chapter07

June-December 1967

The war that everybody thought was going to happen in the Middle-East erupted and lasted for six days in June. Novotny, the KSČ secretary-general, adopted an anti-Israel rhetoric. 

On the 29. of June something incredible happened at the Writer's Congress. Hendrich the government representative must have been surprised when the writer Pavel Kohout made a speech comparing Israel's destiny with the fate of Czechoslovakia after the Munich Agreement. Mr Kohout also talked about the 'high level of democracy and freedom enjoyed in Czechoslovakia before the war when the most eminent figures of Czech and Slovak literature freely decided in favour of socialism. He added that the continuity of Czechoslovak literature was broken in 1949. In his words, the 'creative process was shackled, put in the service of propaganda, culture and crude utilitarian forces.' he added that the 1957 press laws were less progressive than under the Habsburg rule. He concluded his speech by quoting from a letter by dissident Soviet writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Echoing Pavel Kohout, Jan Prochatzka, deputy member of the Committee and former confidante of Comrade Novotný read a letter denouncing the anti- Israel rhetoric. Finally, Ludvik Vakulik said that the political system had turned a nation of citizens into a herd of faceless, terrified subjects. He called for a reform of the 1960 constitution in order to protect citizens against the abuse of power.

The Professor and I were surprised about the speeches. Then my companion shrugged his shoulders because this had nothing to with him. While the instigators were subjected to disciplinary measures by the authorities, life went on as before. After translating the 19.C  engineering manual, I was instructed to type lists of words with alpha-numeric codes. More often than enough, I used the Cyrillic keyboard type-writer. I never found out what these lists were supposed to mean. Someone, somewhere at Prague University might be writing a research paper based on these typescripts. Perhaps one day, this person will receive a Nobel Prize or work as a consultant for an important committee.I was glad that I wasn't in the shoes of Slovak novelist Ladislav Mnačko who travelled to Israel during the summer and denounced the anti-Semitic propaganda by the ČSSR government. As a retaliation, the government stripped him off his citizenship. Another writer called Jan Beneš went on trial because he had been keeping contacts with nationals who had emigrated. Worst of all, Charles H Jordan, the vice-chairman of the American-Jewish organization was found murdered that summer. In the words of Ludvik Vakulik, I was a faceless, terrified subject and I regarded E111 was my cocoon. And so the summer ended and I had spent most of it indoors or by the river. All the plans to take the regional train and explore the country-side came to nothing. 

The new autumn semester started and the university was again bustling with students. This is when the Professor told me that the Soviet National Film Company based in Moscow was coming to film a TV-documentary on Slavkov. Did I mind working on several Saturdays up to December? I didn't mind besides he invited me for lunch at the Corso. It is true that Slavonic place names do not mean much to a world audience, yet Slavkov made it into the history books. In 1805, the French Imperial Army led by Napoleon won a battle against the Habsburg Army led by Count Schwarzenberg. At the subsequent treaty of Presslau, the Austrian Empire lost Vorderösterreich which was incorporated into the pro-Napoleonic German kingdom of Württemberg. A year later, the Holy Roman Empire of German Nations ceased to exist. What happened in Slavkov caused the end of German-culture feudalism and that is why Marxist historians find this event very important. 

Slavkov is a quiet village except on the 5. of December when the local historical society re-enacts the Battle of Austerlitz. This is where we were heading to. The journey lasted three hours. On the coach, the Professor spoke Russian and entertained the passengers with anecdotes from his book. Inženýr Janina Zpovednicá who was dressed in a fashionable black and white coat, Capri pants and boots was a civil engineer and the vice-head of the admin department.  She seemed to be interested. The group of students took notes and the Russian TV crew seemed fascinated as well. In this country, it is hard to tell if someone is really listening. Much to my chagrin, I did not catch everything because I was feeling sweaty and cold, my hands were red and blue. When my senses sharpened again, the Professor was still talking but now he was telling that the Znojmo region had the driest climate in Czechoslovakia. It was renowned for its vineyards and cucumber patches. The coach passed a Romanic castle with a rotunda which was built in 1184 and dedicated to Saint Catherine. Shortly afterward, we arrived in Slavkov.  Slavkov is the original name of the place, whilst Austerlitz is derived from 'Novosedlice' which means 'new settlement'. German-speaking Lutherans who founded the Moravian Church set up a commune in the area - they liked the idea of being linguistically isolated and they evangelized through the use of imagery. 

