Socialism? One felt like a hostage.
An interview about the November 1989 velvet Revolution at our Faculty, through the eyes of our biochemist, Jan Paleček.
Interview with Eduard Fuchs on November 17, 1989 and the period before and after him. About the atmosphere at the faculty under socialism, stormy November and the first trips abroad.
How long have you been with the Faculty of Science MU?
I came to the faculty as a student in 1960, and from the third year on, I worked as a part-time assistant. After I graduated in 1965, I started working full-time as an assistant.
When you look back to the times before November 1989, what was it like at the faculty?
Overall, the faculty had stagnated. Everything began to unfold after 1968, during the period of normalisation and what happened during that period marked the faculty until the end of the 1980s. The faculty was dominated by people without appropriate professional backgrounds and a lack of moral decency. The leading duo in this criminal ring were the Vojteks; Professor Vojtek and Professor Vojtková from the biology department. In the late 1970s, Prof. Vojtková was very proud to state that “Finally, we have a faculty without resounding names (because they threw them out) but full of people committed to Marxism-Leninism”. That was the credo of the people in charge of the faculty; and, despite a very small relaxation in the 80’s, this atmosphere persisted until November 1989. We were luckier in the mathematics department as we did not have such significantly negative personalities.
How did this affect the professional life of employees?
All workers were divided into four categories, A, B, C and D. The most steadfast party members were in category A, while those that were less important, but still acceptable to the regime, were in category B. My wife and I found ourselves in category C. While people in this group were suffering, with no possibility of professional growth, employees placed in category D were sentenced to leave the faculty. They were either fired immediately or were under such pressure from the faculty or university management that they were forced to leave.
What was life like for category C employees?
Being in category C meant that I was not allowed to travel. I received an invitation from Canada, for example, where they offered to cover all costs, but the party group refused to let me go. Unlike category A or B, we could not publish. Publishing was subject to approval at our faculty, and one had to ask for approval before sending. I had a particular fascination with the statement that “in the interest of the faculty, I am not allowed to publish work abroad”. It was a very depressing period in this respect; those who have not experienced it cannot imagine how confining the conditions were. A narrow class of people who went abroad without problems and could publish, and then the lower categories with no possibility of scientific or professional growth – people the regime were not happy with but were suffered to stay because they could not fire half the faculty.
How did such a negative staff classification affect one’s personal and family life?
I certainly would not want anyone to experience the stress we were under, such as not knowing whether your child would get into high school, even if he was clever and had good results. If the party organisation at his place of residence decided to write a poor opinion of the pupil, the school would not take him. There were eternal inconveniences of this type, which left one morally devastated.
How did you see your professional developing under the socialist regime?
A professional future in the normal sense was totally ruled out. I was not allowed to obtain a Candidate of Science (CSc), I was not allowed to publish, or to travel to the West. I saw how this devastated a number of colleagues in a similar situation. Associate Professor Sekanina, for example, was not appointed Associate Professor despite passing his habilitation and this held back his professional career for 20 years. The very idea of growth was limited, so people tended not to look for other escape routes.
What escape routes were you looking for?
My escape was music. I had been playing the piano in an orchestra since high school, and I later devoted myself to composition and arranging. I even managed to publish some pieces under foreign names. At the time of the greatest terror at the faculty, I even considered leaving altogether and devoting myself to music or maybe something else altogether. I would probably have done it if I didn’t have two small children. Though the future at the faculty was not bright, one views it differently when making decisions for oneself and when taking one’s family into account. I never felt able to risk everything and lose my job, very few could.
How did you personally approach the regime? Why did the regime keep you in this state of stagnation?
What bothered the regime when I first arrived as a future student was that I did not originate from a working-class manual background or something similarly positive, my father having been self-employed (this was less of a problem around 1965, when I started working). As a result, I had a problem getting into high school and this played a role in gaining admission to the faculty. As a student, I had never been particularly reticent or quiet and when I thought that something deserved criticism I said so, even in front of the people who controlled the faculty. As a result, I was labelled, not as a major rebel, an opponent of the regime, but as a person who did not fit in the regime; so it was clear that I would be in category C.
At what stage was your career on November 17, 1989?
I had been a professional assistant since 1968, and I had got used to the feeling that I would remain one for a long time for the reasons we talked about.
When and how did you learn that a demonstration, which the regime was trying to suppress by violence, was taking place on the evening of November 17? What were your experiences?
I remember it very vividly. It was Friday and my wife and I were at a concert by the Brno Philharmonic at the Janáček Theatre. We went there with some very good friends and we were talking about the political situation during the breaks. We had no idea anything was going on at that time. Our friend said “This is terrible, there’s not the slightest chance that anything will change; even in Germany the situation is a little better, but here it is completely hopeless, unchanging. It’s impossible that something similar to Germany could exist here!” When we got home, I tuned in to the Free Europe radio station, as I did every evening. Suddenly, I heard that something was happening in Prague. Of course, my ear was stuck to the radio all weekend. At that time, our intelligence was silent, or rather there were several reports in the style of “several rioters tried to do something”. I wondered whether something would start to happen in Brno. A huge weight fell from my heart when I went to work on Monday, November 20, 1989. The gate at Kotlářská was closed, there was a student patrol who weren’t allowing strangers into the campus and a student strike committee had been formed, and I said to myself “very well, it’s here!" After that, things took a quick turn.
