Anne of Bohemia
A recorded online Zoom talk by Dr Shubhankar Reddy is available here. Anne of Bohemia, the eldest daughter of Charles IV, married King Richard II of England in 1382 at the age of 16 .Although initially unpopular in England (she brought no dowry with her) Anne won people over, not least by interceding with her husband on several occasions for mercy for people in his disfavour. Unlike many arranged marriages of the period it appears that they came to love each other.
A youthful view of Czech elections and populism
A talk on Zoom by Nina Fořtíková, a sixteen-year old Prague schoolgirl, about the attitude of her generation towards Czech political life. She is not an average Czech teenager; when she was thirteen Nina joined a debating club which required wide reading on political matters.
Nina submitted an essay Why people prioritise optimism over their freedom to the BCSA writing competition in which she analyses why right-wing nationalist politicians are becoming ever more popular.
She attends one of Prague‘s international schools that teaches in English. Since autumn 2021 Nina has participated in an 18-month Microsoft programme, Council for Digital Good Europe. This is a 15-member team of students aged 14-16 years from the EU, UK and Switzerland.
The life and legacy of Alexander Dubček
A Zoom roundtable discussion to commemorate the birth of Alexander Dubček (1921-1992) icon of Czechoslovakia’s political reform movements in 1968 and 1989 and one of the most important figures in twentieth-century Slovak politics.
His son, Dr Pavol Dubček, was guest of honour. He studied medicine at the Comenius University in Bratislava. During communism he was not allowed to practice as a doctor. Today he works as a traumatologist in Bratislava. He is the president of the Alexander Dubček Association and still cherishes the message and ideals of his father.
The discussion covered the significance of the Prague Spring and Alexander Dubček’s role in it, both at the time and in its historical context.
Other participants were Dr Wojciech Janik, UCL SSEES Library’s Area Liaison Coordinator; Dr Celia Donert, a historian of Central Europe in the twentieth century at Cambridge University and Dr Thomas Lorman, a historian of Central Europe who teaches at SSEES.
The event was co-organised by the Study of Central Europe seminar series at UCL SSEES, the Slovak Embassy and the British Czech and Slovak Association.
Czech protest music past & present
A recorded online Zoom talk by Daniel Majer is available here. It covers the political role Czech protest music has played in Czech and Slovak history from the Austro-Hungarian empire until today with musical exerpts.
The first part ‘defining a nation’ covers the Czech national revival in the 18th and 19th centuries and through musical nationalism. In both Slovak and Czech music the countryside featured largely in this consciousness (and indeed figures in the national anthems of both countries today). This is illustrated with the themes of the river Vltava from Smetana’s ‘Má Vlast’.
‘Subversion and escapism’ reflects on the communist era. Following the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, Karel Kryl composed ‘Bratříčku, zavírej vrátka’ (Keep the gates closed, little brother) as his reaction to the occupation. It was banned but sold 40,000 copies and could be heard on Radio Free Europe. In 1972 the Slovak dissident Ján Ladislav Kalina was given a two-year prison sentence for, among other things, playing a record of Kryl’s songs to friends in the privacy of his home. In the eyes of the law during the period of normalization, that amounted to incitement.
‘Tramp music’, that of the ‘trampové’, that specifically Czech and Slovak type of ramblers, had long been a safe space for free expression.
In the 1970s the Plastic People of the Universe were regarded as subversive with their long hair, clothes and free spirits seen as challenging the regime. They used the lyrics of the poet Egon Bondy and other poets for their songs. In 1976 they were sent to prison for up to 18 months for performing at a festival which the court condemned as “an organised disturbance of the peace”. This was one of the events that led to Charter 77 and inspired Václav Havel.
Music can still oppose, still subvert. An example in ‘onwards and upwards’ is ‘Režimy’ (‘Regimes’) a Slovak rap album of 2011 that featured 10 regimes in its 10 tracks, one of them Mečiarism.
Daniel Majer, born in Britain of Czech and Slovak parentage, gave the talk from Brno where he is working as part of his course in Czech and Spanish at Bristol University.
Covid and the Roma in East Slovakia
An online talk on Zoom from Slovakia by Simona Marcinková who spoke about her experience of teaching in a Roma primary school in Rokycany, a village of about 1,000 people near Prešov. It opened in September 2018 with 65 pupils who benefit from a video projector donated from the BCSA School Support Fund. Under the Teach for Slovakia scheme, Simona works there with children who are native Romany speakers and start at the school without any knowledge of Slovak. Their parents cannot help them with homework as they are often illiterate themselves. Children over 10 years old transfer to a Slovak secondary school in the next village where they suffer from prejudice. Extra language assistance is no longer available to them and their progress is hampered.
At the outbreak of the Covid pandemic, the Roma did not acknowledge its existence until two members of their community died. Social distancing was impossible in their multigenerational households and typically one family shared a single mask. The performance of Roma pupils at the Rokycany school was severely affected; without home access to the internet they could not be taught remotely. Their dedicated teachers distributed packs of educational materials each day but could not count on parental assistance. In these circumstances little could be achieved.
