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Creating a Spectacle in Slovakia

Vaclav Havel wrote for the theater. When change came to Czechoslovakia in November 1989, the velvet revolutionaries of Prague met and planned in the Magic Lantern theater. The events of those ten days that shook the country unfolded like a massive, open-air performance, with dramatic speeches, a soundtrack provided by local bands, and a huge and enthusiastic audience.

As with any theatrical production, the success of the enterprise depended on many unseen hands preparing sets, prepping the actors, cueing up the music. The velvet revolution needed velvet directors like Ladislav Snopko.

A cultural impresario, Snopko was behind some of the great events of alternative culture that took place in Czechoslovakia during the otherwise drear decades of the 1970s and 1980s.

"I was a part of the so-called grey zone," he told me in an interview in Prague last February. "It was not a dissent movement. I would place it somewhere between forbidden and tolerated art and culture. I organized the alternative culture in Czechoslovakia -- concerts, exhibitions, gatherings, and festivals. Among the most famous was a concert called Concert of Youth in Pezinok in 1976."

Snopko was able to mount exhibitions for "prohibited artists" by resorting to ingenious stratagems. "I am originally an archeologist, so I would give them fragments of prehistoric and medieval vessels," he explained. "They had to interpret them according to their artistic imagination, bringing them into present time in a different form. Overall it was an exhibit of Czech and Slovak unofficial, banned artists for which we published a catalog. When the national security department called me in for interrogation about that topic, they tried to forbid me from organizing such exhibitions. But they did not have any valid arguments. They could not pronounce the names of the prohibited artists. Plus the artistic interpretations of prehistoric objects did not contradict any of the Marxist-Leninist materialistic teaching or the ideology of socialist realism."

All of this experience in the grey zone gave Ladislav Snopko the tools to help ensure that the Velvet Revolution had a successful 10-day run. But that experience also helped in the days after the revolution.

Snopko was working in Slovakia. On the first anniversary of the Velvet Revolution, 50,000 people gathered in Bratislava to celebrate. The nationalists brought in a loud contingent to shout down the representatives of the Public Against Violence, the group to which Snopko belonged that had led the Velvet Revolution in Slovakia. It looked, on television, as if the entire crowd was behind this disruptive faction.

"During all these different events, I came up with a solution to this problem of manipulation," Snopko remembered. "We printed our motto 'Humanity, kindness, understanding' (Ludskosť, slušnosť, snášenlivosť) on small pieces of paper. Our activists then handed those out to everybody on the square. The nationalist wrapped rocks in the paper and threw them at us. But then at one point, since everything was broadcast live on Slovak TV, I told the cameras to make a shot of the entire square, and then I asked the crowd to wave the white papers above their heads if they believed in what was written on them. All of a sudden, the entire square was white while all the cameras were pointing at it. This was three days before the first communal elections took place. Even though we were not expecting any success, we won -- probably thanks to that event at the square."

Snopko is now the Slovak culture ambassador in the Czech Republic. We talked about Slovak-Czech relations, the different culture of dissent in Slovakia during the Communist period, and his own love of Prague.

The Interview

What did you do before 1989? What was your cultural and political role?

Basically, there was not much happening on the official political scene in Slovakia. There was no defined political dissent as there was in Poland, Russia, or even the Czech Republic. I was a part of the so-called grey zone. It was not a dissent movement. I would place it somewhere between forbidden and tolerated art and culture. I organized the alternative culture in Czechoslovakia -- concerts, exhibitions, gatherings, and festivals. Among the most famous was a concert called Concert of Youth in Pezinok in 1976. There was also a 12-hour open air festival of jazz, folk and rock in 1977 where the music group Šafrán got to perform for the last time in full ensemble, because after 1977 Jaroslav Hutka, one of the musicians, was on the list of "politically dangerous people" and was exiled to the Netherlands.

I also organized exhibitions for the "prohibited" artists who could not publically show their artwork. I used to do it in a quite unusual way. I am originally an archeologist, so I would give them fragments of prehistoric and medieval vessels. They had to interpret them according to their artistic imagination, bringing them into present time in a different form. Overall it was an exhibit of Czech and Slovak unofficial, banned artists for which we published a catalog. When the national security department called me in for interrogation about that topic, they tried to forbid me from organizing such exhibitions. But they did not have any valid arguments. They could not pronounce the names of the prohibited artists. Plus the artistic interpretations of prehistoric objects did not contradict any of the Marxist-Leninist materialistic teaching or the ideology of socialist realism. In fact, the art was as abstract as art can be. And the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic prohibited abstract art. The only legal artistic style was socialist realism celebrating the work of peasants.

