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.