Milan Kňažko (1945)
“Until 1989 everyone lived a kind of inconsistent life. People had to dissemble if they wanted to achieve something professionally of if they didn’t want to go directly to jail. It was a time of daily fear, humiliation, and oppression.”
Milan Kňažko was born on August 28, 1945 in Horné Plachtince, in the district of Veľký Krtíš. After graduating from secondary technical school of construction in 1963, he enrolled at the Academy of Performing Arts in Bratislava. As he was not accepted for the study at first, he found a job as a scene-shifter in the Slovak National Theatre. A year later, he began to study at the Theatre Faculty of the Academy of Performing Arts, from which he graduated in 1968. In the years 1968 - 1970 he attended postgraduate studies at the International Theatre Institute in the French city of Nancy. After his return, he worked in Bratislava theatre called Divadlo na korze (Theatre on the Main Street), which was abolished by the political decision in 1971 and affiliated to the theatre Nová scéna (New Scene). In 1985 he was hired by the Slovak National Theatre, where he worked until 1990. Since his childhood he was raised to have a negative attitude towards the communist regime. When he was five, his father was arrested by the State Security, and in a fabricated trial he was sentenced to thirteen years of imprisonment for “espionage and subversion of the socialist state”. When he was only an elementary school student, he used to express his disapproval of the totalitarian power, which had such a hard impact on his closest relatives. He held on this attitude also in his adulthood. In this period Milan Kňažko worked hard on building his acting career. However, he didn’t join the communist party, though in the circles he worked, he was expected to do that immediately. In the period of normalisation, Kňažko became a well-known and popular actor; however, rigid and dogmatic policy of the regime also had a negative impact on culture, which actually intensified his aversion to the republic. His hostility to the regime was fully revealed in 1989, when he signed the petition called Niekoľko viet (Few Phrases), which had been drawn up by the Charter 77 and contained the claim for the civil freedom. Afterwards, his acting career became even more restricted. Due to his disagreement with the policy of the communist regime he even returned his title of Merited Artist in October 1989, though it was an extraordinary act back then. This was one of the incentives that prompted him to participate actively in all the political events of November 1989. He was one of the founders of the Public against Violence movement (VPN), co-organiser and a host of mass meetings held in November in Bratislava and he also became a member of the Coordination Committee of the Public against Violence movement. After the fall of the communist regime in 1989, Milan Kňažko worked as an advisor for the Czechoslovak President Václav Havel in Prague and at the same time he was a member of the Federal Assembly. He remained active in political life. In the years 1990 – 1991 he was a minister without seat and later, he became a Minister of Foreign Affairs. In the years 1992 – 1993 he was a Deputy Prime Minister and a Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Slovak Republic. From March 1993 to October 1998 he worked as a member of the National Council of the Slovak Republic and in the years 1998 – 2002 he held the post of Minister of Culture.
Father in Prison
“My generation was hit by it literally to the full. I was born in 1945 and in 1950, it was a second part of your question, it affected me personally, because my father was arrested and sentenced to thirteen years of imprisonment for cooperation with the CIC, for subverting the socialist state, and for other nonsense. The trial was fabricated. He spent 28 months in a remand centre, which was more than two years, indeed. Eventually, he was threatened with much stricter sentences such as the life imprisonment or the death penalty; however, he got thirteen years, out of which he spent only seven in prison. I speak about it in details maybe because since I was five I have had no problems with my mindset and attitude towards the regime. Among family members and close relatives we didn’t use to mince words about the fact that my father was imprisoned by the communists. Though I didn’t know what the word communists meant as I was only five, I remember very well how they came for my father and did a house search and my father told me, ‘Well, Milanko, you will be five soon!’ However, we didn’t celebrate my fifth birthday together. During the seven-year period of my father’s imprisonment I saw him only twice, once in Ilava and once in Leopoldov prison.”
Pressure and Blackmailing
“I also experienced a really strong pressure and blackmailing about the cooperation with the State Security in 1975. I was thirty and I seriously thought about emigration, but finally I resisted and said to myself that after all I was home here. Then, I couldn’t use my passports, both the private and the service one, for several years as they were scrapped. They reissued them for me and gave them to me every time the Minister of Culture Válek vouched for me that I would behave adequately abroad. However, the pressure was immense.”
