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Roger Partridge
Pfeuferstr. 36 • 81373 München (Munich)

1984 – in Pilsen (2005, Roger Partridge ©)

Over the years – both before and after the Velvet Revolution – I have often visited Czechoslovakia / the Czech Republic but only ever stopped once in Pilsen; so this is an attempt to make amends to the capital of West Bohemia; published 2005 in the British Czech and Slovak Review.

He woke up in the dark and, as always, pressed the button on the alarm clock a few seconds before it went off at 5.30. His mind was blank: suppressing a feeling of irritation at this early start of the working day had almost become a reflex action, and the memory of moving over a few inches to kiss his wife, long-divorced, had faded even more rapidly than the less agreeable aspects of their childless marriage.

But getting up and going over to the window Karel looked out at the Pilsen streets wet from the night's rain, illuminated far more by the sparse overhead lighting than the dawn light, and his heart sank. There certainly wasn't much to look forward to the coming day ahead. Already at seven o'clock the first meeting, with representatives of the office and production workers and external union officials, and the second at nine, probably with no time beforehand to have coffee and rolls in peace.

As deputy director responsible for 'cadre' issues he would be chairing the first meeting. It wouldn't be easy. Still, a personnel director 75 kilometres or further to the west might even have a tougher job: instead of being a union member himself he would have both the trade unionists and the company workers up against him. But then at least everybody would know where they were. Despite his growing feeling of depression Karel smiled wryly. In ninety minutes time he and his 'colleagues' would all pretend to be on the same side of the fence, doing their best for the company and for the economy as a whole. But what did that mean in practice? Most of them would either be keeping their heads down or backing the party line, however stupid. Well, perhaps Jana wouldn't. He felt his spirits lifting. What made Jana Svobodova different? She represented the production workers in the plant but was not in any way typical of the party faithful. Attractive, with an unobtrusive sweet charm, she was always co-operative, genuinely friendly – and spoke her mind.

Come to that, what made him so different? So many defeats and compromises in the last twenty years, including signing the declaration that the 'intervention' of the Warsaw Pact forces August 1968 had been vitally necessary. He would never forget the signature business. Most of the people he'd worked with at that time, just as 'anti' as himself, shrugged their shoulders with the comment, 'after all, it's only a piece of paper.' But his immediate boss had not. He spent the following five years shovelling coal in the factory's boiler house. A filthy, badly paid job but Karel often envied him.

The shower was only lukewarm. Well, he knew there were problems with the overhaul of the district heating system in his part of town and grumbling wasn't his habit, even to himself. The shower problem did however slow him down and he decided to skip coffee as he was out of sugar – he'd never got into the habit of going shopping in the middle of the working day.

At the trolley-bus stop it was already light but the others waiting there didn't seem to be in a better mood than he was: some looked definitely hung over – of course it had been a public holiday the day before. The headlines of Rudé Pravo: 'Yesterday we remembered once again the end of World War II and the superhuman sacrifices of the Soviet people'. Well yes, but a Czech – thirty-five years in the communist party or not – sometimes thinks there are reparations and reparations. He suddenly remembered seeing as a school boy the American soldiers in their Jeeps arriving in Pilsen at the end of the war. They'd seemed to come from a different world. But he was jerked back to the present by another headline: 'Soviet Union announces withdrawal from the Los Angeles Olympics.' Well, of course, that meant the Czechs would do so as well. A shame – watching the events on TV would have been a pleasant change. And all those in the Olympic squad who'd been training seven days a week for well over a year. How will they take it?

The sun finally gave up the struggle to come out, and it started to rain. Karel's raincoat was definitely not warm enough, early May or not. Surely his refusing to use his position to jump the five year queue for a car worth having was just quixotic lunacy. How would Jana see it?

The bus was full of course, but you don't have to be a hero to take a quarter of an hour of strap hanging – even in your mid fifties. In fact today it was over a half an hour – an accident on the bus route causing several trolley buses to end up in a convoy.

At the door of the works administrative building the doorman hardly nodded at him. Obviously he didn't consider Karel to be one of the power brokers – neither current nor future.

Arriving in his office at five minutes to seven Karel found 'Colleague Novakova' there already in action. He tried hard not to sigh – why did it always require an act of will to be pleasant to her? He suddenly realised – obviously his day for painful insights – that the fact she was his secretary cum assistant was a clear sign of his place in the pecking order among the company's nine deputy directors.