The Black Death in Bohemia: a medieval pandemic
A Zoom lecture by Dr Mark Whelan.
The coming of the Black Death to Europe was a defining epidemiological event, killing anywhere between twenty-five and eighty percent of the continent’s population in the years 1347-1351. With Covid-19 sweeping the globe, interest in past pandemics and the historical comparisons they may provide has never been higher. This talk examines the impact of plague on Bohemia in the medieval and early modern periods, surveying recent advances in the scholarship and understanding of how the pandemic impacted Central Europe and highlighting the latest archaeological finds unearthed in Czech lands, including the excavation in recent years of ‘plague pits’ in Kutná Hora stretching back to the fourteenth century.
Dr Whelan teaches at King’s College London and is an expert on late medieval and early modern Europe, with a focus on Germany and central Europe.
The Czech lands through the eyes of Dan Cruickshank.
This well-known TV art and architecture historian gave an illustrated talk on Zoom preceding the BCSA’s AGM in March 2021.
His remarks on the architecture of the Czech Republic were placed in both their historic and world context.
He offered insight into the Sedlec ossuary in Kutná Hora and the pilgrimage church of St John Nepomuk at Zelená Hora, Žd’ár nad Sázavou highlighting the work of Jan Santini Aichel.
Dan then moved on to feature Cubist architecture in Prague; the Villa Tugendhat in Brno; the work of Jože Plečnik in Prague Castle and his Church of the Most Sacred Heart in Vinohrady; and the architectural style of the Bat’a shoe company.
Ambassador Nigel Baker webinar
Circumstances prevented us from holding our special 30th anniversary dinner in 2020 but we were able to meet our keynote speaker on Zoom.
Nigel Baker was appointed British Ambassador to Slovakia in September 2020 and is one our patrons.
As a young diplomat his first posting from 1992-3 was in Prague and then from 1993-6 as Deputy Head of Mission of the new British embassy in Bratislava , the capital of independent Slovakia.
So Nigel was well placed to notice the changes in the region, in particular as he speaks Slovak and his wife was born in Piešt’any.
It also offered an opportunity to say a fond farewell to L’ubomir Rehák, the Slovak Ambassador, who left his post in London for Moscow and to welcome his successor Róbert Ondrejcsák.
At the end of the programme, the winner of the 2020 BCSA writing competition was announced.
He felt that Prague was a very good place to be, especially as the Embassy and residence has a large garden. Its location in Malá Strana has the advantage of few inhabitants and at present benefits from the absence of the usual blight of tourists. The Czech Republic’s proximity to Italy had led to an early lockdown, which resulted in a consistently low number of cases, he pointed out, and Slovakia had done even better.
Until early March, diplomatic priorities were to strengthen the UK relationship with the Czech government by taking full advantage of its presidency of the Visegrad Four with frequent visits by UK ministers. Preparations were also under way for a UN climate-change conference in Glasgow, now rescheduled from this November to 2021.
But lockdown had changed the agenda completely, he acknowledged. Repatriation of British citizens who were not part of the well integrated expatriate community became a priority. Embassy staff welfare became more complicated since they live between two countries and two rule books. The approach to handling the crisis in the Czech Republic differed from that in the UK emphasising different expectations between Czechs and Britons.
Wearing face masks was compulsory in the Czech Republic and like many Czechs, the ambassador said sported a home-made one, fashioned from his son’s pyjamas, when taking his dog for its twice daily walks. A leading Czech epidemiologist, Roman Prymula, until recently the deputy minister for health, had provided him with useful insights into the Czech management of the crisis in a manner that benefited from his connections with Birmingham and Oxford universities.
The early stages of relaxing lockdown in the Czech Republic were straightforward but latterly they have been more complicated. Embassy staff have returned with 20 per cent back in the office but London is not yet ready to return. In the Czech Republic there is less enthusiasm to adopt the ‘new normal’ approach to working from home and reduce commuting. This gives the impression that everything will return to how it was before. In conclusion, the ambassador felt that his being in post for over two years before the crisis struck made his adaptation easier.
The BCSA is most grateful to committee members of the Czech British Chamber of Commerce who facilitated the webinar on Zoom.
The story of Czech beer as told by Zdeněk Kudr
It is an understatement to say that the Czech Republic has a strong beer culture. Famous for being the birthplace of pilsner, the Czechs drink more beer than anywhere else in the world. Brewing methods remained traditional until the fall of communism after which most of the larger breweries were bought by overseas companies who modernised production methods. In recent years a new breed of microbreweries has sprung up offering a variety of traditional styles.
Zdeněk Kudr is a co-founder of Bohem Brewery which brews traditional Bohemian lagers in north London and won the 2019 New Brewery of the Year category of the Brewers Choice Awards. He now manages Bohemia House at the Czech and Slovak National House in West Hampstead.
Was a Slovak ever the king of Madagascar?