The coach finally stopped in front of Slavkov civic hall. There was a group of children and adolescents waving national and Soviet flags. They performed a song called 'Oh, If I could express It in Sound' composed by Russian songwriters Malashkin and Lishin. The Professor looked pleased and some of the TV-crew posed for photos with the onlookers and members of the Youth Choir. The Professor declined being photographed and said that Inspektor Zpovednicá was much more photogenic and that she was the face of the department. Marina Sochorová, dragged me into the shot. This was great fun. 

Outside the Civic Hal, a few volunteers with clipboards were distributing badges to the students and some of the adolescents as they went in. Then they went inside to study the model battlefield. The historical society had meticulously placed figurines of soldiers and horses.  In the film, one group of young people was going to impersonate the soldiers of the Habsburg Empire led by the member who played Count Schwarzenberg, others were playing the part of Napoleonic soldiers. My assigned task was to count the badges and type down the names of their holders. Then they marched off to the film-set  by the Dyje River outside the village. I did not want to play soldier - the days of wading in the mud wearing the grey uniform of the 'Českoslovenka Lidova Armada' were long gone...  When someone closed the window, I enjoyed my job even more. Soon afterward, the experts arrived. Professor Alexei Illitch Kulyakin, an avuncular soft-spoken man was the director of the Society for Austro-Soviet Friendship. Despite his name, he was not a Soviet citizen but a native Hungarian of Baltic extraction holding an Austrian passport. He was accompanied by Genosse Ammereiner, curator at the Austrian Army Museum (Napoleonic Wars section). The inženýr Zpovednicá came around and greeted them. Two experts from the West also passed my desk. I can vaguely remember that the English one was a black guy called Red Somerset from Cambridge who told about Karl Marx's son-in-law Paul Lafargue who was born in Cuba. The French expert was a academic called Vittoria Mucchieli from Corsica. As neither expert could speak Czech or Russian, Professor Kulyakin acted as an interpreter as he was equally fluent in English, German, French, Czech and Russian. The experts, consultants and remaining film-crew were invited to the baroque castle by Comrade Kůn, the local KSČ chef for a podium discussion.

Ing. Zpovednicá told me that I could go on my lunch hour so I dandered across the village. First I bought some postcards at a kiosk. I ordered a red beetroot soup with dumplings and a glass of beer at the local Kávarna. Whist waiting for my food, I wrote greetings to my family in Kostelec and to my landlady in Prague. The radio was playing 'Isel Maček' a folkloric song by state-artist Karel Gott and his Moravian ensemble. At my landlady's, the radio was always waffling those pseudo-folklore songs. I read the papers which still mentioned the Charles H Jordan murder and the Jan Beneš trial. After I finished my lunch, I placed the paper back into its rack and I returned to the hall. There I was alone with the model battlefield and a few members of staff. I drank some coffee from my flask. For a minute or so, I pitied the volunteers on the battlefield. Then I dismissed the thought because at least this was make believe and they would all come back and be proud to feature in a documentary. Before we left, Professor Kulyakin told us that he was looking forward to screening the documentary at his society in Vienna and that our department was cordially invited. Ing. Zpovednicá was eager to accept but the Professor said that he needed to check his schedule.

A few days later, Secretary General Novotny was advised by his party to stand down and publish a self-critical statement. Alexander Dubček became his successor. Like the Professor, he came from Slovakia, unlike the Professor, he was a Slovak. The party described him as more moderate than Novotny and they seemed pleased about their choice.

Professor Kulyakin's invitation to attend the screening of the documentary on Slavkov came in early January. At the time, the Professor was in Leningrad with his wife and he requested by phone that ing. Zpovednicá and me attended the event. The inženýr asked Marina Sochorová to come with us as she was a good driver. This visit to Vienna would be a good opportunity to represent Prague Charles University abroad.

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