Ladislav Mňačko, The Seventh Night (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1969).
Jo Langer, Convictions: My Life with a Good Communist (London: Granta, 2011 ).
Alexander Dubček, Hope Dies Last: The Autobiography of Alexander Dubček, ed. & trans. Jiri Hochman (New York: Kodansha International, 1993).
There’s nothing to put American political vagaries in radical context like reading a whole bunch of books about communism. My string of Slovak novels in English has had to give way for awhile to piles and piles on the twentieth century’s strangest political experiment, not to say the bloodiest. I must admit, having grown up on Cold War rhetoric on the American side and having not a few issues with the runaway consumerism of this society, I had been inclined to think it was ever so slightly possible that communism was not as bad as Reagan and his predecessors had made it out to be.
I was wrong. It was worse.
That doesn’t justify the hyperbolic and destructive American response: we did untold damage to way too many other countries in the name of preserving “liberty.” But wow, communism was So. Bad. Words fail me regarding its badness. So it’s best if I hand the descriptive task over to those who survived it.
Ladislav Mňačko, one of these memoirists, wrote a novel I’ve discussed before, The Taste of Power. It was written during the mid-1960s as the thaw was taking place in Czechoslovakia leading up to the Prague Spring. This was a series of reforms initiated by Communist Party leader Alexander Dubček to relax censorship, decentralize a great deal of economic decision-making, allow travel outside the Soviet bloc, and permit even a small measure of private ownership of property and business. It was all moving along swimmingly—not toward capitalism, but toward “socialism with a human face”—except Brezhnev and his cronies in Russia would have none of it. In August 1968, nearing on fifty years ago, tanks from five nations of the Warsaw Pact rolled in and occupied Czechoslovakia overnight. It was the largest military maneuver in Europe since World War II.
While The Taste of Power was a fictional attempt to understand what had gone wrong from within, Mňačko’s The Seventh Night is a memoir of getting out. As the book progresses the reader comes to realize that she is experiencing with Mňačko the Warsaw Pact occupation day by day, until at last, on the seventh night, Mňačko decides to make a run for it. He remained in exile in Vienna until the regime fell in 1989.
The book begins with one of the best cold opens I’ve ever read. It is even more extraordinary for being about sleeping, of all not-exciting things. Yet it manages both to convey the peace that is about to be shattered by the tanks and Mňačko’s courageous, adventuresome character, which would not be alarmed by anything less than a genuine invasion. He writes:
“On the night of August 20 I went to bed as usual. My life has taken many unexpected turns, and called for constant improvisation, but it has also formed certain habits, an order of its own. To eat well and eat my fill is part of it—and, above all, to sleep well and soundly; that is probably the ‘secret’ of the strong nerves so many people envy me. To sleep well at every season of the year and—when circumstances demand it—at any time of day or night, morning or afternoon: in the heavy damp of the Vietnam jungle on matting sticky with sweat; in the surprising cold of the Sinai Desert, where my teeth would not stop chattering however I snuggled down into my sleeping bag; in the Mongolian steppes or the Siberian taiga; in the rarefied air of high mountains or the balmy air of a tropical coast; in the air-conditioned rooms of luxury hotels or bedding down in the stink of sweat and urine; near the Arctic Circle when the sun does not set, or on board a ship plowing the waves beneath the Southern Cross; on an improvised bed of pine needles in a mountain sheepfold; on a sweet-scented haystack; on a prison bunk, in a sleeping-car berth or a coach packed so tight you have to stand on one leg; in partisan mountain fastness on the frozen ground, in hammocks, on the bare earth; in a car roaring into the distance; shrapnel can be flying overhead, a mountain stream gurgling, the sea whispering, saxophones wailing, cicadas trilling, wild animals roaring, airplanes thundering, streetcars rattling, drunks bawling; under arc lights, in dark caves, in the irritating flicker of red neon—I can sleep, I can sleep alone or sandwiched in a narrow bed, or with an attractive woman at my side; I can sleep at any time, in any place, lying anyhow.”