Moric Benovsky was an 18th century adventurer born in Vrbové in what is now Slovakia where he is considered a national hero, as well as in Hungary and Poland. In his Memoirs (published posthumously in 1790 in London) he claims to have been elected king of Madagascar. A street in the capital is still named after him.
Andrew Drummond became so intrigued by this mysterious character that he has written a biography about Benovsky. The Intriguing Life and Ignominious Death of Maurice Benyovszky was published by Routledge in 2017.His talk was followed by a film (with English subtitles) produced by a Slovak society (Zdruzenie Morica Benovskeho) dedicated to Benovsky’s memory.
A discussion about the life and aspirations of Slovak students in Britain
Martin Hochel won second prize in the 2019 BCSA competition with his rather original essay on a little-covered aspect of 1989. He was interviewed by his tutor about his life and aspirations as a Slovak student studying in London. Brexit or no Brexit. Martin is a student of contemporary Central European history and politics, Slovak politics being his special interest. Martin’s tutor, Dr Thomas Lorman is a teaching fellow in Modern Central European History at UCL SSEES.
David Vaughan on Munich, his life story – and Boris Johnson
David Vaughan, a much-loved voice of Radio Prague broadcasts in English, explained what made him devote his work and life to all things Czech. The talk was rather timely, as it fell near the anniversary of the Munich agreement and David is fascinated with that period: his documentary novel Hear my voice is set in Czechoslovakia in the months prior to the Munich crisis. And as a contemporary of Boris Johnson at Balliol College, he also mentioned a few of his memories from those days.
Award-winning broadcaster, David Vaughan was for eight years editor-in-chief of Radio Prague, the international service of Czech Radio. Prior to that he was the Prague correspondent of the BBC. His Czech became so good that he first wrote and published Hear my voice in Czech (Slyste muj hlas, 2014) before releasing it in English (2019). His earlier historic book Battle for the Airwaves (2008) deals with the role of the media – in particular radio – in the run-up to World War Two. He is also the author of several drama documentary serials for Czech Radio.
Vaughan was born in Britain and educated at Balliol College, Oxford, where he read French and German. He now lives in Prague with his family.
The best of Slovak Theatre in London: the life of economic migrants
Theatre founder Juliana Serensova and manager Simona Vrabcova drew a full house at the Slovak Embassy with the tale of a small group of young Slovaks in London. After long hours working as labourers, waiters, baristas, nannies, au pairs and supermarket shelf fillers they devoted much of their limited free time to making theatre.
After testing their abilities on the Slovak Catholic Mission passion plays, they sought inspiration from their lives in Britain. The plays, interspersed with songs and music, were written by Juliana and the actors were free to embellish them. The result was a mirror reflecting the struggle of young people pining for home.
Is Slovakia the most successful state in the Visegrad Four? And what might Czechia learn?
And how does the very recent Slovak election of the country’s first female president, liberal lawyer Zuzana Caputova, contrast with the outcome of the Czech presidential elections?
These provocative questions were tackled by Dr Karen Henderson, former senior lecturer in politics at the University of Leicester, who now teaches at the University of Ss. Cyril and Methodius in Trnava and Comenius University in Bratislava and Dr Sean Hanley associate professor in politics at UCL SSEES.
Both speakers also mapped out the current political situation and voters’ attitudes to the political parties in both republics.
The event was organised with UCL SSEES at a UCL venue.
Sharing experiences of settling in Britain
Following the formal AGM in April, three personal accounts by younger Czechs and a Slovak who have made Britain their home in recent years were warmly received.
Zdenek Kudr followed his heart to be with his then Czech girlfriend and arrived without a word of English. To begin with he drove a van and cleaned windows; then he bought himself some tools and became a self-employed handyman. An estate agent hired him to maintain properties they managed which led to Zdenek letting properties himself. At Sunday football sessions with other Czechs and Slovaks he met his future business partner who brewed his own Czech lager; together they established Bohem Brewery.
After completing his studies in Prague, Hynek Martinec went to Paris to follow his dream of being an artist and widen his experience abroad. While there, a portrait of Zuzana, his girlfriend, won a National Portrait Gallery BP Award. This success led him to move to London where he had many commissions for portraits. Hynek then changed direction to focus on still life, a new challenge. He also arranges exhibitions in the Czech Republic.
Six years ago Peter Krajnak came to London from Bratislava to test the market for a new IT start up, Slido. For the first two years he slept on a mattress to economise but now he enjoys a full family life here. The business gradually grew and today employs 14 staff in London.
An illustrated talk on the history of Slovak music
Can Franz Lehar be classed as a Slovak musician, as he was born it what is today Komarno in Slovakia? Well, if your motive is to boost the number of great Slovak composers, then you don’t need to, for the list is impressive enough anyway. Andrea Kmecova took us on a musical tour from the time of Cyril and Methodius to minimalist music of today, illustrating it with recordings and her own expressive piano playing. She joined the Conservatoire of Music in Kosice when she was 14, and later studied at the Bratislava Academy of Music and at Trinity College in London.
