Creating a Spectacle

Vaclav Havel wrote for the theater. When change came to Czechoslovakia in November 1989, the velvet revolutionaries of Prague met and planned in the Magic Lantern theater. The events of those ten days that shook the country unfolded like a massive, open-air performance, with dramatic speeches, a soundtrack provided by local bands, and a huge and enthusiastic audience.

As with any theatrical production, the success of the enterprise depended on many unseen hands preparing sets, prepping the actors, cueing up the music. The velvet revolution needed velvet directors like Ladislav Snopko.

A cultural impresario, Snopko was behind some of the great events of alternative culture that took place in Czechoslovakia during the otherwise drear decades of the 1970s and 1980s.

“I was a part of the so-called grey zone,” he told me in an interview in Prague last February. “It was not a dissent movement. I would place it somewhere between forbidden and tolerated art and culture. I organized the alternative culture in Czechoslovakia – concerts, exhibitions, gatherings, and festivals. Among the most famous was a concert called Concert of Youth in Pezinok in 1976.”

Snopko was able to mount exhibitions for “prohibited artists” by resorting to ingenious stratagems. “I am originally an archeologist, so I would give them fragments of prehistoric and medieval vessels,” he explained. “They had to interpret them according to their artistic imagination, bringing them into present time in a different form. Overall it was an exhibit of Czech and Slovak unofficial, banned artists for which we published a catalog. When the national security department called me in for interrogation about that topic, they tried to forbid me from organizing such exhibitions. But they did not have any valid arguments. They could not pronounce the names of the prohibited artists. Plus the artistic interpretations of prehistoric objects did not contradict any of the Marxist-Leninist materialistic teaching or the ideology of socialist realism.”

All of this experience in the grey zone gave Ladislav Snopko the tools to help ensure that the Velvet Revolution had a successful ten-day run. But that experience also helped in the days after the revolution.

Snopko was working in Slovakia. On the first anniversary of the Velvet Revolution, 50,000 people gathered in Bratislava to celebrate. The nationalists brought in a loud contingent to shout down the representatives of the Public Against Violence, the group to which Snopko belonged that had led the Velvet Revolution in Slovakia. It looked, on television, as if the entire crowd was behind this disruptive faction.

“During all these different events, I came up with a solution to this problem of manipulation,” Snopko remembered. “We printed our motto ‘Humanity, kindness, understanding’ (Ludskosť, slušnosť, snášenlivosť) on small pieces of paper. Our activists then handed those out to everybody on the square. The nationalist wrapped rocks in the paper and threw them at us. But then at one point, since everything was broadcast live on Slovak TV, I told the cameras to make a shot of the entire square, and then I asked the crowd to wave the white papers above their heads if they believed in what was written on them. All of a sudden, the entire square was white while all the cameras were pointing at it. This was three days before the first communal elections took place. Even though we were not expecting any success, we won – probably thanks to that event at the square.”

Snopko is now the Slovak culture ambassador in the Czech Republic. We talked about Slovak-Czech relations, the different culture of dissent in Slovakia during the Communist period, and his own love of Prague.

 

The Interview

 

What did you do before 1989? What was your cultural and political role?

Basically, there was not much happening on the official political scene in Slovakia. There was no defined political dissent as there was in Poland, Russia, or even the Czech Republic. I was a part of the so-called grey zone. It was not a dissent movement. I would place it somewhere between forbidden and tolerated art and culture. I organized the alternative culture in Czechoslovakia – concerts, exhibitions, gatherings, and festivals. Among the most famous was a concert called Concert of Youth in Pezinok in 1976. There was also a 12-hour open air festival of jazz, folk and rock in 1977 where the music group Šafrán got to perform for the last time in full ensemble, because after 1977 Jaroslav Hutka, one of the musicians, was on the list of “politically dangerous people” and was exiled to the Netherlands.

I also organized exhibitions for the “prohibited” artists who could not publically show their artwork.  I used to do it in a quite unusual way. I am originally an archeologist, so I would give them fragments of prehistoric and medieval vessels. They had to interpret them according to their artistic imagination, bringing them into present time in a different form. Overall it was an exhibit of Czech and Slovak unofficial, banned artists for which we published a catalog. When the national security department called me in for interrogation about that topic, they tried to forbid me from organizing such exhibitions. But they did not have any valid arguments. They could not pronounce the names of the prohibited artists. Plus the artistic interpretations of prehistoric objects did not contradict any of the Marxist-Leninist materialistic teaching or the ideology of socialist realism. In fact, the art was as abstract as art can be. And the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic prohibited abstract art. The only legal artistic style was socialist realism celebrating the work of peasants.

