Marek Tomin - growing up in a dissident family during the communist regime

Marek Tomin

In today's One on One Jan's guest is Marek Tomin - a journalist, traveller, and Greenpeace advisor who is the son of well-known dissident parents who were among the first to sign the human rights charter, Charter 77, in communist Czechoslovakia. In today's programme you'll hear what it was like growing up in a dissident family, how Marek as a child registered just "what was going on" and the legacy it left him with today.

"I think just like all children I asked what my father did and what my mother did and I found out that my father was a philosopher - something that was very mysterious to me in some ways, somebody who thinks about things - and yet my father was a night-shift turbine operator in the local power station in Prague 7. And, of course I asked my dad why that was, why he wasn't working in something he had qualifications for, and that's when I began to sort of understand that we were different.

From a very early age the year 1968 had a very mythical and mystical position in my life, because that was the time when my father was at university, there was a great dialogue going on, and suddenly after 1969 all of that changed.

We actually spent a year in Hawaii, because my father got a visiting professorship at Hawaii University, and so we spent a year away. When I was like five weeks old we flew to America, but my brother was six at the time and remembered it better. But, we did return and having returned it was just obvious that we were living a completely different life to other kids. I knew this was going on even before Charter 77 came along and our dissident life turned into something more permanent."

Your mother of course was the spokeswoman for Charter 77 - how did the situation escalate?

"Um, it was really with both my parents signing Charter 77, my father first in the first round; [the situation escalated] because our flat became a focal point for people. Before that we had friends but we had various friends, we weren't in the underground community which was very closely-knit. We became a part of that only after Charter, through meeting these people and that was wonderful because I had many new friends and fantastic places to visit, where dozens of people walked around with very long hair and played strange music!

The first wave of police pressure, of kind of strong-arm tactics came when my father started inviting people over to our flat, and used it as a platform for his seminars."

He was very clear about his intentions, wasn't he? Didn't make much attempt to hide...

"Absolutely not, and that was my father's key point. In fact, initially he even sent letters to official circles, invited people from Charles University and making no secret about it. He was, you know, trying to attempt an open dialogue. For me the first few times that I was at home and people started piling in to our flat which wasn't particularly big - I mean 60 people or more - was at a time that was very, very dark and very, very grey. Suddenly people were meeting and they had kind of a sparkle in their eyes of a kind of mutual strength and solidarity and exploration. Now, my father was reading ancient Greek and going through the Dialogues and many people of course weren't versed in this, these weren't regular students! The age range was very varied... but, yeah, it was a great focal point.

The state security and the interior ministry tolerated this for a little while and then the harassment started. Eventually everybody who came knew that within five minutes, maybe ten, the police would be there and there would be a raid, and everybody would be arrested.

Vaclav Benda
They could be interrogated for 24 hours, 48 hours, and maybe held longer. And we never knew. The thing about the 70s as compared to the 50s, one didn't see the same kind of crimes, they can't be compared. I mean, then, it was Stalinism: people were disappearing. People were being executed. People were being sent to work camps, to uranium mines. These are things that weren't happening in the 70s. But, we didn't 'know'. Quite simply, Charter never knew what the next step was going to be. The father of my best friends was Vaclav Benda, and I remember when he was put on trial with several others from the Committee for the Protection of the Unjustly Persecuted, and he was given five years.

My brother and I, we weren't sure our parents weren't going to be arrested the next day. We had several amazing plans of course because we messed around as kids and we had a 'plan' for escaping from the country(!) and we said if our parents get arrested we will not allow ourselves to be taken to a children's home, we'll escape and roam the world for the rest of our lives, away from communism! So, the atmosphere was such: at times it was very sinister."

With 20/20 hindsight it's always easier to assess it was a risk / it wasn't a risk, but that element of not knowing what was coming next must have been terrible. I remember reading Milan Simecka's "Letters from Prison" and though he wasn't held quite that long, I think a year-and-a-half, it was the not knowing, the feeling of being held indefinitely, that must have been extremely difficult to bear.

"Certainly. And a lot of the people, for example the famous Plastic People trial, most of the people finally convicted had served their sentences before they were actually sentenced. You know, they were pending trial - but they were in prison."

When you talk about this atmosphere amongst kids from dissident families and the plans you made, you were about ten years old or less at the time, right? I get a sense there was a bit of a positive aspect in this kind of friendship or sense of solidarity.

"Yes. The underground and dissident community, which did unite, I mean for a long time some of these people knew of each other, people like Ivan Jirous [Czech poet, dissident, and artistic director of the Plastic People of the Universe - ed. note] were both in the underground and in the dissident community and there were bridges. But it was really only in 1978 when Vaclav Havel invited the Plastic People to play at his 'Hradecek' cottage north of the country, and invited all of the intellectuals, all of the intelligentsia, all of the "chartists", that's where the solidarity started coming together. Going on weekends to houses that people had managed to get hold of... that's where you could really feel the atmosphere.

You know, children are very perceptive and you know it's been a big theme of my life, I mean I'm still "a child"! And I do remember that we understood very acutely what was going on. For a child it was almost visual: you know, people who were 'ours' so to speak, in inverted commas, they just looked different! Different expressions, they had a different shine in their eyes, despite the down side.

Even if somebody, for example like us, you know, had the secret police parked outside the door to our flat. Not the door to our apartment building, but 24 hour surveillance right in front of the door to the flat! So, you know, the state at the time was capable of pushing its power right up to your doorstep. The more the state would push, the more oppressive the regime would become, what made it possible to keep coming back was this incredible feeling of freedom.

Paradoxically, I have never felt freedom as strongly as I did back then in Czechoslovakia, faced with that oppression."