Magazine Slovakia

Interview: “Slovakia is still searching for its identity and purpose in the world”

This week, Kafkadesk spoke with Zuzana Palovic and Gabriela Bereghazyova, respectively the founder and co-director of ‘Global Slovakia’, a Bratislava-based NGO working to bring Slovakia to the world, present what makes their native country unique to a global audience and help Slovaks come to terms with their past and identity. 

Hi Zuzana and Gabriela! You were both born in then-Czechoslovakia in the late years of communism, and yet have two very different life stories. Could you tell us a bit about yourselves, your life path and background?

Zuzana: I was born behind the Iron Curtain, on the tail end of communism. About one year before the revolution, my parents made a radical choice: they decided to leave their home. Which meant they had to flee their country of birth and defect the Soviet Bloc forever. This was obviously illegal and there were very serious consequences. The starkest of which was the impossibility to return. Back then, to leave, meant to leave forever.

After arriving in the free West (read: neighboring Austria), my family went from being respectable citizens to political refugees overnight. After some time in refugee camps, we eventually landed as immigrants in Canada. This is where I grew up, before I went to study in the United States, the Netherlands and finally the United Kingdom, where I completed my Doctoral studies specializing in Eastern European migration.

Gabriela: I was born in socialist Czechoslovakia, grew up in the transitional Slovakia of the 1990s and witnessed the country’s accession to the EU. This opened opportunities for me beyond the national borders of Slovakia. I lived, worked and studied in Syria, Egypt, Greece and Spain before coming to the U.K. and settling there for over half a decade. This is where I completed two master’s degrees and a Doctorate in studying corruption. All my work during my studies and since then has focused on Slovakia – its past, but also its present rooted in history. slovakia identity

You founded and co-manage ‘Global Slovakia’. How did you decide to launch this fascinating initiative?

Zuzana: I guess it was due to a stark need for it. Gabriela and I both identified a gap in the market. But this realization emerged very organically, we simply wanted to share information about Slovakia with our foreign friends, colleagues and partners – but couldn’t. There just wasn’t enough information about Slovakia in English available. Truth be told, I spent a good deal of my adulthood waiting for somebody to fill that gap. Alas, when nobody came – we thought: “Hell, why not do it ourselves!”. I often say that the books we publish are also written for my younger self. The young girl that was curious about her roots but couldn’t get access to the right information. slovakia identity

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Apart from their publishing activity, Zuzana and Gabriela are often on the road, giving lectures and presentations in high schools and colleges, to help Slovakia’s youth understand their country’s past history.

What are the greatest and most common misconceptions, from your own experience, about Slovakia –  among foreigners and Slovaks themselves?

Gabriela: Slovakia is a very young country that is still searching for its identity and purpose in the world. It only came to existence 26 years ago! Before, it was a part of other states and did not get a chance to build its own story and image. Slovakia is only doing this now. This is a part of the reason why the country is invisible on the global stage. slovakia identity

Once you leave the country and the region, few know Slovakia and often equate it with Czechoslovakia, or even the Soviet Union. This gives rise to preconceptions and misconceptions. Stereotypes dating back to the Cold War are still alive regarding everything from the living standards to the safety and security in the country. But from my experience, most people really don’t even know what to picture when they hear ‘Slovakia’.

On the other hand, those who do experience the country first-hand are positively surprised – by the cuisine, the warm-hearted nature of the people, the stunning nature and incredible history. As to Slovaks, we too are still coming to terms with who we are as a nation and as a country. So we often tend to see what is wrong with this country, rather than appreciate all the good parts. I think Slovaks have a tendency to belittle themselves. It’s often only abroad that they realise what a long cultural legacy they come from and how much this country has to offer.

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Born in the ‘East’ and raised in the ‘West’, Dr. Zuzana Palovic is the founder of ‘Global Slovakia’, pictured here in Bratislava during the book launch of their latest book.

You’ve recently embarked on a tour of Eastern Slovakia: What did you see, hear and learn along the way?

Zuzana: The differences between the eastern and western parts of our country are vast. At the core the western part is rich, also because this region has received the bulk of foreign investments. In comparison, the east is economically laggard. Also in part because there is no direct highway that connects the two parts of our country. You can’t just sit in your car and go – and this is a major barrier to trade flow.

