Andrew talks to the legendary Czech diplomat, writer and human rights activist Michael Zantovksy about how to fight authoritarianism.
Hope you enjoyed this week’s episode with Michael, you can find out more about him here:
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Produced by Jason Sanderson -Podcast Tech
[00:01:48] Michael what are you most proud of in your life.
[00:01:51] Well I suppose the 70 years old and I'm quite proud of the fact that at 70 I can still get up every morning and look into the mirror that makes me happy. That your pride in your lifetime fight.
[00:02:16] On behalf of democracy. You are one of the brave dissidents in the 60s and 70s who fought against. The Soviet bureaucracy.
[00:02:26] That's something you wear with pride. How do you look back at those achievements in your life. Today of course in a free Czech Republic where you no longer have an overlord.
[00:02:35] Well I did make a small contribution a modest contribution in those days but there were many other people who are braver and made more of a sacrifice than I ever have. And it came more or less naturally to me not as a matter of deliberation or heroic determination.
[00:03:04] I was 18 at the time when the Soviets invaded this country in 1968 and it was a moment that for better or worse made my life.
[00:03:15] I mean I never had to worry about the pros cons of communism again about the pros and cons of democracy and dictatorship. I knew I was living in a terrible system under a terrible system that was not merely a dictatorial system but a totalitarian system a system that wanted to control not just your political views and not just your physical movements but everything about you your family or marriage your children your shorts your sexual life everything. And either you adapt it and accept it. This kind of life in return for very meager rewards all you resigned yourself to be a citizen of second category is that one reason why you studied sexual behavior as a student not necessarily I mean that came more or less by accident as most things in my life. But I studied psychology and I was active in in research mostly dealing with motivation and the drives and the instincts and reasons that make people take. And of course sexual drive is one of the three most powerful drive of the human species.
[00:04:50] So that's why so drive is all about agency of course human agency human Well the way you just described the Soviet totalitarian system as one which tried to do away with agency is that fair.
[00:05:04] That's fair to say.
[00:05:05] And even more importantly drives the innate instincts reflexes drives that we have are something we born with.
[00:05:17] It's very difficult to modify them or change them or make them extinct.
[00:05:24] And the communists the totalitarian system believe that you can make a person to do anything.
[00:05:32] Why did they do that. Why were they so determined to crush human will to crush human agency.
[00:05:40] Because they had completely false idea of History Day sort. They knew the end point of history and they had to corrupt and modify everything that came before to fit the end point. And so they tried to brainwash people. They tried to re-educate people. They erased large parts of their own history and replaced them by completely fictionalized story etc. etc. still didn't have.
[00:06:14] What is it about the checks that enabled them to make sense of and indeed to make fun of Soviet totalitarianism I don't know.
[00:06:24] Another people in Central or Eastern Europe who were intellectually better equipped to see through the hypocrisy and absurdity of the Soviet system. I sing.
[00:06:38] You may have hits it on the nail. The humor is something that's often sought. As specific to check nature and check nation. And of course humor as other types of humor. Joy regime or for example are survival mechanisms mechanisms developed by groups of people who feel threatened or oppressed by a larger power. And they survive by making fun of what they go through and also by trying to invent the alternative truths or alternative stories to fool they oppressors. So our nation expects Shrike is a force in one of the most important figures in Czech literature and its rake. But that's also a dark version of war. And in this particular instance of Czech Jewish humor and that's Franz Kafka Kafka is a comedy offer. And of course of the modern writers Kundera and her eyeball would be two cases in point and Havel's place and the essays would be another case in point.
[00:08:03] And of course nobody was better at laughing in the face of totalitarianism than your close friend and the guy you wrote the book about. You wrote his biography Vaclav Havel. Was he a funny man privately.