Another big project was in 1987 and 1988. It was a concert and art exhibition at a stadium in Pasienky. The project was called The Devil’s Wheel, which was a symbol of Communist sins and the payment extracted by the Devil for these sins. Among the artists were the Plastic People of the Universe (they had broken up at that time and some members had formed a band called Pulnoc or Midnight), Garage, Bez ladu a skladu – all of these were bands on the edge between allowed and forbidden. The Czech and Slovak artists who were displaying their artwork there were completely forbidden at that time, but nowadays they are well known and respected people.

All of these projects exist until the present day under different names, such as Pohoda in Trutnov or the Colors of Ostrava. These are copying the incredible atmosphere of the Velvet Revolution, which felt like one big open-air festival with speeches and music performances all on one stage.

 

How would you compare the cultural freedom/atmosphere in Slovakia and on the Czech side before 1989?
I already mentioned the big difference caused by the existence of Czech dissent. In Slovakia there were only a few dissidents, for example Miro Kusý, Milan Šimečka, or the writer Dominik Tatarka, who would have celebrated his 100th birthday next month. There was this kind of a grey zone, which existed on the border of accepted and prohibited.

Another difference was caused by the fact that on the Czech side there existed two separate camps: the Communists and the dissidents/opposition, who hated each other and did not communicate at all. It was different in Slovakia, which is smaller, and Slovaks generally have a different nature. When for example Dominik Tatarka signed Charter 77, Miloslav Válek – the minister of culture at the time – went to him in person to tell him not to be stupid. People could be somewhat more daring. I don’t mean in terms of liberty, but the relations with Communist officials seemingly allowed a little more. It obviously was deceptive. When something is wet, something else cannot be wetter: it’s just wet. When one says that there is freedom but you cannot do this, this and this, it’s not freedom.

In Slovakia the activities that were connected to some sort of freedom were demonstrated through the environmentalist movements, what we nowadays call Green parties, but they had nothing to do with politics. These groups of young people, which Martin Bútora called islands of positive deviation, would for example organize social gatherings for the preservation of traditional folklore architecture. In the north of Slovakia, by the Polish border in a region called Brizgalky, we would live in these seven huts – not permanently – and spend weekends repairing them. There we used to meet up with our friends, including the Czech dissidents Svátapluk Karásek, Charlie Soukup, Vladimir Merta, Olga Havlová, Vaclav Havel, Andrej Stankovič, Dominik Tatarka. These places in nature used to serve as basic communication stimuli for Czech and Slovak people with similar thinking.

The huts in Brizgalky are still used today. By coincidence, I went for dinner with Karel Schwarzenberg about four days ago, and he said he would like to go back at some point. These places needed a genius loci which originated in the cohesion. There were several of them, and when the Public against Violence started forming in November 1989, these islands all got together and caused the fall of Communism in Slovakia. No one really was expecting this; people thought it would all come from Prague.

Another difference was the existence of the Institute of Marxism and Leninism (UVKSS) in Bratislava started by an intellectual Viliam Plevza, who was the main advisor of president Gustav Husák. As a historian, Plevza had paid a lot of attention to the Slovak national uprising that Husák wanted to use as his exclusive revolutionary resource. We now know that the Uprising was not done by the Communists but by democratic civic powers and the army. Plevza was an educated person and knew that socialist realism was not compatible with worldwide reality, that the more highly regarded art was actually the prohibited variety. He tried to help some of the valuable art to survive by organizing exhibitions. He would also have forbidden books translated, which he would then give out to people to read.

The Institute, under his guidance, came up with the idea of putting together a new Czech and Slovak constitution between 1988 and 1989. Based on the discussion about the new constitution, the new Slovak intelligence initiative (formed by a spectrum of enlightened Communists like Plevza, passionate dissidents such as Šimečka and Kusý, and us environmentalists) came together to create a more free and liberal constitution. At the same time, with help of his assistants, he prepared the conditions for the social democratic party to arise in Slovakia. It actually was not very well thought through, but at least they were working on it.

That was why, right after November 1989, the Communist Party ceased to exist and was replaced by the Party of the Democratic Left led by Plevza’s assistants: Weis, Kániš, Ptáčník, and so on. This crew was actually capable of making this transformation happen. And that’s why now there is no Communist Party in Slovakia, while there is one in the Czech Republic.

