A world full of seekers: Christmas before and after the fall of communism

Foto: Archiv Radia Praha

Exactly 20 years ago, Czechs and Slovaks were celebrating their first Christmas for four decades without a hint of official disapproval. While the communists tolerated the trappings of Christmas – with Christmas trees and traditional Czech Christmas carp in abundance – their tolerance of Christian traditions was never more than skin deep. In the 1950s, priests and members of religious orders were often locked up for their beliefs, and the brief reforms of the 1960s were followed by another wave of persecution, following the Soviet-led invasion of 1968. For this programme I’m going to be talking to two people, who remember only too well what it meant to be a practising Christian in communist Czechoslovakia. They are the Protestant pastor, former Dean of the Protestant Theological Faculty of Prague’s Charles University and former dissident, Jakub Trojan, and the British translator Gerry Turner, who has lived in Prague for many years and has had close links with the churches here since before the fall of communism.

I would like to ask you what it was like for a practising Christian celebrating Christmas in the 1970s and 80s, the period of “normalization”. Was it very different and more difficult than it is today?

Jakub Trojan: “I cannot say it was particularly dangerous to celebrate Christmas. I think that in the communist era, the existence of the Christian churches and those who confessed Jesus Christ was not dangerous in general but it was an existence as a minority oppressed by the communist regime.

The trappings of Christmas – the Christmas Trees, the carols – were there, but it was all very secular, wasn’t it?

Jakub Trojan: “Yes, you are right. It was very secular. I think we were not limited in celebrating in our churches, but it was a typical strategy of the communists to confine the churches and church life into the church buildings themselves, not to let them be a witness that would be manifested in public.”

Were people actively discouraged from going to church? Did your congregation, for example, have the feeling that they could be disadvantaged as a result of practising their faith, that there might be somebody watching them, seeing them coming to church, who might report on them or in some way make their life difficult?

Jakub Trojan: “I think you are right – particularly those who were in jobs. They were afraid of losing their jobs. So practically, the majority of those who attended church services were older people.”

Gerry, over the years, you have spent a lot of time in Czechoslovakia – now the Czech Republic. During the period of communism, do you remember having a sense of there being control over people practising their faith?

Gerry Turner: “Certainly. We visited friends in the Czech countryside, where one of the Czech pastors of the Evangelical Church of the Czech Brethren allowed a young student to give the sermon that day. I remember it being a rather strong, outspoken sermon, and there was a sense of tension. Maybe it was subjective, but I think not. There was a sense of tension among the members of the congregation.”

Did you find, Jakub, that there was an element of self-censorship – that if you were preaching you would try to be cautious, maybe not so much to protect yourself as to protect the members of your congregation from being in some way compromised in the eyes of the regime?

Jakub Trojan,  Gerry Turner  (right),  photo: David Vaughan
Jakub Trojan: “I have been asked this question many times. I personally must confess that I didn’t feel myself too much limited. I preached God’s word as I understood it, and applied it to the situation we were living in. So I didn’t feel any limitation from outside. If there were any limitations, then it was this one – that I should preach properly on God’s word and not neglect the responsibility coming out from the preached word.”

You are a pastor of the Czech Brethren, one of the Czech protestant churches. How long have you been a pastor, and who are the Czech Brethren?

Jakub Trojan: “My church is the biggest of the Evangelical or Protestant churches in the Czech Republic.”

How many members does it have?

Jakub Trojan: “Today about 120,000.”

So it is a significant church in the country.

Jakub Trojan: “Yes, I think it is. Not in terms of membership, because we are only a minority compared with the Roman Catholic Church, which is the dominant confession in our country. But I think the meaning of our church is that it is profiled theologically, based on the historical traditions going back to John Huss [Jan Hus], the early Reformation and the Unity of Brethren, combined with world Protestantism of the Reform or Lutheran tradition. All these traditions are combined in our confession. So we are a church having four confessions!”

Were you brought up in the church, or did you choose to become a member of the Czech Brethren when you were an adult?

Jakub Trojan: “I was not born into the church. I joined the church at the age of 23. I was baptized as a student of theology.”

