovakian government. In 1970, Czechoslovakia and the USSR signed the Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance, in which Czechoslovakia lost sovereignty and allowed USSR to remain stationed in Czech lands. Soviet leaders kept a close watch of Czechoslovakian politicians. By January 1971, central authority was restored to its pre-Prague Spring level.
Though communism permeated every facet of life, pro-freedom sentiments had not died completely among the people. Living in a thwarted environment forced some to find alternate avenues. Like a tree which twists and bends to find light in a shaded glen, leaders seeking freedom for themselves and their brothers found ways to pervade the communist haze. The most famous and celebrated spokesperson for civil rights and freedom, Vaclav Havel, continually searched for ways to undermine the communist regime. Born in a bourgeois family, Havel received a limited education (the communists didn’t like wealth and his dissident family, and wanted to punish success and opinions in many of their forms). This did not stunt his search for academic excellence and artistic expression. When he was 27, his first play, “Garden Party,” which highly criticized communism, premiered at the Prague Theatre in 1963. When Prague Spring was suppressed, he was forced to stop writing, and work as a manual labourer instead. However, this only added to Havel’s enthusiasm. He, among others, published Charter 77, a document in which listed the many civil rights violations of the communist party. This document, though confiscated in its original form, made its way into being published in the Western world, and broadcasted illegally to Czechoslovakians through Radio Free Europe and Voice of America. His efforts to bring down communism led to his imprisonment on multiple occasions. Yet, though he was imprisoned, the communists could not stop his message from spreading. Later, once out of jail, he founded the Civic Forum--a group made up of multiple anti-communist groups. With this, he lead the Velvet Revolution--a 10 day long protest which resulted in the toppling of communism in the Czech Republic.
Vaclav Havel reminds us of our humanity--that each and every one of us has a unique conscience. That each is born with reason, and thus must exercise reason in his utmost capacity. That each and every one of us is born equal, and has the right to live, and exercise that equality in freedom of speech, opinion, and thought. He reminds us of who we are at the core, and who each has the capacity to become.
Stay tuned to next week's post: an interview with an intellectual who was able to rise to the heights of academia despite being prohibited to study and do manual labor instead.
Prague Spring interviews
After I experienced the commemoration of Prague Spring, 1968 in the Czech Republic, my interest in the history of communism in this country peaked. One of my friends from class mentioned that she wanted to go to the Museum of Communism downtown, and I immediately asked to join. What I was about to learn would change my life.
I had always known that communist governments were repressive. But, the extent to which they repressed their citizens was unknown to me. I had a fictional picture of communism in my mind: an Animal Farm-like reality in which nobody could trust anybody, wealth was extremely difficult to accumulate, and freedom was nonexistent. But, this fictional idea never was real to me. I imagined the real version of communism to be less harsh--that Czechoslovakia wasn’t repressed that much. I couldn’t have been further from the truth. Communism in Czechoslovakia was extreme. It robbed people of everything they had, including their consciences, personalities, and ability to trust. It made each person just a number in a system, forcing them to act as cogs in the machine rather than human beings. The following is what I learned at the museum:
Although it wasn’t until after WWII when the Communist Party officially took control of the country, many citizens sympathized with communism in the early 1920’s. Leading up to the establishment of the Communist Party in the Czechoslovakian government in 1921, Czech lands suffered from droughts and poverty, and thus communism appeared to offer a solution to their problems. By 1928, the party had gained a substantial amount of followers, making it the second-largest party in the Communist International party.
After WWII, the USSR dictated the government in Czechoslovakia. Socialist parties were abolished, and the Communist party gained control. Once in control, the Communist Party leaders initiated massive eradications of dissenters. At the start of Communist control in Czechoslovakia, 23,000 people were found guilty of crimes. Of the 23,000, 713 were sentenced to death immediately.
In 1945, 75% of industry was in the government’s control, and in 1948, the government put to use the taking of others’ property, or “legalized theft.” Although Klement Gottwald was the president of Czechoslovakia, he had limited control himself. Most of the decisions were dictated to him from the USSR. Thus started what the Museum of Communism calls the “Communist Dictatorship.”
