Impressions From a Curious American in Slovakia
By Massimo Guglietta
Since coming to Slovakia, I have learned so much about the country that I am living in by talking to the locals than I have from visiting anywhere else in the world. It is as if every Slovak I meet is a walking history text book, filled with knowledge of their country’s past. One of the reasons Slovakia interested me was because of its political past. This country has experienced almost every type of government possible including a monarchy during the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a republic with the formation Czechoslovakia, socialism under Nazi occupation, communism behind the Iron Curtain and now a democracy finally as the Slovak Republic. It’s amazing to think that all of that happened within a little more than 100 years. However, despite their complex political history, most people immediately think of the communist era when referencing this part of the world. Since living here, I have learned that is extremely hard to wrap my head around what exactly happened here, and I am not sure if I ever will.
From the outside looking in, it is easy for Americans to say that Slovakia was once a communist country over run with bad ideas and a form of government not suitable for progress. It is easy for people who have never experienced communism to say that it is an evil that should never happen. As Americans, its comfortable for us to believe the narrative that the USA liberated half of Europe from the Nazis, which became the “West” and that the Soviet Union liberated the east which became the Soviet Bloc and took total control. However, there is so much more to the story, to history, that is cut out by blanket narratives of good versus evil. As humans, we always want to simplify things in order to gain a better perspective, but in reality, communism here in Slovakia and the rest of the former Iron Curtain countries was not so cut and dry.
By meeting with people and hearing their own ideas of what communism meant for Slovakia, it is hard for me to believe that simple narrative of good versus evil in terms of the liberation following WWII. In 1946, the parliamentary elections of Czechoslovakia resulted in a communist majority. They were one of the only countries to actually democratically vote communists into their government, however, as usual, the politicians gained public trust through lies. Two years later, with the support of the Soviet Union, the communists “won” 89.2% of the vote, securing complete control. But how can the Czechoslovakians be blamed? It wasn’t democracy that saved them from the wrath of the Nazis, it wasn’t Americans, it was Russians and communism. The choice was clear for the voters of 1946; vote in the form of government that liberated the country. Although I am also over simplifying history, this fact is extremely overlooked.
Just because a government turns evil does not mean that the people oppressed by that government are evil as well. Most of the Slovaks during this time period were simply were simply living their lives. These are normal, beautiful people that have suffered from the evil actions of a few greedy, corrupt politicians of the communist party. We tend to label people and their personalities based on their governments and its actions. The people that fell victim to communist oppression are not to be blamed or be judged because everything was virtually out of their control. All they could do was try to make the most of a terrible situation, and I believe they did.
Although the Slovaks were oppressed by this form of government, many of the ordinary citizens kept their warm-hearted attitudes and values. Like mentioned before, Slovaks under communism were just living their lives. Slovaks were forced to join the army and defend the border of the Iron Curtain, but just because you are wearing a uniform that stands for oppression doesn’t mean that the man under the uniform agrees. I met a man that personally told me that he would see people escaping Czechoslovakia and crossing the border into Austria while on lookout and would do absolutely nothing. He would pretend like he saw no one or sometimes would intentionally miss them, so they would reach safety. On the surface he was defending communism, but on the inside communist rule did not change the type of person he was.
Communism did bring steady jobs to most families, not the highest paying jobs, but jobs nonetheless. The government built roads, built schools and improved life in certain ways while of course oppressing it in others. However, from a certain perspective, communism was positive, but as most of us know, there was also the authoritarian aspect of control which was always there. The problem was that everything was just average, and without progress, and people eventually realized that their lives wouldn’t get any better. The way the Czechs and Slovaks destroyed communism came after the students, the young people, realized their lives would be worse than that of the generation before them. The only thing the younger generation wants is to live in better times than their parents. Only when it was realized that things would not improve was communism destroyed.
I came to Slovakia with the presumption that everyone would be embarrassed to speak about their communist past, but in fact it’s the opposite. Everyone here is proud of their history because they are so keen for it to never happen again. They are not proud it happened, but they are certainly proud that they overcame, defeated, and grew from communism. In Bratislava, the capital, there is a large installment of pictures from the Soviet invasion of 1968, commemorating the horrific events that happened and showing how the country was oppressed. It is something that needs to be talked about and remembered in this country because it shows how strong of a people the Slovaks are. I urge those in the West to rethink their perspectives of history because while we think of historical events so simply, they were actually very complicated. Slovaks are a beautiful people with so much to share and teach the world, and while we tend to immediately think of their communist past, it does not do these people justice! While I will never truly understand what it means to live in a country under communism, I can only try my best to learn and listen to those who have.
Massimo is a recent graduate of Rutgers of University and a Fulbright Scholar for the English Teaching Assistantship in the Slovak Republic starting in September 2018. I am originally from New Jersey with deep family connections to Italy.
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