If you think back to the time before November 1989, what was the atmosphere like at the faculty?
It was a long time ago and it is hard to remember, but the atmosphere then cannot be compared with the atmosphere today. The society was much more closed, the possibilities of studying were more limited. Studies were planned in much more detail, with only a few exceptions, we could not take elective courses , we all studied in more or less the same way We could not travel to what was then called the Western Bloc, we did not have enough literature. In General Biology, we were also behind our colleagues from abroad due to lack of money, literature, instrumentation, and contacts with foreign scientists.
At what stage of your studies were you in the 1989/1990 academic year?
I was in my fith year of studying General Biology, working on my thesis and preparing for my state exams.
How did you imagine your professional future in socialist Czechoslovakia?
I was not thinking about it at the beginning of my fifth year, and November also contributed to it, because we were paralysed for two months. There was no time to work on theses, to think about them. I was doing my thesis at the Biophysical Institute of the Academy of Science. My general idea was to stay in the field.
When and how did you find out about the events on Národní třída?
I knew about them beforehand, and I participated in these events with several of my classmates. Even among the students in Brno there was an awareness of what was going to happen. Namely that the meeting of the Socialist Youth Union allowed on November 17 at Albertov would not only be about remembering the tragic events connected with the closure of Czech universities on November 17, but that an anti-regime event was being planned. We were not in the middle of things, we were relatively passive participants, taking part in the march to Vyšehrad and then to Národní třída.
What are your memories of the student demonstration on November 17, 1989?
My colleagues and I went to Národní třída and we saw the situation. But I got out of the crowd through a side street which was open. And then I met up with my colleagues again on Wenceslas Square. A classmate who had been through the whole thing had his head smashed in, so we dealt with the treatment at the first aid centre at the central station, and got on the night train to Brno, where we discussed the whole thing. It was an unexpected development, so we were surprised, shocked, and did not like it.
What did you do after you returned to Brno?
Because we didn't like the violent way of suppressing the demonstration, we met with other students and started planning protests for the next week. On Monday we announced a stay-in strike at the Faculty of Arts, a strike committee was formed and that is how it all started. The students who were not familiar with the situation accepted it very quickly, they gathered in the park in front of the dean's office, the stay-in strike was declared, no classes were held. The turnout was high and most of the faculty agreed with it.
How did you get involved in the post-November period?
Because I shared the desire for a society-wide change to end the totalitarian regime, I was happy to participate and help at least a little bit. I was put in charge of coordinating the repro centre. We printed various statements and leaflets there and painted posters.
Already the word "repro centre" sounds a bit retro-style😊. Could you please give today's students an idea of how things worked when computers with printers or photocopiers were not widespread?
Everything took much longer than it does today. The core was a large group of students and a few typewriters, where materials were transcribed onto cyclostyles. Cyclostyles were machines without ink ribbons, the letters were perforated into the impermeable layer of the membranes. These were put into two cyclostyle machines as a pattern, and you could make about 40-50 copies of them, although the last ones were hard to read. Information and slogan leaflets were printed for encouragement. We got information in different ways. Our colleague Jan Paleček helped us with the computer and printer, as he describes in his interview https://www.sci.muni.cz/clanky/socialismus-clovek-si-pripadal-jako-rukojmi. We were in contact with other faculties, with the emerging Civic Forum in Brno. The idea was to spread information free of the bias of the media, which were still under the control of the regime at the time. Many students were involved in this. Some acted as liaisons between the strike committee and the Civic Forum. This is how we spent our days and nights in the repro centre until Christmas 1989.
Cyclostyle (mimeograph) was a device for reproducing documents. It consisted of a tin drum on which a special membrane was stretched. The principle of printing lay in passing the ink through the membrane. Photo: https://cs.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cyklostyl
Where did the equipment come from? Under socialism, even photocopiers were under strict control...
I remember that it was mainly borrowed from companies in Brno, arranged by the Civic Forum or the strike committee of the faculty. Some people were willing to help us in this way, some even brought paper directly to the faculty. And that helped us a lot: to see the support of the wider society, the older ones, the younger ones, and that it was not just up to the students.
Did you think about the consequences? What would happen if the situation turned around and the movement against totalitarianism was suppressed?
At times, I was aware of the fear, but there was not much time to dwell on it. I just jumped on a fast moving train and did not pay attention to it. It was make or break, but we did not think much about the consequences. Particularly during the demonstration on November 20 in Brno's Freedom Square, nobody knew whether the forces would massacre us or not. Again, the presence of people from the whole society was essential. And that helped us mentally. We thought that with such society-wide support, perhaps the political leaders would not dare to use violence.
How do you see November 1989 in the perspective of your life?
It was definitely the most significant social change in my life. You could say that the ideas were a bit different, but you have to remember that nothing in life ever goes entirely smoothly and according to your wishes. It was a very important change. In my case, it coincided with the end of my studies. So today, 30 years on, I find it hard to distinguish what was the consequence of the November changes and what was the result of the end of my studies and the changes that this brought. If I had stayed in the field under the old regime, it certainly would not have looked like it does today. The field of study would have moved on somewhere, but certainly not that far.