From 1948-1968, Czechoslovakia was subject to extreme poverty, doctrination, and oppressive control. The Communists created a new ideal for their citizens: Homo Communism. The new socialist man was the laborer. He volunteered for his community, loved the army, and waved the soviet union flag. To showcase this ideal, the government created many banners and paintings glorifying Homo Communism, including the huge painting attached at the bottom of this article. Because labor was valued so much, and because the Communists in Czechoslovakia thought that the bulk of the community relied on physical labor, the government sponsored many uranium mines. Working in these plants was extremely unhealthy, and the stress of gathering uranium left huge environmental issues in the country, as well as economic.
To compensate for the government’s overinvesting in industry, it decided to change the value of its currency overnight and lower its debts. Although a few days before doing so government leaders promised that the money value would not change, they changed the value regardless on June 1, 1953. Imagine going to bed with $50,000 dollars in your bank account, to wake up to only $1,000. The reform made paupers out of the citizens, while it decreased the debt of an extremely inefficient government system. Cash lost about 80% of its value. The West referred to this reform as the “great swindle,” which it surely was. 130 anti-communist strikes occurred as a result of the reform, to which the government acted violently to repress.
Additionally to the Homo Communism ideal, and all of the problems it brought with it, communism hacked away at Czech culture. Baby Jesus, who traditionally brings presents on Christmas Eve, was replaced by Grandfather Frost. The Scout program--an important extracurricular program for many Czechs--was replaced with the Pionyr program. The Communists tried desperately to thwart religious practices. Many faithful Catholics could not hold jobs where they had the possibility of affecting the culture. Among many Catholics thus persecuted, Dr. Radomir Maly, a former historian for a museum in the town of Kromeriz, was forced to quit his job and work as a menial worker because he would have had too strong of a religious effect on those around him. Dr. Maly’s story of persecution is a common one for faithful Christians in Czechoslovakia; from 1948 to 1968, the number of priests in the country decreased in half. Many practicing Christians were forced to either stop practicing their religion, or turn to illegal, underground meetings. The persecution of Christians has a lasting effect in Czech Republic. In 1921, about 82% of Czechs identified as Roman Catholic, but by 2011 only 10% of Czechs identified as Roman Catholic.
The Communist policies were bad. Taking away freedom anywhere is a violation of human rights. But the ways in which they were enforced are close to unimaginable. The StB was the Czechoslovakian secret police who monitored their neighbors all while remaining under cover of ordinary citizens. StB infiltrated all parts of life. In every avenue of work, members of the StB monitored their neighbors and coworkers. StB kept records of the people they watched. They listened in on phone conversations at switchboards, bugged rooms, and set up secret cameras. If these records hadn’t been burnt, they would have covered several soccer fields, piled a few meters high.
In the 1950’s, 422 labor camps were created, in which lived 11,026 residents. Dissidents and non-dissidents alike of the ‘Communist Dictatorship’ were systematically placed in these camps. The Ministry of Justice predetermined how many people they wanted to imprison. Thus, many of the imprisoned had not been loud dissidents of communism, and some hadn’t even committed any crimes. The StB had two rules regarding the placement of people into the prison camps: 1. The people arrested were the only witnesses to their crimes, and 2. The StB could never free someone they arrested. Breaking any of these rules would undermine the StB authority. The StB had several ways of forcing confessions out of their imprisoned: they would torture the arrested by not allowing them to sleep well, waking them every 15 minutes from their cells, they would beat them up physically, inject drugs into their systems, and not let them live until they forced a confession.
Travel was hardly an option for Czechoslovakians. Either they travelled to the West illegally (and never returned), or they travelled to the USSR on highly supervised trips. When Czechoslovakians visited the USSR, KGB was vigilant in never letting its visitors see the true face of communism. Escape from Czechoslovakia into Western countries was nearly impossible. Huge barriers and barbed wire fences were built along the borders, and sand plains led up to the barriers to highlight the dark bodies trying to escape against the white sand. Many were killed while trying to escape.