Another big project was in 1987 and 1988. It was a concert and art exhibition at a stadium in Pasienky. The project was called The Devil's Wheel, which was a symbol of Communist sins and the payment extracted by the Devil for these sins. Among the artists were the Plastic People of the Universe (they had broken up at that time and some members had formed a band called Pulnoc or Midnight), Garage, Bez ladu a skladu -- all of these were bands on the edge between allowed and forbidden. The Czech and Slovak artists who were displaying their artwork there were completely forbidden at that time, but nowadays they are well known and respected people.

All of these projects exist until the present day under different names, such as Pohoda in Trutnov or the Colors of Ostrava. These are copying the incredible atmosphere of the Velvet Revolution, which felt like one big open-air festival with speeches and music performances all on one stage.

How would you compare the cultural freedom/atmosphere in Slovakia and on the Czech side before 1989?

I already mentioned the big difference caused by the existence of Czech dissent. In Slovakia there were only a few dissidents, for example Miro Kusý, Milan Šimečka, or the writer Dominik Tatarka, who would have celebrated his 100th birthday next month. There was this kind of a grey zone, which existed on the border of accepted and prohibited.

Another difference was caused by the fact that on the Czech side there existed two separate camps: the Communists and the dissidents/opposition, who hated each other and did not communicate at all. It was different in Slovakia, which is smaller, and Slovaks generally have a different nature. When for example Dominik Tatarka signed Charter 77, Miloslav Válek -- the minister of culture at the time -- went to him in person to tell him not to be stupid. People could be somewhat more daring. I don't mean in terms of liberty, but the relations with Communist officials seemingly allowed a little more. It obviously was deceptive. When something is wet, something else cannot be wetter: it's just wet. When one says that there is freedom but you cannot do this, this and this, it's not freedom.

In Slovakia the activities that were connected to some sort of freedom were demonstrated through the environmentalist movements, what we nowadays call Green parties, but they had nothing to do with politics. These groups of young people, which Martin Bútora called islands of positive deviation, would for example organize social gatherings for the preservation of traditional folklore architecture. In the north of Slovakia, by the Polish border in a region called Brizgalky, we would live in these seven huts -- not permanently -- and spend weekends repairing them. There we used to meet up with our friends, including the Czech dissidents Svátapluk Karásek, Charlie Soukup, Vladimir Merta, Olga Havlová, Vaclav Havel, Andrej Stankovič, Dominik Tatarka. These places in nature used to serve as basic communication stimuli for Czech and Slovak people with similar thinking.

The huts in Brizgalky are still used today. By coincidence, I went for dinner with Karel Schwarzenberg about four days ago, and he said he would like to go back at some point. These places needed a genius loci which originated in the cohesion. There were several of them, and when the Public against Violence started forming in November 1989, these islands all got together and caused the fall of Communism in Slovakia. No one really was expecting this; people thought it would all come from Prague.

Another difference was the existence of the Institute of Marxism and Leninism (UVKSS) in Bratislava started by an intellectual Viliam Plevza, who was the main advisor of president Gustav Husák. As a historian, Plevza had paid a lot of attention to the Slovak national uprising that Husák wanted to use as his exclusive revolutionary resource. We now know that the Uprising was not done by the Communists but by democratic civic powers and the army. Plevza was an educated person and knew that socialist realism was not compatible with worldwide reality, that the more highly regarded art was actually the prohibited variety. He tried to help some of the valuable art to survive by organizing exhibitions. He would also have forbidden books translated, which he would then give out to people to read.

The Institute, under his guidance, came up with the idea of putting together a new Czech and Slovak constitution between 1988 and 1989. Based on the discussion about the new constitution, the new Slovak intelligence initiative (formed by a spectrum of enlightened Communists like Plevza, passionate dissidents such as Šimečka and Kusý, and us environmentalists) came together to create a more free and liberal constitution. At the same time, with help of his assistants, he prepared the conditions for the social democratic party to arise in Slovakia. It actually was not very well thought through, but at least they were working on it.

