Communism's complex legacy

By bne IntelliNews November 13, 2009

Tom Nicholson in Bratislava -

During the Cold War, every Eastern Bloc country had them: dissidents. Rebels of towering moral stature who were persecuted by the Communists, and then led the crowds that gathered in November 1989 to demand democracy. In the Czech lands it was the playwright Vaclav Havel, in Poland the trade unionist Lech Walesa. And in Slovakia, it was Jan Carnogursky, an underground church activist who became the country's first Christian Democrat leader in 1991.

In the black-and-white extremes of Cold War thinking, dissidents were beyond reproach, their courage already part of national lore. But democracy - and the opening of secret police archives - has added many layers of complexity to their tales. In Carnogursky's case, it has shown how little sometimes separated the regime's enemies from its servants.

Romeo and Juliet

Jan Carnogursky today practices law from a modest office block on the banks of the Danube River in Bratislava. He has served as Slovakia's prime minister, its justice minister and sometimes its conscience. He was in jail for sedition at the time of Czechoslovakia's "Velvet Revolution", and his "dissident cred" still lends weight to his public statements.

In the archives of the former Czechoslovak Communist secret police, the StB, Carnogursky's file makes for remarkable reading. He refused to answer his jailors' questions, according to interrogation transcripts, and instead demanded they bring him a bible. "There was a certain amount of mutual respect," he now says. "They would often tell me things in the elevator they couldn't say in front of each other."

But even more interesting is the file of one of the StB agents assigned to harass Carnogursky and his family, Jan Planka. A career spy with the top counter-intelligence outfit in the country, Planka complained after leaving the service in 1990 that "the Communist Party abused the results of my work to attack the Carnogursky family." His about-face went beyond professional regret - Planka's daughter, Monika, ended up marrying the dissident's son, Jan Carnogursky Jr. "Ever since the time of Romeo and Juliet, such family connections have been nothing unusual," Carnogursky said on being confronted with the information. "They just fell in love, it's as simple as that."

But the Carnogursky family's experience of communism was in fact anything but simple. Jan's father, Pavol Carnogursky, was a member of the Slovak parliament during World War II, when the country sided with the Nazis. Labelled a fascist by the Communists, Pavol was jailed by the regime in 1951 and again in 1976. Jan's uncle Jozef spent seven years behind bars for sedition. His cousin Milan fled the persecution to Inuvik in the far north of Canada, where, according to his secret service file, he grew wealthy and "oppressed the local revolutionary cadres of communists, Eskimos and blacks."

Back in Slovakia, as the children of a putative fascist, Jan and his three siblings could have expected to find every door barred to them by the Communists. In fact, all four of them completed university degrees, Jan reading law at the prestigious Charles University in Prague. His brother Ivan was even allowed out of the country for three years to supervise the construction of an airport in Baghdad for Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein - proof in itself that he had the regime's confidence. "They did have confidence in him, but in his work, not his politics," says Carnogursky.

To muddy the waters further, his father Pavol is listed in the StB archives as a "secret collaborator," while Ivan was allegedly an agent for the secret police. "My brother never signed anything and had no idea that he was on their files as an agent," Carnogursky says.

Unravelling the mystery, Milan Lehky, a former dissident and member of the Charter 77 protest movement during Communism, helped open the Slovak StB archives in 2003, and has since moved to Prague to open a Czech branch. He says the files contain many cases of collaboration with the regime by priests and dissidents, and that most of them had a common denominator. "These people were vulnerable to blackmail, given their activities. The secret police needed informers among such groups, and the threat of persecution, such as not letting their children study, was very effective."

Carnogursky says the StB frequently claimed that dissidents were agents as a way of discrediting them. "I represent a lot of people who are on the books as agents without ever having agreed to collaborate."

While members of the Carnorgursky family may never have abetted the regime, there is no question that the father Pavol Carnogursky was on good terms with Communist Party leader Gustav Husak, who served as the president of Czechoslovakia from 1974 to 1989. During the war, as an MP, Pavol Carnogursky secured Husak's release from jail. Husak returned the favour in 1946, when Carnogursky landed in prison for having resisted Soviet forces. The following year, Carnogursky agreed to found a Christian political party in order to split the vote of the popular Democratic Party and open the door to victory by the Communists at the polls.

So did Husak's friendship also open doors to the Carnogursky family, and shield its members from repression? "I never needed anyone's protection," says Jan Carnogursky.

Strange bedfellows

In the two decades since Communism ended, Carnogursky has repeatedly confounded public expectations with his opinions and the company he keeps.

He is a passionate Russophile, for example, and was against Slovakia's membership in Nato - even though the Soviet Union provided the muscle for the Communist regime he opposed. He was against the criminal prosecution of former communist Vladimir Meciar, the authoritarian prime minister who led the country into virtual international isolation in the 1990s - even though he was Meciar's most outspoken critic. And he has used the business services of Michal Hrbacek, a former secret service agent who was jailed briefly for organizing one of the Meciar regime's most outrageous acts, the kidnapping of the president's son in 1995.

Strange associations for a dissident? "I have learned that those who are in theory on my side of the fence are not always better than those on the other side," he says, sipping coffee as the room grew dark in the November afternoon. "I was on the winning side in the battle against Communism, and I will never change my opinion about the regime and everything it stood for. But for me it's over."


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