The Communist Secret State Police knew about me, but there was no time for fear

In the mid-1960s, a twenty-one-year-old student, Barbara Day, came to communist Czechoslovakia to study theatre. However, this country became something more important, fundamental and dangerous for her than the place of her student visit. Two decades later, she became organisational secretary of the secret British Jan Hus Educational Foundation, which operated from London and sent western academics to secret seminars in Czechoslovakia, also called the underground university. Among the many lecturers were world-famous philosophers Roger Scruton and Anthony Kenny.

Read the interview in Czech translation

In 2019, an academic can simply call up an English university professor and issue an invitation, and if they have time and are interested, they will come. What was different 35 years ago?
It was more complicated. There were some official vsits from the West, but they were mainly by Communist-sympathising academics. The unofficial visits from Oxford began after 1978, when the philosopher Professor Julius Tomin, who had been thrown out of Charles University, sent a letter to four world-famous universities – Oxford, Harvard, Freiburg and the Freie Universität Berlin – and only one of them responded, which was Oxford University. Basically, Tomin‘s letter said that in Czechoslovakia, the Communist authorities determined who was allowed to teach and what, and that they as philosophers were not allowed to teach. They [the banned professors] couldn’t travel outside Czechoslovakia to visit other universities, but professors from those universities could come as tourists and visit them, and were invited to the seminars the Prague philosophers held in their flats. In Oxford the letter was discussed at a meeting of the Sub-Faculty of Philosophy, and the philosophers said: Of course, if we are invited, we should accept. So over Easter 1979, the first professor who came from Oxford to Prague was a woman, the philosopher Kathleen Wilkes.

Did the foundation exist already?
Not at that time. Kathy Wilkes was sent by the Oxford philosophers. The Hus Foundation was created later, when the philosophers realized that this was not just a one-time event and that there were going to be many more visits. Oxford University made it clear that it could not be officially responsible for sending its professors to only one country. They had to travel all over the world, it would be too much just to focus on Czechoslovakia. But when Kathy Wilkes came for the first time they still didn’t know how it would grow.

What did she say about it?
She was absolutely amazed by the students. She gave about three or four different seminars to different groups. Most of the students were from the underground and had taken part in earlier philosophy seminars in Julius Tomin’s home, which the police knew. There were even policemen stationed outside the flat, checking identity cards and writing their names down. So they were mostly people who could not work or study at university any more; they had been expelled from their schools. The first place Kathy visited was Julius Tomin’s flat at Keramická 3, which is why the British Embassy unveiled a plaque on the house in November this year.

So, when and why was the Hus Foundation established?
It was founded only a few months later, when Oxford philosophers discovered that there were more underground seminars interested in cooperation. They started lecturing at other home seminars, too, such as those of the philosophers Ladislav Hejdánek, Petr Rezek, Radim Palouš and others. That was when they realised that if they were going to send more teachers, they had to be properly organized. The British philosopher Professor Roger Scruton was said the first person to say: If we are going to do this, we need to get some financial support, and to raise funds we have to be a registered charity. So, in the summer of 1980, they established the Jan Hus Educational Foundation in Oxford. 

The Czechs probably couldn't pay for their travel, teaching or accommodation, could they?
Absolutely not, they had no financial resources at all.These were people who had not only been dismissed from the universities, but sometimes had difficulty in finding any employer at all. After a while, the British realised this and one of their activities was to arrange stipends for the seminar organisers. But it was not sent as humanitarian aid; the Czech organizers received a contribution for teaching and writing. In addition, foreign lecturers brought their own lecture notes and their own books which they often left behind, because no one in Czechoslovakia had access to such books; there was a lack of up-to-date teaching materials and texts in the humanities, the only ones there were, were either very old or written from a Marxist standpoint. The visitors realized they had to take more books if they were to teach effectively. So they were carrying books, the money for the stipends, and then some of the seminar leaders also asked for other things that were unobtainable in Czechoslovakia. Some of began to take things that were of personal interest for the Czech seminar leaders. I remember that one of the lecturers, Ralph Walker, regularly came to Prague to teach at the philosopher Petr Rezek’s seminar, and as they had a mutual interest in opera, Ralph would bring a personal present of opera videos. Thus, the whole organization of secret lectures became more complex and complicated. In addition, people had to memorize messages because they couldn’t simply write them down in case they were intercepted by the police. They never used the telephone when they were here. They couldn’t write down the names or addresses of the people they were visiting or where they were supposed to give lectures and to meet, in order not to jeopardize the safety of their colleagues. So every time a lecturer went to Czechoslovakia, we briefed them on how to behave and what to do. They were given a list of rules they had to follow, but were told not to take it with them.

