Barbara Day and the Velvet Philosophers

Barbara Day, photo: David Vaughan

Barbara Day works for a non-profit organization called The Prague Society, promoting international links in business, politics and academia. Twenty-five years ago, Barbara was doing a job that, at least on the surface, seems very similar. Then based in London, she was coordinating visits by Western academics to Czechoslovakia. But times could hardly have been more different. In those days, such initiatives were seen by the communist regime as a subversive activity. Constantly harangued by Czechoslovakia’s secret police – the StB – visiting lecturers, including some of the world’s most renowned philosophers, would meet secretly at private flats. In what came to be known as the “underground seminars” they would address small groups made up of students, dissidents and anyone else brave enough to turn up, and lectures covered subjects as varied as the philosophy of Plato and the music of Mahler. Barbara Day’s book, The Velvet Philosophers, recounts the details of how the seminars worked. When I met Barbara, she began by telling me how the seminars started: It was in the years just after the 1968 Soviet invasion, when many of Czechoslovakia’s top academics were thrown out of their jobs, and even their children found themselves in trouble.

“When the seminars were set up, it really was for the immediate need: How are we going to be able to educate our children? A lot of them weren’t even allowed to take the school-leaving exam and had to go on to take manual jobs. And it networked – groups knew what each other were doing, people attended maybe two or three different kinds of seminars. And the idea grew in one of these seminars, which was run by a former Marxist ideologist who was also a philosopher who had studied the classics, who one day told his students: Look, I’ve really come to the end of what I can teach you and even if you went to the university in this country, you’d get a very limited education. What you really need are teachers from abroad, who are continuing in the tradition of humanist and philosophical education.

Barbara Day,  photo: David Vaughan
“So he and his students then devised a letter, which they sent out to four of the Western universities – two in Germany, as well as Harvard and Oxford. Oxford was the only one that responded, or maybe the only one that actually received the letter and discussed it. The committee for philosophy at Oxford University more or less unanimously decided: Yes, we are getting a request for help from our colleagues living behind the Iron Curtain; of course we’re going to go and lecture at their seminars. It’s not even an issue.”

It’s extraordinary that the regime in Czechoslovakia at the time saw philosophy seminars as something subversive and as a threat.

“It is, and the lecturers who were coming and talking to the young people in the seminars were just absolutely blown away by the depth of interest. The seminars used to go on until the early hours, because there were so many questions, and later on, when I interviewed one of the former students, he said: Well, what we used to go to the seminars for was to find out how to live in a world of communism and lies.”

It intrigues me how openly this was going on. The people who were organizing these seminars didn’t try to keep everything secret. There was almost a contempt for the secret police, for the powers-that-be in Czechoslovakia, as if to say: We’re going to be doing this under your nose, what are you going to do about it?

“The drawback to this was that uniformed and secret police would raid seminars quite regularly, and if a foreign lecturer was they, they would let him get fifteen minutes into his lecture and then they would storm the apartment, take everyone into custody and that lecturer would never actually get his visa back. He couldn’t do a repeat visit. So we were all the time looking for a way to hold the seminars in a sense that they would still be open, but they would be discreet enough not to attract the attention of the secret police.”

It amazes me, the number of people who came over. Probably the most famous example is one of the best known French thinkers of the second half of the 20th century, the father of deconstruction, Jacques Derrida. His visit was an extraordinary episode, wasn’t it?

“Yes, the attitude of the visiting lecturers varied a lot. Some of them were quite bold about coming. Others were extremely nervous, and one of the most nervous, as it happened, was Jacques Derrida. The secret police had been determined to make an example of one of these Western philosophers, to scare any other Western philosopher away from coming. In fact, it did the opposite. It encouraged them to come. They planted drugs in his suitcase when it had been in his hotel room. So, Derrida, not realizing that this had been happening, was on his way to the airport…”

Passing through customs he was called into a private room where police with dogs searched his cases, eventually – at a third attempt, after a telephone call evidently asking for help – finding four packets of a brown powder concealed in the lining. Over the next few hours a protocol was written and photographs were taken of him and his suitcases. Then he was taken to a police station where from 4.00 p.m. to 12 midnight he was interrogated about his life, his relationship with Czechoslovakia and Kafka (whose grave he had visited). ‘Is Ladislav Hejdánek [who had led the seminar] then a Kafkologist?’ they asked. At midnight he was charged with ‘the production and traffic of drugs’, and the team of lawyer, commissioner, interpreter and prosecution departed, leaving him in the guard of one of the policemen. ‘Do you believe this charge?’ Derrida asked the policeman. ‘Of course,’ replied the policeman, ‘that’s just how western intellectuals behave – look at the Beatles.’

