On Wednesday, 9 February 1966, a little baby was born into the Benka family. They gave it the name Jana. The baby's father was a confirmed communist, her mother a deeply religious Catholic.
Despite being raised under communism, Jana Benková had a pleasant childhood in the beautiful and historical town of Trnava, not that far from Bratislava.
But her parents' unshakable views, in the end, made her wary of any ideology. As a child, Jana rebelled against her mother and stopped going to church and religion classes in school. At high school, she began to rebel against her father’s communist principles as well.
We got rid of the oppression and went back to our own lives, hoping we would live better.„
“What was served up to the children, for example at the pioneer meetings, sounded good: chestnut harvesting, nature care, helping the elderly,” Jana Plulíková, her married name, began to recall her childhood memories. The Pioneers were, essentially, a children’s group within the larger movement, intended to foster communist ideals in children.
“The political things…I didn’t think they related to me. What the newspapers published, what the communist Pravda daily wrote about the communist party's rallies and conclusions, it went all beyond me. Those were just the phrases,” she added.
“We must remember that communism presented itself as something moral and beautiful,” Plulíková also stressed.
A bubble was about to burst
The turning point occurred when Jana took up climbing and joined the local Slávia Trnava group of climbers.
“When I was 16, I began to climb, and that was the time when I suddenly met working people, blue-collar workers, engineers, who were 20 to 30 years older than me,” Plulíková remembered.
They were joking about the bulletin boards on which the names of the best workers regularly appeared and how there were plans to meet 130 percent. Their stories from the plants proved how everyone was constantly lying to fix the results to the set goals.
“One night by the fire, we were listening to the songs of Czech songwriter Karel Kryl, and I did not know what was going on, how someone could sing songs like that,” Plulíková claimed. Kryl was a singer who wrote many anti-communist songs and his music was banned.
“It sounded authentic and at the same time, it was against the doctrine my father and school taught me.”
At that by-the-fire moment, she remembered her mother who also did not believe the creed they lived by. Jana realised then that she was actually living under a dictatorship.
“I found myself living in a strange construction where the official statements on the stands and reality completely diverged,” Plulíková claims.
An island of positive deviation
Afterwards, she started going to Czech summer festivals, including Porta and Lipnice, with friends from the hikers' community. There, braver songwriters performed and criticised the state of society in the eighties.
It was an “island of positive deviation” made up of people who spent their weekends in the mountains, Plulíková recalled.
Jana herself was one of those who regularly went for a hike. Just like her, many others also “needed to breathe in nature over the weekend so that they could manage a double life during weekdays”.
Critical comments on the events of the times were also incorporated into Shakespeare plays, which were performed at the theatre in Trnava. In addition, concerts by songwriters in small clubs and dormitories in Bratislava, such as the Mladá Garda dormitory, were multiplying.
She was becoming aware of the contradiction between the doctrine and reality through history and art, too. Jana admired the mansions, historical parks, sculptures, and urban architecture. She sensed the people who had come before had a deep sense of beauty and ideas of life that differed from the communist model. It seemed to Jana that those who created such beauty could not be as bad as described by the communist propaganda.
In 1984, Jana Benková began her university studies. In obedience she took up “computers” although she did not identify herself with the subject of study. She realised the system put her somewhere she did not want to be; she did not have the chance to choose a career she would like to pursue.
Despite her parents and friends telling her not to leave her studies at the Slovak Technical University in Bratislava behind, she did so in the second year.
Since she could not remain “impassive”, she got employment with the railways. It was rather a symbolic workplace, created to reach the 100-percent employment mark in Czechoslovakia. But it had an advantage: Jana could prepare for the entrance exams for language studies. As an employee, she also had a train pass, which she used every weekend to travel to the mountains with friends.
In September 1986, Jana eventually enrolled to study English and Slovak at Comenius University in Bratislava.
Communism was a massive burden
At the Faculty of Arts of Comenius University, she met inspiring people. Around this time, Jana was seeking her own sense of self with yoga, Buddhism, pantheism, books, movies, paintings, and theatre.