She looked up from the filing cabinet, in spite of the early hour flustered and visibly perspiring – no windows open as usual and the heating on full blast – well, they were in another part of town. 'Good morning, comrade!' – Surely she was the only one left in the whole company who used the term non-ironically. – 'Do you happen to know where the

minutes of the last meeting are?' More of an accusation than a request for assistance.

Karel couldn't help feeling how unfair it was that she was both inefficient and completely lacking in charm of any kind – unfair to her and unfair to him. He went over to the cabinet and found the document straight away. 'Don't you remember, Colleague Novakova? We agreed last week to file at least one copy of minutes simply by date.'

With a disagreeable look she took it from him and left the room in the direction of the conference room. This time he did sigh: how he wished she didn't have the right – and obvious wish – to take part in the cadre meetings.

Wishing he'd had a cup of coffee at home after all, Karel followed soon after. As he entered, the town hall clock outside struck seven. Nobody was missing. It was easy to see this because the regular members of the committee always sat in exactly the same positions. Wasn't there even a seating plan somewhere, but with functions instead of names – just another sign of the widespread inflexibility?

'Colleague Hermanek, bang on time as usual! You would go down very well with our comrades in East Berlin.'

There was an embarrassed laugh. No one was ever quite sure whether Kohoutek's jokes were meant as covert criticism. In his early forties, and an able production director and master politician, he enjoyed a certain licence within the company with respect to both caustic comments and unconventional ideas, which he normally managed to push through.

'Wasting as little time as Karel might help us to meet the norms and avoid the sarcastic letters from the ministry at the end of each month.' Jana's laugh at the end of her verbal karate chop loosened everybody up and as Karel took his seat at the top of the table most of the others looked at him more or less benignly. Somewhat confused by this unexpected ray of sunshine from Jana, he didn't have the slightest idea of how to open the meeting. But a look at Novakova's granite face did the trick.

'I'm sure you will remember that we didn't manage to come to an agreement on the details of the unpaid overtime. But we did agree to think about it in the meantime.

Novakova went straight over to the attack – 'What's there to discuss? We just issue a company order saying it starts next week. Where's the problem?'

Karel knew it wasn't going to be an easy meeting. Whatever problems personnel directors had in the West, surely their secretaries weren't part of them. Well, let some one else answer her. Kohoutek didn't disappoint him.

'Unfortunately, Comrade Novakova, many of our colleagues in the factory occasionally forget their socialist ideals. And our pulling out of the Olympics won't help matters.' Karel felt a rare feeling of warmth towards him: very much on the 'pragmatist' wing of the party but at least he didn't always look over his shoulder. For a long time

Karel had wondered why, unlike almost all other enterprises he knew, their plant almost never ran out of raw material. Then one evening over a beer the young data processing manager had told him. At the end of each year, before the number crunching run on the computer for calculating the material requirements for the following year, Kohoutek instructed him to set up the necessary parts lists for planning, including the safety factors, 'imaginatively – even 'creatively'.

'There has to be some other kind of incentive apart from money!' Everybody looked up with interest at the young man, at the meeting for the first time.

'You mean apart from that wonderful warm feeling that one is doing one's bit to help our economy?' All except Novakova laughed at Jana's comment. The real irony however, in Karel's opinion, was that it really was Jana's motivation – or at least part of it. How come?

Smiling, the young man continued. 'No, but we could introduce some kind of competition between departments, both in the production and in the offices. But there would be have to be something worth winning.'

'Well, forget about a week's holiday in Moscow.' Kohoutek never missed a cue.

'What about Leipzig?!' – the young man was definitely a gain for the committee, and it took well over a minute before the laughter subsided. GDR bashing was always non-controversial.

At last Karel began to relax: 'Colleague Novotny is on the right track. We could certainly organise a week's holiday to somewhere people want to go – as long as it's within our republic.' Another laugh, but much more subdued.

The meeting continued with more mundane matters and Karel found himself partly switching off, trying to conceal his personal interest whenever Jana had comments or suggestions to make, which were normally accepted. She had no enemies – even the women were never bitchy about her.

