Life in Communist Czechoslovakia: Voices of Youth: A USCSAR Symposium

Political Freedom

When we think about Communism, we think about a dictatorial regime which does not allow other political parties to exist. Under the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia was there any freedom to organize opposition parties?

During the Communist domination there were some puppet parties which supported the Communist regime, but Communist control made it impossible to found independent parties. Officially, the constitution guaranteed the right to do so, but in reality it could not be done. This inhibited people from creating new parties, new movements, because they could face punishment.

After World War II, the Soviet sphere of influence in Czechoslovakia allowed the Communists to control and dominate the country. It was not allowed to speak about the American Army liberating Czechoslovakia, only the Soviet Army. History was rewritten in our country to make the Communists look better. So this disinformation must be removed and people must be reeducated to know the true history of Czechoslovakia.

The Communists tried to control new movements which protested their brutality. Charter 77 was such a movement. What problems did it encounter?

Charter 77 was a petition and everyone who signed this Charter was subject to arrest by the secret police. A lot of people were imprisoned. It was so difficult to organize that there were three official spokesmen for Charter 77 in case the others were imprisoned. To be a member meant imprisonment, losing your job, or denying your children entrance to college. It took a lot of courage to be a member. In Slovakia a similar movement supported the Catholic Church, which criticized the Communists. Many members of both movements were continually harassed and arrested.

These movements were formed to be watch groups for human rights violations so that the world would know that the official Communist propaganda was a lie. There were freedoms guaranteed in the Constitution, but in reality they did not exist. These freedoms only existed for the members of the Communist Party. If someone wanted to express his freedom he was considered an enemy of the working class.

The Constitution stated that everyone had the freedom to attend church; however, in school one learned that Marxism and Leninism were the most progressive ideologies. Expressing an interest in religion was in conflict with the tenets of the Communist Party. Charter 77 was important because it focused the attention of the whole world against Communist violations of human rights.

The Failure of Reform

What about the development of "socialism with a human face" in 1968, the Prague Spring?

For a lot of people 1968 was a year of freedom. However, the reforms were created by the Communist Party, and everything was based on its leading role in creating this new socialism. After the Soviets invaded it was as if our nation had died. Many people who supported the reforms fled the country, those who stayed lost their jobs. They had no future for themselves or for their children. In 1968 they were talking about democratization of society, not real democracy. It was a reform movement but not a radical change from the communist system. It was a big surprise that the Communists, who had destroyed everything for 20 years, wanted to change things for the better. Many people believed that Dubcek would make a difference.

When Dubcek came to speak to the demonstrators last year during the revolution he was greeted like a hero. For a lot of people what he tried to do was respected. Husak, his successor, tried to clamp down and made sure that, although there was no freedom, the stores would be full. He believed that if there was food in the stores and improved living standards there would be no demonstrations. That was his policy.

After the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia everyone was in a state of shock. Soon after the crackdown, there was what they referred to as a "big cleaning" or purge in the Communist Party membership, the educational system, factories, and among everyone who had supported the reforms. Government inspectors brought people before committees, and they were asked if they agreed with the invasion or not. If they said no then they were expelled from the Communist Party and their future was doomed. Their children were condemned as well, and only Communists' children were slotted for good positions. Even if somebody reported to the authorities that you said something against the invasion, that was enough for you to lose your job. There were denouncements, purges, and "cleaning" throughout the entire country. Czechoslovakia began to witness the effects of a "brain drain" as many skilled technicians and managers fled the country. The Communists controlled the new intelligentsia. The Communists' children, of course, had many more opportunities for advancement.

For example, if someone was an expert he had two choices. He could either join the Communist Party and do what he wanted, or he could refuse to join and work under the supervision of a less-qualified Communist Party member. One could not be safe in any profession unless one was a Communist.

Repression and the Absence of Civil Liberties

How were the 1970s and 1980s more repressive in Czechoslovakia? Are there specific examples?

Many people lost their jobs as a result of their supporting the 1968 reforms. My mother's cousin worked in radio and she could not find any work after 1968 because she supported the changes. Later she became a shop assistant. We called the 1970s years of stagnation - both industrial production and the standard of living were stagnant. The Communists continued to chum out their propaganda, which claimed that there was more security in having larger families and that everything was wonderful. Yet, in reality no one could buy this - literally or figuratively. The people were not very active in thinking about protesting their lot; they were sleeping - this is a good term for what was happening during this time.

People who were in their 40s during 1968 lost everything. They lost the chance for a better future. They said "We tried but what can we do right now?" There was no freedom of speech, no freedom to demonstrate, no freedom in political life, and no real human rights guarantees. Only the Czechoslovaks who left the country could write and publish about what was really going on in Czechoslovakia. It was important for the world to know this and they received support in Western Europe and the United States for Charter 77.

Freedom of the Press

When I was in the third year of my university studies I signified my support for Havel, who was in prison at the time. I signified my support, but so did six thousand other students. The authorities could not possibly punish everyone. Yet, so many of our fellow citizens continued to sleep and live their own lives - not too good, not too bad. It was not until people received information through television broadcasts from West Germany, Austria, Poland, or even Hungary, that people began to see and understand the big changes that were going on. We also regularly listened to Radio Free Europe. One supreme irony about the information that was available was that Soviet television and newspapers became much more objective than ours. Sometimes you could not find certain issues of Pravda in the libraries because they contained too much information about the reforms - information our government was desperately trying to suppress.

In the last few years underground newspapers multiplied. They were published and copied over and over again. Freedom of information did not exist. In reality, the Federal Office for Press and Information acted as an official censor. It censored any information which cast the Communist Party in a negative light. There was little enthusiasm for writing the truth because nobody wanted to print it. People took a big risk to make copies of illegal newspapers and pass the information on.

