The fall of Communism in East-Central Europe was as much a series of miscalculations on the part of the authorities as it was a burst of revolutionary organizing from below. In Poland, the Communist Party calculated that it would win in the first semi-free elections on June 4, 1989 and instead it lost nearly every seat that it contested. In East Germany, the Party spokesman made an announcement about new travel regulations on November 9, 1989 and mistakenly told the press that the regulations went into effect “immediately,” triggering the breach in the Berlin Wall.
But the miscalculations surrounding the start of the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia were perhaps the oddest of all. The authorities gave official approval to a commemoration of November 17, International Students’ Day. The day marks the anniversary of the Nazi storming of the Czech universities in 1939 and the killing, in particular, of student Jan Opletal. The student march was peaceful. But the police decided to take action against the crowd.
Charter 77 signatory and long-time activist Vaclav Trojan was in the crowd that day. “Nobody expected that on such a day, the police would do a very brutal action,” he told me in an interview in Prague last February. “And for me, it’s still puzzling why they did it. Well, it was not so horrible. It was dramatic, but it was a kind of artificially created hysteria. As you perhaps know, they arranged to have an agent, a policeman, play the role of somebody who was injured and maybe dead. The information about this provoked the people to do something. I’m not sure whether it would have happened so quickly, and so simply, without this dramatic situation.”
The strangest part was the bit of theater involving the staging of the death of the student. After all, the authorities must have been quite familiar with the history surrounding those anniversaries. On October 28, 1939, itself the anniversary of the founding of the Czechoslovak state, students had protested against the Nazi occupation, and that’s when the Nazis had killed Jan Opletal. It was his funeral on November 17 that occasioned the Nazi execution of nine Czech students and professors. Given this history, why did the Communist authorities, 50 years later on November 17, 1989, “kill” another student?
“We were trying to find out about the student Martin Smid that the media reported had died,” Trojan remembered. “I went to the student hostels to find out what really happened, but nobody really knew. We were just going from flat to flat. I went to Vaclav Havel’s flat, and Vaclav Benda’s flat. By chance, when I was in Vaclav Havel’s flat close to the Vltava, along with Jan Urban, Ladislav Lis, and others, that was the moment when they decided to create the movement they called Obcanske Forum (Civic Forum). By Sunday, there was some march going to the Vltava, but it was still small. But by Monday it was already happening, the massive demonstrations.”
The secret service agent who played the role of the supposedly dead Martin Smid – Ludvik Zifcak – tells an elaborate tale of how his actions were designed to trigger a purge within the Communist Party and a crackdown on the opposition similar to Martial Law in Poland in 1981. A parliamentary inquiry into the events of November 17 cast doubts on Zifcak’s narrative, while another version of the same events casts Zifcak as a peripheral player in an operation, code-named Wedge, by which reform-minded Communists were looking for ways to coopt key members of the opposition.
Whichever version of this key event is true, the Velvet Revolution wouldn’t have proceeded without the network of dissidents who had been patiently preparing for just such an opportunity. Vaclav Trojan was part of this network, providing essential technical support. He worked at the Institute of Computers, which turned out to be a perfect place to survive as a dissident.
“In our Institute there were five of us who signed Charter 77,” he said. “Almost all the scientists in the Institute said that if one of us will be kicked out of the Institute, all of us would resign. They were very much afraid about that, and they needed us. So, they didn’t kick us out of the institute because they needed to continue the Comecon program, with the Soviet Union and other socialist countries, of developing mainframe computers.”
But they could also use computers for other purposes. “In the late 1980s we started to help publish some unofficial books and we were developing ways to print and distribute them on computers,” he recalled. “But this was just the beginning, and it was happening just at the end of Communism. If Communism hadn’t fallen so fast, we could have done a lot with computers at that time. Our publishing effort was getting started when personal computers existed, and it’s a very good tool for editing and distributing information.”
We also talked about his experience of 1968, the work he did after 1989 on human rights issues, and the campaign he has waged to save the public health system.
Do you remember where you were and what you were thinking when you heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall?
