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Interview: A behind-the-scenes snapshot of life in communist Czechoslovakia

Prague, Czech Republic – This week, Kafkadesk spoke with Thomas K. Murphy, an American historian and author of a book on popular culture in communist Czechoslovakia: “Czechoslovakia Behind the Curtain: Life, Work and Culture in the Communist Era”.

Hello Thomas! Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

A native of Washington, D.C., I’m a historian and have taught at the university for nearly 25 years, both in the United States and in Europe, including in Slovakia’s Presov University. I’ve been living in Europe for the past 22 years and specialize in modern European intellectual history, imperialism, decolonization and American intellectual history.

I have written two books and contributed to a third. My first book was titled “A Land Without Castles: The Changing Image of America in Europe 1780-1830,” published in 2001, where I examined the evolving public sphere in Europe (particularly France and England) in the context of the first industrial revolution and the French revolution, drawing on the work of Jürgen Habermas.

I examine the image of America, as depicted in travel journals of the time. Was America a safety valve for Europe, a land of promise? Or was it decadent, primitive and regressive? These images shifted over time, and representatives of the fledgling US government in the late 18th and early 19th centuries traveled to Europe to “explain” America to Europeans.

My second book, “Czechoslovakia Behind the Curtain – Life, Work and Culture in the Communist Era”, is an oral history that concerns everyday life for ordinary people during the late communist era.

How did you come to work on popular culture in communist Czechoslovakia? And more broadly, where does your interest in Czechoslovakia come from?

I lived and taught at the university in Slovakia for nearly 3 years, from 1997 to 2000. My sponsor was the Open Society Foundation/Civic Education Program, supported by George Soros. It was my first job after receiving my Ph.D.

My experience at Presov University, supplemented by extensive travel within the former Czechoslovakia, convinced me that this was a region of Europe that Americans and other Westerners knew little about, beyond Cold War propaganda reports. I decided to tell the story of the communist regime “from the inside”, through an oral history of stories conveyed by residents.

What’s the profile of the people you interviewed for your book? How did you find and choose them?

I interviewed about 100 people. Most were Czechs and Slovaks, with a few Hungarians, Romanians and even a Pole and an Albanian. My tenure in Slovakia allowed me to make numerous contacts at universities throughout the region. A majority of my interviewees are university educated and more were Slovak than Czech. Interviews were conducted throughout Europe, mainly face to face but a few were performed online.

University colleagues and friends helped me make contact with potential interviewees, and often those links provided additional persons of interest. I preferred interviewing subjects who were at least 10 years old during the communist period and tried to focus on people who still lived in the Czech and Slovak Republics, or at least within Europe.

People in the West (Western Europe, U.S., etc.) know very little about the daily aspects of life behind the Iron Curtain. What do you think are the most common stereotypes in the West? And how true and/or false are they, according to your findings on life in Czechoslovakia?

When I was in high school in the U.S., our world maps showed the entirety of central and eastern Europe as one grey mass. Further, we were taught that communism as such was a static phenomenon, similar or essentially the same in each country. Local culture, ethnic differences, history and geographical considerations were simply not important factors. In the U.S., we were taught that the US ended the Cold War.

In Eastern Europe, the U.S. was barely considered a factor by many people, in my experience. Of course, we were also taught that central and eastern Europeans were, in the main, poor peasants with a low standard of living. This could not have been further from the truth, as Czechoslovakia was one of the most industrialized nations of Europe in the early 20th century.

Americans and other Westerners (in my experience) come to eastern Europe with a condescending mindset, and a sense that they know what is best for these people. There is very little historical or cultural knowledge about this part of Europe in the U.S.

Within the US, there are some universities that have central or eastern European studies, but these tend to be concentrated in Czech and Slovak ethnic enclaves such as Chicago or Pittsburgh. Finally, there is a sense that Czechs and Slovaks want nothing more than to move to the West. I have found this to be absolutely not the case, though some do study or work abroad (historically, the Slovaks were the more likely group to emigrate).

How would you summarize your findings?

“Communism” as such was never the simply ideological construct that was subject to so much rhetoric during the Cold War. Communist regimes differed from one another. The authoritarian (and often responsive) Czechoslovak system ebbed and flowed in its approval by the population.

