Communism, still the form of government in a few remaining countries, ended in Czechoslovakia in 1989. However, the repercussions are prevalent today in both the Czech Republic and Slovakia as they continue to rebuild themselves after years in isolation from the rest of the world. My mother grew up in Czechoslovakia and lived through the communist regime. I conducted an interview with her to shed light on a part of history that, in my opinion, has become quickly forgotten and riddled with misconceptions. Communism is an institutionalised method to control, manipulate and exploit people for the benefit of a select few. By no means is it an equitable and productive form of government. I believe it is one of our jobs as students to maintain a healthy dichotomous relationship between caution and open-mindedness, and to understand that behind any country’s political curtain are human beings trying to make sense of the world they live in.
On August 20, 1968, the Soviet Union army together with the Warsaw Pact troops invaded your homeland, Czechoslovakia, in an effort to stop the liberalisation reform led by Alexander Dubček. You remember seeing Russian tanks rolling into your hometown (Nemšova) and your father disappearing. As you were only six years old at the time, can you remember how you felt? Did you understand the extent of what was happening?
“I woke up early one morning to a convoy of tanks, military vehicles, and Soviet officers with guns in their hands giving out orders on the streets. My brother and I were glued to the window while my mother grabbed our arms in panic, trying to get us away from plain sight. To this day I wonder if she was afraid that someone was going to shoot us. She had no idea what happened to my father who left for work the day before and never came back. I can recall hearing the word “war.” My father held a high-rank position at a weapons manufacturing factory. He was a member of the communist party, but actively participated in the reforms that started in the spring of 1968 promoting a more liberal form of communism, known as “communism with a human face.” When the Russian Army crossed the borders, my father’s factory was one of their first strategic targets. The factory leaders refused to leave but were eventually interrogated, threatened, and had to give up control of the factory’s production to the Russian invaders. I recall my father coming home pale and thin, crying and hugging my mom. He never talked about what happened. The factory workers were labelled “enemies of the regime” and moved to an office in a secluded building under surveillance. My father was consequently kicked out of the communist party and considered an official traitor of the communist ideology. He demonstrated his disagreement with the invasion of the Warsaw Pact troops. Politicians loyal to the Soviet Union regained control of the communist regime a year after the initial invasion. “Normalisation” started, a period in which people like my father and their families were denied a future and put under surveillance. My brother and I were more fortunate than some of our friends. My mother worked at the school that we attended and had access to our documents. She took a risk and managed to change records about my father’s political past. This opened to us many doors that would have otherwise have stayed closed. As for my father, he refused to speak with us about the August 1968 events. I think he forever blamed himself for putting his family in danger by following his ideological views and not bowing to the communist regime and Russian invaders”.
The communist regime was politically corrupt and inequitable. However, you were taught to perceive it as anything but. Would I be correct in saying that, to a certain extent, you had a happy childhood? If you could go back, how would you change it?
“Did I have a happy childhood? Yes, I did. Because I did not know anything else. The original idea of communism was not bad — a classless society where everyone works together and reaps equal benefits. Communists made sure to “groom” the regime’s future generation. Healthcare was accessible and free, education was excellent, free day-care was provided for working mothers… We grew up as “collective children of the regime” which taught us invaluable lessons. Everyone had to be a pioneer: a member of the Young Communist Organisation. I recall my weekly meetings packed with trips, hikes, camping and crafts. Free summer camps were filled with communist propaganda but also with sports, friendship and fun experiences. Would I change anything about those years? Most likely not. They formed me into a frugal, humble, resourceful, and hard-working person”.
I asked you once why you eat oranges until there is nothing left except the skin. You said it was because fruit were hard to come across under the regime, so if you got your hands on one, you would eat as much of it as you could. Do you have any habits or perceptions you find have been adversely affected by your upbringing under a communist regime?