We did not realise that we had let opportunists or even worse, predators and sociopaths, take over.„
When she was in her third year, she wedded Vlado Plulík, her friend from the Piešťany hikers' community. It was in February 1989. She already saw the regime was a huge burden that could not be removed.
Jana felt, “they are everywhere, they spy, the fear of repression is present all around, and that even jokes must be said carefully”.
There was no other way but to live a double life: speak sincerely with loved ones, wear a mask in public and try not to express your views overly much.
At university, she and her fellow students studied “banned” writers such as Dominik Tatarka. Plulíková still remembers the strange way they discussed those writers.
“It was like dancing around the essence. Everything was said indirectly, in signs and allegory,” Plulíková said.
Their professors had to be cautious, too. Among students and lecturers, there were adepts in cooperation with the Secret Police (ŠtB) advocates for being accepted into the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia (KSČ), party members and informers.
The Velvet Revolution begins
Plulíková also remembers the enormous joy at the fall of the Berlin Wall, the divide between West and East Germany, in early November 1989, as well as the mixed feelings: reflections on whether the Berlin situation could happen in Czechoslovakia, too, and the feelings of resignation, that it would not be possible.
However, the frustration of a life lived in pretence was broken as soon as information surfaced about what happened on 17 November 1989 in Prague, the capital of Czechoslovakia.
As I listen to you trying to conceal the living stream, which is finally coming to light here, how you are making excuses, how you do not know what to think in this situation. You are no longer an authority over me. I am ashamed of you.„
“The news was that student Martin Šmíd was killed. It sparked open anger against the regime and some strong emotions,” Plulíková said. “How could they dare send an army against students? The frustration just reached its peak.”
Over the weekend, Slovak students penned a statement in Mlynská Dolina, which is somewhat of a university town in Bratislava. On Monday, November 20, they went to school, ready to go on strike like the people in Prague. They wanted to do something.
“We just did not know how,” Plulíková claims. “It was only years later that we realised it was the time when the Velvet Revolution had begun.”
Students arrived at Šafárik Square in Bratislava and entered Comenius University. Yet, they did not go to lectures. They were aiming for the auditorium, however, it was locked.
To prevent the revolution from ending right at the start, the burden of “guilt” was being shared among several students who were reading one sentence from the written statement in the corridor.
Some of the students already knew that masses would have to join in, not just critics, to bring about an actual change. They realised the hesitant must also be roused so as not to halt the emerging revolution by allowing the police to put a few of the protagonists in jail, Plulíková claimed.
Then Dean Vladár's instruction to open the auditorium came.
“Apparently, the school management was afraid the students would gather outside and start manifesting just like in Prague so they, instead, they let us into the auditorium after all,” Plulíková claims.Read more
School representatives sat on the stage, students below, and a microphone stood between them. The students suddenly began to come to the microphone in bulk, asking: “How could the state machinery allow an intervention of such proportions and aggression against students who tell the truth?”
Initially, they also asked the Comenius University management to give a statement on the Prague situation.
“At that time, we were not yet revolutionaries. We just asked them to acknowledge that what had happened on Friday in Prague crossed the line,” Plulíková said.
Instead of acknowledging the mistake, the dignitaries of the university and the KSČ members tried to divert the students' attention to the quality of the dormitories, food and so on. Jana hardly dared to stand and speak her opinion aloud.
“As I listen to you trying to conceal the living stream, which is finally coming to light here, how you are making excuses, how you do not know what to think in this situation…you are no longer an authority over me,” Jana said. “I am ashamed of you.”
There was silence in the auditorium after her words. She wondered if the police were going to take her away and jail her. Other speakers went on.
“You do not represent an authority who can speak for us,” they said. “We want to choose our own representatives.” Some of the student leaders speaking out loud included Daniel Bútora, Boris Strečanský, Dionýz Hochel, and Svetoslav Bombík.
They urged the dignitaries to leave the stage to allow the students to sit there. From 20 November 1989, the revolution began to get organised. In the midst of all the authenticity, chaos and spontaneity, it was taking on some kind of a form: writing statements, putting up posters, engaging others, and addressing other universities.
