Journalist and writer Aleš Březina

Aleš Březina, photo: Dominik Jůn

Aleš Březina is a journalist, author and also editor and publisher of the Canadian-based Czech and Slovak bi-weekly newsletter “Satellite 1-416”. Mr Březina was born in Prague in 1948 and left Czechoslovakia in 1980 after spending more than two years in jail as a conscientious objector, rejecting mandatory conscription in the army. Since then, he has lived in Canada and has just published a new book called "Řetěz Bláznů"– or Chain of Fools – filled with short stories written between the 1960s and early 1980s, reflecting on life in communist Czechoslovakia and the author’s subsequent move to Canada. When I met up with him in Canada for this edition of One on One I asked him to recall his early years in Czechoslovakia.

Aleš Březina,  photo: Dominik Jůn
“I grew up in Vršovice. When I finished high school, I went to the Theological Faculty and began to study theology. In 1967, a cultural revolution was taking place in Czechoslovakia. For example, there was the New Wave in cinema, New Wave in theatre, New Wave in literature, and the Fourth Writers’ Congress was taking place in Prague. Around this time, I started to think about violence and non-violence and Martin Luther King. In 1968, the Russians came to Czechoslovakia via an invasion by the Warsaw Pact armies. In our university, we had many discussions about pacifism and this led me to decide to refuse to join the army and I started to be a conscientious objector.”

And was this also related to your study of theology? Was there a Christian foundation to your pacifism?

“My interest started at an early age. I studied Dostoyevsky, literature, lots of cinema, for example Ingmar Bergman’s 'The Seventh Seal'. I saw a big influence from theology in cinema, literature and all culture. At that time, debates were raging everywhere about what was important in life, and I was able to join the Komenius Theological Faculty in Prague. There, we discussed pacifism and this type of ideology.”

But before you could completed your studies you were expelled.

“They expelled me from the faculty in 1972. One of my friends removed the Russian flags from our university and I signed a letter, in which I expressed my disagreement with his expulsion. When I signed it, they expelled me too.”

And one of your professors, Jan Patočka, would go on to become one of the key members of the dissident movement.

Jan Patočka,  photo: Jindřich Přibík/Archive of Jan Patočka,  CC 3.0 license
“In studying theology, we had the possibility of having some philosophy lectures at the Philosophical Faculty and I spent one year with Professor Patočka at this university. He was an idealistic philosopher, who refused to collaborate with the system and he became one of the first spokesmen of Charter 77. He passed away after an interrogation by the Czechoslovak secret police in March 1977.”

So now we are in the normalisation era…

“At this time, nobody knew what to do following the 1968 Soviet invasion. This continued practically until 1973, when some people decided to do something. At this time, underground publishing began, and I started to make an underground movie [a low-budget avant-garde film called ‘A Andělě Jeho Bojovali’] from 1973 until 1976. It was five or six stories put together.”

And you managed to complete this movie?

“Yes, and the DVD is inside my book.”

So it is a free gift tucked away inside your book. I wanted to ask, you mentioned your pacifist convictions. When the Soviets invaded, that must have been a tough issue to wrestle with as some people might have said “Fight to the death!” and others threw stones at the tanks. There was some physical resistance against the invasion. Did you consider that resistance to be wrong?

“I didn’t collaborate with this system; I didn’t sign any documents in support of this system and I signed many petitions against certain injustices taking place around this time in Czechoslovakia. And in 1977, I refused to enlist in the army. I was also a signatory of Charter 77, because I thought it was a document built on the foundation of human rights, and the Czech army was on the opposite side of human rights.”

Aleš Březina in 1967,  photo: archive of Aleš Březina
So you basically viewed Czech soldiers at the time to be collaborators?

“The Czech army collaborated with the regime, for example in 1969, when the army oppressed civil rights movements commemorating the first anniversary of the invasion. In the 1950s, the Czech army fought against people who wanted to cross the border or fought against people engaged in popular uprisings like in Plzeň. In Czechoslovakia, everybody was drafted, but I refused to serve and I spent two-and-a-half years in jail, much of it in Plzeň-Bory.”

People who refused to play ball with the regime had greater difficulty finding work and advancing in society, getting university degrees – that was one of the classic tricks of the regime to ensure people would collaborate. So how did you earn a living, because being unemployed was officially illegal under communism, right?

“That’s right. First, maybe for a whole year, I worked in a forest in western Bohemia, and after that I worked as a drill operator for the geological survey, and then I worked as an orderly in a hospital in the resuscitation department and that continued until 1977.”

Tell me about your departure from Czechoslovakia. That was in 1980 and you were basically booted out.

“Until 1979, I spent two-and-a-half year in jail. After that, I worked for a year in the post office, before once again being drafted into the army. This time, I decided to leave Czechoslovakia, and they gave me permission because at this point, they had decided to try to kick out all the dissidents. I decided to go to Canada and for a while I lived in Ottawa before moving to Toronto.”

I understand that Amnesty International, the human rights organisation, was involved in your departure.

“That’s true. Amnesty International supported me during the time which I spent in jail and both they and the Czechoslovak Association in Canada asked the Canadian government to sponsor me and I ultimately went directly from Czechoslovakia to Canada in October 1980.”

So tell me about your life in Canada. Now you’re the publisher of “Satellite 1-416” which is a newspaper for the many Czechs and Slovaks that went to Canada. So tell me how you built up your life here.

“I went to Ottawa and found that it was almost impossible to start your own newspaper. But after one year, someone told me that I could work as an editor of an [existing] Czech and Slovak newspaper called ‘Nový Domov’. And that was the reason why I moved to Toronto. The paper was published by the Masaryk Memorial Institute. In 1981, I started to work as an editor at this newspaper. This continued until 1989, when in December I decided to go to Czechoslovakia and was witness to the Velvet Revolution. I wrote about this for the paper, but at this time, I decided that I didn’t want to work in an organization where someone could tell you what to write and what can be published. So I started my own newspaper in 1991.”

And that was the "Satellite"?


Photo: Eman Publishing
And what is the circulation?

“Circulation now is approximately 800.”

Finally, tell me about your new book "Řetěz Bláznů". What is it about and why did you decide to write it?

“It contains my stories and is a mosaic of a particular time. It is full of short stories, sometimes only one sentence long. Everything was written between the years 1965 and 1981 and mainly spans the normalization era, a time of great depression for people in Czechoslovakia. And I decided to write something positive in this time.”