The End of Claustrophobia

In the novel The Year of the Frog, the narrator sinks into a funk over the claustrophobia that has closed over his life. It’s the 1980s in Czechoslovakia, and Communism stretches as far into the future as the eye can see. “I’m forty, and for the last decade I’ve wandered all over Bratislava without meeting a single new person,” he laments. “It’s monstrous. I know every stone, every face. I know everything about everybody, and everybody knows everything about me. We have nothing to tell one another, nothing to look forward to. I’m going mad!”

This well-received novel, though published in 1996, was written before the changes that swept over Czechoslovakia in 1989. The author, Martin Simecka, is the son of the well-known dissident Milan Simecka (indeed, they share the same first name: the son adopted “Martin” to avoid confusion). Last February I traveled to the outskirts of Bratislava to meet with Martin Simecka and Marta Simeckova and talk about their experiences of traveling from the closed world of the Communist period to the open world after 1989.

“It was nice at the beginning when we were 20 and 25,” Martin said, using much the same language he put down in his novel. “But in 1989, I was 33. In 10 years, it had become pretty claustrophobic. You couldn’t travel. You lived in a small country, and you met the same people all the time. This was most devastating for me. When I thought about my future, it was like a life sentence.”

Marta agreed. “We never thought it would be changed,” she said. “That was the big difference between us and our parents. When the Russians came in 1968, I was six years old. My parents and their friends, everyone said that something will happen and this will only last a couple years, it would only be temporary. But during my childhood I watched my parents and their friends grow old in this terribly unhappy situation of expecting something. But I was ready to believe that it would last forever. Otherwise I would live like them, waiting for something to happen, looking for signs of change that never came. I thought it was much better to prepare yourself for a decent and good and interesting life in this situation. And it was much more of a surprise that it did change.”

Martin’s father Milan was just able to see those changes. He served as an advisor to Vaclav Havel in 1990 but died of a heart attack that year. He was the most widely translated Czechoslovak dissident after Havel though his work is not as well known in the United States. His Letters from Prison, despite the conditions in which they were produced, reflects his generally optimistic view of life. At one point he reflects on the failures of reform Communism: “I wonder whether the experience of those days means we have to totally renounce collectivism and its orgiastic delights or whether collectivist intoxication can still play a positive role in human coexistence.”

His son absorbed some of that optimism. “Of course, under the influence of my father — and we had been debating about that for hours and hours — I was expecting in 1989 that something had to change,” he said. “There were small signs, of course. But it’s another thing to think about it and to really live it in your heart. It was impossible to imagine the change. The most we expected was that the regime would start to let us, if not travel, then at least not put us in prison.

After the changes, Martin and Marta started a press to publish the books they thought were necessary for people to read in the new country. They both worked as editors, he of Respekt and she of Salon. They shared a bowl of Christmas sauerkraut soup with me as I talked with them about relations between Prague and Bratislava, the rise of nationalism in Slovakia, and the current political debates in the country.

The Interview

 

Do you remember where you were and what you were thinking when you heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall?

 

Milan: I remember that moment of course. But we were so obsessed by our own revolution, our own events here and our revolution that happened a week later. I remember the debates about all the events. We were following the movement of all those Germans through Hungary and so on. We’d been watching Austrian TV so we knew everything. But we didn’t think it would influence our lives very much. Czechoslovakia was still an island of hard communism.

Marta: I wouldn’t say that that we didn’t think it would influence our life. Something had started. But no one realized it was so close. It was beyond our imagination. I remember watching it on TV and having the feeling that it wasn’t real, that this couldn’t be true.

 

Prior to the events here in former Czechoslovakia, what were you both doing?

 

Milan: Before the fall of Communism, I was a member of a dissident family. I was basically a dissident, and that meant the usual stuff. I was working in a manual job, and I was writing books and publishing samizdat. I was part of this subculture of dissent, which was mostly in Prague but we had some here as well, publishing some journals. It was the usual dissident life. We were already living in this house. Sometimes the police came. I spent just a couple days in prison, nothing more.

