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Women in communist prisons in the 1950s in Czechoslovakia: Understanding psychological effects of political imprisonment and ways of coping using oral history

Kristýna Bušková, M.Sc., M.Phil





            It was not until the end of Cold War that the Stalinist transgressions that took place during the Cold War were given attention. These events first attracted the attention of historians and political scientists. Their interest was first focused on former agents and other representatives of totalitarian regimes rather than on victims.  It is plausible that these research studies contributed to the European Parliament passing a resolution on the European Conscience and Totalitarianism in 2009. This resolution represents the first official recognition of communist crimes on a European level. According to this declaration, crimes of communism are comparable to crimes of Nazism, with Holocaust being unique. While consequences of Nazism have been well researched both by social scientists and psychologists, Czech psychologists still avoid researching the consequences of political imprisonment and other transgressions that took place in Central and Eastern Europe during Cold War.

             This paper represents the first attempt to fill in this gap in psychological research. In particular, we shall attempt to shed light on how political imprisonment in the 1950s in Czechoslovakia influenced the lives of six former female political prisoners and what strategy enabled them to survive.

            Most of the psychological studies on political imprisonment are concerned with pathology, mainly post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other co-morbid psychiatric disorders or alternatively with the development of therapeutic approaches.[1] Such studies are important for our understanding of effects of such experiences on individuals and their potential transference on future generations - up to three generations are usually affected- and for providing successful treatment. The fact that trauma is being transmitted from one generation to the next is knowledge we have since the beginnings of modern civilization. At least the female progeny of Stalinist political prisoners in Czechoslovakia is no exception.[2]

            Despite the fact that a man is not immune to the effects of traumatic life experiences, a man has a huge potential to resist them. Protective factors s/he can draw on are faith, family cohesion and support, support of friends and community, education, self-confidence and a supportive spouse.[3]

            Further, a search for what the meaning of their lives is (e.g. see books of V. Frankl) can be helpful too.  That is why people hold and defend their political views; take part in resistance movements or write and disseminate "illegal" literature as was the case of Czech dissent. Such activities help people rid themselves of anxiety by grasping the unprecedented situation. However, such search cannot be done on one's own. If it is then other people feel confronted with their own existential fears and feelings of guilt when faced with another person's search for understanding and active change. As such, they feel the need to undermine to search of that person.  

               What particular role all these mechanisms played in case of all our narrators, who were politically imprisoned in communist prisons, will be discussed. With use of the method of oral history, we shall attempt to scientifically interpret the narratives of six women who got themselves into existentially extreme situations in their lives and managed to overcome them without suffering clinically significant consequences for their mental health. The reader will thus get an idea of how a political prisoner felt both in prison and after release to the already communist society. This paper can also provide those from former Easter Europe with deeper understanding of their identity as citizens of a post-communist country.






            Six female ex-political prisoners in the 1950s in Czechoslovakia were interviewed. All these women are now elderly. All of them live in the Czech or Slovak Republic.


Data Collection


            Members of Political Prisoners project decided to have the psychological analysis done once the interviews were already collected. Therefore, the researcher did not have the privilege of asking research questions. Instead already existing interviews were analysed.

            Since oral history is usually applied on a fairly small sample size, it advocates homogenous sampling. Therefore, only interviews with female ex-political prisoners who stayed in the Czech Republic and are members of KPV were analysed. Participants were recruited by team members of Political Prisoners project. They were given all necessary information on the aims of the project and how the collected data will be used. Participants signed a consent form. Since originally the data were supposed to be used only by historians and other social scientists each participant was again contacted by phone and asked to give additional consent as to whether they agreed with having the additional analysis done. They all agreed and insisted on being cited under their real name and not under a pseudonym - an unusual practice in psychology.




            The analysis was carried out using thematic approach as described by Eatough and Smith (2006). First, the researcher read transcripts couple of times and wrote down anything of significance using annotations in NVivo 8 software specially designed for qualitative analysis. These annotations served as a substitute for the traditional use of left margin on paper. Second, individual themes were identified. Third, when no more themes could be identified they were clustered under super-ordinate themes. Super-ordinate themes with sub-themes are interpreted in the Analysis section of this article using existing psychological constructs and theories. The interpretation is always either followed or preceded by quotes from the interview so that the reader can assess how the researcher arrived at the interpretation and carry out their own assessment of the interpretation.

            This strategy should partially compensate for the absence of triangulation which could not be carried out due to time constraints and thus constitutes one of the limits of this study.



            This section provides an overview and interpretation of main themes and sub-themes extracted from six interviews with female ex-political prisoners. Beside direct effects and protective factors that helped them cope after release from prison, ways of reconciliation are analysed.


