Paulina Bren: There was a large spectrum of collaboration during normalisation – just to function, you had to be somewhere on it

Paulina Bren / Pavlína Břeňová, photo:  Ian Willoughby

In her book The Greengrocer and His TV: The Culture of Communism after the 1968 Prague Spring, historian Paulina Bren offers fresh perspectives on various aspects of Czechoslovakia’s normalisation period. These include how the Communists used TV serials to get their message across at a time when the nation, forced to accept the re-imposition of relatively hardline rule, largely turned inward. She makes particular reference to TV writer Jaroslav Dietl, creator of some of the most popular shows of that era.

Paulina Bren / Pavlína Břeňová,  photo:  Ian Willoughby

But when we met in New York, Bren, who was born Pavlína Břeňová in Brno, first told me how her own family had escaped Czechoslovakia when she was an infant – at the very time normalisation was starting to take hold.

“My parents left with me and my sister in September of 1969, just a few weeks before the borders closed.

“Of course at the time they needed an exit visa and they needed an invitation letter.

“My mother wrote to a friend of hers, Zdena Zábranská, who was a poet.

Zdena Zábranská,  photo: Czech Television
“She and her husband were in Paris and they received the letter literally as they were closing the door on their apartment and heading to the train station to return to Prague.

“Zdena quickly penned a letter pretending she was some French person living in Paris.

“My mother received it. It was just for my father and her, so she quickly added ‘et les enfants’, which was my sister and me.

“So that’s how the exit visa happened. This was already a year after the invasion, so really at that point Czechoslovakia was very much cut off from the West.

“But the Hotel International in Brno still was getting Western newspapers.

Hotel International in Brno,  photo: Stavoprojekt
“So my father went there, found the London Times, saw an ad for a computer programmer, which was quite a speciality then, wrote a letter to them and never heard back from them.

“But then he decided we should just go there.

“My mother was sick and stayed with us. He headed to London, showed up at this firm, they didn’t know what he was doing there and he didn’t have an interview.

“But they interviewed him and gave him a job on the spot.

“My mother, my sister and I followed soon after and three weeks later the borders closed.

“So it was two kids, two suitcases and 100 dollars, because they had to leave everything behind and pretend they were going on vacation.”

Jumping forward quite a way, in your book The Greengrocer and His Television, you talk about being in Prague in the late 1980s and getting under the space where the Stalin statue had stood. How did you get in there and what did you find there?

The Greengrocer and His Television,  photo: ACADEMIA
“Oh my. I was there in 1987. I had just graduated from Wesleyan University here in the US; we emigrated one more time.

“I became obsessed with coming to Prague and I couldn’t find a way to do it. I finally decided to just come on a tourist visa.

“While I was waiting for the tourist visa I was in London and to stay in cheap accommodation I stayed at the Catholic Czech centre Velehrad, where I had always gone every Saturday to learn how to say ‘ř’.

“I met an artist there named Petr Petr, who had just escaped from Prague. So it was sort of bizarre as I was now heading to Prague.

“He introduced me to all of his artist friends, so I had a really interesting view of Prague. I was there for a month.

“One of these artist friends who was a climber – a caver, I suppose they’re called – and another friend decided it would be really amusing to take me down under Stalin.

“Of course it was completely illegal, but they had done it several times.

“So: middle of the night, flashlights and so forth. And they knew how to get in there.

“It was quite scary, especially this moment where there was just a mound of thousands and thousands of shoes.

“Of course that is reminiscent for anybody of the Holocaust.

“Normalisation is a strange word. The first official enunciation happened when Dubček and his cabinet were returned from house arrest in Moscow.”

“I don’t know what they were doing there, but that image has always stuck with me.”

The central theme of your book is the normalisation period in Czechoslovakia. I’ve always thought normalisation was a very strange word. Who coined the word, or when did it enter usage?

“It is a strange word. The first official enunciation happened when Dubček and his cabinet were returned from house arrest in Moscow, a week after the invasion.

Alexander Dubček,  photo: YouTube
“He went on the radio in Czechoslovakia and explained that they had come to an agreement about the rapid normalisation of the situation.

“It became an official word for it. Husák after 1989 claimed that he did not conceive of the idea of normalisation – everybody did, because what else to do with thousands of Soviet troops now occupying Czechoslovakia.

