Dana Ferenčáková (Czechoslovakia, Prague Spring), 1995

Interview with Dana Ferenčáková, 1995(?)
Interviewer — Ctibor Latsina, on behalf of Metta Spencer

Dana Ferenčáková: Well, I belong to the “generation of ’68”, which means [I am] a former member of the Communist Party. I joined the Party after the first year [of my studies] at the Faculty of Arts, which means about the year 1956, and as soon as Husak got into power I resigned, which means the year 1969. I realized that this was going to lead to some consequences but I never thought the consequences would last so long. I believed then that the period of his rule would be rather shorter.

I experienced the Prague Spring here in Brno together with other reform communists, who concentrated especially around the University Assembly. At that time Jiri Klestil, was at the head of this assembly, who later, after 1989 became the vice-dean of the Faculty of Law. But he has retired from this position recently. [. . .] Then there was Josef Spacek at the regional committee of the communist party, who is now the regional secretary of the Social Democrats, there was also Jaroslav Sabata as the ideological secretary, I think. [. . .].

On the one hand, the reform communists were centred around the universities; they were professors of the universities, and on the other hand they were the members of the Youth Organization. Vladimir Blazek was the head of the University Assembly of the Youth Organization then. He is now a professor in Munich, I think. At any rate, he spent some time in Western Germany after emigrating from Czechoslovakia during the “normalization” process.

And this group of reform communists had worked out a very clear, I would say, conception of changes which were to be carried out. And it was a group very well informed about what was happening in the world. And the interesting thing was that they maintained some continuity of work even after the occupation in 1968. In 70’s and 80’s some of them were in jail, though. Especially in the group around Sabata, there was a number of people in jail, but the rest who were not jailed carried on.

Among the groups that belonged to the centres of dissent, there was the group of Jaroslav Jelinek, the later rector of the University in Brno, the group around Jaroslav Sabata later, the group around Blazek, quite important was the group around Gr_llich, and Sigut – that was the group called “Obroda”, and among the believers also Jan Simsa was quite important. And the world is small, Brno is small, and all these people were very communicative, friendly, unreserved, they did not keep to themselves: on the contrary, they knew it was necessary to maintain contacts even though they were persecuted, and forced not to get in touch with other people. Of course, the environment was affected by the pressure put on people to become informers but this was not such an obstacle to avoid the contacts altogether.

So, the channels the information passed through at that time, in 70’s, although the dictatorship was rather tough, and the problems connected with the contacts were hard – You have in mind the contacts on the East Block, don’t you?

Ctibor Latsina: Well, also the West . . .

DANA FERENCAKOVA: Dr Jelinek’s family had the most frequent connections with France, because he is a scholar in French philology and his wife too. There were some professors coming who gave lectures in his apartment. The circle of people who were interested in the lectures was quite large, and the people appeared there alternately. And it was particularly this sort of people who thought that it was not possible to exclude from the sphere of interest foreign literature, emigrant philosophers, political scientists, etc. Since if you wanted to be in the picture you had to follow these things, so that for example Mr. Suchomil from the Czech Department [of the Faculty of Arts in Brno] frequented this meeting for professional reasons, and a great bunch of people, various actors, et al. Such people as Milan Uhde [a Czech dramatist, now the Chairman of the Czech Parliament] for example were in contact with these lecturers and others as well, however, these people as Uhde, or Trefulka [a Czech writer and journalist] were such exceptional personalities that it was not ordinary to meet them.

Now, as far as the fortune of the contacts with the Russian reform communist who were later the initiators of the perestroika is concerned I can hardly assess this on the international level, how they got the information from abroad. I’ve met some people who maintained such contacts but those were rather less frequent, or rare encounters.

CL: Could you mention some names?

DANA FERENCAKOVA: Yes, I have met Mary Kaldor, Jan Mient Faber –

CL: So that you mean people from HCA.

DANA FERENCAKOVA: Yes, from HCA. They now carry on to cooperate with HCA. But I think that more spontaneous, and more natural streams of information went on here, in this place, even during the normalization. And the question is how, isn’t it” The families where it occurred most naturally were mixed marriages, which means that the husband was let’s say Czech, and the wife let’s say Russian. Quite often these Russian wives were translators, they appeared in the company of those who came from Russia – technical experts, people specialized in humanities. I have for example interpreted for various delegations of writers, artists, so that it was quite possible, I would say, in such an informal atmosphere, to speak openly with the people. I have spoken to them openly, some things were startling to them, some had to be explained more precisely, some were new to them.

