Pavel Kohout

* 1928  

  • “After a year, when I got transferred – at first I was transferred after six months like all the artists in the army into the Army Artists Ensemble, with which I went on a great tour to the Ukraine and Moscow where I was a host in one huge performance, it was a hundred-and-fifty head ensemble, the Alexandrov ensemble, it was amazing. They were mostly former members of Youth Union’s artistic ensembles, thus being top class artists, and the performance was spectacular. And I was a sergeant, but they temporarily made me a lieutenant, so that I wouldn’t look stupid there, and I, in a lieutenant’s uniform, was thus announcing: »Načinajetsja koncert...« I have always relied on my having quite good pronunciation, I don’t even have to be able to speak the language well. And shortly after, I was riding a train with Radim Drejsl, he was a great composer, but suffered from severe depressions at that time, a girlfriend had left him, and then he found out that it hadn’t worked – I mean his songs, that they had actually paved the way to hell, and he jumped out of a window. In the Rudolfinum concert hall. I went to work, dressed in uniform, because at that time we were allowed to sleep at home, and Radim Drejsl, who killed himself by jumping out of a window, was lying there. After that I was transferred to the Czechoslovak Soldier magazine, which was quite progressive for the time. It was ideologically loaded, of course, but among the editors there were Vojtěch Michalík, a poet, Stanislav Neumann, Jiří Šotola, Karel Šiktanc, there was the generation of writers who were all around twenty-five, and all were headed by Vlado Kašpar, an incredible person, who had been a partisan, then a Red Army soldier, then when Czechoslovakia was supporting the birth of the State of Israel, he was training the Hagannah fighters here, and then naturally he got kicked out, because he got into the first wave of those who became unwanted. But he was quickly released, and, in order not to be in the army any more, was transferred here as an editor-in-chief of this magazine. And he basically allowed us to do whatever we wanted. When you realize that during Husák´s normalization era, basically nothing was allowed, and the September Nights were released as a series in six parts in the bi-weekly, and five months later the army theatre adapted them in 1955, and it continued, and that the minister of defence came there and prohibited it, the day after they confiscated my party’s card, and they led us together with the Czechoslovak Army Theatre ensemble to the Czechoslovak Army Building, where generals were yelling at us that we were traitors of the nation – there were the actors Sovák, Brodský, Menšík, Kohout, I was still in my sergeant’s uniform... Three months later, Khrushchev held his speech, my Party member’s card was returned to me, and the minister Čepička got sacked from the army – these things were unforgettable. I think it was the first clash with the regime, but the way I felt it at that time was that I was the right communist and that they were bad communists.”

  • Interviewer: “Do you recall some turning point, when you’d say that what you had been living for until then was now...” “Certainly, it was August 21 (1968). Because up to this year, there was always some hope, and not only on the theoretical level, we believed that the original ideal of 1945 would really come true, because it seemed that the progressive faction would prevail in the XIVth Party’s congress which was to be held in September. And thus this hope was still there, the hope that the Russians would perhaps understand that we remained a part of the Warsaw Pact, and that this would continue so… that we would be like some better version of Yugoslavia or Finland. But above all: the only two nations in Europe, between which there had never been any violent conflict, were Russia and the Czech lands. Thus this belief that something like that would not ever be possible, was still prevalent here. And August 21 was an obvious turning point, because it became apparent that this Party was not capable of reform, and it couldn’t be saved. Meaning it was no longer possible to keep holding these positions further; I was a chairman of the Party’s association of writers, and Václav (Havel) was a chairman of the non-partisans´ union of writers. And the two of us became friends, because we were discussing what to do with the extremists in our respective groups. Because there was Černý in his union, and I had Goldstücker in mine.” Interviewer: “And how did you regard the non-partisan writers before August 1968, let’s say in the early 1960s?” – “We were truly fighting for them, in the true sense of the word, because the fact that magazines like Tvář, Sešity were being published and that they lasted so long was owed to the members of the central committee of the writers’ union, like Klíma, Kohout, Kundera, Lustig... We were their allies. Gruša may have been a critic who wrote the worst criticism about me, this Gruša, who has now been my best friend for decades, or Trefulka during the communist era, who has also been my best friend for decades, because when we met, we suddenly realized that the boundary lay elsewhere, that it was not a matter of being or not being a member of some party. That instead it was a matter of character, nature, ability to keep one’s word and be an ally.”

