The “social contract”: Jan Čulík face to face with the Czechoslovak communist regime

2. 11. 2022 / Muriel Blaive

čas čtení 20 minut
(in honor of his 70th birthday)

In a series of recent Britské listy interviews, I asked Jan Čulík to describe his life in communist Czechoslovakia (see here, here, here, and here.) This set of interviews is an opportunity to explain or re-explain what we contemporary historians of communism mean when we speak of “social contract” between the population and the regime.

What the “social contact” means, one more time

Let us put an end to the misinformed but frequent comment that the notion of “social contract” is out of touch with reality since individual Czechs did not usually sit down with authorities to negotiate the terms of their domination. The point of academia is to theorize, so by social contract we speak here of an abstract notion, not of an actual roundtable. I gave four potent examples of this social negotiation process in my essay on everyday life in České Velenice, The Border Runs Through the River:

  • First, even though the town of České Velenice was entirely in the Forbidden Border Zone in the 1950s and partly so in the following decades, it would have been unthinkable that locals would not be allowed to pick up mushrooms and blueberries, so they were issued special permits to do so while border guards patrolled among them with guns, looking for potential escapees coming from the inland.

  • Second example: the local swimming pool was inconveniently lying in the no man’s land between the two fences of the Iron Curtain, but it was unthinkable that workers, builders of socialism, would not be allowed to use this beautiful recreational facility. So, the locals were allowed to pass the first fence by showing their IDs and they swam in an exotic landscape of watchtowers and armed border guards a few meters away from Austria.

  • Third, even though the whole town was in the Forbidden Border Zone in the 1950s there would have been social unrest if the local tradition of Saturday dancing teas had been disrupted. So, a compromise was found: the dancing tea event was moved to a room in the train station, and visitors from nearby villages were allowed to come into town and dance with locals, provided they didn’t leave the station.

  • And finally, even though one of the walls of the local cemetery was the Iron Curtain itself, it was unthinkable to prevent people from visiting their deceased loved ones. So once again, people could pass through the first fence by showing their IDs and approach within meters of the Austrian border.

The case of České Velenice is one example of how the regime constantly searched for a level of repression that would be socially acceptable, i.e. that would not anger the population to the point that the risk of social unrest might significantly increase. Similarly, individuals constantly tested what behavior was acceptable from the point of view of the authorities and at what point a provocation might go too far. This is the “social negotiation” I speak of, leading to a “social contract”, a notion which, I repeat, is an abstract and slightly ironical way to describe domination practices. Another famous example of social contract is implied in the “We pretend to work, they pretend to pay us” joke.

Pushing for the limits

Jan Čulík’s life and family story is a perfect illustration of such a search for acceptable limits. Let us first take the most emblematic aspect of the communist regime, repression. His family paid a heavy price to Stalinism since his uncle, a Catholic intellectual, was sent to the Příbram uranium mines and soon died there. His aunt was discriminated against and took years to find a suitable job again. Her daughter, Jan Čulík’s cousin, gave an interview to Britské listy in which she described in a very moving way her tragic childhood experience.

Jan Čulík’s great-uncle, a Catholic priest, was the type of person who had a “čerčilka” on his radio during the war, a special valve named after Churchill because when installed on radio sets it made it possible to hear the BBC service on short wave – but it also incurred the death sentence if one was caught by the Gestapo. (For about two years, he listened to London in his flat in the company of a German soldier whom he met in some kind of pub.) After the war, this uncle became secretary of Prague Archbishop Beran before he was arrested, tortured, and sentenced to ten years’ imprisonment. He was not released until around 1960, but remained so popular he continued to receive hundreds of postcards on his birthdays. Jan Čulík’s mother, a non-Communist medical student, was prevented from doing her internship (which is a remarkably stupid way to punish a future doctor as it is the whole community which will suffer if he or she is not sufficiently trained.)

