James Ragan discusses life during and after communism in Czechoslovakia
After the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, the country underwent a process called “normalization.” In the communist double-speak of the time, that meant things would be anything but normal. It has been 45 years since the policy was put in place, and more than two decades since it ended. But its legacy and the legacy of the Prague Spring that normalization put an end to can still be felt today.
The arts in particular suffered under the policy. Poet and screenwriting teacher James Ragan saw some of the effects first hand. In addition to his experiences in Czechoslovakia during the Cold War, he has taught poetry and screenwriting at Charles University for the past 20 years.
“Prior to the ’68 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, I had already visited family villages in Slovakia often during the ’60s and had begun actively writing poetry against the communist regime. Later, shortly after Charter 77, my book In the Talking Hours was banned for poems I had written honoring dissident Jan Palach, [Party Secretary] Alexander Dubček [who led Prague Spring], and for openly protesting the Soviet invasion,” he told The Prague Post.
“On this point I was called in to the Library in Humenne [Slovakia] where, without my knowledge, my cousin had secretly placed my book in the stacks. In my presence, the librarian cut out the offending poems, tossed them in the trashcan, and reshelved the book, saying ‘now it can remain.’ I had never witnessed such a graphic manifestation of censorship before that moment. On all future visits I was required to report to police stations to announce my whereabouts when traveling to local Slovak villages.” he said. His relatives lived not far from Andy Warhol’s Medzilaborce family home in eastern Slovakia, and like that family they also immigrated to Pittsburgh where there were opportunities in the steel mills.
Despite his Irish-sounding name, Ragan has long roots both the Czech Republic and Slovakia. “I’m of Czech and Slovak heritage. My parents and three of my siblings emigrated from eastern Slovakia to the U.S. in 1929. I was born later in Pittsburgh, the 12th of 13 children. Since I had relatives, some born in the Czech Republic, others in Slovakia, I was always aware of Czechoslovakia from childhood and grew up speaking only Slovak at home, learning English only after the 4th grade,” he said.
While Ragan grew up in the U.S., he was immersed in Central European culture. “Czech and Slovak art, music, and literature were a constant in my home and infused my psyche with an ingrained pride for a country situated at the very heart of Europe. I was also very much aware, however, of the communist domination of the country and how much my own relatives were suffering under the repressive regime during the prolonged 40 years of the Cold War. The one thing that I became most assured about was that you could not romanticize the merits of communism with those who were persecuted by it,” he said.
The time right before the invasion was a bright spot, but not everyone seemed to be aware of it at the time. “There was a quiet optimism in the 1968 Prague Spring, although, for the most part, much of the populace, particularly in the eastern parts of the country, was not fully aware of Dubček’s ‘socialism with a human face.’ These reforms, in themselves, provided a basis for optimism,” he said.
But one has to look at the whole picture. “The danger, however, is to become too complacent with memory – to forget the worst of what occurred before the births of many of my students. I remind them that people were, in fact, tortured on Bartholomew Street,” he said, referring to the police headquarters at Bartolomějská 14 in Prague 1.
There were a few options for writers. One was to publish and circulate works illegally. “Samizdat was the only surviving form of literary freedom by which to circulate censored literature, short of having your works published in the West,” he said.
Academics and dissidents were relegated to non-person status. “Neighbors policed their own neighbors just as secretly as [the secret police known as the] the STB, and, worst of all, personal and intellectual freedoms were subjugated to the will of a repressive regime,” he said.
For a while, there was some level of protest in the arts. “Along with Václav Havel in the theater, such poets as Miroslav Holub, Jiří Kolář, Ivan Diviš, Ivan Wernisch, and novelists Ivan Klíma, Milan Kundera, and Ladislav Grossman, whose Shop on Main Street was made into an Academy Award -winning film, joined New Wave film directors Miloš Forman, Ivan Passer, Věra Chytilová, Jan Němec, Jiří Menzel, Ján Kadár, and Slovak Juraj Herz in dramatizing dissent toward a system of totalitarian oppression and incompetence that had brutalized Czechoslovakia,” he said. The Czech New Wave lasted from 1962 until 1968.
