Interview with Vanek Silhan, summer 1994
Interviewer — Ctibor Latsina, on behalf of Metta Spencer
Ctibor Latsina: Have you read the questions?
Vanek Silhan: Yes, I have.
CL: And can you tell me what you think about the whole idea?
VS: Well, I don’t know the intentions of the lady, the programme, but as far as the questions are concerned — there are three questions which are posed to me — I wouldn’t say these are the most essential questions.
CL: What would you think more essential?
VS: Well, I think the problem of the change — I understand reform as a sort of change: Why did the attempt for the change develop? Why did it develop, and in what circles of people it developed. What the people were like, I don’t mean only intellectually but what sort of position in the society did they have, what role did they play? That means social role, and professional role if you like: This is important, because the desire for a change of the system, and that was already a change which involved not just some cosmetic changes, it already affected some of the principles of the system.
CL: Are you talking about the system in the Soviet Union now?
VS: In our country. This is rather general because our system, which had, admittedly, some Czech or Czechoslovak specifics, was, in fact, a sort of a Soviet System. Which means it was a totalitarian model with a dominant role of the Communist Party at the top of the political system, the country administration, etc. That is with all the totalitarian functions. There is no real difference between these two systems. Whether we had National Committees, and they had Soviets makes no important difference.
And I consider it important why in our country, in certain social strata, ideas about the need of a change developed. When did they develop, what were the causes, and who was the representative of these ideas. I don’t know, maybe someone has already answered these questions to that colleague of mine.
CL: I believe Mrs Spencer knows the basic facts about the Prague Spring. But you wanted to give your opinion of who was –
VS: Well, I just offered a certain question which she had not raised. It’s just a minor criticism of the questions put to me. I could briefly answer these question and leave. But I think, because I don’t know her programme, if someone has already answered this question, I have nothing to add …
CL: I think she wants to see the whole issue from various angles, and that she is anxious to hear the opinion of everyone, if you mean this.
VS: Look, this is a complicated question. I am a man who is about 67 or 68 years old. Which means this is a generation who was caught on the threshold of their lives in 1945. Which means: You are finishing a school and preparing for life, you take a job somewhere. This is for example my problem, this is the problem of my generation. The generation of the sixty-eight-year old men and women, that is my generation. This was a generation caught by the year 1945, when they were eighteen, nineteen years old. A period of miscellaneous hopes and dreams. A generation which had a lot of expectations, which had not always finished their education, because they lived in the occupation, and everything connected to it — I mean the fascist occupation, and which started their social life with certain dreams and visions. And the majority of this generation favoured changes, which were represented by the Communist Party, or communist ideas, let’s call it socialist ideas. They immensely favoured these ideas.
Then, a lot of life experience came. Many of these people started to study, to educate themselves, to catch up with what they were denied by the fascist occupation until 1945. And as they gradually acquired a different life experience, but also theoretical, I would say, experience passed on by books, teachers, etc., they were starting to be critical of the state of the things. Meanwhile the political system was developing: the year 1948 and everything that followed. They were getting into a conflict.
CL: Into a conflict with the system?
VS: With the system, especially with the system. Not so much with the ideas, because they were carrying these ideas on.
CL: But they constituted the system, in fact, didn’t they?
VS: They co-constituted it, they were at the beginning of it, but they were not alone, because they were too young. They were not part of the hard core of the power. They were almost never part of the hard core. They were at the periphery of the power. They rather, the generation of mine rather played the role of slingers, if you know what I am talking about — back to the Hussite Revolution — slingers were the ones who were the vanguard, and they would constantly provoke the enemy by shouting and yelling. They were simply slingers.
CL: Could you be more concrete when you speak about your generation” Could you give some names of the people?