We heard the beautiful Slovak contemporary equivalent of Gregorian chant; and the Baroque music that flourished in the 17th century when Bratislava was the coronation city of Hungary and was emulating Vienna. Then we were in the golden age of Slovak music-making, in the 18th and 19th centuries, but we also learned how Slovak music had to endure forced Magyarisation at the time of rising national consciousness in the late 1800s – paralleled in the 20th century by the compulsory socialist realism imposed by the communist regime. And then new types of music, we learned, were prohibited in the ‘normalisation’ after 1968. Modernists, the avant-garde, post-modernists, and the composers of today – Andrea introduced us to them all.
Andrea played for us an 18th-century prelude, and a piece by Bratislava-born Jan Hummel, who had been a fellow child prodigy alongside Mozart. We heard a nocturne by Jan Levoslav Bella, the Nationalist Romantic composer from Liptovsky Mikulas who knew Wagner and Smetana. Lehar was there, of course, with an extract from The Merry Widow, and the stirring chords of Eugen Suchon (born in 1908 in Pezinok). A dance prelude by Suchon’s contemporary Alex Moyzes was followed by work from Ladislav Kupkovic (who died only in 2016).
She concluded with a magnificent piece by Vladimir Godar, who works hard to promote Slovak music: in it he incorporated some of the forms she had told us about, the Slavonic chant and the baroque style. The very last item was a rendering by Peter Breiner of a well-known tune – did we recognise it? We did – it was the Beatles’ Here Comes The Sun. Slovak music, she argued, should be performed more, for it was of truly European quality. And that is what she truly showed us.
Amnesty International (AI) and Prisoners of Conscience in Czechoslovakia (CSSR)
More than forty years after the fall of Communism in Czechoslovakia, it is hard for some people to imagine the restrictions and hardships caused by the regime; for others the era remains a painful memory. AI’s candle and barbed wire logo symbolizes light and hope in dark times, and represents support by drawing public attention to the plight of prisoners of conscience, as was the case for Czechoslovaks during the 1980s discussed by Susan Jenkinson and Julia Sherwood, both then International Secretariat staff members. Among those Amnesty adopted as ‘Prisoners of Conscience’ were Vaclav Havel, Vaclav Benda, Petr Uhl, Ivan Jirous and Anna Sabatova. Susan Jenkinson focussed on AI’s foundation in 1961 by lawyer Peter Benenson, the team’s activities and her work with George Steiner, articles of the CSSR Penal Code and some of the prominent exiles who provided information to AI, such as Charter 77 signatory Ivan Medek, the writer Pavel Tigrid and 1968 student leader Jan Kavan, whilst Julia Sherwood described her father Jan Ladislav Kalina’s case.
A satirist, Kalina was arrested in 1972 during the post 1968 clampdown, partly due to a letter of complaint to Gustav Husak, General Secretary of the Communist Party; however, he was also charged with incitement, allegedly having intended to publish abroad a version of his book, 1000 and 1 Jokes which included some political ones. Ironically, although originally published in 1969, no revised edition had been written. The Kalina family’s experiences with the Czechoslovak secret police were recalled with humour and pathos. Condemned for ‘political crimes’, Kalina was adopted by AI in West Germany and Denmark, ‘a source of great moral support’. Nevertheless, the family left Czechoslovakia in 1977 but, undefeated, Julia is publishing a new version of 1000 and 1 Jokes – fifty years after the original edition.
A Czechoslovak minister in exile
Ladislav Feierabend managed the impossible: he was a member of the war-time Protectorate government and at the same time head of a resistance group in contact with Edvard Beneš in London. So when a messenger was captured and forced to reveal everything, in January 1940 Feierabend embarked on an escape worthy of a Hollywood blockbuster. He eventually joined Beneš’s government-in-exile in London as finance minister before returning to Prague in 1945. After the communist coup in February 1948 Feierabend went into hiding until April when he was smuggled out of his homeland again, this time with his family.
His daughter, Hana Ludikar, shared the remarkable details of this story with us.
How to become a Czech in one hour
The Czech actor Tomas Vanek taught a full house at the Czech Embassy ‘How to Become a Czech in One Hour’ in December. It was standing room only for this comic one-man show arranged specially for the BCSA. The show is a collaboration for the Theatre Royal, Vinohrady between Tomas Vanek and Jean-Christophe Gramont, a Frenchman who fell in love with Prague and has made it his home. As the title suggests, the audience was taken on a fast-track survey of those aspects of life that make Czechs unique. The risks of sitting in the front row at such an event were amply demonstrated, with game ‘volunteers’ finding themselves dancing a lively polka, practising the famed Czech ‘nevim’/shrug combination, or being on the receiving end of a massive chlebicek. They were rewarded with bottles of Pilsner. We learned how to adopt the Czech face of approval, a sort of pout coupled with a knowing nod of the head. We were warned of the pitfalls of mistaking common Czech words for foul language in English. We were treated to graphic and noisy demonstrations of how a Czech worker behaves come 5 o’clock, and of the Czech (compared with the Italian) way of making love. What we feared might be a male striptease fortunately turned out to be only a display of the sloppy attire favoured by Czech men. The finale was a spirited rendition of Karel Gott’s classic ‘Lady Karneval’, unlikely to be equalled anywhere on the London stage. The Embassy cinema is an intimate space and the laughter was warm and immediate, as we recognised our own behaviour or that of our Czech friends.
