One November weekend, a British television reporter interviewed Czech dissident emigre Jan Kavan in front of a seething, chanting crowd in Prague’s Wenceslas Square. They both smiled at the irony of the moment.
A week earlier Kavan, a student leader during the 1968 “Prague Spring” of reforms, would have been slammed into jail just for setting foot in the country.
The reporter had often visited him in London for information about opposition in the East Bloc. Neither of them expected to meet in such changed circumstances.
Developments in East Europe have thrown up many unexpected, bittersweet moments like this.
Emigres have worked for years in a strange, sometimes hostile, world to keep human rights on the agenda. What will they do now that their dreams may be coming true? Will they return, dislocating their lives once more, or do they believe that they still have a job to do abroad?
The question highlights a dilemma faced by such activists, as illustrated by the accounts of several people interviewed recently.
Kavan, 43, was caught in the West when Soviet tanks rolled into Prague 21 years ago. Friends at home advised him to stay and help them from the outside. This led to the creation of Palach Press and the East European Cultural Foundation, which fostered links between East Bloc dissident movements.
When he walked through the Magic Lantern theater in Prague, where last month’s revolt took shape, Kavan recognized many faces from the photographs of dissidents whose harassment he had publicized.
Like many emigres Kavan faces complications about national status and says he will now ask for reinstatement of his Czech citizenship, withdrawn in 1977. When he returned in November he was stopped and interviewed at the airport.
He hopes to return permanently “one day” but still sees a role in the West producing a comparative forum for debate.
“The changes will throw up important issues which haven’t been discussed for a long time. . . . There’s not going to be unity--within East Bloc countries or between them.”
Gyorgy Krasso, a dissident activist and participant in Hungary’s 1956 uprising, gained permission to leave his country in 1985 after the death of a relative. Soon afterward he started the Hungarian October Information Service in London.
Like many emigres Krasso returned to Budapest in June for the reburial of Communist leader Imre Nagy, hanged for backing the 1956 revolt. Nagy’s rehabilitation marked a turning point in Hungary’s reform process.
Krasso had to relinquish his British refugee status to return to Budapest and fight for a new, unrestricted, Hungarian passport. He is currently hopping between his young family in London and Budapest, where he recently ran in an election for the small Hungarian October Party.
The group is unpopular with both the ruling ex-Communists and the main opposition groups, of whom he is equally critical.
“When I first returned I felt touched--I thought I would not see my country again. But it was only a few hours before I felt completely at home,” said Krasso, 57, in a telephone interview from Budapest.
“When I left it was not possible to conduct politics and I felt I could help spread information from outside. But now I am only politically valid if I am in Hungary.”
Polish emigre Marek Garztecki was stranded in London during an official visit for the independent Solidarity trade union movement after martial law was imposed in 1981. His job as a jazz journalist, family and home were all cut off from him.
Along with other activist emigres he decided that it was his duty to remain a spokesman for the movement when it was forced underground. But he often faced hostility or indifference, with some groups accusing Solidarity of being inspired by the CIA and others pronouncing it a lost cause, he said in London.
Garztecki, 42, returned to Poland in November for the first time and hopes to commute between his old and new home. He feels less sure of finding recognition of his work back home than others such as Kavan, however, and feels a gap in shared experience with those who lived through martial law.
“People in Poland tell me, you had it easy living in a free, wealthy country. But there is no language to explain the emigre’s feeling of loneliness.”
While Czech dissident Vaclav Havel led efforts to remove the Communists from power Vilem Precan, 56, was loading a bus bound from West Germany to Prague, full of Havel’s writings.
The books, printed in West Germany, used to be smuggled into the country amid severe surveillance and fear of reprisal. This time they were going in with official approval.
Precan’s Documentation Center for the promotion of independent Czechoslovak literature, based in the Bavarian town of Sheinfeld, is helping Prague reprint 100,000 copies of the “Black Book” on the Soviet invasion, which he co-edited shortly after 1968.
Like the others, however, he has had his share of problems since being forced to leave Prague in 1976.
“Emigration is a hard life,” said Precan by telephone from Bavaria. “We have a saying that every year as an emigre counts as two years at home.”
Especially in the 1970s, when the West was seen by dissidents as ignoring human rights for the sake of detente, there was “a deep feeling that we were forgotten,” he said.
“But now we are doing something to help ourselves, let us hope the rest of the world will come to help us too.”