Marta: I was in a more unusual position. For a short time because I was quite young, I had one leg in the alternative community and the other leg in the official world. My parents were ex-Communists, expelled form the Party like Milan’s, and they were part of the non-official community. We found our own community, which was not very big. We also organized an alternative social and culture life. On the other hand, I had for a short time a more-or-less normal job doing what my university education qualified me for. That was unusual. Usually, you could be in one world or the other. That was also probably because it didn’t last that long. After that I didn’t have employment. I worked as a freelance interpreter, and we had small children.

 

I ask people usually about the point at which they decide to become dissidents. But I know that your situation was somewhat different.

 

Milan: Yes, I didn’t become a dissident by my own decision. In my case, there were of course some opportunities that I was offered by the regime if I openly disagreed with my father. But they were not real options for me.

Marta: For me, the alternative life was much more attractive. My ambitions were not in the official sphere.

 

When you say interesting and attractive, what do you mean? It was more intellectually stimulating?

 

Marta: Yes, more intellectually stimulating. And it was also much more intellectually demanding. It was beyond comparison. If I wanted to develop self-esteem, it was a very easy choice. I could abandon the official professional career very easily.

 

From the U.S. vantage point, the focus of dissent was in Prague. Was there as much going on here in Bratislava?

 

Milan: No, not at all. Here it was just a small group of people who lived the real dissident life. In Prague, you had hundreds, maybe thousands of dissidents. Here it was only in the tens. There were more people in the Secret Service than in our circles, and they had lots of opportunities to make life difficult for us. For me, it would have been much more difficult to survive Communism only being here in Bratislava. It helped quite a lot to have links to Prague.

But we had something that they didn’t quite have in Prague. There was this gray zone of artists who were not dissidents in a strict sense, but were somewhere in the middle. They had jobs, but maybe not good jobs, such as teaching art at a grammar school. But we were friends with them. It was a kind of community. You could still have a feeling that you were living in a circle of free people even if it wasn’t the kind of subculture that existed in Prague. These people in the gray zone used to go in the summer to these cottages in the mountains that they’d bought, and you could meet those people there. It was a sort of independent life, almost non-political. There were very few politically engaged people here. Without Prague, it would have been pretty boring in the long term.

Marta: It was a broad anti-establishment community here, with people from different generations and backgrounds. The Catholics were a strong part of the political opposition. This was a new part of society for us, because we were brought up in a leftist milieu. These people had some really political ideas that had nothing to do with socialism with a human face. The Communists, back in the 1950s, had destroyed the mostly intellectual part of the Catholics. What was left was quite a simple way of thinking.

We had this feeling that the people we know here in Slovakia, working in underground magazines, could be the visible part of the iceberg, and there was a huge part still underneath. Then it occurred to us that there was no iceberg underneath.

Milan: We discovered another Slovakia through our Catholic friends: this secret church. There were some people we knew like Jan Carnogursky, who later became a politician. There were these two anti-establishment groups: the artists and intellectuals and then there were these conservative Catholics.

Marta: But interestingly, these groups were mixed. There were some Catholic artists, and some artists were conservative.

Milan: It was interesting for a couple years. But then…

Marta: We were much younger then.

Milan: In the late 1980s, I remember feeling that I couldn’t survive another 40 years of this regime in this country where I knew everyone who was even a little anti-establishment. In the late 1980s, it was already so boring. It was always the same people: nice, but the same. The most devastating thought for me was to live like this for another 40 years. It was nice at the beginning when we were 20 and 25. But in 1989, I was 33. In 10 years, it had become pretty claustrophobic. You couldn’t travel. You lived in a small country, and you met the same people all the time. This was most devastating for me. When I thought about my future, it was like a life sentence. You got older, and you knew that there would be nothing new in your life. We were lucky that it changed.

Marta: We never thought it would be changed. That was the big difference between us and our parents. When the Russians came in 1968, I was six years old. My parents and their friends, everyone said that something will happen and this will only last a couple years, it would only be temporary. But during my childhood I watched my parents and their friends grow old in this terribly unhappy situation of expecting something. But I was ready to believe that it would last forever. Otherwise I would live like them, waiting for something to happen, looking for signs of change that never came. I thought it was much better to prepare yourself for a decent and good and interesting life in this situation. And it was much more of a surprise that it did change.

 

So you had low expectations.

 

Marta: I had no expectations!

