Books, communism, and Slovakia: an interview with author Zuzana Palovic

I recently had the chance to talk to Zuzana Palovic who, while born in Slovakia, grew up in my home province of British Columbia, Canada. We sat down in a cafe and chatted about what her mission is, her newest book coming out (I’m looking forward to reading it!), and how communism impacted Slovakia.

You can listen in on our conversation here, or read the transcript below if you prefer.

Interview with Zuzana Palovic

Her work is so important, please make sure to visit these links:

Global Slovakia Zuzana’s NGO sharing Slovakia with the world through books in English
Czechslovakia: behind the Iron Curtain book website
Kickstarter for the book to pre-order (only available until October 29, 2019)

Here’s an excerpt of the interview on video if you want to watch us talk:

Transcript

Introduction

So first, Zuzana, can you tell us about yourself?

Sure, but first of all Naomi thank you so much for inviting me, this is such a pleasure and a privilege to be interviewed and to connect with your audience. I think what you are doing is really wonderful, communicating Slovakia’s story through food and helping people who want to connect with their roots be able to do that with your recipes and your accessibility to Slovak cuisine. So, thank you for what you are doing.

Thank you.

My name is Zuzana Palovic, I’m the founder of an NGO called Global Slovakia, our mission is to share Slovakia with the world and we are currently doing this through books.

We feel this is really really important because Slovakia is such a young country, we didn’t exist on a map of Europe 26 years ago, but we do have actually a much more ancient history then that. As part of that ancient history we were always under the occupation or influence of a more powerful entity.

Until recently, Slovakia didn’t have their own country, they never had their own kingdom, we gained our right to exist as a sovereign nation in 1993, so we aren’t used to packaging our own story, of presenting our own story and communicating it to other parts of the world.

So Gabriela and I, the directors of the NGO, saw a gap and wanted to fill it, Firstly because it has to do with our skill set, we studied Slovakia for our doctorates, but also because of patriotism, we wanted to give back to the nation that we were born to.

Your English is without any accent, or rather it has an accent similar to mine, how is that?

I was born in this country but about one year before the revolution my parents decided to defect which means that they illegally crossed the Iron Curtain during that time people were shot at while crossing, fortunately we were not shot at and we did manage to cross it.

I was about 5 years old when that happened, we went from being normal everyday citizens to being political refugees and living in the various refugee camps that they had for Eastern Europe refugees defecting the Soviet Bloc in Austria before we landed in Canada as immigrants, which is where we naturalized, so I’m a dual citizen of Canada and Slovakia.

So now you’ve come back to Slovakia and are doing the work of sharing Slovakia with the world?

Yes, I’ve been coming back to Slovakia for a long time. My parents were immigrants so I’m a first generation Canadian but I was also raised with Slovak culture at home. Both my parents were Slovaks, so that means that we spoke Slovak at home, we ate Slovak food at home, we practiced Slovak customs, so I never really lost touch with Slovakia. This connection was also harboured also because my grandparents would come over to Canada for six months at a time to help raise me and my brother, free child care, which is also the norm in Slovakia.

Then I spent a couple summers on and off but where I really started to connect with the country was when I was 18 years old, I had started to go to university, and i had those three month holidays in summer, and I used that time as an opportunity to come back and connect with my roots, and I’ve been doing that for about 15 years now.

So this NGO that you and Gabriela Bereghazyova have, Global Slovakia, what kind of work have you done so far?

Right now we are really focused on anchoring the knowledge that we do have in our minds, thanks in part to our PhD studies that we did in London, into book form. So the books are the anchors, the bricks, the master plan but we also see a lot of limitation in terms of sharing Slovakia with the world only in the form of books because the world has kind of moved on from these static products, which are beautiful and essential and wonderful, but the way people consume information today is through audio-visual format, like we’re doing today, so we really are excited to transition to a new medium, to start sharing more knowledge that is anchored in these books into a pilot episode, into a series, hopefully into a documentary, these are long term plans of course.

Legend of the Linden

Can you tell us about the books you have already done?

So the first is The Legend of the Linden, it was an incredibly big endeavor, it is 210 pages, very vividly illustrated, with vivid imagery and photographs to thematically go with the text.

We did this for two reasons, again people are not consuming literature in the traditional way, and we wanted to anchor the knowledge in both spheres of their brain, in both the left and the right, so we felt that it was very important not to put out only a book of images, which is a very popular format of communicating Slovakia, just through imagery, and another way we’ve seen Slovakia’s story communicated is through a historical factual way, so you’ll have a whole lot of text.

I’ve tried to read some of those, with minimal success (laughing).

Yeah, they are very challenging reads, also for native speakers, so we wanted to find a light way to combine both imagery and words together and this story we refer to as the first national narrative of the country, so it’s a story that captures the historical signposts that Slovakia has gone through from a 500 years before Christ all the way up to the 20th century.