[00:08:16] He had an incredible sense of humor and that's why he was such a joy to be around. And our senses of humor seem to have matched so we recognized that early in today and that's why we were so close for two years. But I saw his first play the garden party when I was 14 or 15 decades before I met him. And for us it was a revelation. It unveiled the absurdity of the system we were living in in a very funny way and we actually saw the play at that time seven or eight times and and knew it by heart. We could swap the lines and and had enormous fun doing it. So how about made an enormous contribution to my education and to my generation's education. Even before we ever met.
[00:09:14] You think it might be fair to say that the sound of democracy is laughter.
[00:09:21] The sound of democracy is an ability to laugh is a freedom to laugh. This may may be one of the paradoxes you know in well working democracy. There may not be so much to laugh about as in a bad totalitarian upset insane system.
[00:09:44] That's where the laughter comes in.
[00:09:46] As instrumental along with laughter of course another thing that the Czechs excel in is music.
[00:09:54] What is the relationship.
[00:09:55] Do you think between music and human agency and this will for self governance the love of democracy.
[00:10:04] I've never sort of music as having anything directly to do with the democracy. But you may be right. I mean the music in particular the rock music of the 1960s 1970s played a very important political role in the history of the democratic opposition in Czechoslovakia during the communist times and actually the trigger for the emergence of the Charter 77 democratic movement was a trial of this rock. There's a group of rock musicians were terrible right who were terrible. Most of them are terrible. Some of them when not so terrible Obama like a heavy metal band. And no it was worse it was if if anything worse than heavy metal.
[00:11:01] Yes it was Frank Zappa on steroids. Oh my God. It is worth.
[00:11:06] Yeah it was alternative indie extreme heavy metal is very predictable and very structured compared to the music they performed.
[00:11:19] So Michael you lived through 1989. This great moment. Turning 1968 literally upside down. What did that sound like. What did it look like. What are your memories of 89.
[00:11:31] Well it's a very difficult question which I often get but I'm terrified of it because I was working as the Reuters correspondent in prague three days into the revolution.
[00:11:44] I gave Reuters my. Because I realized I was covering a story that I was partly involved in so that they wanted to go to the party.
[00:11:53] Yes. So that's a no no. And the next thing I knew I was the spokesman for the Civic Forum the umbrella group that tried to organize the revolution. And a month later I was a spokesman for President Nava when he was elected and there were so many things going on every day. Every night we slept maybe two three hours a day for weeks and weeks and weeks and the outcome is that.
[00:12:23] Today I have to look up some of the facts in his stories and dictionaries because I have a just a smudge that I'm less interested in in an ineffectual narrative I'm more interested in a kind of in your sense your memories the sounds the color the noise the food the I know what you mean.
[00:12:44] And again that calls for a considerable measure of emotional memory. And the problem was that we had no energy left for emotions. I mean we were just trying to survive from one day to the other. So I do have small glimpses small scraps of memory one one of the most lasting for me was how the crowd and there were quarter of a million crowds there are half a million crowds in Latin. At the height of the Velvet Revolution. How it behave the not as a crowd but as a person. How it was able to show join sensibility even humor.
[00:13:35] There were people addressing the crowd from the podium and it was not a speech and an applause. It was a dialogue coming the speaker said something the crowd said something the speaker said something funny.
[00:13:49] The crowd was like a rock concert like a very very good rock concert. But didn't that scare you as a humorist as a satirist that everybody could agree.
[00:13:59] In 89 or it seemed as if in 89 everybody could agree did it ever cross your mind that we were to borrow an American conceit at the end of history.
[00:14:09] Well no it did because it would have if the crowd was screaming you know hang them up stick them up LA but they didn't. They were crying. We are not like them. You mean not like the Russians not like the communists. There was a lot of good feeling in the crowd both here and in Slovakia in Bratislava as well. There was no call for revenge or for and maybe there was too much good feeling and some people are still criticizing us for it. That the the but not tougher on the previous CNN regime and didn't the jailed people and so on.
[00:15:00] Do you think the main achievement of 89 was democracy.
[00:15:04] Well you know for me it depends on how you structure your world. I mean for me freedom comes before democracy around the same thing.