Communism was indoctrinated in schools. Children were taught to tell on their parents if their parents ever talked poorly of communism. My grandmother, who grew up in communist Prague, said that she had to be very careful with what she told her children. She admits though, that her children were smart and knew not to say anything, and that most of the other children understood not to talk about communism, too. Additionally, children were taught that wealth was evil. If someone acquired wealth, they were against the common man. The subject of their education was likewise made up of propaganda. For example, children had to write essays on the benefits of their liberators, the Soviet Union. Undoubtedly, if they questioned the essay prompt, or the USSR, they were met with grave repercussions.
Thus, Czechoslovakians lived very tough lives. Their commemoration of Prague Spring, 1968 weighs much more when seen with the knowledge of what Czechoslovakians were trying to escape. The goal of the commemorative movement--that the nightmares never go grey--was met with me. The commemoration made me interested in Czechoslovakian history, and made me question my previous knowledge. Now that I know this “Communist Dictatorship” started with the approval of the people, I will be much more skeptical about politicians in my own country, and vigilant that none try to take away my freedom. I hope that learning about communism in Czechoslovakia has the same effect on you, too.
Stay tuned for the second part: Prague Spring 1968-Post Communism
Read more here:
This past August 21, the world, especially Czech Republic, commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Prague Spring invasion. Various speakers spoke against the evils of communism, and how the Prague Spring invasion from the USSR and other Warsaw Pact troops threw the nation back into darkness. Luckily for me, I was in Prague in August, receiving my TEFL certificate, and was able to witness many of the commemorations of this pivotal point in Czech history.
In 1968, Czechoslovakia experienced a brief period of liberation and artistic creation, called Prague Spring. Coined by then president Alexander Dubcek as “socialism with a human face,” Czech society loosened from a previously oppressive and completely socialized society. Czechoslovakia experienced a burst in creation, giving this time period its name, “Zlata sedesata” (the golden sixties). But, upset with the direction Czechoslovakia was headed in, and wary the country--as seen by many as the connection between East and West Europe--would inspire other countries to adopt looser communist governments, troops from the USSR, ordered by stalinist president Antonin Novotny, along with other Warsaw Pact countries, rolled through Czechoslovakia and re-instated strict communism. All in all, around 250,000 troops invaded Czechoslovakia, including some 6,300 tanks and 250 airplanes. Around 72 Czechs and Slovaks were killed during the invasion, and some 270 injured. Although the numbers may seem low for something commemorated as such, the invasion symbolizes the loss of freedom and the catalyst of many more deaths during the 'normalization' back into the Communist way of life.
During the week leading up to the Tuesday, many of the historic locations in Prague housed special events to honor the lives lost in the reoccupation of Czechoslovakia. In Wenceslas Square, where citizens--typically students--historically protested, and where Warsaw tanks famously fired at the Radio station during the reoccupation, several organizations, including Vojenský Historický Ústav Praha and others, sponsored the showing of documentaries on a blow-up screen, posters displaying images of the brutal invasion, speakers, and singers. The goal of the commemoration was twofold: to remember the victims of Communism, and to make sure that Communism and similar ideologies never return. Their logo reflects their goal: “Aby sny nezešedly” (Let not the dreams (read "nightmares") go grey).
On Tuesday, August 21, many important locations had commemorations. A concert, organized by Czech Radio, was held in Wenceslas square, where many songs about the invasion were sung. A special video and maps were projected onto the National Museum nearby. Various museums had special exhibits on the invasion, free to the public on Tuesday. In addition, in Kampa, a grassy, tranquil area by the Vltava river, several speakers recounted the events of the haunting day. About 300 melancholic people, holding Czech flags and banners, surrounded a small stage which held three speakers. Among them, a USSR expatriate Mr. Gorbanevska spoke against the ignorance of Communism.
