Czech-British author Benjamin Kuras on the fall of communism in Czechoslovakia and the difficulty of returning 'home'

Benjamin Kuras

Czech-born British author and journalist Benjamin Kuras was one of many expatriates who witnessed the fall of communism in Czechoslovakia from abroad. Ahead of autumn 1989, he and colleagues at the BBC’s Czech section regularly speculated over when change would finally come. But when it happened in the days and months after November 17, the developments presented a new dilemma for those who had left in 1968 or earlier. New questions came to the fore such as when to visit, whether to go back at all, and if so, how to tackle one’s “ghosts”. In this interview, Jan Velinger asked the writer (who still divides his time between the Czech Republic and Great Britain) how he saw the months preceding the “fall”.

Benjamin Kuras
“I was in London at that time working for the Czech service of the BBC, broadcasting British ‘propaganda’ to my Czech friends here and we were actually wondering how come it was taking the Czechs so long to rise up against communism and get rid of it. Almost everyone else was already doing it: the Poles were doing it, the Hungarians had it behind them, the East Germans were running abroad and only the Czechs and the Romanians were left. So, we were discussing it in the BBC canteen, as we did all sorts of issues, and suddenly somebody came up with the idea that it could happen on the students’ day of November 17, that it would have to happen on that day and that it would spread and somebody would get hurt. We were actually expecting it a couple of months in advance.

“I actually discussed it recently with someone who was part of the revolution in Slovakia, who claimed that nobody could have predicted it, that it was one of those ‘black swans’ that appeared out of nowhere. But I did tell him that he was wrong and that it was in fact predicted.”

If you predicted that, how ‘predictable’ was Václav Havel’s role in Civic Forum?

“That was the other thing we discussed in the BBC canteen and somewhere around September we guessed that it would have to be him.”

That’s amazing.

“Yes, yes it is.”

Seeing the developments, were you emotionally ‘immune’ as a journalist or was this something different?

“It was a mixture of emotions. One was ‘Fine, it’s finally happening’, I’ll be able to visit again’ on the one hand, and on the other it was the world was clearer up until then. We belonged into one place, they into another, it was obvious that we couldn’t visit each other and suddenly one was almost getting the creeps of going back to the country after so many years. Wondering what it was going to be like; where one was going to belong from then on; and realising that one was going to have a ‘split’ personality for a while, before realising that it didn’t matter. It took me a long time thereafter to actually identify with the ‘Old Country’ again.”

At what point did you actually go back for the first time?

“I kept postponing it while my brother kept telling me ‘Don’t be silly’: I first visited in February 1990. It was like you came down from the airport and as you approached Prague in February the air was sort of hanging on and you felt a strange kind of mixture of brown coal and boiled cabbage.

“The town where I came from, where I had spent most of my life, was Olomouc, one of those nice university towns – Oxford, Cambridge type – and that had a 30,000 strong Soviet garrison. One of my friends who had visited at Christmastime told me ‘Don’t even go there, you’ll cry the moment you get there’. And I did. The place had not been repaired in 20 years; the houses were falling to bits; Russian soldiers were everywhere. And people were gloomy, shabby and grey. I spent seven days there and ran away as quickly as I could. It took about three years before I was able to identify with the place again.”

Civic Forum
Did you have, at this point, any optimism? I mean, while things were bad at least there was now a chance they would get better…

“Yes, yes of course I did, yes. But not enough to return immediately like some of my friends. I had friends in the dissent movement who by then were getting into government: one particular friend was the deputy minister of agriculture and he was discovering by mid-1990 that at least part of the revolution was a con. Namely what they did in Parliament at that time was abolish the law on state ownership. Now, everybody voted for that, said ‘Fine, end of state ownership, wonderful’. But they forgot to replace it with a law on any kind of other ownership, which gave the ex-Communists about six months to steal whatever they could in terms of real estate.

“This friend of mine who was at the ministry suddenly saw all kinds of historic property disappearing from the ownership of the ministry into then small joint-stock companies, all of whose owners were ex-Communists. So the first sobering moment for the people for the people who honestly believed they were restoring democracy and old-style capitalism came around six months after the revolution itself.”

Václav Havel 1989
I want to turn to another aspect of life in the Czech Republic: to many outside it was reported that it was the place to be: many were thrilled that Mr Havel had become president, and intellectually it just seemed like the place to be, with people like Allen Ginsberg coming back to do readings. Tell me a little about that sort of flip-side:

“I myself remember Mr Ginsberg from the 1960s: he came even to Olomouc to be the king of the May student celebrations. I suppose that his return in 1990 must have meant a lot for those who remembered him from those days. There was a whole new generation of youngsters, Americans and others, who had probably just finished university and were wondering what to do. And they did what their fathers or grandfathers did before them in Paris in the 1930s or in Italy in the ‘50s when those places were at the height of intellectual glory, if you like, while somewhat economically impoverished compared to what the Americans were used to.

“I suppose that there was something like 50,000 English-speakers at one point, many of whom later left, some of whom stayed and set up an English language newspaper. I used to known journalist Alan Levy quite well and he was a fan of the Czech nation and the Czech culture living in Vienna after being expelled from Czechoslovakia in 1972. He would have been at that time I kind of ‘godfather’ to the American intellectual community here.”

Would you agree this had an impact, albeit a small one, on Czechs as well? It was definitely a new thing…

Velvet Revolution
“Yes it was. It gave the Czechs a boost and gave them more self-confidence that had lacked. There was somebody whose opinion they valued who said ‘Yes, this is a place worth living in’ – as opposed to emigrating from as had been the case until then.”

People who have chosen Prague as their home, is that in 2008 almost 20 years after the fall of communism the place is truly a world apart from what was here before. “Very definitely. I think that the break came around 1996, 1997, when you suddenly realised you couldn’t tell the difference between the West and this country anymore. I had that feeling certainly. What has been happening ever since is that Prague, certainly, and most of the Czech Republic since has been in an upbeat mood.

“Lots of people could make enormous success in areas of business that in the Western world you could no longer tackle because they had long been filled. Here you had gaps in the market in just about everything you looked at. There was so much that people could do, whose energy had been pent up for 20 or 30 years. Many Czechs saw the opportunity and made it big and I admire them greatly for that.”