A Talk With a Samizdat Writer

Interview with Jiří Dienstbier

By Metta Spencer (interviewer) | 1987-04-01 12:00:00

At the time of the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, Jiří Dienstbier was a broadcaster. His straightforward commentary on the invasion assured his prompt dismissal. Never since then has he been able to work as a journalist in his country, but he continues to write “samizdat” -books and articles which the Czech government tries to suppress but which are published and distributed in an “underground” network. Dienstbier works as a furnace stoker in Prague and is active in Charta 77, an independent organization that works to restore democracy in Central Europe. Some 3000 people have publicly signed the Charta 77 manifesto, putting themselves into jeopardy with the regime: They immediately lose their professional jobs, may be sent to prison — some up to nine years — and their children may he denied a complete education. Dienstbier and Spencer talked in the library of his well-appointed Prague apartment last fall.

PEACE MAGAZINE: I have a message from members of Freedom and Peace in Warsaw. I saw them last week and they would like more contact with your group.

DIENSTBIER: [Laughs ruefully.] We would like more contact with them too, but it’s impossible. We’ve not been allowed to travel for seventeen years now. We are offered, from time to time, one-way passports westward, but if we leave the country they’ll deprive us of citizenship and that means that anybody who wants to remain here doesn’t dare accept

P.M.: What happened today? I understand you were interrogated by the police.

DIENSTBIER: Oh, I was just called as a witness in a case of a man from a town in Bohemia, but I don’t know anything about it. There were so-called elections here in the spring and he applied to register as a candidate for the federal assembly-as a Deputy in parliament. He was refused, so he appealed to the Constitutional Court, which is specified in the constitution but was never appointed. To appeal to this non-existent court (which we are supposed to have) was too big a provocation. His brother worked as his secretary and they typed up and distributed his program. So this would — the candidate was arrested.

P.M.: In Budapest they were talking about how it is now possible to stand for election. They are not allowed to have other political patties, but individual candidates can run. So he might have been all right in Hungary.

DIENSTBIER: Yes, in Hungary it would have been normal. But even in Hungary. there are men who tried, but who were not allowed to he candidates. In such a system, anyone who tries to he a candidate against the official party candidate must he active in the opposition-because no one would he such a fool as to do it otherwise and endanger the possibility of making money in his profession. In Hungary it was made necessary that such an independent candidate win support from three meetings of voters. One such candidate, who was running against the Foreign Minister, won the support of one meeting, but in the second meeting the room was arranged to be full, hours before the candidate came. His supporters couldn’t get in, and he was not nominated. But anyway it’s better than here; you can at least discuss opposition views openly in front of 1000 people, for instance, even If you can’t actually expect to be nominated as a result.

P.M.: What do you say when people ask you, “Why are you so foolish?”

DIENSTBIER: If I want to joke, I say I’m too lazy to pretend, to mask what I think. And second, I was suited for this because after I was expelled from the radio, the Communist Party, and the Union of Journalists, I had practically no other possibility. I couldn’t just let them do all these things without protesting. Well, I did have the possibility of keeping quiet. But that is possibly the third reason: I simply can’t. [We laugh.] I am simply born to say what I think about what I see. I muse say It.

P.M.: You were a radio journalist?

DIENSTBIER: Yes, a political commentator and a correspondent in the Far East and the U.S. in the sixties.

P.M.: You were dismissed for doing what?

DIENSTBIER: For doing my work. The whole office was dismissed. It wasn’t just me — there was no one left. Two thousand journalists were expelled from the Union of Journalists after ’68, you see. Half a million people were expelled from the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia. This party was completely changed. This policy of “normalization” was the complete dissolution of all social structures. From the university, the majority of professors were expelled and out of jobs. Half of Czechoslovak writers, the best of them, were forbidden to publish. Some of them emigrated, like [Josef] Skvorecky. Others are here and publish in samizdat but they have not been allowed to publish for 17 years now. We have a thousand books now published in samizdat. [Gets up and pulls some books off the shelf.) This is Vaclav Havel’s latest play. This is my book. It’s bound like a book. but typewritten. Our techniques are primitive. We are not in such a position as the Poles, who publish their samizdat books in underground publishing houses with 10,000 copies. Just ten or twelve copies published and then we mimeograph them and publish 100 or 150. Here’s a book by Jaroslav Sabata. And then Josef Skvorecky publishes them so they look like this. [Shows a handsome paperback volume] Skvorecky and his wife are the most important editors of Czech literature in all history. Fantastic! For fifteen years they’ve been the best publishing house of Czech literature in the world. They keep Czech literature alive by publishing [in Toronto]. Without them we’d have only these copies.

