Posted on 15.06.2011 in People's Voices

Rudolf Chmel

“The strict regime that we lived under created at least two entire generations that didn’t have contact with the West and its realities. These generations were deprived of the opportunity to learn about the advantages and disadvantages of a liberal democracy, the rule of law, or the free market economy. “

Czech literary critic and a member of the Slovak Academy of Sciences. He was the last Czechoslovak Ambassador to Hungary, the Minister of Culture of the Slovak Republic and a member of its Parliament. He is actively involved in promoting the ideals and policies of the Visegrad Cooperation in Central Europe, especially those relating to reconciliation between Slovaks and Hungarians.

What were travel opportunities like in Czechoslovakia prior to 1989?

Rudolf Chmel

Rudolf Chmel, photo by Bratislavski Kraj

We were living in a closed society for 40 years. Today’s youth can’t even imagine that travelling to the West was once an option available only to a few. Often, one had to have connections and access to foreign currencies. These conditions were, in general, not met without some form of corruption or cronyism, or other unusual practices. As a result, people in Czechoslovakia became accustomed to a life led in private, especially after the events of 1968. This involved a withdrawal from the public sphere, dominated as it was by ideology and political cynicism, and burying oneself, so to speak, among family members and close friends. Some members of the middle classes were allowed to travel though. These included doctors, especially surgeons, as they had a privileged position in a “socialist” society. They had patients everywhere, including amongst high-level Communist Party members. These doctors used to travel especially to third-world countries that maintained particularly friendly relations with the Soviet Block countries. Surprisingly enough, Libya belonged to this group in those days. As for my colleagues from more academic circles, I knew only a few who were able to go abroad more or less on a regular basis – not just occasionally – for a holiday.

The strict regime that we lived under created at least two entire generations that didn’t have contact with the West and its realities. These generations were deprived of the opportunity to learn about the advantages and disadvantages of a liberal democracy, the rule of law, or the free-market economy. In fact, they were able to acquire only a limited knowledge of the realities of life in the West. Thus their quite unrealistic perceptions, acquired mostly from domestic sources and Austrian TV, made many of them feel rather dissatisfied when they started to experience the economic and social consequences of the post-1989 transformation.

I remember that during the seventies and eighties, even a more liberal Budapest represented for many of us Czechoslovaks the “West”. Not to mention Yugoslavia. Again, it was this limited and selective perception of the West – a supposed consumers’ paradise – that was a major factor behind the difficulties experienced by many in adjusting to life after the transformation. Many of my friends seemed to have an uncritical admiration for the West. There is no doubt that life in the West was definitely more free and just. But you had to take responsibility for your life and be active, especially in the economic sphere. And many Czechoslovaks refused to acknowledge this fact through their rose-tinted spectacles.

What was the attitude of Westerners towards Eastern Europeans?

We were definitely considered to be second-class citizens. And those of us who were not prone to be passionately nationalistic even accepted this position of being the “losers” in the Cold War. Many ordinary Westerners and some Western politicians felt genuine pity for us but were unaware of being patronising towards us. Therefore, they could not have helped us much. This inferiority complex is still evident amongst some members of my generation. Fortunately though, it seems to have faded away or is non-existent among younger generations, also because we can travel more easily now. There is a hope that the mental transformation among the inhabitants of the Visegrad Group countries will be successful. I believe that although we Central Europeans have our own particularities, we have always been members of the Western world. Furthermore, we have not only benefited from this, but we have also enriched the West in many ways.

When did you go to the West for the first time? What kind of feelings accompanied that trip?

It was in the summer of 1969. I went on holiday to Austria and Italy. Though the presence of Soviet soldiers in Czechoslovakia was acutely felt in all spheres of life some aspects of the Prague Spring of 1968 still survived. We could take this holiday because we were able to obtain the so-called “hundred dollars exchange promise”. The necessity to have such a document is incomprehensible to the young of today or unknown to them. With these hundred dollars I was supposed to be able to afford a ten-day holiday in the West including petrol, campground fee, and visits to the museums, galleries and historical sites.

My second trip to the West did not take place until 1980. I was in my forties by then. I went with a group of fans to the European Football Championship in Italy. I was able to do that thanks to the connections my surgeon friends had in the Football Association. They belonged to the privileged few who used to travel on their own or via a travel agency every year. It was part of their lifestyle. Nowadays, nobody would consider this to be special.

I would like to stress that both these trips made me feel very nervous. I had to subject myself to many bureaucratic tortures in order to obtain the required permission. On the other hand, however, I did not experience any other forms of hardship in connection with these two trips. Similarly, when I went to a book fair in Frankfurt and a scientific conference in London during the late eighties, the border checks were quite stressful, especially as I was smuggling literature that was banned in our country.

How did the situation change after 1989?

I started to travel a lot. For a holder of a diplomatic passport, like myself, crossing the borders became easy. I obviously felt a bit uneasy when I went to the US. Sometimes I also used to be looked at with suspicion by Austrian border guards. These experiences were more related though to the way the bureaucratic machinery of a rich country like Austria used to operate than to policies established during the Cold War.