That was a short extract from your book, The Velvet Philosophers. Tell me a little about your own work at this time. You were helping to organize these seminars from the United Kingdom, travelling backwards and forwards. What sort of work were you doing and how did it work out?

“I was doing really all the administrative work from the keeping of minutes to the writing of letters. We were also briefing the visitors who went over. The tasks they had to do were quite onerous and quite difficult, because they had to be careful not to carry anything on them that could risk someone else’s safety.”

It almost makes you sound like a spymaster, saying: This is what you have to do, and this is what you can and cannot say….

“It was a little bit like that. A briefing could take between one and two hours.”

I’d like to turn again to your book, to one passage that shows the bizarre nature of the position of dissident intellectuals in Czechoslovakia at the time. There’s a brief description here of the hard manual work that two very well known Czech intellectuals, Daniel Kroupa and Martin Palouš, found themselves doing…

“Yes, this is an extract from one of [the philosopher] Roger Scruton’s reports on his visit in 1983.”

Other stokers were not so fortunate; the work could involve 24-hour shifts of heavy labour. Daniel Kroupa and Martin Palouš started work at four in the morning, shovelling piles of coke to heat the Tyrš House. They would discuss philosophy leaning on their shovels, and read volumes of Marx whilst sitting on heaps of coke; probably the last workers of the Communist age to do so… Even in such lowly jobs as these they would often be monitored by the secret police.”

So here you have an impression of the kind of life that many academics and intellectuals were forced to lead after they were sacked from their university jobs. There is also a hint of romance in that, but I think in your book you make it very clear how unromantic the life of these people was, amid the day to day grind of living under communism.

“Yes, we were very much aware that we came over and experienced this only for a few days, or a week or so at a time, and that the people we were working with were living with it 24 hours a day, all their lives. Also, in the early 1980s it wasn’t so clear that it was going to come to an end. People really thought that this could go on for another 50 years or so. And for young people that was quite heart-breaking.”

Barbara, your book, The Velvet Philosophers, was published exactly ten years ago in 1999, on the tenth anniversary of the fall of communism. It must have been fun, talking to some of the most interesting thinkers, writers and philosophers, not only in the Czech Republic and Slovakia but also in Britain, France, Germany and the United States…

“It was fascinating, and several of our colleagues are now in very important positions. Our main contact in Slovakia was Ján Čarnogurský, who in November 1989 was actually in prison. Within a few weeks he was deputy prime minister of Czechoslovakia and he went on to become prime minister of Slovakia. Then there’s Petr Pithart, another prime minister. All these people were tremendously open about telling me how they’d lived through it, what their impressions were, what it meant to them. And what was really exciting for me was to put their takes on what had been going on, compared with the Western philosophers and what they thought was going on. And the third source, which was fascinating to be able to bring in, to throw another light on the first two, was of course the files of the StB [secret police], and what they thought they’d been doing when they’d been listening in on these conversations or interrogating the Western visitors. That also was very fascinating, because every now and then you would get a policeman who was really genuinely very interested in it all, and took down, verbatim, what Roger Scruton had to say about other Western authors on the subject of communism. There was one, on the border of Moravia and Austria, who really wanted to know and wrote it down in his own report.”

So, the pen really can be mightier than the sword…

“Yes indeed. I’m thinking of another comment of a visitor, who said that if the secret police really had been listening in to all the lectures, then it must be the best educated secret police in Europe. But I’m afraid they didn’t really learn very much from the lectures, so that’s a bit of wishful thinking.”

Barbara Day’s book, The Velvet Philosophers, was published in 1999 by the Claridge Press in London (which has since been taken over by Continuum in the United States). It is available in some bookshops here in Prague, and also through the internet.