What were the first days after November 17 like at the faculty, up until the general strike on November 27, 1989?
Something like a committee of the Civic Forum (Občanské fórum [OF]) was established. It was a relatively narrow circle of people that included the future Rector, Prof. Eduard Schmidt from the physics department, and future Deans such as Prof. Jaroslav Jonas from chemistry, Prof. Rostislav Brzobohatý from Earth Sciences and myself from Mathematics. We were not elected in any way, it just arose naturally from people who – and here I don't want to sound bloated – had authority and knew the conditions at the faculty well enough to be able to implement things. We convened meetings, participated in discussions on the situation and communicated with students, who gave us information on what was happening in other faculties. As a faculty, we had always agreed with the requirements of the Civic Forum. There was general agreement at that time with these requirements and it was mainly a matter of expressing broad support.
What did you think of the students, who were the primary drivers of the November events?
It just sounded great to me. I had not expected it. While not true of all students, I was pleasantly surprised by how quickly and how well they reacted and how well they cooperated in such a crisis situation.
What were the attitudes of the employees at the faculty to the events of November?
People’s attitudes differed. You asked if I had any photos of the events; well, it was not possible to take photos then, it would have looked very suspicious. The infamous Prof. Vojtek, who I earlier mentioned as a representative of the pro-regime management, walked around the faculty and photographed all the banners, signs and people – I think he was completely out of his mind. However, this group was not strong in number, though there were dozens of people over the entire faculty who behaved in this way in those days. Then there were people from the ranks of more active party members who were worried and did not appear in public. After all, no one knew whether there would be a massacre of supporters of socialism, one can never be sure in such revolutionary situations. These people were worried about their futures and were afraid that they would be expelled from the faculty if conditions changed. However, the new regime did not behave in this way and did not expel these people, or not wholesale. There was a large group of people who liked what was going on, but were too afraid to speak out in public, and so they waited. Thus, the active group of people was not huge at the beginning, most were waiting to see what would happen. As the situation escalated strongly in Prague, so Brno, and other cities, began to adapt, and it soon became clear that real change was taking place.
Let's move on to the events of November 23, 1989. The Minister of Defence proposed using the army to restore order, though the proposal was not accepted by the government. A statement was released by the Civic Forum expressing its demands, which were not met. The Civic Forum then called on all citizens to join a planned general strike. Communist MP Miroslav Štěpán went to a meeting of workers at the CKD company in Vysočina, where he called the protesting students “fifteen-year-old children” and was booed and whistled by the workers. The ‘whistling of Štěpán’ is considered by some to be a turning point in the Velvet Revolution. Until then, it was still possible that the revolution would be suppressed by the military. After this event, however, the communists realised that they had lost the support of the working people and from then on, they were retreating.
When did you begin to believe that the socialist regime would really end?
Štěpán's whistling was even broadcast on television; it was a very powerful experience, it lifted one’s spirits. For me and many others, the key moment was when one of the first gatherings took place on Wenceslas Square. It was still unclear, however, whether the government would intervene violently with the army and militia. Suddenly, a huge crowd of CKD employees came down Jindřišská Street – it was a huge mass of workers. In my opinion, this was the moment when it became clear that the movement could no longer be suppressed.
Over this period, demonstrations took place throughout the country. What was it like in Brno?
There were demonstrations in Brno, though they were not as big as those in Prague. I went to Náměstí Svobody and our then 21-year-old student son spent whole days there. I was always wondering whether he would return home or if they would take him somewhere in a police van and lock him up.
How did the faculty get involved in the general strike on November 27, 1989?
I remember that very vividly, those feelings are embedded in me so strongly that it feels like it was yesterday. Employees of the faculty left for the demonstration parade in Náměstí Svobody, but so did the supporters of the communist regime; it still seems comical to me that they went in that parade, albeit with their heads down and with a frightened expression. Even the then dean, who right up until the last moment hoped in the depths of his soul that the situation would not change and that everything would return to normal. You couldn't laugh, but to this day I remember the feeling when I said to myself, “guys, this is how you’ve ended up, you have to be here now with those feelings and you’re worried about what’s going to happen to you”. it was clear that the situation was irreversible, though it was still not clear exactly what was going to happen.
Let's recall in brief the events of the next few days, and how the coup in the leadership of the Republic took place. On December 3, Prime Minister Ladislav Adamec presented his changed government, which consisted of 15 Communists and 1 People’s Party, 1 Socialist Party and 3 non-partisan representatives. The Civic Forum opposed the new government, criticising it and saying that the communist leadership had completely lost the support of its citizens. The new government was nevertheless appointed. Under public pressure, they resigned on December 7. Marián Čalfa was then commissioned to form another government, one that was ready to accept the demands of the Civic Forum. On December 10, Communist President Gustav Husak appointed the first government since February 1948 which was not dominated by the Communists. He then resigned. On December 29, 1989, Václav Havel was elected President of Czechoslovakia, thus becoming the first non-communist president in 41 years.
