The Tourist: Philip Roth’s Czech KGB File


98 points | by lermontov 5 days ago


  • HelloNurse 5 days ago
    The article focuses on Philip Roth's fictionalized adaptations of those interesting times, but there's also "Why write? : collected nonfiction 1960-2013" (ISBN 9781598535402, according to my public library catalog) which contains a lot of collected essays and interviews about Czech dissident writers and Roth's visits to Prague.
    • saiya-jin 5 days ago
      > as a teenager, he watched as the Soviet-backed communist party secured its coup d’état in 1948;

      Good read describing as things really were, but this part is not fully correct - communists got to the power legally by winning the elections, in 1946 in Czech part of Czechoslovakia and in 1948 in Slovakia.

      People were naive, uninformed and generally saw soviets mainly as liberators from nazi occupation (which was true). Few knew what stalinism brings, without exceptions and those few either were quiet or didn't matter enough.

      As soon as they got full power, democracy was effectively disbanded, political opponents either executed or jailed, and things like 'famous' uranium mines in Jachymov started operating like execution camps for undesired (something like soviet siberian gulags with added benefit of handling radioactive material without any protection). Ironically all this uranium was given to Soviet union for free AFAIK, and it was worth billions even back then (I guess some sort of ransom for very active 'protection' from evil capitalism).

      • sn41 5 days ago
        Prisoners handling radioactive material without protective material and gear, was also done in the Gulag system - e.g. Butugychag in Magadan, Siberia [1].


        • inglor_cz 5 days ago
          Czechoslovak-born here. This is not completely correct either.

          Communists won the election in 1946 and formed a coalition government in which they were the strongest force, but not completely dominant. There were other "bourgeoise" ministers. Unfortunately, Communists controlled the ministry of the interior and cleansed the police of "reactionary elements", thus cementing their control over the civilian law enforcement. Not over the army yet, though.

          There were regular elections scheduled for May 1948 and opinion polls were indicating that Communist share of vote is actually going to diminish. So they preempted them by staging a coup supported by People's Militias (a completely illegal armed militia of the party) on February 25, 1948. After that, the democracy was toast and it was full speed towards Stalinism, show trials etc.

          Some of the army generals wanted to suppress the coup militarily, but the aging President (Beneš) did not allow that. IDK if it would have been better or worse. Civil wars tend to leave a very toxic legacy.

          • xkriva11 5 days ago
            There is an important lesson in it. People should be able to vote bastards, but this must always be reversible. If the Universal Declaration of Human Rights were part of the Czechoslovakian constitution at that time, this development would not be legal.

            However, at that time, it was not existing and, if it existed, it would be probably quite hard to put it into the legal system because of the fresh edicts against Germans. In the end, the third Czechoslovak Republic failed because of its rooted nature and kind of deserved its fate. You cannot displace 1.2M of people and try to look as a democratic state (no matter how necessary it was).

            • vkou 5 days ago
              > You cannot displace 1.2M of people and try to look as a democratic state (no matter how necessary it was).

              There are a number of democratic states that have happily uprooted a lot more people than that, both before, and after WW2. Most of them haven't failed.

              • HideousKojima 5 days ago
                >If the Universal Declaration of Human Rights were part of the Czechoslovakian constitution at that time, this development would not be legal.

                Which wouldn't stop anything in and of itself. The current Chinese constitution allows freedom of speech, for example.

                • tpm 5 days ago
                  That development was not exactly legal even then, but there was no one who would stop them because the superpowers carved up Europe and this was Stalin's area. He could do what he wanted.

                  1.2M.. I think the current estimates are 2.4M expelled Germans, not counting the expelled Hungarians from Slovakia (many of which later returned and were granted citizenship).

                • mjaniczek 5 days ago
                  As somebody born after 1993 (thus into Czech Republic, not Czechoslovakia) who (thankfully?) didn't experience that period, thanks for the writeup.
                  • Radim 5 days ago
                    As another Czechoslovak (born 1981 under socialism), I was eagerly awaiting inglor_cz's response the moment I saw this article on HN :-)
                    • inglor_cz 5 days ago
                      Wow, TIL people take notice of me :-)
                  • vkou 5 days ago
                    > IDK if it would have been better or worse. Civil wars tend to leave a very toxic legacy.

                    Had it done so, it's very likely that the USSR would have intervened.

                    • inglor_cz 5 days ago
                      So might the Western powers. That was still the moment when Americans had the only working nuclear weapons on Earth.