VS: There were many of such people. For example a little older people, like Jiri Pelikan for instance, had a certain part in politics already. They were in the power systems already. We hadn’t been there yet. We were about two or three years younger than they were, and the roles had already been assigned. And we played this very role, the role of the slingers. Sometimes even quite an important role, that means the ideological role, as we went to the universities and gradually acquired certain knowledge, of various kind. So we also became, on the basis of that, critical, critical of the state of the things. Suddenly, we could see that the words and the ideas we had had faith in, despite the indistinctness of the ideas, differed substantially from the practice, or the practice differed from them. So that the words and the life were unlike. And we wanted the life to change a bit after all, because it seemed to us that the life went a bit askew, that it differed from the dreams and ideals of the youth. And this was the way how a great number of, I would say not only of critical approaches, these were not only illusionary approaches, they were based on some knowledge already, on the knowledge of the functioning of the system, the economic system for example. I as an economist came to understand, gradually, that the centralist system of government, with the Communist Party and the politburo at the top, and the mechanism of planning could not result in anything good, that it could, admittedly, at a certain stage, make use of certain economic sources which could otherwise go unused, economically, — that means labour, raw materials, etc, etc but that at a certain stage it was not capable of some viable initiative, you see, of some fruitful sort of initiative.
CL: Yes, and what year was it approximately?
VS: Well, this was many years before 1968.
CL: That’s about … ?
VS: It was, I could see it in my friends, it was around 1955 when we understood that a number of things were bad, the system was bad, which means not only the economy but also the other spheres of life. Not to mention the atrocities of how the regime treated his adversaries or opponents, what we later experienced personally of course.
CL: When you spoke about your colleagues, who were they concretely?
VS: These were a number of people at the school, outside the school, because I was working at the University of Economy at that time. They were various colleagues at diverse departments, everyone of them had a concrete name: This one was called Tucek, that one was called Cisar, … They were dozens of people very spontaneously behaving and thinking, as myself for example. That means critically thinking. Whether we were right in our notions of future or not is not important, but we were critical of the status quo, and the critical approach lead us, of course, to distinct political protests. A number of us took part not only in the preparation of the changes, that means long time before the Prague Spring. Before 1968 a number of various commissions, and groups of people worked already on changes. Of course that then this could not be the changes which occurred in 1989 and later, some of the areas had not been so thoroughly thought out at that time yet. As for example the area of ownership. It means that for us the question of the state ownership as a certain form of collective ownership, at least for some economic sectors, was simply quite normal.
CL: But this is even in some western countries …
VS: Of course this was normal not only for us, but it was also normal for a number of thinkers, economists, philosophers, political scientists … so there is nothing strange about that. But what was the object of criticism were two things: The political system and the dominant role of the Communist Party in it, and the economic system with the lack of market motivations in it. So, these were two areas which we concentrated upon. As an economist I concentrated of course much more on the economic area, where it was absolutely clear to us that the initiative of diverse subjects based on market existence, on independent economic subjects, that this initiative was irreplaceable by the central initiative, that it could never be comprised by it. However is it attractive — this notion of a machine which is worked out, mapped, mathematized, you see, quantified thoroughly and I don’t know what else — this is a notion which was not invented only by communists in the recent times, it is a very old notion.
CL: This was already the Republic by Plato, wasn’t it?
VS: No, no, no, the mechanical vision of the world, it is very old it is –
CL: I mean the outline of the structure of an ideal state.
VS: This is something different again. But there is also the notion that property, material property, their production, their distribution can be done according to some plan which will be of course humane, and which will be inspired by the huge ideas of humanism, solidarity and God knows what else. These are immensely attractive ideas as such.
CL: And you also gave in to that, to this fairy tale.
VS: But it was not just me who gave in to it, I even believe to date that there is something in it which can be realized, even in other ways.
CL: What ways?
VS: I know that the structure of the diversity of people’s interests, the multitude of people’s interests and their possible symbioses is indispensable. I know that this is absolutely indispensable, but I also know that this process is not a mere process of clashes between the stronger and the weaker, but that it is, and must be regulated in a certain way. That’s why the state is here. The state was not invented only because people had nothing to do. It was invented because it is very important. Because it [plays] a role of a certain arbiter, or of a certain force because the state is a power first and foremost, which is to intervene where the individual is unable to take care of himself, and where the individuals are unable to reach an agreement in a normal way. That’s where the law comes into it’s own.
CL: Is it court what you have in mind?
VS: I don’t mean court. The state is not just court, the state is the police, army, the state is the law.
CL: Could you give one example where the state should intervene?
VS: Do you mean economy?
