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The End of Claustrophobia

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In the novel The Year of the Frog, the narrator sinks into a funk over the claustrophobia that has closed over his life. It's the 1980s in Czechoslovakia, and Communism stretches as far into the future as the eye can see. "I'm forty, and for the last decade I've wandered all over Bratislava without meeting a single new person," he laments. "It's monstrous. I know every stone, every face. I know everything about everybody, and everybody knows everything about me. We have nothing to tell one another, nothing to look forward to. I'm going mad!"

This well-received novel, though published in 1996, was written before the changes that swept over Czechoslovakia in 1989. The author, Martin Simecka, is the son of the well-known dissident Milan Simecka (indeed, they share the same first name: the son adopted "Martin" to avoid confusion). Last February I traveled to the outskirts of Bratislava to meet with Martin Simecka and Marta Simeckova and talk about their experiences of traveling from the closed world of the Communist period to the open world after 1989.

"It was nice at the beginning when we were 20 and 25," Martin said, using much the same language he put down in his novel. "But in 1989, I was 33. In 10 years, it had become pretty claustrophobic. You couldn't travel. You lived in a small country, and you met the same people all the time. This was most devastating for me. When I thought about my future, it was like a life sentence."

Marta agreed. "We never thought it would be changed," she said. "That was the big difference between us and our parents. When the Russians came in 1968, I was six years old. My parents and their friends, everyone said that something will happen and this will only last a couple years, it would only be temporary. But during my childhood I watched my parents and their friends grow old in this terribly unhappy situation of expecting something. But I was ready to believe that it would last forever. Otherwise I would live like them, waiting for something to happen, looking for signs of change that never came. I thought it was much better to prepare yourself for a decent and good and interesting life in this situation. And it was much more of a surprise that it did change."

Martin's father Milan was just able to see those changes. He served as an advisor to Vaclav Havel in 1990 but died of a heart attack that year. He was the most widely translated Czechoslovak dissident after Havel though his work is not as well known in the United States. His Letters from Prison, despite the conditions in which they were produced, reflects his generally optimistic view of life. At one point he reflects on the failures of reform Communism: "I wonder whether the experience of those days means we have to totally renounce collectivism and its orgiastic delights or whether collectivist intoxication can still play a positive role in human coexistence."

His son absorbed some of that optimism. "Of course, under the influence of my father -- and we had been debating about that for hours and hours -- I was expecting in 1989 that something had to change," he said. "There were small signs, of course. But it's another thing to think about it and to really live it in your heart. It was impossible to imagine the change. The most we expected was that the regime would start to let us, if not travel, then at least not put us in prison."

After the changes, Martin and Marta started a press to publish the books they thought were necessary for people to read in the new country. They both worked as editors, he of Respekt and she of Salon. They shared a bowl of Christmas sauerkraut soup with me as I talked with them about relations between Prague and Bratislava, the rise of nationalism in Slovakia, and the current political debates in the country.

The Interview

Prior to the events of November 1989 here in former Czechoslovakia, what were you both doing?

Milan: Before the fall of Communism, I was a member of a dissident family. I was basically a dissident, and that meant the usual stuff. I was working in a manual job, and I was writing books and publishing samizdat. I was part of this subculture of dissent, which was mostly in Prague but we had some here as well, publishing some journals. It was the usual dissident life. We were already living in this house. Sometimes the police came. I spent just a couple days in prison, nothing more.

Marta: I was in a more unusual position. For a short time because I was quite young, I had one leg in the alternative community and the other leg in the official world. My parents were ex-Communists, expelled form the Party like Milan's, and they were part of the non-official community. We found our own community, which was not very big. We also organized an alternative social and culture life. On the other hand, I had for a short time a more-or-less normal job doing what my university education qualified me for. That was unusual. Usually, you could be in one world or the other. That was also probably because it didn't last that long. After that I didn't have employment. I worked as a freelance interpreter, and we had small children.

