Mykola Riabchuk
December 2014

How I Became a Czech and a Slovak

1

Every summer we spent our holidays at the improvised dacha that was our grandparents' rural house in the vicinities of the Ukrainian city of Lutsk. There were a lot of us, the entire extended family – me and my brother, our cousins, their parents and ours, and, of course, our granny and grandpa. We enjoyed our holidays, spending the time fishing and swimming, playing football and cards, shaking bountiful fruit trees and talking past midnight with friends around the fire.

As soon as I got interested in ice hockey, I noticed that neither my father nor uncle had ever supported the mighty Soviet team. On the contrary, they always supported their opponents, whether it was the Swedes, the Finns, the Canadians, or even the Swiss. Even though the Soviets seemed to be unbeatable at the time, we hoped with all our hearts, souls, and guts that they would be beaten. When this finally happened, when the miraculous Czechoslovakian team did crush them in the 1969 World Cup, we were in heaven. We cried, shook hands, and kissed one another; we were both Czechs and Slovaks at the time and we felt revenged for everything – the tanks in Prague and Muravyov's Bolshevik troops in Kyiv, the Pereyaslav Treaty and the defeat at Poltava, the pillage of Baturyn and the 1933 famine, the ban of Ukrainian church and more, more, more.

2

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

She 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 Czechoslovakian publications from the period of "Prague Spring". Primarily, it was the cultural bi-monthly Dukla, published officially in Presov by and for the Ukrainian (Rusyn) minority in eastern Slovakia, and Ukrainian books from the same publishers that included non-Soviet Ukrainian writers banned in the Soviet Union – such as Bohdan-Ihor Antonych and Volodymyr Vynnychenko. 

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

The documents were of great value to me, since more and more friends of mine were coming back from the Soviet army completely brainwashed – persuaded that the invasion was necessary because German troops had been about to cross the border on the invitation of the treacherous counter-revolutionary government in Prague. 

My next step was to learn the Czech and Slovak languages (Slovak was easier since it is much closer to Ukrainian) and to read the books and journals in the original. Ironically, many were available not only in some of my colleagues' private collections but also in public libraries and even, sometimes, in remote provincial book stores called Druzhba ("friendship"), where Klima and Holub lay covered in dust alongside the complete works of Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh and Mongolian leader Tsedenbal. The Soviets introduced censorship on Czech and Slovak books and periodicals as late as August, after the Warsaw Pact troops occupied the country and censorship was no longer needed...

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