VS: It intervenes in many areas, the tax legislation for example …
CL: Yes, but you spoke about cases where the individual is at a loss …
VS: Well, for example the individuals could never agree, you see, about how much they should contribute to the state budget.
CL: Sure, but these are examples of the capitalist regime. This was comprised in the capitalist mechanism already.
VS: No, these are not just examples of the capitalist regime. Some was and some wasn’t. This is not just a question of a degree. This is a question of economic policy, this is a question of the influence of the state on infrastructure, on education, transport. In America the things developed a bit differently than in Europe. If you look at transport systems in America, they are chiefly owned by public corporations or by private companies, not so in Europe. If you look at railways for instance, they are owned by the states chiefly. Some energetic systems — there are lots of such things …
CL: Could we go back to 1968 now? You got in touch with some of the economists who were working on the structural changes, as [Ota] Sik for example, or Vladimir Kadlec …
VS: Yes, they have even been my personal friends.
CL: So that you had a direct influence on the economic reform.
VS: Well, I was an active member of the commission which prepared the reform, I have even written some of the chapters there.
CL: I’ve learnt from the interviews, with Rudolf Zukal for instance, that the economists were divided into two wings, and one wing was rather pragmatic, it was represented by Vladimir Kadlec, or he was a member of this wing, and the other wing was rather ideological which was represented by Sik.
VS: I don’t think it is good what he said. If Zukal said that, it is not good. Not because Zukal said that but what he said is not good. Sik was pragmatic as well but he had different reasons for the pragmatism. He, for example, some of the affairs of the political life or political structure of power, which means at that time Novotny, Kolder, and these people had all names, they played certain roles. He was a pragmatic in this respect. He knew: Well, we won’t do this now because we would run into troubles with that, it would only delay us needlessly, it would divert our attention from that. So in this sense, Sik was no smaller a pragmatic than Kadlec was.
CL: So you mean that he was politically pragmatic, that’s what the pragmatism of his was based on, that he took the real political possibilities into account.
VS: Sure, the real possibilities. He saw, of course, the political side boards, he knew that the side boards could broaden under certain influence but that this was not the right time or moment when he had to do what somebody thought of doing only behind his desk. It means the political pragmatism was very distinct in Sik as well as in Kadlec and many of us …
CL: Were you equally in touch with the two, or did you rather meet with one of them more?
VS: No, I knew both of them very well, we met very often, sometimes we were talking about that thing or another. Kadlec was the rector in our school, later in 1968 he became the Minister of Education, he has been a very good friend of mine.
CL: Now, there is the question of the influence of the Prague Spring of 1968 on the perestroika in Russia — do you think there was any connection, any influence?
VS: Sure, there was. The idea of the changes of the Prague Spring, and everything that preceded it, and even what followed, that is the forcible suppression of it in August 1968 — all that was living in the thoughts or thinking, and the political life of some of the Soviet representatives, as well as in our country. Each had a different reason for it though.
CL: Could you name someone concretely you have in mind?
VS: Well, on the Soviet side it was Gorbachev, undoubtedly, it was Gorbachev.
CL: Do you know something about his reaction to the Prague Spring in 1968?
VS: I think that although he might have had some doubts about it — he was still a young, not quite mature politicians at that time — so whatever doubts he might have had he was able to conceal them, not to show them in the Soviet environment. The negative attitude to the intervention of the armies was demonstrated by a few dozens of people — that [Bonerova] and the people at the Red Square –
CL: But these people were not in touch with Gorbachev, were they?
VS: No, these people were confirmed dissidents at that time already, of course, and they were people of high moral standards who said: No, we have to demonstrate our disapproval of that. And they did demonstrate that. They couldn’t have changed anything about that but the deed is gigantic because it is memorable.
CL: Do you think that — now I don’t have the dissidents in mind — do you think that the young ambitious people, economists in the Soviet Union were informed adequately about what was happening in Czechoslovakia at that time.
VS: No, they weren’t. Moreover, they had their own notions about planned development, etc. I know that Sik himself had lectures in Moscow. I was several times in Moscow in 1968, and I have to say that we didn’t have much success, certainly not in the official environments. Although I found out when I came in Moscow at one occasion, during a conference of COMECON about investment policy, etc — afterwards I met a group of Soviet medical intelligentsia. [There] was a daughter of [Odzonikidze], who had been in Prague at a study visit. So I met her, it was some time late at night. She summoned her medical colleagues immediately. They came to such a small apartment — about ten or fifteen people, and we discussed the situation in Czechoslovakia all through the night, which they were immensely interested in.
