Socialism? One felt like a hostage.

An interview about the November 1989 on our Faculty through the eyes of our biochemist, Jan Paleček.

Recalling his last year of studies under socialism, how he became involved in the November events, what he gained from going abroad and how important it has been for scientific collaboration to work in a creative environment rather than one based on dogma and regimes handed down by superiors.

13 Nov 2019 Zuzana Jayasundera

Photo: Lenka Kožuchová

At what stage of your studies did the events of November 17 1989 affect you?

November 17 caught me as a student of the fifth, and most demanding, year of biochemistry studies. I lived a relatively typical student life and was not interested in politics, even in the faculty, and I was not a member of the Communist Party. Of course, we had lectures on Marxist-Leninist theory, though I thought they were a farce. There was even a lecturer who declared that we science students were “enemies of the people”! Funnily enough, those that shared his opinions had a real problem just to crawl through the exams. November also helped us because Marxism no longer formed part of the state exam, and that was a great relief to us all.

Before the Revolution, how did you feel about not being able to travel outside the Eastern Block, when Vienna was so close and yet unavailable?

My father, Emil Paleček, was a biochemist and an excellent scientist (he contributed to the emergence of a new field of DNA research using electrochemical methods, and later received the Czech Head Award), and I understood from his trips abroad that it was really necessary for scientists to go abroad. You cannot confine science to the Eastern and Western blocks. Moreover, in the Eastern Block, which was dominated by a single possible ideology, everything was twisted, including the economy. You couldn’t buy literature or get chemicals, you couldn’t go to international conferences or go on internships. As a country, we closed ourselves off from science outside the block. It seems incredible today.

What are your memories of November 17 and the days after?

I have a very strong memory of coming home and seeing my parents watching the events on Národní třída on TV. On the one hand, I was excited about it, but on the other, I admit I felt rather cautious. In Prague, events boiled all over the weekend following Friday 17 November, but in Brno it only really took off on the following Monday. I didn’t contact anyone over the weekend and I waited. My grandfather was imprisoned twice by the Communists for his political views. To do something and end up in jail would mean being thrown out of college; this was still a real threat at that time and it was the last thing I wanted. At the time, I was working on my Diploma thesis and was already at an advanced stage; so instead, I went to the Institute of Biophysics at the Czech Academy of Sciences on Monday morning and worked on my thesis. During the morning, some friends came and said the faculty was going on strike, so I packed away my experiments and went to the faculty. There, everything was just beginning to get organised. On Monday afternoon, the first big demonstration in Brno took place at Svoboda (freedom) square – that was a powerful experience. When we went behind the church of St. Tomáš with friends from the faculty, we saw several buses full of “threshers”. At that time, the “comrades” were still considering whether to allow the demonstration or not. That was very unpleasant. Frowning thugs, not waiting for an order, just a quick “go ahead!”, and they would run in and beat up the demonstrators with relish.

How did you get involved in the strike alert? What techniques did you use?

On Monday, we tried to get as much information as possible; we wanted to print a newspaper with the latest news and statements. We found out that all printers (there were a few in Brno) were banned from printing, and that (beware!) the official news would be provided in the daily press (of course, controlled by the Communists!). I realised there and then… going to a printer was forbidden, so we must rewrite the reports and print them ourselves. Because my father could travel from time to time, I had an Atari computer - and even a printer, which was a total rarity. Having decided on the need to disseminate information, I produced two reports at my parents’ home on the first day. When the police started to make enquiries, I packed up my computer and moved to the faculty. It was relatively safe there because, by then, a lot of people had become involved in the strike, and I thought that the pro-regime forces would not dare do anything there, though they would  “peck at us” at home and try to scare us. So I moved on to Kotlářská. Where the library is now, at the very end of the campus, there were small rooms; I was in one that had a TV, a computer and a printer, and there I transcribed and printed the news from the television. In the next room were some guys from molecular biology, one of whom was Milan Číž, and they printed off all the important information on an old cyklostylator (including that from me). I remember them working fast 😊 and piles of finished ‘cyclostyls’ were lying all over the floor. They produced leaflets, painted pictures and printed information, and students took them from there and distributed them around Brno and its surroundings. For example, we disseminated the statement of the then Cardinal Tomášek.

Was it information from our own or foreign media?

At that time, the Czech media had more up-to-date information from direct events; however, there was a lot of regime "bullshit" in the Czech media and their news was already on TV. On the Saturday and Sunday after November 17th, we fine-tuned our own opinions by listening for information on the “Voice of America” and “Radio Free Europe”. This period of strike readiness lasted until December, when Václav Havel was elected president, meaning that we sat at the faculty writing, printing and disseminating information for about a month. People also came off the street to get information; not all of them understood the new situation and so they came to ask. Even those who were in the “hitchhiking” regime came to chat and get information; they wanted to do something, wanted to get involved ... however, our main work remained rewriting and printing the news. I did not see so much of what was happening “at the front”. The whole thing was chaotic; everybody did what he or she could. We were acting independently in the background, while other students were organising lectures or going to neighbouring towns – but I wasn’t involved in any of that, it just didn’t feel like my kind of thing.

Of course, it was a completely different time then, news was not so available and there were not so many journals or television channels, let alone internet news sites with updated information. Why do you think the information needed to be disseminated? There were reports on TV, in the newspapers… or were people still unable to believe that something was happening?

Before November, all information was censored (it was the same “both in the press and in print” 😊). People did not trust it much, after November there was a critical period when the information was suddenly “different” and often contradictory. It depended on how much the media remained loyal to the Communist Party. It was necessary to select, interpret and explain information. At that time, information provided by students (in the form of posters, leaflets, performances in the squares) was seen to be the most credible and guided the course of other events.