The Soviet invasion steeled the resolve of many who found their artistic sensibilities and identities reduced to non-person status. “Such poets as Miroslav Holub, a medical doctor and world-recognized clinical researcher was relegated to ‘non-person’ status and even Jaroslav Seifert, before his Nobel Prize, was forced to write children’s verse for survival, while others like dissidents Václav Havel and Jiří Stránský were serving prison sentences,” he said.
After 1968 all of Havel’s plays were banned. In 1977 Havel and others of wrote Charter 77 to protest to the imprisonment of the Czech rock band Plastic People of the Universe, and he established the Committee for Defense of the Unjustly Persecuted. “This was met with several imprisonments, including one lasting from 1979-1983, during which his famous Letters to Olga, his wife, were written,” Ragan said.
While Havel stayed, many talented people left the country. “With the artists’ brain-drain of such notables as Miloš Forman, Ivan Passer, Josef Škvorecký and Milan Kundera, all of whom exited the country during or after 1968, those who remained were under constant surveillance for their political activism as well as for their writing. Škvorecký’s Canadian 68 Publishers kept the works of Havel, Kundera, [Ludvík] Vaculík and others alive in the West,” he said. Not only did 68 Publishers keep the work of dissidents alive, but it also promoted new authors. “After 1989, a new generation of writers including Sylva Fischerová, Jáchym Topol, Jiří Kratochvil, Iva Pekárková and Miloš Urban were now voices to be reckoned with,” he said.
Many of the ideas planted in 1968 finally bore fruit after 1989, Ragan said. “The legacy of the 1968 period was seeded by Havel and continued with him after the 1989 Velvet Revolution. In 1991, I was invited to meet newly elected Czech President Václav Havel when he visited Los Angeles to give a speech at UCLA. With the knowledge that my poetry had been banned in the former communist Czechoslovakia, Havel extended his hand, saying ‘We are colleagues,’ and asked that I return as a ‘true Czecho-Slovak’ and contribute something back to the newly democratic country, not money, but something of service,” Ragan said.
At the time Ragan was the director of the professional writing program at the University of Southern California, it seemed natural that he return to do some teaching. “Since that initial Havel invitation, I have returned since 1993 to Prague to teach as a distinguished visiting professor of poetry and film at Charles University’s Dept. of Anglophone Literatures,” he said.
“The Czech and Slovak students whom I’ve taught over the years are the children or grandchildren of those who suffered or were imprisoned under communism. These students are the legacy of those who championed the democratic principles that changed their nation during the Velvet Revolution of 1989 – and reclaimed their democratic institutions which were co-opted during the late 1930s by the Nazi occupation and later from 1948 on by the totalitarian communist government,” he said.
One of his students, Zuzana Liová, wrote and directed the 2011 film Dům (House), which explored the situation after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the grudges that remained between the former oppressors and the formerly oppressed, as well as the new brain drain with young people seeking opportunities in the West. He served as a script editor and a consultant on the film, which won multiple awards.
The post-1989 era also saw more immediate effects of the dormant seeds of Prague Spring. “I remember how after Havel became president he orchestrated a theater festival on Střelecký Island. Theater companies, worldwide, were invited to this reborn democratic nation. Stages and audiences grandly populated the length of the island,” Ragan said.
But it was more than just art. “Political activism continued in other pragmatic ways. The seeds of the Prague Spring sprouted after 1989 certainly with the establishment of open borders, with the economic stimulus of foreign investments and tourism, and with personal freedoms, all previously closed off by the communist leadership,” he said.
For Ragan as well it was a particularly fruitful era. “Havel introduced me as ‘an ambassador of the arts’ after a poetry reading I had done with playwright Arthur Miller during the 1994 International PEN Congress which he organized in Prague. During these years I was invited to reside each summer at the Havel childhood home at Rasinova 78 and enjoyed the most productive period of my writing career: five books, a play and two screenplays,” he said. “My book The Hunger Wall (1995) from Grove Press, dealing with the Slovakia-Czech Republic split, was also published in Czech,” he said. “Currently, I am the subject of a feature documentary, Flowers and Roots (Kvety a Korene), produced by Arinafilms of Slovakia, focusing on my life and writing in the arts during this period. I’m quite humbled by its scope,” he said. The film is scheduled for release in 2014.