 

In June 1989, Poland had semi-free elections. And things were changing in Hungary. Did you think that everything would change except in Czechoslovakia?

 

Milan: The Czechoslovak regime was actually the hardest. We knew what was going on in Poland and in Hungary. And my father was one of those who was very optimistic for years and years, saying that these regimes couldn’t last forever. He saw all these signs of changes, after Gorbachev and so on. Of course, we debated about it all the time. I thought it was all theoretical, these signs of change. We were living in a situation where there were practically no signs of change at all. In summer 1989, our friends were still going to prison. We saw that Poland was different because of the workers and Solidarity with its membership of millions of people. And in Hungary, the regime from above was liberalizing. But this was not the case of Czechoslovakia. We had nothing from the top and nothing from below, because workers were satisfied with their lives. And we had no West Germany, like East Germany did. Czechoslovakia was an example of an island of dictatorship that couldn’t change. That was an argument against all the changes.

Of course, under the influence of my father — and we had been debating about that for hours and hours — I was expecting in 1989 that something had to change. There were small signs, of course. But it’s another thing to think about it and to really live it in your heart. It was impossible to imagine the change. The most we expected was that the regime would start to let us, if not travel, then at least not put us in prison. That was the biggest hope — that we could do something without worrying about imprisonment.

Marta: It was obvious that something would happen, but not so quickly. Even your father didn’t expect the mass demonstrations.

 

I came through Prague in August 1989. I’d been in Poland where it had been so exciting that year. And Prague was so quiet. Then I went to Budapest and things were lively again. It was very strange to travel through this region at that time. It was as if there was a huge wall, much bigger than the Berlin Wall, that enclosed Czechoslovakia.

 

Marta: We were not so interconnected. We were not thinking so much of Central Europe. There was one moment when I felt that something was going to happen, when life was going to be different. It was much earlier, when I came to my university and there was a flag and a picture of Brezhnev. It was the day that Brezhnev died. It was like a sign in the deepest winter that something for sure was going to change. That was a fantastic feeling.

Milan: But it was just theoretical knowledge. When Gorbachev came, we knew of course that it was such an absurd situation that the Soviet Union was so much freer than Czechoslovakia. It was so difficult to imagine the change, because people living here didn’t believe in change. We were maybe the most optimistic because we were at least thinking about it. But people on the streets never thought about the change. They just lived their lives, and there was no sign that something was going on inside their heads that we didn’t know about. They were fighting to travel abroad and build their cottages and built their careers — that was all.

 

What was the Berlin Wall falling moment for this country?

 

Milan: It was the 17th of November. I remember every minute of it, almost. We were in an interesting meeting between some dissident intellectuals and writers in the grey zone. It was the first time we met together at one of the summer cottages, these intellectual dissident leaders with these so-called official writers who were willing to talk to us. And then we went back and heard from Radio Free Europe that something was going on in Prague. We were in the center of Slovakia somewhere, and we jumped into the car and went home and had the feeling that something was going to happen.

The next day, it was Saturday. By Sunday we had already had our first big meeting in Bratislava, in a gallery with 500 people. We didn’t have a phone, so it was a friend of mine who came by and told us to go there in the afternoon. We’d heard rumors on Friday night, and we were listening all the time to the radio. There was a demonstration in 1988 of Catholics, about 2,000 people. But that Sunday afternoon, for the first time in my life I saw 500 people in the same place who had the same attitude as mine. Most of them were artists, intellectuals, and some students. It was a shock to see that. We went to the other square and there were students there. I never saw people gathering like that. My impression was that everyone was scared of us. Nobody would talk to us on the bus because we were dissidents, dangerous people.

Marta: If we had 20 people in the garden, we had the feeling that it was a mass meeting!

Milan: And now I saw hundreds and hundreds of people who were the same as us. So I knew that it would change everything. It was just a couple days, and it was over.

Marta: It was being in the right time and right time. Milan was in the middle of this movement in the first days and weeks. I had a baby, so I was not so much involved. I had a friend I knew from being together in the hospital with our babies. We never talked about politics because she was never very interested in politics. But that November, the nation was watching on TV what was going on. Step by step we started to talk about these things. Suddenly, she came to me with her baby and said, “This is the end of the regime!” I didn’t think she even knew the word “regime.'” The language of people changed all of the sudden.