He was suddenly switched on again by her next remark. 'We need to make a special effort next week to welcome the Cuban colleagues'. Not a trace of irony and why should there be? Latin America was her speciality. All those evening classes in Spanish and then the external university degree had been her one-way ticket from the assembly line. But no, he was being grossly unfair. He suspected she spent a large chunk of her spare time on various committees for solidarity with ethnic or political minorities in one Spanish speaking country or another – Guatemala, Chile, El Salvador or wherever. Well, yes, whatever the 'shortcomings' here it was a lot worse there.

'How long will they be here? Will they stay on to work – the same as in the GDR?' Always well-informed about the 'socialist brother states' Novakova would probably even jump at a week's paid holiday in Leipzig.

But Karel was thinking more about the last visit from Havana, when Jana's obvious pleasure at accompanying the trade union delegation for a tour of factories in western Bohemia, not missing trips to Carlsbad and Marienbad, had made him extremely unhappy. The speculation among some of his more macho colleagues about whether she, unmarried and apparently without a partner, was sleeping with one of the group, a good-looking Latino, made him almost physically sick. And sneering at his own sexist or, far worse, 'bourgeois' attitudes hadn't helped one little bit. What chance could he possibly have with her anyway - well over ten years older as he was? He was jerked out of his reverie by the door opening. It was the big chief himself, Director Jelinek – his secretary must be ill. He beckoned to Karel, indicating to the rest of the meeting that they should continue. Karel joined him in the corridor, closing the door behind him. Any kind of conversation with Jelinek was confidential.

'Karel, two issues. The unpaid overtime must go through without delay, and then there are –' Karel's stomach muscles tightened involuntarily: it could only get worse – 'the Vietnamese workers.

'The Viets?! – What issue? There's absolutely no problem there – they've been the best thing that's happened to us since the new canteen. And whoever would have guessed they'd all pick up Czech in less than a year.' In fact, the fifty workers and technicians, one of the last groups sent by Hanoi in the programme started at the end of the sixties had not encountered an overwhelming welcome at the beginning but both their eagerness to please and the efforts of Jana and himself to promote their integration had met with success, and they were accepted by most of the workforce.

'Yes, yes but the ministry has now decided to send them to our colleagues in the Slovakian plant.'

'But they'd be completely wasted there – the production equipment is antediluvian. And you know as well as I do the most of the plant workers come from farming families – they're all extremely . . . 'traditional'. You know what that young engineer from Bratislava with the Romany mother went though at the beginning. The Viets will be treated like lepers.'

Jelinek smiled and laid his hand on Karel's arm, obviously prepared to give him another minute of his precious time – a concession to the fact they had known each other since entering the party together as students. 'Karel, we have to take the wider view: the Slovakian colleagues have a terrible shortage of skilled workers. You know as well as I do that most of the people around there would rather work on the land than in a chaotically organized factory like that.'

'And the Vietnamese will have no choice.'

Jelinek's smile disappeared. 'They'll still be a hundred times better off than back in their own shitty country. Arrange transport for them some time next week.' He nodded and walked away.

When Karel went back in the conference room the discussion stopped and everybody looked at him. Well it won't make much difference to most of them. Kohoutek will rant and rave, seeing his hopes of catching up on the production targets finally disappear for ever. And Jana? Yes, what about Jana? They had worked well together smoothing the path of the Vietnamese. It was one of the few times in the last twenty years he'd felt he was doing something worthwhile – and enjoying it. Whatever he said, she would see him as party to the decision to relocate the group. His stomach was sending out acute danger signals.

He delivered the news in a monotone and took the barracking for a minute before telling them all that there was obviously nothing anybody could do about it. He avoided looking at Jana but as the meeting broke up – without the usual banter – she waited until all the others had left before coming to his end of the table.

'Colleague Hermanek, will you tell Nguyen on his own or shall I ask him to round up the whole group.' No trace of emotion in her voice or expression. 'Oh, you needn't worry about anybody making a scene – no complaints, no reproaches. No, it'll be forbearance, self-discipline and . . . dignity. I've always said we can learn a lot from them.'

This was far worse than the gut ache. 'Jana, you know I'm powerless –'

'Do I, are you?!' Suddenly, a great deal of emotion. 'Did you come up any with other suggestions, Karel? Did you . . . did you – threaten to resign?'

'Resign?! Where on earth you do think we are? – Nobody ever resigns.'

