Yesterday morning I sat in the Bratislava apartment of photographer Timotei Krizka and his wife Petra, a chemistry PhD who is now working full time building a Montessori homeschooling community in which their little girl participates. Timo is doing a video project that involves filming me talking to members of the Slovak church. Between meetings, we found ourselves having coffee at his place. They’re both 32, and were toddlers when communism fell, so they have no personal memories of it. Because of this, they aren’t really the kind of people I need to interview for my next book. Yet they’re so interesting to talk to that I turned on my recorder so I could share with you their thoughts about faith, freedom, and the future.
Timo had earlier shown me some beautifully expressive photos he had taken of elderly men who had been members of the underground church movement under communism. I asked him what he learned from getting to know them.
“The dissidents tell us that truth and freedom comes from within, not from the outside. No matter what time we are in, that lesson is always relevant,” Timo said.
“Now we’re in a time when we have all kinds of freedom to do things like travel, but we don’t have real freedom, because we’re looking for freedom and happiness outside ourselves. I think the starting point for freedom is inside our souls, and connection with God.”
He said the dissidents taught him that the destruction of religious freedom that comes with totalitarianism is the worst thing that can happen to a society.
“You lose the opportunity to touch something transcendent, which goes beyond human nature. You lose, at least outwards, a connection to the eternal, that which has been here forever, and that you can rely on in your life,” he said.
It makes it harder for those who don’t yet have faith to find it, and it forces those who have it to fight for it in the face of outside pressure. But the enemy can only win if you allow them to. Said Timo: “The dissidents taught me that you can take away the outer freedom of someone, but nobody can take away your inner freedom.”
Petra pointed out that people in America who have this idea that totalitarianism can’t come to their country should reflect on the history of Czechslovakia.
“After World War II, the communists actually won elections in Czechoslovakia. People actually believed these ideas,” she said. “The war was devastating, and people were desperate to believe in a better tomorrow.”
“The regime didn’t persecute everyone. Many people didn’t know about the persecutions. They lived tolerably well, and didn’t really hear about the relatively few people who were persecuted. It wasn’t like they were shooting people on the streets. So it was like, ‘Sure, we couldn’t go to church, and yeah, there was somebody in jail, but overall, it wasn’t so bad, because most of us had jobs and health care.’ It’s dangerous to sacrifice a few people so most can be better off materially.”
Timo chimed in, “It’s important to talk about this topic, because in secular liberalism, I see these totalitarian tendencies. I feel like now, if you have ideas consistent with the Catholic faith, you’re not allowed to speak them, and if you do , you are pushed to the margins of society.”
“Even in Slovakia?” I said, alluding to this country’s relatively high levels of Catholic belief.
“Yes, especially here in the capital,” said Petra. “Most of the intellectuals are liberals, and they’re the ones pushing us to the margins. They say, ‘You can live your religion, but only behind closed doors.’”
“That’s what the communists did!” I said.
“They’ll say that religion is good for charity, for caring about the old and the sick,” said Timo, “but if you want to talk about political problems, abortion, and ideas in public life, then we don’t have the right to speak about it. They accuse of of trying to take society back to the Middle Ages.”
I told them that I would have thought the recent history of life under communism would have given Slovakian society immunity from this poisonous way of thinking.
“No,” said Timo. “We have forgotten.”
“It’s not the whole country,” said Petra, “but it’s a very loud minority, mostly in the capital, and especially people in the media. But we are learning our way from the West.”
“We Slovaks feel that we have two options: go to the West, and go to the East,” Timo said. “A lot of people are afraid to go to the East, because we have this historical experience with Russia. So we are going straight to the West, and liberalism, because Slovak society sees hope coming from it. We see a lot of possibility to get rich and live a comfortable life, and we want it also.”
“But those [Western European] societies have big, big problems,” I said.
“We don’t see that in the media here,” Petra replied. “All we see is that they have plenty of money to buy things. Salaries are a lot lower here. That’s what we see.”
“But why can’t you have a strong culture and religion, and these other material things? It seems like a false choice,” I said.
Petra theorized that for many Slovaks, the association of religion and pro-family values with Putin’s Russia makes them reflexively reject those values, regardless of their merit. And, she said, “A lot of people think that freedom is nothing more than freedom of choice.”
Timo added that living in true freedom — that is, making use of liberty — is easier if you accept certain limits on it. “Because I have my feet planted firmly on the ground, I can move freely with my hands, and make things,” he said, by way of analogy. “I need the hard ground under my feet so I can be strong with my hands.”
The couple talked about how the experiences of their parents and grandparents under communism affects the way those older Slovaks relate to the present time.
“Our parents’ generation is a lost generation,” said Petra. “They were young in communism, so they couldn’t do anything. Then when communism fell, they were too old to change their lives in a meaningful way A lot of them miss the stability of communism. People like my father’s generation feel they were robbed of something. The oldest generation feel the most lost. They are more sentimental, because they felt like at least back then, they had some worth, but now, during the capitalistic regime, if they’re not aggressive, if they don’t have the drive, then maybe they’re not needed.”
“The communist regime took away freedom, and because of that, freedom is the highest value,” she continued. “Freedom to travel, freedom to buy things – that’s the ultimate freedom. They don’t think about what’s higher, like God.”
Said Timo, “After communism, we [Slovaks] were like hungry little children who had to make sure to eat a lot of things, because we were so closed off from the world for so long. But now there are some people saying, ‘OK, now we’re full. What now?’ We are looking for something higher.”
Petra studied in the US in high school and college. I asked her what she would like Americans to know about totalitarianism and freedom.
“I studied in the US from 2005, which was not long after 9/11, when national security was a big thing,” she said. “I saw that people were willing to sacrifice a lot of their personal freedoms for bigger issues, like national security. I heard a lot of ‘I don’t care if they listen to my phone calls or read my messages, because I haven’t done anything wrong.’ That was really strange for me. I thought, ‘This is really personal.’”
“On the other hand, it feels to me that this is a paradox: they’re willing to sacrifice their personal freedoms, but they think they’re being liberated because they can change their own sex. That’s not really freedom for me.”
Listening to this, I thought, “James Poulos really is right about the pink police state.”
The people I’m meeting here in Slovakia, gang, are really interesting. Hard to believe I have been here less than two days. On today’s schedule: meeting with a historian of the underground church, visiting a place where samizdat was printed, and then meeting with two other main leaders of the underground church. I cannot possibly thank enough my hosts with Bratislava Hanus Days, an ideas festival sponsored by a civic organization of Catholic students and grad students, for arranging these meetings. Slovaks, especially Slovak Catholics, believe the story of their nation’s suffering under communism, and its heroic resistance, has been overlooked by the West. They’re right.