Award 2020 Nominee
How We Stopped Being Comrades
Freedom is not a birthright. No generation receives freedom ready-made and perfect: pre-prepared for consumption.
It was November 1989 and I was trying to breathe in, together with the sharp air, a new experience: freedom. We were testing ourselves in new roles, unknown to us until then. In courageous, provocative, loud, affectionate and inspiring roles. Above all, in free roles. Instead of applauding as we gathered at squares, we jangled our keys.
We told ourselves that the revolution had taken us by the hand and led us out from Plato’s famous cave and we were able to perceive contours, forms and colours, not just shadows on the wall. But were all of us really able to suddenly see much more clearly?
We were beginners in freedom.
We were learning how to name things again. A public march was no longer an indifferent affair with artificial carnations and red banners with printed pictures of long-bearded fathers of communist ideology. It was a protest from which no one tried to escape at the nearest corner after waving at the party secretariat and the generals on the grandstand.
Calling each other comrade lost its value overnight, in the morning we were all citizens.
We were trying to grasp the difference between the freedom of that November from the ‘un-freedom’ in which we had grown up. We were inundated by new definitions, it felt like rain after a drought. The earth was absorbing it, but we did not know what would grow in our gardens in the end.
Communists and Certainties
A lot of people who lived most of their adult lives under communism were afraid. They were scared of losing their certainties – certainties to which the communist regime had condemned several generations.
They had nothing else, except these certainties: the certainty of being allocated a flat in a high-rise prefabricated block in a housing estate, the certainty of a job for life, of oranges in shops before Christmas, and the certainty of one party rule. The certainty of May Day celebrations, of chanting “with the USSR, forever,” things that would never change. The certainty of what had to be called “fraternal military help” and two state channels on their black-and-white TV’s. The certainty that everyone else was eating the very same lunch in canteens and that all that was required was “to keep your mouth shut and toe the line.”
Even today, after thirty years, some people ask: “what was so bad about it?” They don’t remember all the compromises and the humiliations that these certainties brought to a part of the nation.
Or there was the certainty of fear and of informers, of hard manual labour for those who criticised the regime, or even being sent to the uranium mines in Jáchymov. The certainty of the ‘baksheesh’, of the gifts and the bribes, of the black socialist limousines, Tatras and Zils – exclusively for the apparatchiks – of lavatories with no toilet paper, and most of us without a passport, some maybe got a travel permit to Romania.
“We thank you, mother party, for the warmth and the glow, we promise to give you support with all our heart.”
“Away with the communists,” we shouted then. Most likely we did not have in mind all the members of the communist party whom we knew personally: our neighbours, teachers, relatives, and the celebrities of socialism. Where would they go? We believed that communism would run off people like sweat after a purifying fever. Thirty years later we are finding out that for some it will never run off. As a child I never actually knew what a communist was, even though the whole educational system worked to engrain in us from early childhood that they were the good ones. But they did not fit into the traditional fairy tales our granny told, in which good and evil were easily discernible.
We believed that communism would run off people like sweat after a purifying fever. Thirty years later we are finding out that for some it will never run off.
God and Terézia
Terézia, my great aunt from Gemerska Panica, swore at the communists her whole life. A hunched, devout woman, she would fly into a rage at the mere mention of the regime, lifting her bent head and unleashing a torrent of abuse: büdös komunisták (stinky communists).
Even those who had confiscated cows and horses for the nationalized agricultural co-op were scared of her. They couldn’t get at her. They couldn’t sack her, because she was not employed, and they couldn’t punish her children, because she didn’t have any. They couldn’t take any certainties away from her, because she only had one certainty: she would die and her sufferings on this earth would end.
She was sometimes warned not to swear in front of the children, as they could repeat what she said at school and their parents would get into trouble. “God will punish them all, the teachers included; why would they punish the children?” she would say.
We knew her stories, we knew that she refused to hand over her cows to the co-op or to sign any documents brought to her by the chairman of the local party. The comrades in the villages changed, but Terézia remained their steadfast “opposition.” She told one of them that if he ever crossed the threshold of her house, she would be coming to his office and cursing him until his drunkard’s nose fell off. He never crossed it.