Evidence from the everyday lives of people (most of whom were not party members) in Czechoslovakia amply demonstrates that one could live a decent material existence without much involvement from the Party.

In other words, from the late 1950’s until the mid-1980’s, the party more or less delivered a decent standard of living. When that standard slipped and the hypocrisy and inefficiency of the regime became widely recognized – and discredited by strong armed police tactics – the system ended quickly and quietly. Many of the habits of thinking remained long after, however.

What kind of rapport did Czechoslovaks have with work and work ethics? 

Everyone was required to work in communist Czechoslovakia. Great divergences existed in salary, as manual laborers were paid higher than white collar workers. Sometimes disincentives served to stifle the work ethic – such as lack of recognition for innovation in the workplace.

After 1968, alcoholism crept into the work place at an increasing pace. In many cases, workers possessed little fiefdoms from which they could exert a narrow but often considerable bureaucratic influence on the lives of people in need of documents or other forms of government help.

Of course, with guaranteed job security (and often housing as well), loafing and substandard work performances could be issues. The arts were a mixed bag – sometimes subversive works could be produced with double meanings, and foreign influences tolerated; other times the regime cracked down. Policy changed without warning – perhaps this was the intent.

Did you realize yourself, throughout your research, that you had some misconceptions about some aspects of life in communist Czechoslovakia? Did your findings contradict some of your initial beliefs? 

Very much so. Although I had traveled extensively, I am still the product of late Cold War stereotypes about central and eastern Europe. I was impressed at the high standard of living, of local community cooperation, the intelligence of the population to understand the differences between government rhetoric and fact.

I was also surprised to see the emphasis on nature, sports, leisure time and the overall de-emphasis on materialism. Within the material world, efficiency was stressed (untying and reusing balloons from birthday parties!) and cooperation and connections were the underlying drivers of the economy.

What are the main trends you’ve identified from all the testimonies you’ve gathered?

Most polls taken in the 1960’s-1980’s showed a high degree of support for “socialism” generally in Czechoslovakia. In 1968, a move was made for more freedom of speech, pluralism, travel and the arts. These social and political goals were suppressed and replaced by state sponsored materialism. The regime hoped for a population of orderly, self-satisfied, passive consumers. To a degree, the strategy bought time for the regime, but the damage and disillusionment wrought by the events of 1968 were irreparable.

The system worked for a time. It wasn’t perfect but it maintained a standard of living for the population. As long as one avoided calling attention to themselves, he or she could live a nice life “under the radar”. Innovation was attempted in the social sphere (such as rights for women and increased opportunities for Roma), but these plans were always from the top-down, and were often abandoned, reversed or simply ignored.

Did you see any significant differences between the testimonies of people living in modern-day Slovakia and those in the Czech Republic?

The Roma issue is much more pronounced in Slovakia than in the Czech Republic, as is the “Hungarian issue“. The role of the Catholic Church and religion generally played a much more central role for Slovaks under the old regime than with the less religious and more Protestant Czechs. The Czechs and Slovaks like each other, and still see each other as “brothers”, but historically the Slovaks have a slight inferiority in the relationship, being a more rural territory, ruled by Prague and managers and professionals brought in from the Czech lands.

Generally, Slovaks seem more sentimental about the split of the country in 1993. It is often said that, in the split, the Slovaks lost Prague and the Czechs lost the High Tatra Mountains. The deal was arranged at the political top, between Vaclav Klaus and Vladimir Meciar, without adequately consulting the populations. Some Slovak nationalists pushed for independence. Many Czechs said that they saw the split as a removal of the “Hungarian and gypsy problems” from the Czech lands.

What is/are the aspect(s) of popular life in communist Czechoslovakia that struck you the most? 

What struck me as positive was the emphasis on nature; the retreat to the country chata. Also positive was the emphasis on sports and music: a lot of people played an instrument or sang. De-emphasis on TV and commercial entertainment – they made their own entertainment at home or out at the forest. Living closer to nature. Very positive.

I was a bit surprised at the lack of success of the Roma integration policies over time. Travel (except to Yugoslavia or Hungary) was exceedingly hard to do. Couples often had open affairs or relationships without divorce, as that would have placed an unreasonable economic burden on one or both of them. Logical, but a little odd!

How do they compare life in communist Czechoslovakia and life today? Did you identify any “nostalgia” for that time?

