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The Vacuum Issue 10 spacer Issue 10
Interview With Slavka Sverakova
by John Mathews
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JM: As a time of political unrest and revolution in your home country of Czechoslovakia in the 1960's, did you see that as an exciting period of changes, where people were beginning to question the systems and values around them?
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SS: I would not call it political unrest and a revolution, it was more the case of the dictatorship running out of the will to kill, jail, expel people, albeit for a short while. I recall one of the top apparatchiks as a keynote speaker at the meeting called in our University in January '68 giving the account of the battle between Novotny and Dubcek, both dedicated communists. Novotny hit, we were told, Dubcek across his face. This apparatchik added looking at the academics who were commanded to attend: "If there is anyone here against democracy, I shall smash his face". The development a year later showed that the majority of people did not question or challenge anything at all. In the Czech part of the country there was a small part of so called the "intelligence" (in Lenin's terminology), which questioned everything. In Slovakia, the minorities (Hungarian for example) and a tiny number of academics and writers joined Dubcek, a Slovak. Indeed, questioning in private was the only remnant of the culture developed in the so called First Republic (1918-1938), whose president was a philosopher T.G. Masaryk. There was an excitement during so-called Prague Spring, because the questioning went public. We felt like free thinkers again; we thought that people's goodness and creativity would prevail. Not so.
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JM: What happened after the Prague Spring, did the mood of openness and free speech dissipate or did it have a lasting effect? The Czechs always had a reputation for creative thinking, it seems ironic that they had apathy towards change. Was it complacency in relation to the state led change or was it just rooted in people's lack of faith in the systems of government around them?
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SS: When the Warsaw Pact armies descended on us, there was public opposition. We sat on crossroads to stop the tanks, lit candles in all windows while we switched off electricity creating the association with death - a tradition normally of the evening of 2nd November. Many of us helped to broadcast, make posters, talk to the soldiers, telling them to go homeŠ It looked all very promising. We were intoxicated by the peaceful power we had. This attitude started to dwindle after three months. You could hear people saying "to be a hero for a day is possible, but not for life". The collaboration with the occupying forces was widespread and demoralizing. People were looking for life supporting connections, offering their deeper dreams and moral aspirations in exchange. Those of us who could not muster that or any other variant while the majority was learning to go back to the dual ethos, were given as targets to the establishment that wished to enforce the Soviet rule. In asymmetry to this, I recall, that the Polish soldiers wore white gloves and behaved impeccably politely, like traffic police, smiling at our Wartburg taking us from Presov to Prague and back. The overwhelming majority of the citizens reverted to the fear of open society, Prague Spring established so quickly. The fear manifested itself even much later, last year actually, when 17% of voters supported the discredited Communist Party. Thinking that, here in Ulster about the same proportion of the electorate support a party, which also distrusts the model of open society I wonder why the pattern re-occurs. It appears to me as unwillingness to be responsible.
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JM: What was it like, moving for the first time, from an environment you were used to and coming to live and work in Northern Ireland?
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SS: I did not come straight to Ulster. I worked in London, Leeds and Dundee and came to Ulster six years after I left Czechoslovakia. We lived in Surrey, London, Baildon and Dundee. Comparing the various subtle or not so subtle differences across this country; Ulster was just another area of it. Mind you the bombing and shooting made it utterly different. I shook every time a building on York Street and Royal Avenue exploded. A colleague remarked that I would get used to it. I didn't. My students used to ask on occasions whether they were different from my students in Czechoslovakia. Not really, although appearances were decidedly different. In thinking and learning there was no difference between the two groups; however the support the state and the institution in Ulster provided was decidedly better.
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JM: Personally, one of the invigorating things about travel is becoming lost, the idea of the journey becoming the destination. In relation to this how do you personally find travel as a way of increasing your understanding of life?
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SS: Most of my life in Czechoslovakia my travels were curtailed and controlled by the establishment. Ironically, in Moscow a taxi driver attacked me verbally for being a Westerner, better off, someone with more freedom. His illusion survived my explanation. When we became refugees, travel became a compulsory obsession: we had no passports or papers for several years, even so we were allowed to travel. Czechs travel obsessively now - trying to catch up what they lost during the "dark ages" of the second half of the 20th century. Travel for me is not so much about getting lost as finding - I had to see every exhibition, castle, church etc. - marvelling at what I knew about from books and photographs and being able to see it in real life. Whether it was the delight of the portal in Souillac or Moissac, or the height of the brick walls at Albi or Riemenschneider in Wurzburg, or Baldovinetti above the door of the church in Florence - all that was incredibly enriching to me. For that I am grateful that I became a refugee. Whether I understood life better I cannot even think how to establish that.
