Czechoslovakia under communism: popular opinion


Jan Čulík

(A lecture, presented at the University of Siena, Italy, on 2nd June, 2006.)



These are general,  subjective remarks, based on personal conversations with my Czech fellow-citizens and on the study of Czech media,  literature, cinema and the arts from the past six decades or so.


Regrettably, there is little sociological research available, analysing people´s attitudes to the communist regime, dating from the actual communist times. Sociology and anthropology were regarded as alien, subversive subjects under communism and research into opinions of ordinary people was actively discouraged.


I have also found  little  research analysing people´s attitudes to communist totalitarianism dating from post-communist times. Researchers analyse the „methods of government“ under communist times and „the role of the elites“ in contemporary Czech society. It does not seem to have occurred to anyone to actually go and ask ordinary people what they think.


When I have recently  published, in a Czech language internet periodical, a number of ordinary people´s  views about the communist times which questioned official orthodoxy, this provoked public controversy, and also, a lively positive response from the people whose voices are not normally heard in the media.


Two major topics need to be dealt with in relation to this theme.


1. The communist era in Czechoslovakia, which lasted from 1948 until 1989, was far from homogeneous. There were several distinct „stages of development“ during which popular opinion to the communist regime differed considerably. This can be easily seen when media and culture output is studied.



2. The popular perception of the communist regime may have changed considerably in post-communist times as a result of the fact that many people seem to have been disappointed by post-communist developments.



1.      Popular attitudes during communist rule in Czechoslovakia


1.1.  1948 – 1953: Rampant Stalinism


The early Communist regime in Czechoslovakia was characterised by quite fierce oppression. As for instance Čestmír Císař, the long-term communist party official and a reformist Education secretary in the 1960s testifies in his recent memoir[1], the  moderate „social democratic“ tendencies in the ruling communist party were quickly overruled. The early 1950s were marked by political showtrials, executions, shrill political propaganda and tens of thousands of people ending up, unjustly, in communist labour camps, for political reasons.


 Nevertheless, there were a considerable number of (mostly young) people, who, having been disappointed by the abandonment of Czechoslovakia by the Western democracies in 1938 at Munich, and having been polarised by Nazi oppression during the Second World War, came to see the world in black and white and enthusiastically embraced the utopian vision of the communist „Brave New World“. These young people included for instance writer Milan Kundera[2] (who was 19 at the time of the communist  takeover), the ideologue of the 1968 Prague Spring and Mikhail Gorbachev´s fellow student in Moscow in the 1950s Zdeněk Mlynář[3] and some other, major Czech writers (Pavel Kohout, Ludvík Vaculík, Arnošt Lustig). (These young people, who would have been about 10 at the end of the 1930s, during the demise of democratic Czechoslovakia, never experienced life as grown-ups in a fully-fledged democracy.)


As can be seen from literature, dealing with the 1950s (Josef Škvorecký, Mirákl), some other sections of society (certainly most of the intellectuals) were in denial towards the ruling Stalinist regime, following its antics with bemusement, trying to avoid being harmed by the regime and attempting to live as normal a life as possible under the given circumstances.


It is not known what the attitudes of the working classes to the regime were at this time. Again, judging from literature, some ordinary people were quite critical of the communist regime while others enjoyed the social welfare which the system  offered.


One thing is important, to state, however, about the period of 1948 – 1968. This was the time when the Czechs  and Slovaks were still resilient towards the communist system. Large numbers of the population were still thoroughly familiar with normal democratic practice which they had experienced in democratic Czechoslovakia in 1918-1938, a regime with which they fully identified themselves with.[4]


Thus the situation in the early years of the communist regime in Czechoslovakia was as follows:


1.      There was a group of young, pro-communist enthusiasts who had not experienced the interwar democratic  regime.

2.      The bulk of the nation was probably in denial towards the communist regime, knowing full well the advantages of a fully-fledged democratic regime.

3.      (There were obviously some opportunists who collaborated with the regime; there were also some people who enjoyed the welfare benefits provided by the communist system.) 


It can, then, be said with a high level of probability that there was relatively little hypocrisy towards the communist regime in the 1950s. Some (young) people enthusiastically supported it, most of the population was  probably in denial towards it.