Milan: Here the change was just two days or three. Compare that to Hungary with the long process of negotiations. It took months in Poland. Here it was just a moment. The shock was much, much bigger. And the event was somehow more attractive because it was as if you are in prison all your life and you are released and you discover a new world. For millions of people it was the same experience. It was kind of a reward for the terrible past of Czechoslovakia. This feeling of happiness and freedom was really huge.

Marta: The minority suddenly discovered that it was the majority!

 

I remember the concern people had at the time in Prague that the army might intervene on the side of the government. Was also there a fear here?

 

Milan: Absolutely. It was behind the whole idea of a “velvet revolution.” When you are scared that army or police can kill you, you decide to behave softly. So, the velvet revolution came from the fear of violence from the regime. When we were organizing our meeting here, we were constantly getting gossip that the army was getting prepared 20 kilometers away. So we were constantly thinking how not to allow the regime to be aggressive, how to draw the police into the discussion, how to show them that they shouldn’t be scared of us, that we can communicate. There was an art of peaceful resolution in all these meetings. We were discussing all the time how to stop the violence if it started. With so many hundreds of thousands of people in the square, anything could trigger it.

When I wrote a month or two afterwards that the velvet revolution was not based on a broad sense for peace and love but was built on fear, my friends were pretty angry. I also argued that because of this we shouldn’t expect that it would last long. And I think I was right. It very soon disappeared, and emotions very different from peace and love soon emerged in this society.

 

It was a velvet revolution, but it didn’t mean that it would be a velvet transition.

 

Milan: Exactly.

 

You used the metaphor of getting out of prison and entering a new world. When those couple of days were over, what were your thoughts in terms of what to do in this new world?

 

Milan: I was confused. When I was in the middle of this revolutionary movement, the first months were mostly about organizing and debating things, and basically I was obsessed, But I didn’t want to go into politics. which I think maybe was a mistake for other reasons. I wanted to write and to travel and to discover. Of course we had no money. Our first thought was that we needed a publishing house to publish books freely. We needed books, books, books: that’s what all this was about for us.

So we started a publishing house, based on this revolutionary background. Then it became private. I was asked to run it. Again, it was not so much my decision. I thought that it was a duty: to make society better by bringing out good books. We believed in books at that time. Then Marta started to help me there. We were working there together until 1997. Then I switched to newspapers. During those seven years at the publishing house, we published 200 books, mainly philosophical books.

Marta: At the beginning it was quite easy. There was still interest in Czechoslovakia in the West. It was not so hard to get money for books. Then it got harder and harder over time financially.

 

And the audience for such books was not huge.

 

Marta: Exactly.

 

At what point did it seem to you that Czechoslovakia was going to divide?

 

Milan: I remember very clearly in March 1990, three months after the revolution, I was walking to the office of Public Against Violence, our revolutionary movement here in Slovakia, and I saw in the square a group of people singing some national songs. I thought, “Oh god, what is this?” The crowd, which included some drunks, was completely different from the crowd I knew from November: different faces, different behavior, and a different mood that was between desperation and anger.

Then, days later, we had this meeting in the office, and a crowd was marching on the street in front of our office of Public Against the Violence. And a stone was thrown through our window. This was still before the election. I knew at this moment that this would go very hard. The energy of hatred and nationalism felt so strong, and it was getting stronger and stronger. I told Marta that I knew instinctively that this state, Czechoslovakia, wasn’t going to survive.

Marta: He was the first person to realize that this was going to happen. Czechoslovakia had lasted all our lives. I didn’t want to believe this prediction. I’m happy that you haven’t predicted that the EU will collapse.

Milan: Yes I’m not sure about that.

 

I interviewed Sonja Licht in Belgrade. In 1990, she predicted that Yugoslavia would collapse. In 2012, she told me, “I don’t want to predict that the EU will collapse.”

 

Milan: That’s exactly my position. Sometimes there are very similar signs. The language is very similar. But still, it’s very different. The EU is a very different body from Czechoslovakia. I was thinking about collapse two years ago with Greece. But I think now it looks better.