What was on the list, for instance?
I think some of those briefings are still in the archive in Brno. For example, even if they were invited to stay in someone’s home, they must spend the first night in a hotel to comply with the law and be officially registered. If someone unknown – of whatever nationality – tried to get into conversation with them, they were not to indicate they were anything other than an ordinary tourist. The seminars in Prague taught the Oxford philosophers many things that helped them with the seminars that began in Brno in 1984,  in the flat of the then dramaturge of the Theatre on a String Petr Oslzlý (today Rector of JAMU in Brno – editor’s note); seminars which were initiated by the dissident Jiří Müller.

I read that you met Petr Oslzlý under interesting circumstances when you organized the Czechoslovak Culture Festival in Bristol in 1985.
I had already met Petr Oslzlý before the festival, in Brno, where I went to see more productions by the Theatre on a String, which I had first seen in Prague. And then, coincidentally, I wrote an article about the Czech theatre for the magazine Index on Censorship that Jiří Müller showed to Petr Oslzlý. Their productions were always entertaining, but also used original ways to make people think. I remember a play about two families of clowns, with Boleslav Polívka and Jiří Pecha. The moment I loved was when they built a wall down the middle of the stage with cardboard boxes, splitting the stage so that the two halves of the audience could see only what was happening in the family on their own side. Concepts like this were so simple and yet so imaginative. Another memorable experience was a performance of their Labyrinth of the World, which for a long time they were not allowed to perform; it took them several years to get permission. When we arrived, we couldn't sit down, because the seats for the audience were  covered. People kept coming and had to wait on the stage. It became more and more crowded, and there was not really enough room for the audience on this stage area. So people were standing, some of them holding coats or  bags, and it was getting quite uncomfortable. There was a growing feeling of discomfort and hostility among the audience. Then suddenly the actors came in and stripped away the covers so it was possible to sit down. And everyone rushed to get the best places before the others, pushing them out of the way. The atmosphere of competition was really strong. Then the performance started and all at once you realized that was what it was all about – how people let themselves be forced and pushed into something, and struggle for their place. That unconventional beginning was a truly original way to make people think about their own behaviour. Then Petr Oslzlý told me about the problems the company had. The Communist authorities wanted to close the company down, and it was only their popularity that saved them. I asked how I could help.

What did they say?
Petr Oslzlý said, “You can help us to get to England. Because the more we travel, the better known we will be, and the more difficult it will be for the authorities to close us down”, which they wanted to do just then. So in the end we organized a festival of Czechoslovak culture in Bristol, where the Theatre on a String was joined by other artists, such as jazzman Jiří Stivín and others - Chorea Bohemica, Magdalena Jetelova, concerts, New Wave Czech films, exhibitions... The festival experienced some complications such as when, for instance, at the last minute Petr Eben’s employer refused to allow him to come, although he was booked to give two concerts. Or when we invited official Czechoslovak representatives from London – Czech diplomats who did not know what to expect from us, and  were very nervous in case we played a trick and compromised them. Then we had to pay the hotel for people who were not part of the theatre company, but who had come to keep an eye on the actors and to watch who they met. One of them, the “worker for special purposes”, stopped Petr Oslzlý from leaving the hotel just when he was supposed to meet Jessica Douglas-Home from the Jan Hus Foundation. Petr couldn’t say he was going to meet someone for fear of arousing suspicion and so missed the train – but in the end, they succeeded in meeting.