                      The width of the possible scenarios is unsettling, one of them may be Prague turning into European Hiroshima.

                      • yread 5 days ago
                        > So might the Western powers.

                        That would be unlikely - Czechoslovakia was in Soviet sphere of influence as decided in Yalta and the West was severely outgunned (at least in conventional weapons) by Soviets in Europe.

                        • inglor_cz 5 days ago
                          Unlikely, yes, but stranger things have happened during the early Cold War.
                          • Context_free 5 days ago
                            > the West was severely outgunned (at least in conventional weapons) by Soviets in Europe.

                            "The west" was severely outgunned by the west - the largest political party in France in 1948 was PCF, the communist/socialist alliance in Italy almost won that year. Finland remained outside the eastern bloc simply because it was no longer seen as being part of a threat. In the UK the Labour party which tossed out Churchill while he was in Potsdam was busy nationalizing the commanding heights of England's means of production (although they were not as militant as their comrades on the continent of course).

                            The west was busy trying to hold onto the West, never mind intervening in Prague.

                            • yread 4 days ago
                              Not to mention all the troubles in Italy and Greece
                      • Context_free 5 days ago
                        > So they preempted them by staging a coup supported by People's Militias (a completely illegal armed militia of the party) on February 25, 1948

                        On February 21st, 1948, the non-communist ministers handed in resignations, without any pressure from the communist party. You left that part out. On February 25th the resignations were accepted. This was not a "coup" - they lost the elections in 1946 and decided to abandon the government in a failed power play. Also, as you note, the president of Czechoslovakia in the 1930s, Benes, a non-communist, presided over this.

                        The militias committed no violence, took over no buildings or the like and were not involved in the cabinet. The majority of Czechs did not find factory workers being armed to defend themselves to be as threatening as you apparently do.

                        If you really want to see elections being fixed, look at the fixing of the elections in Italy in the same year against the communist/socialist coalition.

                        • dang 5 days ago
                          Please do not post ideological flamewar comments to HN, regardless of what you're battling for or against. It's not what this site is for and it kills what it is for.


                          • inglor_cz 5 days ago
                            Whoa, a real world tankie on HN.

                            Czechoslovak Communist Party was since 1929 an obedient servant of Stalin with zero own will. The chairman Gottwald was a sycophant who later hanged his own friends (Slansky, Reicin) on request from Moscow.

                            Yes, the coup was nonviolent, much like occupation of Sudetenland 10 years prior, because our elite decided to throw in the towel. There was no one left to defend our democracy against a powerful foe.

                            "factory workers being armed to defend themselves"

                            What an incredible load of B.S. People's Militias were Communist equivalent of Iraqi sectarian militias after the ouster of Saddam. They acted as an armed fist of the party for the possible case that democratic politicians decide not to go quietly.

                            May 1948 elections were a travesty, as were all other elections until 1985 (the last ones under Communist power).

                      • tpm 5 days ago
                        > communists got to the power legally by winning the elections, in 1946 in Czech part of Czechoslovakia and in 1948 in Slovakia.

                        This is actually so wrong as to be an outright lie. The 1948 elections took place on May 30, after the Communists took power in the coup of February 25 (this was not the only important event - they took over power gradually before that). The 1948 elections featured only one party. From that it should be completely clear these were not really elections as there was nothing to choose from and in any case the Communists didn't really care, they already had all the power they needed.

                        • saiya-jin 5 days ago
                          I will rephrase it since I see what causes a friction - in 1946 Communists won in Czech part of Czechoslovakia, in Slovakia it was Democratic party with over 60% (Demokraticka strana). Still, Slovakia was only 1/3 of whole republic, so communists won the elections overall, especially in Czech border regions with Germany, where arguably a still-unacknowledged atrocity happened after WWII - brutal forced removal of hundreds of thousands of Sudet Germans.

                          Its true that in 1948 the elections were a sham since there was only a single party to vote for - communist one, hence their total victory in both Czech and Slovak part of the republic. But the true rise to power was in 1946 that enabled all that came later, and was done via those democratic elections.

                          Coup d'etat sounds like there was a democratic government overthrown by some communist fringe movement outside government, which isn't true. They got to power and got majority, and used it to remove everybody else. Maybe my idea of coup d'etat is incorrect and this whole discussion is kind of pointless.

