Kramářova vila is the official residence of the Czech prime minister, currently Bohuslav Sobotka. I’m at a reception at the villa in honour of Miroslav Kusý, one of the few Slovak signatories of Charter 77. He is receiving the Karel Kramář Award from the prime minister for his contributions towards Czech and Slovak understanding. The event is attended by several notable figures, including historians, fellow Charter 77 signatories such as Vilém Prečan and Senator Petr Pithart, and the Slovak ambassador Peter Weiss.
We’re just awaiting the prime minister, and I am joined by Jiřina Šiklová, sociologist and Charter 77 signatory. Could you tell me a little bit about Miroslav Kusý, the work he has done and why you believe he is deserving of this award?
“Miro Kusý belonged to this one relatively small group of so-called dissidents in Slovakia. After signing Charter 77 he experienced many difficulties. I remember when he once arrived in Prague and he said that it was so nice to be in the Czech capital, as we have a whole group of dissidents here. But in Bratislava he said he was so alone.”
So why were there fewer dissidents in Slovakia? Were the communists better at suppressing dissent?
“I think that in Slovakia they received something connected with so-called nationalism. They had Gustav Husák as president of Czechoslovakia. There was also the figure of (ousted party secretary) Alexander Dubček. And I think there was a connection to this. I think the Czech lands were worse off in this political situation. We were – if you’ll forgive me for saying – not as obedient as the majority of the Slovaks...”
Prime minister Bohuslav Sobotka then arrived and made remarks:
“I would like this award be understood as a symbol of respect towards those people who, during the 1960s, pushed for democratic conditions in our countries, and also as a symbolic reminder that back then democratisation and the push for freedom was a joint Czechoslovak project. In roughly one year’s time, we will be marking notable anniversaries, which both our countries share. I firmly believe that the legacy of Charter 77 should be among the legacies celebrated on such an occasion. As well as the legacy of the Prague Spring, and the whole process of democratisation, which led to the fall of the communist regime in Czechoslovakia.”
“Miroslav Kusý is a figure, who undoubtedly embodies this entire era. He was a part of the reformist movement in the 1960s. During the normalisation era, this brought him considerable problems, including coming under surveillance by the state authorities. Miroslav Kusý was also one of a small number of signatories of Charter 77. And he joined fully with this group in battling for a more just, democratic and free Czechoslovakia.”
Mirtoslav Kusý then accepted the award from Bohuslav Sobotka, and afterwards the assembled guests mingled with refreshments. I asked Senator Petr Pithart, also a former dissident and Charter 77 signatory, for his thoughts on the Czech and Slovak anti-communist struggle:
“Slovakia endured a different kind of normalisation process than in the Czech lands. And that meant that becoming a dissident in Slovakia required not only greater courage, but also, in a sense, a greater awareness of basic common sense. Because we dissidents knew that Czech and Slovak relations would represent a problem.”
Petr Pithart, a firm advocate of the Czechoslovak state back in the early 1990s, then expressed his regrets over the breakup of the country in 1993:
“It is very sad. I always took great inspiration from the Slovaks. They had a different perspective on many matters, and that was very important. We’ve lost that now. We lost our second pair of eyes, which supplemented our Czech ones. Which is why I was so strongly against the break-up of Czechoslovakia. I argued that we would then just have one pair of eyes. And we then became the most ethnically ‘cleaned out’ nation in Europe, and some of our behaviour has been a result of that.”
Miroslav Kusý was born in Bratislava in 1931. He studied Marxist philosophy at Prague’s Charles University, joined the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, and ended up working as an official at the ministry of education. He returned to Slovakia in 1957, working at the Faculty of History, Philosophy and Logic at Comenius University in Bratislava until 1962, subsequently shifting to the Faculty of Historical Materialism. By this time a professor of Marxist philosophy, Kusý became a member of the Central Committee of the Slovak Communist party in 1968. But following the Soviet invasion, the reformist professor – who was already becoming increasingly disillusioned with the communist system – was sacked from the university and prevented from teaching anywhere. Instead, Kusý made a living as a librarian at Comenius University.
