Posted on 15.06.2011 in People's Voices

Petruška Šustrov

“Freedom is one of the most precious values. And one’s willingness to observe the rules, such as to cross the street only when the light is green stems from, among other things, the feeling of being free and equal. This may be hard to explain to someone who has never had the experience of enjoying equal rights. “

In 1985 she became a spokesperson for the Charter 77 signatories. In May 1990, she was appointed Advisor to the Interior Minister of Czechoslovakia. Soon she became the Deputy Minister of Interior. She held this post until 1992. Currently, she works as a journalist, especially for “Lidové Noviny” daily, and as a translator (mainly from English and Polish).

Petruška Šustrov. Source: Europe Divided. Then and Now, publication of the Stefan Batory Foundation

Petruška Šustrov. Source: Europe Divided. Then and Now, publication of the Stefan Batory Foundation

What were the obstacles faced by those who wanted to travel abroad prior to 1989, whether to the West, or simply to Yugoslavia?

I suppose it depends on whom you have in mind. The minority of us, to which I belonged, faced no obstacles whatsoever because we had no chance of getting a passport. Thus, we could not travel at all. Apart from a passport one needed the so-called exit permit. Plus there was something called a foreign currency certificate for which you had to approach a bank that would be willing to sell you some foreign currency. To do that you needed – as far as I know – approval from your workplace, the Revolutionary Trade Union Movement, or your local Communist Party organisation. But in my case, none of this was an option. It was easier to travel to a Soviet Bloc country. Yugoslavia was considered to be in between.

The borders were opened though after 1989. Do you remember your first trip to the West? What did you feel?

Paradoxically, firstly I didn’t go to the West, but to the East. I had a friend in Paris for many years. Her name was Mrs. Tigrid. She tried to persuade me to apply for a passport and visit her in Paris. I explained to her that this was impossible. But then in 1988, she persuaded me to at least persuade my husband. So he applied for a passport and got one. He applied for a visa and an exit permit too, and when he collected all this, he left for Paris. So, in the end, I also applied for a passport. It was in early 1989. And a month later I was given one, without a problem. Thus I was able to go to Budapest in June 1989 to meet my sister, whom I had not seen since 1968. I also met a number of Czechoslovak émigrés there, whom I thought I would never see again. Next, I also applied for an exit permit, as I wanted to attend an émigré meeting in Franken that was organised by Opus Bonum. Naturally, I was not granted the permit, but my passport was not cancelled either. So, at the beginning of November 1989 I was able to go to Wrocław – also without any problems. Finally, the borders opened and I decided to visit Mrs. Tigrid in Paris. First, I met my mother in Munich, who had also left the country in 1968. I flew to Paris next. I had to take a plane instead of going overland because I lacked a transit visa for Germany as I had no time to apply for it. Later, this visa-regime was lifted. With time we were able to learn something that was normal for people in the West, i.e. that if you need a visa you visited a relevant Consulate where you easily received an appropriate stamp.

Going back to before 1989, you said that your husband was able to go to the West. It seems though that the main problem was not with visas but with the obtainment of documents from the Czechoslovak side. Is this so?

I can’t give you an answer to that because being dissidents we were not considered to be regular folk. As far as I know though, there never were problems with visas. The problems were always with the Czechoslovak authorities. We dissidents did not have problems with foreign authorities because they did not suspect us of wanting to go there to earn some money working illegally. If they were afraid of us at all, it was that we might decide to apply for political asylum. But I am sure that not many of us applied for a tourist-, or a transit-visa to later do that.

When I interviewed Jan Ruml, he described his first trip abroad, to Austria, as something he would never forget. What are your memories of your first travel abroad?

The first time I went abroad was to Munich and my impressions of that journey amounted to nothing much because I had a fever and thus had to spend the three days I was there in bed. Then, it was time to catch a train back home and that was that.On the other hand, visiting Paris – where I went in January of that year – was a tremendous experience. I remember to this day Mrs. Tigrid taking me to a small hotel where she used to put up her acquaintances and friends. The hotel was charming. The next day I got up at seven in the morning. I had no idea that almost everyone in the West was in bed at that hour. I took a street-map and set out to see Paris. I was struck by how many street-sweepers were there, cleaning the streets, and shopkeepers washing sidewalks in front of their shops. I was amazed. And probably felt much like my husband who had returned earlier from Paris, absolutely bedazzled. We thought we would need at least twenty years to catch up with the West. But they would move forward during these twenty years too so this gap would never disappear. As for shops, we have probably caught up with in the West in this respect. I am afraid though that, as far as what is known as political culture, or the culture of coexistence, we have already missed our chance to improve.

You said that after 1989, you only had problems with visas when you wanted to go to the East. Today, the Czech Republic is a party to the Schengen Agreement. Critics of the Schengen regime say that it creates a new Iron Curtain on the EU border with the East because it restricts the movement of ordinary people. Advocates of this regime claim though that their movements need to be regulated. What do you think about that?

I will start with the Schengen area. My friends get out of their cars at every ex-border-crossing within the Schengen area and bow down. I do that too, because the disappearance of these borders is simply a miracle. As for the visa requirement introduced by the Czech Republic towards citizens of several East European countries after 2000, I regard this to be a crime. This requirement is justified as a measure to prevent the spread of a criminal element from these countries. This is a lie because organised crime can always find a way. Nor is it possible to prevent the entry of those who want to work here illegally because these people are enslaved by other mafia-like organisations, modern-day slave-owners that can always procure visas for them. The greater freedom of movement would benefit everyone  involved, not least because our country is a “poor cousin” of its Western brethren. The Western countries should welcome this too because they need an efficient supply of the workers. Those from the East European countries concerned are willing to take jobs which West Europeans, and even Czechs, are no longer willing to do. Thus, to leave them at the mercy of some criminals is perfidious. The only purpose this visa-regime serves nowadays is to prevent or restrict contact between people who want to meet for legitimate reasons, such as journalists, activists from non-governmental organisations, etc. And that is ridiculous because, among other things, such contacts stimulate the economy. We, in turn, would have the opportunity to learn more about how things are elsewhere. Instead, as it is now, the EU and other organisations are sending the message that we are superior to others, which in my opinion is abominable.

In conclusion, I would like to ask you another, and perhaps banal, question: If you could arrange things differently, what would be the main advantages of your solution?

For Westerners or those who were living in the so-called “free world” prior to 1989 my answer would probably sound banal. Freedom is one of the most precious values. And one’s willingness to observe the rules, such as to cross the street only when the light is green stems from, among other things, the feeling of being free and equal. This may be hard to explain to someone who has never had the experience of enjoying equal rights. One has to remember that most of the citizens of East European countries and countries of the former USSR were not free until the fall of Communism. That includes even those who worked for the State security because even they were not allowed to travel freely. The fact is that you can travel wherever and whenever you want, meet who you want, etc…. Freedom is like air. You became aware of it only once you lose it.

The more one learns the more one is capable of making comparisons, and of finding that in other countries there are problems too; and that your own problems are a little more trivial, by comparison. To become too engrossed in the problems in your own country is dangerous because you may get the idea that this is the worst place on earth.

One has to be able to see both the benefits and the shortcomings… But you have to see them with your own eyes in order to realise that what we regard as a basic standard of living would be considered luxury in other parts of the world.