Czechoslovakia’s secret Cambridge students
You may be surprised to hear that one of the events to mark the hundredth anniversary of the foundation of Czechoslovakia was held at the Faculty of Divinity at Cambridge University in Britain. On October 29 a plaque was unveiled commemorating a secret academic link set up between the university and Czechoslovakia at the height of normalisation in the 1980s. Czech and Slovak students who found themselves unable to go to university because they or their families were out of favour with the communist regime were given the opportunity to study secretly for a Cambridge University degree. Under cloak-and-dagger conditions academics would travel to Prague to give lectures at underground seminars on such hot political topics as the early Christian church or New Testament Greek. David Vaughan picks up the story.
“Many young people were unable to attend university because under the regime they and their families really had to be part of the system. Any independent-thinking young people were simply not allowed to continue at university. Wanting to learn and wanting to study, they started getting together in small groups in homes. Nobody has any idea how many of these groups there were, but they studied together and some of them were able to bring in teachers who had similarly been thrown out of the universities. One of these was the excellent teacher of Jewish Studies, Milan Balabán, who at that time was washing pots in the kitchen of the Slovanský dům restaurant.”
One problem was that the students going through these seminars were not able to get any kind of official recognition for their studies.
So you had people who were doing these underground courses whose underground degrees were never recognised.
That means it was given the official stamp of approval.
“Exactly. But there were only six who actually took the qualification. There were more following the course, but the exams were very arduous, very difficult, especially if you had a manual job by the day. You were exhausted by the evening, when you would attend a very academic seminar and then you were expected to write essays. Eventually, under very difficult, clandestine circumstances you had to write the exam.”
So the idea began with theology. Did it grow beyond that?
“Our first subject was philosophy, which we originally were teaching, and that was what we wanted to find a course for. But it was very difficult to find an institution in Britain that would agree to this.”
So you were looking for a British university, a partner that would be willing to provide a framework for these degrees, so that they would be recognised as a degree of that university.
“Exactly. And most institutions simply didn’t get the point. They didn’t understand that these students had to study clandestinely, that they had to take these exams under a code name, they couldn’t take them under their own name, that if the secret police got any whiff of this, then the whole thing would be destroyed. We searched in several places. My colleague Roger Scruton was most active in this, using all his contacts in the universities, but eventually it was the Cambridge University Examinations Board that agreed to this with respect to one particular course, the Cambridge Diploma and Certificate in Religious Studies. That was where it matched up with the students we knew about already in Prague, who had already been studying Jewish studies for some months or years.”
“They did ultimately qualify. All the examinations had to be spread out over several years because they were taking four subjects: Old Testament and New Testament studies, Judaism and the Early Church. They began studying in 1986 and the first examinations were in the summer of 1989. In 1990, of course, these particular students were far to busy even to think about examinations, but they actually went on to complete all the exams and get the qualification by 1992.”
And what are these students doing now?
“Several of them are retired. One, sadly, has died. He was a very interesting person. We didn’t know it at the time, but he was an underground priest. So, after the Velvet Revolution, he moved into his calling in the full way. Another one became very high up in the Ministry of the Interior, another was a security expert, one was a nuclear physicist, one was a conservation expert and one became a diplomat and at one point deputy foreign minister.”
You’ve talked about the lasting legacy of mediocrity in the universities, but at the same time I think that what you were doing is an illustration of how something, even if it’s on a very small scale with just a few students, can make an impact in the long term. Since the fall of communism, you have managed to point to a certain set of values which are essential in order for higher education to work.
You have just come back from Cambridge, where you took part in an unveiling ceremony which remembers this work. Tell us more about that.
“One of the students, Marta Chadimová, came to me with the idea of thanking the lecturers properly. They came in their own time, using their own money and it was also quite dangerous for them to come, although not as dangerous as for the students here. She wanted to leave a permanent record and she had the idea of a plaque to be put up in Cambridge. I approached my former colleague, Andrew Lenox-Conyngham, who had organised all the Cambridge Diploma seminars. He went to the Regius Professor of Divinity in Cambridge, who was amazed by the story, had never heard it before and made everything possible for the plaque to be installed in the Faculty of Divinity.
You’ve mentioned the sense that the underground seminars enabled people to focus on the fundamental importance of education, the deeper relevance of education in our lives. Do you think that you’re going to be able to continue in the future with the Jan Hus Foundation to help this to continue as a thread in the Czech education system?
“I think that the foundation, now based in Brno, is doing that. It works not only in the universities but in the secondary schools as well. There’s an essay competition every year on the freedom of the word. And I know that Marta Chadimová is very happy with the installation of the plaque and the ceremony. But she also feels that we could go on and that there must be more ways of building on what was really a very important action. I think that at the time we were doing it we were simply getting on with something that had to be done, but in retrospect it was meaningful.”
“People tend to think that once communism was over everything turned round and changed totally, that attitudes changed, behaviour changed. But there are still a lot of complexes left, still a very strong mindset even among people who, let’s say, were on the right side of history. They still find it difficult to shake off the legacy of fear, of uncertainty, mistrust. What I fear is that there was too much done to say, ‘let’s put it behind us, let’s forget about it.’ But you can’t come to terms with something unless you remember it.”