I found myself living in a strange construction where the official statements on the stands and reality completely diverged.„
Comenius University teamed up with the Academy of Fine Arts and Design (VŠVU) in Bratislava, which became the headquarters of the revolution in Slovakia. Not far from there the Public Against Violence (VPN) political movement established its hub, a meeting point for people with some experience, who were also politically aware of what to do next.
Jana was at the faculty every day to help organise meetings at the departments. Another task was to persuade other students to join the evening manifestations, which she also went to.
“We walked to the squares, put up posters and banners, and others went to schools, factories, plants all over Slovakia, wherever it was needed until the squares were crowded,” Plulíková recalled.Read more
It was rigorous work, with paper, making copies, calling meetings, but that rigorous work was, she said, very important, because “communist devotees were also writing their treatises to divert attention elsewhere, for instance, to exchange the beds in the dormitories and better food”.
But some of those in support of the revolution understood it as a chance for revenge or for another senseless change. It seemed like a witch hunt. That was why Jana backed out of her active involvement at a later stage.
Almost every day there was a rally. More and more people were coming until a general strike was announced on 27 November 1989.
People had long called for the abolition of the leading role of the KSČ and Article 4 in the constitution, which guaranteed this position to communists. The general strike added weight to those calls and the regime fell, overwhelmed by its own weakness, Plulíková said.
Americans knew nothing
Jana saw the goal of the revolution as scrapping Article 4 and the election of the new president of Czechoslovakia before Christmas 1989. Indeed, Václav Havel was elected. She regarded the situation in which she had been involved as something that had helped mobilise people. Then, she believed, the main activity would be taken over by politically experienced people who knew what to do with the country and regime.
“We got rid of the oppression and went back to our own lives, hoping we would live better.” Plulíková said.
Very few people in Slovakia had any idea of what to do next with the country, how to manage society, the economy, and important ministries.„
As soon as January 1990, an opportunity to study at the University of Pittsburgh for one term arose. Jana flew there with two Spanish students. After the study exchange, she travelled with her husband, Vladimír Plulík, around the USA all summer, hitchhiking and climbing mountains.
“We were shocked that the Americans were not interested in what was going on in Czechoslovakia,” Plulíková claims.
Soon after, Jana graduated and her son was born. While on maternity leave, she worked as a freelance translator and interpreter.
Jana remembers the beginning of the nineties as a period of profound changes in every sphere of life. It was also the time when Czechoslovakia split into the Czech Republic and the Slovak Republic, in 1993.
She declined an offer to get involved in politics. At the same time, she was very critical of Vladimír Mečiar who became the first Slovak prime minister after the first free elections took place in June 1990. She met with him twice when she interpreted for him. During this time, she noticed the contradictory and vague manner in which Mečiar expressed himself. His speech was ambivalent.
But Jana realised there were almost no other prepared, capable politicians, and it was even harder to think of statesmen. Mečiar acted like one, and he played it brilliantly.
Jana went on to write a book of interviews, in 1998, with climbers from the Slovak-Chinese expedition to Mt Everest. Mečiar's political party, HZDS, misused the expedition for political purposes in the election campaign.
“We believe that our experience will become a memento for others: Politics must misuse sports never again,” hikers said in July of 1998, as published in the Slovak dailies.
Again, Jana criticised hikers, in her book, asking them if they would have agreed to set out on an expedition and erect a flag with a swastika on in the mountains had sponsors paid for their expedition. HZDS member, Vladimír Ondruš, had paid for the Mt Everest expedition in exchange for pictures of hikers with the HZDS flags on the peak, which later appeared in the media.
“Very few people in Slovakia had any idea of what to do next with the country, how to manage society, the economy, and important ministries,” Plulíková claimed. Everything went on being difficult even after Slovakia emerged.
“We did not realise that we had let opportunists or even worse, predators and sociopaths, take over.”
Off to Brussels
Plulíková gave birth to her daughter at the turn of the century. Her life was about parental concerns and joys, but she followed politics. Yet, she did not see any way to get involved, except for occasionally publishing in magazines, translating and interpreting for emerging NGOs.
At first, the division of Czechoslovakia was not something she agreed with. As time passed however, she could see that everything was working out well for both countries.
Jana Plulíková has lived in Brussels with her two children for the last ten years. She interprets and translates for EU institutions.