I can remember it quite exactly. I was in Prague. It was near the time when Prague was full of Trabbies, the cheap East German cars. These East Germans started moving to Hungary and emigrating to West Germany and they left their cars behind. Many people who wanted to emigrate went first to the West German embassy here in Prague. So we were trying to help them. We threw sleeping bags and these kinds of things over the wall of the West German embassy. It was a very dramatic situation. And then, in one moment, they were released and they could move to Germany. It was the first time when I believed that I would see the end of the Soviet Union, and “Communism,” as they called it.
And here, I was a little disappointed by the people, because I personally expected that something would happen on October 28, which is a state celebration of the foundation of the Czechoslovak Republic. Things were already starting to move. I was here on Wenceslas Square, and there were a few people, 500 maximum. The police came and pushed us out to Vodickova Street, which is close to us here. And it was the first time I saw some kind of humor connected with the changes. The police moved the crowd here, and they were equipped with shields, and they had dogs. The dogs were sitting and behaving perfectly. There was some distance between the crowd and those policemen, and it created a kind of no-man’s land. Into this territory came this very small, stupid dog that started to bark at the police dogs. And then the people started to laugh and shout encouragement to the little dog.
Anyway, I was here in Prague. We shared messages and information about what was going on in Berlin. For me it was a total shock that the Soviet Union gave up on a divided Germany. About a week later, on November 17, something started to happen here. I was outside, with my children. Nobody expected a really hard police action. The gathering was officially permitted: it was the International Students’ Day. Nobody expected that on such a day, the police would do a very brutal action. And for me, it’s still puzzling why they did it. Well, it was not so horrible. It was dramatic, but it was a kind of artificially created hysteria. As you perhaps know, they arranged to have an agent, a policeman, play the role of somebody who was injured and maybe dead. The information about this provoked the people to do something. I’m not sure whether it would have happened so quickly, and so simply, without this dramatic situation. For me, it’s still a puzzle why the state police did this.
It was such a strange thing, a miscalculation.
Really strange. I can tell you a few details about that. I was at this demonstration on November 17 from the beginning. It started in Albertov, where Charles University is located, and the crowd moved through Visehrad, and it somehow managed to come to Narodni Street. Narodni Street was closed on one side, and it was possible for a long time to go out and nothing would happen. Then they closed in the crowd in on both sides and started to pressure us. The pressure was not dangerous for the crowd, but it created a psychological drama. Some people became hysterical. Nobody knew what would happen next. I saw a police car with a loudspeaker, and from this loudspeaker they were broadcasting the barking of dogs. That helped created a situation that was much more dramatic than it was in reality.
In January 1989, during the so-called Palach Week, the 20th anniversary of the self-immolation of Jan Palach, the police behaved in a much more brutal way. They really beat people bloody, and many had to go to the hospital. On November 17, it was dramatic, but I think it was more like theater, done in a way to provoke people. After all this time, I still cannot imagine any motivation of the Communist regime to do something like this on the International Students’ Day. People still remember what happened here on November 19 during the Nazi occupation, at the funeral of Jan Opletal in 1939, when 9 people were shot and 1,200 people were sent to concentration camps. So, why the authorities did what they did on November 17 is still a puzzle.
Anyway, I think it’s crazy that we celebrate this day, November 17, as a state holiday or official day of freedom or something. Every year on Narodni Street, where this happened near the national theater, premiers, presidents, and politicians bring candles and make speeches. But what really happened? The whole thing on November 17 was created by the state police. On the other hand, we’re covering up the real history of what happened on November 17, 50 years before, where 5,000 students participated in the funeral of Jan Opletal, who’d been shot by the Nazis, and nine students were sentenced to death. But instead we are celebrating this.
I want to go back a little bit before 1989. You were working at the Institute of Computers. Was that something you had studied in school?
No, I studied philosophy and sociology. But I was among the group of student activists who, after 1968 and the Soviet invasion, found it practically impossible to get a job in this field. And I didn’t want such a job because — after the Prague spring, after the liberalization, after all the very interesting debates and discussions – the social sciences were ideologically limited and it was practically impossible to do something interesting. Already, during my studies, I was quite used to mathematical logic, and to computers. So I decided not to continue in social sciences. I found the job at the Institute of Computers, which was very, very interesting and I was very lucky that I was able to work there. The research was at quite a high level, and the institute was not marginal. It was quite a good group of people.
