Charter 77 was a landmark petition that demanded that the government of communist Czechoslovakia recognize basic human rights that, on paper, it already recognized. Signed by a small group of brave people, it represented a bold claim for truth and honesty against a government steeped in lies. One of the ways that ordinary people kept the embers of liberty alive during those dark years was through the “underground university”—illicit educational courses run with the help of western scholars. Today, two of the veterans of this struggle for intellectual freedom reflect on their experiences.
Alena Hromadkova was a signatory of Charter 77, who, from 1979 to 1989, was involved in running the Jan Hus Educational Foundation in Prague, which arranged for Oxford scholars to secretly give lectures in communist Czechoslovakia and earned the label of “ideologically subversive center.” Dr. Barbara Day, a British scholar, studied theatre in Prague in the 1960s, returning at the beginning of the 1980s to research her dissertation on the Theatre on the Balustrade and the tradition of small stage theatre. This led to contacts with the “underground university” and the Jan Hus Educational Foundation, for which she worked as liaison between Britain and Czechoslovakia until 1989. She published the story of the underground university in The Velvet Philosophers and now divides her time between translation and teaching courses on Czech theatre and culture under the Communist regime.
Theoretical generalizations about the abolition of private property, the end of the rule of law, and class warfare have little meaning for young people today. Nevertheless, these words had and still have an inexpressibly cruel content: they meant the confiscation of prosperous agricultural settlements and the expulsion from their homes of their owners, the similar confiscation of factories and insurance companies, the abolition of not only monasteries but also sports clubs and organizations like the Scouts and the YMCA, and of independent trade unions.
Directly and indirectly, this affected my family too. My father was a lawyer and ended up as a night watchman in a Prague cemetery. Nevertheless, we were happy he was not sent to a concentration camp. That was why I never considered myself a victim, since although we were severely discriminated against, we were never physically persecuted. My brother’s experience was worse than mine. The eldest son of a class enemy (moreover, a Christian), he was expelled from a leading gymnasium (grammar school/high school) and forced to leave home to learn a trade. My second brother, in his desire for an education, emigrated to West Germany where he studied history. I had problems in getting into university as well, but at the beginning of the 1960s my enthusiasm for sports made it easier for me. I did not have a reason to think of myself as a victim, and instead I had time to devote to ways of dismantling the Communist regime.
The experiences of the politically thinking classes, or what was left of them, offered a definitive confirmation that for the Communists, children were and would always be a means of social control over their politically unreliable parents. This therefore meant that some way should be found of educating them outside the official school system.
In the 1980s, thanks to visitors from Western European universities—mainly Oxford—I had access to books and to people who gave us hope and the will to develop intellectually. I will not describe the persecution waged in Orwellian style by the StB (the Czechoslovak secret police) on private seminars about political philosophy, modern history, theology, ecology, art, etc. Eventually a prosecution was brought against me—fortunately, timed for December 1989, when new events were already in full flow, so that I did not have to “confess” to my regular contacts with what the StB called an Oxford-based “ideologically subversive centre.”
I consider the educational work of the Jan Hus Foundation to have been a crucial blow to official indoctrination and as one of the most important attempts to establish intellectual reflection and self-development in our country. Thanks to this, I could take a new approach to everything, after decades of concealment and untruthful explanations. Those who are interested in life under utopian conditions—which would make a nice joke if they had not been the daily reality for millions of people—will learn more from one of the great friends and students of Czech life and culture—Dr. Barbara Day.
I first experienced Czechoslovakia in the mid-1960s, when it was emerging from the Stalinism described by Alena—only to be plunged into the artificial “normalization” imposed after the Soviet invasion, described to me by one of the students of the underground seminars as a “world of communism and lies.” I was introduced to the Jan Hus Educational Foundation in 1985 by friends in the Czech theater (the theater at that time paradoxically represented the strongest oppositional force to dissemblance and untruth). For the previous five years the JHEF had worked without regular paid assistance—the program was organized by its founder-philosophers on a voluntary basis, and the lecturers who visited the underground seminars did so without payment, often covering their own expenses. Over the next five years we worked to expand its influence—intensifying the work in Prague, extending it to Brno and Bratislava, and introducing a course which could be examined externally by the Cambridge University Examining Board, thus giving students access to internationally-recognized qualifications. As Alena describes, the range of disciplines expanded from pure philosophy to include political science, social science, contemporary history, central European studies, theology, environmental studies, literature, art and music.
Towards the end of the 1980s we sensed that maybe the Communist regime would come to an end in our lifetime (although we were still thinking in terms of decades) and it became important to reach beyond the “dissident ghetto.” This division of the population had been the deliberate aim of the Communists, pursued by the StB in actions such as “Operation Wedge,” “Operation Isolation,” and “Operation Cleansing,” in which they denigrated the opposition, making them out to be idlers, criminals and traitors. The public was encouraged to denounce them in propaganda acts such as putting their names to the “Anti-Charter” (officially known as “New Creative Deeds in the Name of Socialism and Peace” ) or more subtly through their negative portrayal in popular TV serials.
The JHEF meanwhile supported the involvement of the public in unofficial activities initiated by open-minded and courageous individuals in different fields of work, often at risk to their personal lives and careers. The visitors from Oxford and other universities had to take great care not to compromise their Czech and Slovak colleagues. All the names and directions needed for their visits had to be memorized and every item or piece of literature carried had to have its justification, since there was always the possibility they could be searched on the border. The worst that the foreigners could anticipate was expulsion from the country (or a night in a cell, like the visiting French philosopher Jacques Derrida in 1982). Czechs and Slovaks on the other hand were vulnerable to extreme abuse from their own government—expulsion from university, loss of employment, ultimately even a prison sentence.
It was these same colleagues who were determined after 1989 to continue the work. With the help of the British and French founders, they set up the Czechoslovak Jan Hus Education Foundation based in Brno, which currently dispenses grants and stipends worth over a million crowns annually to aid the quality of teaching in universities and secondary schools.