Basic Freedoms under Communist Rule

What about freedom of assembly?

Well, there were several gatherings and assemblies during 1987 and 1988 to commemorate certain events such as the anniversary of the Munich Pact or the day when Jan Palach killed himself in 1968. Many people were arrested for gathering, including Vaclav Havel and many other dissidents. You could be sure that if you went to a demonstration you would be arrested. The authorities rejected any permission to demonstrate because they said it could endanger the historical monuments in Prague. The secret police attended the few demonstrations that did occur, tape-recorded the speeches, and took photographs of people in the crowd.

What was the situation like for religious freedom in Czechoslovakia under the Communist regime?

The situation was different in the Czech Lands and in Slovakia. Slovakia had a strong Catholic movement. In Slovakia there were only two main activities against the Communist regime - this Catholic movement and an environmental movement.

In general there were some professions such as teaching or the legal profession where you could lose your job if the authorities discovered you were religious.

There was a teacher in Prague who taught at a school for handicapped children. She was questioned about going to church and also teaching Marxism and Leninism at the same time. She replied that she would teach what was best for the children. As a result, she lost her job and became a housecleaner. Many careers were ruined in this fashion.

When you got married in City Hall, there was one question on the application to see if you wanted to have an additional wedding in the Church. The state gave presents to those couples who did not.

How was your freedom of travel limited under Communist rule?

You could plan a vacation through a travel agency but this was impossible for most people since it was very expensive. Only Communists or people who had friends in banks could travel. There were two reasons why you could not travel - one was political, the other was economic. Most people simply could not afford the prices set by the state.

Freedom of travel was a threat to Communism because people could bring back information about the West and the success of capitalism, the much higher standard of living, and the economic methods the West used in. organizing labor. The Communists manipulated our country's economic statistics to paint a very rosy picture. The Iron Curtain between East and West separated not only people, but information about each side as well. Eastern Europe did not know much about life in the West, and the West did not know very much about life in the East either.

The State of Freedom Today

Are there greater economic freedoms now - the freedom to change your job, to choose among different goods in a free market.

There was little or no training for import-export methods in Czechoslovakia. The Soviets limited a lot of the products made in Czechoslovakia. The centrally planned economy controlled the whole economic picture. No one was encouraged to think at the workplace about how to improve production, and no one was really responsible for the result of his labor anyway. Economic freedom, investments, and risk-taking were simply not part of our country's educational curriculum.

In northern Bohemia workers were paid higher wages because of the chronic pollution there. You could change jobs only when social factors warranted a change. All the industries were nationalized and all the agriculture was collectivized. It was much easier for the people to work on the collectives than to be independent fanners. Their lives were very hardscrabble, and the lion's share of their produce was appropriated by the state. You could have your house and garden, or a small plot. In northern Slovakia there were some people who owned fields, but it was hard living and they were harassed constantly. Efforts to reform this sector have not gone far enough in granting personal property rights.

What would be the most noticeable difference in Czechoslovakia for someone who visited the country under Communist rule and then made another trip to Czechoslovakia today?

Today in Czechoslovakia we are living under a democratic system which is based on the existence of various political parties and movements. Right now in the Federal Parliament there is the Civic Forum in coalition with the Public and Environment Party as the winner of the election. There is the Communist Party, the People's Party, and the Christian Democratic Party. There is the Slovak National Party and the Movement for the Independence of Moravia and Silesia. These are the most important political parties in power today. In the last local elections there were 45 parties registered. It is a parliamentary democracy. We now have the freedom to vote and chose our leaders.

When the Civic Forum came to power, we told the people that the situation will become worse. The reality of this was very difficult for people to accept. They said we had no freedom during the Communist era but at least we had money and inexpensive food. For some people this is more important than freedom. They could possibly support the Communists again. There is always the fear that Communist Party rule may return. For some people it is not possible to be objective as the economic system makes the transition to the free market, while the supply of goods and services adjusts. People are looking for someone to blame.

How do you replace the people, ideas and administrative structures of the old Communist government?

To change all of this would take a hundred years, but our dilemma is that we do not know how to do it. We are passive and we. do not know how to approach this issue. For example, non-communists have. not yet been trained as diplomats, so in reality there are many holdovers from the Communist regime in our country's diplomatic corps.

There are examples of democratic systems that have changed to communism, but there are few examples of communist regimes turning democratic. This government is experimenting with several plans and it is not consistent about choosing just one. It is better to decide on something and stay with it. We must plan for the long term. We are trying to work for freedom and build a democracy.

It is difficult for our government to dismantle the whole economic structure and change it radically to a free-market economy. Economic officials are taking a piecemeal approach towards changing the system. It is difficult to replace everything, to change every detail, but at least we are starting - and that is important. It will be hard for people to accept higher prices or unemployment. They do not want to hear about reform. We want to learn from the West about how to build a democratic system and a free-market economy.

Czechoslovakia needs to have a strategy about learning from the West. People in the West do not know what they can do to help us. We do not have a grand strategy for presenting our needs for education and training in the Western press, or to the U.S. Congress. These are things our country must do.

The U.S. Center for Soviet-American Relations posed questions to a group of young Czechoslovakians invited to a special symposium at the Center about the abuses of freedom under Communist rule in Czechoslovakia and about their hopes for building a stronger democracy in their country. The group included Magda Hermanova of Civic Forum's Press Department; Helena Susterova, involved in developing commercial contacts; Peter Kubik, a religious activist; and Alica Krsakova, with the Research Institute of Social Development. All were visiting the United States at the invitation of The Forum Foundation.