1.2.  1953 – 1968: A movement towards freedom


After Stalin´s death in 1953, Czechoslovak society remained faily immobile for several years to come. There was almost no movement towards liberalisation in Czechoslovakia in 1956 (the exception being some bold speeches by poets Jaroslav Seifert and František Hrubín at the 1956 Writers´ Congress). Nevertheless, in otherwise fairly Stalinist films (see the musical Music from Mars, 1954!) there appeared first signs of unorthodox support for civic activity and grassroots democracy. The publication of Josef Škvorecký´s demythologising novel The Cowards in 1958 spelled out the end of „socialist realism“, a „literary“ writing method which had turned belles letters into a propaganda instrument for the communist party.


Following the publication and the banning of The Cowards  in 1958, the regime orchestrated a clampdown against reformists in the literary and cultural circles, but a movement for freedom nevertheless fully asserted itself from about 1963. The five year-period 1963-1968 was unique.


1.2.1.      1963-1968: Freedom achieved through cultural effort


There was a precedent, the 19th century „Czech National Revival“. When no political activity was possible for the Czechs who lived in the Austrian police state during the Chancellor Metternich era in the first half of the 19th century, they devoted themselves to literary and cultural effort in the Czech language, which the Austrians could not understand. As a result, by 1848, the year of the democratic revolutions in Europe, the Czechs had emerged as a  mature, aware, modern political nation.


The Czechs and Slovaks used the arts to push for freedom also in the 1960s. The impetus for the freedom movement was the feeling of guilt felt by the young communist enthusiasts from the early 1950s. Former young Stalinist supporters of communism (Milan Kundera, Pavel Kohout, Ludvík Vaculík, Zdeněk Mlynář) snow felt ashamed that they had been duped by the communist system  in the 1950s – they had not been able to bring about a beautiful Utopia, but had helped to subjugate their nation to Russia, a foreign imperialist power. These individuals, now in the mid or late thirties, were at this time in positions of power. They set out to liberalise the system. Mostly, they did this  by supporting the creation of highly sophisticated, authentic, works of art. These works of art, which were often strongly critical of the communist state, were fully financed by the state.


Three things are important about this truly exceptional chapter in modern European history:


1.      It would be wrong to assume that the Czech/Slovak writers and artists produced anticommunist propaganda. Czech culture from this period is extremely important exactly because it is anti-ideological. Czech/Slovak artists knew full well that the regime was violating reality by subjecting it to a primitive, lifeless ideological interpretation. They fought this enslavement by producing authentic, anti-ideological images of reality: „This is what life really is. See how much more convincing it is when compared to the nonsense, spouted out by ideological apparatchiks.“

2.      As the mid-1960s was still not a period of total freedom, the communist authorities could not be criticised openly. The media was muzzled – political criticism was indirect and was expressed in the arts, in a roundabout way. Thus two things happened: (a) In their frustration, the population was led to works of art which under normal circumstances, ordinary people would not be interested in. (b) In works of art, people learnt to look for hidden criticism of the regime. They learnt to read between the lines. They really used the metaphorical meaning of art. This was very good for art itself – since art thrives on ambiguity.


3.      Many of these „subversive“ works of art worked simultaneously on two different levels. They were accessible and fun – they were part of popular entertainment – and yet, they also often functioned on a very sophisticated level of high art. There were many examples of this work in cinema, literature, pop-music and theatre. Thus a unique public arena atmosphere came into being in Czechoslovakia in the mid-1960s.


Let us consider the comedy feature film Bílá paní (The White Lady) by Zdeněk Podskalský (1965) on DVD, (with English subtitles). This is a comic study of power, as exercised by two small-town communist executives when confronted with a supernatural phenomenon for which their ideology has no explanation. Although it is comic,  the film functions as a profound sociological analysis of crowd behaviour and its expediency and conformism when confronted with totalitarian power.  In the words of one commentator: „The film contains all you need to know about popular attitudes to communist totalitarian rule.“


1.3.  The Prague Spring of 1968: A festival of freedom which ended in tragedy


The „cultural“ drive for freedom was extremely successful during the 1960s, especially since it used entertainment and thus it fully mastered the public arena in Czechoslovakia. It culminated in the Prague Spring of 1968, a period some six months of total media freedom when Stalinist abuses and political oppression were openly discussed on radio and TV and torturers were confronted on live TV with their victims. As far as can be judged, the Czechoslovak public passionately supported these reforms and when they ended due to a Soviet-led invasion in August 1968, the public still strongly supported its communist, reformist leadership. Since, during this six month period, the media assumed its proper role under the conditions of freedom, the role of the arts became somewhat secondary.