—But not on the night of August 20, the night the tanks rolled in. That night and the next six unfold the weird tale of a basically bloodless occupation. People went out in the silent streets; they didn’t hide inside. Some would talk to the soldiers, obedient cogs in the wheel who were fulfilling orders with no particular notion why Czechoslovakia needed invading. Resistance, such as it was, was clever rather than violent. No one would give water or food to the soldiers, whose supplies quickly ran low. City signs were changed to point in the wrong direction. Streets signs were changed so they all said “ulica Dubčekov” or “ulica Svobodov”: Svoboda was president of the republic and a close colleague of Dubček’s—and both of them had been kidnapped, along with Czechoslovakia’s other leaders, and airlifted to Moscow for a little chat about their “counter-revolutionary” activities.
Most of the book, however, is not so much description of that uncanny week as Mňačko’s effort to understand how it got to that point. It is a narrative of mourning, not only for the no longer sovereign Czechoslovakia but for the loss of all his illusions and ideals. At one point Mňačko explains: “I had to balance up the ledger of my life. I had always been in the thick of things, all my life. Had I been wrong? Had the life I led, often risky and difficult, been a waste of time? And again: am I perhaps a renegade, deviationist, Trotskyite, a wavering Communist intellectual, because I have finally found the strength to see and explain things by the light of my own reason, and not, as ordered to, the ‘disciplined’ view? If my reasoning takes me so far, will I have the strength of mind to admit that it was all a mistake, and therefore my whole life so far has been one long mistake? I do not know. I cannot say. I have not yet got that far…”
Jo Langer, author of Convictions: My Life with a Good Communist, was another ex-disciple of the Marxist faith. She was a Hungarian Jew who married a Slovak Jew and after a few years in America—having fled the Holocaust—they returned to help build the socialist dream in Czechoslovakia after 1948. Mňačko was able to face up to the failures of his former idols, but Langer’s husband Oscar could not. Even when the very regime he’d dedicated his life to supporting had imprisoned him without due process and sent him to years in wretched prisons, he continued to believe.
Jo Langer, however, did not. She was the one who had to take care of their children, eke out a living, scrounge for food, and face resettlement on account of guilt by association. Oscar tried to defend this communist practice of attempting to purify and reset human society. When Jo tried to express to him her shock at ordinary “bourgeois” and high-up Czechoslovak leaders being tried and executed, he excused the whole business: “These men are perhaps not guilty in the everyday sense of the word. But just now the fate and interests of individuals are of secondary importance. Our whole future, maybe the future of mankind, is at stake.” It’s amazing what you can get away with when the future of mankind is at stake.
Unlike Mňačko’s report of a mere seven nights, Langer traces her whole history from the early years of marriage in America through the growing horrors of the Stalinist 1950s, her increasing alienation from her unmovable husband and finally, when the moment was ripe, her escape to Sweden. Much like Croatian journalist Slavenka Drakulić’s How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed, Langer offers not a theoretical deconstruction of communism but an on-the-ground, woman’s-eye view of how fundamentally unlivable the whole twisted system was. All the rhetoric about putting power in the hands of workers means nothing to a mother who has no way to care for her children. Idealism could not obscure Langer’s powers of observation, and ideology could not befuddle her acute parental sense of the moral corruption overtaking people:
“They [i.e., the communists] have turned a large percentage of their populations into informers, either for self-preservation under threats, or for the sake of things like a few square metres of living space to be gained at the price of a neighbor’s liberty or even life. They have made basically honest citizens into habitual givers and takers of bribes because it is the only way to get petty services and things which are self-evidently available to the man in the street in other countries. The object of such a transaction is often no more than a roll of toilet paper or the repair of a clogged sink… They have turned scientists into slogan-mouthing scribblers, always carefully in tune with the day’s or the hour’s telex directives from Moscow. They have turned our children into habitual liars and hypocrites, though with luck this may be only outside the home. They have made whole nations into a trembling mass of wretches with human communication reduced to whispered rumours, jokes and hints exchanged when the telephone is safely covered with pillows and the radio switched on high enough. They have reduced intellectuals to passionate coveters of privileges and infantile hunters and smugglers of THINGS… Whatever the price in human lives, for all of its murderous record, socialism has killed more souls and minds than bodies.”
