“I used to feel uneasy at the borders even after the 1989 Revolution. For example, at airports, there used to be one line for EU citizens and another for the rest of us. Border checks were, of course, even stricter during the Cold War. Yet, we were treated abroad with some empathy back then.”
Slovak politician and professor, expelled from public and academic life after the Prague Spring. In 1977 he was one of the three original signatories to Charter 77, demanding respect for human rights to be restored in Czechoslovakia. After the 1989 Revolution he became actively involved in politics and held offices such as a member of the Government of National Reconciliation of Czechoslovakia, Director of the Chancellery of Václav Havel and Chancellor of Comenius University in Bratislava. He was also a founder of the Slovak Helsinki Committee for Human Rights and a Professor of the UNESCO Chair on Human Rights at the Comenius University.
What are your memories of travelling abroad during the period of “real socialism”?
My passport was revoked at the end of the sixties and thus I could not travel again until after the 1989 Revolution. So one could say that I didn’t have any problems crossing borders at all, back then. I managed only once to go abroad – to Poland – as a signatory of Charter 77. One could cross the border with Poland – for tourist reasons only – at Krkonoše, so I did. Whilein Poland we met with representatives of Solidarity. After the Prague Spring was put down in 1968 the new regime declared me persona non grata. I was expelled from the University so I tried to get by as best as I could. I worked as a librarian at first. Then I lost that job when I signed Charter 77. I had to work as a casual labourer after that. Officially, my passport was revoked for my attempts to travel to the Caucasus.
My first official trip abroad was to Poland too. I went there as a member of the Government of National Reconciliation. Tadeusz Mazowiecki was the Prime Minister of Poland then. As fate would have it, I was the first Minister of Government to visit Poland so Mazowiecki hailed my arrival. Thus, my first trip abroad was quite an event in itself – it was very exciting.
What was crossing the borders like in those days? What was the attitude of border guards and customs officers towards travellers then?
Following the 1989 Revolution there was great enthusiasm, all around. For example, the ‘Hello Europe!’ project was carried out on 10 December 1989 under which 150,000 Slovaks availed themselves of the opportunity to cross the Danube to Austria for the very first time. We expected only a few thousand people to show up. There were so many of us that finally the Austrian border guards gave up and stopped checking our passports.
When did you go to a Western European country the first time?
My first trip to the West was to Austria, to Vienna. It was in the sixties. I went there partly because of Vienna’s geographical proximity to Bratislava. I had some contacts with the university there. I went to Vienna again soon after the 1989 Revolution as the Chancellor of Comenius University. Soon, we had three daily buses taking students to Vienna in the morning, and back to Bratislava in the evening. Our students were able to take courses there and many took advantage of this opportunity.
Did you feel discriminated against during your travels across Europe in the sixties because you were from Eastern Europe?
I used to feel uneasy at the borders even after the 1989 Revolution. For example, at airports, there used to be one line for EU citizens and another for the rest of us. Border checks were, of course, even stricter during the Cold War. Yet, we were treated abroad with some empathy back then. It was easier for us to travel during the sixties – for a while, anyway. I was a philosophy teacher back then and my colleagues from the University of Vienna used to invite me there, often, for discussions and conferences. It was easier to travel back then for a while but we still needed permission from the Czechoslovak authorities. I also remember that following the invasion of Czechoslovakia by the Warsaw Pact armies on 21 August 1968 borders with the West were completely open for us for a short while. Austrians let everyone who wanted to flee from Czechoslovakia into Austria without any documents that would otherwise be required.
Prior to 1969, it was easier to get a visa than to get the necessary documents from the various domestic institutions. One had to approach a bank, one’s employer, etc. One had to have a certificate to show that one was politically correct. One had to have confirmation from one’s Housing Association that one was co-existing peacefully with one’s neighbours: that one was not, for example, in the habit of listening to Radio Free Europe. Securing all such documents did not guarantee success though. It could still happen that a colleague of yours became jealous and ratted on you: that, for example, you were planning to meet with Czechoslovak émigrés abroad. You could even be told to return home at the border.
What were your first impressions of the West? What are your memories of your first visit there?
I used to travel to the West every now and then even before the Prague Spring was put down. My last stay in the West back then was a half-year scholarship in Brussels. I was there in 1969 under the cultural exchange programme. So I had an opportunity to acquaint myself with the West. My first contact with it provoked a culture shock of sorts. I was amazed at the consumption opportunities there and of the affluence of West European countries, especially when compared to the general scarcity that I knew from home. Another shock involved the freedom enjoyed by Westerners. In particular, their freedom of expression and the openness of their public discussions contrasted sharply with the rigidity of our system and the closeness of the society we were living in for already forty years.
What did you think about Western democracy then? How significant were the differences between their economic, legal, and social environment and ours?
These differences were very significant indeed, especially, as concerns the economy and law. But then also, in contrast to our closed society, where the majority tended to lead their real lives at home, in private, and avoid any contact with the State, Westerners seemed to feel that there were values worth upholding and fighting for. I welcomed that. This contrast deepened even further during the so-called “normalisation”, a period in the Czechoslovak history between 1968 and 1989 when the majority chose to bury themselves even more in the private sphere and looked on activities of dissident circles, if not with complete cynicism and disdain, then certainly with some… They considered dissidents to be utopians. It was obvious that the free market economy provided Westerners with more opportunities and choices than the planned economy of the socialist State.
Did you ever consider emigrating to the West after 1989 transformation?
Emigration was not an option worthy of consideration after that. I was to move to Austria much, much earlier though. It was in the spring of 1977 when the Czechoslovak authorities started to persecute the signatories of Charter 77. I even made some arrangements with an Austrian Consulate back then. Austria was guaranteeing us political asylum. But then the Czechoslovak State Security officers offered me the possibility to emigrate too, and immediately as well, whereas ordinarily, one was not able to emigrate legally. Or else it took years to arrange it with the Czechoslovak authorities. These officers told me that if I didn’t like Czechoslovakia, I could leave at once, to which I replied that I liked it here and would stay. I was stubborn that way.
I am a philosopher and a philosophy teacher, by profession, but the events of the Prague Spring prompted me to become involved in politics. After the Warsaw Pact armies invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968 I spent half a year in Brussels on a scholarship and was offered a post there. I rejected it. When Czechoslovakia split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1992 I was wondering whether to stay in the former or not. I had a good academic and political position there, as well as many personal ties. Finally I decided to live in Slovakia.