Main Themes


 Conditions in prison and their influence


  • Inability to claim one's right
  • Political violence and torture
  • Aggression of guards


 Factors that helped them survive the life in prison and after release

  • Nice but adventurous childhood
  • Patriotic upbringing
  • Continuation of values among female ex-political prisoners (mainly in Pardubice) and mutual support.
  • Active defence and protest
  • Knowledge of the system
  • Conduct consistency
  • Low intelligence of "bastards" (čůzák)

Return from prison

  • Existential crisis
  • Inability to have career and influence on the society


  • Therapeutic years
  • Forgiveness


Conditions in prison and their influence


Inability to claim one's right


            Female prisoners were judged by a court at which they stood no chance to claim justice. Five narrators described such court as "mockery" where a man had no chance of a due process of law.


They judged us in Malin in a pub where theatre performances used to take place. The entire audience was sitting at the stage. At that time Holec said: "Dear Sir Madam I do not recognize this as court. It is mockery!" The process lasted just one day. The verdicts were as follows: I was sentenced to ten years. My father was sentenced to 12 years as was Holec and his son (Květoslava Moravečková).


            In such a situation, a person feels fear. In our narratives, four narrators briefly mentioned this emotion. Fear stems from our appraisal of the situation as: i) incompatible with existing plans and image of oneself, the world and other people and ii) as a threat to the achievement of one's goals that are considered important by the person.[4] It is possible that our narrators felt that their existence as it was perceived so far was threatened when they realized the judicial system as they knew it from democracy was not able to execute its power any more.

            This feeling is also connected to the feeling of losing the meaning of one's life. We can experience a so called shattering of meaning when we realize that our life and the whole society is going in a direction that is incompatible with our view of ourselves and of the way the world should function.  Everything that gave our life meaning so far was gone. For instance our job/ career and ways governing communication among the people are gone. Instead, spying on one another, mistrust, anomie, chaos and imminent threat to life and anxiety emerge.


Political violence and torture


            Two of our narrators openly talked about physical torture they were exposed to.


They wanted to condemn me for espionage and they wanted to know more names: I used to kneel barefoot on the chair. When Horak came, one of the investigators, he beat them few times with a baton. When they were swollen I covered them with a cloth and they were ok in the morning. Many times I thought I would faint. When the one who was writing a protocol with me saw that I would faint, he let me sit on a chair. But later Horak came. He was his super-ordinate and asked: "Is she talking, giving away names? No? Then kneel!" (Julie Hrušková)


Sometimes there were up to seven people. Once they left me there 24 hours. They fettered me and that was very inconvenient. But I do not like talking about interrogations. It was extremely humiliating and I do not like recalling  it... I was just telling them: "Mon, dad, do not ask me about interrogations as I do not like recalling them. I don't mind you asking about anything else. Talking about interrogations is still a taboo since it was so humiliating not only for me but for each of us (Vlasta Jakubová).



            Torture is defined as "an act of great pain and violence inflicted by one or more persons representing the state for the purposes of interrogation, punishment, or for any other purpose"[5] The use of physical torture by investigators served just one aim: to break narrators‘ will so that they betray themselves.[6] The aim was to break their own identity.  They were supposed to feel helpless and become fearful. The investigators wanted to get their confession for their own purposes. As Schlapobersky names it, „the individual becomes a ticket to the community. This ticket then gives him a great chance to destroy the entire dissent, that is the resistance against the regime."[7]

            From the narratives of our six women it seems that the communist rule did not break them down. Words of Mrs Jakubova and silence of another five narrators sugget that our narrators excercise avoidant behaviour in case of  the worst experiences.            Avoidance belongs to one of the aspects marking an unresolved trauma. However, it is equally plausible that women discuss these issues among themselves in private. Therefore, it is impossible to determine from these narratives whether they reconciled themselves with it or not. Research inicates that women are often silent about torture.[8] Reasons behind their silence are cultural norms and fear of rejection by the society. That is especially true in cases in which women were subjected to physical and sexual violence. Such torture elicits feeling of shame, guilt and fear of being condemnded by the society.  In severe cases, these feelings may result into a so called "secondary wund".


Aggression of guards


            These narratives suggest that guards behaved in a highly aggressive way to most of the female political prisoners.


Their behaviour towards me was terrible. The level of their brutality and arogance was unbearable. For instance, the way they would talk to you - for example you could not name anyone from your family - mother or sister. No you had to give them full names as if you were talking about  stragers. And their britality was excellent in all areas (Hana Truncová) [sic].


I experienced one brutal interrogation. They beat my head against the table. They dragged me back and forth and beat me against the wardrobe and agianst whathever they came across. I tried not to fall down. I was eventually rescued by a phone call. They had to go and arrest another person. One of ther flunkies drove me to Orlí. There they put me into correction unit (Julie Hrušková)


            Such conduct becomes possible by a mentally healthy human being only if the "perpetrator" is dehumanized in the mind of the offender (the guard).[9] Dehumanization allowed the offender to treat our narrators as sub-humans. As a result, the guards resorted  to violence which they would not have used under normal circumstances. Since the entire society saw political priosners as less than humans, the perpetrator did not have to fear any punishment that would normally follow. Further, such deed would normally invoke feelings of guilt and shame in a normally functioning human being. Terefore, a healthy person would never resort to such a deed from fear of being discredited. However, these evolved self-regulating mechanisms cease to function when the entire society needs to justify genocide or political violence in general.