There wasn’t much connection to politics. Many scientists and researchers emigrated in 1968, mainly to the United States. The government here needed to create a new group of people, so they practically accepted the people’s political limits. As it happened, in research, there were many dissidents. In our Institute there were five of us who signed Charter 77, for instance. Almost all the scientists in the Institute said that if one of us will be kicked out of the Institute, all of us would resign. They were very much afraid about that, and they needed us. So, they didn’t kick us out of the institute because they needed to continue the Comecon program, with the Soviet Union and other socialist countries, of developing mainframe computers. At that time these were big computers, as big as this room. And they weren’t even as powerful as my mobile phone. So they somehow let us do our work and didn’t care too much about our political opinions.
I was not allowed to publish anything after 1977. I was not allowed to formally manage a group of people. But informally, I was managing some small research groups. There wasn’t a lot of pay, but during the Communist time, it was not so important how much money you got. Our flats were quite cheap, and we still had the possibilities to have some outside jobs. In terms of material conditions, my life was not so bad. Of course there were a lot of police investigations and persecutions. They took me, for instance, at 3 am to the police station for an investigation, and I’d have to spend two days there. But I was never really sentenced to real jail. I just had to endure such idiotic things. I could not travel. They kicked me out of my Ph.D. program. I’m not complaining. These things were not so important. I’m just trying to give you some picture of how it was.
Did your manager or the head of the Institute ever have a conversation with you about your Charter 77 signing?
Yes, they asked me to remove my signature from Charter 77. But the Communist needed us. They needed our professional work. They let us know that we were not beloved by the authorities, but they let us live. There were a few Communists at our institute. I knew the guy who was the chairman of the Communist Party at the Institute, and he was a very good guy. He was a good programmer, a good mathematician, and by the late 1980s, he was already signing some petitions. He helped us very much by covering for us. So I cannot complain. There were many other people who signed Charter 77 who were in much worse situations.
Daniel Kumermann didn’t complain much either. He told me that cleaning windows was not such a bad job.
From the point of view of money, it may have been often better to clean windows than to work in the research institute! But it’s impossible to compare the situations. They took away my passport, the police even took my driver’s license. But I had enough to eat. I survived. But for many people it was much worse. However, for some groups of people it’s difficult today – for instance for Roma people.
Were you able to use your technical knowledge for the opposition movement?
Yes, in the late 1980s we started to help publish some unofficial books and we were developing ways to print and distribute them on computers. But this was just the beginning, and it was happening just at the end of Communism. If Communism hadn’t fallen so fast, we could have done a lot with computers at that time. Our publishing effort was getting started when personal computers existed, and it’s a very good tool for editing and distributing information. We didn’t really have the Internet at that time, but we already had established some possibility of communication.
Since you didn’t have a passport, how much did you know about what was going on in Poland or Hungary?
We all were listening, every day, to the radio, mainly radio. I can understand English and a little bit of German, so I was listening to Radio Free Europe and BBC Broadcasting. And we were distributing information through dissident publications. So I think we were quite well informed.
How careful did you have to be when talking about political issues with people that you knew?
That’s a good question. I was not too careful with this. I was investigated many times by state security. The police called me in about 10 times. In the beginning I was very nervous. I didn’t know what would happen. But you get accustomed to this. By the 1980s, it was already not like the Stalinism of the 1950s. I was never imprisoned. Several times I spent one or two days in the police station, but they only beat me once. When I was leaving from one of the investigations I started to call them names, and one of the policemen beat me. But this was more a human struggle than a political one.
Was there one person who was your case officer who interrogated you on a regular basis? Or was it always different people?
Mostly different people.
And have you ever see any of them again?
Once I was going by tram, and I saw a familiar face. I was not able to remember from which situation I knew him. I kept looking at him, and finally I went up to him and said, “Hello, how are you?” And finally I remembered who he was.
Did he say anything?
Going back to 1989, you were at the big demonstration on November 17. What happened the day after? Did you go back to your job?