'No? What about Peter Gross?' A year before, the factory had started to make components for armaments and the head of financial planning, a much-respected senior colleague in spite of his lack of party affiliations and being a regular churchgoer – in some kind of protestant group – refused to be one of the signatories on behalf of the enterprise to the contract with the defence ministry. Since then he had been working as a low-level accounts clerk.

'Peter? But he was in a completely different position! He's a pacifist – all part of his religious convictions.'

'So, belief in a god, Jesus Christ and all that kind of thing is more important than believing in yourself and people who trust and respect you – and keeping faith with them! Karel Hermanek, why did I ever think you weren't just another time-server?'

And now he was alone in the conference room, with his stomach pains getting worse every second. He decided to go to the works doctor before the next meeting.

Back in his flat an hour later he felt drowsy from the medication prescribed and managed to sleep for a while. After that and a shower – ah, the water was now hot – he felt at least physically better. He thought back to the skirmish with Jana. Well, the good news about that was that there was

– or rather had been – something between them after all. But what else had she said – yes, 'other suggestions'.

His gaze fell on his bookshelves – books: well, they'd never let him down. He went up to his fifty or so works in Italian – his main subject at college so long, long ago. Apart from modern and classic novels, most of them were about politics even . . . Il Principe. What would Machiavelli have done? The Viets, the Slovaks, staff shortages, reactionary yokels – are we the city slickers? Well, with his creative materials planning, Kohoutek certainly is, but he's not the only one with imagination. How about chopping up the problem: first of all, the situation here. Of course! – The competition for the best-run production unit in western Bohemia. Criterion number one would certainly be meeting the targets. Jelinek wouldn't only shop his own grandmother but his wife, children and mistress as well to see their plant come out as winner. Well, his only chance would be to hang on to the Vietnamese. He must be made to see that. But what about the works in Slovakia? There must be some people prepared to work there in the middle of nowhere. A group which wouldn't be shunned. Hardly Jana's Cubans, but Novakova hadn’t been far off the mark: there was a high-level agreement with the Cubans for them to send workers, just as there was with the Poles, the Hungarians – Hungary! The ethnic Slovaks there! Yes, definitely a minority where encouragement and support at the highest level is long overdue. He grinned. Jana would know whom to contact unofficially before he went to see Jelinek. He picked up the phone and dialled the works number.





It's interesting to wonder what our protagonists are doing today, so many years later. My guess is that Kohoutek would have already retired from his position as chairman of one of the most successful industrial companies in the Czech Republic.

After a highly successful political career in the early 90s Jelinek would have gone into the "finance industry" and in a few years have become a millionaire many times over from the various investment fund he founded and directed before selling up and moving to Monte Carlo.

I see Jana – after adding English to her language skills – as a much admired and respected head of a prestigious international organisation in the field of human rights, often feeling frustrated about the slow progress made, but looking forward to a delayed and well-deserved retirement.

And Karel? Well, his situation didn't change much after the Velvet Revolution. Now retired for over 15 years, he is still

in good health. Living alone in his Pilsen flat, he manages to avoid feeling sorry for himself. Jana rings up occasionally to find out how is getting on and when she's visiting her home town, they go up a meal together, perhaps where one of the best beers in the world comes straight from the vat. Who knows? – Perhaps they will get together one day.

There is no need to speculate about Nguyen, or most of his compatriots. Walking past a row of three and four-star hotels in the centre of town opposite the spa gardens during my last visit to Marienbad a few years ago, I couldn't help noticing the flourishing cheap and cheerful clothes shop with a Vietnamese owner – just one of many such shops throughout the Czech Republic.



Since my first visit to Prague just before New Year 1967/68 (to visit my future wife), Czechoslovakia – and later, the Czech Republic – has always held a special place in my imagination. So much so that, after several abandoned attempts and a great deal of "teach yourself", I did reach a certain proficiency in Czech in the nineties, which enabled me to work (as a management consultant) in various locations both in Bohemia and Moravia.

During my assignments in the Czech Republic and in other former COMECON countries I had a chance to picture at least to a certain extent what it must have been like to work there before the end of the communist era. And to ask myself the question: Would I have refused to sign the declaration that the 'intervention' of the Warsaw Pact forces August 1968 had been vitally necessary?

The story and the characters of this story are all products of my imagination, but of the many people I met in industrial companies in "East Europe", one was in truth an "imaginative and creative" company director. On the other hand, two others – both highly competent specialists – had positions low down in the hierarchy because they were active church members.