Of course, these socio-economic differences also result in diverging perspective on life. In the east, the bulk of the population is concerned with basic necessities. If I am to speak bluntly, they are concerned with every-day survival. It’s hard to be concerned about concepts like freedom and democracy, when you don’t know if you will have a stable job and a place to live.

These same youth often hear their parents and grandparents talking nostalgically about communism. When everybody had a job (because they had to) and a place to live. Today, these securities no longer exist. Many families from the East are forced to rely on migration as a means of livelihood. This means grandparents are left to care for children, as parents go to Austria and the Czech Republic in search of manual and caretaker labor. slovakia identity

Families are separated and the bills continue to pile. The youth see this and wonder if they can even have what their parents once had. Which is why so many of these young people are attracted to political leadership that they feel validate their fears. They run on political campaigns that promise cheaper electricity and heating for their votership. I mean, these are actual political slogans you see on billboards in the east! We cannot deny that there is a segment of the Slovak population that feels let down by neo-liberalism.

Slovakia has widely been portrayed, including in foreign media, as a beacon of hope at the heart of Europe’s illiberal lands following Zuzana Caputova’s election. Is this optimism really justified?

Zuzana: Well, her victory was completely unexpected for many. I was living in Prague at the time and I was taken aback at how much the Czechs celebrated her win. And this shed a really positive light on Slovakia, that our people had the courage to elect her as our first female president. I mean, Zuzana Caputova is an outlier in many ways. She is far from your typical political candidate. She was a lawyer and activist. She came into social prominence as a crusader for justice. But she is also divorced and a single mother of two young women.

I applaud her courage to put her neck out on the line as a candidate and I am still mesmerized that she managed to pull it off — when so few people believed that she could. It just goes to show, that a strong will combined with a higher calling can go a long way. Slovakia is also at the crossroads of the unexpected. You never know where the cultural pendulum will go. President Caputova was definitely the best candidate for the job. And it was her authenticity and genuine desire to serve her nation which resonated with the people.

But our country is also deeply traditional, strongly Catholic and socialist in political orientation. So Zuzana Caputova’s star may be an anomaly or it may be an indicator of an overall transition in the collective psyche. Only time will tell. Time, or these upcoming 2020 national elections. slovakia identity

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A first-hand witness of the numerous changes (Czecho)Slovakia has gone through in the last decades, Dr. Gabriela Bereghazyova is the co-director of ‘Global Slovakia’, pictured here during the photo exhibition of ‘Czechoslovakia: Behind the Iron Curtain’

How did your last book launch go?

Gabriela: We were so overwhelmed and grateful for the all those who came to celebrate the book and the 30th anniversary of freedom with us. The appreciation of the people from all over the world, their fascination with the story of Slovakia behind the Iron Curtain were a huge and beautiful reward for years of work. To see it resonate, inform, entertain and provoke a reflection and a dialogue means so much to us. This was our goal after all – to open the topic, to talk about it, to begin to heal the wounds of the era and to develop compassion for what has been, as well as an uncompromising passion for freedom and liberty.

I just finished reading your new book, ‘Czechoslovakia behind the Iron Curtain’, that will soon go into circulation in Slovakia and Czech Republic: What’s the genesis, the origins story of this book, which took you about 10 years of research and travels to write?

Zuzana: Gabriela and I also wrote this book for our nation. So that the youth of our country can travel down memory lane and learn from the past, including the communist experiment – perhaps the greatest political experiment of the 20th century. slovakia identity

There is a famous quote by Woodrow Wilson that really explains the drive behind our work, it reads: “A nation which does not remember what it was yesterday, does not know what it is today, nor what it is trying to do. We are trying to do a futile thing if we do not know where we came from or what we have been about”.

At the same time, we live and breathe our mission, which is to share our country’s story with the world. This is the reason the book is written in English and why we look forward to introducing Slovakia’s history to new audiences. Our country has gone through six regime changes in less than 100 years, that is a remarkable transformative journey that cannot be matched by even the tumultuous Middle East. Our perspective is very unique because of it – and it is an added value to the world. slovakia identity

‘Czechoslovakia: Behind the Iron Curtain’, a fascinating account of life in Communist Czechoslovakia, available for online purchase here and here.

