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Expelled!

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University students kicked out for political reasons began to rebel in 1989.

In different times students would have wept if they found themselves in a situation like this. Michal Semín, however, was almost celebrating. At the beginning of November 1989, the fifth year student at the Pedagogical Faculty returned from a cell of preliminary detention at Ruzyně prison. At home he found a letter announcing the faculty launched disciplinary proceedings against him. Semín’s classmate, David Litvák, also studying Czech and pedagogy, received an identical letter. “We were expecting it. It had to happen sooner or later,” said Semín, 42, who is now the head of the Institute of St Joseph, a Catholic think tank. “For us, it was mainly another opportunity to mobilise the students. I know that I was thinking that it was great and that we needed to take advantage of it somehow.”

Already in spring 1989, Semín and Litvák, together with other friends, collected 400 student signatures for a petition protesting the expulsion of two classmates who participated in a demonstration during the so-called Palach week. They succeeded – the punishment was changed into a suspended sentence. The news about another planned expulsion spread around the faculties, and Radio Free Europe broadcast an appeal of solidarity accompanied by a request to “bring a bubble makers”.

The scene that took place in front of Semín’s faculty in one of the narrow streets in the centre of Prague one week before the Velvet Revolution looked as if taken out of one of Václav Havel’s absurdist dramas. Rainbow bubbles flew in the air blown by some 150 students, national songs were sung and the furious dean Miloslav Sýkora, a die-hard communist, ran around and threatened the students with more expulsions. A five-member disciplinary committee, led by vice-dean Pavel Beneš, listed the offences: petitions, participation at demonstrations, lack of interest to enter the socialist youth association (SSM) and publishing a samizdat pedagogical magazine. All that in pursuit of “undermining and overturning the socialist regime”.

It took commissioners 30 minutes to decide that the two students “cannot be teachers influencing future generations”. The conclusion of Beneš’s committee was clear: to expel!

The school failed to send a written statement due to the fast succession of events. After the announcement of a strike and taking over of the school, students found a letter written by Sýkora to his good friend Miroslav Štěpán, head of Prague’s Communist Party organisation, asking him to pay “special attention” to the two students. Semín remembers that there was an explicit request they be imprisoned. The letter has not been preserved, though.

First of all, unmerciful cleansing…
Political cleansing at schools constituted an important part of the communist strategy after the coup. Not only teachers but also many recalcitrant students had to leave. It all started on 25 February 1948 with the flash expulsion of 12 students of the Law Faculty at the Charles University in Prague. In the following years, the promise, given by the KSČ Secretary General Rudolf Slánský in autumn 1948, came true. “We will unmercifully cleanse secondary schools and universities from reactionary students.”

According to Zdeněk Pousta who works at the Charles University archive, the communists managed to expel one fourth of all the standing 40,000 university students between the coup of 1948 and January 1949. Brno Law Faculty expelled one half of all students and had to close down. A second wave of expulsions took place after the August 1968 occupation. The exact number of all students who were deemed unfit for studies for political reasons during the 40-year totalitarian regime remains unknown.

…then silencing the loud ones
The expulsion of students for political reasons became very rare in the last year of the communist regime. Although the authorities from the Education Ministry and from the Communist Party continued to prompt teachers to be wary of the “reactionary elements”. Education Minister Jana Synková and her deputy for universities, Milan Šulista, recommended that university heads “silence the loud ones” and check “who wanders through the schools and what goes on in there”, says Rudolf Vejvoda, the State Central Archive’s historian, quoting historical documents.

The loud ones, however, continued to shout. Students met at discussion forums, and, except in rare cases, the university authorities did not silence them them. The Communist Party and political police representatives were dissatisfied with such inertia.

According to historians, the “inertia and procrastination” were due to a number of facts. Some of the events – especially the ones after the Palach week – were so massive that the schools opting for strict punishments would have to get rid of a great number of their students. Something like that could have happened during the red terror of the 1950s but would cause an upheaval n the 1980s. Moreover, some institutions no longer stood on the same side as the regime. The Philosophical Faculty at Charles University even saw one of the main Communist Party organisations protest the brutality of the police at the January demonstrations. Finally, even the communists came to realise that they are facing a generation that would be mobilised rather than scared by the bans and punishments.

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And what happened to the two expelled students? Michal Semín finished his studies at the faculty in the beginning of the 1990s, and he led the conservative think tank Civic Institute in the following years. David Litvák gave up his studies and after a short stint in the cabinet’s press department started working as a journalist for technical magazines.

The story’s point, however, is what happened to the teachers. Sýkora, the dean, faded into obscurity, after handing over the keys to the faculty to the students. He died 11 years ago. Beneš, the former vice-dean and head of the disciplinary committee, did not disappear, however. He headed the Pedagogical Faculty until last December. Respekt’s attempts to contact him during the holiday failed. Michal Semín and David Litvák remain unmoved by Beneš’s post-revolutionary career. “It does not surprise me at all. He has always been a skilful, generally adequate candidate. A person capable of living under any kind of regime,” said David Litvák. “Unlike Sýkory, who wanted to destroy us, I don’t think Beneš wanted to harm us on purpose,” Semín added. “He just swam with the stream.” And even we lack statistics, schools are still full of people like that.

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