I ask people usually about the point at which they decide to become dissidents. But I know that your situation was somewhat different.

Milan: Yes, I didn't become a dissident by my own decision. In my case, there were of course some opportunities that I was offered by the regime if I openly disagreed with my father. But they were not real options for me.

Marta: For me, the alternative life was much more attractive. My ambitions were not in the official sphere.

When you say interesting and attractive, what do you mean? It was more intellectually stimulating?

Marta: Yes, more intellectually stimulating. And it was also much more intellectually demanding. It was beyond comparison. If I wanted to develop self-esteem, it was a very easy choice. I could abandon the official professional career very easily.

From the U.S. vantage point, the focus of dissent was in Prague. Was there as much going on here in Bratislava?

Milan: No, not at all. Here it was just a small group of people who lived the real dissident life. In Prague, you had hundreds, maybe thousands of dissidents. Here it was only in the tens. There were more people in the Secret Service than in our circles, and they had lots of opportunities to make life difficult for us. For me, it would have been much more difficult to survive Communism only being here in Bratislava. It helped quite a lot to have links to Prague.

But we had something that they didn't quite have in Prague. There was this gray zone of artists who were not dissidents in a strict sense, but were somewhere in the middle. They had jobs, but maybe not good jobs, such as teaching art at a grammar school. But we were friends with them. It was a kind of community. You could still have a feeling that you were living in a circle of free people even if it wasn't the kind of subculture that existed in Prague. These people in the gray zone used to go in the summer to these cottages in the mountains that they'd bought, and you could meet those people there. It was a sort of independent life, almost non-political. There were very few politically engaged people here. Without Prague, it would have been pretty boring in the long term.

Marta: It was a broad anti-establishment community here, with people from different generations and backgrounds. The Catholics were a strong part of the political opposition. This was a new part of society for us, because we were brought up in a leftist milieu. These people had some really political ideas that had nothing to do with socialism with a human face. The Communists, back in the 1950s, had destroyed the mostly intellectual part of the Catholics. What was left was quite a simple way of thinking.

We had this feeling that the people we know here in Slovakia, working in underground magazines, could be the visible part of the iceberg, and there was a huge part still underneath. Then it occurred to us that there was no iceberg underneath.

Milan: We discovered another Slovakia through our Catholic friends: this secret church. There were some people we knew like Jan Carnogursky, who later became a politician. There were these two anti-establishment groups: the artists and intellectuals and then there were these conservative Catholics.

Marta: But interestingly, these groups were mixed. There were some Catholic artists, and some artists were conservative.

Milan: It was interesting for a couple years. But then...

Marta: We were much younger then.

Milan: In the late 1980s, I remember feeling that I couldn't survive another 40 years of this regime in this country where I knew everyone who was even a little anti-establishment. In the late 1980s, it was already so boring. It was always the same people: nice, but the same. The most devastating thought for me was to live like this for another 40 years. It was nice at the beginning when we were 20 and 25. But in 1989, I was 33. In 10 years, it had become pretty claustrophobic. You couldn't travel. You lived in a small country, and you met the same people all the time. This was most devastating for me. When I thought about my future, it was like a life sentence. You got older, and you knew that there would be nothing new in your life. We were lucky that it changed.

Marta: We never thought it would be changed. That was the big difference between us and our parents. When the Russians came in 1968, I was six years old. My parents and their friends, everyone said that something will happen and this will only last a couple years, it would only be temporary. But during my childhood I watched my parents and their friends grow old in this terribly unhappy situation of expecting something. But I was ready to believe that it would last forever. Otherwise I would live like them, waiting for something to happen, looking for signs of change that never came. I thought it was much better to prepare yourself for a decent and good and interesting life in this situation. And it was much more of a surprise that it did change.

So you had low expectations.

Marta: I had no expectations!

In June 1989, Poland had semi-free elections. And things were changing in Hungary. Did you think that everything would change except in Czechoslovakia?

To read the rest of the interview, click here.