The second reason is that Slovakia at the time of the creation of the Communist parties at the beginning of the 20th century was a rural country with conservative people who believed in traditional principles, and that is why a democratic party won the elections after World War II. The mistake was that, when the Communist party replaced the democratic one, it first got rid of the chief, who was very experienced and came from the traditional structures. The “newcomers,” such as Migaš and Koncoš, turned everything upside down and caused the termination of this promising project of a relevant socialist democracy in Slovakia.

The first meeting of this wide spectrum that I was mentioning, from Plevza to the dissidents, was moderated by four people. On one side the moderates were Boris Zála, who is now a member in the European Parliament for the governing party Směr (Direction), and Miloš Žiak, who is now president of the Israeli Chamber of Commerce in Slovakia. From the other side, it was Ján Budaj and me. It was originally scheduled for November 23, 1989 in the apartment of Ján Langoš. This initiative lost its purpose after November 17. But I bring it up to demonstrate that in Slovakia there was a certain tendency for these ideologically different groups to lead a dialogue with compromises.

The second interesting thing is that the organization Public against Violence started as a reaction to the incident at Národní třída in Prague on November 17, even though in Slovakia there had been a student demonstration the day before on November 16.  It was around 300 students, and the secretary of the Communist Party in Bratislava showed up. They did not try to stop the demonstration, so it did not cause what the demonstration the next day in Prague caused.

The Public against Violence started around the same time as the Civic Forum as an autonomous unit, but these would closely cooperate in questions of organizing elections or running for parliament. Also their leaders were friends (Havel, Dienstbier, Vavroušek). Later, though, the center in Prague, trying to solve the many problems that kept coming up, did not really communicate enough with the Slovak party. So, for example, the cancellation of Article 4 of the Constitution, about the lead position of the Communist Party, came from Bratislava and had to be firmly pushed through at the Civic Forum. When Havel officially visited Slovakia for the first time, the Communist Party there was reconciled to this situation.

A similar situation arose with the lifting of the Iron Curtain. Martin Bútora and I organized a happening on December 10, which is the day of the Protection of Human Rights, when we asked the inhabitants of Bratislava if they wanted to see the city from the other side of the Curtain. Slovakia was different from the Czech lands because the Iron Curtain went straight through the city (I lived in Petrželky and could see the machine guns from my window).  In the Czech lands, it passed through the countryside. On December 10, around 10,000 people marched across to the other side.

The official lifting of the Curtain happened around six days later. There was also a boat on the Danube with a small stage with microphones projecting to both sides where Karel Kryl could play and we could speak to the people. This served as an imaginary bridge between East and West. These events were happening without any coordination with Prague. There were three reasons for this event: the cancelling of Article 4 of the Constitution, the non-acceptance of the Adamec government, and the lifting of the Iron Curtain. So, between November 16 and December 10 we already took a lot of actions. Civic Forum, on the other hand, waited until March 1990 to address the cancellation of Article 4 of the Constitution, so that was much more gradual.

It was us, meanwhile, who convinced Alexander Dubček not to run for Czechoslovak President because we did not want any Communists with human faces to form the transition between the old regime and democracy. We understood that we should skip an intermediate period with Dubček as  president and move directly to the new Havel era. It did not make Dubček happy, but he agreed. If he hadn’t agreed, it would have caused problems, because his political capital among both Czechs and Slovaks was strong. Dubček simply agreed to be the president of the Federal Assembly of Czechoslovakia, which was a very crucial decision that assured the smooth transition of power.

Another important decision, which is still being discussed, was when Václav Havel made Marian Čalfa the chair of the federal government. It was true that he was a Communist and careerist, but Havel could not have been elected president without him. Marian Čalfa left politics right after his two-year term, so he did not have any big ambitions. Nowadays we have one ambitious politician from that time who is leaving presidential politics and another who is just entering the office. So the differences between Czech and Slovakia can also be seen in these human stories.

 

You described how Občanské Fórum and Public against Violence worked together. But eventually they started to separate.

