Olda: A Rare Reluctant Leader
By: Sean McKeever
As August 20, 1968 turned into August 21, Czechoslovakia was overrun by Russian tanks, and the puppet Communist regime was reined in by the granddaddy of Communist states. The Prague Spring was over, and the reforms of Alexander Dubček, which President Gorbachev later copied for his famous perestroika and glasnost reforms that helped cause the collapse of the Soviet Union, were reversed.
As the fortieth anniversary of this historic event has just passed, the Czech Republic and its neighbors are again wary of Russian power. Due to the two countries’ missile-defense deals with the United States, Russia threatened the Czech Republic and Poland over the summer. They followed that with the recent invasion of Georgia. As the Czech Republic and all of Eastern Europe reminisces during this time of historical solemnity, they are hoping it does not have implications for the future. In the midst of this pivotal point, it is worth reliving the story of the past as the Czech Republic deals with the present and looks to the future.
This past June, I, along with 14 other American students and young professionals, had the opportunity to travel to the Czech Republic. Our host was Oldřich “Olda” Černý, who founded the Prague Security Studies Institute after serving as the National Security Advisor and Director General of the Czech Foreign Intelligence Service for President Václav Havel.
Even though Prague used to be the capital of the Holy Roman Empire and the Czech Republic has been called the “Crossroads of Europe,” I knew little of the illustrious past of this historic country until my recent trip. Due to bouts with Nazism and Communism over most of the twentieth century, much of the world has forgotten the earlier, brighter chapters in Czech lore. During this time of remembrance though, the Czech Republic is again rising to prominence. After years of experiencing slavery and human rights abuses, the Czech Republic has grown into one of the world’s premier defenders of freedom, democracy, and human rights.
Václav Havel, the playwright-turned-President, receives a lot of the credit for this transformation and deservedly so. However, a lesser known character also deserves credit for directing the Czech Republic’s real-life theatrical production.
Olda is so unassuming that it took me a while to fully grasp the important role he played in the reformation of the Czech Republic and he is so humble that once I did, he would not really admit it to me.
Olda is the epitome of a great man who had greatness thrust upon him. His whole life has been shaped by decisions he made in doing what was right in the face of the evils of Communism. Without the external influence of Communism, he would have been perfectly content minding his own business rather than rerouting a nation. He is the ultimate reluctant leader. That, as Plato pointed out long ago, is the hallmark of the ideal leader and is probably why Olda has had such an influence on the Czech Republic and the world.
Life for Olda was hard. His father spent time in a Nazi prison camp before he was born. In 1950 his father was whisked away by the KGB to the harshest Communist camp in Eastern Slovakia. He died there in 1956, when Olda was only ten. Due to his father’s activities, Olda was blacklisted by the Communist regime and should not have even been allowed to attend the “gymnasium,” or secondary school. However, in the thaw that led to Mr. Dubček’s reforms,, Olda was admitted to Charles University. He even secured a grant to study English at Newcastle University in England.
After graduating from the Faculty of Philosophy at Charles University, Olda served in the army, got a job with a publishing house, got married, and had 2 children.
Despite its ordinary appearance, Olda’s life was still not easy. Twice the KGB tried to recruit him. The first time he was interrogated he was apprehensive because the KGB was, as he said, “a totally incomprehensible organization.” Looking back, the interrogations were pretty systematic. As Olda explained, they consisted of “threats, promises, threats, offers, threats, enticements…” But before encountering the brutality of the KGB, they are a mystery.
He would not give in, however. As he said, “Something inside of me surprisingly held out and I just wasn’t able to do it. I knew life would be easier and so on.”
He says, “It took six months until they finally realized I was a completely useless case.”
Being confident after turning the KGB down the first time, Olda said he was “brazen” during the second interrogation in 1977 by a separate branch of the KGB. The KGB did not take kindly to his behavior, and the next day Olda was fired from his publishing job. It took him until 1985 to find another one.
It was during this time that Olda became “more vigorously” involved in dissident activity. He “went to demonstrations and distributed banned books and petitions,” but he never really considered himself “a great dissident.” Even though he worked as a freelance translator of American and British literature and theater producer, he did not consider this work anything more than a way to provide for his family.
