Jan Urban (Czech/Soviet relations), 1993

Jan Urban interview Sept. 13, 1993 Prague. Urban is a journalist who was a major participant in Charter 77.
Interviewer — Metta Spencer

Urban: It is a construction. From what I know about Peace and Socialism people, the Russians were far more influenced by the Italians. They in a sense disliked the Czechs — the official side — because most of them were servants in the 70s, so if there were some contact with more moderate neo-Stalinists at that time, it would be best to ask the Italians. There was a guy we knew him under the name Aldo Tonotti (??). He lived here since the forties because he was sentenced to death in Italy for being a guerrilla commander in the end of the war, ordering some executions. Only later when his case was reviewed and he was pardoned in the seventies, he came back to Italy and became a senator, and his real name was Aldo Torlonelli. He was from Torino. He was a very important figure at one time.

The second one would be Luciano Antonetti, who is today at L’Unita. He would know the most about discussions within Peace and Socialism. Otherwise, generally speaking, from what I know from my father and from the group of ex-Communists expelled from the Communist Party after ’68, until ’88 or ’89, the Russians were just so scared to touch anything outside the official world that they had no contacts, with very very few exceptions — accidental meetings, etc. Despite the fact that many Russians had very old friends here who were in those dissident groups after 1968. Otherwise, the influence of Peace and Socialism, as such, on debate here was diminishing. Only in the times of Gorbachev again, starting most in 1987, you would have some interest in what was printed there.

MS I can’t find anybody who read it at all.

Urban: No, no, no. Certainly there were people who read it in those ex-Communist groups.

MS: I don’t see that there was anything very innovative writtern there either.

Urban: No, no! A simple statement that sovereign states are sovereign states was viewed here as a signal of changing policy and a great hope for perestroika.

MS: I had traced all this except his reference to Zhdanov. This strikes me as a most amazing thing. I see Zhdanov as the monster of all time. Apparently Rumyantsev and Arbatov worked with him. The language of perestroika is much closer to the language that he used than anything else. This fellow is arguing that there is some kind of genealogy there.

Urban: I doubt it, even though according to the last investigations published about Levrenti Beria, it is now claimed that in a sense he was an intellectual father of perestroika.

MS: I haven’t seen that!

Urban: I saw it two weeks ago — that he had a team of experts that was preparing for him the ideas for a possible change of policy, but because of the jails, he was quickly executed, and he just didn’t have time. It’s appalling. But from any meeting I had since 89 with these people, I don’t remember a single one that enlightened perestroika was influenced by anything coming from here except Dubcek’s name and the kind of dream that was a [blown-up chance?] when the party concluded to live in peace with society but they knew no details and their attitude was still the kind of big guy telling the small guy what is best.

MS: Okay, these Italians, I never heard of. These were Italians who were in Prague?

Urban: Yes, in Prague. This was important for the Russians because they were meeting Italians and possibly making long-term relationships in a friendly Communist party. It was not a trip to the West. So that was, in my experience and what I sensed from other people, is that some of them viewed this as very important. But it was always a very small group of people. How do you trace them? I think I have —-no, I’m sorry I don’t. Well, Luciano Antonelli can be traced through L’Unita and he should know the others. Maybe it would be good for you to talk to Vaclav Slavik, who was a ’68 politburo member and in the eighties one of the closest associates of Dubcek and his contact to the Italians.

MS: Dubcek was close to the Italians?

Urban: Through him, yes. And he knows all these guys. He was in charge of public relations even before, so he could be a good contact for you. I think he even worked in the sixties for Peace and Socialism. His phone number is 800816. He speaks Italian, Russian, and not good English. He would be one of the best informed of the Eurocommunist group.

MS: Who was in touch with him?

Urban: I don’t know, but I remember that he knew quite a lot.

MS: You spent time in Russia?

Urban: No, I studied at the Finno-Russian _____ in Helsinki because my father was sent there. Then I didn’t have a passport for 19 years and then in 1987 I sneaked in to take part in the first international human rights seminar, organized by PressClub Glasnost. This gave me an opportunity to meet people like Andrei Sakharov and his wife, Yelena Bonner, and the dissidents, and though I tried I didn’t succeed in getting any more official appointments. I tried to get into Moscow News (Moscovsko Gazeta?) and later on together with Alexander Bogrovini (?) and the friends in Poland and Hungary we started the first European dissident network, called Eastern European Information Agency. Not many people knew about it, but it was in the last two years 88 and 89, it was one of the most quoted Eastern European sources.

MS: Konstanty Gebert told me that he didn’t think that the Poles had any contacts with the Russians, either. It must have been the same everywhere, is that right? Gebert said that the Polish party tried to keep the public (not to mention the dissidents) and the Russians apart.

Urban: There was strict isolationism.

MS: Imposed by the Czech and Polish parties or by the Russians themselves?