Can you also tell us a bit about the previous books you published together?

Gabriela: ‘Slovakia: The Legend of the Linden’ was our first book. It’s an emotional rendering of the intriguing, complex and long history of Slovakia. It is narrated in a slightly different way – through the symbol of the Linden, the national tree of Slovakia and a sacred tree of the Slavs. This book is special to us not just because it captures the two millennia of Slovak history, but also because it resurrects a powerful emblem – that of the Linden.

It traces the story of the symbol through the past to the present to only realize that it is far more than just a Slovak tree. It is a European tree. The Linden has a place in Roman, Greek, German, Celtic, as well as Slovak mythology. In these challenging times, Europe truly needs reminders of just how much people across the continent have in common.

Your work aptly links the past and the present, and shows how Slovak history’s imprint – including the four decades spent under communism – can still be felt today: What are the most illustrative examples of this?

Gabriela: Slovakia is covered with tangible reminders of the recent past – from monuments to Soviet soldiers fallen during WWII to hospitals, schools, factories and housing estates that are still home to hundreds of thousands of people. Petrzalka is the most famous, but its blueprint was replicated across Slovakia to become its permanent feature.

Then there are the invisible imprints, like the culture of fear and distrust that was at the core of the communist rule. For 41 years, Slovaks were discouraged from trusting and cooperating with one another, which is today reflected in the passive civil society. The private sector was dissolved and everything was managed and planned by the state which means that Slovak are still learning the business know-how and the art of the customer service.

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Zuzana and Gabriela, along with the two patrons of their latest book: ice hockey legend and former MEP Peter Stastny (second from the left) and Velvet Revolution student leader Anton Popovic (second from the right)

What more can be done for Slovaks to come to terms with their own history?

Gabriela: It is a matter of willingness to open these themes again in an engaging, fresh and entertaining way. This is a part of the national maturing. As Slovakia is growing more confident, we are also developing a new perspective on ourselves. We’re opening up to the world and Slovaks travel more. >e are beginning to really appreciate our unique histories and stories as true treasures and not boring historic facts. Confronted with other countries talking about themselves, we too are coming to terms with the importance of sharing our story.

We see this trend of increasing interest in our own culture in Slovakia. We will foster it and continue to take it in new directions. It is inevitable people are becoming more curious about their roots. They want to know more. They want to feel good about being Slovak. We are hoping these changes will soon be reflected in the education system that still awaits comprehensive reform. Presenting an interesting story of Slovakia to the youth that they are encouraged to interact with is key. slovakia identity

What’s next for ‘Global Slovakia’?

Zuzana: The sky is the limit… We have so many new projects bubbling in our heads already. Our mission is to share Slovakia with the world. Right now, we are doing it through books, a tradition we want to continue with two new publications focused on the children’s market. One book will explore Slovak heroes – because every nation needs to know it’s personalities, particularly those individuals who elevated the rest through their innovation, compassion and courage.

This will be followed by another book, also aimed at children, that will explore the great legacy of Slovak migration from the heart of Europe to the new world. There is currently no book out there that communicates this story, and how the different Slovak emigration waves transformed our country, but also America. We are a people divided by an ocean, but are forever connected, nonetheless. Our goal is to help children in the United States better connect with their European legacy and Slovak roots.

Lastly, we realized that although books are important, the world has also moved on from consuming information solely via print, which is why we aspire to transition to film. And we want to do so very quickly. Our books are like our research documents, they codify the different aspects of the Slovak, but we want to rely this information to a much wider audience. What better way is there then film?

To support Zuzana and Gabriela’s incredible initiative and tireless effort to share Slovakia’s story to the world, you can head to their website, or follow them on Facebook and YouTube. And of course, don’t forget to look out for their book, ‘Czechoslovakia: Behind the Iron Curtain’, soon available in Czech and Slovak libraries (or, if you can’t wait, already available on their online store, as well as here and here)!

Headed by Kafkadesk's chief-editor Jules Eisenchteter, our Prague office gathers over half a dozen reporters, editors and contributors, as well as our social media team. It covers everything Czech and Slovak-related, and oversees operations from our other Central European desks in Krakow and Budapest.