In memoriam: Charter 77 spokeswoman, novelist and ‘enemy of the state’ Zdena Tominová

Zdena Tominová, photo: Czech TV

Czech author Zdena Tominová, a Charter 77 spokeswoman who immigrated to England after the communist government declared her an “enemy of the state”, has died at the age of 79. Together with her husband, the philosopher Julius Tomin, she was among the very first signatories of the human rights petition. Despite being hounded by the secret police, the banned writer continued to spread samizdat in Czechoslovakia until she went into exile, after being stripped of her citizenship.

Alexander Dubček | Photo: ČT24

Zdena Tominová began her literary career in 1959, writing surrealist poetry, and published essays and short stories until her work was banned following the Soviet-led invasion of 1968 and ouster of reformist leader Alexander Dubček. In an interview ahead of the twentieth anniversary of the crushing of the Prague Spring, she recalled her profound disappointment in Dubček’s “capitulation”, which would steel her resolve to fight the regime.

“[T]he moment of truth came when Dubcek was actually speaking on the radio when he was returned from captivity in Moscow. I listened to it in the occupied town hall when I was working as an interpreter for the first week of the invasion, and the soldiers were already leaving, they were clearing out because everything was as if returning to ‘normal’.

Photo: František Tichý,  Czech Radio

“And that’s what Dubcek was saying – that we’re going to continue with the reforms and everything is going to be just fine, as it was before. But he couldn’t even speak, there was a broken man talking, sobbing between words. I can’t describe the feeling; it was really like an era coming to an end.

“You listened and felt terrible compassion for the man, but at the same time you felt – stop sobbing, you didn’t have to sign, you didn’t have to capitulate, you ought to have trusted the people far more than you did. We were here, we were winning, we were absolutely behind you, now you’re sobbing there, saying this is it, we had to capitulate.”

The very first Charter 77 spokespersons were playwright Václav Havel, philosopher Jan Patočka, and former Foreign Minister Jiří Hájek. Two years later, Zdena Tominová became a spokesperson after the arrest of members of the Committee for the Defence of the Unjustly Prosecuted (VONS). She described the terrible pressure not only on the “few thousand” dissidents who signed the petition but also those who supported the regime, against their conscience.

Soviet occupation | Photo: Post Bellum

“If you say ‘yes’ to something [like the Soviet occupation] that your whole being wants to say ‘no’ to, you carry this wound for years and years to come. And I think there is an explanation in there, a moral explanation, why people then actually went along with the whole Normalisation, ugly as it was – because they were morally crippled…

“[T]he few thousand who refused the moral crippling, they stayed with the truth. But their punishment was so spectacular, that there was no way – that’s why, for example, we can’t heal as easily as Hungary could, or as quickly, even though it took there twelve years as well, because of that absolute cut between the people who said ‘no’ and the people who said ‘yes’ and who lost. It’s like really cutting a body in two.”

Julius Tomin,  photo: Archive Post Bellum

Already under constant surveillance and subjected to psychological pressure, the situation worsened for the Tomins when Julius along with invited professors from the West began holding philosophical seminars for Czechs denied the chance to study in the family’s Letná apartment. After some such sessions, Zdena was attacked by a masked man, presumably a secret police agent.

In 1980, the entire family received exit visas so that Julius could do work at Oxford University. But whilst there, the Czechoslovak regime stripped them of their citizenship and blocked their return. From the UK, Zdena Tominová continued to support Czech dissidents, while working for the BBC and dedicating herself to her writing. She was awarded the Medal of Merit by President Václav Havel in 2003.

Zdena Tominová was interviewed for The Other Europe, a six-part series, shot in 1987–1988 in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, gifted to the Václav Havel Library and digitised by the National Film Archive in Prague. She wrote a screenplay about her family’s exile, upon which the film Enemies of the State (1981) is based.