Did the Brits like the festival?
They performed Commedia del’ Arte with Boleslav Polívka, and it was a great success. The audience was very enthusiastic. The atmosphere was really intense, which is not usual when a foreign company performs in Britain. Usually audiences are more reserved. The actors were somehow supercharged: they seized every opportunity to communicate with the audience. I saw the same energy I had experienced twenty-two years earlier, in 1963, when I was with my university, Manchester, at a student theatre festival in Italy. There I saw a Slovak student theatre from VSMU, whose young actors included Emília Vášáryová and Marián Labuda, give a performance which was the best event of the whole festival.

So you started to take an interest in Czechoslovak theatre?
Yes, I decided to learn about the Czechoslovak theatre of the time. I first came to Czechoslovakia in 1965, and spent a year meeting some extraordinary people – Václav Havel, his colleague Jan Grossman, and so on. I came back in 1968, thinking that I would find a job in the theatre because everything had been so positive in 1966, and it seemed hopeful that I could come and work in the theatre here. And then came the invasion. 

So you were here when the armies of the Warsaw Pact occupied the country?
I was in Prague. All summer I had been planning to stay here to study theatre. There had been some tense moments, but when August 1968 came, we were relaxed. People could travel, they had started to travel abroad, some for the first time in their lives. Then I was at the theatre one night, and when I came home, everything was quiet and beautiful under the moonlight. And during the night I heard  planes coming over. I was in Hanspaulka, not far from the airport, so they really seemed to be flying on top of the house. One after another. Three days later I was on a train that was evacuating Westerners. 

On a train?
Yes, the airport was in Russian hands. The British Embassy contacted me and said that there would be a train the next morning from Smíchov Station. And it would take out all the Westerners it could carry, because no one knew what was going to happen next. We couldn’t go from the main train station because it was occupied. Smíchov was full of people, crowds and crowds of them, getting on the train, saying goodbye. I sat in a compartment with one of the Czechs who had left in 1948, came back for his first visit in August 1968, and was now leaving again. He said: That’s it.

Have you ever come back?
I came back twice in 1969, but I could see everything was changing. The process was slow, but I could see what was happening. People were beginning to lose their jobs because they would not sign the document that said they agreed with the entry of the troops, although the borders were still open until summer ’69. So it was not difficult for me to come, but by the spring of 1970 things were much worse. In the seventies I hardly came to Czechoslovakia at all. But in 1980 it was suggested to me by one of my friends – and I had never thought about this before – that I should write a dissertation on the theatre I had known in the 1960s, because I had been here at a critical time and watched, for example, rehearsals for Kafka’s Trial at the Theatre on the Balustrade, directed by Jan Grossman. Now that all this was taken out of the history books in Czechoslovakia, I felt that I could at least write something from England. But I didn’t know where to start. Luckily, I was in Bristol, where one of  the drama  professors (Edward Braun) was a specialist in Russian theatre, and he was enthusiastic about my doing this. So I started it in 1980 and in 1981 came back to Czechoslovakia for a month. I met Jan Grossman again – he had had to leave the Theatre on the Balustrade in 1968, already before the invasion – and other people whom I really admired. And I worked on my dissertation until 1986.

At that time you have already organized the participation of British lecturers in secret seminars. The project was joined by seminars in Brno, in the apartment of Petr Oslzlý, who you have talked about.
Yes, and in Brno the policy for the home seminars changed a little. It was even more important for us never to let any shadow of suspicion be cast on people attending  these activities. Those who attended the seminars were not supporters of the regime, but they were still studying at university or were in normal jobs. So Jiří Müller, who had planned the strategy for the Brno seminars, never attended them. People the police were already aware of could not participate. For example, there was one occasion when one of the students wanted to take to the seminar a friend who was known as a dissident, and Jiří had to tell him that, unfortunately, he couldn’t, it would be a risk for the other students. 

