Jirina Siklova: A sociologist, though hardly just an observer

Jirina Siklova, photo courtesy of Jirina Siklova

In this edition of Czechs Today, my guest is Jirina Siklova. She has played many different roles in her life, including those of university professor, cleaner, smuggler, prisoner, founder of Prague's Gender Studies Center, sociologist, and even part-time journalist. These days, Czechs are used to seeing Jirina Siklova on TV and reading her articles in various newspapers. When we sat down to talk, Jirina Siklova started by commenting on what she thinks of her profession as a sociologist.

"I am satisfied with my profession because I think that it is very interesting to observe the situation surrounding us, the transformation of the society, and not to always be a participant."

If you were not a sociologist by training—or better said, a university professor for the past 16 years—which profession would you choose for yourself today?

"If I couldn't be a sociologist, then I think that the best profession for me would be to be a journalist, but in a nice, good weekly journal."

I remember earlier this year, at the beginning of 2006, you wrote a daily column for the Lidove Noviny newspaper. It was a rather short column, but you did this for three months. What did that teach you about journalism?

"Yes, I did this and I was satisfied with the experience, but this duty to write something on a daily basis was too much for me. I wasn't too satisfied with this routine because it was not dependent on my inspiration, but rather it was a duty."

What are your favorite weekly publications in the Czech Republic?

"Of the weeklies, I like the journal Respekt, and sometimes A2 is a very good publication, as is Literarni Noviny."

Let me return to an earlier phase in your life. There was a time—for a long time after 1968—when you worked in the underground. Of course prior to 1968 you were involved in university circles but after the Soviet invasion you were kicked out of Charles University and you spent the next twenty-odd years involved in other activities. Now, this is a long and complicated story, but could you briefly tell our listeners about what your life involved during that time?

"During this time I worked at different jobs, and for a relatively long time I worked in a hospital as a social worker. However, I also conducted research on health issues from the point of view of sociology. I was satisfied with this, and I had time for my own work and for the so-called unofficial work, the dissidents' work. This was also important to me. During this time I wrote some articles that were published abroad, under a code name."

What was your code name?

"I had different ones. For example, George Moldau, or Vltava, Berounka—very often I used the names of Czech rivers because I know from Sigmund Freud that the rivers, or water, typically symbolize women. It was also more secure [to avoid detection by the secret police]."

Could you name me some of your works from the 1970s and 1980s that were most important for you, and that stand out in your memory?

"I think that there was one very important article that I wrote under the name George Moldau. It was about the situation under socialism, and how people participated in the regime and collaborated because they were employed in very low-level positions. I wrote that higher self-worth would be a very good weapon against real socialism. People didn't have much self-worth because their professional lives were often not fulfilling."

You are also known for having coined the term 'the grey zone,' or at least popular image has it that this was your term. Was it, and how did it come about?

"I wrote this article about the grey zone and the future of the dissidents at the end of the Normalization era. The basic idea behind the grey zone was that our society was split into two groups: one of these groups belonged to the official political circles (these were people connected to the Communist Party), and the other group was in the opposition (these were the so-called dissidents). I wrote that in the future, should political change come, the most important group will be comprised of the people which are somewhere in between, close to the center. This is the Grey Zone: people who did not lose their qualifications because they were not dismissed by the communists from their positions, nor did they become disqualified because of opportunism or immorality, which are the problems that plagued the so-called nomenclature class. I wrote that the people from the grey zone will become the power-holders, because they have no fear of power. This has happened, and what a pity that this was fulfilled.

But I would also like to tell you that something turned out very well. The influence of these former dissidents is still important today. Thanks to these people, society is full of moral elements. I know plenty of dissidents who were in high politics, but I have never heard anything negative about any one of them when it comes to corruption. They were sometimes simple when it came to politics, but I never witnessed any corruption."

You never entered politics yourself after 1989. Of course you participated in the meetings of Civic Forum in late 1989, but you never entered active political life in independent Czechoslovakia or the Czech Republic. Why not?

"I know myself, and I know that it was only possible to be a truly independent politician directly after the Velvet Revolution. To enter politics now means to dawn the coat of a political party, and when I see that before important votes members of political parties must disclose how they intend to vote, I think that this is not for me. However, I think that I can be involved in politics via informal influence. For example, through the NGO sector, and that I am doing."

In the end let's return to your role as a sociologist. We've watched the Czech Republic develop in many different ways over the last sixteen years. What is your evaluation of the state of this country's transition, and what do you consider its biggest successes?

"We are now a normal, democratic society. I know that the people are unsatisfied, but if you look at it from the vantage point of central Europe, from the viewpoint of our past, then I think that we are living in one of the best times that belongs to the history of our state. There are no wars around us, we belong to the European Union, to NATO, and this all means that our politicians could be irresponsible, but we will survive it."