Most would not want to return to that time overall, but they miss many aspects of the period: close knit community, safety, simplicity, security. The post-1989 developments have ushered in homelessness, individualism, inequality, violence, insecurity and corporate culture, which are widely seen as negatives.

Is there anything you’d like to add?

Consumerism is another interesting facet of Czech life during the communist years, especially how people “got” consumer items that were in high demand.

Stores may have often been empty in Czechoslovakia, but that didn’t mean that goods didn’t exist. The trick was to have connections – either to a producer of goods or to a cashier/store keeper. If one could establish delivery dates of products, one could work out an order well in advance of a delivery. Thus, the product itself would never actually sit on the shelf… it would move from producer to consumer by way of a pre-established deal with the distributor.

Barter was often a tactic, as were bribes. It was said that people “got stuff.” They didn’t buy it, the “got” it. Favors might be granted, goods might be traded, a medical procedure might be offered in exchange for a “tip” or access to a washing machine or car. It was called “Co davaju?”, which translates into “What do you offer?”

Some cities were given preferred consumer status. This was often the case if a city produced military weaponry. Bananas or other hard-to-find fruits and products would be directed to these locations before others.

Then there was Tuzex, which was a chain of stores in Czechoslovakia that sold foreign and Western goods. They only accepted a special currency, called bony, which was obtained through the exchange of hard, convertible currencies, such as Deutsche marks or U.S. dollars. Pensioners with foreign ties would sometimes have access to “bons,” as their money came from abroad.

In Tuzex, one could buy Western products such as foods, electronics, jeans and cigarettes. Roma, old pensioner women and others would sometimes roam the streets in front of a Tuzex branch, selling bony. The currency had a limited validity period, but enforcement of fraudulent use was sporadic at best, according to my interviewees.

If you’d like to dig deeper in the topic, be sure to check out the book “Czechoslovakia Behind the Curtain – Life, Work and Culture in the Communist Era”, available on Amazon and the website of publisher McFarland Books.

6 comments on “Interview: A behind-the-scenes snapshot of life in communist Czechoslovakia

  1. It appears the book author and/ or article writer looked at Czech communism through rose colored glasses. The closeness, security,serenity of the community, consumer goods available( but many under the table) . The love of nature, music, the arts were escapes from the reality of life. Every aspect of your life had to be approved by communist thinking. You weren’t allowed to leave the country, neighbors spied on neighbors, punishments could be brutal… “Journey For Freedom, Defection From Communism “. By Peter Vodenka who reveals the truth of living under communism and the difficulties of escape. In the early 1980’s. I think this writer saw the veneer of communism because he was a protected American living with the privileges of his status. Granted many of the Communist party had a good life and missed that life when it ended.

  2. Thomas Murphy

    Joan – Thanks for your response. Remember that this book is an oral history, based on the views of my interviewees and not my own. Throughout my research, no one portrayed the late Communist era as a paradise. My argument is quite nuanced; that despite the existence of an orthodox and often capricious system, that material benefit could be derived in Czech society if one remained uncontroversial. In fact, it was this phenomenon that Vaclav Havel complained about – the material « buying off » of the « Little Czechs, » as he called them – in return for remaining politically passive. My point is that the Cold War West had very simple, uniform ideas about communism, and that those ideas insulted the reality, complexity and variation of the Czechoslovak communist system over time, and of the culture in which it operated. One can revisit positive aspects about an unjust system, without arguing that the system itself is just, right? For example, Enver Hoxha of Albania and Pol Pot of Cambodia raised literacy rates considerably, but they also presided over brutal, genocidal regimes. Both facts are true, and those of us who report about such regimes must accept the totality of what we discover. I think that the book bears this out more comprehensively than in my abridged interview responses.

  3. I haven’t read the book yet but have just put an order in for it. In the meantime, I’d like to think the author for this excellent undertaking. I used to feel that the absence of a book in English of this type is a crying shame and I’m overjoyed to learn that a serious historian has taken it on.

    • Fraser,

      Many thanks for your response. Please let me know what you think of the book!

      I am curious about your comment about the “absence” of a book of this type. Could you tell me more what you mean? It might guide my future research!

      What I needed to do to complete this book was to LISTEN. As a professor of 20+ years, that was hard to do, without some practice! Amazing what one can learn if they just pay attention to the people around them….

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