But already there the search for limits is evident: his mother took part in the February 1948 student demonstration against the communist takeover. Fortunately, no one noticed her, so she could continue her studies. Even though she was not a Communist, she and her family received an upscale (if small for an eventual family of five) flat in an excellent location in the center of town. After a very difficult period his aunt, the surviving widow, found an interesting job in a publishing house in the 1960s (the same Catholic publishing house with which her husband was associated before his arrest ), where she was able to help publish the translations done by her brother, Jan Čulík Sr, who worked as a renowned freelance translator of English-speaking literature outside of his job. After working for a foreign trade company in the 1950s and 1960s, where he used his knowledge of languages but did not have, as a non-Communist, any decision-making power, he indeed took an office job in the 1970s which consisted in being on stand-by in case his new firm might need his translation services. It means he was essentially paid to do nothing, apart from benefiting from the firm’s cheap canteen every day, practicing the organ in a nearby church in Prague thanks to personal connections, and working on his private translations.

In the 1970s, as a doctor specialising in teenagers, Jan Čulík’s mother worked with the army to medically evaluate young recruits, and she developed contacts which would prove very useful for her son as he grew of age: they served to exempt him from military service, as well as to warn him that the StB was on his heels a few months before he left for Scotland. To the family’s slight surprise, despite this Catholic, non-communist, repressive background, Jan Čulík was allowed to go to high school, in fact to a very good high school where one of the members of his cohort at the start of the 1968-1969 school year was none other than Alexander Dubček’s son.

Finally and on a lighter tone, the cast of his family includes his astute grandmother, who held on to a quirky entrepreneurial spirit under communism. She bought what seemed like a random plot of land in 1956, an innocuous investment which bore incredible fruit after 1989 since it turned out a residential area had been built on it without permission. The family was offered a one million crown payment as compensation and with this money, they bought the flat they had received from the state in the center of Prague. Thanks to an inspired babička, this now superbly renovated building thus turned the family into quasi-grand bourgeois property owners.

From the amusing to the outright amazing

This family profile already doesn’t fit the “totalitarian” description of family survival under communism, but Jan Čulík knocked down many more pillars of the totalitarian narrative during the normalization era. While in high school (1968-1972), he was at the helm of a protest movement against antiquated pedagogical methods, a movement which did manage to alter the model of “learning by heart” and replace it with more reflective teaching methods – before the school reversed to the old dogma when his cohort graduated. Talking about social negotiation, this one was remarkably concrete, and successful, too. Another amazing example is that as a 14-year-old elementary school  pupil  already entertaining a passion for journalism, he managed to convince the principal to let him present a five-minute news program of his own making on the school public address system every Tuesday at eight a.m. after class began. With fellow pupils, he also broadcast, among others, a thriller series which they pre-recorded in their own time. He also published a newspaper, ironically entitled New York Times:

In January 1970, he managed to get his hands on a camera and went to film the mourners on Jan Palach’s tomb. This was also the occasion of his first encounter with the StB, which did not take such filming lightly and confiscated the camera. A trace of this incident was left in the archives.

But where the “social contract” takes a new dimension is when despite being an outspoken teenager, fervent supporter of the Prague Spring, and son of non-Communist parents, Jan Čulík was admitted to university, at the conservative Faculty of Arts of all places. The way he managed this feat borders on the farcical: despite not being in the Communist Youth Union, he wanted to learn the Morse code to understand the short wave transmissions while listening to the Radio Free Europe broadcasts. The only available Morse course was in the army, so when joining the telegraphists’ course he was automatically enrolled in Svazarm (the Union for Cooperation with the Army.) When he brilliantly passed the university entrance exams, the head teacher, Dr. Jarmila Emmerová, who was actually the model for the character of Irene in Josef Škvorecký’s novels and short stories, pointed out to the commission that he was a member of Svazarm and this was an adequate compensation to his non-membership in the Youth Union. Ironically, he was thus admitted to university as a result of his passionate listening of Radio Free Europe.