That was why, right after November 1989, the Communist Party ceased to exist and was replaced by the Party of the Democratic Left led by Plevza's assistants: Weis, Kániš, Ptáčník, and so on. This crew was actually capable of making this transformation happen. And that's why now there is no Communist Party in Slovakia, while there is one in the Czech Republic.

The second reason is that Slovakia at the time of the creation of the Communist parties at the beginning of the 20th century was a rural country with conservative people who believed in traditional principles, and that is why a democratic party won the elections after World War II. The mistake was that, when the Communist party replaced the democratic one, it first got rid of the chief, who was very experienced and came from the traditional structures. The "newcomers," such as Migaš and Koncoš, turned everything upside down and caused the termination of this promising project of a relevant socialist democracy in Slovakia.

The first meeting of this wide spectrum that I was mentioning, from Plevza to the dissidents, was moderated by four people. On one side the moderates were Boris Zála, who is now a member in the European Parliament for the governing party Směr (Direction), and Miloš Žiak, who is now president of the Israeli Chamber of Commerce in Slovakia. From the other side, it was Ján Budaj and me. It was originally scheduled for November 23, 1989 in the apartment of Ján Langoš. This initiative lost its purpose after November 17. But I bring it up to demonstrate that in Slovakia there was a certain tendency for these ideologically different groups to lead a dialogue with compromises.

The second interesting thing is that the organization Public against Violence started as a reaction to the incident at Národní třída in Prague on November 17, even though in Slovakia there had been a student demonstration the day before on November 16. It was around 300 students, and the secretary of the Communist Party in Bratislava showed up. They did not try to stop the demonstration, so it did not cause what the demonstration the next day in Prague caused.

The Public against Violence started around the same time as the Civic Forum as an autonomous unit, but these would closely cooperate in questions of organizing elections or running for parliament. Also their leaders were friends (Havel, Dienstbier, Vavroušek). Later, though, the center in Prague, trying to solve the many problems that kept coming up, did not really communicate enough with the Slovak party. So, for example, the cancellation of Article 4 of the Constitution, about the lead position of the Communist Party, came from Bratislava and had to be firmly pushed through at the Civic Forum. When Havel officially visited Slovakia for the first time, the Communist Party there was reconciled to this situation.

A similar situation arose with the lifting of the Iron Curtain. Martin Bútora and I organized a happening on December 10, which is the day of the Protection of Human Rights, when we asked the inhabitants of Bratislava if they wanted to see the city from the other side of the Curtain. Slovakia was different from the Czech lands because the Iron Curtain went straight through the city (I lived in Petrželky and could see the machine guns from my window). In the Czech lands, it passed through the countryside. On December 10, around 10,000 people marched across to the other side.

The official lifting of the Curtain happened around six days later. There was also a boat on the Danube with a small stage with microphones projecting to both sides where Karel Kryl could play and we could speak to the people. This served as an imaginary bridge between East and West. These events were happening without any coordination with Prague. There were three reasons for this event: the cancelling of Article 4 of the Constitution, the non-acceptance of the Adamec government, and the lifting of the Iron Curtain. So, between November 16 and December 10 we already took a lot of actions. Civic Forum, on the other hand, waited until March 1990 to address the cancellation of Article 4 of the Constitution, so that was much more gradual.

It was us, meanwhile, who convinced Alexander Dubček not to run for Czechoslovak President because we did not want any Communists with human faces to form the transition between the old regime and democracy. We understood that we should skip an intermediate period with Dubček as president and move directly to the new Havel era. It did not make Dubček happy, but he agreed. If he hadn't agreed, it would have caused problems, because his political capital among both Czechs and Slovaks was strong. Dubček simply agreed to be the president of the Federal Assembly of Czechoslovakia, which was a very crucial decision that assured the smooth transition of power.

Another important decision, which is still being discussed, was when Václav Havel made Marian Čalfa the chair of the federal government. It was true that he was a Communist and careerist, but Havel could not have been elected president without him. Marian Čalfa left politics right after his two-year term, so he did not have any big ambitions. Nowadays we have one ambitious politician from that time who is leaving presidential politics and another who is just entering the office. So the differences between Czech and Slovakia can also be seen in these human stories.

You described how Občanské Fórum and Public against Violence worked together. But eventually they started to separate.

To read the rest of the interview, click here.

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