How I Surrendered the Title of Merited Artist
“In June 1989 I signed Několik vět (Few Phrases). There were not many people who signed it. I signed it because I had read some articles in Rudé Právo (The Red Right) and in Pravda newspaper (The Truth) condemning my colleagues and friends such as Bartoška, Polívka, and Havel for something what that pamphlet on the human rights even didn’t contain as it had never been published. It was a sort of defiance what made me sign it. It is necessary to add that it was in 1989, I was 44, when I began to feel adult and refused to accept that hypocrisy. I was really sick of it. I signed it and the situation around me started to change somehow, so in August I signed another petition for the release of political prisoners, because at that time Čarnogurský, Ponická and I think also Kusý were arrested when they were laying flowers to murdered children on the 21st anniversary of occupation. Then, I wasn’t allowed to attend festivals in Madrid and in Barcelona, where the two of my films were shown, Dobří holuby se vracejí (Good Pigeons Return) and Papilio (Swallowtail Butterfly), so I called for a meeting with the Minister of Culture, Koyš. As he didn’t admit me many times, I took my title of Merited Artist and at the beginning of October; precisely on October 13 I handed it back to the Ministry of Culture and wrote an open letter. I sent it to the Central Committee, to the Government Office and to Pravda newspaper; however, the next day it was broadcasted on the Radio Free Europe, where I hadn’t sent it at all.”
Real Life or Dissembling?
“To the totalitarian regime, as I retrospectively assess it today, after twenty years, it really was a daily dissembling. Then, the joke was said about Czechoslovakia having thirty million inhabitants, out of whom fifteen were for socialism and fifteen million were against it. You know, everyone lived a sort of inconsistent life. People had to dissemble if they wanted to achieve something professionally of if they didn’t want to go directly to prison. So we used to live in an extraordinary hypocrisy. It was a period of daily fear, humiliation, and oppression.”
This Shouldn’t Be Forgotten
“This shouldn’t be forgotten. We mustn’t forgive those who established and preserved the regime, moreover, I presume we have to still remind the young generation of that era, and I regret that there hasn’t been an opportune time to declare the communist terror illegal, as it was in case of Nazi terror. I am persuaded it is a mistake because nowadays, young communists come up and though they want to do it differently, they are also based on the theories of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, Marx, Engels and similar deviants.”
Comparison between Communism and Nazism
“It is necessary to be careful and keep explaining to the youth that the communism is probably good as a marginal folklore element in a political spectrum in a democratic country, but should never be a part of the government. It mustn’t take power in a country because we can see really frightful examples from countries where it was done and if we counted the dead or rather killed people, the communists, unfortunately, would have more victims on their conscience than the Nazis. Of course, I don’t want to advocate Nazism at all, but I tar them with the same brush. Maybe we all were a bit of cowards, some bigger, some smaller ones. I don’t see how people can change overnight, just like in 1968, when there was an amazing solidarity among people fighting against the occupation, an amazing openness, when people showed only the best in them, and it all came to the surface also in 1989. This was what the two mentioned periods had in common. The people’s ability to achieve more than anybody could have expected.”
“The revolution worked out well. It fulfilled its meaning and purpose, so the free elections were repeated and we gained freedom of speech and the press. However, it is a daily struggle for keeping it in a form, which can satisfy as many people and groups of people as possible. We achieved what we had wanted. And every elections move it somewhere, but that’s what I don’t want to describe. It is normal, natural development, even though that forty-year handicap, that boulder is still tied to the legs of those, who experienced it. The young generation is a bit different; however, it again grows up in the world distorted by those who still have the lead ball tied to their legs. Actually, it is not about their legs, those are free, it is about their heads; their mind is burdened with the Bolshevik deformations.”
(Not) Coping with the Past
“We haven’t coped with our past yet. In 1989 I suggested that people like Biľak and members of the Central Committee should have stand trial, be sentenced – as it is possible in some other countries – to 250 or 300 years of imprisonment. We could have released them after three weeks, or reprieved them, but we should have let the justice be done. We should have made them move from the villas, which they had stolen, to those small flats built for the working class in blocks of flats, where the nursery should have been. You know, there were many prominent State Security members and Bolsheviks. And we haven’t dealt with them yet.”
Nostalgic Memories of the Past Regime
“Today, nobody really cares about it. I am always shocked, when I meet people or when I read in a newspaper that people recall the past regime with nostalgia because at that time everybody had a job and so-called social securities. To be honest, no other state or institution offers bigger social securities than being imprisoned or sent to the concentration camp. People could even get a cell in southern part of the building or near the radiator, so amazing it was, such security they had. Czechoslovakia and the whole socialist bloc represented something very similar to that, only a bit nicer, demarcated with the barbed wires, in inverted commas. So if somebody misses the prison, the reason is that the value such as the freedom of speech means nothing to him/her. Probably, those people had nothing to say or didn’t want to. Their problem. The freedom of movement, travelling? They didn’t travel anyway. Neither then, nor today and they also never will. I understand this kind of people, it could have been better for them then. Similarly, maybe it is better for sheep not to live in the wilds but let the shepherd take care of them, milk them, stroke them and cut their fleece. I understand people with this mental state why they nostalgically recall the past regime. But if only people want to take that gift called life they got into their own hands and do something with it, then they consider that era to be something horrible, disgustingly repulsive and unacceptable.”
The story and videoclips of this witness were put together and published thanks to the financial support of EU within the programme Europe for Citizens – Active European Remembrance.