Czech Republic Magazine Slovakia

Book review: “Czechoslovakia behind the Iron Curtain”

Bratislava, Slovakia – If you came of age during the Cold War, wanting to know what living was like behind the Iron Curtain, this book is for you. I might argue that this may be the first read that can succinctly explain how communist-ruled Czechoslovakia aimed to create a perfect society, and its ever-lasting impact on the Czech and Slovak people.

Plenty of books have been written on socialism and politics. This one discusses the impact the regime had on day-to-day living.

In theory, socialism was all about creating a classless society, where all people were equal. To achieve that end, the government used fear and total social control, something the authors describe as an “experiment” which just never succeeded.

A book on daily life in communist Czechoslovakia

Expecting total compliance, the regime dictated all aspects of one’s life: birth, education, child-rearing, romance, recreation, music, arts, theater, possessions, religion, work, housing, food, free time, exercise, national pride, culture, and even death. The authors explore each aspect of life, first describing the state’s philosophy and tactics, and then exploring the impact it had on the daily lives of Czechoslovaks throughout the communist rule.

By the time I arrived at page 400, I was entirely depressed. I could not imagine living in a world where every aspect of my life had been planned out for me. Arguably, one out of every six people in Czechoslovakia was a “snitch”, who ensured you were reported when you were behaving in a way the regime saw as “deviant” from the norm. The Iron Curtain was used primarily to keep its citizens contained and their minds from being “corrupted” by information coming from the West.

The good news is that not all people in the regime were able to “go along” with the program. As early as the 1960s, there were voices asking for more freedom.  The Prague Spring is deftly explored from a human perspective.

While the authors have extensively researched government archives and officials, and conducted hundreds of first-hand interviews, the book presents the human face of life in a society filled with complexity and confusion.

The authors, Zuzana Palovic and Gabriela Bereghazyova, were both born in Czechoslovakia but raised and educated in the West. The book is mainly directed towards the Western reader, filled with English-language idioms, irony and figures of speech that are clearly understandable and make it a compelling and fast read.

An open wound

I wish this book had been written before my year 2000 research trip to Slovakia. It would have helped me to frame my questions better and would have explained why I received blank stares or empty answers to some of them. When I go back in a year or two, I will certainly be better equipped. book czechoslovakia

Sadly, this 40-year experiment has inflicted permanent scars upon people’s knowledge of family, culture, religion and ambitions. Socialism taught people to look ahead to the goals, and cast away their knowledge of the past. Minimum family, maximum society. I daresay it might take another two generations before the people feel confident enough to carve out their own destinies.

The good news is that many in Slovakia are expressing an interest in reviving their old cultures, religions, languages and education. Although intended for a Western audience, this book is an important statement for Slovakia to come to terms with its past.

“Czechoslovakia: Behind the Iron Curtain”, by Zuzana Palovic and Gabriela Bereghazyova – published by Global Slovakia, Bratislava, and Hybrid Global Publishing, New York (2019). You can also read our interview with the two authors right here.

By Bill Tarkulich