She went proudly to church, as long as she was able. Later, she complained that even the church was not the same and that the priest could not speak her language anymore. She wasn’t a revolutionary, but never forgave the regime for wanting to take God away from her.
Kádár, Hofi and Samizdat
We were taught from early childhood to distinguish between what we could and could not say at school. For instance, I wasn’t supposed to repeat what my grandfather from the Hungarian city of Miskolc used to say about the regime after several glasses of wine: that in Hungary the regime would collapse and then we were going to move there.
Béla Balog used to quote the jokes of the Hungarian slapstick comedian, Géza Hofi, about János Kádár’s regime, which made even stupid, pot-bellied comrades laugh in the intimacy of their sitting room. We did not know at that time that cabaret and criticism of the political malaise was tolerated in Hungary as a vent for built-up pressure, in as far as it did not touch the substance. That provided an illusion of freedom, a laugh at the expense of local party secretaries, the permitted caricatures of those times.
Grandfather used to bring us books that we could not get hold of in Slovakia and after classes a teacher at my grammar school told me about samizdat – banned books – what Beszélő (the underground opposition magazine) was and who Imre Nagy (the Prime Minister and leader of the 1956 Hungarian revolution, who was later executed) was. I learned that people were not burned in a public square for speaking the truth anymore, instead they were slapped in the face.
I came to Bratislava in 1989. After two months we stopped attending university. We were not playing truant. We were revolutionaries. Our parents, if not marching with us, were at home listening to radios in the hope that the tanks would not arrive, in the same way they had not arrived in Hungary and in Poland as their regimes started to fold.
Some of our teachers took off their blazers, put on old jumpers and marched with us. Even at the time we had a feeling that it was not possible to take Marxism-Leninism off like a comrade’s tie. In the first few days of the revolution, older students started to ask what was going to happen to the professors who taught Critiques of Bourgeois Media and Literature, Critiques of Revisionism of the Revolutionary Movement, Marxism-Leninism, and Dialectical and Historical Materialism. Who would decide who would carry on teaching at the Departments of Philosophy, Journalism and History?
It was meant to be a velvet revolution and so we hoped that these decisions would be made not by self-declared student courts, but by individuals’ consciences. Of course, we had no idea at the time that some people would undergo a quick learning course in erasing any ideological achievements they collected before the revolution from their CVs. Time would show how authentic the metamorphosis of the teaching “elite” really was.
Freedom is not an birthright and it will not automatically seep into the genetic code of the nation.
Everything around us gained speed. After years of stagnant waters, freedom was flowing from universities, theatres and public squares into the streets. It poured into the socialist apartments, cellars and pubs where people, after a few beers, bravely panned the regime. There was no way of stopping it. It became a powerful river, carrying us along.
We knew that it was not right to be just carried along. We knew that there were many years of work ahead of us. We felt that our generation, teenagers, had been saved, together with the generations that were to follow.
But freedom is not a birthright and it will not automatically seep into the genetic code of the nation. No generation receives her ready-made: prepared for instant consumption. If we no longer take care of her, she will be kidnapped by individuals corrupted by power.
Without Comrades, But With Party Members
Lots of people consumed democracy as if it were a giant food orgy. They put indigestible combinations on their plates. They ate only because at that moment the tables were full and they happened to be there first. They did not think about the people who were still lining up, the generations yet to come, parents hoping that their children would inherit democracy.
Communist comrades became party members and the post-revolution generation of party apparatchiks was born. They inherited loyalty to their party. If their loyalty was sufficiently strong, even if they had failed as human beings, the party took care of them and secured their preferential access to the table.
The first of these were privatisers under Vladimír Mečiar. Without a vision, but with gilded toilets, a collection of luxury cars with the price tag that would cover education for many generations of Roma children, a bevy of beautiful women without wrinkles, and bribed officials without inhibitions.
For a while, some managed to maintain the image of being a democrat, for the sake of the voter. But in the end, they could not resist the temptations offered by the state table. The public sector was left to the crumbs from the state budget and pensioners were sent 50 euros before Christmas to make them feel that the state cares. Others got leaflets about enemies of the nation, and nationalism for the frustrated poor in the ‘valleys of hunger’, where economic clans squeezed the last drops out of state funds.
