The Kundera Conundrum: Kundera, Respekt and Contempt | The Nation


The Kundera Conundrum: Kundera, Respekt and Contempt

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Skirmishes over the Czech Republic's Communist past have been part of its political life for almost two decades, and the media have proven adept at profiting from them. An unfortunate precedent was set shortly after the Velvet Revolution in 1989, when widespread doubts about the new government's legitimacy led to the enactment of a controversial "lustration" law. A closed parliamentary commission was established to vet a wide range of public officials: former senior members of the Communist Party and agents of the Státní bezpecnost (secret police, or StB) were banned from public office and other administrative positions for five years. So, too, was anyone who had signed a document agreeing to collaborate with the StB. But people had signed the agreements for different reasons and then collaborated to very different degrees, and the new law disregarded all that. Former dissidents, who had been special targets of the StB, could now find themselves blacklisted because their name appeared on the wrong list. The irony was that in shrouding the deliberations in secrecy and diverting them from open judicial review, lustration may "have helped to inhibit discussion of the past in general," a 1999 assessment of the law in Central Europe Review concludes. "The last two decades of Communist rule remain almost entirely unexplored in [Czech] academic or popular history."

About the Author

Jana Prikryl
Jana Prikryl is on the editorial staff of The New York Review of Books.

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Yet the newly freed Czech press did not leave the past unexplored, after its manner. Since the early '90s, lists of people whose names appeared in still-classified StB archives were published by Petr Cibulka, a former member of Charter 77, leading to many painful reckonings. In 1999, when Cibulka published a second edition of the list in book form, it sold five times as many copies as the average work of fiction. (These days Cibulka posts the list online, making it easier to search for people by name and date of birth.) Two years ago in a government project called Otevrená minulost (Open Past), the StB archives were opened to the public for the first time since the Velvet Revolution, in part to respond to what one ODS member called "a growing pressing need to find a systematic solution to this problem, where we have new cases [of Communist collaboration] appearing every month." But organizing, declassifying and digitizing the vast trove of secret police archives only made it easier for enterprising reporters to dig through files looking for famous names that might make headlines: and dig they did, resulting in a fresh spate of revelations in the daily tabloids.

The weekly Respekt is generally considered a wide-ranging, right-of-center magazine that publishes political analysis and cultural reviews. Last fall it was Respekt that published the allegations against Kundera, in a piece titled "Milan Kundera's Denunciation." It reads like a detective story, with its authors, Adam Hradilek and Petr Trešnák, mustering 6,000 words of derring-do, drama and inevitability around a 250-word police report that Hradilek found in the archive of his employer, the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes (USTR, in its Czech acronym), while doing some research for a relative. (He did not quite stumble upon the item: he had been told, before searching the files, that Kundera might be involved.) Given the brevity of the report and the absence of corroborating material evidence, perhaps the most remarkable thing about the Respekt article is the iron grip it maintains on a single interpretation of the pregnant source document. To reinforce its thesis, the article was packaged for maximum impact using all the modern tools of media suasion: an illustration of Kundera looking mischievous and intellectual filled the magazine's cover, and a teaser promised "the story of a man who in 1950 was put in prison for fourteen years by the famous writer." Respekt must have seeded the skies with notices, for on the Sunday before the story's publication on October 13 Kundera's alleged transgression was already being discussed on the evening news. No one involved comes away entirely clean from this episode--except the story's unfortunate, sidelined subject, Miroslav Dvorácek, the man Kundera had allegedly denounced, who moved to Sweden after serving fourteen years of a twenty-two-year sentence. He is now 81 and refuses to talk to the press.

Yet the article, however bold its promotion, was based on an archival document later separately verified as authentic. (A photograph of the original typed page was printed alongside the article in Respekt.) According to the report, on March 14, 1950, a 20-year-old student named Milan Kundera appeared at a Prague police station. Kundera, a student at the Kolonka dormitory, which served several local universities, reported that a visitor had left his suitcase in a fellow student's room. The visitor was a young man named Miroslav Dvorácek, and he had stowed his suitcase in the room of an old friend, a woman named Iva Militká, Kundera apparently said. She had mentioned this to her boyfriend, Miroslav Dlask. "Based on this declaration," the report continues, two officers went to the dorm, inspected the suitcase and questioned Militká. (The report, just a half page of text, clicks like a row of falling dominoes, the phrases "based on this" and "according to that" alternating to chart how one piece of information led to the next.) "According to Militká's declaration," Dvorácek had "allegedly" deserted the army and "might have been" living illegally in Germany for the past year. A look in official logbooks revealed that Dvorácek was indeed a wanted man. "Based on this discovery," two senior officers were stationed in Militká's room. Around 8 pm "the aforementioned Dvorácek actually entered the room" and was arrested. The surprise of all concerned, including the writer of the report, that so much tediously compiled data had ended up revealing a real live enemy of the people seems preserved in the amber of that adverb "actually." He actually showed! We actually got him!

In their article, Hradilek and Trešnák do not mention Militká's involvement in Dvorácek's arrest. Nor, until their final paragraphs, do they reveal a colossal conflict of interest: Militká is Hradilek's great-aunt, and though Hradilek says he has seen her only a few times in his life and "has no relationship with her," he initially looked into the episode as a favor to his cousin Matej Dlask, her grandson, who wanted to help his grandmother write her memoirs. When Matej asked Hradilek to investigate the story, he also mentioned "Kundera's possible role." Militká had eventually married Dlask, and according to the Respekt article, only in the '90s did Dlask admit to her that back in 1950 he had told Milan Kundera about Dvorácek's visit. (This too cannot be verified: Dlask died in the 1990s.) For Hradilek, perhaps this sequence of events supports his version of the story and discredits Kundera's denial; because the police report he found names Kundera, as Matej said it might, it seems to bear out Militká's claim about her husband's admission. But of course it also raises the question of whether Hradilek began combing through old police files for less than altruistic reasons.

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