Although I lived my first thirty-five years during the Cold War, I had only one unforgettable opportunity to visit a communist country while communism was still in some fashion a going concern. In November 1976 I traveled with a student group to Prague in what was then still communist-ruled Czechoslovakia. November happened to be Soviet-Czechoslovak Friendship Month, in commemoration of the 1917 Revolution, and the weather during our visit was cold and overcast. Prague I found to be a stunningly beautiful city, a fourteenth-century jewel largely untouched by the world wars but blighted by the Stalinist architecture that had risen at its periphery in the years since 1948.
We spent only two weeks there, but that was enough for me to get a feel for the city and for the people living under what was obviously an unwanted régime. The Prague Spring was not even a decade in the past, and the Warsaw Pact invasion that ended this brief experiment in “socialism with a human face” had occurred only eight years earlier. Our group was granted unprecedented access to places that would not have been on the normal tourist itinerary. We visited two factories, a state-controlled farm, the Foreign Ministry, the Terezin (Theresienstadt) concentration camp, and the site of Lidice, a village obliterated by the Nazi occupation forces in retaliation for the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, Reichsprotektor of Bohemia and Moravia. There are many stories worth telling about this visit, including a potentially embarrassing question posed by one of our group to a kindly Foreign Ministry official. But one episode in particular stands out for me.
I was in the Old Town Square trying to figure out a way to get into a rather large church that appeared to be surrounded on all sides by smaller buildings. (I can no longer trust my memory so many decades later, but I think it may have been the Church of Our Lady Before Týn.) At this point a man came up to me and started talking to me in German, a language still familiar to many older people who had grown up under the Habsburg dual monarchy. We quickly switched to English, and he offered to buy any foreign currency I might have for twice the official exchange rate, something that was technically illegal but to which the authorities appeared to turn a blind eye.
I inquired as to how I might get into that church, and he was kind enough to take me inside. While there he began to talk politics, which surprised and unnerved me. At the time police and military personnel were ubiquitous, contributing to the feel of an occupied city. Yet this man seemed to have no fear of their presence. He told me quite openly that one day they would kick out Leonid Brezhnev and the Russians, and bring back Alexander Dubček, demoted architect of the Prague Spring. The man made no effort to whisper, and his voice echoed inside the sanctuary. Other people were milling about, but they paid no attention to him.
I glanced about nervously, expecting at any moment that we might be accosted by the police. But nothing happened. Nothing at all. That's when it hit me: no one actually believed the official ideology anymore. People were keeping their heads down, going through the motions of living day-to-day under an ostensibly liberating ideology, yet anticipating the day when the régime would end.
Just under two years later Karol Józef Wojtyła became Pope John Paul II, and soon thereafter the independent Solidarity trade union burst onto the scene in Poland, beginning the process of communism's slow unraveling. Thirteen years after my visit, the Velvet Revolution would bring down the communist government in Prague, thus contributing to the end of what had appeared to be a permanent division of Europe.
Last evening I was at Tyndale University College in Toronto for a Convivium-sponsored conversation between Fr. Raymond de Souza and George Weigel, the Pope's biographer. Among other things, Weigel told us that John Paul II refused to accept “the tyranny of the possible.” He never accepted as permanent the Berlin Wall and the ideological division of Europe, which did indeed end a quarter of a century ago. I cannot claim any special prescience in advance of these events, but my youthful experience in Prague had prepared me for the likelihood that, when the Soviet Union relaxed its grip on its East European clients, they would rid themselves of their rulers sooner rather than later.
The collapse of communism offered the global Christian community a brief respite from the adversities engendered by an atheistic political illusion with global pretensions. Now we face new challenges, including Islamist terrorism and a radical secularism impatient with our refusal to accede to the new cultural norms claiming to liberate the autonomous individual from traditional moral constraints. Yet, as Weigel reminded us last evening, John Paul II firmly believed that we need fear only thoughtlessness and lack of courage. Just as Czechs and Slovaks maintained patience in the face of tyranny for four decades, we ourselves have reason to expect that current trends, however disheartening in the short term, will not endure forever. We can affirm with the prophet Daniel that God's “kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and his dominion is from generation to generation” (4:3).
David T. Koyzis is the author of Political Visions and Illusions and We Answer to Another: Authority, Office, and the Image of God. He teaches politics at Redeemer University College in Canada.