A suitable character for a Škvorecký novel

In fact, Jan Čulík could have been a character of a Škvorecký novel in his own right, for his provocations and lifestyle were, from today’s point of view, hilarious. For instance, in the 1970s, he moved around Prague with a portable radio blaring out loud BBC broadcasts in English – and no one dared to comment. He was known to be outspoken at university and shouted out in class that he would not sign the counter-Charter in 1977. After years of intensive BBC listening, he was so good in English that he made excellent money as a freelance presenter for the English programs of Czechoslovak radio. There, for the late-night news bulletin which was prepared a little more independently than the ones that came earlier in the day because the Soviet news agency, TASS, was already shut for the night due to the time difference with Moscow, he was given official permission to listen to the BBC and copy some of their news items. The Radio Prague management accepted the English section’s argument that no one in Europe and in the US would listen to Radio Prague news in English if they were modelled only on unprofessional, ideological, and outdated TASS news bulletins. In these broadcasts he included coded messages for his girlfriend to make her laugh. He helped a Canadian acquaintance prepare outlandish propaganda for the Bahai religion in Czechoslovakia by “photocopying” a library book, i.e. by taking photographs of every page and developing them in a bathtub. He described the editorial offices of the newspaper Rudé právo during a bus tour with a group of foreign students as “the place where the Communists run their newspaper from.” He was, by the way, appointed as contact for these foreign students during their Czech language summer school in Prague.

But it is on one of the touchiest topics of all, travelling to the West, that Jan Čulík negotiated his path in the most insolent way: the wife of one of his high school teachers whom he befriended was working in the state administration allocating foreign currency. To obtain foreign currency was the most difficult obstacle to overcome in order to receive an exit permit to the West. With this very useful contact, student Jan Čulík was able to travel three times to the UK in the 1970s, for approximately one week each. This shows, by the way, that one of the most repressive aspects of the communist regime, the absence of freedom of movement, was as much or more a question of nepotism or money as one of politics.

Listening to Jan Čulík, one gets the impression he was living in a very different country from the one portrayed in the anticommunists’ writings. In fact, a sense of indomitable freedom is emanating from his interviews. Here was a young man who, in essence, loudly criticized the conditions he lived in and did what he felt like doing as if there had been no dictatorship to speak of.

Was this luck?

There is certainly an element of luck in this biography in the sense that Jan Čulík started high school in 1968, a propitious time politically speaking, whereas he would have probably not been admitted even a couple of years earlier. But he is also typifying individuals who create their own luck – their own “social contract.” It is difficult to imagine him as a submissive youth under any circumstance. We can try to imagine how his life could have looked like in later years if we turn to underground activist Petr Placák’s memoir, The Spook, in which he exhibits a similar, fiercely independent spirit. Petr Placák might have been surveilled much more tightly than Jan Čulík ever was by the StB, but he evaded them and made fun of them, and managed to live his own life in a similarly careless way.

Jan Čulík’s interactions with the StB are, yet again, amusing from an outside perspective. If we go back to the notion of “social negotiation”, when the StB came to fetch him one evening for an interrogation, his mother emphatically stopped them at the door and proclaimed that he would not leave the flat before getting his dinner. So he ate dinner in peace and quiet (and with appetite), while the StB agents waited on the landing. This particular interrogation concerned, if memory serves him right, the Charter 77 manifesto – he was asked if he had read it, and he answered truthfully that he had. When he was asked how he got access to it, he pretended, so as not to incriminate the friend who had passed it on to him, that someone had thrown it in his mailbox. While this is standard behavior, I must admit as a historian I am baffled that the StB accepted this type of explanation without further probing. Surely, they knew this to be a lie, and shouldn’t a dictatorial secret police extract confessions out of its prisoners…? But torture was apparently not the order of the day for such small matters anymore – the StB knew how to pick its battles, and this one was hopeless.

This certainly doesn’t mean that to regularly come into interaction with the StB was a fun experience for Jan Čulík. Another illustration of the “social contract” precisely resides in this painful interaction with authority. Ungenerously to himself, Jan Čulík calls this his “collaboration period”: he eventually surrounded to the arguments of his teacher and signed the counter-Charter. As a historian, I would dispute that this is collaboration – I would rather call this an everyday life survival strategy. But as everyone else, Jan Čulík made choices: he submitted to the counter-Charter, but refused an offer of outright collaboration with the StB. This would have been too much, would have passed the threshold he had fixed for himself – and this is exactly the social negotiation I am talking about. For him, this is where the line was. For others, it was already to sign the counter-Charter (they refused and bore the consequences); for yet others, the first and the second were acceptable, but to step in the communist party was too much; for others still the first, second, and third steps were acceptable but to step in the Militia was too much; for yet others, nothing was too much. Etc. There was a dictatorship, yes. But within the constraints of the dictatorship, there was still a measure of choice, one that was particularly painful because it involved an internal debate between personal ethics and fear, and almost everyone had a family to take into consideration, which made them prone to moral blackmailing. Some found the resources to resist; others didn’t. This is the essence of the social contract.