[00:15:14] No. Democracy is a tool. Democracy is a way of going about things to protect and retain freedom. It's an integral part of what freedom is. But it's not the whole thing.
[00:15:29] You can't have freedom without democracy can you. No no.
[00:15:33] They are essentially the same thing. One is a system enabling something else.
[00:15:38] No I would still dispute that because democracy gives you the freedom and the ability to make decisions to make your own decisions.
[00:15:50] A party again agency but the decisions. That's the freedom no democracy can tell you how to decide right.
[00:15:59] So what has happened in the last 30 years in the Czech Republic between 89 and 9th.
[00:16:05] And 20 19.
[00:16:07] Have you been surprised with the progress or the lack of cultural economic political existential progress in this country.
[00:16:15] Both. I mean it's another paradox. Not for nothing. Has this country been called absurdist done. I mean the progress the material progress the physical progress of the country is smaller than we ever hoped for to achieve and certainly some in this when you look at it today is another European prosperous. Save Democratic mostly a happy country. I mean it's even featured in Hollywood movies like Spider-Man now and it's even featured in Spider-Man and Mission Impossible. And I mean the film industry is part of the prosperity to which our friend Bob will be turning in his grave. No he would want to make a movie movie. It was his dream all his life to make a movie and an actor. He wrote in 1969 a nine after the Soviet invasion he wrote scripts for a thriller movie which was called the heartbreak and it was about surgeons stealing people's hearts and selling them to be very topical today. He could make it in 2019 but in other ways again you know we hope for much more progress than the time.
[00:17:44] Yeah I know. Fairness in all seriousness Michael did you expect the arrival of globalization the inequality the anger the political fragmentation of that unified crowd from 89.
[00:17:59] Well you know we did expect a little of it. I mean certainly one thing that we reacted to very early was the Fukuyama thesis about the end of history. I mean we did not feel that anything like that was going to happen and we didn't want it to happen because after 40 years of a complete absence of history we were joining his story and suddenly someone was telling us this is the end of the thing guys you can go home. So we didn't believe it. We believed that conflicts will continue in one way or another. And they did but we did believe in and have believed in a decent society in a society that would be able to contain its conflicts and discuss them in a Socratic manner.
[00:19:04] The truth in a civilized way. Do you think that the Czech Republic for all its warts is actually quite a positive example of a working democracy in contrast with some of your neighbors particularly Hungary and Poland.
[00:19:20] I'm tempted to say yes but I'm also cautious because the seeds of the malaise that seems to have infected Hungary and Poland present here as well in Slovakia and in other European countries describe theirs.
[00:19:39] What do they look like to you here those seeds.
[00:19:42] Well the rhetorics about the elites the ranty elites yes the rhetorics about the unnamed alien or foreign interests that I Jews Jews Muslims oligarchs Muslims. So Raj You know you name it the enough of four targets to go around this absolutely absurd idea of giving the Czech country back to the Czechs. We have the country. Nobody's taken it away from us. And discourse about who's Czech who's not Czech. If you look at DNA data if you look at our history we are certainly large part.
[00:20:36] Czech Slavic people but also counts selfish people. Also German people cherish Jewish people Hungarian people. And I could go on and on and on.
[00:20:50] Is this new what you call this germ are they trying to do away with agency again.
[00:20:54] They are trying to replace agency by prefabricated identity.
[00:21:04] And that I think is the most dangerous thing of all. I'm a fascist. No they don't think of themselves as fascists and sang God. I mean few of them are thinking about the violent means of attaining their goals. And you know this is not a very violent nation never has been. So we mostly talk and talking is something that the fascists are not best at and other people are quite good at too.
[00:21:34] Michael when you look outside the Czech Republic when you look into the world when you look at Auburn in Hungary Putin in Russia again in Turkey. Trump in the United States Boris Johnson. Okay.
[00:21:46] Are you saying the same thing in terms of the germ you talked about this cult of the real people and of a new kind of neo authoritarianism.