“What I love is that the sort of Czech penchant for the absurd made it also very appropriate. Because what else to call the abnormality of normalisation than ‘normalizace’.”

In your book there’s one fact that I found completely eye-popping – I’d never heard it before. It relates to the screenings of Communist Party members after the beginning, I guess, of normalisation, when something like a quarter of a million committee members screened 1.5 million members of the Communist Party. What was the purpose of that screening?

“Yes, it’s strange, actually – one doesn’t read about that very much.

“But I think it was absolutely pivotal to normalisation.

“First purges were aimed at the really public, celebrity figures of the Prague Spring. But then they were mandated at every single workplace.”

“Originally the Soviets hoped to simply put in a new regime straight after the invasion.

“They saw that was impossible and they let Dubček hang on until April 1969. Husák took over and then the purges started in the summer.

“First they were aimed at the really public, celebrity figures of the Prague Spring.

“But then these purges really were mandated at every single workplace.

“Even if nobody was purged, everybody received a form which they had to answer. And they had to say if they agreed or disagreed with the invasion, among other things.

“In a sense it was a pledge of allegiance.

Jaroslav Dietl,  photo: Czech Television
“It turned everybody into signatories to normalisation. I think that was a really important part of trying to understand the context of collaboration, or perhaps one would call it something milder, after 1968.”

For those who don’t get the reference, who is the greengrocer of your title?

“The greengrocer is of course Václav Havel’s greengrocer. I sort of posit his idea of the greengrocer as the everyday man in his wonderful essay about the greengrocer [The Power of the Powerless] with the sort of everyday man that the television writer Jaroslav Dietl created in his serials.

“In a way, unfortunately, Jarolsav Dietl’s everyday man was a little closer to the truth than the sort of wished for greengrocer.

“Havel describes the greengrocer in terms of this very wide, odd spectrum of collaboration that normalisation sort of demanded.

“He hopes for the greengrocer to take a stand, but I think it was more complex than sometimes Havel realised.”

Were the only two choices to essentially accept normalisation and accept one-party rule, or to become a dissident?

“No, I don’t think so.

“I think that was part of the problem. That was why ultimately Charter 77 and Havel and other dissidents had such a resonance here in the West.

“My book also deals with the question of why did they have so little resonance within Czechoslovakia among ordinary citizens.

“Part of that problem is precisely that it was set up in a very sort of binary opposition.

“Whereas the ‘70s and ‘80s normalisation, or late communism as I refer to it, was very much about the grey areas.

“Charter 77 was set up in a very sort of binary opposition. Whereas the ‘70s and ‘80s normalisation was very much about the grey areas.”

“Indeed, in the mid-1980s there was a big rumpus within Charter 77, where all these younger signatories, who were not Prague-based, were writing to the Prague headquarters and saying, We can’t relate to you, you don’t relate to us, you don’t actually about how we think and we have sort of united forces, not with other Charter signatories but actually with younger people who have different interests, different passions, different ideas that they’re pursuing – and it’s these people that are now speaking to what an opposition will be.”

There’s also a sense, I think, that the carrot of normalisation was consumerism – that people received more products. But how does that square with the general image of communism as being a period of scarcity, of queues and of lack?

“I have to say I don’t like that whole carrot metaphor that’s always used.

“I think in terms of becoming a consumer if you have even less to consume I think that in fact forms you as a consumer even more.

“Because whether you’re on the hunt for something as vital as toilet paper or as desirable as 1980s VCRs and calculators, it changes your everyday practices.

The woman behind the counter,  a Czechoslovak television programme  (1977) by Jaroslav Dietl,  photo: TV Barrandov
“It changes your outlook and so forth.

“I think in many ways because of this emphasis on consumerism or consumption, because there wasn’t that much (Czechoslovakia was still better off than other East Bloc countries, but nevertheless, because of that everything was framed in terms of consumption).

“So when the Velvet Revolution happened the idea of joining the West, of becoming European again, of entering that capitalist realm was framed in terms of consumption – and that led to a lot of disappointments.”

You also speak in your book about the role played by television in normalisation. In a nutshell, what was that role?

“In 1968, during the Prague Spring, radio still had, I would say, the most prominent role.

“But this was the moment when television began to shine.

“So when the invasion happened and the purge began, the key targets were the media: Even as they were purging these media centres, they were also trying to figure out how they could use them.

“They realised it was necessary.