T.G. Masaryk: a reflection by his great-granddaughter
TG Masaryk’s great-granddaughter Charlotta Kotik gave insights into her great ancestor’s life to a full house at the Slovak Embassy in October. Her talk focussed on key players and places in his life and work, and had a special Slovak focus. She was named after her great-grandmother, TGM’s wife Charlotte Garrigue. Charlotta was born in Czechoslovakia, and in Communist times had been discriminated against and her education restricted because of her family connections. She eventually moved to the USA, where people had been most helpful to her in getting her into the art world, where she had made her career. She was humbled by the attention now being paid to TGM in this centenary year of the creation of Czechoslovakia.
That nation owed much for its existence to pressure from Slovaks living in America, she explained. Slovak national feeling had been growing in the 19th and 20th centuries, led by visionaries such as Ludovit Stur. Another leader in the Slovak community in Chicago was Albert Mamatej, a signatory of the Pittsburgh Agreement in 1918, by which Czech, Moravian and Slovak groups agreed on an independent Czechoslovakia. The large and supportive Slovak and Czech communities in Illinois, Ohio, Iowa and Nebraska were instrumental in bringing this about. Had the vision at that time of a more autonomous Slovakia been carried through more fully, perhaps things might have been different after 1989. The Slovak hero General Milan Rastislav Stefanik understood his friend TGM’s need for adventure and for justice. His own death in 1919 was a tragedy for the nascent Czechoslovakia: perhaps he and TGM might have been able to knit the Slovak and Czech lands closer together, creating a Czech and Slovak Republic that might not subsequently have split. He was a Renaissance man, with many interests, ranging from astronomy to climbing Mont Blanc. Stefan Osusky was another key Slovak in the creation of the new nation, working with General Stefanik.
Two British men prominent in the struggle for a free Czechoslovakia during the First World War were RW Seton-Watson and Henry Wickham Steed: the former a rich man who did much to propagate the vision and the latter the editor of the ‘Times’ who did likewise. Among the others she mentioned were Viktor Voska, TGM’s strong man, who influenced Wickham Steed and President Woodrow Wilson, and was thereby instrumental in helping the Czechoslovak Legion in Russia. He was to die in Ruzyne Prison in 1960, aged 85, imprisoned by the Communists. Charles Richard Crane was an influential American friend of TGM, who helped influence President Wilson bring about the reprieve of TGM’s daughter Alice, who had been condemned by the Austro-Hungarians during World War One for hiding TGM’s writings while he was overseas. Edvard Benes was the administrator to TGM’s visionary. TGM regretted that he had not had the time (or perhaps the energy) to achieve all that he wanted as President, becoming President at 65, retiring at 80. TGM had, we learned, in his youth been an energetic man, very keen on physical exercise, in the spirit of the Sokol movement.
Developing that last point, in a full question and answer session Charlotta speculated whether TGM might have been better able to cope with Hitler in the 1930s had he been younger and stronger. Further, she wondered whether he might also have been more proactive in his handling of the German-speaking minority, and with what results. How Slovak did TGM feel, she was asked. He liked to talk of his Slovak connections, and wished he had been able to spend more time in that country. He spoke of its warmth, and preferred wine to beer! He made a point of holidaying every summer between 1923 and 1933 at Topolcianky Castle. The Masaryk family she grew up in did not resent TGM because of the ill-treatment they suffered under the Communists. They were disciplined, and knew not to compromise. They suffered restrictions but were not in prison, and they knew that others were far worse off than them. She believed that her great uncle Jan had not committed suicide, given the circumstances surrounding his death, and he was more gentle and elegant than had been portrayed in a recent film about him.
Cultural and History Quiz
The BCSA organised a novel event that took place at the Czechoslovak National House in West Hampstead and attracted a good crowd. Quiz master Simon Smith set questions about Czech, Slovak and British history and culture that were tackled by teams of eight including one from the Czech Embassy led by Ambassador Libor Secka.