And this was not long after the Second World War…

Jakub Trojan: “Yes, that’s right. It was in 1950 that I was baptized and I officially joined the church.”

And this was probably the worst possible time to be a Christian in Czechoslovakia. It was the time of the Stalinist purges against the churches in the country. You must have gone very much against the grain of where the country were heading, and the political atmosphere must have been very oppressive indeed…

Jakub Trojan: “That’s right. It was not easy, but I must say that the strategy of the communists was first aimed against the Roman Catholic Church, as the major church in our country. So relatively we as Protestants had a period of eight or nine years, not of peace, but we were not as heavily attacked as the Roman Catholics were at that time.”

And how was it in the 1960s, at the time of the political thaw in Czechoslovakia?

Jakub Trojan: “I think the 60s were the happiest years of our existence within the communist era. At the very beginning of the 60s up to 1968, as Christians and theologians, we met very frequently. We discussed all the public issues. So we were very happy to be involved in this process of democratization.”

And at the time, were you working as a pastor with a parish?

Jakub Trojan: “That’s right. I was still in my parish. I think that all the Christians realized that perhaps this will be the time in which Christianity as such will be recognized as a partner within socialism. So I think that majority of people still believed that socialism was perhaps a system which could be changed in a positive way, including the Christian tradition, and thus becoming, step by step, more human.”

And did you believe this yourself?

Jan Palach
Jakub Trojan: “I must confess we believed – and I personally believed – that, but then the invasion of 1968 was a sign for us – for myself and my friends – that socialism is never the historical option we can believe in.”

And I’d like to turn to the time just after the Soviet invasion, because one of the people who came to your church, at Christmas 1968, was Jan Palach, a young student at the Philosophical Faculty in Prague, who three weeks later set himself alight on Wenceslas Square in protest against what he saw as the way that people in Czechoslovakia were coming to terms with the Soviet invasion. He wanted to make people wake up. Here is a short extract from description that you wrote, remembering Jan Palach coming to your church:

He came to church at Christmas 1968 with his mother. It was something I can never forget; he had an unusual face that radiated something out of the ordinary; he was quite pale; I can remember precisely where he sat. And then he took part in the Lord’s Supper: it was the Second Christmas Feast [26 December] and when we were leaving the church I stood at the door and shook everybody by the hand as is our custom. While doing so on that occasion he said to me that the churches ought to do something in the situation we were in. There is no time for a lengthy conversation when taking leave of members of the congregation after a service, so in the thirty seconds during which we exchanged a few words I was struck in particular by Jan’s concern about how we were behaving. And then a fortnight later there was the funeral of an uncle of his. The church was full and he was present as one of the relatives. I preached on a text from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount from Matthew’s gospel: Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, are the words I read. And on 16 January it happened. I knew he had been in church because someone told me, but I didn’t see him because there were about two hundred and fifty people present.

Jakub, those are some of your memories, as translated by Gerry, who is now sitting next to you. When you heard the news of Palach’s self-immolation, what were your first reactions?

Jakub Trojan,  Gerry Turner  (right),  photo: David Vaughan
Jakub Trojan: “I was convinced that it was a sign in order to mobilize our spirits to engage in preserving the most important values of our lives, and that his sacrifice was not in vain, because it had a power, as a challenge binding me personally and, as I was convinced then, binding all those who were sensitive enough to understand what happened.”

One of the most powerful moments from the time of Jan Palach’s death, is his funeral. You were actually part of that event, which saw hundreds of thousands of people take to the streets of Prague. It was probably the last occasion after the 1968 invasion when the country really stood together, unified against what had happened with the invasion. What was your role?

Jakub Trojan: “My role was just to say, at the end of the funeral at Olšany Cemetery some words about the meaning of what had happened. I based it on words from Matthew’s gospel that ‘blessed are those who are persecuted for justice.’”

And it must have been one of the toughest moments of your life…

Jakub Trojan: “I think it was. Since that time I have felt myself to be in connection with Jan Palach in a specific way. That means that I remember that he sacrificed himself for the sake of the whole nation, and I feel responsibility to follow, in some of the decisions I take, the line he manifested in his death. That does not mean to imitate his deed, but to try to cope with the measure of his deed in order to fulfil some moral and spiritual demands.”

