Interview with Monika Macdonagh-Pajerova
Why do you think it is that students tend to be revolutionaries?
'Cause here in this country it was not only 1989, our student movement, but it was young people in 1848, the Czech nationalists, who were fighting for Czech national culture and education, were young people, students
Then in 1918, very many young people were involved in the creation of Czechoslovakia as an independent state. Then in 1938, it was especially young people, young soldiers, who were very often students who had just finished university and were mobilized after the Munich agreement and were willing to fight and were told that, unfortunately, there’s no way of fighting and they were de-mobilized. For many it was such a trauma, they just couldn’t stand it.
How were you able to balance schoolwork with political activity? Were you writing papers/taking exams while doing these political activities?
Yeah. Well, there were two options, I think. Either you had to be very, very, good and very hardworking and working overnights, which was my case, because I was this neurotic person, thinking they will expel me very soon so I have to do as much as I can before they expel me. But I had many friends who took the completely different approach. Who thought, look, they will expel us anyway, so why should I bother doing all these silly papers about history of the working movement or biography of Karl Marx.
How real was the threat of expulsion? … Threatening parents, if you don’t cooperate, your child will be excluded from university or telling students, if you do any of these activities, you will be expelled and have to work as a window-washer.
Omnipresent. Because when you live in a society where there is no stratification in terms of wealth or salary—everyone had basically the same salary, very small, but equal, whether you were a prominent doctor or a worker digging a hole in the pavement somewhere, everybody had the same, that was the so-called social justice—so they couldn’t take things from you or they couldn’t take property from you, that was already taken from you. And so the only value, I think, at least for our generation, was education, to have your diploma, to know something, to have a profession. The self-esteem was not based on “I will have a big career, I will have a huge flat, I will have a big car, or something,” because that was excluded from the very beginning. The ambition was, “I will have a good education, or at least the best I can get in this country, and even if I become a window-cleaner or a gardener afterwards, I will be so far in my self-education and self-improvement.” We saw it as a progress, from semester to semester, to become better and better and more informed. It became, of course, neurotic as well. In my case, my neurosis showed itself in learning languages, so I learned 6 languages in 5 years (English, French, German, Russian, Swedish), as if it could be of any help. But it was probably about exploring something unknown and because you couldn’t go physically, learning a language was a way of seeing France, through the books…
But education, I would say, is the highest value, because that was the last thing they could take from you and from your parents.
Were your professors at all involved in what was going on? Were the subtly encouraging
you or discouraging you?
Most of them were scared. They were people who survived the purges in ’69. All of them had to answer the question, “what do you think of the liberation of the country by the Soviet Army?” And those who said, “it was not a liberation, it was an occupation,” they were expelled. So those who remained had already failed at this moral test. And there were some new people who came later on, but who knew that the control was omnipotent. So, out of 12 professors, … only two were kind of supportive. But, very important, was the head of the English department. He was, himself, a member of the Communist party, but I always thought he was a member deliberately, trying to get people in who wouldn’t get in otherwise. I think, without him I would not have gotten into the university, although I was 6th in the tests… And I think that all through the 6 years, he held a protecting hand over me. He never said it, of course… Our only conflict was about my journey to Sweden, because he held the Swedish lecture I had to get me a grant from a Swedish institute. And their plan was to send me away… They thought that I should disappear as quickly as possible and never come back…
What was your relationship to the dissidents of the previous generation? And the Charter 77ists.
Very admirable, since I was a little bit ashamed for my own parents, that they got along with it. Although they were saying it was because of me and my sister, but I never really believed it. I thought, you guys should have been more courageous. But they were mates of Jan Palach in the grammar school. They knew him personally. And I thought to myself, if one of my friends did this [self-immolation], if I knew them personally, I could never get along with this regime. That would be the last point that would make me scream and shout and throw stones. But my parents kept relatively quiet. They didn’t sign Charter 77, they did not demonstrate, they liked to hang around with some of the dissidents because they liked the lifestyle, but they did not take any risk. And that’s why I’m saying that the relationship was very ambivalent. It still is, actually. Because both me and my sister, we are politically engaged. My sister is now in the Parliament, head of the Green Group. They don’t talk to her for years now. They never understood why she was doing that. And I think they never really understood why I was doing what I was doing, not matter what I was doing. Everything was wrong. The demonstrations were wrong, the concerts were wrong, the samizdat was wrong, I was putting the whole family in danger. Then when the revolution broke out, they were like “Jesus Christ, we will all go to prison. You should think more about your daughter.” But they didn’t help me with my daughter, I had to find this aunt who would help me. And I suspect I never really forgave them, because that was such a horrible, crucial thing. I really needed help. My father appeared once or twice, took some photos, which are nice and I got to have them, but that was it. And my mother, she came once and she was so scared. You could see, she was like a rabbit that you take out of a hole, all pale and shivering. Of no help at all. Unlike other parents.