How I Became a Czech and a Slovak

Mykola Riabchuk


Every summer we spent our holidays at the improvised dacha made of our grandparents’ rural house in the vicinities of the city of Lutsk. There were a lot of us, the entire extended family – both me and my brother, and our cousins, and their and our parents, and, of course, our granny and grand-pa. We enjoyed our holidays, our fishing and swimming, playing football and cards, shaking bountiful fruit-trees and talking through midnight with friends around the magic fire.

I was 15 and didn’t care much about politics. We didn’t have even a TV set in our dacha. We didn’t need it. But our grand-dad and our parents listened to both the Soviet radio and to the “voices”, as they called foreign broadcast at the time, and we noticed – however careless we’d been in our golden age, golden time, – that something was fishy. In the very margins of our consciousness, of our sights and ears, the menacing words like the “Soviet threat”, “ultimatum”, and “counter-revolution” emerged. And we felt it was these very words that made our parents strained, and forced them to change the topic, or to get silenced when we approached them. They were Soviet people and we were Soviet children, and they apparently didn’t want us to listen to their political conversations. But we felt something was going wrong in Czechoslovakia, and something like a war could erupt any moment, however incredible it looked under a sunny blue sky during enjoyable summer holidays.

And when the Soviets invaded, we saw our parents completely depressed as if it was them Czechs and Slovaks, and it was their government overthrown, and their country raped once again by some aliens. Surprisingly yet, their stance did not surprise us.

Our parents were not dissidents but, as most western Ukrainians, they had little if any sympathy for the Soviets, for Moscow, and for communism. As most west Ukrainians, they exposed formal loyalty for the regime, and participated in all public rituals as required. But in private, they never spared bitter remarks about the system, authorities, and the whole Soviet way of life. They probably never intended us, children, to become programmatically anti-Soviet. It could have been too dangerous for our present and too harmful for our future. But they spilled their words, grimaces, and gestures in such a way that we couldn’t but feel their despise for the system and their profound alienation from all its symbolical entourage.

As early as I got interested in ice hockey, I noticed that neither my father nor uncle had ever supported the mighty Soviet star-team. On the contrary, all the time they supported their rivals, whoever it was – either Swedes, or Finns, or Canadians, or even Swiss. Even though the Soviets seemed to be unbeatable at the time, we wished them, by all our hearts, our souls, and guts, to be beaten. And when this finally happened, when the miraculous Czechoslovakian team did crash them in the 1969 World Cup, we were on our heaven of happiness. We cried, and kissed each other, and shook our hands; we were both Czechs and Slovaks at the time, and we just got a revenge for everything – the tanks in Prague and Muravyov’s Bolshevik troops in Kyiv, the forged Pereyaslav Treaty and defeat at Poltava, the pillage of Baturyn and the 1933 Famine, the ban of Ukrainian church and more, and more, and more.


I grew up rapidly in those years and perhaps matured. By 1970, in the last grade of my high school, I had already had an extensive access to underground literature, including all the multiple trends of Ukrainian samvydav (a.k.a. samizdat, in Russian).  It was clearly not my parents who provided me with all that dangerous stuff but, rather, my teacher. Or, more precisely, a school librarian – a prominent Ukrainian writer and intellectual, Iryna Kalynets, who ended up at a minor position in our school after a protracted, politically motivated unemployment.

She aptly noticed my interest in a good literature and did her best to satisfy it from both official and unofficial sources. Interestingly, those sources included also some Czechoslovak publications from the period of “Prague Spring”. Primarily, it was a cultural bi-monthly “Dukla” published officially in Presov by and for the Ukrainian (“Rusyn”) minority in Eastern Slovakia, and some Ukrainian books from the same publishers that included non-Soviet Ukrainian writers forbidden in the Soviet Union — like Bohdan-Ihor Antonych and Volodymyr Vynnychenko.

The 1968 “Dukla” provided a comprehensive guide to contemporary Czech and Slovak literature and, even more importantly, to the topical Czechoslovak politics. It contained all the major documents of the “Prague Spring” in Ukrainian translation, which proved clearly that there was no “counter-revolution”, as the Soviet propaganda claimed, but rather an honest (and rather naïve, as I came to understand later) attempt to build something like a “socialism with a human face”.

The documents were a great valuable for me since more and more friends of mine were coming back from the Soviet army completely brainwashed – persuaded that the invasion was necessary because the German troops allegedly were about to cross the border, and the treacherous counter-revolutionary government in Prague conspired to invite them.