 

No, it was the opposite. Many political scientists blame us for forming Public against Violence. They say that if we joined the Civic Forum from the beginning, it would have saved the federation. In fact we would have started Civic Forum in Bratislava if only we’d known about it. Both of these organizations started at the same time. For example in Košice the Civic Forum was founded, because they were a little behind what was happening. We as Public against Violence had the opening speech (základní vyhlášení) ready for November 19. We functioned just like the Civic Forum in Prague, but we did not know of each other at that point. Later we started to communicate, but it took us until December 10 to coordinate our basic programs. It’s possible that if we had coordinated our programs from the beginning, the revolution would have been different. For instance, Article 4 of the Constitution would probably have been cancelled before March 1990, and the Adamec government would have been accepted).

The Civic Forum and the Public against Violence did not end up in disputes. I even think that Slovak society did not favor separation: if there had been a referendum, we would have voted to stay together. Separation was the only logical solution that Václav Klaus came up with in 1992. One country cannot exist if it is run by two political subjects that are completely different ideologically, such as the Civic Forum, which had all the classic Western characteristics of a conservative rightist party, and the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (Hnutí za demokratiské slovensko), which was led by a crazy egoist acting as a dictator. That politically incompatibility was the main reason for the separation.

The fact that Slovaks and Czechs are close is demonstrated by the 20 years that have followed. As a Slovak cultural attaché in Prague I have started to convince people in Bratislava that they have to treat Slovaks who live in Prague as part of our culture since Prague treats them also as a part of its culture, the same as the Irish or the Italians in New York. The fact that Slovaks in Prague were all of a sudden foreigners helped to bring us closer together – in comparison to the time of federation when there was a need for federal thinking. This is how I see it.

And this process will go on. Prague will become a model of the Czechoslovak nation – every tenth person living in Prague is of Slovak origin, and Prague should not mind that. It’s no longer the situation when “the poor brother comes to eat our bread.” The principle of selection is not based on nationalism anymore, but on quality. The smart people are leaving Slovakia to go to Prague or elsewhere, which causes problems to us but not for Prague. I would even say that it is good for Prague.

During these hopeful beginnings, Slovakia missed the chance to start a successful social democracy. The same exact problem happened in the Czech Republic, but still Czech social democracy achieved a more civilized form. The Slovak social democratic party is called Směr Socialna Demokracia (Social Democratic Direction), but in reality it is a one-man show. It’s led by one man, and without him it would not exist. It has a good structure, but its attraction lies in him, not in what he preaches. I blame Plevza´s assistants for their naivety and profit-seeking attitude. Their intentions and intelligence to build social democracy were good, but they kept the old Bolshevik desire for individual power within the party, which held them back morally.

When I talk to Slovaks in Prague who remember the Federation, it is a completely different story from the one I hear from the younger generation – people who were born after the separation or were very young when it happened. They like living in Prague, having a better job, going to the universities there. Prague also has more culture, to which they add their own culture, which makes this mix even richer.

 

In your current job, what is the biggest challenge, and what is your greatest satisfaction?

 

At the time of the revolution in 1989, when all the governments – at the federal and republic level — were being formed, Václav Havel had a vision that I should become a member of the federal government. But I felt like staying with the Slovak government to manage national culture. If I had taken Havel´s offer in November or December 1989, we would not be sitting here because I would have become a Czech citizen.

The biggest challenge for me has been the realization that the life of a person at retirement age, which I reached two years ago, changes completely. I started living in a new city. I knew Prague from several visits before, but I quickly realized that I should have moved here much earlier (not that I regret the past 22 years though). The goal is to form a well-functioning fragment of Slovak culture in Prague so it is beneficial for both Czechs in Prague and Slovaks in Slovakia and also to give Prague a new dimension. This culture is being formed quite spontaneously by young people who are coming to live in Prague as foreigners, even though we are mentally from one family.

Another challenge is to convince Slovaks to hold on to the collective memory of 1989. Look at Czechs and how many movies they have made about November 1989 in which they mention every single detail! These details are often quite contradictory, but life and the truth about life are never black and white. In Slovakia there is no such stream of witnesses. That is a big challenge. In the Czech Republic there is a specific group of people who were the organizers of the events of November, and all of that had a defined face – Václav Havel.

In Slovakia, the November events were also organized by a specific group of people, but the revolution is now represented by the faces of three powerful men (Milan Kňažko, Jan Budaj, and Fedor Gál) who cannot find common ground. My friend Dominik Tatarka died in May 1989. If he had lived through November 1989, he would have been the face of the events. He would have been the partner of Václav Havel accepted equally by Czechs. And we would have a clear understanding of what November was. But right now we don’t have this clear idea because everyone wants to tear off the piece they want, sign their name on it, and keep it for themselves. That is a very bad situation.

