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Book Review Unique insight into 1960s Britain and Czechoslovakia from men of letters

Letters of Solidarity and Friendship: Czechoslovakia 1968-71
Edited by David Parker
(Bacquier Books, £14.99)

THIS remarkable collection of letters between a Czech citizen, a medical doctor and former communist living in Czechoslovakia and a 70-year-old British man provide a unique insight into the momentous period following the Prague Spring of 1968 as seen by two individuals on either side of the Iron Curtain.

Both have in common deep humanitarian values but are ideologically far apart. Leslie Parker, a Communist Party member, clearly sees and bemoans the iniquities of capitalism, while his co-correspondent Dr Paul Zalud lives under a deformed socialist system and has lost his faith in the benefits of state socialism. Both give detailed descriptions of what life is like in their respective countries.

Tragically, they never met, but a warm relationship developed on the basis of their common sense of humour, love of language and debate. Their amicable correspondence took place over almost four years after Parker read a letter by Zalud in The Times in July 1968, only a month before Soviet tanks rolled into Prague.

Much has been written about the Prague Spring and its significance but most of it has presented the Dubcek government as one that was attempting to build “socialism with a human face.” There is no doubt that the previous post-war regimes were undemocratic, authoritarian and incompetent and very much beholden to the Soviet Union.
The one that replaced the Dubcek government after its removal by Soviet intervention was little better but, that said, Dubcek’s short-lived government was determined not so much to democratise existing socialism but to bring in a system akin to West German or British social democracy.

While British communists developed their own means of struggle and policies commensurate with British conditions, most nevertheless felt a strong loyalty to the Soviet Union as the first socialist state, developing under a virtual state of siege.
Despite the negative stories and clear deformations of socialist norms, communists everywhere maintained their faith in the Soviet Union and their hopes that things would improve remained undimmed.
Such a view is reflected in Parker’s letters but he also recognises that you can’t build socialism without democracy and a humanist ethos. He saw that “the gravest problems of communism” were firstly “to keep alive under pressure from the West” and secondly to address the question of democratic government.

But his primary aim is to give his Czech pen-friend a picture of life in Britain as he sees it. He describes the political situation in detail, from the racist speeches of Enoch Powell to prime minister Edward Heath’s battle with the miners.
His comments in a letter from August 4, 1969 could have described any year since: ‘The [Labour] government... has made numerous efforts to deprive our trade unions of all rights to withdraw their labour... Taxes have descended upon the lower incomes while tax avoidance by the rich has been scandalous.
“In the course of the last two or three years shares have trebled in value and the speculators on the stock exchange together with the bankers have been having a lovely fat time.”

Such insights make this a unique, moving and fascinating collection of letters that not only reveals the characters of the two writers but illuminates their different worlds in a highly personal way.

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