So what has been the impact of the Revolution on your scientific life?

November has great meaning for me. While I was studying, I had to face the fact that I was not entirely sure what I was going to do in a totalitarian country. I was considering a Doctoral study, and then continuing in science, but I just did not have the enthusiasm, inspiration or experience – It was just missing. I don't know what it would have been like if not for the Revolution, I don't know if I would be doing science, whether I would be here at the faculty, or even whether I would have had the family that I now have − November was a huge break that opened up the freedom for decision.

Very soon after the Revolution, you left for an internship abroad. What was the main motivation to travel?

After November, borders began to open, the Iron Curtain fell, and I saw whole new possibilities that it would have been a shame not to use. I went away to clarify how science was done “over there”; what was done differently from our own country and what was done the same way, and I want to see whether I would continue doing biochemistry. I felt like I was locked up in what was then Czechoslovakia, and the idea of just staying here and looking at other countries, seeing what they were like and how competitive they were, left me cold. I wanted to see if I would enjoy it, if I could handle it and if I could still be a scientist.

Your first trip abroad was in 1990, where was it?

As soon as the demonstrations were over, I threw myself back into my diploma studies and I managed to finish it in the spring semester. Early in the 1990s, my father took me to the Max Planck Institute in Goettingen, Germany, to join Professor Jovin. I worked on my diploma there for a month,  catching up with what I had missed because of the Revolution and getting a lot of new data. I had access to equipment and a working environment there I could only dream of at home. Many colleagues from my year never had a chance to do such a thing; they were already “killed” in this respect. Seeing a foreign laboratory with my own eyes and earning my first marks had a huge influence on me, it was great. It “kick-started” me and helped me a lot, I gained the enthusiasm and inspiration that I had missed here under the Communists, behind closed borders. I could see that if I was to do “good science” I had to travel, just as my father had said.

From 1992 to 1997, you studied for your Doctorate in Vienna. What was your opinion of Czech science after your return?

After the Revolution, I enrolled for my Doctoral studies at the Faculty – the scholarship at the time was approximately CZK 1,200. However, I heard about the possibility of studying in Vienna so I went there, receiving a scholarship of 10,000 shillings. The Vienna BioCentre, which was just opening at that time, provided excellent facilities and was undertaking the best university research. It made a big difference. After completing my Doctorate, I returned to the Institute of Biophysics at the Czech Academy of Sciences, where I was doing my diploma before the Revolution. The shift was significant, finances were scarce and the people did not change day to day, especially when they were all sitting in one place. I felt a need to return to a more motivational environment so applied for a post-doctorate position in England, in the laboratory of Professor Lehmann at the University of Sussex, where I stayed from 2002 to 2006. Again, it was an amazing experience, with a fantastic workplace and an excellent boss. After returning to Brno, I again saw how things had shifted and moved on, thanks to European subsidies and the freedom we gained 30 years before (and it is good to remember).

What was and is the topic of your research?

In my diploma thesis, I dealt with how DNA is assembled in the cell nucleus. It is condensed there in different ways and, accordingly, is accessible using different methods. In Germany, we studied DNA with antibodies and microscopy, while here at the Institute of Biophysics, we analyse DNA using electrochemical methods. This provided my first insight into chromatin, a complex of DNA and protein, and through various changes in circumstances, it has brought me to what I am doing today. In Vienna, I started a slightly different topic that was concerned with other parts of the cell; nevertheless, I gained greater knowledge and skills. When I came back in 1997, I began to look at how DNA is repaired when it gets damaged. At the University of Sussex, I continued to repair damaged DNA, but gradually began to view this topic from the perspective of chromatin. In Britain, we had already started to characterise the protein complex important for DNA repair, and its relation to the structure of chromatin is increasingly clear. So, with the return to Brno, I have almost returned to the topic of my original thesis.

What did going abroad give you in terms of scientific work in a team?

My first feeling when I went abroad was one of shock. In Vienna, I could see how different Czech socialism was from the Austrian welfare state; I then understood how much the communists had lied and was able to see the situation in a somewhat broader context. When I started working in the laboratory of Professor Ruis, he was meeting with the students and there was discussion. I am not saying that it did not exist in our country, but it was not required for me to write my diploma. The organisation of work was also different (though it is more similar today), with working groups including post-docs and PhD students – I just did not have this experience from the Czech Academy. I think we are very similar today, there is a new generation and a lot of people have come from abroad, bringing their customs with them. It is very important that cooperation does not work by dogma but rather in a creative environment and atmosphere. If you have authority, you have it because you collaborate and guide students in the right direction, not just from being a supervisor per se. The atmosphere under the Communists was totalitarian, It felt so close and there was always someone watching over you. Freedom in scientific research is very important.

Speaking of socialism, I can see that those memories are distressing for you. Can you express the feeling of that time?

I can feel it, but putting it into words is not easy - anxiety, great worries. Grandpa was in prison twice - mum couldn’t study medicine because of that. Dad could go out because he was a top scientist, but he still had a lot of trouble. We could never go with him. One felt like a hostage; in effect, we served as a hostage to the regime so that dad would not emigrate. It was not easy either as a believer. When I mentioned in a questionnaire that I was a believer, my class teacher erased it so that I would not spoil my chances of studying at grammar school. I respect the freedoms we have today all the more, and I regret that many people have already forgotten the suffering of the “non-freedom” in which they lived.

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