Alexander Dubček’s disappointment with socialism operated at a whole different level, because he was actually part of the new ruling class. Somehow even the most corrupt of systems sometimes fail to weed out a virtuous man, and Dubček was the weed that got through the cracks in the concrete. He was raised by true believers who went to today’s Kirghizstan to help build socialism there, and throughout his own education he saw socialism simply as the humane option for modernity, correcting the errors of unchecked industrial capitalism—which were real and rife; communism didn’t come out of nowhere.
His maturity over time, however, was not initially the result of suffering extreme betrayals by the system personally. He received an excellent education and slowly rose through the ranks but managed to escape the show trials of the 1950s. In the early 60s he worked on the Kolder Commission, which exposed the outrageous abuses of justice during the show trials—down to winning communists ransacking the houses of the condemned to steal their bedsheets and silverware. The lesson Dubček took away was that “socialism is no safer than any other system from abuse by bad, unscrupulous, dishonest people. In my eyes at least, the idea itself did not thereby lose any of its purity and greatness. What was needed, I felt, was to bring the political system of socialism into harmony with its philosophical values. The problem was how to do this.”
It was a problem he would spend the rest of the 60s working out. In a surprising decision to correct their course, Czechoslovak leaders managed to disentangle the previously conflated roles of state president and communist party leader, with Dubček taking on the latter position. As such, he in time drafted an Action Plan that would allow the aforementioned reforms. The public was overwhelmingly in favor of it, and everything was going smoothly. Indeed, there is every reason to believe it would have worked and transformed the socialist Czechoslovak state for the better—had not the tanks rolled in.
Looking back it’s hard to imagine how Dubček didn’t see it coming. It’s the Achilles heel of the good man: he can’t fathom the wickedness in others. As he explained: “In the months preceding, I had been inclined to blame the Soviets’ hostility toward our reforms on their different cultural environment and historic experience rather than on a premeditated rejection of reform. Until the last moment, I did not believe the Soviet leaders would launch a military attack on us. To me, that was simply unthinkable. It ran contrary to my deepest idea of the value system I thought governed the relationships between socialist countries. It took drastic, practical experience of the coming days and months for me to understand that I was in fact dealing with gangsters.”
By the time he got back from captivity in Moscow, Dubček was convinced that playing along with the Soviets was the only way to prevent a bloodbath. He went on TV to urge cooperation. This speech is famous for all the times he fell silent for long stretches of time as he tried to hold in his obvious emotion; tears were not far from the surface. He knew he was lying to his people; he knew they knew; he believed he had no choice.
A hundred thousand people fled the country in the weeks to come. Dubček quickly lost his position as Party leader. He got expelled from the Presidium and finally from the Party itself. Like countless others expelled in the post-1968 purges, he spent the rest of his working career at manual labor, repairing chain saws and doing welding jobs. He was under police surveillance for nineteen years; he knew his shadowers and sometimes would even attempt to chat with them to expose the sheer ludicrousness of the situation. “I saved every bug that we found in the house during those years as souvenirs, but I do not think we found them all. A few might still be there, rusting in the walls.”
Not every great man lives to see himself vindicated, but Dubček did. When the communists resigned from office in November 1989, he appeared on Wenceslas Square in Prague with playwright Vaclav Havel, accepting the cheering public’s mandate to carry on the project he’d had to suspend two decades earlier. He spent the last three years of his life sharing in the birth pangs of a democratic Czechoslovakia. He might have done more, but in September 1992 he was in a car accident—so far no proof of foul play, though many believe otherwise—and died two months later.
Translator Jiri Hochmann summarizes Dubček’s thought over the decades of his leadership well. “[H]e was no Bolshevik. He was a socialist, whose beliefs were easily compatible with his Lutheran family principles. Simply put, he believed in social equality and justice… Dubček’s understanding of freedom underwent a labored development. Initially he perceived freedom in very practical terms: freedom from fascism; freedom from poverty and unemployment; the right to work, health care, and social security; the right to a decent living. But in time he learned to see the importance of democracy in modern society, the importance of cultural freedoms and freedom of the press.”
I hope we can learn these lessons from Dubček—and not have to learn them the hard way.