Meeting the architects of Czech freedom

USC senior Carl Brzorad heard the stories throughout his childhood — about brutal communist rule in Czechoslovakia, the resistance and Czech freedom after decades of Soviet repression.

His father’s family was part of the network of Czech dissidents who endured Stalinism in the 1950s. They enjoyed the liberalization of the Prague Spring in 1968, which ended with a Warsaw Pact invasion that August. From then until the Velvet Revolution in 1989, the struggle continued.

“My grandfather was employed indirectly by the CIA,” Brzorad said. “After being exiled in the late ’60s, he was living in New York, working to smuggle books under the Iron Curtain.”

The family history was still well removed from Brzorad’s immediate experience, though. Born in Boston, Brzorad (pronounced burr-zore-odd) moved with his family to Charlotte, N.C., when he was just 3 years old. He had a typical American upbringing in North Carolina, free of the harsh oppression his forebears endured.

But the family stories came to life at Carolina, where Brzorad has now spent two-and-a-half years studying and researching the Czech experience in the latter half of the 20th century under the advisement of Doyle Stevick, an associate professor in the College of Education. Brzorad has earned three distinct grant awards from the Magellan programs of the Office of Undergraduate Research. He has also won support from the Walker Institute of International and Area Studies.

The financial aid has helped him travel twice to the Czech Republic, where he has interviewed in person a number of the leaders of the resistance. He spoke with Jan Ruml, the deputy interior minister of Czechoslovakia when Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was overthrown in 1991. He interviewed the head of Šternberk castle, Count Zdenek Šternberk, who was sent to a forced labor prison camp as a political undesirable during the Soviet occupation. He interviewed Tomas Halik, a Roman Catholic priest who was a leader of the underground church during communist rule.

He applied an academic approach to addressing his own curiosity, looking for answers to questions sometimes overlooked in historical assessments.

“I’m a psychology major. The historians were telling me, ‘just focus on the history, get the facts, don’t draw any inferences,’ ” Brzorad said. “But I always wanted to know what their motivations were.

“I wanted the history, but I was so interested in what was causing these people to do things that had a very low probability of causing any change and a very high probability of getting themselves and their families killed.”

He had some hypotheses about the motivations of the dissidents, but moving from the history books into the field challenged some of his original ideas.

“One psychological construct I was interested in was self-efficacy, which is basically your confidence in your ability to cause desired changes in the external environment,” he said. “I was assuming that these dissidents thought that their actions were going to cause change, but that was ultimately shown to be an unjustifiable presupposition.”

Halik, for example, was dining with the Pope John Paul II on the night of the Velvet Revolution. The pontiff had just given a passionate speech, saying that the events the world was witnessing in Czechoslovakia were going to quickly lead to the fall of the Iron Curtain and ultimately of the Soviet Union.

But Halik disagreed. “He told the pope at dinner, ‘Your Holiness, I think you’re wrong. I think there will be another 5 or 10 years of perestroika before we see any changes whatsoever,’ ” Brzorad said. “Halik was shocked when the Velvet Revolution came about.

“And you can see this with a lot of the dissidents. They were the ones that were the most surprised that the regime actually fell when it did. That leads me to believe that their self-efficacy may have been no higher than anyone else’s. They were basically acting out of moral necessity. They felt they had to stand up. They couldn’t live with themselves without doing so.”

I wanted the history, but I was so interested in what was causing these people to do things that had a very low probability of causing any change and a very high probability of getting themselves and their families killed.

Carl Brzorad, senior psychology major, Capstone scholar, Magellan Scholar grant recipient

Stevick, a Fulbright Fellow in Estonia this year, has spent years studying democratic transitions from authoritarian rule in the former Soviet bloc. A faculty member in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policies, he's focused on the role of education in those transitions.

Carl's research offers us genuine insight about how we make sense of the mindset and decision-making of dissidents in totalitarian states,” he said. “Dissidents like Carl's subjects often seem either delusional or suicidal: they could not realistically hope to transform a totalitarian system, and the risks they embraced were exceptionally high. He has identified a moral tension between what was expected of them and what they could live with. When it grew too great, they had to act, no matter the risks.”

Going into the field was a revelation in other ways. For Brzorad, it really brought home the suffering that was all-too-commonplace in communist Czechoslovakia.

“One of my most rewarding interviews was with Jiri Gruntorad, who worked closely with my grandfather in smuggling books, but on the Czech side,” Brzorad said. “He was locked up in a gulag for four-and-a-half years, during which he was beaten. It was harsh, cold winters up in the mountains of northern Czechoslovakia.

“He wasn’t the best known of the people I talked to, but his stories were just so lucid and so powerful. I got a realistic look at just what it was like for these people who suffered the wrath of the communists.”

Brzorad, a Capstone Scholar at USC, is still trying to piece together what to do with the materials he has put together in his research. He has written a historical document about the era; he has the testimonials of numerous interviewees; he has psychological insights into the people involved that he might further develop.

He’s considering writing a book as one possibility, but he knows it will be hard to convey the vividness of his experience.

“I had heard the family stories and I had read books and done research,” he said. “I really prepared myself so I would seem well-informed in these interviews, which was my goal. But you just can’t know what it’s like sitting across the table from someone who was beaten in a gulag.

“I just didn’t see the face of this thing until I met the people involved. It’s been such an amazing experience.”

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