Ota Ulč, 10. 1. 1988, New York, USA


Location New York, USA
Date 10. 1. 1988
Length 23:37

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What happened to judges appointed before the communist takeover?

Ulč: Some of them were dismissed, a few of them were arrested, most of them were co-opted and continued normal life, usually to buy the sins of their bourgeois past through increased militancy. That was about the fate of judges after 1948 in Czechoslovakia.

What happened to the jury system under the communist regime?

The jury system was abolished, and was replaced by the Soviet pattern of 1 plus 2, that is, a professional judge presiding with two lay assessors, so-called people’s judges with an equal vote, hence the party could guarantee its control. But it was a purely nominal kind of control and there were various devices you could always use to outwit them. In a thousand cases, or more than that, not once did I have to succumb to such pressure.

To what extent did the party interfere in the judicial system?

In civil adjudication, which was my field, it was about 5% of cases, maybe less. But again, how many people have to spit in your bowl of soup to turn you off the soup?

It depended upon the nature of adjudication. Certainly in political trials the control was total. In criminal adjudication it was sporadic, but it was not absent in civil adjudication either, and that was my field. I would say in about 5% of cases there would be such interference, but again – how many people have to spit in your bowl of soup to turn you off that particular dish? It did affect your entire outlook. You become your own censor, your own apparatchik. You behave and react like a cow behind an electrified fence. And this is about the particular ramification.

Can you give any particular example of where the party interfered in a civil action?

Sometimes, the party would interfere in the civil adjudication in cases where you would have least expected it. For example, I was presiding over a malpractice suit raised by a cantankerous old woman against a village physician, and the entire delegation from the Central Committee from Prague arrived at court. I ruled against her, they didn’t say a word, they didn’t introduce themselves, they left, and the judgement did stand. But there was another case involving a member of the Central Committee of the party, who in one village intended to evict a family so that the vacated premises can be turned over to newly-weds. The tenants were classified as class enemies, and the court had to approve this manifestly illegal move. That was in my powers, and of course it was a very uncomfortable dilemma, because if I did not comply I would lose the confidence of the toiling masses represented by that particular comrade, and if I complied I would feel very miserable with myself. And it was just at the time when my plans to vanish, to disappear from the country, were coming to fruition, so I postponed the decision and I left. In that case it was not an admirable action, but I didn’t know what to do under those particular circumstances.

What groups of people became targets of communist attacks?

What groups of people become targets of the communist attacks is a seasonal matter. Of course, after the seizure of power you go after the visible targets, the political opponents, people in public life. Then it settles for the classical enemies, the capitalists, the stock market brokers, the real estate personnel, and then during the collectivisation drive you go after the so-called kulaks. Then the churches at the turn of 1950–1951. Then after the 20th party congress the emerging dissidents, in those days we didn’t call them dissidents, were selected, and nowadays in Prague the hunting season is after jazzmen. So it depends on the season.

What were the purposes of the show trials in the 1950s?

The purposes of the show trials? According to the law, the purpose of punishment is of course to punish the wrongdoer, to protect society, and to educate society, to re-educate. In the case of political trials, where there were these spontaneous self­accusations and confessions to preposterous crimes, it was supposed to create mass mobilisation behind the party’s policies. These were the most hideous days I can truly remember. When you think of that barbarism that children, little children, 7–8 year old, had to write letters imploring the judge to hang those heinous types, writing poems extolling the gallows and that stuff, and this happens within Europe, in this century.

How powerful were the local party bosses?

The power of the local party bosses is usually misunderstood by outsiders for obvious reasons. Namely, under the veneer of totalitarian uniformity, the imprint of this or that party potentate was very significant. We used to distinguish between the so-called mild districts and wild districts, it was a true misfortune to be assigned to a court in the South Bohemian province, and it was much better to be in the West Bohemian province.

In what way was it much better?

There was less interference in adjudication. For example, in my particular case, I was fortunate enough to detect the weakness of the First Party Secretary in the bedroom peccadilloes of his subjects. Once he called me and wanted to see file so and so. It’s strictly against the law to remove court files, therefore I took the court files and rushed to the party secretariat, passed on that particular matter, which was a case involving a sexually overactive husband and perhaps his frigid wife, and he complained that during intercourse she used to read her favourite books. It had nothing to do with political indoctrination. Nonetheless, the Party Secretary very much liked that affair, and asked me to furnish him with similar material, which I did, and that absorption on his part blunted his political Bolshevik vigilance in other spheres, and that was it.

Can you describe how judges were encouraged to increase their output?