Gorbanevska’s family has a detailed history with Communism. The repression of Prague Spring happened when he was young, and living in Russia at the time. His mother Natalya Gorbanevskaya, a strong proponent of freedom, and vocalist against the USSR, was one of the eight people who protested on the Red Square in Moscow several days after the Prague Spring invasion. She brought young Gorbanevska with her, as well as her two other children. All eight protestors were swept up by the KGB within seven minutes of sitting in the square with a Czechoslovakian flag and a banner which read things such as: “мы теряем лучших друзей” (We are losing our best friends), “Ať žije svobodné a nezávislé Československo“ (Long live free and independent Czechoslovakia), and “Позор оккупантам!” (Shame to the occupiers). Most of the seven were subject to harsh treatment, including Gorbanevska’s mother, who was later sent to a psychiatric hospital for being a dissident, diagnosed with “sluggish schizophrenia.” She has been celebrated as a hero in the West, and is well-known for her numerous acts of courage and literary works on the necessity of freedom.
At the talk, Gorbanevska humbly opened his speech in a highly accented Czech, saying “Odpust mi, nemluvim Cesky” (Forgive me, I don’t speak Czech). A translator stood by his side and translated his Russian into Czech for the younger people in the crowd. For a people who had to learn Russian under the occupation, hearing Russian would be a hard thing on such a day. Gorbanevsky’s opener, however, created a platform on which he and the Czechs listening could together mourn the invasion. He continued to say, “I wanted to share a few words. A normal person to normal people.”
Gorbanevsky’s message was brief and direct: we must never forget the atrocities of Communism, and must actively reject it in all of its future forms. He dwells on current Russians’ ignorance of the repression, and how refusing to learn about the evils of the USSR based on the fact that these events took place in the past is an unforgivable excuse. If we forget the history of Communism--how it first started out as a political party which gained much popularity but evolved into a soul-killing machine--we risk repeating it.
In his talk, he chastises the Czech president, Miloš Zeman, for his weak stance against the Communist party in the Czech Republic. To the mention of Zeman, a rustling went through the crowd, stirring everyone a brief period of whistling in disapproval of Zeman. They’d been stabbed in the back by the secret police, their own brothers, countless times during Communist occupation. Betrayal by their president is close to unbearable.
Gorbanevsky concluded his speech by encouraging the crowd to never forget the tanks rolling into Prague, and to never tolerate limitations of freedom. He encouraged everyone in the crowd to continue protesting injustice everywhere, even if they risk persecution. Protesting evil is the right thing to do.
Following Gorbanevsky’s speech, the founder of the “The Memory of a Nation” project, a non-profit organization, talked about his work in sharing stories of normal people’s lives under Communism. His work has the same goal as those who organized commemorations throughout Prague--that people should never forget Communism, and never stop fighting for freedom.
After all of the speakers held the stage, a young singer was called to the stage. She sang the Czech national anthem, “Kde domov muy” (Where my home is), and the whole crowd joined. Following the song, members of the crowd lit candles for people they knew who died at the hands of the Communists during the occupation (the intellectuals, celebrities, and politicians who wouldn’t promote the USSR, as well as many others). They processed from Kampa to the statues memorializing the enemies of the state, and lay the candles at the feet of the statues. At the statue’s side, a scout (Scouts had been outlawed under Communism) held up the Czech flag. People reverently placed their candles down by the statues, and quietly related their stories to their neighbors.
This experience taught me many things. It explained the quiet stillness in the crowded metros, and the hard, emotionless face of the passersby. Communism may be gone in the Czech Republic, but its effects still linger. We must never forget what Communism was, and how it came to be here, but we also must be willing to move on and trust others again, rejoice, and enjoy this life.
Stay tuned for my impression and recap of the Museum of Communism next.
Interesting links for follow-up research:
Jessica De Gree
Jessica teaches English as a second language in Spain and plays basketball professionally there. She recently received her Bachelor's degree from Hillsdale College, one of the nation's top Liberal Arts schools in MI. At Hillsdale, she played basketball and studied English and Spanish. Some of her hobbies include reading, writing, painting, surfing, and playing the piano.