Martin Butora: Gorbachev, Reagan, John Paul II

Source: The Freedom Collection /

Martin Bútora is a Slovak sociologist, writer, civil society activist and former diplomat. He was born in Bratislava in 1944. He studied sociology and philosophy at Bratislava’s Comenius University and at Charles University in Prague.

In the late 1960s, he was a writer and editor for several student newspapers that advocated reforms in communist Czechoslovakia. After the August 1968 Soviet invasion ended the Prague Spring period of liberalization, Martin worked as a sociologist and therapist, continuing to write for underground publications. In November 1989, Martin was one of the cofounders of Public Against Violence, a Slovak civic political and movement. Along with its Czech counterpart Civic Forum, Public Against Violence organized the peaceful mass demonstrations that brought down Czechoslovakia’s communist regime in what became known as the Velvet Revolution.

With the restoration of democracy in Czechoslovakia, Martin continued his engagement in public affairs. Between 1990 and 1992, he served as Human Rights Advisor to President Vaclav Havel and Director of the Human Rights Section in the president’s office.

Following the 1993 division of the country into the Czech Republic and Slovakia, Martin turned his attention to teaching and civil society. In 1997, he founded the Institute for Public Affairs, a Bratislava think tank. He was a leader in Slovak civil society’s efforts to defeat autocratic Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar in the 1998 parliamentary elections. The civil society voter education and motivation campaigns helped convince nearly 85 percent of eligible voters to take part and secured a majority for a democratic and pro-reform government.

From 1999 to 2003, he served as Slovakia’s Ambassador to the United States, where he played a key role in securing his country’s membership in NATO. He ran as an independent candidate in Slovakia’s 2004 presidential elections.

Martin currently works as the Honorary President of the Institute for Public Affairs and Program Director of the institute’s European Integration and Transatlantic Relations program.

With Gorbachev it was extremely interesting from several aspects. [Mikhail Gorbachev was General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party from 1985 to 1991 and the last President of the Soviet Union.] Because Czechoslovakia was among the countries where you could not speak of any reform of the Communist Party at all. All those people [in the Czechoslovak Communist Party] who came there after 1969, they literally sat on the Soviet tanks.

They sat on those bayonets; it is somewhat of a metaphoric expression. And they sat on those Soviet tanks and did not change in any way, which means they were becoming more and more conservative and they were not ready or able to do any kind of reform. And Czechoslovakia was different from, say, Poland or Hungary.

So when Gorbachev came, those official structures were basically resisting and they had all kinds of tricks to look like they formally agreed with him, but all along they were doing everything possible to make sure nothing changed, but for the people who watched, it was certain hope, because don’t forget that, again, after the Solidarity was suppressed, after instituting the military regime, martial law in Poland, it was the cycle of disappointment again, and after Afghanistan, coincidentally, it was the same year, it happened then.

So when people saw that the Soviet Union was so almighty that they dared to intervene in Afghanistan, when they saw that the Poles instituted martial law, then they said to themselves that this won’t be very easy. So Gorbachev was hope, and he was the positive signal that things could start changing. Without any doubt, with this characteristic, at that time roughly from 1986, 1987, 1988, the Soviet press that was imported to us, that one could buy, it could not compare to the Czech press.

The Czechoslovak press became freer, uncovering all the taboos, uncovering all murders, uncovering the whole Stalinism, uncovering the horrible things from the Russian and Soviet history, and many people watched. An interesting moment was that Gorbachev was associated with hope, that just like the Russians brought military occupation before, that they could intervene now again, not with the military, but that they could pressure our bureaucratic, unreformed communists to do some reforms.

And I remember that these hopes were great, and when Gorbachev came to visit Czechoslovakia in Prague and Bratislava, people greeted him very spontaneously and he never said a thing. And in a way, it was lucky, because that way it was clear that nobody would do it for us. We have to do it ourselves. But I see those changes in 1989 as being stimulated by several events. It was certainly Helsinki, that gave it some, I’d say legal support, legal basis.

It was certainly Gorbachev, because the voice was coming from there, saying that you can manage your things yourselves how you like, and that we need more freedom, simply more Glasnost, more openness, and that we have to prepare some kind of reform. It was certainly Reagan, because he was the person who brought hope and who – at least that’s how the people saw it, that he clearly and expressly said, or that he was clearly and expressly bringing two things. [Ronald Reagan was the 40th President of the United States, serving from 1981 to 1989.] The first one was the message in Berlin. [A 1989 speech by President Reagan, calling on the USSR to tear down the Berlin Wall.] “Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate,” that was a message of freedom.

Yes, the message of freedom, one power and one politician who knows what he wants, he knows how to say it, and he knows how to appeal, and then the people watched also what he was saying, what they call the arms race, which means this pressure that was being applied to Russia and the Soviet Union. And then, of course, there was the Pope. [John Paul II served as head of the Roman Catholic Church from 1987 to 2005. He is credited with inspiring his native Poland and Central and Eastern Europe to rise up against communism.]

So when I take these external factors, there is Helsinki, somewhere here is the Pope, here is Reagan and here is Gorbachev, so that is four, but nothing would come out of it if something wasn’t happening at home too. If something wasn’t happening at home, it would have had a different form, I don’t know, maybe like in Romania or somewhere else where it was not happening. So in this sense Gorbachev was part of those external factors that helped people grow in their awareness and that somehow started to change the environment, so that people dared a little bit more, that the people said that how this country lives, how this country is run does not match what we want, it does not match the potential of Czechoslovakia, Czechoslovakia is capable of more, we are capable of more, we don’t want to live like this anymore.

The Vaclav Havel Center