It was a Saturday, so we didn’t go back to work. But it was a time when we were all very active. I was a little more active because I was giving some lectures about computer programming at the faculty of mathematics. We were trying to find out about the student Martin Smid that the media reported had died. I went to the student hostels to find out what really happened, but nobody really knew. We were just going from flat to flat. I went to Vaclav Havel’s flat, and Vaclav Benda’s flat. By chance, when I was in Vaclav Havel’s flat close to the Vltava, along with Jan Urban, Ladislav Lis, and others, that was the moment when they decided to create the movement they called Obcanske Forum (Civic Forum). By Sunday, there was some march going to the Vltava, but it was still small. But by Monday it was already happening, the massive demonstrations.
At the time were you concerned about a response from the Army or from the secret police?
No, I don’t think I was afraid that it would become some big massacre because of what had already happened in Hungary, in Poland, in East Germany. This was already creating momentum for some transition. But nobody knew this yet, so there was still a possibility of something happening. I took my sleeping bag and spent all this time, during all the big demonstrations at Wenceslas Square, at the faculty of mathematics where I was always teaching. I was among the student leaders that organized the student strikes in 1968. It was very interesting to compare it to the atmosphere in 1989. It was very different.
How was it different?
In 1968, we knew that everything was lost, that it was the end and we had no chance. We conducted the occupation strike and just expected that the police would come and put all of us in prison or make some kind of massacre. Fortunately that didn’t happen. But we knew that we were doing it only because we felt in our bones that we must do something. We knew that we would not win. And those children in 1989? They knew they had won! It was very funny: at night in the faculty of mathematics, in the main lecture room that can seat 200 people, the students divided into two groups. “You are students,” they said, “and you are policemen.” They played these roles, beating each other and so on. But it was a game: it was funny. In the morning the workers from the big Czech steel factory marched to Wenceslas Square with posters saying: “We are supporting your student strike.” It was clear that this was the end of the game. Communism, or this kind of communism at least, was finished. Compared with 1968, it was two totally different experiences and atmospheres.
Did the students in 1989 ask you about 1968? Did they care?
At that point they didn’t care very much. They were just focused on the end of Communism. It had happened in Germany – the Berlin Wall fell down nine days before. After us, there was only Romania. Even the Soviet Union, with Gorbachev, was much more promising than the Stalinist government we had here. And it was clear that the conservative idiots were losing power here.
Do you remember thinking at the time how would this affect you personally and professionally?
I worked at the Research institute of Computers for 20 years. We were in daily contact with Western computer science; we had access to the literature. But at that time, I was considering whether to go back to the social sciences. I was elected for a short time as the leader of Civic Forum at the institute. A lot of things changed. On the one hand I was not very happy that the profession of software and hardware design was so paralyzed by those changes. Our research institute was quite big. It employed about 1,200 people: a lot of mathematicians, electrical engineers, and so on. There were quite a few important dissidents there, including Jan Sokol whose father-in-law was Jan Patocka, the famous philosopher. We designed our own computers. I’m proud we never made clones or copies of Western computers like IBM. We were trying to prove to ourselves that could do these designs well, and, I must say, the Communists let us do it. Our computers had to pass international examination, and many specialists came here from the Soviet Union, East Germany, Poland, Hungary, and so on to run tests on the computers. One day, the president of Comecon Computers came here from the Soviet Union. His name was Shura-Bura, he was a Crimean Tatar and he was a member of the Soviet Academy of Sciences. He invited all of the dissidents to one table and told us, basically, “We need your help.” The Soviet Academy of Sciences: they needed us too, of course!
Did you at any point after 1990 consider going into politics?
That’s a good question. Not really. I don’t know why, but I’m happy not to be a politician. I quite liked my job. I am still working in computer research and doing a little bit of teaching at the faculty of mathematics. I’ve always been involved in civic engagement, including the Helsinki Citizens Assembly. I am still a member of the Helsinki Committee where I’ve worked on the problem of Roma and some other issues. Now I’m very much engaged in the topic of health care. They are trying to damage the public healthcare system by making it more and more private, and to distribute care to rich people and not to poor people. They are trying, step by step, to destroy the social state, which I feel is extremely dangerous.
So, I have always been active in such things. But I never wanted to be a real politician and go into politics. I’m not very good at that.