Unlike under communism, party membership was no longer necessary for a successful career beyond being a welder in a factory or a school teacher. But a party connection brought significant economic advantages, positions in public administration and the promise of ‘protection’ if you were caught implementing the darker side of party doctrine.
Robert Fico’s Smer party has upgraded the idea of what it means to be a political clan. The party became a family in the same way the concept is understood by the mafia: absolute loyalty, denial of responsibility, protection and career advancement. Officials who were grateful to the party for their jobs (or perhaps their boss was) kept lists in their heads of people who were to be served and were untouchable. These same lists were known, and the untouchability of the people in those lists respected, by those who were supposed to investigate and prosecute them for crimes.
The Fico-type party does not expel members because of corruption or abuse of power. But punishment and expulsion is certain for those who criticise the head of their adopted family. If public pressure gets too great, those caught in acts of corruption or abuse of power leave the party so as not to harm it. Then they are quietly given a position at an embassy or some useless department.
They have been gradually undermining the rule of law, so it was only a matter of time before Marian Kočner appeared, feeling safe and operating with the belief that in politics there are only two moral levels: low and lower still. After collecting dirt on the powerful so that he could blackmail them all when necessary, he ordered the murder of a journalist to scare everyone.
Like Spoilt Children
A whole political generation treats freedom as if it is only going to last for one parliamentary term. They do not think about what is going to happen the day after they are no longer in power. Often, most of their energy is invested in ensuring their rule never ends.
They deceive voters when they say that democracy will endure even as they pile their plates high with only the tastiest morsels: privileges without duties, freedom without responsibility, words without consequences. They shout that it is liberals or agents of foreign powers who are interpreting democracy wrongly when they say that the rights of minorities cannot be curbed with impunity because the majority wishes so. This is precisely the substance of Western democracy without adjectives attached to it by autocrats – it protects human rights against the tyranny of the majority if the majority is hijacked by populism.
Decent and honest people are not a threatened minority at the edge of society.
A Populist Puzzle
Today some politicians trying to win our votes promise an unrealistic, distorted and deceitful version of the world – a world in which voters themselves define borders and pick who gets to be first class co-citizens, making everyone else invisible and voiceless. Major national tragedies have often started with voters believing such a society is possible.
Thirty years after the revolution, some people in the Visegrad region nod in approval at dictators who claim that human nature is not compliant with liberal democracy, and democracy therefore needs to be modified. That each nation can modify democracy according to its own needs, even to extremes, based on the government it has chosen.
They create enemies of the nation using well-known stereotypes, resurrected from history with great effort using the help of conspiracy websites, because a frightened voter is more willing to divide human rights into those of “others” and those who are “we, who come first above all.” But there is not one version of human rights for white heterosexual Central European men and another generic one for others.
After thirty years we find ourselves at the border between freedom and ‘un-freedom’, and those who are hijacking the future assure us that they are only protecting the identity of the nation against enemies, enemies they cooked up using the recipes of successful autocrats.
But we are not powerless. Decent and honest people are not a threatened minority at the edge of society. Maybe they do not shout as loudly, but they do have a voice.
They raise their children and try to live every day with dignity. Each according to their possibilities. They tell their children to look left and right before crossing the road, to politely greet people they know and say thanks if someone does something for them. They tell them that lying is wrong and that they must study diligently and to achieve something in life. It is highly unlikely they would suggest Marian Kočner as a role model.
They go to work every day. Sometimes they worry they might lose their job, since they know work is the only possible way to feed the family. They heal, teach, clean, grow fruit and vegetables, raise animals, distribute meals, drive, transport passengers or travel. Day after day.
They do not steal or bribe and if we asked if they do, they might object: corruption is not a national instinct or characteristic.
People who understand that education is not a type of shame that needs to be concealed are not a total minority in this country yet. People who read and who teach their children to read. People who expect a politician to do the best for them and not use slogans to appeal to their basest instincts. A person in solidarity with others is not a species threatened by extinction. A decent country is not a requirement of only those who are labelled by the impolite minority as coffee-house intellectuals and do-nothings.
And a lot of people understand that again today, as always, we are fighting for our freedom.