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JM: You live in the countryside, which certainly has a different order and pattern to cities or towns. How deeply do you think our environment shapes our psyche both as children and when we get older and have more of a choice in terms of were we would like to live?
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SS: I grew up in a castle in the countryside, later we moved to a small cottage, later still to a luxury modern home - town was always somewhere where I studied and went to concerts. As an adult I lived for more than 20 years in towns. I did not look forward to living in the country, because of the low level of social services, because of the need to travel by car every day, sometimes twice. I got used to it through staying in Belfast from 9am to 9pm or so. We planted some five thousand trees around our cottage, and I learned to appreciate the silence and privacy this place offers us. These days, I have to make an effort to go to the openings of exhibitions or forgo meeting people. I have come to think that both town and countryside are valuable for an individual's growth - each emphasising different values - although we lived in a silent park in London, I think that silence is in short supply. And not just in towns. Look at the Shore Road in Newtownabbey and Carrickfergus, you have no access to the sea, almost all ground is privately owned and you cannot see or hear the sea. Dostojevskij once remarked, when the authorities kept him in exile in Siberia: "wise men stay".
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JM: Do you believe in proverbs as a source of knowledge and do you see superstitions as a progression of proverbial wisdom or purely as mystical notions. I think people like the Brothers Grimm were very conscious of this, when they made their books of fairy tales. They were more or less documentation based upon people's stories, told as word of mouth from farmers, shop keepers and market people within their locality. Often colourful and gory tales involving some sort of moral lesson.
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SS: Proverbs I think of as coded strings of knowing about the world; superstitions are coded mixed up fragments: black cat, or do-not-walk-under-the-ladder superstitions may be unravelled like that. Folklore is oral history plus myth, plus whatever embellishment occurred to the "storyteller". Take the switch in the way owls are thought of. In cultures of the ancient world, India or the early medieval period an owl is a symbol of both wisdom and awareness. During late feudalism the farmers observed its nocturnal habits. The owl can see in darkness, we cannot. You can either admire the bird's ability or envy it. Those who chose the latter started connecting the owl to dark forces, evil forces, and death. For me the superstition that made the country folk of England nail owls to barn doors to repel evil forces is detestable and excruciatingly painful to think of.
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JM: Media culture, mobile technologies and the internet seem to have a duel balance of allowing us to access large amounts of information, but through this process they dilute our sense of experience, of having to gain it, personally through trial and error. With people replacing personal communication with virtual realities, do you think this is an expanding trend or do you think these technologies exist in harmony in terms of learning and experience?
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SS: Do technical means always dilute experience? I don't think so. Technology and modern techniques facilitate other ways of accessing knowledge, knowing of the world, understanding reality, and learning how to think about it. Crucially the new ways do not replace the old ones, they add to them. Of course, you may point to many that allow precisely the opposite: watching television, reading the Sun etc. instead of living, working, creating, questioning, talking. But that is not compulsory; it is those peoples' choice. I find that the internet speeds up searches, increases connectivity of brain, facilitates numerous connections with people from all over the world within minutes and it does not diminish my thirst to have experiences and to think about them. I would even venture to say that I experience life more acutely after working with the resources the internet offers, as if my senses were energised by the change.
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JM: Do you believe in systems of fate or chance as an undercurrent within the fabric of people's lives?
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SS: Daniel Dennett has issued a warning that we are inclined to confuse determinism with fatalism. I like his (and someone else's) idea that we are "choice machines", that while the number of possible choices is predetermined, what we select is not. Chance is a wonderful giver on occasions: many a time I have been given a solution to a problem by a chance find, meeting, connection, experience. Given the above, I of course include chance amongst the predetermined number of choices with the charming force of persuasion and always offering itself as a precious gift. Fatalism would make everything predetermined, cancelling the invigorating gift of free creative thought as well as the power of discovery our mistakes lock in.
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JM: Any lasting piece of wisdom?
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SS: Oh, just common sense like "don't do onto othersŠ" and "silver lining..." and "keep busy" - reminding you of Sartre? Yes, he was a strong "growing up" influenceŠ later I added many more, like Nietzsche's: "I approach deep problems like cold baths: quickly into them and quickly out again."
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