For example, I was interpreting for the pianist Voskresensky, who was interested in Janacek, but some other connections – that through the Brno milieu there is a path to Milan Kundera, or to Milos Forman – that he did not know.

CL: So were you also in touch with Kundera and Forman?

DANA FERENCAKOVA: No, I was not in touch with them, but I provided such people like the pianist Voskresensky, who was giving a concerts here, with an opportunity to go to Janacek’s Museum where we happened to talk about Ludvik Kundera, as the father of Milan Kundera, we spoke about other artists, we came to Milos Forman for example, and he was very surprised then that Milos Forman, he knew him just by his surname and as the director of “Amadeus” and “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”, and he thought him to be an American director . . . I just want to illustrate that the routes were quite simple and natural, that there were cultural contacts, the people were quite normal, they were even curious, they wanted to make some of their notions more complete, they followed up some of their experiences, they had not live in vacuum, they were critical towards their regime so that they welcomed when one spoke frankly to them, and they were interested in our own ideas, our own views, and they were anxious to hear them, at least as far as the top intelligentsia was concerned.

CL: Was this sort of intelligentsia persecuted somehow?

DANA FERENCAKOVA: Well, these official delegations were of various kind. As far as the technical intelligentsia is concerned, they usually looked at the things which took place between us from the standpoint of usefulness, they were interested whether they met the expectations of both sides, whether it was reasonable [. . .]

CL: I think the cultural delegations will be more interesting . . .

DANA FERENCAKOVA: Yes, there was for example one writer who came with a delegation of writers, I haven’t known much about him so far. He was called Popov, but he was very irritated for example that it was seen to it that I as an “undesirable” person in the then regime was separated from the delegation during the official meetings. For example the delegation was sitting on a platform and the interpreter of my sort, that is a person who resigned from a party, and was expelled from it a year after that – even such things occurred it’s interesting. . . Simply, I was included in the category of expelled party members so I could not sit on the platform, so the man concerned tried to shuffle the cards somehow so that it would not be apparent who did not have his chair there and to solve it somehow that it was inappropriate for a woman who was to interpret for them to be in the picture of a camera or a photographer.

I would characterize the nature of the contacts as follows: Those were delegations of miscellaneous levels, of miscellaneous directions that interpreters got in touch with. As far as intellectuals were concerned they were not prejudiced people, quite the reverse. They were curious people, who themselves wanted to find what damage the Soviet Union had done here, what it was like, what the Czechs were thinking about them, and very often they were ashamed of their country.

[To make a long story short DF continues in her idea of natural communication. She says there was a large number of interpreters who were able to pass on various sort of information, the best opportunity had the interpreters from mixed marriages where the Soviet spouses visited the Soviet consulate in Brno and talked openly about what was right and wrong in their opinion, these “spouses-interpreters” were also able to meet some of the dissidents in Brno. She mentions a meeting between Jaroslav Sabata and a Tatar interpreter, (married here to a Czech husband), Fatima Arnostova, DF claims that Fatima’s questions to Sabata were consulted before with someone but she cannot supply anything more specific.

DF also mentions her contacts with the Soviet Cultural Centre in Prague – Institute of Aleksandr Pushkin, and speaks about the channel of information there between Soviet visitors and Czechs – this occurred already during the perestroika in USSR. The Czechs were interested especially in Soviet literature still officially banned or suppressed here like Solzhenitsyn for example, however this channel seems to have been only a one-way route:]

“The interest was from the side of the Czech dissent rather than that the Soviet officials would seek contact with the Czechs.”

[If there were some opportunities to convey the opinion of Czechs to the Soviets, FD continues, then the message was that “perestroika cannot be limited to the Soviet Union.”]

[To the question of the meeting at Bogomolov’s institute in Moscow:] DANA FERENCAKOVA: So, this action, a sort of daring feat I would say, in 1989 it was I believe, succeeded thanks to the fact that I had the passport, and I was able to go to Russia, whereas our dissidents didn’t have this opportunity, [you needed a special kind of passport for a visit to USSR] so that when Jaroslav Sabata was asked by Mary Kaldor, Jan Mient Faber, and this group of people to go to Moscow to give a paper about how the Czech intellectuals see the chances of perestroika in the East Block and particularly in the Czech Republic, he had no choice but to write it down on paper and send me with it there. However, as you know I didn’t know the Prague environment personally, and second, I am no politician, so I went there as a translator.