Everything had to approximate the pattern of the production line in a factory. Therefore, you do not talk about your judicial performance, you talk about your output. There were quotas. In some respects it was a useful innovation, that is, it did speed up proceedings. You had, say, one month for a less than complicated civil law case, and if it was not cleared you had to report why. Or, say, two months for a paternity case. But those who were in charge, those who wanted to excel and who wanted to appear in a good light, they invented cases. Say, you will receive a patently absurd litigation proposal. In the old days you threw it out or you called that person, said, listen you will never win, you have no chance, goodbye. This time it will get a number, it will be entered into the ledgers, and then it will be dismissed. Or, say, you have a case of pilfering of socialist property by ten co-employees, and instead of making it one case as in the old days, you would make ten separate cases.

How did the class origins of people affect the judgements made against them in courts?

In some cases it did. For example, there was a felony of non-delivery of agricultural quotas, in other words, the harvest or whatever goes wrong, and you are not able to deliver what you were supposed to deliver. Then the classification of that failure was strictly dependent upon that class determination. If it was a so-called small farmer, it was a misdemeanour and a nominal fine, if it was a kulak it was judged as sabotage and you might have even lost your life.

To what extent did a slip of the tongue or saying something about the wrong person in the party have grave consequences?

Yes, a slip of the tongue … The Czech penal code includes I think some 17 different felonies, so-called verbal felonies, that means you can get drunk and suddenly in an instant you become a multiple felon. It depends where you say it, in front of whom you say it, and also what your reputation is. For example, we had in our district a former member of the Communist Party who even ran for Parliament in the old bourgeois republic, but the moment the party gained power he detested it greatly. And wherever he went, he of course cursed the establishment. We also had one charming gentleman, the only person with a ponytail, and he wore a big flower, a rather faded flower on his faded jacket. Some local enthusiasts were making a movie ‘Mozart in Pilsen’, and he was Mozart. He was a man who thought he was living in the 18th century. And he hated, for some reason, social democrats. And wherever he went, he would curse them. Obviously, these people were not touched by anyone.

Can I ask you to what extent has society been de-politicised?

Society is being de-politicised nowadays under the conditions of so-called normalisation. Because the party realised that those who read Marx, who really are involved in the ideology, they may want to change the reality, which certainly does not conform with the ideological premises. It’s better to have a society anaesthetised. It is a social contract: I rule and you, for not meddling in my power, will be left alone. I don’t want you to love me, I insist, however, that you keep up appearances. And you are left with your little petty bourgeois pleasures: country house, car, a dachshund, a mistress; you may steal from the state up to a point where it doesn’t become much too obvious.

Do you think Gorbachev is going to help liberate Eastern Europe?

During my last exam at university in Marxism-Leninism, I received two questions. One I passed, the question was, “Hundred times nothing killed the donkey. Explain in terms of Marxist dialectics.” It’s very simple. The third law of dialectics according to Stalin: Accumulated quantity creates a new quality. And the second question was, what is the basic criterion of a true communist. And I stared, didn’t know, and the dismayed examiner said, well it’s so obvious, love for the Soviet Union! The Soviet Union – our model. However now, today, this particular slogan is considered to be subversive.

Did the party sometimes decide what the court’s judgement should be, in advance?

In political cases of prime importance, things were decided ahead of the trial. The judges strictly followed the party rules, and these were of course the few select judges who ran those special tribunals. In other cases, it would be presented in the form of a so-called suggestion, the party would suggest this or that. In cases of show trials, say, on a provincial level, let us say that there is an alarming increase in pilferage in restaurants. So you will pick up an exemplary case of a greedy restaurateur, he will be put on trial, they will put in the audience five hundred frightened colleagues of his, and of course such a trial then ceases to be a trial with the opportunity of an appeal because it’s already covered by the media. It is something which is kind of predestined, obviously their impartiality is not part of it at all, and basically here the court is fulfilling that role of re-educating the public to scare those potential wrongdoers from following the same perilous path.

Can you give me an example of how people, citizens, actually use this politicisation of the system?

Yes, that is also something which greatly surprised me when I appeared at the court, that the rules of the game imposed by the state are then used by the people themselves in their perhaps mistaken and certainly not very admirable belief to their advantage. Let us say you are presiding over a case of a divorced couple battling for custody of their child. Both of them want the child because if you have the child in your care you fall into a lower tax bracket, the state allowance is fairly high, and the other parent has to pay support, and you shove the baby onto your mother, it will stay with granny, and that’s it. Both of those parents have the same case, there are no particular minuses or pluses on either side, therefore the ex-husband may appear in court dressed in overalls, he may present himself in a badly-imitated proletarian accent, he may accuse his ex-wife of harbouring pernicious religious thoughts which will undermine the proper upbringing of the child. He may even go through all their old amorous correspondence, where there may be a phrase that may be considered as anti-state. So you never knew what may really happen, and occasionally suddenly, I recall very vividly a case, when an enraged husband used a preposterous parallel of an innocent victim in that particular marriage, and said, I am like South Korea which was attacked by the aggressive North Korea, but truth will prevail, the United States will win, and these kinds of things. Obviously you could not let it go further, so I interrupted him and called for a recess, and I had to calm down the people’s assessors, those alleged watchdogs of ours, to explain that this was not an intentional act to undermine the prestige of the Soviet Union, but merely an aberration of a highly-agitated fool.