CL: The doctors. And the economists were not?
VS: It was just an incident. The economists as well, but it was again on different occasions, in different environment, and at a different level. I just wanted to say that the Czechoslovak situation immensely interested a certain part of the Soviet intelligentsia.
CL: The question is whether it was the right part, which could be somehow inspired by it.
VS: The right? What is the right? This was not the intelligentsia which would have big influence on the power.
CL: Yes, I am particularly interested if people who were young at that time might later play some role in perestroika.
VS: Undoubtedly, everyone of them has played some role, I haven’t been following their fates. Doubtless they have played some role, how they developed afterwards I can’t say because I was not able to get to the Soviet union for some 20 years, and when I was to go there — when was it, 1988 or 1989 — I went there to a meeting with Academician Sakharov then, they arrested me at the airport, stripped me naked, and didn’t let me go anywhere, they searched me, took me to a police station, and kept me there till the evening. But a friend of mine, Jan Urban, succeeded in going there then. We were to go there both but so as not to give the impression that we were a group, we went there separately. He managed to slip through but I was caught. So that I got to the Soviet Union only after several years with Dubcek, in an official delegation as a deputy.
CL: Could you recall someone from the economic conference in Moscow when you where there in 1968?
VS: Hardly. I don’t remember the names any more. There was a very sharp debate then, there was the Central Secretary of the Ukrainian Komsomol there then, I don’t know why because the Soviets were paying us a great attention, they would provoke discussions about the situation in our country all the time with that the socialism was endangered, of course that they discussed at a certain argumentative level, which means they were equipped with some interesting arguments provided by their agencies in Czechoslovakia — one sometimes had to laugh at those arguments, so poorly informed they were. The things were fabricated frequently. But this was not the most important, the most important was that we were reproached for wanting to run away from the Socialist Camp, for wanting to become something different, for wanting to betray their socialism, and for wanting to become a capitalist country, in which the working class would not play the representative, leading role in the society, and the same applied to the Communist Party. This means that they were able to see the danger, or the tendency of the development to political democracy, and economic plurality, market economy, much better than we had thought. They were not to be gulled.
CL: So they were rather against it …
VS: They were against it. Mostly the people, although some of them expressed their sympathy to us, or listened to us without polemising much, a great part of the people, particularly the people connected with the power — be it party administrators, or senior state officials — they expressed clear distrust.
CL: Did you meet, perhaps still before in the period of Khrushchev, in the period of the political warming, did meet someone who would show some interest, and with whom you could discuss the doubts of yours openly.
VS: I’ve met lots of people in the Soviet Union you could speak very openly with.
CL: Could you name someone”
VS: They were a number of my friends who have played no significant part in the political, or economic life. They were people I met, I even made friends with. They were people sometime little, sometime a bit more, informed. But at any rate, they were people who rooted for the Soviet Union, they wanted to be a prosperous country. They knew only little about the world but they knew their faults and their shortcomings. And they were very open and critical of the state of the things in Russia during discussions with me. I lived in Leningrad for some time, where I met some very interesting people: students but also teachers of the universities.
CL: University teachers you say?
VS: Professor Salmon Davidovic Ratner, for instance, from the Leningrad Financially Economic Institute.
CL: But they might have played quite an important role. You told me you never met any politically engaged people …
VS: These people were not engaged in political powers, this means they were people who had some authority in front of the students, and in some scientific, and semi-scientific environment …
CL: Nevertheless, they could influence some of their students …
VS: They could, but they didn’t do that very openly, they couldn’t do that. They spoke to me, as a foreigner, I appreciated it very much, they spoke to me very openly.
CL: This was Prof Ratner, and who else?
VS: There were more of them: Gorarin for instance, he was also a professor of economy. There were more of such people I could meet.
CL: In Leningrad?
