In Bratislava

Peter Pomerantsev

‘It’s taken twenty years but suddenly I’m a hero,’ says Martin Šimečka, one of the Slovak dissident writers of the 1980s. ‘After the liberation no one wanted to talk openly about the Communist period. Dissidents weren’t heroes but reminders of people’s own conformism – but now there’s a young generation who want to stand up to the state, and they turn to me as a role model.’

I was in Bratislava for the Central European Forum: an event held annually around 17 November, the anniversary of the 1989 Velvet Revolution. The Forum brought together the old generation of Eastern European dissidents with participants and observers of new protest movements: a member of the Spanish indignados talked about utopia in a euphoric rush; there were Hungarian anti-Orbán activists, Occupy, Pussy Riot and Ai Weiwei specialists. ‘The new generation here are hopeless – they wanted to protest austerity measures in Slovakia but couldn’t achieve anything,’ according to Zuzana Szatmáry, a Slovak poet and essayist who worked in a factory for 20 years. ‘I enjoyed the factory, I learnt how to get tangible results. If you want change then you have to adapt protest to the specific state you’re battling.’

In Central Europe, a local activist explained, where you have a mix of state corruption and strong media the most effective method is cutting back-room deals with specific politicians: find their shady weak-spots and threaten to expose them if they don’t change a policy. In Putin’s Russia that doesn’t work: you can expose all you like but the information means nothing if the perpetrator has the right connections. But the Achilles heel of the Putin clan is that its money is held in the West, and pressure on Western governments to ban corrupt Russian bureaucrats could hurt. Meanwhile, the opposition inside the country are creating a parallel reality with their own elected representatives and media as they wait for the Putinites to self-destruct. ‘All these closed oligarchies eat themselves up,’ Szatmáry says, ‘eventually.’

There was much hand-wringing at the forum about the tyranny of Google and Facebook, the end of privacy and the age of total observation. The older dissidents were sceptical: ‘You survive Hitler and Stalin and it turns out Facebook is the greatest threat to mankind,’ a Ukrainian veteran laughed. ‘You Westerners are so, how could I put it, so sensitive,’ Šimečka smiled. ‘When all the secret service files were opened it turned out one of my best friends had been blackmailed into reporting on me. We still say hi, though I think it’s tough for him. I don’t really have a problem with it. So they knew stuff about me. Big deal.’

We took a walk through the Old Town after midnight. ‘I went from being an enemy of the state under Communism to an enemy of the people under Mečiar,’ Šimečka said, ‘from arrests by the secret service to being beaten up by thugs. We’re only just starting to explore the decades of Fascism and Communism, but most prefer to ignore it. “We should look to the future” is every political candidate’s slogan.’ We passed along the bank of the Danube, Šimečka walking fast with long, bouncing strides. ‘At night, when it’s very quiet, I can still sense the old Bratislava: the echoes of Yiddish, German, Hungarian. That lost, sparkling world.’