And that sense of responsibility was what led you later to sign the human rights manifesto, Charter 77…

Jakub Trojan: “Exactly. And it is significant to know that among the first to sign Charter 77 there were eight pastors – eight ministers of our church.”

Gerry, when you first moved to Czechoslovakia, it was not long after the events of 1968. At the time you came as an atheist and communist…

The church of the Capuchins in Prague
Gerry Turner: “Indeed. At that time I was coming to terms with the god that I had been brought up with, the god of communism, the god who had failed so many others before. I came to work as a translator in Prague at a time when the atmosphere was drear, and yet I recall in those first weeks of January 1971 – it was a typical snowy Christmas landscape in Prague at the time – and I remember walking up Nový svět [a very picturesque lane behind Prague Castle] and arriving at the top of the lane to find what is still for me one of the most beautiful and charming churches in Prague, the church of the Capuchins. This was late in January, it could even have been February, and I was astonished to find, when I went into the church, that there were carols still playing. Of course, not having been brought up within a Roman Catholic tradition, I wasn’t aware that Christmas is celebrated right up to Candlemas. But it made a very deep impression on me even in those first months of being in the country.”

And I understand that Jakub Trojan, who is now sitting next to you, was part of the process of your conversion to Christianity.

Gerry Turner: “Yes, I came to know Jack at a time when I was already committed to working for the democratic opposition in Czechoslovakia. I was back in England at that time. Already by that time I was closely connected with people from Charter 77 and was deeply critical of my former political views, working for various Czech exile journals. At the time I was a warden at a Quaker Meeting House in England, and it was an English Quaker who asked me to translate some pieces by this Czech theologian called Jakub Trojan! I agreed to do so, and when I was asked by the editor of East European Reporter, Nancy Wood, if I would accompany her on a fact-finding mission to Prague, I naturally suggested that she meet with him. We met in Prague and he told us how to get to their Sunday service. So the two of us set out on a very dismal morning, full of snow, in early December, and made our way to this small town on the outskirts of Prague in the dark, and just arrived in time at this very inconspicuous church. And we walked through the door just as a child was lighting the first Advent candle. There was Jack’s wife, who was then pastor, because his licence had been revoked after he signed Charter 77. And I had an amazing sense of coming home.”

Gerry Turner,  photo: David Vaughan
Do you remember that day as well?

Jakub Trojan: “Yes. As he told that story, I remembered again. I’m very thankful that he told the story again.”

There’s an irony, in a sense, in finding your faith in the middle of an overtly atheist state at a time when the regime had perfected materialism almost to a fine art.

Gerry Turner: “Yes, but there’s a strange way in which there’s a natural human resistance to totalitarianism, in the same way, I think there’s a natural human resistance to that sort of secularism. And there’s a sort of folk piety which comes out in people, and I felt it came out very much at Christmas here. And it was very heartening. Christmas in a sense became a demonstration that there was something beyond, and people’s innate faith came out at that moment. I did have a very deep sense of that.”

And that in a way brings us to the present day, because today we often hear about the Czech Republic being “the most atheist country in Europe”. It’s something you see again and again in newspaper articles and all over the place. I’d like to ask both of you whether, 20 years after the fall of communism, you think that is really true.

Jakub Trojan: “I do not have so much trust in statistics, because statistics do not penetrate into the depths of human souls. So I wouldn’t say that Czech people are militant atheists, but they have some serious questions about church-like Christianity. They are in opposition against the churches. They are asking what is the purpose, what is the aim of Christian churches in our country. But they are not so doubtful about the message of Jesus Christ, who gave himself for the sake of good and the life of the people.”

Gerry Turner: “I’m a deep believer in one thing, and that’s serendipity, and on the way to this interview today I happened to be reading the writings of an American Quaker from before the war. He’s writing about the state of secularism in the world at that time. In front of me I have the sentence which says, ‘The world is full of seekers; they’re not sentimental, ostentatious seekers, but baffled, confused, hard-headed, discouraged seekers, yet seekers nonetheless.’ I think that would say a lot about the state of mind of a lot of Czechs. There are a lot of seekers in this country.”