A new book entitled 'Velvet Philosophers' is set to hit stands in Slovakia in spring 1999. Its author, Barbara Day, founded the Ján Hus Foundation in Great Britain to support higher education in the Czech and Slovak Republics, and was one of the original members of the 'Underground University', a clandestine communist era academic circle that promoted international contacts at a time when they were forbidden. 'Velvet Philosophers' is the story of this almost-forgotten group.
Day was in Slovakia in mid-November to give a presentation on the history of Underground University and to promote her new book. The research that went into "Velvet Philosophers" was sponsored by the Ján Hus Foundation, which wanted to study the people who participated in this unique movement in the 1980's.
"Velvet Philosophers" will ultimately become a valuable document of the communist period in Czechoslovakia, when domestic and foreign academics defied communist government vigilance to maintain civic and cultural ties.
According to Day, Czech philosopher Julius Tomlin smuggled a letter to Oxford in 1978 to inform western colleagues that unofficial seminars would be taking place at private homes in communist Czechoslovakia. He succeeded in inviting Kathy Wilkes of St. Hilda's College to deliver the first lecture by a visiting academic. During the next decade, more than 140 lecturers and worldwide experts came to Czechoslovakia to talk about philosophy, economy, architecture and the arts.
The seminars were visited by Czech and Slovak families, professors and students who risked everything to discuss life and morality with their western counterparts. Known as the Underground University (Podzemná univerzita), these seminars were often raided by police as unauthorised and unofficial gatherings.
By 1981, western philosophers had become coordinated under the Ján Hus Educational Foundation in Britain, led by Roger Scruton, and The Association Ján Hus in France.
Ján Hus was a Czech philosopher who sought spiritual inspiration in the works of the Oxford preacher John Wycliffe six hundred years ago. Centuries later, Czech and Slovak intellectuals drew inspiration from Hus in their fight for freedom of information, research and education against the totalitarian Communist regime.
Foreign lecturers were normally issued four-day visas, and had to travel alone to an unknown city and find the place where the seminar would take place. Scruton, as the most frequent visitor, put many western artists and philosophers in contact with future Velvet Revolution politicians.
The Ján Hus Foundation did not reach Slovakia until 1987. The Slovak chapter focused primarily on politics with current Justice Minister Ján Čarnogurský at its head.
Until 1989, the Foundation was based abroad (UK, USA, Canada, France). Beyond arranging seminars and contacts, it helped Czech and Slovak activists publish some of the most important works of western writers in illegal 'samizdat' editions and organise various independent cultural activities.
In 1989, the foundation opened a Czechoslovak branch in Brno. Since 1993, the foundation has been on the ground in Slovakia as well. It has helped the country in its transition from a totalitarian regime to democracy and has fostered permanent international academic ties.
30. Nov 1998 at 0:00 | Soňa Bellušová