A secret guide to Prague’s fashion scene
During London Fashion Week in September a BCSA audience were entertained by the Director of the Czech Centre in London, Tereza Porybna, with an expert and colourful secret guide to Prague’s fashion scene. It’s a scene that’s thriving, vigorous and innovative. This was proven by the illustrations: clothes, jewellery, shoes; some accessible to all, others for people with deeper pockets; street fashion, often of high quality; luxury fashion, edgy fashion, clothes for celebrities, clothes for all. The volume of the business was now such that there is a shortage of seamstresses in Czechia. In a lively question and answer session Tereza was asked to speculate on the effect of Brexit: that, of course, was hard to predict, though she did observe that for Czech designers the British market was not so easy to penetrate because of the range of world brands already here. Czech men were, when it came to fashion, perhaps more conservative than elsewhere. There was indeed a market for designer clothes for women in the Czech Republic, made up of interested Czech women and tourists, though the size of the country meant that you were unlikely to get very rich in the business. At the other end of the scale, there were charity shops in the Czech Republic, and you could find Yves St Laurent products there, though the sector did not exist to the extent that it did in Britain. Online purchasing was a feature in Czechia as it was in Britain, and some shops there would indeed have to move online.
Anniversary of 1968 invasion remembered
A memorable evening at the Czech Embassy in London on the actual day, 21st August. The oversubscribed event was packed with youngsters who came to learn about the time when many Czechs and Slovaks had most sincerely believed that Dubcek’s Prague Spring was a death knell of Communism. The older participants recollected the emotional events of the Warsaw Pact invasion, among them the writer Nigel Peace, poet Ivan Hartel, Professor Robert Aish, Lady Milena Grenfell-Baines, and Dr Ivan Klimes. According to most of the speakers, the tragic events, during which well over a hundred Czechs and Slovaks were killed by the invaders, were a clear reminder that the end of Communism cold only come via the fall of the Soviet Union. Nigel Peace read from his book Broken Sea, a love story about a British student and a Czech girl Eva during the invasion days. Professor Robert Aish, himself a student in 1968, had travelled through Czechoslovakia at the time of invasion shared some of his photographs taken then in streets of Czech towns, mainly Prague, adding his lively comments. Ivan Hartel, a student leader in Prague in 1968, vividly explained how the big dream of a newly found freedom was brutally dashed by the treacherous invasion.
In the debate following the presentations , several participants offered their own reminiscences. Dr. Strakova recollected her shock at the radio news of the invasion when she was on a mushroom picking expedition not far from Moscow. Dr. Ivan Klimes, during the Prague Spring a journalist at the Czechoslovak Academy of Science who helped to draft a new press law that abolished the Communist censorship, shared his tragic experience of the early morning on the invasion day: he saw a desperate Czech lady telling a group of Soviet soldiers in front of the Czechoslovak Communist Party’s headquarters that her son had just been shot dead by one of their comrades. Crying, she was showing the soldiers her Communist Party membership card, pointing out that she had been one of the founding members. A young Soviet officer who listened to her story suddenly took a pistol from his holster and shot himself on the spot.
From asylum seeker to UK policeman, a talk by Petr Torak MBE
Born in Liberec in the Czech Republic to Roma parents; after several racially motivated attacks, the family moved to the UK and applied for asylum. He joined the Cambridgeshire Constabulary as a Police Community Support Officer in 2006 and two years later became a Police Officer. In 2010 Torak co-founded a community group COMPAS (see our links page) that provides cultural and educational support for the Czech and Slovak communities in Peterborough. He was awarded an honorary MBE in 2015 “for services to the Roma community”.
Czech & Slovak Tech
Following the formal AGM, Roger Aitken, a Forbes contributor and ex-FT staff journalist, delved into the extent of inventions.
The Czech and Slovak lands could be said to have punched above their weight when it comes to inventors and their inventions. There is even an old adage – Zlate ceske rucicky a chytre ceske hlavicky – meaning “golden Czech hands and clever Czech heads.” From the father of modern genetics, Johann Gregor Mendel, to the invention of the ship’s propeller (despite the nations being landlocked) and the first sugar cube sweetener back in 1843, there are more beside.
Working with Vaclav Havel and Czech culture in New York
Reminiscences of Edward Einhorn, American theatre director and writer
In honour of Vaclav Havel’s 70th birthday, at the time of his residency at Columbia University, Untitled Theater Company #61 and other artists and companies from New York and around the USA came together in 2006 to present, for the first time anywhere, the complete plays of Vaclav Havel.
Edward Einhorn is a playwright, director, translator, librettist, and novelist. He is the artistic director of Untitled Theater Company #61 which has been performing in New York City for over 20 years. Other Czech projects include The Velvet Oratorio, an opera-theatre production retelling the events of The Velvet Revolution; Cabaret in Captivity, songs and sketches from Terezin, performed in January at Goodenough College in London; The Pig, or Vaclav Havel’s Hunt for a Pig, adapted from the work by Vaclav Havel and Vladimir Moravek and original plays Rudolf II and Golem Stories. He is currently working on a filmed version of Karel Svenk’s play,The Last Cyclist, originally written in Terezin.
Gaudeamus – a Slovak novel by Richard
This thriller/ love story reflects – and is critical – of the atmosphere and in particular people’s mindset first in normalized Czechoslovakia and then in post-1989 Slovakia.