P.M.: Do you see any change in public opinion here?

DIENSTBIER: It has been unchanged for many years.

P.M.: Does that hold for young people too?

DIENSTBIER: Yes. After so many years, the decay is more visible now and lots of young people have discussion groups. There was even a demonstration in December here on the anniversary of the death of John Lennon. For the first time, several hundred young people marched through the streets of Prague and police didn’t stop them. However, many of the them were later interrogated. They wanted to form a new peace group. During their demonstration they signed an appeal against the medium range missiles in Europe in both the West and East. But after the interrogation they didn’t succeed in forming their group.

P.M.: Why?

DIENSTBIER: They were not prepared for the experience with the secret police. After a talk at police headquarters, most people prefer to avoid another of that kind.

P.M.: What do people think about Gorbachev?

DIENSTBIER: The majority don’t believe that changes are possible. Even if he understands what is necessary for Russia and this part of the world, the opposition is terrible against such an understanding. It concerns the privileges of millions of apparatchiks in these countries. On the other hand, some optimism is warranted. If the system wishes to compete, it can’t simply stagnate forever, as it has over the past twenty years. The gap is widening day by day. If the Soviet Union wishes to he a great power even in the 21st century it must change. That is impossible without releasing the initiative of people. But you can’t have initiative when, as now, the only acceptable thing for people to do is to do what they are ordered from above. They don’t have any space for creativity. So that means a change of the political system, but whether it is possible in Russia now, nobody knows.

When I talk with Russians, for instance, they are for Gorbachev, but they always say that he will lose. The bureaucracy will either destroy him or he will finally understand that he can’t go further than the bureaucracy will accept. He has a big weapon in the fight against alcoholism and he can use it against his opponents. He can destroy them by fighting alcoholism.

P.M.: I don’t understand.

DIENSTBIER: Everybody is for Gorbachev now, but everybody drinks. You can destroy your enemies, not because they are against you — nobody is against the General Secretary — but because they drink. It is his political tool against his opponents.

P.M.: Do you think he has used this “tool”?

DIENSTBIER: Yes, I think it stared with Romanov in the Politburo, and others who went, not because they were opponents of Gorbachev but because they were drunkards. But they were opponents!

P.M.: I’ve heard that his campaign against alcoholism has cut social pathologies and that it’s gaining support.

DIENSTBIER: Yes, because the statistics are terrible. There are millions of alcoholics in the Soviet Union, you see. The growing mental diseases, and the children born mentally damaged because of alcoholism! There is a growing Muslim population in the Soviet Union and Muslims don’t drink. Russians drink. And it destroys the position of the Russians in the Soviet Union.

P.M.: Tell me about your book.

DIENSTBIER: It’s called Dreaming of Europe. I explain to the younger generation that there is nothing inevitable about the Soviet-American condominium of the world. I want to encourage an active approach to our own destiny. I point to the cultural unity of our countries. I point out that things are not final and that what happened resulted, not from destiny, but from the concrete policies of different nations, ideologies, nationalisms, and so on.

Not only we, but everybody has problems. All these problems together form an agenda which might he solved together because we can’t solve any problem without regard to the others. That was shown by the failure of the campaign against the medium range missiles in Western Europe. Millions of people in the streets couldn’t succeed because this is only one of the problems. But if we don’t have a common strategy for the future, we can’t succeed in any single demand. It all goes together.

P.M.: That’s good to hear because what I’m interested in is a demilitarized zone in Europe — some version of, say, the plan that Rapacki [the Polish Foreign Minister] proposed in the fifties. I wanted to find out how much basis there is for establishing a common platform for the peace-and-freedom movements of the East and West. One reason for doing so is that, in the West’ one of the hindrances to mobilizing support for the peace movement is that it is believed not to be interested in the plight of Central Europe. So I think our agenda must include the opening up of Europe as an integral part of the disarmament campaign. If we did so, I think we could grow.

DIENSTBIER: What are the crises of Eastern Europe? What were the Berlin of ’53, and Budapest and Warsaw of ’56, and Czechoslovakia of ’68, and Warsaw of ’80? It is just a demonstration that these nations simply won’t accept the division of the territory on which, for a thousand years, everybody could go wherever he liked — to Rome or to Moscow. The suppression of this movement by Soviet tanks or Jaruzelski’s tanks shows the Western people that the Central Europeans simply must he afraid of the Russians. That’s why they support the armaments in the West, a strong NATO, Reagan’s SDI and so on.