We capture this narrative using symbolism and emotion, and the symbol we exalted to tell this tale is the linden tree with its heart-shaped leaf, which is actually the unofficial totem of Slovakia, although it’s a symbol we see on our passports, identity cards, state ministries, national monuments, national documents, but also on the state seal, so it is literally a symbol or code that has literally been following us at every step of our sovereign journey.

You’re saying this and I’m thinking, really? It is? I don’t think I’ve even noticed it that much.

So we have a whole section of the book where we refer to it as hidden in plain sight, so it’s a motif that follows us, kind of like the Canadian maple leaf, but it’s just not talked about, so it’s not in our conscious awareness.

I’ve tried to read some histories of Slovakia, because I do find history fascinating, but they were honestly so boring, every time I went to read them I would kind of start nodding off, a good cure for insomnia. It would get really into details that, you know, I’m interested in culture and events and things happening, but it would get really into the minutiae of things like the codification of the language, which, I speak some Slovak but I don’t know grammar that well that I’m worried about who did i’s and y’s.

That’s a reflection of how history is taught in this region…Slovaks like to go into really minute detail, and that’s fantastic if you want to map every little crumb, but often when you do that you miss the plot, you miss the forest for the trees. That’s what’s really missing, an essential way of communicating Slovakia’s journey, or key things, in snapshots rather than the tiniest most minute little dots.

The Great Return

And your other book?

So the other book is very different, it is also very visual, it’s about 300 pages, it has 58 incredible portraits, it’s about Slovakia’s journey in the 21st century and we’re telling the tale through freedom of movement, which is a great liberty that Slovaks gained when they ascended to the European Union in 2004, 15 years ago, which may not seem like a big deal to Canadians and Americans who are kind of free to move wherever they want, but we always need to understand the context of the region.

Slovakia was behind the Iron Curtain for four decades, so my parents and grandparents and great-grandparents, they couldn’t geographically leave the Eastern Bloc and that put a huge imprint on their psyche and their knowledge development, so the liberalization of movement, freedom of movement, was a really big deal, and I wanted to celebrate it, which is why I wrote this book.

It actually builds on my doctorate research that I did in the UK, and it honours the journeys of returnees, young Slovaks that went abroad to live, work or study somewhere in Western Europe and have since come back to anchor their knowledge back into Slovakia so that they can share the culture further.

How did you find these people?

I was pretty lucky with that because I was doing my field study for my PhD here, so I had about a year and a half to be in the terrain and meet with people, through different gateways and events, referrals, it’s called a snowball interview method where you meet one person, and they recommend you to another person, just builds up from there.

Was there a common thread throughout the stories?

There were many common threads, one of them was that these Slovaks featured in this book said their mindset changed, their way of perceiving reality changed when they left Slovakia, and that’s really normal.

When you are raised in one place, there isn’t a lot of cultural diversity in Slovakia, it’s a pretty monocultural country, you don’t have a lot of access to pluralist perspectives like in Canada and Vancouver where you go to school with classmates from a lot of different nationalities and religious backgrounds, you don’t have that in Slovakia, so the way you are raised here, your perception of reality isn’t challenged, everyone thinks like you do.

So all of a sudden when we move to London that perception is radically challenged, not only because of the cultural diversity that is in that city but also Brits have a very different way of approaching topics, like individualism, like capitalism, so that confrontation was a big opportunity for growth for these people.

Czechoslovakia: behind the Iron Curtain

And what book are you working on now?

Thank you for asking, our third book is due to come out at the end of November this year, 2019, it’s called Czechoslovakia: behind the Iron Curtain, and that’s our most ambitious project yet. It’s about 600 pages, so we doubled in word count, and it tells Slovakia’s story from behind the Iron Curtain, the four decades that it was part of the Soviet Bloc.

Once again we used a lot of visual imagery to match the writing sections, we have over 100 photos and illustrations, we worked with some of the best photographers of the era, both Czech and Slovak, to bring those memories to life, but we also worked with a fascinating team of international illustrators that did five illustrations each, again to capture some of the humorous sides, some of the painful sides, some of the architecture of the era.

I find that era really fascinating because it’s an era when people who lived through that time are still living, and yet, coming from Canada, it’s such a foreign way to live, I can’t the stories I hear I just kind of drop my jaw, it’s fascinating how people lived in a time like that and the helplessness, for example my oldest brother-in-law, he was part of the Candlelit Manifestation, and he got beat up by the police, and what can you do, nothing, there’s no justice, no place to appeal. You’re upset and angry and it’s not fair and there is nothing you can do about it.