[00:21:57] I would be very cautious to put them all in one basket certainly to my knowledge Boris Johnson does not talk in this kind of way. I mean he may have other faults but he speaks like a conservative Democrat. And I hope and believe he is Trump is causing a problem for us all through his unpredictability and because you never know whether he means what he says and says what he means and then does something different. And the United States itself. I have an enormous respect I've developed it and my father is over there for the American system of checks and balances and for the way in which administration was in charge when you were the ambassador there. I came in at the end of Bush 41 and I was there through the first Clinton administration. And so Clinton had problems of his own. But we all remember that. But my point is that I do believe that the system that is robust enough to survive trump all and a democratically elected president.
[00:23:19] Your generation made their name you and your friends mocking Russian bureaucrats or Russian totalitarians. What do you see when you look east now when you see Putin.
[00:23:30] Well it's a very very strange anymore. And and of course the Russian system although it calls itself democratic is not democratic it's an autocratic system. Putin controls many many things directly or indirectly. Still it's not a totalitarian system. And maybe I'm an optimist here but I think it does retain enough of an openness to allow for change. And I just hope that the change comes sooner rather than later.
[00:24:06] Given your experience of fighting authoritarianism What do you think you can teach people now resisting people like Putin. Is it humor Michael.
[00:24:18] Is that the most powerful weapon in the fight for democracy.
[00:24:23] Well humor certainly has its place. It does have an important place in the history of Russian struggle against the anti-democratic or autocratic regimes. Gogol Chekhov see some of the modern Russian writers but it's not enough. There's also a necessity for things like perseverance hope organization organization and communication ability to communicate to other people. And this is all all hard work but you know we often use a rather wonderful quote by Havel who wrote that hope is not a certainty that something will turn out well but I believe that something has a meaning regardless of how it turns out. And in a. Giant and rather desperate country you know you have to have this kind of hope to just go through the day and wait for the next.
[00:25:28] But isn't that something almost sort of ironically check about the web of lies and deceit that men like Putin create is not style and is not a mass murderer.
[00:25:38] But these are highly sophisticated liar and a construct or a fabrication. It's almost as if he could have come from a play from hovel or a novel from Kundera.
[00:25:51] Well I don't think we would want to claim him our invention.
[00:25:57] I mean a Hubbell or he could have predicted theories couldn't he or she.
[00:26:01] Yes. And of course we could again go all the way back to France Kafka right and the trial exact end. Of let's admit that the Russians themselves have a time honored tradition of disinformation and inventing and spreading lies through the Tory secret police or the Bolshevik KGB so I think they have very little to learn from us in this respect.
[00:26:30] Final question Michael we we interviewed Madeleine Albright for this series a number of other prominent East European activists and one of the issues that's always come up is the role of technology in dissent. You didn't have the internet in 89 you didn't have the.
[00:26:45] That sixty eight. Do you think that the outcomes both of 68 and 89 would have been different had you had Facebook and Twitter and Google.
[00:26:56] I'm not sure it's easy to speculate on this but I think the important thing is for all such movements to always use what's available in terms of technology. Remember the Iranian revolution in the late 1970s they used tape cassettes. This preachings of Khomeini as the weapon of communication.
[00:27:24] I think he was operating a fax machine in Paris at the time and he was operating a fax machine.
[00:27:29] Be very lucky if we had that fax that we could use. Xerox was the latest call in technology but most of the documents actually were spread by typing them over carbon papers into copies you could at most. You could fit 10 or 11 VeriSign papers of carbon copies into a manual typewriter. And so it took ages to spread a rather low number but we did.
[00:28:05] So the role of technology is often exaggerated in the struggle for freedom and democracy. Absolutely. It's really about human beings.
[00:28:12] Absolutely. Because you know if you think of it technology is value neutral it can be used to very good. And but it can also be used to spread disinformation fake news and some of the problems that we are struggling with at the moment in our modern age.