Self-Expression Regarding the Political Environment: The Case of Czechoslovakia

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Throughout history, nations have subordinated others politically, culturally and economically. The ruling regime usually used people who spoke out as an example in order to stifle the rest of the population. The ruling regime would utilize such cases to exercise their power of intimidation. This would further encourage the masses to behave in two distinct ways: privately and publicly. The public behavior would be conformist in nature and not criticize the government. On the other hand, the private world would vocalize criticisms and complaints from intellectuals and working-class people alike. In socialist Czechoslovakia, during the sixties and seventies, shifts in the political environment  played an important role in whether this polarization of behavior, or dichotomy existed. A dichotomy with regard to vocalizing thoughts and ideas manifested as a result of hardships brought on by the failing communist ideology and fear of the consequences of speaking out against the regime. 

During the sixties and seventies, changes in Czechoslovak leadership and hardships paved the way for the transformation of the political environment from free to oppressive. With the outdated industrial factories of the 1930’s and consumer goods shortage, the sixties was a decade of unrest and hardship. Fortunately, the post-Stalin idealists of Moscow allowed the nation to freely discuss economic reform. The economic reforms also followed social reforms and the rise on interest groups, a factor that worried Antonín Novotný, the president of Czechoslovakia . Therefore, with the rise in dissatisfaction came the rise of a different political figure, Alexander Dubček. Once Novotný was pressured into retirement in 1967, an era of open expression without censorship swept the nation. However, this came to an end with international intervention.

The Prague Spring and the regime that followed in 1968 put an end to the interest groups and democratic ideals that the masses expressed. As justification for the invasion, the Warsaw Pact countries came to retain control and the Brezhnev Doctrine outlined that socialism was being threatened. Therefore, an era of oppression, censorship and purges followed. Moreover, the economic conditions did not improve. The economic situation coupled with the oppression only resulted in the rise of dissidence. By this time, also, many people had lost the genuine belief and hope for communist ideology. The system had not delivered on its promises and the working class did not benefit. Instead, the party officials became the new privileged click that had access to the resources.

While the economic hardships and censorship of criticism created the dichotomy between the public versus private world, the Dubček regime allowed open intellectual expression that was restricted under the reign of Novotný. For example, while Novotný was in power, there was a rise in underground newspapers and journals that expressed dissidence. Since the consequences were dire, people were not speaking their dissidence out in the open. Zdeněk Mlynář argued that keeping the adhering to the dichotomy and not expressing critiques expressions was critical for survival in an oppressive political environment. He argued that “it [expressing ideas we do not truly believe in for the sake of avoiding the consequences] is now a cloak under which a person can build his atomized private life or produce the most favorable conditions for his own individual ‘survival.’ ” That is, having this dichotomy during oppressive times was not merely a choice a person had to make, but a necessity for ensuring the survival  of that individual. Unfortunately, the real-life consequences of not adhering to the socialist dogma of the public world was more than censorship, it included: purges, loss of job, telephone being tapped and loss friends (due to fear of association). It was these types of consequences that encouraged people to lead double lives and engage in a public versus private form of expression, or pattern of behavior.

Engaging in the public world meant accepting domination by the communist regime. Since the communists had control over most organization and resources, engagement in the public was always somehow party related. This was also true for speaking out, especially in terms of politics. Many people found it appropriate to spend as little time as possible in the public eye because it meant a probability that a mistake would be made, which would have led to consequences. This matter was even worse for critical thinkers, or the intelligentsia. The regime knew that some individuals would have influence over others and therefore they were susceptible to even more harassment and scrutiny.  This public and private world, therefore, depended on how much harassment and censorship the government was going to exhibit. That is where this dichotomy originated: the vocalization of ideas and criticisms and whether it was public or merely private followed by how severe the consequences were. As exemplified during the Novotný regime, the consequences were dire. 