                          • tpm 5 days ago
                            The finer point is, I think, that they did not get they power legally in the elections, because no such power can be granted in elections. Elections are a way to elect the national assembly which can then create a government, write laws etc.; but things that happened after 1946 and especially after 1948 were not supported by legal power, but by Stalin's terror and totalitarian dictature.
                      • throw4738 5 days ago
                        Jachymov had strategic importance for survival of the Soviet Union. Soviets invested into building mine and provided initial workforce. Jachymov was not some siberian gulag for wood choping. Soviets also paid for uranium. Mine was closed as too expensive.

                        How Czech communist party ran the mine, and what it did to its citizens is something else.


                        • vHMtsdf 5 days ago
                          Regarding uranium extraction in Czechoslovakia, the Soviets later mined uranium in other sites by pumping sulfuric acid into the ground. This has caused a lasting ecological damage which has to be managed to this day.

                          The acid was meant to dissolve the ore and was then sucked back out. The only issue was that they ended up pumping a more sulfuric acid into the ground than sucking out. This created an underground lake of sulfuric acid in an with other underground water "lakes". This sulfuric lake is threatening to spill into these water sources.

                          I heard about this from my teachers at the university who were involved in the modelling of the underground spill. Using a limited number of wells, they were supposed to predict how the spill is spreading and what actions to take to stop it.

                          I found some pictures from the site here:

                          • flohofwoe 5 days ago
                            On the East German side of the border, Uranium mining started essentially as gulag-style worker camps under Soviet control right after the war, and a few years later was moved into the "Wismut AG", which was a company under shared East German / Soviet ownership. From the tales of my grandparents, it was a mix of Soviet oppression and Wild West. In the Wismut, the miners were very well paid (for post-war East Germany), but they were a rowdy bunch and quite often had quarrels (also physical) with the East German police and Soviet camp guards (who of course couldn't simply "mow down" their highly qualified work force). Eventually in the mid- to late 50's, it calmed down, and working for the Wismut was more or less a normal job (albeit with a high risk of dying early of lung cancer and/or silicosis).

                            After the reuninification, the German government invested big into fixing the environmental damage that was done in 40 years, and that took over a decade. Props to them for this, the Erzgebirge is quite a nature paradise today.

                        • It's frustrating to hear stories about writers under totalitarianism, not just because of the pervasive state oppression, but because not one of them will prevent it from rising again. Writers like Havel and Solzhenitsyn's work ostensibly contributed to the ending of the European totalitarian system, but only decades after it rose, and after those cultures were destroyed. I worked with people who left or escaped communism, and many had brought the indolent bureaucratic cynicism and shame of the societies broken by communism with them. It takes generations to recover.

                          The necessary condition for it to prevail is when people (young men in particular) lose their sense of social identity and personal networks so that they are isolated from each other and can't get more than three to five together at once to privately share their experience of the movements infiltrating their communities. It's a playbook.

                          If only we would treat writers today as the canaries in the coal mine for this same totalitarian force of history, and learn how urgent these lessons from the 20th century truly are.

                          • mrslave 5 days ago
                            And what group identity do young people, or young males as you identify, have today? Sports teams, comic book movies, fancy sneakers, streaming subscriptions, fast food, alcohol, and video games. Group solidarity was destroyed and now every "community" is a virtual group of fan-based product consumers. Or possibly also - according to the news - an oppressed minority activist group. I don't see this as caused by or leading to totalitarianism, but I agree it is terrible.
                            • germinalphrase 5 days ago
                              The larger risk - in my opinion - is that many of these communities (as much as they are) rely on communication channels that they cannot control (whether privately or publicly owned). Fracturing those communities is far easier and nearly cost free compared to interrupting in person communities (even as persistent surveillance makes in person communities easier to suppress).
                              • Something that never seemed to bubble up coherently in mainstream anti-capitalist discussions was whether there was a totalitarianized capitalism, which would have been a useful perspective, but I think progressive intellectuals of the 80's and 90's couldn't acknowledge totalitarianism as a thing because it undermined the certainty of their own narratives. They couldn't punch left, even if it was Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, and other genocidieres, and that deprived them of a framework with a lot of predictive power.

                                However, when viewed as what totalitarianism technically is - a movement that attacks truth itself with the objective of subjugating the individual human spirit and neutralizing all possible opposition, the cynical neo-liberals of the 90's would have qualified. Totalitarian movements use other factions and nations as vehicles, so that they used consumerism as a means to globalizing their ambitions is really secondary to what they meant to achieve.