VS: In Leningrad, but also in Moscow later on: Maslov for instance, he was even a professor at the Central Party Academy, it was a senior position. He was very critical of the status quo. Some of his family members were even arrested during the rule of Stalin. I met his uncle, for instance, Peter Petrovic Maslov, who spent many years in gulag. He was a very educated man, he played the piano very well beside other things, he was a mechanical engineer, who got into the concentration camp some time around 1936, 1937. He returned during the time of warming in Khrushchev’s period. And they were people I could speak to very openly although they were a bit reserved. But it was rather a matter of the culture of speaking. But they spoke with me very openly as a foreigner.
CL: Even though this Maslov was teaching at a Party Academy in Moscow you were able to talk to him critically about the status quo?
VS: He even told me things I didn’t know they existed. For instance about prisoners, about prisons, about “katorga”, Stalin’s katorga, about the immense hardship of the country inhabitants.
CL: And how did he learn about that?
VS: The same way everybody learns about thing happening in a society which are not discussed in the press but in spite of that they are know, people pass them on, some have experience them …
CL: And when did you meet these Maslovs.
VS: It was already in 1955, 1956.
CL: And you met them regularly during the 60’s.
VS: After that whenever I went there — even when they came to Prague, to Czechoslovakia, they always visited me. Even at the time when I was outside the university, when I was at the periphery of the social life in our country. It was after 1968, when I was expelled from the Party, when I had to leave the school. It was interesting that many of my friends visited me although they knew they were exposing themselves to a certain danger. And it was also interesting that when I told them it was not so simple, that their Embassy could learn about that, they told me quite openly they would consider it cowardly if they did not visit me, if they did not greet me. A number of them even stayed for a night.
CL: When was that Professor Maslov here?
VS: It was some time at the beginning of the 70’s last time.
CL: And did you speak to him about the Prague Spring then?
CL: And about the economic aspect?
VS: He was not a economist, he was a historian. He was an educated man, politically educated man, philosophically educated. So we spoke about a number of things and not [just] about economy.
CL: And did you meet some one else from the environment of the universities?
VS: There were lots of them, but as I say, they were not very significant people as far as the influence on the political affairs is concerned. There were people, who I didn’t meet again, however, who later got into some positions in the Soviet Union, in the television, and the press for example. Some have even visited me here. I could tell you about some curiosities: A group of film-makers, it was some time in 1986, visited me. It was a circle of people inspired by “Moskovskoe novosti”, and they a short film with me about the Special Convention of the Communist Party in Vysocany. So, we went with their small team, a cameraman, director, etc. We went to Vysocany to the gate of the plant where the events took place, and we spoke in that street about all these events for the Russian spectator.
CL: So this may be very important I think. Could you say where the film-makers were from?
VS: They were Moscow film-makers. I can’t tell you the name exactly now because I didn’t keep records for certain reasons. But we did this things then, and I also gave an interview to several people at that time. The interviews did not appear and if they did they appeared just as some ideas, not as the interview with Mr Silhan. But I was in touch with a number of people during the Normalization Era. They were even calling on me.
CL: Okay. So, which offices were the interviews from?
VS: Especially they were around Moskovskoe novosti. There the inspiration was great around Moskovskoe novosti because Moskovskoe novosti was a magazine which inspired strongly, which was sharply critical, which prepared the perestroika, which encouraged immensely the first steps of Gorbachev. Also Ogonek, the magazine which I even subscribed to because it was very cheap here. And it was impulse which could not be compared with the state of the things in Czechoslovakia in Husak’s era. And whenever we got into conflict with our State Police, I used these articles as arguments very often.
CL: Okay. Do you remember a name of a journalist from these offices?
VS: I won’t tell you now … This was organized by a Vladimir Brabec who was a correspondent of CTK, or the radio in Moscow, and I knew him well, and he had a lot of friends there and owing to his help some of the contacts with us were organized. The film-makers were organized by him for example.
CL: Do you think you could give me his telephone number?
VS: Sure I can, but I don’t have it on me.
CL: Okay. I will call you.
VS: I would recommend you very much to talk to this Brabec because he was one of these who maintained and knitted the thread of the personal relationships, incessantly. He knitted it as a sweater …
CL: It’s very interesting what you are telling me. You told me before that you had never met anyone at a high level.