1.4.  1970-1989: „Normalisation“


After an interregnum of several months, a period of renewed political oppression began. The Russian imperial overlords of Czechoslovakia realised that intellectuals and people in the arts had managed, by their sustained cultural effort, almost to dismantle communism in that country. What inevitably had to follow was a direct assault on the Czech intellectual classes. The „dangerous“ intellectual elite of the country needed to be neutralised.


The Neo-Stalinist 1970s and the 1980s were not as murderous as the Stalinist 1950s, but in many respects this period was much more destructive than the period of early, rampant Stalinism.


The reason for this  was that the renewed oppression from 1970 onwards coincided with a major demographic change. People who had had experience of life under interwar Czechoslovak democracy would have left the stage around 1970.  Those who were left were only individuals who had ever only experienced the communist system. Thus the population was now much less immune to political oppression.


Thus, Czechoslovak society in the 1970s and the 1980s  lost its resilience to the occupation regime. A disturbing, although as yet unreflected development occurred.


Although most Czechs and Slovaks appeared to have enthusiastically supported the democratic reforms of the 1960s and especially the 1968 Prague Spring, within the matter of months –  undoubtedly also as a result of fierce purges and the presence of the Soviet army of occupation – most Czechs now quite enthusiastically embraced the new imperial regime.


The  Czechs and Slovaks seemed to have just as  enthusiastically adapted themselves to the perhaps most claustrophobic and the most emasculating political regime during the whole of the twentieth century. It was as though they had concluded: „We will always be slaves and the only way of surviving is to do what our masters want of us.“ Needless to say that such an attitude is just as self-destructive as the dangerous campaign of violent struggle for freedom.


In the 1970s and the 1980s, a Czech intellectual had two choices: to conform to communist propaganda and relinquish all attempts at original, independent thought, thus submitting to emasculation and enforced silence, or to defy the totalitarian authorities, and become a non-person. Either way the lines of communication between the intellectual 'head' of the nation and its 'body', the ordinary people, were blocked. Without the head as a guiding force, the decapitated body of the Czech nation blindly and aimlessly stumbled off track  into a dead end, being tempted materially, even under the cloak of communist ideology, towards various consumerist vices. In the 1970s and 1980s,  people had to abdicate their adulthood. They filled their lives instead with various displacement activities. This time, no one believed communist ideology, because its falseness had been exposed in the 1960s – but people pretended to support it out of opportunism.


Some time ago, a debate in the Observer newspaper defined the British working class lifestyle by the concepts of diffidence, self-restraint (which includes lack of open debate) and conformity to superimposed rules. The debate associated British middle class lifestyle with the concepts of choice and freedom, open discussion and highly valued education. The life of most of Czech society seems undoubtedly still guided by the principle of constraint. Czech people are still used to deferring to regulations imposed from above, just as in totalitarian times. From the times of communism they are also used to lack of open debate.  This  leads one reluctantly to the conclusion that communism in Czechoslovakia succeeded in turning most of society into proletarians. This seems to be a natural consequence of the rule of mediocrity and the elimination of spontaneous, independent thought processes in an attempt to impose artificial controls on reality.


In the 1970s and 1980s, most Czechs willingly turned themselves into children – giving up their grown-up choices.[5] They seem to have accepted  the view of the Russian colonisers that the subjugation would last „for ever“.



2.      The situation since the fall of communism


2.1.  November 1989: People caught on the hop


A number of interesting developments seem to have occured since the fall of communism, which seem to have altered the people´s perception of the communist regime.


Most Czechs and Slovaks were unprepared for the fall of communism in November 1989. They had adapted themselves to life in a Soviet colony and had no alternatives for life in a new situation. Most people did not know what regime would originate from the changes – many envisaged a kind of return to reformist communism of the 1960s. The arrival of rampant capitalism was for many quite an unpleasant surprise.


With hindsight, it became obvious that the value system of the handful of Czech dissidents was  far removed from what ordinary Czechs and Slovaks think. The „proletarian“ values of the „normalisation“ society of the 1970s and 1980s prevailed in Czech society after 1989, incorporating the worst aspects of Western-style consumerism.


Many people felt guilty  in the 1990s for having „collaborated“ with the communist regime, and  so they became ardent anticommunists.