                                When I look at suddenly controversial and borderline dissident writers today like Matt Taibbi and Glen Greenwald, and even recently, Naomi Wolf, who seem to have defected from the progressive narrative, I think it's because they weren't "leftists," but in fact principled believers in truth and the human spirit, and against totalitarian movements. They aren't neutral or bi-partisan at all. They're a-partisan in that their objections today are against people and movements that make truth their target.

                              • ppf 5 days ago
                                Indeed, and the worldwide response to Covid has highlighted just how far down this path we have already come as a (Western) society. We already were a society of isolated, atomised, under-developed and ineffectual individuals, and that has only accelerated in the last year.
                                • dmos62 5 days ago
                                  > movements infiltrating their communities

                                  That became very specific very fast. I don't think that negative things happen because of "movements" infiltrating "movementless" communities. Further, even if you take destructive movements towards oppression, limited identification, hatred, etc., I'd argue those are just symptoms of wider problems. Addressing them has its place, but, if that's all you do, it's like treating chronic mouth odour with tooth paste.

                                  • sosull 5 days ago
                                    This is really insightful. I appreciate you taking the time to write it.
                                    • watwut 5 days ago
                                      > The necessary condition for it to prevail is when people (young men in particular) lose their sense of social identity and personal networks so that they are isolated from each other and can't get more than three to five together at once to privately share their experience of the movements infiltrating their communities. It's a playbook.

                                      You made up this part up and even got it opposite. If anything communism gave you more social outlet and company then capitalism. You was part of a group a lot more. A lot more was communal. Moreover, socially, family relationships were a lot more important for individuals.

                                      It lacked freedom. But it did not lacked company.

                                      • flohofwoe 5 days ago
                                        Might be true on the surface, but at least in East Germany, people were shocked/angry/surprised when they read their Stasi file and found out that within their small social circle there was usually at least one spook who reported them to the Stasi (so called 'IMs' - Inoffizielle Mitarbeiter) - often somebody they wouldn't have suspected or even considered a friend. You literally couldn't trust anyone, except maybe closest family.
                                        • watwut 5 days ago
                                          But that had nothing to do with "can't get more than three to five together at once" or "young men loosing sense of social identity and personal networks".

                                          Even you said, "they were surprised" over it. And my point is that person I responded to is projecting supposed contemporary isolation on back then, so that he can draw equivalence. And that equivalence is faulty. (And likely just serves to reinforce whatever conspiracy theory.)

                                          • I'm going to address this directly: the term is called "atomization," and it was specifically a technique of all totalitarian movements of the 20th century. I recommend Hannah Arendt's treatment of it in "ideology and terror," and previous chapters.

                                            It's not a right/left thing, it's a totalitarian thing. It is a sophisticated idea, and isn't just a synonym for authoritarianism or bad guys. It is an artifact of the modern era. The only thing standing in the way of totalitarian movements (which are necessarily non-national, and with global goals) is the integrity of ideas of truth, self, and of personal and spiritual relationships.

                                            • germinalphrase 5 days ago
                                              I agree with you with regard to the historical specifics; however, the point about intentionally fracturing communities and suppressing communication is consistent with authoritarian oppression of all kinds.
                                              • watwut 5 days ago
                                                In that however, forcing you into to "right" network is as much if not more important. They don't want you all to be isolated. They want you all to have right social group that is naturally going to push you mold you toward "right" opinions and behavior. So you being part of church community is a problem, but alternative is not being alone, the alternative is being in party sport club or other institution.

                                                In that context, loners and isolated people are suspect and vulnerable, because they are different and not subject of normal peer pressures that comes with relationships.

                                                • germinalphrase 5 days ago
                                                  Sure. Loners and isolated people are less useful, but they are also non-threatening beyond stochastic violent events. They may develop undesirable ideas or ideologies, but that’s generally irrelevant due to their social isolation.
                                                  • watwut 5 days ago
                                                    Then again, it is not all strictly rational. If you are primed to look for internal ennemy then loners easily look like ones. Plus, maybe more importantly, they don't have stronger friends to protect them, to retaliate, to subtly help them. They are also less likely to be fully "in", so more likely to do misstep.

                                                    I also remember reading that people who saved Jews during WWII were more likely to be "outsiders" to social. (Some Israel researcher claimed that.) Being outside facilitates such actions - either because you underestimate risk or because you did not absorbed the bad values.