That’s what we wanted to codify, also so that the younger generation, who doesn’t have experience with this, is able to consume that history and better understand it so that that history never repeats again. That is exactly what the regime cultivated, a sense of powerlessness in the population. If you cultivate that, if you make people feel like no matter what they do, whatever effort they exert is futile, the same people will be able to stay in power.

That’s what the whole premise behind communism was, and totalitarian control, you had the central authority that decided everything for the people, in fact there was no individual, it was all about the collective, so even just operating inside that belief system is so disempowering because you as a single being are kind of irrelevant.

When you were talking right now I just connected some dots, and yeah, a lot of things just made sense right now.

When people are reading the book, that’s what we’re hoping is the effect, that they are able to connect the dots, that’s what we did and that’s why we feel it’s really important to get this book out, to get it into schools, not just schools in Slovakia but also abroad, so they can learn from the Czechoslovak experience of communism.

Yes, there’s such a huge difference between my husband’s experience of Slovakia and my children’s experience of Slovakia. There are visible reminders, communist architecture and stuff, but I think Slovaks themselves aren’t aware of the ramifications of how that era still influences today, not just physically but in the mentality of the people, in the mindset of Slovaks today.

When you go through trauma, and I think communism did traumatize the population, and they had gone through trauma even before the regime was imposed on them in 1948, they went through the Second World War, the Nazis were here, there was a lot of slaughtering that was happening, and then the communists came, there was more slaughter.

It’s hard to map your own trauma sometimes, it takes an outsiders perspective to see some of the dysfunctional behavioural patterns, or mindset habits, that are a result of this. And I think the younger generation does have insight to say this, they are observing their parents and their grandparents, and saying this is not ok what they are doing, or it’s so cool that we not longer think like that.

I’m going to give an example, I used to do something and I used to ask my grandma, “So, what do you think?” I’d ask her for her opinion, and she wouldn’t be able to formulate  a response, her response was like, “What do you mean, what do I think? Who am I to say?” First of all, you’re my grandmother, you’re my kin, my blood, your opinion matters to me, you’re a person with experience who has gone through a lot of these historical things that I’m writing about, but to this day she’s never given me feedback on either of the two books that I’ve written, she’s actually just triggered that I had the audacity to write a historical book.

There’s a lot of things that I sometimes wonder if it was the result of communism or if it was always like that, if that’s just the way Slavics, or Slovaks are. For example, when you meet Slovaks at first they are generally quite reserved, especially coming from Canada, and I’ve always wondered if that’s just how it always was or if this was a protection mechanism because you didn’t know if a stranger was going to report on you or join the underground church with you, you had no idea where a stranger’s loyalties lie. So was it a defense mechanism – I don’t know you so I’m going to go slowly – or was this the way it always was?

I don’t know exactly how it was during the monarchy, when Slovakia was part of the kingdom of Hungary, but I do know that communism definitely systematically destroyed trust in people, because of this culture of spying and reporting, children were taught that and actually encouraged to report on their parents, and even parents learned how to hush at home and not really share their opinions with their kids, and not just trust between people was destroyed but also self-trust, because communism exalted the collective.

It was a very egalitarian belief system, which was beautiful in that everyone was equal but the flip side of that was that everyone was the same, there was no individuality. Because there was no individuality there could be no subjectivity and if there is no subjectivity there can be no personality, and if there’s no personality, if there’s no  individual subject and personal perspective then how can you trust what you think? You can’t trust what you think so you wait for someone else to tell you what is right or wrong.

And that’s exactly how students were also taught in the classroom, it was all about information absorption, rather than interpreting that information, applying your own experience to it, and formulating a subjective perspective on it. The dynamic of the classroom between the teacher and the student was a microcosm of what was in society, the teacher was a central authority, she knew best, she certainly knew better than her students and the students would just repeat what they were told by that authority.

I don’t know if it’s changed very much, considering my children’s education.

Certainly the people in positions of power, teaching in schools today, it’s been 30 years since the revolution, that perspective didn’t just die off, it has certainly morphed and it’s open but it still lives on in the way people think. Vaclav Havel said, even the US military says this, it takes two generations to bring change, it doesn’t happen overnight because the regime topples.

And the 90s weren’t a cakewalk here.

Yes, the 90s were very turbulent here because the regime toppled, everything that was collectivized had to be privatized and the people that were in the know, of course, took that knowledge, that information they had to their own advantage and the rest of society got screwed over.

But thankfully, what I’m really impressed with about Slovakia, is that 90s period didn’t stretch out over 30 years, it lasted about a decade, or eight years, and then we moved on. We integrated into the European Union, mafia is no longer a threat, random killings are no longer a threat.

When I first moved here my husband would say that I couldn’t start a business because of the mafia and I didn’t know what he was talking about. To him that was still a very real thing.