I read some statistics after the [first] Reagan- Gorbachev meeting showing that about 60 percent of Americans support SDI, but 75 percent would have preferred a substantial agreement about nuclear arms. But no one is willing to risk unilateral disarmament. You simply can’t believe that an opponent will respect unilateral disarmament.

P.M.: Most people in the peace movement can understand that. Most Western peace activists don’t call for unilateral disarmament, despite the use of the term. It’s more accurate to say that they want a unilateral initiative.

DIENSTBIER: Yes, but that was not the situation five years ago. This understanding has formed gradually. I must say, after several years of discussion between Charta 77 and the West European peace movement, lots of ideas have changed, both in the Western peace movement and here. In the beginning, people here just saw the Western peace movement as direct agents of Moscow—as fools who simply don’t understand what everybody in the streets of Prague have known for many years. We really have to understand that all this must go together.

P.M.: Yes. In 1984 I attended some discussions in Belgium of a proposal for a demilitarized Europe. It would involve, not only removing nuclear weapons, but also the foreign troops and weapons of both sides. And greatly reducing the nations’ local military forces as well. About a hundred of us talked about the idea for three days. Everyone sounded positive — including the Soviets, even though it seems clear that it would mean the loss of political dominance in Central Europe. The trade-off for them is that it would include West Germany. If that were included in a demilitarized Europe, I think the Soviets would be open to the idea. Gorbachev wants disarmament and if he has enough clout to pull it off, I think he might be open to demilitarizing Europe. If anybody, it would be Reagan who would want to stop it.

DIENSTBIER: Reagan does the worst possible things to support the conservative element in the Soviet bureaucracy. He really helps the repressive people in the Soviet leadership.

P.M.: Yes, but if he were offered an opportunity to liberate Central Europe — get it opened up as a trade-off for disarmament-I don’t see how he could afford to refuse it.

DIENSTBIER: Yes, but he won’t be offered it. It must he a gradual process, started on many levels. Gorbachev simply can’t take the armies from Central and Eastern Europe next year. It might mean explosions [drastic uprisings] that would endanger the whole process. You have to do all these things gradually. I am sure that people here would expect very good relations with the Soviet Union — why not? It is our neighbor. We need good relations with all neighbors. But it can’t come about through explosions. If there are explosions it will be terrible.

P.M.: I recently read a speculation by someone on how Soviet control of Central Europe might come unravelled. He said uprisings might start in Poland and might spread to one country after another. The writer considered that a hopeful scenario, but I agree with you: Any violent uprising would he dangerous. For one thing, it would mean that Gorbachev would be ousted in the Soviet Union. I think Gorbachev will do a lot of good if he can get concessions from the U.S. If his strength is consolidated by success in negotiating arms reductions, he could then, from the top, make a deal that might include something like a demilitarized Central Europe. At least that seems plausible if Central Europe doesn’t explode. But in Poland everyone says there will certainly be other uprisings and, while Solidarity was a nonviolent, non-explosive movement, there is no assurance that the next one will he.

DIENSTBIER: But there is great opposition to Gorbachev. He can’t do just anything he likes. The business of Daniloff and Zacharov showed that. It was an open attack against the summit and the possible agreement. That means that it won’t he easy even at the level of the chiefs of the superpowers. But I think that if we start to understand the interrelation of all these things and start to develop some common strategy of citizens’ initiatives, we can gradually have more and more influence on the policy-making. Because it is not that the governments are against peace. No government is against peace, and the military establishments on both sides don’t want to go to war but they do want to keep their privileges. They can be over-run by a coalition of reasonable politicians and citizen societies. Before that can happen. we must have citizen societies here. For us it’s the first peace initiative — the fight for human rights. The human rights are just a means to do other things. If you can’t speak openly, how can you fight for anything? And if the governments are not controlled by the open society, you can’t believe such governments. They can do whatever they like. Wester peace movements can at least force their governments not to lie too much. But here you can’t force your government to do anything. They can hide anything.

The situations here and in the West are incomparable. Take, for example the women of Greenham Common! If any Czech woman does one-tenth of what the women at Greenham Common do, she will get fifteen years in prison immediately! And if she penetrates the base she can get an instant death penalty. I think the fight for the right of people to Speak openly all over the world, in South Africa as in Czechoslovakia or Chile, is simply the first necessity. Without this there will he no peace.

P.M.: Yes. And yet ironically, the U.S., which has far more opportunities for people to he political, is clearly leading the arms race.

DIENSTBIER: Yes, but it is always this way. They are leading the race because technologically they are twenty years ahead. That is the problem.