My next step was to learn Czech and Slovak languages (Slovak went easier since it was much closer to Ukrainian) and to read the “Prague Spring” books and journals in the original. Ironically, many of them were available not only in some of my colleagues’ private possessions but also in public libraries and, sometimes, even in remote provincial book stores called “Druzhba” (“Friendship”) where Klima and Holub lay idle covered by dust alongside the complete works of Vietnamese leader Hoshimin and Mongolian leader Tsedenbal. The Soviets introduced censorship on Czech and Slovak books and periodicals only in August, after the Warsaw Pact troops occupied the country and no censorship actually was needed any more. In this regard, one may praise bureaucratic rigidity and inefficiency of the Soviet system that reacted too late and, thanks God, too clumsily. I remembered this, inter alia, 13 years later, when the Soviets introduced strict censorship on Polish books and periodicals only after the martial law was announced by General Jaruzelski and when additional censorship became actually unnecessary because the Polish comrades did it well themselves.

God bless Soviet ideologists for their sluggishness and stupidity since otherwise I would have never read Hrabal, Kundera, and Skvoretsky in the 1970s. Nor would I have ever translated into Ukrainian a conceptualist poetry of Ladislav Novak and made of it a nice samvydav book with Vlodko Kaufman’s provocative illustrations.

The broadly trumpeted Czechoslovakian “normalization” of the 1970s had its peculiar ideological counterpart in Ukraine in another crackdown on “Ukrainian bourgeois nationalism” that climaxed, in 1972-73, in mass arrests, large-scale purges of cultural and educational institutions and further tightening of the Russification screws in the republic. The personal contacts that had evolved throughout the 1960s between Ukrainian and Czechoslovak dissidents, were virtually interrupted by massive repressions and all kinds of restrictions on the both sides. At the time, I knew nothing about the contacts, even though I well understood that neither “Dukla” nor Ukrainian books from Eastern Slovakia could have appeared in our milieu without involvement of some Slovak Ukrainians from Presov, Kosice, or Bratislava.

Only now, as the letters and memoirs of some Czech and Ukrainian dissidents were published, I can appreciate the informal contacts between Kyiv and Prague, and a prominent role in this uneasy communication played primarily by Zina Genyk-Berezovska and some other Czechs of Ukrainian origin – heirs of Ukrainian post-Bolshevik emigration of 1920s.


Czechoslovakia was the first foreign country I visited in 1987-88 — as soon as I was allowed to travel abroad during perestroika. In Prague, they believed I were a Pole when I tried to spoke Czech. And in Bratislava, they guessed I were a Yugoslav when I tried to speak Slovak. None of them presumed I was a Ukrainian, or Soviet, or, God forbid, Russian. I knew, however, there were not only Russians but also Ukrainians in the Soviet Army that “liberated” Czechs from Czechs in 1968. I could actually have been there myself should I happen to be just a few years older. God spared me from this personal shame but not from a national.

I made some friends in both Bratislava and Prague, and I brought them the full bags of “subversive” literature – since it was a unique, however short, period in history when my country was more open, and liberal, and politically advanced than their. We drank beer in Prague, and white wine in Bratislava, and I told them unbelievable things about the texts that were legally published, and topics that were openly discussed, and public events that were carried out without any official permission. They wished perestroika to come to their country, and I assured them it would come, — it was really a time of great expectations.

And when it did come in a year, it was as great, and elegant, and unbelievable as a remarkable victory of their hockey team in 1969. It was really a power of powerless. And again, for a brief but a happiest moment of my life, I felt of sudden I was a Czech. And a Slovak. And a Pole. And a Hungarian.

And then, in the early December, I happened to be with a colleague at Adam Michnik’s Warsaw apartment, waiting for a long-arranged interview. The host was late, Adam’s wife served us tea and apologized, and then Adam came, no, he jumped in, excited, and cried like a child: “Wypierdolili Causescu!” This was apparently a major event in his life, an accomplishment of a great dream, a victory of his powerless team over a powerful totalitarian monster. He was a Romanian at the moment, and so were we.

I actually do not know how many Romanians, Czechs or Slovaks, felt they were Ukrainians two years ago, during our Revolution of Dignity dubbed metaphorically Euromaidan. Я лише знаю, що Европа існує там, де існує почуття солідарности. Я бачу її у Варшаві, Вільнюсі, Ризі, Талліні. І мені відчайдушно хочеться вірити, що вона ще десь жевріє у Будапешті, Празі та Братиславі. Але навіть якщо вона вже загинула там, як у Старій Европі, від душевного і всякого іншого ожиріння, я все одно не жалкую, що був свого часу угорцем, румуном і чехословаком.

Prispevek je bil prvotno objavljen v 22. številki Razpotij (zima 2015/2016).