“Growing up in Czechoslovakia (or any other country of the former Eastern Bloc), empty shelves in grocery stores were the norm. Everything was portioned. Meat stores were often completely empty, tropical fruit was a rare sighting. Even if you did not know what people were waiting for, you would get in line anyway to see what you could get. I remember my mom getting up at 3:30am so she would be the first one in line when the store opened at seven, just to get some meat for dinner. If you were lucky and got in line on time to snatch a fashionable pullover, who cares that it is three sizes too big? You can trade with your neighbour who stood in the same line. Yes — if my mother stood in line for an hour to buy two oranges of course I would eat every edible part! I recall my mom once being lucky enough to get a bunch of grapes. It was about two weeks before Christmas and she wanted to have it on the table for the holidays. She hung it on a clothesline in the basement hoping it would last. I would walk down, stare at them, and thought how amazing it would be if I would have the chance to eat them”. To this day I often pause when I enter a grocery store full of whatever in the world I desire, and I think of the small girl staring at the bunch of grapes…”
As a musician, you were one of the select few allowed to travel to western Europe beyond the Eastern Bloc countries. What did you find shocking about the broadened perspectives you gained from these travels?Did the thought of escaping ever cross your mind? Was becoming a musician your autonomous decision, or a decision contingent on the constricting regime you were living under?
“Becoming a musician was a personal choice and had nothing to do with the regime. The borders between the East and West were sealed tight. Many people died trying to escape the communist regime, even more people were caught and put in prison. When someone defected, the consequences were severe. Their bank accounts were seized, their loved ones lost their jobs, were kicked out of schools, etc. The arts were the pride of the regime and the main export of many former communist countries. I was able to travel with my school choir to “a rotten imperialistic country with no human rights” (as we were taught to think) as a young, 16-year old music student. We were warned that the food we would see in grocery stores was fake and made of plastic. We were told that people who we were about to meet were unhappy and dangerous. The country I visited first was Denmark. We were shocked to see the world where people were happy and free… Everything felt like a breath of fresh air. Over the years, during each of my trips there were always people who considered not returning. Knowing the consequences, I never had the courage to do it. We knew there was always a “traitor” on the bus who would listen to every word we said. Sometimes we knew who it was, other times we did not… And that was scary”.
What were some of the hurdles you had to face as a musician in a communist country? Did you ever feel you had to be “careful” with your job and make sure everything you did/said was politically correct? Did you find there were political threats against people in the classical music industry?
“At that time, there was only one music agency for all artists, and it was controlled by the regime. My former classmate was a member of the political committee that interviewed artists. Each interview consisted of tests of the performer’s ideological devotion to the communist regime. Your answers had had a major impact on your future as an artist. If you got the job, you still had to report to your “supervisors” about your concerts, social encounters, etc., especially if you traveled outside of the country. Only secular texts were allowed, and we had to incorporate music by Russian composers. Music from the Western world was banned. Freedom of expression for musicians was non-existent. Those who were members of the communist party got more gigs. We knew that we were supposed to be all “equal”, but some people were more equal than others. The hardest part was knowing we were always being watched. There were spies who would pretend to be your friends to gain your trust, then report you. My friendship with a would-be-lawyer-turned-priest opened my eyes to the extent of the impact the regime had on my life, so when I was invited to join the communist party I held onto my principles and turned them down. My father had a hard time understanding why I refused. To him, it would have meant progression in my career, endless benefits, etc. He was willing to forget his own progressive thoughts for the sake of my future. It was considered an honor to be invited to join the party, and refusal was seen as “not agreeing” with the regime. But by then I knew that behind the “iron curtain” was a prosperous world and a humane society we were deprived of. My words for refusing to join the party were “I feel honored, but I am not yet ready to join the distinguished members of the communist party yet”. It was a blatant white lie, but an accepted refusal, nonetheless. As I started working at the Music Conservatory in 1989, the political scene was quickly changing. My students trusted me, and I eventually became one of the activists during the Velvet Revolution, and soon after the communist regime ended”.