To be young in the 1980s. We were a generation of apolitical rebels

Images from the history of the Sme daily: The Eighties

Alexej Fulmek (right) and Karol Ježík in the early days of Sme. Alexej Fulmek (right) and Karol Ježík in the early days of Sme. (Source: Sme archive)

Alexej Fulmek is the CEO of the Petit Press publishing house. In 1993, he co-founded the Sme daily along with its first editor-in-chief, Karol Ježík. He has been part of the story of the daily, and the history of Slovakia, ever since. This extract is from his memoir One Flew Over the Newsprint published in the Slovak original in December 2018.

We suspected something serious was going on. My generation’s desire for freedom started materialising. Since Gorbachev took over in the Soviet Union, much had changed. The Russian TV station Ostankino suddenly became more attractive than the Austrian ORF. I remember 1987, when we welcomed that bold man with the red birthmark on his head at SNP Square like a celebrity. Nobody forced us there, like when Leonid Brezhnev had visited one decade before.

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I borrowed a ladder from a nearby shop to better see Gorbachev over the crowd. I had a letter I wanted to give him, so I followed him to the vacuum-cleaned village of Cífer near Trnava where he visited the local collective farm. But I failed to get closer to him. In my letter I asked him to secure free movement to foreigners in the Soviet Union, since I was unable to visit my Russian grandmother in the “closed” city of Gorky, which has since gone back to its historical name, Nizhny Novgorod. It was a city with a strong military industry. The Nobel Prize laureate, scientist and dissident Andrey Sakharov was held under home imprisonment there. He was one of the few Russians to stand up against the Communist regime. That was also why foreigners were not allowed to enter the city.

Later, in 2002, I saw Gorbachev lecture along with Helmut Kohl on the fall of the Berlin Wall in the German city of Passau at the “Menschen in Europa” event, organised by our publishing partners from Verlagsgruppe Passau. I was disappointed with his vague phrases. But it was not the first time he had disappointed me. In 1991, I asked him for an interview through his foundation. They put a price tag of 10,000 US dollars on the interview for a small Slovak newspaper, putting an end to it before it even started.

A generation of apolitical rebels

My generation and the group of friends from Bratislava’s gymnasiums (grammar schools) lived free, listening to music like Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, Janis Joplin, Deep Purple, Jethro Tull, Pink Floyd, Neil Young, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and Joan Baez. We would buy posters and albums at auctions on Kapitulská Street. The lucky ones among us brought them from abroad. I went to Yugoslavia once with the football team of Inter Bratislava juniors, and I was shocked to see all the good albums available there. I brought home The Who, Robert Plant, Dire Straits and Woodstock.

At school we were forbidden to wear long hair and long pullovers. We used to go to Sládkovičovo to secretly crop hemp. We grew marijuana in pots on our balconies, and then we smoked it, weak as it usually was. That was our resistance. No dissent, just light drugs, cigarettes and alcohol. No politics, just music and books. We felt the need to rebel. We were a generation of apolitical rebels. We did not want to engage, unlike the dissent and the underground church that held secret meetings of their own, with religious music and movies like Zeffirelli’s Brother Sun, Sister Moon. Their group included the future representatives of big, local politics whom Fero Mikloško led to the Candle Manifestation in front of the Carlton Hotel in March 1988.

The first time I saw Havel's face

We were happy to read Václav Havel’s ad in the Communist daily Rudé Právo. One of the classifieds was a congratulations to Ferdinand Vaněk for his 53rd birthday, which he celebrated on October 5, 1989, printed along with a picture of Havel. That was the first time I saw his face. Vaněk was a character from Havel’s play Audience.

Humour was a weapon. Communism had no sense of humor. That was why humour attacked it from theatre stages and songs. We played guitars and sang the songs of Karel Kryl and Vladimír Merta. We read Kerouac, Ferlinghetti, Ginsberg, Pasternak, Kundera, Škvorecký, Sartre and Camus.

That was our resistance. No dissent, just light drugs, cigarettes and alcohol. No politics, just music and books. We felt the need to rebel. We were a generation of apolitical rebels.

I was practically alone at home, since my one-decade-older siblings had their own families by then. We did not own any banned books, but my father built a small library out of official editions that I had all for myself, and he always stressed that if I wanted to have a good vocabulary, I needed to read a lot. I made friends with the grandsons of architect Dušan Jurkovič, Iľja and Dušan. Their mom, writer Alta Vášová, and their stepfather, literary critic Peter Zajac, had a library with amazing works of literature, some of them banned. That was my literature class, in their house on Búdková Street up on the hill, which Iľja burned down with a forgotten lit cigarette. Today, Iľja lives with his family in Rome.

I was in the publishing “business” back then already. My good father, a member of the Communist Party, would make Xerox copies of my magazines. He worked in an institution called the Slovak Planning Commission, where they planned the socialist economic future of Slovakia and he had access to copy machines, unusual for that time.

My father copied my poetry volume, A Cripple Departs from Life, with illustrations by my friend Vilo Ivanič; also my magazine Seznam and the literary magazine Orech, which I was publishing at the Faculty of Arts with Dušan Jurkovič. He pretended to have taken after his famous architect grandfather and took it upon himself to give the magazine some graphics. During one spring weekend in 1987, we prepared a splendid promotion for Orech in the corridors of our school on Gondova Street. The school leadership was taken aback, and ordered us to remove what we thought of as modern decoration of the corridor. I ended up with an admonition from the deputy dean, but also praise from literary scientist and pedagogue Valér Mikula, who appreciated that something was finally happening on the academic grounds again. I continued publishing the magazine.

We were ready for the revolution

Many of my friends, including Roman Augustín, Vilo Ivanič and Zuza, now Ivaničová, emigrated through Yugoslavia and Italy to Canada. Roman Augustín, still lives out on Vancouver Island. As a side note, to the delight of enthusiasts of conspiracy theories, Tom Nicholson, previously a top investigative reporter, found his home on the same island, only about 20 km away. Although the Earth is large, these things happen, and George Soros is not even aware of them.

In short, the revolution came and we were ready. Unlike our parents and older siblings, we were prepared and it was clear to us that the ruling power was bullying us, arresting and dispersing us when we tried to unveil the statue of John Lennon in the forest of Dúbravka. The police slapped us due to our long hair and soaked identity cards. We could not buy the music we liked and read the books we wanted to read. It was a cultural generation prepared to support changes in society. We were ready, and that was why we were there on the square, as early as November 20, 1989.

The Slovak Spectator will publish more extracts from Fulmek's memoir in the coming weeks.

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