The situation looked as follows: I arrived in Moscow. The conference took place at MGIMO, Moskovsky Gosudarstveny Institut Mezhdunariodnikh Otnosheniy, I arrived there with a paper and was ejected from the room because, in short, it was not possible for a contribution by Jaroslav Sabata to be heard there.

CL: Who was the person that ejected you concretely?

DANA FERENCAKOVA: Well, it was like that: First, I was very warmly welcomed by Mary Kaldor, Mient Jan Faber, from the Russian side it was Mrs. Petrova Sylvanskaya, and also Mr. Migranian – I think he was from the MGIMO. I told them I’d brought the paper of Sabata. They were very enthusiastic, happy that it succeed so well because they didn’t even expect the paper to appear there. But of course the thing did not remain secret among the other delegation, even the Czech consulate was informed. As I assume the Czech consulate raised an objection against my giving the paper, so this group of people came up with a solution and they transferred the reading of the paper to another institute. It was an institute of Mrs. Petrova Sylvanskaya, and I believe it was an institute of Mr Ambartsumov for countries of the Central and Eastern Europe, I can’t recall the name more accurately. I tell you what I remember about it: A smaller group of people, which was interested precisely in this question, gathered in this institute and it was interpreted from Russian by a member of the English delegation, and Mr. Migranian was in charge of the debate. There were experts at Czechoslovakia, and I remember the contents of the letter in this way (I don’t have the original with me, I didn’t keep it after that): A/ It is not possible to endeavour to unite Europe without thinking about uniting Germany. B/ The important thing is, however, on what basis Germany will be united. C/ During the elimination of the Block, it is important how far perestroika proceeds in the East Block. D/ Perestroika in the Soviet Union cannot be completed successfully unless democratical changes are undertaken in the satellite countries, concretely in our country, unless the representatives of the “normalization process” go away. E/ From this follows the necessity to revise the “fraternal help” in 1968. F/ The “fraternal help” was already called occupation in the contribution of Sabata.

And this term and its effects stirred a turbulent discussion. Some of the Russian intellectuals were not prepared yet at that time for the action to be called occupation [not those present at the debate but others that DF had the opportunity to talk to (she explained to my question). Furthermore, the emphasis on the importance of the changes in Czechoslovakia irritated some people:] which they called Pragocentrism: You think there in Prague that everything stands and falls with you. But things are not like this; there are other international matters at stake, and if the changes in your country occurs sooner or later is not so important. You see everything only from your point of view. How can you say that perestroika depends on you” . . .

My conclusion from this was that they, at least the Moscow scholars had no “receptors” for small nations. They were simply unable to understand that. [Unlike e.g. Mient Jan Faber from the Netherlands, or (although less) Mary Kaldor from UK].

The conclusion of the debate was about this: that the Russian experts at Czechoslovakia thought that we could not miss anything in Czechoslovakia, unlike Sabata, who emphasised it was high time to do something, and the Western friends who were more or less of the same opinion as Sabata.

I would like to add one more thing: The main issues which we were interested in and which were raised at the conference were the criticism of Gorbatchev’s perestroika owing to the unsatisfactory solution of the questions of nationalities, and which were really significant because they were not solved successfully.

CL: You mean the question of Germany as well, don’t you?

DANA FERENCAKOVA: No, I mean the question of nationalities within the Soviet Union.

CL: Can you tell us something more about the German question?

DANA FERENCAKOVA: Well, I remember this in the context I’ve already spoken about. Simply, to overcome the division of Europe is not possible without overcoming the division of Germany: Which means that is we are moving to some way of unification of Germany but the important thing is what forces in what part of Germany will control the unification and on what basis the unification will be conducted. And this is Sabata’s idea. . . . I don’t remember the response to this question because, simply, I was not personally involved in this question.

CL: Were there some people from Germany there?

DANA FERENCAKOVA: Yes, at least I believe so. That is in the broad forum but I was not within this broader forum.

CL: Was the Prague Appeal discussed at the meeting?

DANA FERENCAKOVA: About the Prague Appeal” I can’t tell you anything about the Prague Appeal.

CL: You prefer to speak about Brno, don’t you?

DANA FERENCAKOVA: It’s not that I would have some objections but I don’t know anything about it. Sabata will tell you.

The Russian Quest for Peace and Democracy, by Metta Spencer, published by Lexington Books