“They were doing surveys left and right, reading letters from citizens and they realised statistically that everybody was switching off the news.

“So they ended up sort of inserting the information they wanted to get across into the entertainment production instead.

Hospital at the End of the City,  a television series  (1977) by Jaroslav Dietl
“Television serials were particularly potent for this, in large part because Jaroslav Dietl, this famous television writer – who in fact was very much for the Prague Spring and they had to bring him back; he had to sort of purge himself a little bit [laughs] and they brought him back – had been fascinated back in the ‘50s and ‘60s with the genre of the television serial.

“Jaroslav Dietl had sort of convinced Czechoslovak Television to let him write these – and they were very popular.

“This was a perfect vehicle and he was a skilled writer and he made the decision to write these television serials.

“The regime was really able to use them as a way to have discussions in a seemingly non-political way, to have discussions about key issues that show that they were solving problems: solving problems with housing, with single mothers, with a broken-down health care system.

“All of these could sort of be sorted through seeing the images of these good, kind, constructive Communists who understand the errors of ways and were able to change things and get Czechoslovakia back on the right path.”

One thing you also refer to in your book is returnees, people who left Czechoslovakia after 1968 and then came back and in some cases appeared on TV, explaining where they’d gone wrong.

“Right. Exactly. The numbers weren’t huge, but certainly the call to émigrés, to people like my parents who had fled, there were cycles of that.

“They were promised pardons and people did return.

“In terms of becoming a consumer, if you have even less to consume I think that in fact forms you as a consumer even more.”

“Because it’s very hard. It’s very hard to show up in a foreign country without the language, without the contacts, friends, family, money, cultural knowledge.

“So understandably it could be enticing to return with a pardon.

“In return for that, they were often met right on the tarmac, they were interviewed, in order to say, of course, what was wrong with their experience in the West.

“That sort of narrative was able to be woven into the narrative of the socialist good life, which going back to the consumerism question, was the recognition that, Well yes, we can’t offer all consumer goods that the West has, but we can offer other things: the socialist good life.

“That means, You know, we’re not going to monitor that you work that hard at work, we won’t really check in on the 9 to 5, you’ll have lots of time for hobbies, friends, social life and so forth – that is what we can offer.”

Is it possible to speak generally about how normalisation is perceived today?

“I’m not sure I could actually speak to that. But I have to say that it’s shocking… I’m sure you’ve read those newspaper articles as well about the interviews on the streets and asking people, Who was Husák? Who was Dubček? What happened in 1968?

Gustáv Husák,  photo: Czech  Television
“It’s just shocking – nobody knows.

“So to talk about how the Czechs now interpret or think about normalisation, I think the question really is, How do many Czechs interpret the past?

“Are they cognizant of the fact that there was a very long period of communism, which had different variations: the 1950s versus the 1960s versus the ‘70s and ‘80s of normalisation?

“That’s sort of the question – of forgetting.”

Also I guess even though normalisation was more recent, it was also less dramatic than many of the moments in the communist era?

“Absolutely. There’s the phrase ‘the banality of evil’.

“I would say normalisation is so incredibly banal in many ways.

“But at the same time that’s why it’s so instructive.

“When we look at periods of extreme authoritarianism and, just to stay with communism, we look at Stalinism, then it’s easier to take a stand, or to at least imagine oneself as not being a Stalinist.

“Normalisation I think is far more instructive. It’s about a more benign form of authoritarianism, of political ideologies.

“The way people can and do quite easily co-exist with those kinds of political regimes – I think that’s the question.

“The numbers weren’t huge, but certainly the call to émigrés, to people like my parents who had fled, there were cycles of that. They were promised pardons and people did return.”

“So in a sense, I think it’s the memory of that which is important.”

I guess from everything you’re saying, you don’t feel we’re in a position to in any sense judge people for “collaborating” in that period?

“Absolutely. There was a spectrum, a very large spectrum, of collaboration during normalisation.

“In order to sort of just exist and function, you had to be somewhere on that spectrum.

“Also, if you were in Prague it was much easier to protest. If you were in Prague and relatively famous, your voice could be heard in the West.

“It was much easier to protest than it was for, let’s say, a school teacher in Zlín.

“And I think that’s important to keep in mind, as well.”

Since The Greengrocer and His TV, Paulina Bren has written a book about New York’s women-only Barbizon Hotel. It is due to be published by Simon & Schuster and has been optioned by HBO.