How did the faculty change as an institution against the background of this revolutionary event?
The events I have been talking about till now were largely spontaneous. On a formal level, a new faculty management was elected, along with branch associations in the form of departments (though formally they were departments, they did not have the powers they do today). The first elections took place, where Prof. Lumír Sommer was elected as the first Dean under the new system. I became head of the Department of Mathematics. A new organisational system was quickly established, curricula were changed and all faculty structures were built on new foundations. This all happened very quickly and was on track in good time because it was clear which kind of people had to be removed from the faculty management. No one was nominated to the new leadership without general support, so it went very smoothly, quickly and easily.
When and where did you get your first trip into the former Western block?
I will start again with a memory of socialism. When it was not allowed to travel to the West, the university organised a trip to Győr in Hungary. We were to set off on Saturday, November 25, 1989. We were waiting for the bus at 6 o’clock in the morning and it didn't arrive. Someone jokingly said, “well, we’re not going to Hungary, but when the borders are free we’ll go to Austria”. And we really did go on a bus to Vienna with the faculty on the first day it was allowed, i.e. December 4, 1989, which was a truly unforgettable experience. The Austrians stood at the border, waving and clapping – the feeling was just amazing. The father of my first wife was Viennese and so we had family in Vienna, but we had never been allowed to visit them during the many years of socialism; this was our first opportunity to meet them again after many years. These are truly unforgettable and strongly engraved feelings.
When did you first travel professionally?
I can’t say the exact date, but I went to England and France in 1990. Of course, there was no longer any need for approval or exit visas and there was no problem with funding. Foreign universities often offered to cover the costs associated with the trip. This is how I was able to visit the University of Florence. It was like a revelation. Back in 1989, one never even thought they would see Vienna, which is only 120 km away, then suddenly one could get in a car and leave for Vienna at any time, or even fly to Cambridge in the UK on business.
Did you perceive any differences in the scientific work being done at home and abroad?
There were a lot of Czech mathematicians who already had an international reputation, so we were already seen as equal partners. What was great was that our long-term cooperation, primarily through correspondence, advanced to personal meetings and greater participation in conferences, both here and abroad. As mathematicians, I can say that there was no reason for us to suffer from an inferiority complex on a professional level, and this was largely due to the fact that mathematics as a field is not dependant on ideologies. What began to improve very quickly was our access to foreign, especially Western, scientific literature, which had been limited under socialism. Fortunately, that changed very quickly.
What did you gain personally from the regime change?
In addition to the things I've already described, I find it interesting to follow people’s attitudes. How quickly they forget on the one hand and, on the other, how they now take for granted something that was not common for us for many years. After the borders opened, every time I crossed them I had such a feeling of satisfaction – I kept thinking I was doing something that I thought would never happen. And I still say it to myself, even though I've crossed the border a hundred times. Today’s young people no longer experience this, it is completely normal for them (though not during the pandemic) and the opportunity to travel is something quite banal, something that is not worth thinking about. Once I was shocked when I was returning from Vienna and a group of journalism students from Prague were sitting in front of me on the bus, complaining about the current situation, saying “We were in Vienna and we can write what we want, but in reality, nothing has changed against socialism”. And I thought, students of journalism, and they say nothing has changed for them even though they can write what they want? After all, it was something so unimaginable ... Of course, there are things I disagree with, parties I could never vote for, but the basic thing, the total change, is something amazing and fundamental. It is crucial and wonderful that we have broken out of a regime that degraded its people and restricted them to a zoo enclosed by an iron curtain fence.
Doc. RNDr. Eduard Fuchs, CSc. studied mathematics at the Faculty of Science, Masaryk University. He has been employed at the faculty since 1965, and is currently an Associate Professor in the Department of Mathematics and Statistics. During the Velvet Revolution, he was a member of the faculty’s strike committee. After November 1989, he worked as head of the Department of Mathematics, and was head of the Mathematics Section between 1990 and 1999. His main area of research is ordered set theory and the history and didactics of mathematics. He created and led teams that developed standards for teaching mathematics in primary and secondary schools, is a co-author of mathematics textbooks for the second stage of primary school that have received international awards and is a collaborator of the National Pedagogical Institute.
An interview about what was happening at the Faculty of Science, Masaryk University, over the period around November 1989, through the eyes of our biochemist, Jan Paleček. https://www.sci.muni.cz/clanky/socialismus-clovek-si-pripadal-jako-rukojmi
More photos from the November 1989 events in Brno: https://100.muni.cz/festival-30-let-svobody/fotogalerie
An interview about the November 1989 velvet Revolution at our Faculty, through the eyes of our biochemist, Jan Paleček.
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