P.M.: But it’s no accident that they are twenty years ahead. They are organizing all the time to develop the next new system. The U.S. contains enormous numbers of people who have an investment in the military-industrial complex. And for any of them to reverse themselves is a costly thing. For example, my mother worked thirty years for the U.S. Air Force. To mention disarmament implies that her life was wrong, so she can’t consider it. There are so many people whose careers are mixed up in this Situation, that it is extremely difficult for the peace movement to make any headway.

DIENSTBIER: But you must understand that the Soviet Union is even worse. A much higher percentage of people is connected with the military-industrial complex. That makes it worse psychologically in the Soviet Union.

P.M.: I suppose so. There is going to be a meeting in Vienna next month to announce a new common program that is supported by both the Eastern and Western movements. Am you sending anybody to it?

DIENSTBIER: Halt! We can’t send anybody. But we sent many amendments and proposals to the text.

P.M.: Apparently a lot of the ideas in it came from the Prague Appeal [which Charta 77 published].

DIENSTBIER: Yes, the Prague Appeal is now one and a half years old. There has been a big discussion of it [in human rights and peace organizations]. That’s another problem. We received about 100 responses to the Prague Appeal, and we need a group who will write a paper on it But we can’t do it. We simply don’t have the people. There is a very small group who can work on this question because for twenty years one hasn’t been able to get acquainted with international policy. A few of us worked in this sphere twenty some years ago. Jiří Hajek, the former Foreign Minister, myself, and some other people who were professionally occupied by foreign policy questions. People who are younger than forty have been able to listen to the radio, but not to work with these texts and these materials. If you need to formulate something in this sphere you need professionals for this. You must know the historical connections, and so on. Otherwise if someone starts to talk about the Palme Commission and the Rapacki Plan, they wouldn’t know what these were.

P.M.: Would that be a central part of the plan that you would like to see come out of Vienna — one developing the Rapacki Plan, or the Palme Corridor plan? Would that be what you would like to see the Western peace movement adopt as a major cause?

DIENSTBIER: There is no major cause. All causes are major. Everything forms a chain which you can pick up and work from at any point. For instance, the Labour Party from London replied to the Prague Appeal by saying that first we have to form a new security system and afterwards we can talk about questions like Germany and neutral zones and so on, because to do so would just worsen the situation now. But how can you talk about the new security system without solving for instance the question of Berlin? You can’t make any security system without solving the question of Germany. You can’t solve the question of Germany without solving the great powers fighting for influence. And to speak about zones of influence brings up the question, for instance, of the sovereignty of Central and Eastern European states. But that in turn is not only an international problem. It is also a Soviet internal problem, because whenever you let Czechoslovakia or Poland go their free way, what would the nations of the Ukraine, the Baltic States, and Georgians, and Armenians, and this whole [Soviet) Muslim population say? (we laugh.) You see, it is all connected.

I think the main thing is to think: We have a divided world now and we have to** overcome this division. We can discuss how to force our governments to acknowledge that division is not the real basis of peace. The real basis of peace is the trend to change this post-war situation. Then we can discuss everything. All questions are open and there is no specific question which can be solved separately.

If this strategy is accepted, then you can start by making a belt of neutral countries from Finland, Sweden, through East, West Germany, Czechoslovakia, Austria, Switzerland, Yugoslavia. And we cut the forces of NATO arid Warsaw Pact by a neutral zone. But this neutral zone won’t be accepted as a goat. It can he accepted only as a step in the accepted plan of continued strategy of overcoming the division of Europe and the hemisphere.

P.M.: I was surprised when the Prague Appeal included a point about reuniting the Germanys, because that is not discussed in the Western peace movement. I have no idea what view my friends have because we never speak of it. I assume that nobody cares to reunite Germany.

DIENSTBIER: Nobody cares, but it is the main problem. It is not that Germany is divided. It that Europe is divided in Germany. Even by this wall in Berlin. If this wall is not pulled down and there is a free flow between East and West Germany, nothing can be solved. Everybody has lost historical perspective. Germany was never united in history before Bismarck. It was a bund of free states, and it was the same in Central Europe. The unification of Germany doesn’t mean that there will he some kind of Reich. We just need to destroy the boundaries in Germany, and with this the boundaries in Europe as well. Oh, they may exist, like the boundaries of the provinces of Canada. But if I want to go tomorrow to Moscow or to Paris, I will just go buy my ticket and that’s all. As it has always been here in Europe.

P.M.: Wonderful. I agree.

DIENSTBIER: The problem is that neither Gorbachev nor Reagan listens to our intelligent proposals and says, “What an idea! We will do it immediately!”

Peace Magazine Apr-May 1987

Peace Magazine Apr-May 1987, page 16. Some rights reserved.

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