I completely understand. It’s interesting that there was a fork in the road, and some people went down the political path and other people like you and Jan Urban didn’t.
Urban is, in a way, like me. I was active as a student. I was one of the student leaders in 1968, then I signed Charter 77, and then I remained active. All my life I have been active, but I don’t feel I would like to be a politician.
You said earlier that things did not turn out necessarily the way people thought they would in 1990. Was there a point, after 1990, when you thought to yourself, “Hmm… Czechoslovakia’s not exactly going down the right road”?
I somehow felt this in my bones from the beginning. I am all the time comparing the situation in 1968 and the situation in 1989. For me, the most interesting time of changes and transitions was 1968. And 1968 finished with total catastrophe. But in 1968, everything opened up. We could travel, for instance. I was in London. And when I was in London I took some exams and got a scholarship to MIT in the United States! But I decided to go back to Prague, which I felt was more important. Well, that’s a long story.
But you said that you felt things really went down the wrong path from the very beginning.
Of course, as an old guy, I expected that it would be a return to the way it was when I was very young, in 1968. And 1968 was so promising. We hoped that we were participating in a time of new chances and new visions. In 1989, we succeeded in removing the stupid, Stalinistic Communism, and we jumped into all the stupidity of capitalism. We traded one idiocy for another. We didn’t try to say, “Well, this part is good and this part is bad.” Maybe it is very naïve, but I think we lost a big chance. I understand that people were very much disappointed by Communism, by the Communist regime, so nobody wanted to even think about anything connected with that. I was influenced by my experiences as a student in the 1960s, when we were thinking about ways of making things better. After 1989, we simply adopted Western democracy without any revision and without any change. I think we now have a lot of benefits, but we also have a lot of bad things from the West. For instance, we are destroying the remaining part of what was a quite well functioning healthcare system.
Is that something that the Vaclav Klaus government was trying to destroy over the last four years?
It’s been a process. It’s quite a complex issue. During Communism, for instance, we had a healthcare system similar here to Britain. It wasn’t health insurance. It was a state-organized institution. And this institution somehow worked. It was never really bad here, even during Communist times. If you consider the availability of healthcare for everybody, it was quite good. Then they started to make the transition to similar healthcare systems like in most Western countries. So we now have some mixture of old and new. The healthcare system is still not so bad. But they want to privatize it. It remains obligatory. You have to pay for it, but for some people, like old people, young people, and handicapped people, it’s paid by the state. A lot of hospitals have been privatized, and they are now saying, “We have no money to give the same care to everybody. So, if somebody wants to have better care…” Soon we will have one healthcare system for the rich and another one for the poor. They are doing it step by step, slowly. Of course it’s a big chance for investors from the West.
I was really trying to fight these changes. After my daughter got leukemia, they wanted to destroy the Institute for Blood Diseases, which operates at a very high level, as good as any European institute. They wanted to privatize it. I organized demonstrations and public meetings in front of the ministry of health, trying to fight for this institute to remain part of the public healthcare system. We won. But still they are doing it slowly, step by step. This is all because I have a daughter with leukemia. Frankly speaking, I never before focused on the healthcare system. It’s strange how your life is so much determined by things like this. But I’m not trying to do it only for her. I’m trying to create a group like the Helsinki Citizens Assembly to work on this issue.
There must be a lot of people here who are concerned about health care.
Not so many, but there are some. And the atmosphere is changing. Five years ago, everyone believed that private is better than public. That was the main feeling of people who passed through Communism. Yes, it’s true that Communism was basically idiotic. But it’s not true absolutely. So I’m trying to fight for what we still have, and it’s not easy.
I’m very sorry to hear about your daughter.
She survived. We should be happy. We should not be complaining. She endured a bone-marrow transplant. She’s had a lot of problems, including GVHD disease – graft-versus-host disease — lots of auto-immunity reactions. It has not been easy. But she was able to have a child, and she is alive! Ten years ago, she couldn’t have survived.
Let me ask you about the Roma issue, since you started working on it 20 years ago. Has the situation improved at all?