There never was a large dissident movement in the Czech Republic, not even after the Russian invasion. Olda recalled, “There was no uprising, there was passive resistance on a mass scale particularly during the first week of the occupation, then it gradually began to erode, the country was heading toward the bleak 20 years of ‘normalization’.”
There were a number of reasons for this lack of opposition. “Unlike in Poland, the dissidents in Czechoslovakia presented a very small group,” Olda said. “It was much easier to be a dissident in a bigger town where people helped each other than a dissident in the countryside where you stuck out. There were several coordinating groups that sometimes overlapped. Some of them were infiltrated by informers.”
As time went on, Olda started making some important connections. He already knew Václav Havel. “I met him ages ago when I was still a student at the gymnasium,” he explained. “I loved his first play, and I invited him for a cup of coffee.” Eventually, he met all the important dissidents. He said, “Prague is a small town and if you move in certain circles you eventually meet everybody.”
Olda did not work with President Havel as a dissident, but in 1989 that began to change. He said, “During the ‘Velvet Revolution’ I ran errands for him, et cetera.”
Then, after the so-called ‘Velvet Revolution’ (as the Czechs are apt to call it), Olda reluctantly joined President Havel’s team. After refusing the first time, Olda became President Havel’s National Security Advisor, a position he held until the split of Czechoslovakia.
After the split, Olda was the only high-level advisor President Havel retained. He was given the title of Director General of the Czech Foreign Intelligence Service, and his task was to construct an intelligence agency. Ironically, after twice refusing the KGB’s coercive overtures to join their intelligence team, Olda became the founder of the intelligence community of the new Czech nation. According to American Ambassador Richard Graber, today this community has blossomed into an agency that can provide the US with valuable intelligence in the War on Terror.
Upon his resignation from his intelligence post in 1998, Olda was ready to rid himself of politics. However, President Havel had other ideas. He asked Olda to be the Executive Director of his Forum 2000 Foundation. Again, Olda reluctantly accepted the post. He only planned on staying for six months, but today, ten years later, he is still there. In 2001, he also created the Prague Security Studies Institute, a sister organization to Forum 2000. Today he serves as its Executive Director.
The two organizations are connected in their pursuit of spreading freedom and human rights, but they are different. Olda explained, “Forum 2000 is more broadly oriented in its focus (globalization in its all negative and positive aspects, human rights, inter-faith dialogue, outreach programs, Water and the Middle East project, etc.). PSSI began as a purely educational institution related to security issues that over time developed into a think tank represented on the international scene.”
As Executive Director of both organizations, Olda sees his work as a continuation of his efforts in building a Czech Republic and a world that recognizes both freedom and human rights. This is the work he began under Communism and continued in an official capacity since its fall.
Despite all the difficulties the Communists presented to Olda, he denies that the effects of Communism were all bad. He recognizes that the difficulties he faced shaped his character and prepared him to rescue the Czech Republic in its time of need. For example, he said, “when I was fired from my job in the publishing house and had to freelance to make ends meet, it taught me how to swim and improvise, which was a great advantage to have after 1989. Lots of people were too much used to someone else making their decisions for them. Not my case.”
It is hard even for Olda to speculate how his life would have been different if he grew up in a democratic country. My hunch is that he would not have chosen the type of life that doing the right thing under a Communist regime forced him to do. “But,” Olda said, “when I look back at my life so far, I am not sorry.” Then, in typical understatement, he added, “it is quite an interesting and eventful story.”
It is also a story that is inspiring others to do great things.
As a student, Bara Holkova worked with Olda through both the Forum 2000 Foundation and PSSI. “Olda is a great person with great stories, amazing experience in both professional and personal life and admirable knowledge about many subjects. I have just recently realized that it is an honor to work with Olda, since one can learn a lot from him.”
Olda inspired Bara to make an impact on the world. She said, “Once I worked in the Forum 2000 Foundation, I believe I will always be looking for a job where I can at least try to make a difference.” She has already begun to do so. She has worked with People in Need, one of the largest nonprofit organizations in the Czech Republic, as a Financial Advisor in Amman, Jordan from March 2007-April 2008.
Olda is proud of the hundreds of young people that he and his organizations have touched over the years, and students like these are what keep him going.
The more students Olda inspires to act like him the better the Czech Republic’s chances are of counteracting Russia’s negative influence in the region that has a positive influence of its own.