I attended the 20th anniversary celebrations of November at Prague Crossroad (Pražská Křižovatka) organized by Václav Havel, There I met a person who absolutely hated and still hates Havel – Václav Klaus. But Klaus still came to this de facto private celebration, gave his speech, and thanked Havel for what he did. Even though 40% of the guests treated him with derision, Klaus overcame the embarrassment because the higher principle was the Czech homeland.

I am not a fan of Klaus, but at this moment I told myself: this is the reverse of the Slovak nation. When I was organizing an event to celebrate the revolution in Slovakia, I stressed the importance of having a stage, a sound system, lights, and performers (as any open-air-festival producer would do). I put the 20th anniversary celebrations at Děvín Castle and invited Fedor Gál and Ján Budaj to come. I told them clearly that the other one would be there. They had given me a “yes” beforehand: “Sure, you can count on us!” But then neither of them showed up. When the principle personalities of the revolution don’t come to celebrate the anniversary, that gives a clear picture about Slovaks. The higher principle, in the form of respect for the homeland/country that I come from, does not exist. Slovaks should suppress their pride and fight for this higher principle. Of course there are other reasons for this problem, such as the historic lack of a class of high nobility. In any case, that´s our big task: to describe the principle so it stays in people´s minds.

Overall I am satisfied. Everyone is telling me that we should have hung the Communists right away so that they would not be here anymore. But I know well that radical solutions harm the body. At least they take away the possibility of full functioning. The same happens when someone has a slowly healing leg injury: he can step on it but it still hurts. Someone says: “You should have cut it off right away, there would be no problem by now, and it would not hurt and bother the entire body.” But the body would have become handicapped forever.

We had the first nonviolent revolution in history, which was paradoxically 200 years after the most violent one in France. I don´t think that executing the criminals would have stopped us from having these problems. These problems are inside us. We would probably not be here today because the violent revolutionaries would have executed us, same as they did with the major actors of the French Revolution of 1789. So, I am satisfied that there is a real model for this new attitude towards changing the political system. The same applies to the separation of the two nations, despite my being against it. It proved that the healthy instinct of co-patriotism of the two nationalities of Czechs and Slovaks has allowed us to be now in the same boat, if not as one country then at least at a mental level.

 

When you think back to 1990, have you changed your perspective in any major way? Have you rethought any of your ideas, or your assumptions either about culture or about politics?

 

No. I still have the same energy to organize many different projects. I have the same satisfaction when they turn out well. And I still don’t get any money out of them, just like before. I am not a businessman, so the biggest reward for me is the success. As long as I have something to eat, some clothes to put on, and a place to stay, that´s more than enough. I think that being happy about what one does is the most important thing because if people artificially put economic goals in front of their own motivation then the satisfaction is not real.

I have to say that before I had absolutely no political motivation, and now I do consider politics. But the good feeling about a new idea and co-patriotism are much more important. I am always very happy to see a lot of people come to an event.  The producer of a concert is always happy to put on a good program that affects the audience in the long term.

The same applies to the celebrations of November 1989. When I remember the first anniversary celebration, the old nationalist and Communist groups were already using the media — the ones we did not manage to democratically grasp in our hands — to split the Slovak nation in half and turn one half against us. I remember well a meeting when a part of the Public against Violence went to Prague because President Bush was there, and only some of us stayed in Bratislava (Fedor Gál, Miro Kusý, and I). The nationalists brought together around 2,000 people who stood under the stage and shouted rude things against the Public against Violence. There were also other people on the square who were on our side, but the TV had already made plans to film only the offensive crowd in the front. Then they misleadingly used the number of the 50,000 people who attended to suggest that this huge group was against Public against Violence. That was a well-thought plan.

During all these different events, I came up with a solution to this problem of manipulation. We printed our motto “Humanity, kindness, understanding” (Ludskosť, slušnosť, snášenlivosť) on small pieces of paper. Our activists then handed those out to everybody on the square. The nationalist wrapped rocks in the paper and threw them at us.

But then at one point, since everything was broadcast live on Slovak TV, I told the cameras to make a shot of the entire square, and then I asked the crowd to wave the white papers above their heads if they believed in what was written on them. All of a sudden, the entire square was white while all the cameras were pointing at it. This was three days before the first communal elections took place. Even though we were not expecting any success, we won – probably thanks to that event at the square.

 

Prague, February 27, 2013

 

Interpreter: Kristyna Cermakova

 


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