In 1977, Kusý put his name to a fateful document, namely Charter 77, which called on the Czechoslovak government to adhere to its human rights commitments under the recently signed Helsinki Final Act. That brought him under secret police surveillance and brought about further demotion, with Kusý now only able to work as a manual labourer. Undaunted, Kusý maintained close ties with fellow Charter 77 dissidents, who sought to catalogue and disseminate non-regime-censored news and cultural information to ordinary citizens. Such activities led to a stint in prison in late 1989, in part for the crime of publishing his views on the US-backed Radio Free Europe station. Kusý was also an active member of the Public Against Violence movement, which served as the Slovak mirror of the Václav Havel-led Czech Civic Forum. After the Velvet Revolution, Kusý briefly took to politics, becoming a member of the Czechoslovak Federal Assembly. Then Kusý returned to teaching political science at Comenius University and other institutions, also serving a number of human rights-based organisations such as the Slovak Helsinki Committee and even as UNESCO Chair for Human Rights Education.
Slovak ambassador to the Czech Republic Peter Weiss paid tribute to Miroslav Kusý’s contributions both as a political scientist and politician:
Vilém Prečan, founder of the Czechoslovak Documentation Centre, which catalogues samizdat publications during the communist era, also had strong praise for Miroslav Kusý. I caught up with him at an evening held in honour of the dissident at the Slovak Centre in Prague:
“He joined Charter 77 and was the Slovak voice of Charter 77. He published important politological texts via the Czechoslovak samizdat, and also abroad.”
Are you glad he was honoured today by the prime minister and received this award?
“Yes, because it is a small demonstration that the political establishment of today has not forgotten this important period of the struggle for human rights, democracy and freedom in Czechoslovakia.”
Finally, I had a brief opportunity to catch up with Miroslav Kusý himself. The octogenarian political scientist expressed his joy at winning the Karel Kramář Award, which is named after the early 20th century politician who battled against the Austro-Hungarian Empire in favour of an independent Czechoslovak state, and who became the first prime minister of this newly established nation in 1918:
“It was a great honour for me to receive this prize. Because Karel Kramář is a representative of the Czechoslovak line in the evolution of both nations. So he represents a connection between the two. For myself, who was born as a Czechoslovak, and who will probably end his life – I am 85 now, so I have to accept (my life is drawing to a close) – that this is my last contact with the Czech Republic. And for me, as a member of another state, it is a great honour.”
You are one of a very small number of Slovaks who signed the Charter 77 document. So why were there so few? Were the communists more effective at crushing dissent in Slovakia?
“By chance I was the only person who signed Charter 77 in Bratislava. There were two other Slovaks who were living at the time in Prague – Dominik Tatarka, who was a novelist and Ján Mlynárik, who was a historian. If I knew I was going to be the only one in Slovakia, maybe I might not have signed it!” [laughs]
Because it represented a great risk...
“You know, at the time when I signed it, we did not know what would follow. For me I had great enthusiasm to see the people who were signing on after us, who knew by then that they would endure persecution as a result.”
“Well, it was more than twenty years to be basically removed out of the society in which I lived. That is to say my friends faced problems in even meeting with me because I was being followed and persecuted by the security services. It was an unusual situation. The only one plus from it was that I started to be a member of an excellent community. There was Václav Havel, with whom I became friends, and many others – novelists and former politicians – and these became friends for my entire life.”
And you are one of the disillusioned communists, because you were a member of the party and taught Marxism. And after the 1968 invasion you became disillusioned, if that's the right way to describe it...
“Yes, of course. I gained the title of professor at a very young age. I thought that in Czechoslovakia it could take thirty years. And so I believed at the time that I was some kind of an important person for the regime [laughs]. But it was bad enough for the regime that I signed. I was politically active in 1968, and then later I signed Charter 77. For the regime it was enough for them to say that they don’t want these kind of people in their ranks.
“When I signed Charter 77 I was convinced that it was some kind of a genuine way to pressure the communist regime to fulfill their promises. That it was some kind of a special step against the communists. But within the community around Václav Havel, and in confrontations with people such as these, I then came to believe that it was actually some kind of promise for my entire life. That it was not just a way to maneuver the communists, but rather a step against all forms of persecution.”
The Charter 77 text, initially signed by 242 people, was published on January 6, 1977. Next year will mark the 40th anniversary of this monumental event.