So even you couldn't attend the seminars?
No, I could not, for the same reason. The authorities obviously knew I went regularly to Czechoslovakia, and were aware of the fact I was working for the Jan Hus Foundation – they discovered it from their agents in London. So although I could visit people in Brno, I didn’t visit the secret seminar of those who were not known to the police. I could go to the theatre, meet anybody there, because they already knew about my theatre activities, but if I had started going to the seminars, then connections would have been made. Actually, I was at another seminar once. Not the one connected with the Foundation and quite by accident through one of my theatre friends, who said: “I'm going to visit some friends and you can come along. We might meet someone interesting there.”

And she didn’t know I was organizing such seminars. So I was actually taken to a seminar given by Milan Uhde. It was very relaxed and friendly, Uhde talked as though he was having a conversation, but he was clearly the speaker, the lecturer. I just hoped no one would make the connection. But it was by complete accident that I was there.

What were the seminars like?
The Brno strategy was that the seminars were not open to anyone, unlike some of those in Prague. Petr would invite certain people for tea, telling them he had a visitor from abroad, and they would be able to meet them. (This was one of the rules: the word “seminar” was never mentioned, so that if a student was pulled in for interrogation he could say no more than that he had been invited to tea.) One of the lecturers described in his report how he then waited in the next room until all the students had arrived. Then he went to the room where the lecture would take place. Imagine a normal apartment – you don’t usually have so many chairs in your living room – and there would be a crowd of people, some sitting on the floor, waiting for it to begin. There had to be an interpreter, because at that time most people didn’t speak English. And because of that, it was a particularly hard job for the interpreter.

I can only imagine. There was no possibility of having the paper in advance. And we’re talking about leading philosophers whose area of expertise had lain undisturbed in Czechoslovakia for decades…
Yes, they had to work very hard on it. At the end of the lecture there was a discussion, which again had to be interpreted. According to some archive reports, the seminars could last up to ten hours; they often lasted around six. People asked various questions. Sometimes they expected the lecturer to tell them what to do about the situation in Czechoslovakia. After their return, lecturers wrote a report. Some reports were very detailed and up to twenty pages long.

How did they describe their visit?
They were moved, sometimes very moved. Mainly because they had never seen students with such a hunger for knowledge, so excited and eager to learn. The big question was: How should we actually live? How should we behave? (One student told me later that his question was, How should we live in this world of Communism and lies?) According to our lecturers, they took philosophy as something personal, something to live by, while students at our universities in England just discussed the subject theoretically. But these students really wanted to know what it meant in practice.

So it was mainly philosophy that was banned in that form?
Yes, the various aspects of philosophy, plus political science. And also contemporary history, theology, art, even ecology and the environment. At that time, through Jiří Müller, we managed to connect the environmentalist Josef Vavroušek, working at the Research Institute for Scientific Development in Prague, with Tom Burke (director of the Green Alliance), who had lectured on ecology to the secret seminar in Brno. He managed to give a lecture at the institute, officially, and to bring out reports on the ecological situation in Czechoslovakia (at that time ecology was already an issue in the wider world, but the communists still denied the existence of environmental pollution, despite evident pollution problems), and to publish them in Britain. The meeting was a very unusual occurrence; otherwise, professors never lectured in both cities.

What else did you start doing differently?
I’ll give an example of the sort of precaution we took. Most of our visitors flew from London to Prague. There was one flight a day, but the authorities had access to the passenger lists. So if you were on that flight, they knew in advance when you were coming. Someone would be watching you get off the plane; others were waiting at Arrivals, accompanied by an undercover photographer. I know this happened because I found it in an StB file. And it must have been the case with other visitors. My own police file was destroyed, but Alena Hromádková found a report on me in her file in 1987 they had six people waiting at the airport when I entered the country. Maybe I was supposed to notice them and be frightened. Maybe it was meant as a warning, I don't know. It seems they got into three cars and followed my taxi. They wrote down every detail: what I was wearing, what I was carrying, the route the taxi took, to the point where I got out of the taxi, picked up my suitcase and went to the door of the building where I was staying. And that was the end of the report.