How did the communists make sure that there were loyal people inside the judicial system?

The party of course did not trust the judges, so they tried to have an element of popular control over them in the form of so-called lay assessors, or people’s judges, then each trial was to be decided in original jurisdiction by the presiding professional judge and two of these lay assessors. Both their votes being equal means that they can always outvote me. It hasn’t happened in a single case. I had on my list some 60 lay assessors. Each of them would be called twice a year. Let us say that both of them start to misbehave, or try to push me into a decision which I find unacceptable, so I always find a reason to adjourn. You adjourn the case, and for the next session you cannot wait half a year because we have our quotas to deliver. You summon a more amenable pair of lay assessors who will comply. It’s what you have to do.


After the party took over power in the country, of course it took a while before they were embedded and entrenched in every sphere of public life. Say, in the secret police it was right away, actually they were there before they seized power. And in the judiciary it went fairly fast but they decided of course not to wait for four years before the crop of new graduates from the old school appeared, and they set up a strange kind of school, which was called the Law School of the Working Class, something of that sort, which lasted for about ten months, ten to twelve months, and there the carefully picked proletarians, party members, were trained in matters of law, the kind of a training for which you have to have a solid undergraduate education and spend four years at law school. So they were sort of well versed with the text but, for example, they did not manage the Czech grammar. They were hopefully inarticulate. Many of them suffered enormous inferiority complexes, deservedly so. By the way, one of those judges, I recall his name was Jan Rojt, is now a very prominent judge who is assigned to those political cases over dissenters in Prague.

To what extent did you have to learn to read between the lines what the party line was?

As it is with foreign languages, had I come to an English-speaking environment at the age of 16–19, I would not speak with a preposterous Siberian accent as I do today. With that Marxist-Leninist jargon, with its improbable ornate epithets, you had to really absorb it into your blood­stream so it would flow very naturally from your lips, but with the older generation, the old judges who tried so hard to emulate that party language, there was always that falseness in that accent, the wrongly placed epithet, and the party was very, very sensitive about these matters. Somehow this totalitarian system in those days, when they still wanted your soul, they behaved like a very jealous, very suspicious, substantially paranoid ageing wife with plenty of those inferiority complexes, and there a shallow individual can apply only shallow criteria of judgement. Therefore, if I would have some flamboyantly patterned tie, they may draw an absolute conclusion out of that, that indeed I may be disloyal to the system. We used to get letters which we solicited from a local administration with regard to the reputation and the socialist profile of the people. I recall once the following statement came: “We strongly object to citizen X being awarded custody of the child because of his ties with apes or monkeys, which is sufficient evidence that he is not very sincere about building communism.” Because communism is not gallows and suppression and terror, but above all it is monumental boredom. That’s the main reason why I left, I was terribly bored there. People with original minds can’t stand it, you go out of your mind, time stops, any attempt to be witty or have a sense of humour is subversive in that anti-hedonistic semi-Calvinistic austere setting. But again, that is already a matter of the past. Because in the post­innovation period in these days, when no-one wants your soul and you have plenty of outlets in alcohol and promiscuity, I understand that there is no place more pleasantly hedonistic and immoral these days than old Prague.

Ota Ulč (1930)

Ota Ulč

Lawyer, political scientist and writer

After finishing grammar school, he enrolled at the Faculty of Law of Charles University in Prague, from where he graduated in 1953. During his two-year military service, he was assigned to the Auxiliary Technical Battalions (also known as PTP) which served as a tool to re-educate politically disloyal citizens and also provided cheap labour where the national economy demanded. Anyone with incorrect class origins could be deemed politically disloyal. After the service, he was first assigned to the People’s Court in Pilsen as a judicial expectant and later became a judge in a small West Bohemian town, thanks to which he avoided having to judge political trials. In the tense atmosphere of the 1950s, he emigrated in 1959, still before the Iron Curtain was put up, via East Berlin and West Berlin to West Germany, and then to the United States. He graduated in political science from Columbia University and settled in Binghamton, NY, where he later taught political sciences at the state university. He collaborated with the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe, and as a passionate traveller wrote many articles and books on Asia, South Africa and the Pacific. Besides travelogues, his main genre is politology. He wrote for exile journals and published his books in the ’68 Publishers exile publisher in Toronto, after 1989 also published in the Czech Republic in translations. They included, for instance, Malá doznání okresního soudce (Small Confessions of a District Judge) and Judge in a Communist State. His other titles were, among others, Kam šlápne česká noha (Where a Czech Foot Treads; Šulc a spol., 2003), Komunistická justice a třídní boj (Communist Justice and the Class Struggle; Stilus Press spol., s.r.o. and Vojenský historický ústav, Praha 2016) and many other books.