After Dubček came to power, the political environment allowed this dichotomy to temporarily disappear as interest groups and individuals were allowed to criticize and express discontent without fear of the consequences. The dual phenomenon of interest groups and the party allowed groups such as students, the KAN, K231, socialist democrats and even Slovaks to express their individual needs. This was allowed because there was no penalty for speaking out from the government. There was also open discussion and dissent toward Stalin’s “one size fits all” ideology for socialist nations. Instead, cultural and economic reforms were openly debated, and censorship was not a factor. Finally, this transformation was such a different atmosphere that Ludvík Vaculík expressed that “it took many months for us to realize that we could actually speak out. ” While this era would have dire consequences for the nation, the major shift exemplified that the political environment truly dictated whether a dichotomy existed among people’s ideas and behaviors (i.e. interest groups and open criticism). After the Prague Spring and Soviet occupation, we will see people’s behavior change once again as the political environment transforms.

With the presence of the Red Army after the Prague Spring, the tighter Soviet control once again instituted the dichotomy which dealt out consequences if not followed. With the first acts of the “normalization” of Czechoslovakia, “the purges were vicious amongst the main architects of the reforms. ” Essentially, influential figures that supported reform were eliminated from the equation so that they would not be able to encourage the masses from speaking out as well. Although, there were people who still tried to disregard this dichotomy; unfortunately, people like Václav Havel and Mlynář faced real life consequences. For example, after Havel published the Charter 77 Manifesto he was arrested and subject to harassment and surveillance by the government. He was penalized for speaking out his private feelings publicly: “hundreds of thousands of people are denied that ‘freedom from fear’ mentioned in the preamble of the first covenant, being condemned to live in constant danger of unemployment and other penalties if they voice their opinions. ” This statement showed both in writ and action that a dichotomy existed; that is, Havel voiced his opinion about the government and censorship, then, he was actually censored and faced the same consequences that he mentioned.

A further example from Jaroslav Hutka’s Dimensions of the Body and the case of Edward Goldstucker described the nature and consequences of not keeping criticisms and ideas privately in Czechoslovakia. With the Gustáv Husák regime in full control after the Prague Spring, censorship and oppression were common practice. Since this gave a rise to dissidence, intellectuals such as Hutka wrote about this forced dichotomy. Personally, he felt as though it was absurd to go along with a private sphere of thought as it was his basic right to express himself.  For example, as a dissident, he argued that “[my only] sin lies in refusing to be swept along any longer in a current that can only lead to absurdity. ” The absurdity he mentioned is a reference to abiding by the dichotomy of not expressing criticism and conforming for the sake of survival that was present. Hutka’s refusal to accept such a condition was further explained when he explained the case of his friend Jiri Grusa, who was jailed for writing a novel and lending copies.  Therefore, we once again see the consequences of expressing ideas and criticisms. It was essential that people stuck to the dichotomy of selectively expressing certain views because anything non-conformist was a punishable offense. 

Edward Goldstucker was an epitome of the cyclical changes in political environment that resulted in him being oppressed, freed, then oppressed again (and forced to emigrate). As a German literature Instructor, and the first Czechoslovak ambassador to Israel, he was imprisoned during the Stalin regime in the 1950’s and then freed after Stalin died. Once again, he came into a dangerous position of being an economist and part of the Jewish faction right before the Prague Spring. Once the Soviets invaded, he was forced to emigrate to a Western culture. In his lifetime, he faced two highly oppressive political environments and flourished during the free one. His expression was therefore limited during those specific two regimes. This represents a correlation, if not causality, that his oppression was due to the political environment. This further represents that a dichotomy took place because by expressing his views and criticisms of the government at the wrong times he faced dire consequences while during the Dubček era he did not encounter problems. 