So, my prediction about Czechoslovakia was in April or May 1990. And from that time, I just lived with it. Of course I was deeply depressed just following how it got worse and worse every month. You could live under Communism in your circles and believe that the regime came from Moscow and that the people are oppressed, and because you didn’t actually know the majority of people, you could still believe that the people are good and the regime is bad. Then freedom comes and you see that your own people are bad! This shock was much bigger actually, much more depressing than Communism. You think, “I will have to live with these people forever here. It’s not like a regime. You can change a regime.” I was wrong again. The people did change. Or, at least, it seems that it’s not a bad as it seemed to be in 1990. In 1990, I had the feeling that this could be a fascist state. But I was wrong.

 

The nationalist songs you heard were from the period when Slovakia was independent during World War II as a fascist state?

 

Milan: Yes.

 

Some people have written that Alexander Dubcek could have been a unifying force for Slovakia. But he died in a car accident in 1992 before the split. Do you think that if he had lived, he could have been an alternative to these nationalists who came to power?

 

Milan: Dubcek wasn’t very strong at that time. But he was the only symbol that Slovaks had. The majority of Slovaks loved Vladimir Meciar and these nationalist guys at that time. But still Dubcek was a beloved symbol, and he was strongly against the split. If Dubcek had survived the accident, it would have been a very difficult situation for Meciar. Dubcek would have been the logical person to be president of that Slovak state.

Marta: Meciar could not have been number one if Dubcek were there.

Milan: There would have been a fight, and many people would have been on the side of Dubcek. It’s hypothetical. But we all knew when Dubcek died that for Meciar it was the best day of his life.

 

What was it like to live in Bratislava to see what was happening in the Czech Republic after 1993? You didn’t have Havel as this moral force, nor did you have Klaus and his ultra-liberal approach.

 

Milan: It wasn’t easy. The first years of Meciar’s government were almost worse than under Communism. We felt pretty lost. We watched the Czechs going on with Havel. Havel was fine: he travelled and he invited us and we were friends. It was moral help, nothing else. It was depressing because you didn’t know what would happen with this country. The journalists started to fight. We organized these NGOs and traveled around the country debating with people. It was like under Communism. The regime was not so strong as under Communism, but it was more ugly with these fascistic tendencies and this nationalism.

For me, personally, those were pretty bad years. Psychologically, it was very difficult to see the gap get bigger between the Czech Republic and Slovakia, with the Czechs going West and we Slovaks going East or going nowhere at all. I think that many Slovakia didn’t feel it so intensely. Still, at the moment when they realized that Meciar would take Slovakia out of Europe to the East, that was a crucial moment. It wasn’t that they liked the opposition. They were scared that this country would leave the West. Basically when Meciar said if the West doesn’t want us, we’ll go East, that was his biggest political mistake.

In 1998, when the elections defeated Meciar, and I’ve said it openly many times, this was a much more crucial point for Slovak history than 1989. Slovaks themselves — by their own will and energy – had to get rid of the dictator. That was really a big moment. For me, this country showed you various faces. In the 1990s, it showed a terrible face. And then in 1998, it showed you a better face, almost a nice face. Slovaks had to discover themselves. When they felt the danger that Slovakia could turn into Belarus or whatever, then it became a real fight over the fate of the nation.

Czechs didn’t care. They were already the best pupil in Central Europe. They were proud, sometimes very arrogant. After 1993, the Czechs thought, “It’s over, we got rid of the Slovaks, and we’re fine.” In the magazine Respekt, in 1992, there was a title after the elections: “Alone to the West or together to the Balkans.” “Together to the Balkans” meant together with the Slovaks. The Czech position was clear, and I didn’t like it.

There is some justice to history, because now I think that Slovaks are better off than Czechs in terms of understanding their own position, their own fate, where they belong. Czechs, because they were doing so well with Klaus and Havel, they now are pretty confused. They didn’t go through this process of self-recognition. But now I think they are facing it, with the shock over how divided the society is after the presidential elections. We know this from the 1990s: bad Czechs and good Czechs. Here also there were good Slovaks and bad Slovaks. We were the bad Slovaks. You can’t falsify your history and past. You have to go through it. And they didn’t.

 

They didn’t have to confront the ugly reality of how bad things could get with bad Czechs.

