The English journalist and writer Misha Glenny is perhaps best known for his work covering the disintegration of Yugoslavia and the hit 2008 book McMafia. His first book The Rebirth of History, published in 1990, focused on the post-communist political landscape of Eastern Europe, including Czechoslovakia, a country with which he had a close association. Indeed, Glenny had studied Czech in Prague, and remembers with fondness his time here in the early ‘80s. When we spoke recently at the close of the Forum 2000 conference in the city, he recalled his very first visit, towards the end of 1980.
“I’ll never forget seeing the Rudé Pravo building, all the slogans about Se Sovětským svazem na věčné časy [With the Soviet Union Forever], and these sorts of things. It was incredibly sort of Cold War romantic.
“I knew I had to learn a Slavic language – my father spoke Russian very well. And I thought, I will come back, and instead of learning Russian, I will learn Czech.
“I applied for and got a British Council scholarship to be here from September 1981 through to June 1982. I was here for 10 months, at Na Petřinách, at the kolej [student dorms] up there.
“God, it was wonderful. It was probably the most wonderful year of my life, even though it was kind of miserable because it was mature normalisation, and everything was kind of irritating.
“But I was young, I was footloose and fancy free. I learned Czech, I got in touch with the opposition, had all sorts of adventures. It was fab.”
Did you come back many times between then and 1989?
“I came back a lot, because I had friends and they couldn’t come and see me, obviously. Then in 1986 I moved to Vienna and became first of all the correspondent there for the Guardian.
“Then at the beginning of 1989 I was appointed to the BBC World Service Central Europe correspondent job. So I travelled from Vienna to Prague all the time, back and forth, back and forth, reporting.”
“Well, I had to apply for my povolení, my permit, and so on. But this is pretty much post-Helsinki [Accords], and we were given quite a lot of freedom.
“I was arrested a couple of times, and on the May 1st demonstration in 1989 I was beaten up somewhat by the StB, the secret police, and thrown in prison for a day or so.
“But on the whole we were able to dig quite deep in terms of what was going on. Not just the stories about the dissidents and what was happening in the party, but also a lot of social stories where you kind of felt things were changing.
“We were all expecting the change, unlike most intelligence agencies in the West. We knew that the end was near because everything was just falling apart. Not so much here in Czechoslovakia, but certainly in Poland, and Hungary was unsustainable as well.”
What are your strongest memories of the actual revolution itself here?
“It was just amazing. It was quite bad weather, from November 17th onwards. I was driving backwards and forwards the whole time between Prague and Bratislava, because I felt that nothing was being covered in Slovakia and that you needed to do that. I would rush from one demo in Bratislava and then up to a demo in Prague.
“It was fantastic, because I knew Dientsbier, I knew Havel, I knew most of the new government and what was happening, in terms of who was going to be in the new government, how it was going to be formed, what the party was doing.
“It was professionally just the most spectacular time of my life. And personally as well. Look, I was a BBC reporter, but I thought the communist system in Czechoslovakia was particularly stupid in many respects, and I wasn’t sad to see it go. So professionally and personally it was just wonderful, the whole thing.
“Of course what I hadn’t anticipated was the wars in Yugoslavia, which was really from the sublime to the utterly tragic.
“Also I was deeply disappointed by the split between the Czech lands and Slovakia. I thought that was unnecessary. And I was glad to see that Slovakia came into the European Union in 2004 as well, and that effectively now there is no tension between the two parts.”
Is it my imagination, or did I read somewhere that during the Velvet Revolution people chanted your name?
“It is true! I think this was on the 19th or the 20th [of November] and there was a demo that began way up near the bridge, the bridge that leads across the valley to Palác kultury [the Palace of Culture, now Kongresové centrum, the Congress Centre].
“They started there. I was kind of darting here and there, and at the time my voice was very well known. Somebody said, oh look, it’s Misha Glenny, it’s Misha Glenny. And then they all started chanting, ať žije Misha Glenny, ať žije Misha Glenny [long live MG], which I thought was most amusing. Unfortunately I didn’t get it on tape.”
How do you feel all these years later when you come back and you see how things have developed?
“I find the advertising a bit much, and a lot of the commercialism of the city centre. Although, having said that, I find it’s very easy to get out of the commercialism in the city centre and just going to some of the districts outside you can find the same pub atmosphere.
“You can still get drunk for very little money, which when I was a student was part of the entertainment. Now of course I’m much more sober and sensible than that…Not.
“If you have friends, if you know people in the city, you can still get a sense of what it was like before. There was this fantastic…communist aesthetic where it was all rather grim and boring, but you saw the buildings, which were fantastically beautiful.
“Prague was a very different experience from somewhere like Bucharest, which was just so depressing. Prague was depressing, but you could always find ways of livening things up, usually through the people.
“These days I have to say I’m not hugely enamoured of the political culture. The whole Klaus phenomenon is one which frankly I find unappealing. I also think that Václav Havel, although his heart was in the right place, turned out to be a rather bad politician, in terms of the tactical and strategic sense.
“It hasn’t been as effective as a country as it might have been, but Czechs are still in relative terms a very hard-working, very creative and interesting bunch.
“Just one observation: London is now flooded with Poles. Wherever you go, there are Poles absolutely everywhere. Very few Czechs come to live and work in London, and not that many in Germany. Obviously there are more in Germany, but…it’s interesting. They’re more content in their own skins the Czechs, in a way, than the Poles are. That I think is to do with the underlying economic strength, relatively, of Bohemia and Moravia.”
Have you maintained friendships with the people you knew here 30 years ago?
“Yes, I have. In fact last night when I was drinking, I was drinking with the Pop Idol [Česko hledá SuperStar] star Ondřej Hejma. He’s a great lad from the old days. He’s going to be 60 next year – can you imagine?
“And one of the chief organisers of Forum 2000, which I’m attending now, Olda [Oldřich] Černý – when Olda before the revolution was head of dubbing at Barrandov studios we used to translate films together.
“I helped him translate Alien into Czech. I remember also doing Time Bandits, as well, which the authorities then banned, because the final scene includes a supreme being, and they decided this was offending the atheist sensibilities of the party.
“That never got through, but we had a great time doing it. And of course after that there was nothing to do so we’d just go off drinking and playing cards, and we had time of our lives.
“So there are people like Olda and Ondřej who I still see, and some other people as well. It’s great. Their lives are completely different now, of course, and so is mine. But it’s really nice having a touch of the old nostalgia now and then.”
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