While there was a dichotomy with regard to speaking out politically, the government also included cultural censorship in that sphere, therefore limiting even more public expression and supporting this dichotomy. As Stokes noted, censorships remained persistent in terms of coordinating what kind of message was being implied from literature.  This included not only literature but art. In Once Upon a Time by Vlastimil Tresnak, the author jested that a basement was an “entirely appropriate location for an art exhibit in the capital of a socialist state.  While the author’s anecdote about hosting an exquisite art exhibit at a remote and hidden location hits the point of censorship, it also illuminates the fact that people did have their own private world if not allowed to openly express themselves. If the art exhibits were shown publicly, then there would have been no dichotomy as everything would have been exposed for the public to see. However, as there were consequences because of the political environment (in 1978 for this story), even cultural expressions had to be restricted to the private world with private audiences in basements where the regime would not be able to exercise censorship. Likewise, this applied to other aspects of expression such as books, music, and literature in general.

Furthermore, the notion of cultural freedom not only played a role in representing the dichotomy between the public versus private world, but it also defined national Czech identity. As Milan Kundera argued in A Nation Which Cannot Take Itself for Granted, since Czechoslovakian national identity had been threatened in the past, it was important to take advantage of expressing it when the opportunity was ripe. Since this was written in 1967, it fit the time period right before the Prague Spring where censorship was at a minimum. Since Soviet hegemony in this nation and the whole bloc had persisted in limiting all forms of expression, people could only resort to private forms. Unfortunately, for a national identity to flourish, expression had to be widespread and public. Consequently, “the fate of Czech literature [ and culture as a whole] is at this moment vitally dependent on the extent of our intellectual freedom. ” Therefore, the appropriate political conditions existed for intellectual freedom to exist. This was why the author was even able to publish such a work to encourage others to speak out without facing consequences. As this example and the previous illustrated, the amount of expression permitted without consequences was dictated by the political environment. If not for the Dubček regime in power, this expression may have been limited to the private sphere as we have seen. 

With the case of Czechoslovakia, being able to speak out freely and openly about taboo topics such as criticism of Marxism or human rights was not consequence free for much of the mid to late 20th century. When a stringent political environment was present and the secret police was used to carry out terror upon those who spoke out, people resorted to an underground world of expression, a private world. This private world was both cultural and political with the publication of journals and art exhibits. People spoke out against topics such as the failing communist ideology and nature of oppression. It was not until the late 1960’s under the Dubček regime that people were free to discuss topics openly without fear of the consequences. Unfortunately, this was halted abruptly with the invasion of the Red Army and Warsaw Pact countries by 1968. This signaled a further era of oppression that raised the level of dissidence. Consequently, many people emigrated or faced the consequences of speaking out. During times of oppression, the private world would flourish, and the people did not speak out in public as a means of survival: that is, keeping one’s profession, friends, privacy and increasing the probability for prosperity. Ultimately, there was a polarization of expression during specific political environments by having a distinct public and private world.


Crampton, R.J. Eastern Europe in the Twentieth Century – and After. (New York: Routledge, 2007).

Havel, Václav. “Charter 77,” in From Stalinism to Pluralism: A Documentary History of Eastern Europe Since 1945, ed. Gale Stokes. (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1996).

Hutka, Jaroslav. “Dimensions of The Body,” in The Writing on The Wall: An Anthology of Contemporary Czech Literature, ed. Peter Kussi. (Karz-Cohl Publishing, 1983).

Kundera, Milan . “A Nation Which Cannot Take Itself for Granted,” in From Stalinism to Pluralism: A Documentary History of Eastern Europe Since 1945, ed. Gale Stokes. (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1996).

Stokes, Gale. From Stalinism to Pluralism: A Documentary History of Eastern Europe Since 1945. (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1996).

Tresnak, Vlastimil. “Once Upon a Time…,” in The Writing on The Wall: An Anthology of Contemporary Czech Literature, ed. Peter Kussi.(Karz-Cohl Publishing, 1983).

Vaculík , Ludvík. “Two Thousand Words to Workers, Farmers, Scientists, Artists and Everyone,” in From Stalinism to Pluralism: A Documentary History of Eastern Europe Since 1945, ed. Gale Stokes. (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1996).

Zdeněk Mlynář. “Towards a Democratic Political Organization of Society,” in From Stalinism to Pluralism: A Documentary History of Eastern Europe Since 1945, ed. Gale Stokes. (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1996).