 

Milan: Exactly. Slovaks had this terrible experience in the 1990s, and the lesson has been huge.

 

You mention the rock thrown through the window of Public Against Violence. During the 1990s, were there any specific threats against you or against people who disagreed with Meciar?

 

Marta: We would get anonymous letters.

Milan: It was worse than Communism in this sense. Everyday my name was in the paper as a bad Slovak, a betrayer of the country, an enemy of the country. I’d go on the street, and people started to shout at me.

Marta: You could have been lynched. Maybe you heard about the head of Public Against Violence, Fedor Gal. He has lived in Prague since 1993 because he couldn’t survive here. He was quite a courageous man, never trying to please the nationalists. One day, he came home and his door was broken in. So he moved to Prague.

There was also the abduction of the president’s son followed by the murder of a key figure in the trial who was obviously killed by Meciar’s secret police. But we will never ever get the real evidence of that.

Milan: I wasn’t so much scared of the secret service or the government. Much more difficult was this hatred that you faced — in the newspapers, on the streets. We were born later so we didn’t live through this kind of hate speech under Communism. For us, it was a tired authoritarian regime.

Marta: The most problematic thing for us was that our former community of friends split. And we did not expect that. It happened across all generations, not just ours. There were people who thought that Meciar was right. Of course, nobody would say this now.

Milan: The scariest thing was that you didn’t know where this hate energy could go. Marta is right that we were just shocked that friends of ours couldn’t see the evil. If you see that people can admire that evil – and it was clearly evil – and it wasn’t only the masses but even your friends, it was a real shock. They were free to make this choice. No one was oppressing them. They just freely started to love this guy.

I was writing a report on the 20th anniversary of the break-up of Czechoslovakia, so I was going back to the papers of that time — which you can only see in the library — so I have read again these papers and articles full of this hate speech. Reading it again I saw that it was much more about paranoia than real hate. They were paranoid. They were actually scared of us. These nationalists were scared because they knew that the majority of Slovaks didn’t want Czechoslovakia to split. They were afraid of federalists like us. They desperately wanted by force to convince us to be loyal to this state. Both sides were paranoid. We were paranoid of their power and hatred. And they were paranoid of us because they thought we were the majority.

 

So, both sides thought they were the minority!

 

Milan: I remember that I was deeply depressed about this way of writing and talking in the papers at that time. But when I read it now, it was ugly, but it wasn’t as ugly as I thought.

 

When you were talking to people outside Slovakia and they didn’t really understand what was going on, what example would you use to show how bad the situation was with Meciar in Slovakia at the time? 

 

Milan: For example, in the first days of 1993, the government changed the editor of the daily Smena. Some of the staff were holdovers from Communist times. The majority of people left the paper and started a new daily called Sme and I was editor-in-chief in 1999. This was a clear example of how the government wanted to control the media. There was also a big fight over a new university in Trnava. The government didn’t want to give them permission — even though they had buildings and everything. The minister of culture came with a key and locked the university.

Marta: There was also the language law, which was virulently nationalist coming from the ministry of culture. It was designed for the south of Slovakia, which is traditionally majority Hungarian. If 20 percent of a community was Slovak minority, the official language had to be Slovak — in all official contexts, even going to the doctor.

Milan: This language law was a symbol that the Slovak language is sacred. This is a state language, the government said, and everybody has to speak Slovak in this country because this is our state. Hungarians are foreigners, and they have to speak Slovak. It was a typical nationalistic law. There was also a big fight between the government and the intellectual weeklies and the literary journals. The government stopped financing everything that was not Slovak in their eyes. Or they started a new journal with financing from the government and starved the other one.

Marta: It’s similar to what’s going on in Hungary right now.

Milan: But it was more brutal under Meciar. They wanted to ban certain political parties. There was a guy excluded from parliament in 1996 just for signing a paper — you can’t imagine this in a democracy. I even remember that there was a fight over aesthetics. The aesthetics of fascism or nationalism are very different from the aesthetics of democracy. I could quote hundreds of examples that had a real impact on society.