Urban: I think it was just kind of an instinctive fear of the local leaders in all countries (maybe with the exception of Bulgaria). First they feared that they could be accused of some kind of ideological mis-thinking. Second, most of them somehow looked [down on?] the Russians, so you have an instinctive sense that the less contact, the better. Just to look inside the Soviet Union for case-by-case support for our people. But I cannot remember anything that could be called intellectual or theoretical debate because there were no Communist thinkers who could deal creatively. There was kind of a chewing and re-chewing until perestroika and then, especially in the case of Czechoslovakia we wished just to close the door.

MS: More so than in some of the other countries?

Urban: Oh, definitely. Because it was tied to the ’68 occupation. They took their legitimacy from the intervention and from the Brezhnev ideas, so with the fall of Brezhnev they lost a guarantor of their path.___ This is why they thought perestroika was so dangerous. This is why the problems with Russian films, even Moscoska Gazeta when it started, and this is why the expelled communists became so active and so important during those two or three years. The other guys just feared them because they were afraid that the ex-communists could get contacts and support in the Soviet Union. It was, in a sense, opposition within the ideological camp. They were not afraid of dissidents, really, but they were very afraid of the fact that the ex-communists would get support from the Soviet Union. This never came.

MS: Vaclav Trojan was asking him to speculate with him about whether there was any real support from the Russians in 89. I told him about how the Russians had blocked the road in E. Germany and I wonder whether there was anything comparable here.

Urban: I have no proof. What i know for sure, that in that time (Nov. 89 and beginning of Dec) there was one and only priority for the Soviets and it was Malta with George Bush. They didn’t need any bloodbath in E. Europe. So, knowing the total control of the intelligence in this country, I think it is logical that if anybody, which I doubt, had the guts to send their troops against demonstrations in E. Germany or Czechoslovakia they would just pick up the phone and say that maybe you should sit back and think of the wider consequences. I remember from the November days here, after a few days we got information that there could be possibility of provocations against Soviet troops which could look like demonstrators attacked them. So we got in touch with the Soviet embassy andd they just confirmed that they had the same information and they totally understand that it is not in the interest either of Civic Forum at that time nor the Soviets that anything like that happens. While I cannot prove any of their opinions I think that at that time their idea was to help the changes if they start and try to assure that the CP stays in power or_____ and no one could think that it would go that fast or that far. It was a total miscalculation from all sides, including ours.

MS: I read your piece last night, the Powerlessness of the Powerful, which is wonderful and upsetting.

Urban: It still didn’t appear in Czech. It appeared in Germany, Italy, Switzerland, but only now— it probably will be published in the next issue of Listy. But none of the Czech press would touch it. I wrote it in November last year. When Listy asked me I just changed a few lines and I added five lines saying that I wrote it when I was very upset and that my only aim was to close a chapter in myself and I think that the question and debate are relevant still now.

MS: You should publish it in English.

Urban: I sent it to the New York Review of Books and the New Yorker. the New Yorker said it is not New Yorker style and the NYRB just didn’t answer. I think, what I heard behind stage was that it goes too contrary to the American perception of V Havel, the hero of ’89.

… I later wrote an article that was published in the Herald Tribune and it had optimistic and pessimistic scenarios of the future, and I saw it the other day and was shocked at how much had come true To an outsider it seems that everything is okay here simply because of the comparison to Yugoslavia. I am worried. [The split] changes the meaning of Central Europe.

MS: I am interested in comparing the partitions of many states. There is a wondeful book by Schaeffer — the Czech split is always held out as promising, in that there may not be a blood bath.

Urban: It is just that the split of of Czechoslovakia brings us back before 1914. The Slovack history for 1000 years was about one item only, their relations with Hungary. The same goes of the Czechs and Germans. There was never anything like Czech politics. Always gossiping with one item only — to be either pro- or anti-German. Then you forget about economic relations with your similarly-structured and problemed neighbors and you cut more than 1/3 of your own domestic market in a situation where you are incomparably weaker than the West, and in this part of the world you just have to tie your economy to Germany. Slovakia will be much more cautious and will attempt to look East as well, unlike the Czechs, and for both political and economic reasons this is just relying on fair-weather conditions. This can work if nothing changes in Europe but it may become a disaster if the conditions in Europe change, and we can see in the few months after the split that the relations between Hungary and Slovakia are worse than ever and are deteriorating. Somehow everybody tends to forget that there is precedence of Vienna arbitration from ’38, when Slovakia just gave all of its southern parts of Hungary on clearing the border on ethnic considerations. When we look at the Hungarian political scene less than one year before elections you find the national issue becomes the number one topic, even among parties that are liberal, European-minded and not nationalist. The same happens in Slovakia and the situation between Germany and the Czech lands is seemingly less problematical but I don’t think that the issue of Sudetan Germans’ property will stay silent forever. It will reappear on both sides at the next elections as many states remain and there are very few people who think in long terms and try to look for a negotiated settlement for both sides. So far it is an old touchy issue. Again, this can work. So we’ll see. I hope fair weather stays.

Audio file

Apple and smartphone-friendly audio link: here

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