The author and the translator, David Short, discussed the book, read out passages in Slovak and English and answered questions. Here are a couple of quotes:
“We hoped that in gratitude for the freedom we’d been given we ‘d all want to be kind and just. But so far, that’s not how it’s looking. Freedom has stirred the worst in us.” “We used to joke that anyone who didn’t steal was robbing his family. We don’t make jokes like that any more. An A+ in thievery is the basic requirement for the successful businessman or politician. It won’t be long before we start consigning freaks who pay their taxes and never exceed the speed limit to the asylum.”
The English translation is published by Jantar.
Is it all about time? Gender equality in Czech law and practice: a talk by Dr Barbara Havelkova.
While EU directives on anti-discrimination law have been transposed into Czech law, their implementation has been overwhelmingly ineffective in promoting the cause of gender equality. Dr Havelkova examines why this should be so in her recently published book Gender Equality in Law: Uncovering the Legacies of State Socialism. Looking back at the history of gender equality in law in the Czech Republic, her work traces the roots of contemporary attitudes to the socialist past, when a degree of equalisation was achieved without however the underlying intellectual grounding or understanding about inequality and its causes. It reveals the widespread belief among current Czech legislators that differences between men and women are natural, that inequality is thus understandable and that the law should not intervene. With no follow-up to ensure that EU member states are actually enforcing the law, it is unsurprising that very few anti-discrimination cases are being won. Dr Havelkova teaches at Lincoln College and the Faculty of Law at Oxford University, where she is the Shaw Foundation Fellow in Law.
A full house at the Slovak Embassy enjoyed an evening of chamber music performed by Diversions. The programme included pieces by the well-known Czech composers Bohuslav Martinu and Antonin Dvorak and Gustav Mahler, born near Jihlava on the border between Bohemia and Moravia. It was also a rare opportunity to hear a work by Erwin Schulhoff, born in Prague to a German-Jewish family who began his musical studies at the Prague Conservatory when he was 10 years old.
BCSA/LSESU Bridging the generations
Different generations, different experiences: the BCSA staged an intergenerational event in conjunction with the Czech and Slovak Society of the London School of Economics Student Union. A full house at the Slovak Embassy heard four speakers talk about their sometimes dangerous journeys from communist Czechoslovakia to Britain, and the kind of welcome they received when they got here. This compared with the experiences of the newer arrivals, who had largely come since the accession of the Czech and Slovak Republics to the EU in 2004.
The four speakers were:
Karel Sling, the son of Otto Sling, who was one of the accused in the Stalinist show trials of the early 1950s and was shot in 1952. Karel signed Charter 77, suffered for it and emigrated to Britain in the 1980s.
Professor Gerta Vrbova who spoke of her discovery when she came to Britain that there were different types of freedom: here she could travel where she liked, make friends with whom she liked, say what she liked, but also as a woman she felt much less free than she had been in Czechoslovakia, where women had many more opportunities. She praised the British for their tolerance, but not for the difficulty of finding childcare so she could work.
Eduard Strouhal escaped across the Austrian border in 1948, with the help of reusable forged ID to get past the Russians, and of Austrian police who (literally) looked the other way. As a refugee he had to take work allocated him by the Ministry of Labour, which included a stint clearing unexploded mines and ammunition from an Army training range on the North Yorkshire moors.
Dr Jana Buresova arrived in Britain in 1952 at the age of two, coming from a Displaced Persons camp in Germany, where her mother had been placed following the 1948 communist coup in her home country. As her mother expected repatriation, Jana’s early childhood was ‘very Czech’. She had always seen herself as Czech, though sometimes she felt that Czechs thought she was English (while the English thought she was Czech).
A common theme was that for many, or even most, of those who came to Britain to escape communist Czechoslovakia, their time here was intended to be temporary. They expected to return home once things changed for the better. But as the years wore on they realised that this was not to be. This found a kind of echo in the contributions from the younger members of the audience. They had come here as students, or for an international experience, or to earn money, and they expected to return home or at least to move on elsewhere before too long.
An illustrated talk by an Anglo-Czech artist
Jan Mladovsky presented his work in the context of contemporary visual art. He studied art at the Academy of Arts, Architecture and Design in Prague and then at the Slade School of Art, University College in London where he has been living since 1968. In addition to the famous Serpentine Gallery and Riverside Studios in London, he has exhibited at venues in Japan, Iceland, Italy, Germany, France, the Netherlands and in his native Czechoslovakia.
Roughing it in Prague – a talk by Rob Humphreys
Rob’s introduction to things Czech and Slovak was through the children’s games his father (a lecturer in Czech and Russian at Leeds University) brought back from trips behind the Iron Curtain. He was asked in 1988 to write the Rough Guide to Czechoslovakia which was published in 1991 and then followed by the Rough Guide to Prague. Rob described the adventures, mishaps, strange encounters and surprises experienced during the writing of his guidebooks, as well as the changes brought about by the Velvet Revolution and the internet.