In the beginning, in 1993, there was an elected government, they had a parliamentary majority, the president was elected. Formally everything was fine. What contradicted this formal democracy was the language and the hatred. Then over the years it became clear that even the formal democracy was broken. In the beginning you could only argue about the language, which was preparing the situation for later. They hated what I was doing when I wrote about these things in the West. They were following that, quoting that, naming me an enemy for betraying the country in the West.

In autumn 1993, I was invited to Germany by German MPs to talk about Slovakia. The Slovak government sent a guy from the ministry of culture who insisted that he too had a right to talk because the “other side” had to be heard. He was the vice-deputy of the ministry of culture, and he died in a car accident on the way to Germany. There was a state funeral. Meciar gave a speech that this guy died in a battle against enemies of the country.

Marta: The accident took place on the Czech-Slovak border.

Milan: It was a new border. The driver didn’t see the trucks, and there was a crash, and that was it. The guy who died was one of the biggest nationalists who loved this new state. In 1992, he drew a line of chalk on the asphalt on the Czechoslovak border and said, “If there will be a real border here, I will be the happiest person in the world.” And he died the next year at the border, in the same place that he drew the line in chalk on the asphalt.

 

Where did all this hatred go after Meciar?

 

Milan: You are never sure whether it has really disappeared. It was a big lesson for Slovaks. This nationalism and hatred erupted after years and years, and they realized that they couldn’t win with it. With this nationalism, you can’t survive. The lesson was that we can’t go East because Moscow will swallow us. We need to go to West and be loyal Westerners, that’s how we’ll survive: by being swallowed by the EU. Our prime minister today, Mr. Fico, is a nationalist, more or less. But he says openly that our national interest is to be loyal to Brussels. So, the emotion disappeared in a way. People are still nationalistic: they hate Gypsies, they hate Hungarians. But there’s also realism: that this hatred doesn’t help us in any way to survive.

Marta: Because of Brussels, it’s very new and very interesting. The old paradigm of the 1990s has disappeared. During the Meciar period, being liberal meant being for economic modernization and against the stupid dictatorship. The division doesn’t go this way any more. We have anti-European liberals who destroyed the previous government. Then you have social democrats who are the successors of Meciar who often have a non-liberal way of thinking. But they hide this face even though everyone knows that it’s there. But they are the pro-Europeans of Slovakia right now.

 

It’s similar to Serbia in some way.

 

Milan: Absolutely, though in Serbia, you still have these Milosevic guys in government. You don’t have that in Slovakia. But mentally these people are just like that. But they are very pro-European because it’s the only way to survive. They need Eurofunds and so on. If you ask where the hatred went, well, it didn’t disappear, but it’s now at the bottom of people’s interests because they have different goals and also the country is really tired of that. Even now we have a very good relationship with Mr. Orban. Fico and Orban like each other because they are strong leaders, even though they can’t stand each other. They don’t need to fight now. If they want, or if they feel they need to, they can start the nationalism again very easily.

Marta: For the next generation of our son Michal, this is all already very, very far away. He works in Brussels. For him and his colleagues, this danger will never look so dangerous.

 

Superficially, it looks like Prague and Bratislava have the same political situation. You have leaders who call themselves Social Democrats. They come from slightly different backgrounds, but they are responding to somewhat similar economic situations. And despite their nationalist backgrounds, they both support the EU, and they both also often say stupid things. Is this superficial similarity accurate?

 

Milan: The government in Prague is now right of center. But this will be just for a short time. The Left will win the next elections and the Right parties will collapse, and it will look like Slovakia. In Slovakia, the Right parties are without ideas. The era of reformist Right governments is gone. If we talk about Social Democrats, yes, they are very similar in one way: their voters. In Slovakia, there is a mixture of post-Meciar voters, nationalists, and of course people who were the “losers” of transition and transformation. These voters are not exactly fans of democracy. In the Czech Republic, you have very similar voters who voted for Zeman. And you have the Communists, which is also part of the problem. As we know from the polls, the social democratic voters are actually much less democratic and much less European. They are much more nationalistic than the voters of the right. It seems to be a pattern, that the Left parties and their supporters in these countries are not very modern.