2.2.  Czech Republic/Slovakia 1989-1997


The period between 1989 – 1997, both in Czech Republic and in Slovakia, can be seen as a „preparatory stage“ for democracy. During this period, potentially authoritarian regimes ruled in both these countries. Until 1996/1997, the citizens of these countries had not experienced what is normal in a democracy, ie.  that opposing political parties také turns in governing the country. Until the opposition won the election in both countries, many people believed that „if the current government does not continue, it would be a catastrophe, tantamount to the return of communism“. For instance, in 1996, a Czech TV commentator warned that if the Social Democratic opposition won the election, this would be equal to the 1948 communist putsch!  The opposition had to win the elections and to také over power in order  for people to realise that this was not a catastrophe, but a normal state of affairs  in a democracy.


I see the year 1989 as possibly a less important watershed in Czechoslovak history  than the year 1970. After 1989, many habits, acquired by the Czechs and Slovaks in the pernicious 1970s and 1980s, continued unchecked. The ethos of the 1970s and 1980s flourished in the 1990s, enhanced by the worst features of „foundation capitalism“.


2.3. The present attitudes of the Czechs/Slovaks to communism


„Authoritarian elitism“. Authoritarian attitudes on the whole have  survived in most of the media and amongst politicians. Throughout most of the 1990s, anyone who criticised „our glorious building of capitalism“ was attacked for being a „communist“. The notion that democracy needs sustained criticism of those in power has not taken root in Czech society. Those who voice  public criticism, are still attacked by many as „bolsheviks“.


The media and the politicians are more or less agreed on the only one, correct, interpretation of history and contemporary times. „Communism was bad and what is now is the best possible world.“

The media and the politicians do not bother finding out what ordinary people think. They proselytise. In a throwback to communist practice,  they tell the people what are the „correct“ views and what they are supposed to think.


There seem to be large strata of Czech society whose voice is not heard in the public arena. Their views of the former communist regime seems to differ considerably from the „received view“ disseminated by the media.


It is very hard to tell what these views mean and how representative they are.


I seemed to have opened a can of worms, at the end of 2005, when, in the Czech-language internet periodical I edit, I asked readers to make statements about the „hidden history of communism and post-communism“. [6]

2. 3. 1.  A sting in the tail:  „Communism was much better than what we have now“  -  current experience gained from Czech students


In March 2006, while I was teaching a seminar on Czech dissident literature of the 1970s to a class of some twenty  23-year-old students at Ostrava University, Czech Republic, I asked them  to prepare presentations on what life was like in Czechoslovakia in the 1970s. „Go and ask your parents,“ I said.


The students were reluctant to do so. They said that:


1.      Their parents refuse to talk to them about what life was like under communism,

2.       All of them without exception are of the opinion that life under communism was much better than now.


And, indeed, this was the result of their research: Their parents, reluctantly, told them:[7]


They  had not experienced any political oppression under communism. When the communist authorities tried to pressurise them to take part in political action, the students´ parents ignored the pressure. They were not punished for it. They ignored the communist regime and lived their lives, happily, in private. They were never politically persecuted. They had heard rumours that some people may be politically persecuted, but they never met such a person or persons. They did not mind that there was censorship; they did not miss an open, intellectual discourse and did not mind that the public arena was clogged by communist ideology. Unlike today, they had security of employment and enough money. The only thing they did not like was that they could not travel abroad  under communism – they had to apply for permission to communist officials and it was usually denied. But they cannot travel abroad now anyway because they do not have enough money to do so. They do not feel particularly free: since there is unemployment, they must keep mum at work: if they expressed their opinions, they would be sacked.


Maybe the views of these people have been distorted in the course of time and turned into sentimental memories. However, there seems to be a significant section of Czech population; individuals who hold these views, even though they remain unreflected in official literature.


When I asked a person living in Prague what this positive attitude towards the former communist regime might mean, I received this explanation: „Under communism, when you needed to achieve something, you knew whom to bribe. It was enough to bribe a single official and the bribe was usually effective. Now the situation is much more chaotic. You have to bribe many different people and the outcome is always uncertain.“





[1] Čestmír Císař, Paměti, Formát, Prague, 2005, ISBN 80-86718-56-5

[2] The whole literary work by Milan Kundera is an attempt to exorcise his communist past. See Jan Čulík, „Milan Kundera“, Dictionary of Literary Biography, 232, 2001, Gale Group, London and Boston.