                                                    • germinalphrase 5 days ago
                                                      Yes - I certainly agree that loners are more vulnerable. I might argue that “outsider” is a broader category though and more likely garner the (destructive) attention of the dominant group.
                                          • Viliam1234 5 days ago
                                            > If anything communism gave you more social outlet and company then capitalism.

                                            Communism gave you lots of (forced) company, but it also banned the previously existing communities.

                                            For example, the Scout movement was banned, and the communist version - the Pioneer movement - was made mandatory for kids instead. Seems like "okay, if it's pretty much the same thing, only more kids are involved, that's great", except it wasn't the same thing.

                                            First, because mandatory fun is not fun anymore. Instead of kids who enjoy some activities, and adults who want to try some fun activities with kids, now you had a classroom full of bored kids, with some bored university student who was assigned to the task, doing the most boring version of "fun" (such as playing the same simple game at every meeting) in order to avoid punishment.

                                            In theory, it didn't have to be like this -- there was a lot of thought put into it; the communists have printed literature for the Pioneer leaders, like encyclopedias of games (I know because I have found a few such books in a library) -- but in practice, no one cared. The leaders didn't care, because they didn't volunteer for this, many of them probably didn't even like kids, and they knew the kids don't have an option to leave anyway, so why bother, spend one year doing the "Party task" and hopefully never again.

                                            Second, because if something is mandatory and universal, then instead of an escape from reality is become just another part of the reality you want to escape from. In the Scout movement, you go somewhere else and meet with kids from other schools. In the Pioneer movement, you have the mandatory "fun" with your classmates, probably in your classroom, so it feels like yet another school lesson.

                                            And for the adults, you have the "workers' collective" at your job, and it often expands into your free time. But if you instead try to regularly meet with adults who have similar interests but are not your colleagues... it will probably be investigated as a suspicious activity. (And then you had family, which was the only collective outside your work that wasn't treated as suspicious.)

                                          • Mediterraneo10 5 days ago
                                            Ironically, a lot of artists who made reputations as dissidents chafing against a totalitarian regime, ultimately repudiated those dissident political views or even came to feel nostalgic for the Soviet regime specifically. Solzhenitsyn himself is famous for becoming a reactionary in later life and wanting heavy-headed leadership over his country, only this time it would supposedly be OK because it would be rooted in ancient Christian Russian culture and not the "godless, foreign" regime that was Communism for him.
                                            • ceilingcorner 5 days ago
                                              Czarist Russia and the Soviet Union were very different beasts and to label them both as simply heavy-handed is to paint with far too wide a brush.
                                              • Mediterraneo10 5 days ago
                                                I didn’t mention Tsarist Russia, because Solzhenitsyn wasn’t quite pining for that specifically, at least not in the form it took in its last few centuries. But the elderly Solzhenitsyn did see post-USSR Russia as beleaguered by enemies of the people, and he wanted those enemies dealt with decisively, even if it came to mass imprisonment and a return of censorship. This seemed to contradict the more open values that many saw in his early work.
                                                • vkou 5 days ago
                                                  He was also quite an anti-semite, so I don't think he's a great moral guide for anyone, despite the quality, and the importance of his work.

                                                  His books are worth reading for everyone - not to take a piss on the USSR, but to think about the ways we are different, and more importantly, the ways we are similar to it.

                                              • Viliam1234 5 days ago
                                                I have noticed a similar thing, and I wonder why it is. I have a few possible explanations, but no idea which one is correct. Maybe it's a combination:

                                                First option is that communist regimes ruin characters of many people, including those who try to fight against them. If you live a few decades in an oppresive regime where many things are forbidden... you get used to it, and then freedom feels scary. Even things that you hate can become a habit, and habits are difficult to change. When people leave a cult, they are also disoriented, and life outside feels scary.

                                                Second option is that fighting against the regime becomes a part of their identity. When the regime is over, for a short moment they feel like winners... and then life goes on, and they don't have new impressive things to offer, they are like monuments of history, irrelevant for today. So some of them try to criticize the new system, because "criticizing a system" is what they are famous for, but now it's awkward... because some people realize what they are doing, and others are just confused.

                                                Third option is that while in the West there seems to be mostly a linear political scale from conservatism to liberalism, in communist countries it becomes a triangle, with communism, religious conservatism, and liberalism/libertarianism as three deeply incompatible options. During the communist regime, the differences between conservatives and libertarians feel unimportant, because the first priority is to survive and hopefully overthrow their common enemy. Only after the victory, the former allies notice the deep differences between them, and both sides feel betrayed.