Last week the Central European Forum was held in Bratislava for the second time. The event, attended by dozens of intellectuals from all over Europe – including a colleague from my newspaper – was dedicated to the memory of the writer Milan Šimečka. He died 20 years ago, just as Czechoslovakia was beginning to regain its freedom.
At last year’s conference the main attraction was Václav Havel. This time the chieftain’s staff was wielded by the British-Polish philosopher Zygmunt Bauman, author of numerous books, of which Modernity and the Holocaust and Liquid Modernity in particular circulated in the blood of many of the writers and academics who spoke at the conference.
Bauman’s frequent sparring partner was Adam Michnik, editor-in-chief of Gazeta Wyborcza, sometimes explosive, sometimes blunt, but always in the limelight. After embracing and kissing the elderly Bauman he did the same to Prime Minister Radičová, leaving her bodyguards gasping. Later Michnik cut short a rather lengthy debate on how those of us who “already enjoy freedom in the EU” might help those parts of Eastern Europe that are still in the oppressive clutches of totalitarianism, that is to say, Belarus: “Unless they help themselves, nobody can help them.”
The first discussion panels focused on a local issue, the Roma. Unprepared Western participants kept bringing up Sarkozy. Those of us hailing from regions the Roma tend to flee from rather than immigrating to in droves, spoke rather of the Roma settlements and urban ghettos whose inhabitants eke out a miserable living. Writer Mircea Cartarescu vividly evoked the Romanian experience, comparing the Central European Roma slums to the past misery of blacks in America, which eventually fanned the flames of rebellion. “We only have black rappers but no Black Panthers”, a delegate mumbled disapprovingly.
Central European Forum being a nest of intellectuals, the discussion inevitably turned to language. “I’m not a Roma, I’m a Gypsy girl,” declared Jeanette Maziniová, a Slovak Roma, who grew up in one of those miserable settlements, objecting to the politically correct designation. Yet I still say Roma and will stick with it, in case addressing this lovely lady as a “Gypsy girl” makes me appear a brutish lustful male. Language is a trap! That must be the reason why we failed to reach any agreement, except for stating that the situation of the Roma in Central Europe is dreadful and that we have no idea what to do about it.
Panel followed panel, interpretation from some five languages buzzed in our ears, the audience packed the Pavol Országh Hviezdoslav Theatre morning, afternoon, and evening. Anyone was free to join in the discussion, although some dozed off in the comfortable seats for a while. What can you do? Sometimes you catch every word but at others it’s all too easy to get swamped by the mighty current of talk typical of such meetings. But sometimes a stark moment arrives bringing a chill to the theatre. This is precisely what happened when Natalia Gorbanevskaya and Viktor Faynberg took to the stage. Yes, two of the eight Righteous Ones who protested against the invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968. Holding up a hand-written placard proclaiming For Your Freedom and Ours, they allowed themselves to be picked up in Red Square.
And now they stood on the stage, white-haired Viktor Faynberg in denims and a flannel shirt, with a carefree cowboy face and tiny, bespectacled Gorbanevskaya, nearly lost in her white shawl.
Their lesson on how to hold on to freedom or how to strive for it is scary. For this small bunch of people dared to stand up against the power of the mighty Soviet state with its armies, courts and the Gulag. They also stood up against the millions of silent, and thus really un-free East Europeans. They did so knowing full well that they would be in big trouble, perhaps even risking their lives. And they duly did time in prisons and closed psychiatric institutions.
Ever since then Faynberg has a trick up his sleeve. It is a practical demonstration of what you need to do to gain freedom. With the aid of his dentures he can demonstrate how a KGB man kicked his teeth out as he was lying on the ground.
What is Faynberg’s lesson for us? Clearly that it is the duty of every individual to stand up for freedom, and that this includes taking personal risks. No laws and institutions will guarantee freedom to citizens forever. There is always something that can go wrong.
But Faynberg does not let the audience catch its breath. Instead of wallowing in reminiscences he speaks of Chechnya, of the killing of Chechens that is happening right now. He protests against the imminent extradition to Russia of two Chechens, recently imprisoned in Slovakia. Why should it be prevented? Because they are very likely to get killed, he informs us. And Michael Kocáb, who is also present, explains that in the Czech Republic it is illegal to extradite a Chechen to Russia without his or her consent. Pointing backstage, Kocáb indicates that he intends to have a word with Radičová about a relevant change of legislation. He disappears backstage. We’ll see, says Faynberg.
Later we also heard Czech writer and apocalyptician Martin C. Putna. He spoke convincingly about the end of the three visions which had, until recently, inspired great hopes. The first was Havel’s vision of an apolitical politics. Another was the notion of the EU as some messianic, omnipotent righter of all wrongs and guarantor of freedom. And the third was the feet of clay of the contemporary Messiah, i.e. Obama. The final questions were directed at Zygmunt Bauman. What now? Where do you see hope for today? I am no prophet, I cannot predict the future, the scholar replied.
Photo Peter Župník
This article originaly appeared in the Czech daily Lidové novin.