So, what she means is that if you start a business, you have to pay cash to the mafia to be your protector and if you don’t they will come and burn your place down.

In our village actually, one of the restaurants had a bomb, I think, back in the day.

And that’s really cool that this kind of thing is absurd today in 2019. So that indicates that our society has moved on.

When Ján Kuciak died, I think it was her [Martina Kušnírová, his fiance] mother was telling her to be careful, you never know someone might come after you, and her response was, “why would anyone come after us?” The mother lived through that period, that was still a very real thing for her, and the next generation already considered it as something that wouldn’t happen. But it did happen. Just how the mindset changed, the sense of protection and security.

And unfortunately her life ended quite young. That’s a horrific incident, and that incident kickstarted demand for change in society, and because of it the Prime Minister stepped down, and the Minister of the Interior, but that was a very unfortunate event, but it is quite rare, it’s very rare.

Back to the book…what kind of topics did you delve into in this book?

It’s a very holistic overview of the communist period. We start at the very beginning from the Russian revolution where communist ideology was applied for the first time in 1917.

The ideology itself, the Communist Manifesto, was written by two Germans, Karl Marx and Fredrich Engels in 1848 but it wasn’t applied until some 70 years later, in Russia, and from there that’s where the communist world revolution was kicked off and spread like wildfire all throughout the world, predominately in Central and Eastern Europe.

So we start with that, we give a very holistic overview first of the ideology and second of the geopolitical context, why these countries fell under the Soviet sphere of influence, the reason being of course that the Russians were the liberators from the Nazis, so that agreement was made in Yalta where Europe was divided into two spheres, east and west, then we demonstrate how the ideology was implemented into policy, policy that impacted the lives of millions living in Czechoslovakia.

It completely re-engineered the social structure of society, and finally, to bring in a more intimate and emotional scope to the topic, we show how this affected the everyday lives of people.

How long did you spend researching this book?

Over 10 years. One of the advantages of being an international Slovak is coming back here, and everybody, from your neighbours to the dentist to the doctor to the bus driver want to share their experiences with you, and often these experiences are from the communist era, they would just spill their guts to me, and then they would say, “Chcem aby si to chapala,” I want you to know this so you can understand, even before I asked.

After a time, when this kept repeating, I started to document and jot down some of these stories and ideas. So it started without an intention to put it into a book, but I always knew I was going to be an author, I always knew I was going to write books about Slovakia, I don’t think that’s the only thing I’m going to do but it’s definitely an important part of my journey and for the last two years, together with Gabriela Bereghazyova who is a co-authored like the first book, we’ve really been applying our research skills, going into the archives, we lived six months in Prague so that we could better understand the Czech experience of socialism, we did trips to Moscow, Russia, to also understand communism from where it was first applied.

They have a different scope with it because they were the ones that spread the empire, the Soviet empire was actually one of the largest empires in the world, stretching from the borderlands with Europe, across the vastness of Russian into China, into Vietnam, Mongolia, parts of Africa, parts of South America, it had a tremendous reach and tremendous impact for about 40-50 years on this planet.

What made you decide to put it all into a book?

I saw the gap, I saw that young people didn’t really know much about the era, I also saw that gap that when communism was addressed in English it was often told from the Czech perspective, which makes sense because Prague was the seat of political power, Czechs were double size the Slovak population, so the western bias to focus on the Czech side makes sense but as a Slovak, Slovakia had a little bit of a different experience of communism and I want this anchored and I want it anchored also in the English language.

Was there something surprising that you discovered when you were researching for it?

I guess one of the radical paradigm shifts I experienced was on my trips to Russia that I did together with Gabby, those two trips to Russia were really paradigm shifting because I saw, I had closer contact with the ideals of the ideology.

Czechoslovakia was ultimately just a colony, a Soviet satellite state, it’s not where the idea originated or where the vision come from, we were just implementing Moscow’s orders, and being in Moscow was just connecting with it on a much more profound level with what they tried to bring into the world.

The major flaw with communism, and there are tons of them, is that the ends justify the means, and that’s what made it so dangerous.

How can people find this book?

Right now they can go to communistczechoslovakia.com and preorder a copy on our kickstarter, we have about two weeks to go as part of our campaign and we’re looking to fundraise another one thousand in order to reach our goal. If you like what you heard here you can support us through a pre-order. After that it will be available on Amazon.

And what about your other books?

These books are also available on Amazon, so if you go to Amazon.com or .uk and type in these titles you can order them. You can also learn more about what we do at www.globalslovakia.com.

Great! I am really looking forward to this book, I have long wanted to find out more about the communist ere but was always stalled by having to read about it in Slovak. I wish you the best of luck with it coming out!

Thank you so much. I hope you come to the launch.

I will, for sure.

With your audience. Thank you guys, bye!

Bye!