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.
Jessica De Gree
Jessica teaches 5th grade English and History as well as 11th grade Spanish III at a Great Hearts Academy in Glendale, AZ. In addition to teaching, she coaches JV girls basketball and is a writing tutor for The Classical Historian Online Academy. Jessica recently played basketball professionally in Tarragona, Spain, where she taught English ESL and tutored Classical Historian writing students. In 2018, she received her Bachelor's degree in English and Spanish from Hillsdale College, MI.