Do you think they wanted to scare you? Were you afraid?
They didn’t scare me because I always assumed I was being followed and I never looked round as though I was checking. I took the attitude that I would visit who I wanted (as long as it wasn’t dangerous for that person) and if they wanted they could follow me, but it was a matter of indifference to me. So if their aim was to scare me, it failed. And secondly, knowing that I might be followed, I was always careful in my behaviour, and reminded myself that I was a British citizen and that I was doing nothing wrong or illegal.

That makes sense. But were you not afraid they could imprison you? Maybe they could just make something up…
Yes, they did do that with Jacques Derrida.

What happened then?
It was before I was working for the Foundation, in December 1981. The authorities wanted to silence people such as the philosopher Ladislav Hejdánek, whose seminars were attended by many people, so they wanted to discredit them and show them up as criminal characters. And they planned to do it through one of the lecturers at Hejdánek’s seminar, the French philosopher Jacques Derrida.  They planted drugs in Derrida’s suitcase. When he was leaving, at the airport they were instructed to find the drugs. They had sniffer dogs, but the funny thing was that they couldn’t find the drugs, the dogs couldn’t sniff them out. Only after a phone call, probably with information on where the drugs were, were the police eventually able to discover four brown packets of powder hidden in the suitcase’s lining, and Derrida was detained for 24 hours. But they chose the wrong lecturer: Derrida was a good friend of French President Mitterand. And he rung up Czechoslovak President Husák.

So in the end it was the totalitarian authorities who were scared, not the philosophers...
Yes, apparently Husák was upset and said after the phone call: What’s happening? What on earth did you do?

You talked about the fact that instead of Prague, lecturers at the Brno seminars were told to fly to Vienna. Was it safer for the lecturers?
There was no serious danger for the Westerners. Maybe we were overconfident, but when we briefed the lecturers we emphasised that as they were doing nothing wrong, nothing could happen to them. What we were worried about was that something could happen to people we were working with. So we tried to be very strict about lecturers keeping to the rules in order not to endanger those on the Czech side. And the reason for flying to Vienna? Because the lecturers could then cross the border by bus, and they could buy the bus ticket over the counter in Vienna. So they got into the country without the communists knowing in advance. It proved to be a very useful precaution, because, for example, when we started working in Bratislava, one of the lecturers, Robert Grant from Glasgow University came into the country on a Friday via Vienna and it was not until Friday evening that the communists were aware that he had crossed the border by bus. But on a Friday it was too late for them to do anything. So the weekend passed and on the Monday a notice was sent to all educational institutions and all border crossing points to say Professor Grant should be detained on his way out of the country. But Professor Grant had already left Czechoslovakia by bus on the Sunday night. So they got the reply: We can’t trace this man, he doesn’t seem to be here, we’ve lost track of him. We didn’t know this at the time, we only learned it from the StB files in the 1990s. But it proved that our tactics had worked.

But they also searched for things in buses, didn’t they?
Yes, but not all the luggage was checked. With books, we told them not to put them in their suitcase, but in a plastic bag with their snacks for the journey, they would be safer there. The driver opened the boot of the bus and customs would come and say: OK, we will open this case (chosen at random). Another precaution, when we didn’t want the lecturers to carry books and compromising materials, was to have couriers with books in unlabelled suitcases. If they were opened, no one would admit to them. There was the risk of losing the suitcase, but it couldn’t be traced. But I don’t remember that it ever happened to us.

Do you have an idea of ​​how many people attended the underground seminars?
In the last few years, I have been doing more research and have realized that it must have been hundreds of people altogether. About 40 people attended the seminar we organized in Brno, though not all at once. There were seminars in Prague, such as those organized by Ladislav Hejdánek, who remembers having about fifty participants over the years. And there were many smaller ones. The foundation worked for ten years, during which time many students from different parts of the country attended the seminars. So it wasn’t as small as it might seem. When we think of how much publicity underground music and art – the Plastic People of the Universe, for instance – were given after the Velvet Revolution, underground education was not so much talked about. And I think that is why today many people don’t know about these underground universities. At the last debate, marking the 30th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution, I met a lot of people who said they had no idea that such seminars had existed. So I think young people born after the Revolution don’t know anything about them.

