Central Europeans reflect on life before the fall of the Berlin Wall
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Maria Hlistová

They are free and for me this is the most important change

Žilina, Slovak Republic, 2009
Slovak English

Maria Hlistová, Sales Representative, Product Manager

One morning in August, I woke up early, at about 6 AM and was very surprised because the TV was on. All my family was up. I was eleven in 1968 and the youngest of four children. Someone said, “The Russians are here”. No one had slept the entire night but me. The terrible noise of the Soviet airplanes had not woken me. I did not understand much of what was happening. Everyone was stressed and discussing the invasion. The streets were full of tanks and soldiers. On the hill there were tanks directed against the town. Everyone bought food, flour, sugar and bread to stock up. The generation of our parents remembered the lack of everything during the Second World War.

In late sixties, we could find some goods from the Western capitalist countries in our stores. Until today, I remember when I ate Heinz ketchup for the first time. It was so good in comparison to the ketchups made here. After the Soviet invasion, anything that smelled of the West was cut. Western writers, philosophers, politicians, economics were dangerous because of their ideas of freedom. Before that time, some good books you could find, from time to time, in our bookstores but then everything became dangerous. Young people used to listen to Radio Luxembourg to hear the latest music hits. But then, like other stations such as Free Europe or London Calling, its signal was disrupted. The government organizations, maybe the Ministry of Interior (I do not know exactly), built special stations for disrupting.  Rock and pop music was a symbol of freedom. Long hair, jeans, and disco were, in the Western counties, a protest against social conventions, but in Czechoslovakia and other East-European countries it was protest against the lack of freedom, against something we could call ideological dictation.

During the Socialist years, large, state concrete blocks of flats were built. There was one baby-boom in the fifties and then again in the seventies. Generations of children were born in these flats. I remember that many neighborhoods had gangs. We called them bands or groups. As a rule, they 
didn´t have guns, but they protected their territories and girls and so on. They seldom did criminal activity.

The government held a file about every citizen called cadre background. It was a file about people's curriculum vitae, political views, and problems. It also included information about the parents, grandparents, siblings, etc. So we were responsible, and punished, for the non-communist, political views of our fathers.  Or the emigration of family members, etc. For such offenses one was not allowed to study or get a higher position at work, or even get a job. This was all part of the general political persecution. It was the best if your parents were workers and members of the communist party, or something similar. Then you could be cadre reserve with special rights. My grandparents had been educated people with high social positions before WWII so it was not good for my cadre background. 

I graduated from high school in 1976 and then went to technical university. Not a lot of students wanted to study at technical universities because the work was difficult but technical progress was one of the strategic criteria for the socialist countries, so the technical universities accepted many more students than the others. So it was not difficult for me to be accepted. On the other hand, how to introduce Marxist-Lenin ideology into math, physics, or theoretical electronics?

I will never forget the TV broadcast from the first days of the November revolution in 1989.  How it started in Prague and in Bratislava. I was on maternity leave with my two little babies at the time. We watched TV until four AM. Then I slept two hours and I was up again to take care of my children. From day to day, we could watch and listen on TV to people that I had only ever heard of, like Václav Havel. For the first time I saw the protest singer Karel Kryl whose songs I only knew from poor quality amateur cassette. He made an unforgettable performance with the pop-singer Karel Gott singing the Czechoslovak anthem on the balcony over Wenceslas Square.

There were discussions all day and night from the studios and from the squares.  Many interesting people who had been persecuted could finally publicly say what they thought.  There was also the first broadcast of the Mass from the St. Wenceslas Cathedral. The Czech Cardinal Tomasek, was celebrating. During all my life to go to church was very bad. We should all be atheists according to Marxist- Lenin philosophy. They couldn’t say anything positive about the priests and about the churches. So it was something to see.  In these early days though, we still feared that we were doing things that were prohibited.  

But in the end, freedom was coming and there were no policemen, no Russians, no one stopped it! It was a big euphoria and a wind of changes. And then, I thought about my small children. They were going to live in a different world.  And they do. Nobody can return the many years of having no freedom and the political persecutions to my generation, but it is a big life satisfaction for me to see the lives of my children.

This interview was in English and Slovak with the aid of a translator
Photo by Janeil Engelstad

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