Photo: Martina Petříková
How did you return to your last semester of studies after November?
After the New Year we had to start making up for the neglected time on the thesis. We defended it in May or June and I think we managed well. I do not know of anyone around me not defending their thesis or finishing their studies unsuccessfully because of November.
What did you do after you finished your master's degree?
After November I started to arrange a place in the immunology laboratory at the hospital in Hradec Králové, where I come from. But they stopped hiring new people because there was no money for them (ironically, because of the regime change). In the meantime, the conditions for postgraduate studies changed. Therefore, I stayed at the faculty as a PhD student. I studied for about a year, but I just missed hands-on work a lot, so I started looking for a job in my field. I signed a contract with a company producing veterinary vaccines. But in the end, I stayed in academia because my thesis supervisor from the Biophysical Institute of the CAS got in touch. There was a vacancy in the lab where I was writing my thesis. I took this as the best opportunity for employment. From then until now I have worked both there and at the Faculty of Science of MU.
Why does Czech biophysics have an excellent reputation in the world?
The Institute of Biophysics of the then Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences was founded in the mid-1950s. At that time, its basic scope was really only biophysics and the study of the effects of radiation on organisms and biological material. Czech biophysics has a good name in the world. We have already mentioned Associate Professor Jan Paleček. His father, Professor Emil Paleček, also associated with the Institute of Biophysics of the CAS and Masaryk University, was a world-renowned figure in nucleic acid electrochemistry. He laid the foundation for many things that are still used and revered today.
What did you do at the Institute of Biophysics of the CAS?
At the time I started working there, it was more about molecular and cell biology. I was focused on immunology, specifically the mechanisms of non-specific immunity, and in particular professional phagocytes.
And how is your professional life connected with the Faculty of Science at MU?
Since February 2021, I am a full-time associate professor at the Faculty and I have a 0.1 part-time position at the Biophysical Institute of the CAS. However, I have been collaborating with the faculty and have taught various courses since 2002. Thus, my professional life has been connected with the faculty since the time of my studies. Currently I teach, for example, immunology, special blood physiology, photobiology and free radicals in animal physiology. My main focus now is on being the guarantor of the newly established English Molecular and Cell Biology programme.
Can you introduce this new study programme for international students?
It is one of the first two programmes in English at the MU Faculty of Science. At the same time, a bachelor's programme in English was established at the Department of Biochemistry. Our programme is a master's degree programme which is build on it. It mostly consists of subjects and courses already taught at the faculty in Czech; they were adapted into English. Similarly to our colleagues in the Czech programmes, our foreign students graduate as masters and can find employment in academia, medical fields, diagnostic laboratories, etc.
What challenges did you face when preparing the new programme in English, with the situation complicated by the global Covid-related regulations?
Our Department of Studies and the Department of Doctoral Studies, Quality, Academic Affairs and Internationalisation help us with organisational matters. We have a lot of support there and are grateful for it. We started teaching in the autumn semester 2021, but it has been very complicated. We have online lectures and practical courses are in the form of intensive courses because so far students have not managed to get out of their countries, they do not have visas, everything is delayed, some Czech embassies in other countries did not work. It is challenging in this respect, but we look forward to and hope that things will improve and everything will run normally.
How many students are studying this new programme?
As this is the first year of the new study programme, the limit is ten students. Unfortunately, we did not reach it because some people applied to two schools and ended up not choosing us. We accepted eight students, two cancelled at the last minute and six started.
From what continents and countries are these students?
They are from Asia and Europe. Mostly from post-Soviet republics like Azerbaijan, but also from Bangladesh, Syria. From European countries, it is the Balkan countries and Belarus.
This year, November 17 is being commemorated at MU in connection with the situation in Belarus. Masaryk University was one of the first universities in the country to speak out against the difficult political situation in the country through its rector, Martin Bareš. In the spirit of Masaryk tradition, it offered scholarships and a grant programme for scientists to several students from the country. How do you perceive this gesture in relation to the situation in Czechoslovakia before 1989?
Of course, I perceive any support positively. Our student from Belarus received a scholarship from Masaryk University.
How do you perceive the current social and political development in the Czech Republic?
It is related to what I said. Wherever a fundamental change takes place, it can never suit everyone and it can never happen the way its creators and initiators want it to. Of course, many things bothered me during the post-Soviet development. Probably most in the recent times, in the months leading up to the 2021 autumn elections. It is a nice coincidence that we meet a few days after the elections, which in my opinion turned out very well: it is a hint that things might be normalising, but not in the sense of the word in the 1970s dictionary 😊.
Thank you for the interview.
Translated by Kevin Roche.
Read also our other interviews about November 17.
"It was like a miracle. Suddenly you could get in your car and go abroad at any time."
An interview with Eduard Fuchs about November 17, 1989 and the period before and after. About the atmosphere at the faculty under socialism, the turbulent November and the first trips abroad.
Socialism? One felt like a hostage.
Interview about the events at the Faculty of Arts of MU during the period of November 1989 through the eyes of our biochemist, Jan Paleček.