But there are differences. There are a lot of intellectuals in Czech society who are very decent and favor the Social Democratic party. They organize conferences and they talk about Left issues, and they push the party somehow. That’s not the case with Mr. Fico. His party has no intellectual background at all, and he doesn’t try at all. They’re just a populist movement. The Czech Social Democrats are having an authentic debate about Leftist ideas inside the party and outside the party, and thus have a much better chance of creating a real Social Democratic Party in the future.

 

When you think back to 1989, have you had any major second thoughts about any of the ideas you had back then? Have you rethought any of your principles or political positions?

 

Marta: I remember exactly what I thought after the revolution. I had this feeling that one part of our life was over, and that we were now sailing onto the open ocean. I had no idea how long the transformation would last. We already suspected that it was not going to be so nice or so quick.

Our ideas of economic change and political change  — of course they changed. This is also logical. The world changes, so it would be stupid to have the exactly the same ideas as 20 years ago. As Havel pointed out five years ago in Bratislava, probably it was a mistake to give all our competence and all our political capital to the so-called experts, who were economists. Now it seems to be a common truth. In the first weeks of the revolution, in all the debates, there was one axiom that no one challenged: economy is the most important point. We the dissidents who were involved in the revolution had nothing to do with economics. It was not our field. We had no real jobs in the old system. Even the economists in the old system, like Vaclav Klaus, had no experience of a free economy. But at least they could pretend to be experts, and they had the formal qualifications. But people doing the revolution didn’t. So they had a very weak position.

Milan: I think Marta is right. Our biggest mistake was that we stopped believing in the ideas that we had during Communism. Believing in those values is a serious thing, and we just gave all the capital to the economists. For them it meant nothing. They just broke everything.

In Vienna in January 1990, I remember talking to people who believed that Central Europe could bring something new to the West, some new idea about freedom, some new values. I told them already in January, “I don’t think we can give you anything. I am sorry. We can’t really add something good and new to the West.” The reaction was very angry. It was a delusion that the West and East could produce a third way, neither communism nor capitalism, but something new. I knew that this wasn’t going to happen.

The only thing we invented over the last 23 years is that cynicism and populism works. That was our gift to the West, and the West is now doing it very well. But I don’t think the West has learned this from the East.

I also knew that the transformation would last a long time and that we are not at the end of it. For me, I was lucky. After running this publishing house and writing a novel and essays, I became an editor of a newspaper in this country and then the best magazine in the Czech Republic. For these jobs, you need to understand the country. It’s your everyday job. I was lucky in this way because I discovered both countries in a way that I would never have had that chance without these positions. My life before 1989 was of course important in terms of basic values. I knew what freedom meant to me. But I didn’t know very much else. You couldn’t learn anything else in that time.

Marta: Being in the open sea is exciting!

Milan: My father was obsessed all the time with his reflections on the past. That generation had a genius for reflecting on the past. This is not my problem any more. I think the past is important, and I know a lot about it. But there are two different lives — before and after 1989. 1989 was not the best day of my life. It was just the start. Under Communism, you couldn’t change. Everything remained the same. After 1989, I began to change my views. I studied economics some years ago to understand what was going on. And I changed my view from neo-liberal to what many people would call leftism, which is not quite true. But I know all the problems that the neoliberals made in these countries.

You knew that you were right under communism. It was all about being right. Now, you can be wrong, and it’s fascinating to discover why you’re wrong. I love to discover the country, the world, even my own mistakes and to think them through. You wouldn’t get this under Communism. That’s the biggest happiness and luck for an intellectual. But probably for other people, it’s not. For me, it’s a permanent holiday of ideas.

 

When you look from 1989 to today, and evaluate everything that has changed or not changed in Slovakia, how would you rate that on a scale of 1 to 10 with 1 being most dissatisfied and 10 most satisfied?

 

Milan: 7

Marta: 8

 

Same scale, same period of time, but this time in your own personal life?

 

Marta: You live with the same wife in the same house.

Milan: So this didn’t change.

Marta: And the house looks very similar to what it looked like 23 years ago!

Milan: 8. If nothing had changed over the last 23 years, if the regime hadn’t changed, I probably would be dead right now.

Marta: 5

 

Last question, when you look into the near future, how do you rate the prospects for Slovakia on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being most pessimistic and 10 being most optimistic?

 

Milan: 5

Marta: 6

 

Bratislava, February 10, 2013

 


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