Daria Klimentova, prima ballerina – my life and work, an illustrated presentation
Surprising the world of ballet with her appointment as principal dancer with the Prague National Ballet Company at the early age of 18, Daria Klimentova went on to have a stunning international career, including 18 years as principal ballerina with English National Ballet. Since her retirement in 2014 she has devoted herself to the education of new generations of dancers, notably by founding and teaching the International Ballet Master classes at Prague’s Narodni divadlo. Her autobiography Daria Klimentova – Agony and Ecstasy – My Life in Dance was published in 2013.
The renegade count – a talk by Milan Kocourek about Count Franz/Frantisek von Luetzow
Diplomat and member of the Austrian parliament, Count Franz/Frantisek von Luetzow (1849-1916) was that rarity, a German-speaking Bohemian aristocrat whole-heartedly devoted to the Czech national cause. With a British mother, he wrote prolifically in English, attempting almost single-handedly to dispel anglophone ignorance about Bohemian history and the contemporary Czech scene. The talk covered some of Count von Luetzow’s endeavours in the years before 1914 as well as his wartime activities.
Slovakia’s post-communist economic transition
As guests of the Czech and Slovak Section of the the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) and to mark the Slovak Presidency of the Council of the EU, the held a public discussion with two leading players in Slovakia’s post-communist economic transition.
Vazil Hudak, Vice-President of the European Investment Bank, former Slovak Minister of the Economy and the Slovak Presidency’s chief negotiator for the EU budget, Dr Michal Horvath of York University explored the essential ingredients of Slovakia’s success in making the transition – first to statehood, then EU and NATO membership, and most recently adoption of the Euro.
But there have been challenges too: a brain drain of talent to other EU countries, not least the City of London, where Slovaks are thriving in the financial services industry as well as in London’s start-up community; regional economic disparities such as those between Bratislava in the west and Kosice in the east; as well as corruption in public procurement and the situation of the Roma community.
The life and (hard) times of Emil Zatopek – an illustrated talk by Pat Butcher
With close to a score of world records and the hero of the 1952 Olympic Games, Emil Zatopek was the most successful athlete in Czech(oslovak) history, giving his compatriots many reasons to be proud and enthralling and entertaining the rest of the world. His later support for the Prague Spring led to his exclusion from public life and to work as a labourer in a uranium mine, though he was rehabilitated after 1989 and awarded high honours.The Mercurial Emil Zatopek is the latest book by Pat Butcher, one of Britain’s leading athletics writers. Going back to its subject’s time working for Baťa Zlin in the 1940s it draws on many sources, including interviews with Zatopek himself and his Olympic gold medallist wife Dana, with other contemporaries and with his record breaking successors.
The British response to the Slansky trial – new research from Southampton University
In 1952, one of the most notorious of Communist show trials took place in Czechoslovakia, when alleged members of “the anti-state conspiracy centred around Rudolf Slansky” including the hitherto all-powerful General Secretary himself, were accused of a “Trotskyite-Titoite-Zionist plot” and sentenced to death. Media interest was intense but reliable information not easy to obtain. The extent to which contemporary British understanding of the trials was accurate has been investigated by a group of postgraduate students at Southampton University. Themes touched on in their work included the trial’s anti-Semitic element, inner-party rivalry, the use of Slansky as a scapegoat for the country’s economic problems, the context of the Cold War and the other show trials of the late Stalin era. The student panel was introduced by Professor Mark Cornwall.
Shakespeare in Czech -a conversation with Professor Martin Hilsky and Susan Reynolds
Charles University Prague’s Professor Hilsky has translated Shakespeare’s entire output into Czech for which he has received numerous awards, including an honorary MBE. Following Susan’s review of the Bard’s reception in the Czech lands, Prof. Hilsky talked about the endless challenges posed by the richness and complexity of Shakespearean English.
The Czechoslovaks in WWI – rebels or loyalists? A panel discussion with Professor Mark Cornwall, Dr Claire Morelon and chaired by Dr Katya Kocourek
Two historians, Dr Claire Morelon (Oxford University) and Professor Mark Cornwall (Southampton University) brought their extensive archival experience to bear in shedding light on this subject which has received considerable attention in the academic press in recent years. Dr Morelon considered the ‘view from below’ with reference to to the food shortages in large towns and cities in the Bohemian Lands during the war. They came to symbolise a growing discontent with the Habsburg Monarchy which by 1918 translated into a general popular acceptance that the ‘state’ had ‘failed’ the Czechs. Professor Cornwall focussed on the 1916 trail of Karel Kramar, sentenced to 15 years hard labour along with Alois Rasin. Despite being granted political amnesty one year later, it solidified his reputation as a leading Czech nationalist.
My life and work – a talk by Professor Jan Marek, cardiologist
A lecturer at University College Hospital London and Charles University Prague, Professor Jan Marek specialises in paediatric and pre-natal cardiology. He has worked at Great Ormond Street Hospital (GOSH) since 2005 and collaborates with Prague’s Motol hospital where he used to work. Although a great grandson of Zdenek Nejedly, a communist minister of education, he experienced great difficulty when applying to study medicine in the footsteps of his parents and grandparents.