So even such an extrovert as Jan Čulík was scared; and even such a free soul felt like he was suffocating in communist Czechoslovakia. He was fortunate to find an ideal solution in the form of marriage, his new wife being a UK citizen who came to study in Czechoslovakia and with whom he was able to leave legally – but not without another farce: he was made to pay Kč 30,000 to the Czechoslovak state for his studies, and when he arrived in the UK the Czechoslovak embassy demanded another Kč 30,000. Jan Čulík vehemently protested and they eventually begged him to pay the smallish amount of 200 pounds instead – another “negotiation” in which the strongest party was not always the regime.

Would they have broken him?

What would have happened had this propitious solution of marrying a Western citizen not presented itself? Jan Čulík unambiguously claims: “They would have broken me.” It is of course impossible to say, although we can indeed imagine that such a brash existence would not have remained possible into the grey 1980s. We can picture him an accidental dissident (although his father warned him, probably wisely, that this kind of opposition was madness); we can picture him an activist of the Petr Placák kind, determined to live his life independently from the regime no matter what, and consequences be damned; we can picture him, although with more difficulty, as finding an accidental niche as his father did, and live a content, if quiet, life; and of course we can imagine him as a full-fledged compromised citizen, pressed into joining the party, or worse. Yet I find it difficult to conceive of the latter, if only because Jan Čulík’s character appears too rebellious for this kind of discipline or submission. But the fact is that one’s fate depended on chance, on circumstances, and probably no one ever was a dissident or a collaborator purely by design, notwithstanding that some turned out to be both at once.

Yet by observing the vagaries of one particular life story we see that to live in such a regime left no one untouched. Even after he left the country in 1978, Jan Čulík didn’t dare to order Sixty-Eight Publishers material for a couple of years because he feared the StB might still be surveilling him. It took him even more years to feel safe enough to undertake some action against the regime from the outside by helping translate the dissidents’ proclamations and providing background for Western journalists. His parents, he says, although being opposed to this regime in principle, belonged in it and could not imagine their life in another setting. They were allowed to visit England in the 1980s but were too overwhelmed to feel comfortable. Czechoslovakia remained the home of the Czechoslovak people despite its communist regime.

So, no one can tell how Jan Čulík would have turned out in the latter part of the normalization period, but we do know this from his earlier years in Czechoslovakia as well as from his work as editor of Britské listy: he is brash, loud, outspoken, undiplomatic, impervious to power, insensitive to authority, annoying for many people, despised by others, undeterred by his being ignored by other Czech media, and thoroughly unimpressed by the turmoil he might cause. He dismisses parochialism and racism, and asks the necessary painful questions. A post-1989 episode that tells quite a lot not only about Jan Čulík’s character, but about a debatable state of democracy in the post-communist Czech Republic, is when he questioned the ethics of Václav Klaus, who welcomed honoraria for his talks even though he was in function as Prime Minister. Jan Čulík’s employer, Radio Free Europe, ordered him to drop this line of enquiry, but he still called correspondents in London and Washington to confirm that John Major or Bill Clinton would never agree to such a scheme. That Radio Free Europe feared for its license on the Czech market, and that it fired Jan Čulík for this reason (“You are playing at being a great reporter!”, his superior told him, as if this was not precisely the role of a journalist), raises many an awkward question.

In any case, such fearlessness and all the traits described above are formidable qualities for a journalist and an academic, and they make him the best type of citizen this country might wish for. Far from being “unCzech”, I would claim Jan Čulík’s sense of humor and dogged determination to follow his own path make him very Czech, in the best way possible. Happy seventieth birthday, Mr Čulík, and long life to you and to Britské listy.

Cast of Jan Čulík’s family as mentioned in the article:

His father, Dr. Jan Čulík

His mother, MUDr. Hana Čulíková

His uncle, Rudolf Voříšek

His aunt, Marie Voříšková

His cousin, Ludmila Voříšková

His great-uncle, Antonín Čulík

His grandmother, Vlasta Šedivá

His wife, Lesley Keen



Obsah vydání | 4. 11. 2022