[3] See Zdeněk Mlynář´s memoirs about 1968 Mráz přichází z Kremlu (Nightfrost in Prague)

[4] In 1968, Czech sociologists carried out a rare investigation into the views of the populace about the political system. The research was never completed and part of the data was lost. When the remaining data was reviewed after the fall of communism in 1989, it transpired that almost everyone in 1968, including the communist reformers, believed in Western-style democracy. All the talk about „socialism with a human face“ was evidently expedient – the Czechs and Slovaks knew that since there were under Russian rule, they could not talk openly about how they wanted to live in a normal Western-style democratic country. -  See Brokl, L., Seidlová, A., Bečvář, J., Rakušanová, P. (1999) "Postoje československých občanů k demokracii v roce 1968", SOU AV ČR, edice Working Paper WP 99:8, 88 pp.


[5] Czech author Bohumil Hrabal has recurrently dealt with this major theme of modern Czech existence: „I am incapable of resisting my oppressors, so I actively cooperate on my subjugation and the destruction of my culture. I hate doing so, but still I do it.“ (See his Příliš hlučná samota [Too Noisy Solitude], Obsluhoval jsem anglického krále [I served the King of England], and Dopisy Dubence [Letters to Dubenka].)

[6]  A brief summary of this debate was published in English in Czech Business Week, here:


Time to examine the hidden history of 1989

By: Jan Čulík, 02. 01. 2006

Will there be time, in 2006, for a new look at the most recent Czech political history?

Revolutions create their own myths. But I’ve been receiving evidence from readers that seems to show that the “Revolution of 1989” wasn’t such a triumph of freedom, democracy and decency as has been generally maintained. It appears that while the post-communist regime has almost completely failed to punish crimes committed under communism, it’s highly likely that a large number of innocent people, many of whom were persecuted under communism, became victims of the post-1989 political purges, which were often motivated by greed. I have been receiving testimonies maintaining that large numbers of capable individuals were illegally dismissed from their posts by the revolutionary Civic Forum committees in the wake of the 1989 revolution. These committees were often made up of unscrupulous careerists who jumped on the bandwagon of the “democratic revolution,” hoping to gain lucrative posts and covering up their incompetence with a newly found “democratic” political zeal.


According to one correspondent, probably tens of thousands of mid-ranking technical managers were sacked for the sake of others’ greed in the first months after November 1989. He goes on to say, “I believe that, later, the overwhelming majority of these highly competent people again found good jobs, to the absolute anger of the incompetents who had tried to destroy them.” Former Health Secretary Ivan David remembers those times well.


“One of the youngsters in the Civic Forum committee at our institute said clearly, ‘It isn’t our role to assess people objectively, it’s our role to look for people’s mistakes so that we can sack them.’ I turned to another member of the Civic Forum committee, who had been purged from the Communist party in 1970 and also remembered the ’50s purges and asked, ‘Do you understand this?’ He replied, ‘Well, you see, they think that this is the last revolution in their lives.’”


Most of these stories seem tragicomic. Miloš Kirschner, the adoptive father of the well-known Czech puppets Spejbl and Hurvínek, was imprisoned by the Stalinists in the ’50s. The creator of the two puppets, Josef Skupa, tried to help the former political prisoner to return to his work. It was arranged – without Kirschner’s knowledge – that during a trip to the Soviet Union, he would be made a member of the Communist party in a public ceremony. This was an offer you couldn’t refuse. Paradoxically, because of his “communism,” Kirschner was driven out of the theater after 1989, as a “representative of the totalitarian regime.”


A leading Czech writer spied on a left-wing colleague at work for the new “democratic” secret service for two years in the early ’90s. He confided to me in an interview, “It took me only about two years to realize that the people working for the new secret police were just the same bastards as the secret policemen under communism. It was wrong to inform on my colleague. He was a decent and honest man,” he said.


Stories like these are the hidden history of contemporary Czech society. It appears that the Czechs have a deeply felt need to paralyze their professional classes by political purges every 20 years or so. They did it in the ’50s, in the ’70s and, it would appear, again in the early ’90s.


Is it too soon to examine these skeletons in the cupboard? Or will 2006 be a year when an honest debate about these excesses might eventually start?



[7] I wrote about it in Czech for the Metro daily on 15th March, 2006,  also see (also in Czech)