VS: At a high level no. I met with Bogomolov several times later. Bogomolov, still during the totalitarian regime, used to come to the Economic Institute, and he used to have some lectures here occasionally, so I listened to him and even talked to him occasionally, and later I met Bogomolov here, it was at the beginning of 1989, I even moderated his lecture in the House of the Soviet Culture here in Rytirska street.
CL: It was some time at the beginning of 1989?
VS: It was, I can’t remember whether it was in the autumn 1989. I think it was before November 1989.
CL: Do you know about the magazine Problems of Peace and Socialism?
VS: Sure, I even published, but it was after the November, two articles there, very critical of the state of the things, which they published, and were even glad to publish then. It was also an interesting group of people.
CL: Did you know them personally?
VS: Of course I knew them by their names but I did not meet them personally until November 1989. Immediately after November 1989.
CL: So did you know them through reading the magazine or through correspondence?
VS: No, I knew them because I read it, and then, I often heard some references to them that you could talk to this one, that one could do this …
CL: Could you give me some concrete names?
VS: I could tell you but I would have to go through my materials. Do not forget that at that time we visited the Soviet Embassy several times with sharp protests, or with some requests.
CL: What time was it approximately?
VS: It was about 1987, for instance, 1986. And I must say we were never refused at the Soviet Embassy, in spite of that they knew what we were like, sometimes they even discussed with us. There were miscellaneous opportunities, political opportunities in fact. For instance, there was a conference in Moscow and our dissent thought it necessary to make a statement about that, to address the Soviet side, or the public all over the world, at least the part we thought it was necessary to address, with a certain statement or some materials. So, for example, I organized, together with some others a large collection about 1968, where I also wrote one article, and which we were sending to the Institute of the History in the Soviet Union. It was a piece of work of some 600 pages, maybe even more. There was a lot of aspects worked out. The interesting thing was that we sent it to Moscow then, by our post of course. We insured it and everything. We got it there another way afterwards but wanted to send it there by an official way of course because we were sending no contraband, we did not behave like smugglers or anything like that, you see, we were sending it by a legal way. But it never got there, the packet disappeared. So I protested. The packet disappeared, the Soviets replied that it didn’t arrive at their territory. So I sued our sued them … and they gave me 500 crowns for that.
But then we had to deliver it there somehow. So we sent it eventually by a sort of semi-legal way by train through a worker of a dining car …
[… — there was something wrong with the record player for a while] CL: I think you’ve told me quite a lot, but you were saying something about Dubcek before …
VS: It was in the connection with that when I was telling you that the sympathy of a number of people on the Soviet side to for the events of 1968 in Czechoslovakia was growing, that suddenly, people — even on the Soviet side — started to search: What was it there actually?
CL: Who concretely?
VS: Especially, they were curious journalists. Then there were a number of curious people from the area of the social sciences, various intellectuals, teachers, simply people who, after all, knew more about the world than the ordinary Russian citizen. So these people, if they had the personal contacts — and there were lots of such contacts because a number of [Czech] people had studied in the Soviet Union, and dozens of people had met, even made friends during the dozens of years. So these people started to be more and more interested in the facts about the 1968. How it was really like. Of course they clearly rejected the intervention of the armies, but that’s not the point. However, they were asking all the time: How did it really happen there, what did really happen there? How did the reforms come about? Why in Czechoslovakia? But this is, however, a different question …
Ctobor Latsna: There was something similar in Hungary …
Vanek Silhan: But in Hungary it was something different again. What was happening in our country was theoretically prepared. These were not random steps. These were thought out changes which lead up to system changes …
In Hungary it was a problem of rebellion, I would say that the preparation was much poorer. That’s why the explosion there was like it was …
In Czechoslovakia, it was more rational, in that sense also more real, and therefore also more dangerous for the Soviets …
CL: You were saying that people started to be interested in Dubcek, who were they concretely?
VS: Well, a great number of journalists … As far as I know the first journalists to address Dubcek were those from the Baltic republics who wanted to restore him in the public Soviet life. It was already in under Gorbachev. But there were two centres which were interested in Dubcek: the Baltic republics and the Moscow magazines.
Contact to Vladimir Brabec, the Moscow radio correspondent: tel. 42 12 22.