In some ways, it’s even worse than it was. You never can say just that “everything is worse” or that “everything is better.” But from 1989, when you were here, it already started. The Roma people were not prepared. They couldn’t just jump out of Communism. The state system didn’t help them to promote their culture. But no one was really starving, there was practically no unemployment here, and so on. And there was not such a big social tension between Roma and the majority society. Some things changed so that the situation is much worse than it was. Unemployment practically didn’t exist during Communism. If you were totally handicapped, you got some social money. If you could work you had to work. It was almost criminal not to work though there were a lot of places where people didn’t care how much you worked – this was Communism, after all. So that’s why practically all the Roma people had some kind of employment, though sometimes this was formal work.
In 1989, the first thing that happened was unemployment, which created tension between Roma and non-Roma. For many reasons – language, education, racism, prejudice — many Roma people have been unable to compete in the labor market. It was very difficult for Roma to get jobs. A second tension was that most Roma people were not very well educated, and most of them didn’t speak Czech well enough to compete in the labor market.
Also during the Communist time, the Roma people received some government support. They got flats in the town, which were usually “fourth-category” flats in old buildings without central heating or lifts and were often in the central parts of towns. After the Velvet Revolution, these historic centers of towns became popular – for shops, restaurants, and so on. There was a big effort to push poor people out of historical centers, which were suddenly more valuable. Prague is a little bit different: a lot of money was always invested in the historic center. But in small towns, in the countryside, nobody cared about the town centers, and they built new settlements with central heating and everything while the Roma remained in the middle of the towns. Then businesses moved into the town centers. If you are the owner of a house, and there are three families of poor Roma living there, and you want to make a restaurant, the customers are not coming there because of those poor people. So, the Roma are moved out of the centers of towns to barracks and slums, where you have even less of a chance to get a job and your children have no opportunity to integrate. Unfortunately no one, not the government not anyone, really wants to solve this problem — because it’s unpopular. People just want to send the Roma away.
To another country.
To another country, to the moon, to I don’t know where. So now we have these catastrophic situations. I was very much interested in this problem for about 15 years. But, frankly speaking, after my daughter got leukemia and I became engaged on the health-care issue, I had no energy to continue working with Roma.
Have you seen any improvement or has discrimination simply become a bigger problem?
There are some improvements, of course. In 1990, when you came here, I talked about the discrimination here against Roma, but people wouldn’t listen to me! They didn’t believe me. So now, everybody knows that the problem exists. That’s the first very important improvement. Now quite a lot of people are doing something in this field. But the problem has gotten worse. Before it was latent. Now we have real slums that are excluded from normal life, which didn’t exist back then. During Communism, the social differences were not so big. Today, they are very big, and the process continues of the expulsion of Roma people from society. In Prague, this problem almost doesn’t exist. The number of Roma people in Prague is so small that the town is able to accept it, and here you can find Roma with university degrees. But in the smaller towns, you’ll find communities where 99% of the people are unemployed and are only living on social support. They have no chance of moving on from there. Their experience is probably closer to that of Native Americans in the United States rather than African Americans. It’s interesting how we are not able to do anything on this issue in a relatively rich society.
Also, the gap between the very rich and the rest of society is growing larger. It’s becoming quite dramatic. I work with computers. I recently worked for a factory producing car parts. This factory has 15 engineers and a few unskilled workers. Almost everything is produced automatically, with robots and computers. Almost none of the value of the product comes from human labor. Everything these days is done by robots. Only a few engineers and workers get wages. I’m very much afraid of this technological process. What will happen to the poor people who are not producing anything? What will happen to the Roma? We can say that they need education. But we can’t expect that half the population of Roma will work as engineers at factories.
It’s a problem in the United States as well.
That’s why I’m speaking about it now. It’s a challenge for our generation.
Do you think the recent presidential election is an indication that people here are rejecting the free-market approach of Vaclav Klaus: the privatization of healthcare, the widening gap between rich and poor?
I am not a political scientist, so I can’t give you a good answer. But we have here a rightwing government that has won two terms. I think they are coming to an end, and I hope a Social Democratic government will take its place. We have a special problem here in the Czech Republic that is maybe not typical for Eastern Europe. In most post-Communist countries, the Communist Party was renamed. But we still have a Communist Party, and it’s really old-fashioned. All the other parties say that they don’t want to work with the Communists. The Communist Party represents 15 percent of the parliament, which is quite a lot, but they have zero coalition potential.
