Pavel Kosatík, Fenomén Kohout (The Kohout Phenomenon). Paseka, Prague – Litomyšl, 2001, 434 pp., 299 Czech crowns. ISBN 80-7185-372-0

Poet, writer and playright Pavel Kohout (b. 1928) is one of the most conspicuous and at the same time one of the most controversial cultural and political figures of Czech history in the second half of the twentieth century. Kohout was an ardent Stalinist in his youth in the 1950s, he was a reformist communist in the 1960s, a dissident in the 1970s, and an emigré in the 1980s. He was highly visible on the Czech cultural-political scene from the 1950s onwards. Since the 1960s, he has also been a successful international playwright and novelist, and is particularly highly regarded in the German speaking parts of Europe.


Kohout´s personal history is closely associated with the history of post-war Czechoslovakia. Kohout´s early infatuation with Stalinist communism was a relatively widespread phenomenon in Czechoslovakia in the 1950s (writer Milan Kundera and politician Zdeněk Mlynář, the ideologue of the 1968 Prague Spring and one-time fellow student of Mikhail Gorbachev´s at the Moscow Law School, belong amongst the other well-known orthodox communist believers of those times). This naive communist belief, as Mlynář has argued in his Mráz přichází z Kremlu (Nightfrost in Prague) can be perhaps quite convincingly explained as a result of the disappointment with the betrayal of Czechoslovakia by the democratic "West" in Munich in 1938 and by the subsequent Nazi occupation, which polarised the views of many young people who had not had any proper experience with democracy.

Kosatík provides evidence that Kohout´s emotional and bombastic communist militancy was particularly obnoxious in the 1950s. This young "shockworker – poet", a nationwide celebrity, was aggressive, intrusive, and, frankly, stupid. His behaviour was dangerous to people around him. As a young ardent believer in communism, he saw no borderline between his private and public life. When shortly after marrying him, his first wife left him for another man, Kohout wrote a collectivist play in which he accused this man of "treason" – "those who can betray on a personal level may one day betray our socialist state" he argued in the piece, which was performed at the height of the Stalinist show trials in Czechoslovakia.

While there is no evidence that Kohout actively participated in the crimes of the Stalinist era (he did offer his services to the secret police, but in the words of its officers, he was too naive to be of any use), he certainly approved of these crimes and scandalised the victims of the showtrials in bloodthirsty poetry which the regime widely disseminated. It was not until Khrushev´s secret speech at the Twentieth Congress of the CPSU that Kohout finally began doubting the Stalinist dogma. This is when his journey towards becoming a reformist communist began – it was not accomplished until he had married his third wife Jelena Mašínová in 1963 at the age of 35, who was an anticommunist – he stayed with her for the rest of his life.

Kohout´s role in Czechoslovak reformism of the 1960s is interesting. Like many of his Stalinist colleagues, he gradually realised that by uncritically supporting communism in the early 1950s, he had helped to turn his country into a colony of an imperial power, the Soviet Union. In striving for what they called "communism with a human face", these reformist Czechoslovak communists tried in the 1960s to rectify their mistakes, made in the 1950s.

According to Pavel Kosatík, Pavel Kohout now sees it as a success of his generation that it "has managed to dismantle the deplorable communist experiment and to return the country more or less to where it was forty years ago". I would not be so sure. As can be clearly seen from the relatively difficult situation in which the Czech Republic and Slovakia still find themselves even now, twelve years since the fall of communism, the wasted forty years, during which Western Europe had undergone considerable, subtle political and social change, are probably irreplaceable. It can be argued that Kohout´s generation bears a serious burden of guilt for setting back their country by subjecting it, irresponsibly, to the communist experiment.

It would appear from Kosatík´s well documented work that Pavel Kohout, as a major protagonist of the reform movement of the 1960s and of the 1968 Prague Spring, gave this ratehr unsophisticated attempt at a democratic revolution many of his own, personal characteristic features. Like Pavel Kohout himself, the Prague Spring was noisy, emotional, bombastic and theatrical. Czech author Petr Pithart characterises it in Osmašedesátý (Sixty-Eight, Index, Cologne, 1980) as a basically infantile reform, motivated primarily by the former Stalinists´ bad conscience: "We threatened that we were going to break something. We did not know what it would be, but something would be broken, that was certain."

The Prague Spring did not have any strategy. When one ordinary Czech citizen asked Pavel Kohout in 1968 what the reformists were going to do if the Russians invaded, Kohout answered cheekily: "I don´t know. Maybe we should ignore the invasion." Pithart points out that the former Czech orthodox communists like Kohout brought about the August 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion in order to cleanse themselves of their Stalinist guilt from the 1950s. But at what cost this was done! The invasion threw Czechoslovakia into a harsh neostalinist mode for more than two decades. The period of renewed subjugation, lasting through the 1970s and the 1980s, proved to be extremely damaging to the Czechs and Slovaks, both intellectually and morally; amongst other things also because the legacy of interwar democratic Czechoslovakia was now too distant to be able to neutralise the renewed oppression. Pavel Kohout and his friends in fact helped Russia to subjugate Czechoslovakia twice as a result of their naivety: first in the 1950s, when they loved Stalin, and then in the 1960s, when then clumsily tried to rectify their earlier mistakes. On both occasions, they acted at the expense of the population who still has to bear the brunt of the widespread social demoralisation, resulting from forty years of totalitarianism.

But, as Kosatík points out, Kohout really did ignore the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion when it eventually happened and did behave - courageously - as though his country had not been enslaved again. He became a dissident in the 1970s. As a close collaborator of Václav Havel, in 1977, Kohout was actively involved in the drafting and the organisation of the human rights manifesto Charter 77. The Czech secret police hated him perhaps more than anyone else among the Czech dissidents and persecuted him fiercely, even planning at one time to assassinate him. It is perhaps interesting that the only reason why Kohout was not killed was that the two policemen, who had been assigned the job of murdering him, refused to do so.

In 1978 Kohout and his wife left Czechoslovakia for Austria and he was never to be allowed back by the communist authorities, even though, in 1982, he, with his flair for publicity stunts, flew into Prague airport from Vienna, arguing that he did not want to be an emigré, had the right to live in Prague, and demanding, to the consternation of the Czech secret police, a meeting with his daughter.

It is perhaps symptomatic that once Kohout was forced out of Czech society in 1978, he was never accepted back. The Czechs who live within the Czech Republic tend to view with suspicion those of their compatriots who have had the experience of the world at large. Kohout was not deemed to be acceptable to the victors of the 1989 democratic revolution, although in the 1970s, he had been very close to Havel. It is Austria and Germany which have given him a new home – Kohout now mostly lives in Vienna. Maybe his dramatic personal history, so symptomatic for the predicament of the Czechs over the past fifty years or so, is still too much for his compatriots to deal with.