What was the most important thing for you personally?
I wanted to tell you about a theology seminar which I consider one of the most important. Again, it was Roger Scruton who said that the foundation’s aim should be for the students to obtain a qualification, a qualification they could use later. The idea was great, but it was very difficult to find a British university to cooperate. But then we had a new trustee of the foundation, Andrew Lenox-Conyngham, who was teaching in Cambridge and was an examiner for the Cambridge Diploma for Religious Studies, and he said that he would talk to people there. And they agreed to do it. There was already a Judaism seminar held regularly in Prague for years, run by the leading scholar Milan Balabán, and we selected the students attending his seminar as a basis for the Cambridge Diploma Seminar.

What did they have to do to get a diploma?
They had to take six subjects. We arranged for them to study two subjects every year, so it would take them a minimum of three years to complete everything. They had to have a whole semester of lectures in one week, every single day, because the lecturers we sent could only come for that one week, they couldn’t stay here or come regularly. So you can imagine how exhausted the students were, as they still had their ordinary jobs every day. But everything went well. The first lectures were completed and the first papers were taken in the summer of ’89, and it worked out very well. We managed to get the papers out of the country, and translated for Cambridge (because they had to be in English). Six of the participants passed the exams in 1989. But the next year, 1990, no one did any academic work. However, these students were so motivated they carried on and finally managed to continue their diploma. Both the Cambridge Diploma and the Cambridge Certificate (a slightly lower level) are valid Cambridge University qualifications, which one of the students later “nostrified” at Charles University.

How did the foundation work after ’89?
The British were the first to suggest they could stop. But the Czechs said no! So we continued on a different basis. Certain things carried on – the Cambridge Diploma Seminar, for example. In some cases, lecturers continued to travel  independently, without the organizing hand of the Foundation; having built up a relationship with their students in the ’80’s, they wanted to continue and to follow the progress of the students’ careers. They also helped them with study visits abroad, and with setting up links with foreign universities. One person who experienced this was Petr Fiala, who later became Rector of Masaryk University. He told me that in his case it was extremely valuable for his orientation in  political science. And those who participated in the philosophy seminars in Prague, which were strong seminars, were then able to renew the philosophy department at Charles University in Prague. I think the person who did most for this was Petr Rezek, who was very determined and  ‘unvelvet’. He said that many teachers there were simply incompetent. I heard the department was turned completely inside out. And this was unusual, because other departments kept  their old Communist professors and teaching, and it was very difficult for new people to get in.

Another interesting thing for me was the sentence you have in your profile, namely that in 1988 the Hus Foundation was described as “one of the most dangerous organizations of an ideologically subversive nature operating from Great Britain against Czechoslovakia”. Does this show that education was a threat to the totalitarian system?
The line comes from one of the StB records, actually from London, when the regime was trying to find out what the Foundation was doing. Certainly, the person who wrote that report was very anxious to infiltrate the Foundation and discover what they could about our plans and activities. But one of the Foundation’s rules was that it should only have British trustees, and not include emigré Czechs. Not because we didn’t respect and admire them, but because even abroad they were followed, making it easier for agents in London to infiltrate and discover what was going on.

So do you believe that education can make a significant difference?
I think it’s the only thing that can change things! Because it is how people are brought up and what they learn that forms their attitude to life. When Petr Oslzlý and Jiří Müller were discussing what the Brno seminar would cover, they agreed the theme should be ethics. Later, when I was interviewing the South African writer Dan Jacobson, who lectured at the seminar several times, he asked me  if there was a theme that ran through all the different seminars. And I told him, the theme was  ethics. He took a deep breath, a long pause, then said: Yes, I can see that, it makes sense.