Some people told me that they are worried that the Social Democrats will form a coalition with the Communist Party.
I’m not worried – I hope that someone will do it! Even though I didn’t like the Communists during the Communist time, I feel a little differently now. If they are in the government, they will act responsibly, their influence will be reduced. And it will create a space for a real, modern Left. It’s a very stupid situation when we have almost 15 percent of the population voting for the Communists, but it’s only a protest vote against the existing system. And the Social Democrats don’t have enough seats to rule by themselves.
I wanted to ask you about this space here in the Lucerna. It’s a very nice club.
This is the club of Ivan Havel. The Havel family got this building back after 1989. After Vaclav became president, it was not possible any more for dissidents to come to his flat. So Ivan decided to devote this room to old friends. But it’s not a closed club. Every Wednesday, it’s open for a club meeting. Anyone can bring anyone. No one will kick you out.
It almost seems as though the spirit of 1989 remains.
Yes, it maintains a little bit of the spirit of Charter 77.
When you think back to what your thinking was in 1989-90, have you had any major changes in your philosophy?
A lot of changes, really. I was very much surprised by what happened. I lost a lot of my illusions. In 1989-90, I was a little bit more enthusiastic. I trusted more in the Western way of democracy than I do today. It’s also because democracy changed a lot in the West, too. In 1968-69, I was in England. We were somehow all interconnected. We met with the Hippies in the West. Alan Ginsburg came to Prague. Even though we lived in different social systems, we students had more connections than students do today. We were sharing music, we were sharing dreams.
For me, the biggest disillusionment after 1989 is that we were not able to be creative. We adopted the Western life without thinking about it. I think it was still possible to try to look for some new way. We hoped that everything would be better than Communism. Of course it was horrible under Communism: we had no freedom, the system discriminated against many people. On the other hand, we had some quite well functioning things like the healthcare system. But we are destroying even those things that are quite good. I’m afraid that no one has a real vision of what to do.
When you look back to 1989 and everything that has changed or not changed, how would you evaluate that process on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being most disappointed and 10 most satisfied?
It’s not easy. Somewhere in the middle. I was very disappointed by many things and very happy about many things. So, 5.
Same scale, same period of time: but your own personal life.
I can’t complain about my personal life. I can teach at the university. I don’t have a high pension – but that’s my own decision. I could have made more money, but I didn’t focus on that. In many ways, it was much worse during Communist times. I was a dissident. We were persecuted. We didn’t have passports, even driving licenses. We passed through hours of police investigation. On the other hand, we were a very close group. The quality of relations between people was better than today. People were helping each other. Now, everyone is living an atomized life.
I was not allowed to teach at the university. But I was somehow able to give some lectures at the faculty of mathematics. When I was speaking with students, they were very happy to see a dissident. It was very rich, very creative. Today, no one is persecuting me. I have a passport, a driver’s license. I can teach what I want, speak what I want, write what I want. But nobody is reading it. At that time, when Charter 77 published something, everybody was asking for it!
So, in the middle again: 5.
Looking into the near future, how do you evaluate the prospects for this country over the next few years, with 1 being most pessimistic and 10 being most optimistic?
We are now at a crossroads. It could get much worse. It could get not a lot better, but maybe a little better. We are now part of Western society. I’m happy that we are here, that we can speak here at this club, which would have been quite difficult some time ago. But our trajectory today because of the right-wing government over the last eight years is toward a very anti-social kind of society. I hope it will change soon. It depends on what happens in other Western countries. All Western countries must go through some kind of transition, which could lead to catastrophe or to improvement.
We are living quite well right now, in terms of material wealth and freedom of expression. But the educational system is not very good in this country. In some aspects, it’s worse than it was during the Communist time when we were studying unofficially, reading and borrowing books, trying to listen to what was being said in Western countries through Voice of America and BBC. We were in contact with other dissidents. I would be happier if today we had more intellectual contact and were less isolated. This society here is very ignorant of other parts of the world.
So, I would say 4.
Prague, February 20, 2013