  • “I was on the Frankfurt Book Fair, it was in autumn 1969, in that huge exhibition hall, today it looks very different, but at that time they were making PAs like at airports or railway stations. And there was a thundering announcement, just as if it were spoken by God himself, that the Czech writer Pavel Kohout had just been expelled from the Communist Party. And I even protested against it, because according to the Party’s statutes it was not possible to do it in this way, and from that time on, I began with my legalistic activity, writing protests.” Interviewer: “Why did you actually protest against your expulsion from the Party?” – “I decided to adopt a so-called legalistic course, meaning that I would protest against everything within the given rules. So I was writing complaints to the minister of culture... I was writing these because I let them use the legal statute of limitation, which was some four weeks at that time, and then I sent it to Frankfurter Allgemeine. And they published it. I was thus somewhat protected because I had sent it to them, and they didn’t reply, and so I then sent it to the newspaper – and they were uncertain about how to handle it, for this was no subversive activity... At that time I called this a legalistic approach, and when I now read about it in my file, I see that the worse thing about is that the reason why they weren’t sure how to deal with it was because they were not allowed to torture people. We kind of counted on that, and this was also one of the reasons why we were so go-ahead, because we knew there was this limit for them. And especially after the Russians were trying to get into the CSCE, we knew that the Russians couldn’t do much to us in terms of physical violence. That as a maximum, they can sentence us to some eight or how many years, but they will not be killing us and things like that. Which increased our activity tremendously. And it became apparent that they were in great trouble, because if a state system is deprived of the possibility of physical repression, and it turns into an intellect vs. intellect affair, then they were doing a bit worse from that point of view.”

  • “There were absolutely no conflicts among the Czech exile then, because in the first place, thanks to Janouch and the money from that Hungarian billionaire (Soros) it became possible to interconnect the people in exile technically, meaning it was the first generation which had… I don’t know, I didn’t believe it would be any useful for anything, I am a bit late in that field, I only got to work with computers ten years ago and I think this was like jumping into a riding tram which had already picked up speed. But what was amazing about it was that when we needed to discuss something, there were hot lines leading to Tigrid, and Janouch, Mlynář, Pelikán, and through me also to Bruno Kreiský, whom I knew very well, to Willy Brandt, and through Janouch these contacts reached Olof Palme, and obviously also these conservative politicians in the Federal Republic of Germany; this system was working perfectly.”

  • “We didn’t have the slightest idea that they would help so much. For all this publicity, it was done by the Communists. Under normal circumstances, it would have been just like whistling in the wind. But there were several events which luckily coincided. I was entrusted with getting it into press, it was planned that it would appear simultaneously in three important (western) dailies. And we knew that if were not smart, someone else would try to come up with it before the others did. And I knew one great German journalist, Hans-Peter Ries, who had been deported from here, and so I sent him the message and instructions via a messenger. And he arranged it all, so that the Frankfurter Allgemeine, Süddeutsche Zeitung, London Times, the New York Times, French and Italian newspapers, that they all somehow knew that they were allowed to release this news on the sixth. And what happened was that we were to deliver it to the parliament and we did not know that Le Monde was an evening paper. And this saved us, this Le Monde, by publishing it before they could take any action. Because all of them, who had been detained, were thus released the very same night. I mean the first group of them, and on that very night we met in the Viola restaurant and we raised a stir, and their counter-propaganda was launched, and all of a sudden this spread through the world like a fire, and all this was owing to these Secret State Police members, who didn’t allow it to be delivered to the Parliament, and who instead detained the petition signers, and thus it became evident that it was not actually done by the parliament by the StB... Well, it was a shame for them, all over the world, and this has actually helped Charter 77 win publicity.”

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I am an optimistic fatalist

  Pavel Kohout was born July 20, 1928. He spent his early childhood years in Poland, where his father was working as a general representative for the Praga car company. The family was plagued by unemployment during the economic depression in the 1930s. Pavel Kohout recalls vivid memories from the period of the Munich conference, the occupation and the Prague Uprising. He graduated from secondary school in 1947, then he studied comparative literature, aesthetics and theatre studies at the Philosophical Faculty of Charles University. In the 1940s and 1950s he was a poet - apologist of the new regime, a popular poet loved by the masses and intensely involved in the cultural and political issues. In 1951-1952 he was the editor-in-chief of the Dikobraz magazine, from around 1954 he was gradually becoming more alienated from the communist ideology. He actively contributed to the events of 1968, and he held a critical speech on the 4th congress of writers (1967). In 1977 he became a signatory and co-author of Charter 77; in 1979, when returning from an internship in Austria, he was not allowed to re-enter the country, and he was thus forced to live in forced exile. Pavel Kohout is an internationally acclaimed play-writer, poet and prose-writer.