  Factors that helped them survive the life in prison and after release


Nice but adventurous childhood


            Five out of ten narrators described their childhood as nice but adventurous. It was adventurous because they were growing up during WWII and their parents were themselves rebellious. Most of the narrators remember their parents as courageous.


We had a "risky luck" that we could receive short waves into our small radio at home [sic]. When I was home I was carefully listening to these short waves' calls from London with my father always at 10pm. Since the house we lived in was attached to another house and the radio stood at the wall we shared with the neighbouring house, my father put isolation on the wall so that it could not be heard. We were indeed risking our necks (Hana Truncová) [sic].


            Their parents were either themselves engaged in civil uprising against the enemy or they were not afraid of risking their lives and kept breaking war laws so as to get more food for their family. Children were usually informed about it and also became themselves active. Their share in the „clandestine" activity was not small. However, parents delegated them such tasks that were appropriate for their age. At the same time, they provided them with a feeling of security that enabled them to carry out such task.

            We assume that it is these activities that our narrators learned on to stay in control in dangerous situations. The rise in self-confidence went hand in hand with it.

These experiences probably contributed to their resistance to conditions in custody and in prison and to their courage to protest against totalitarian regime. The fact that they grew up during WWII in families that provided them with enough yet not absolute security probably protected them from post-traumatic stress disorder. As a result of such family background they saw the world as meaningful enough yet not completely secure. It seems that this worldview contributed to their ability to reconsider their future plans and adjust them to the then prison conditions and possibilities. Without reconsideration of their plans for the future and perceived ways of the world's functioning, they would have probably become traumatized.


Patriotic upbringing - The First Republic


            Parents brought up their daughters as patriots. They all felt as Czechs or Slovaks and lived according to values observed in the First Republic.


A club of Czech ladies existed in the USA. Alice Masarykova was also a member of this club. Alice was always telling them to stop at Lany when they come to Czechoslovakia. When both auntie and Mrs Pavlikova drove there they took me with them. I was about ten years old. They dressed me up and off we went. I will never forget how I met Masaryk (Kvetoslava Moraveckova)


            Our narrators internalised those values which their parents adhered to and lived their lives according to them. Due to this attitude they were also willing to fight for the country. When they went to prison, they knew what they were fighting for and why. This conviction served them as a so called "immunization" against trauma caused by dehumanizing treatment and interrogations.[10] It was their conviction that protected their organism against the break down.


Continuity of values among female ex-political prisoners (mainly in Pardubice) and mutual support


            The mentioned values also contributed to the understanding which female prisoners had for each other in prison. Since they were all raised in a similar way and in similar environment, they managed to create such environment in prison which reflected the values they held. They did not inform on each other and treated each other with respect and tenderness. Such approach is in compliance with reactions of the Jews who have been through Holocaust. Humanistic oriented psychologist, Tierre Shantall summed it as follows: To stay a human being represented the bravest protest against the Nazis.[11]

            In addition, all our narrators shared the experience of fighting for democratic Czechoslovakia and ended in prison after having been on trial.

            Their common thinking and experience probably not only made their stay in prison easier but also worked as a quasi narrative therapy.[12] Their common experience allowed them to share their feelings without a need for explanation. As a result, a secure space was created among them which provided them with a feeling of unconditional acceptance. Acceptance and mutual understanding are considered crucial for a therapy against trauma.[13]


I have to say we all understood each other so well because we thought alike. We knew about those who were informants....Our memories of the time in prison? It is the best that remained. We wished that they would build a village or a town for us when we get back from prison. We understood each other so well in prison; even better than our own relatives. In spite of the fact that we all came from all walks of life, we thought alike and shared opinions (Jindřiška Havrlantová).


            The fact that our narrators are female also seems to have helped them create such a therapeutic environment. Searching for help in one‘s community and belonging to social groups had been a female strategy of standing up to oppression for centuries.[14] It is possible that such an approach to the threat of trauma might have come more natural to female prisoners than to male prisoners. However, this is no more than an assumption since no such psychological study has been conducted on men yet.


Low intelligence of "bastards"


            Female prisoners distinguished between so called old and new guards. New generation of guards was composed of people with low socio-economic status and with lack of intelligence, including the moral one.


Those "bastards" were very vulgar. They did us things to spite us. We had to clean rooms even when there was nothing to clean. For instance she saw a stain and kicked the bucked and told us that we had to start again. One of them was named Elsa Koch. We went on hunger strike because of her. She belonged to the losers (Vlasta Jakubova)


            The fact that narrators viewed guards as less intelligent than themselves served as a way to increase once self-confidence. Self-esteem became necessary for survival and for knowing how to handle communication with these people. They knew that it was their intelligence that would help them fight the system. On the other hand, knowing that they were being controlled by people with low intelligence and low SES might have instilled feelings of absurdity and hopelessness in them.


Return from prison


Existential crisis


            Since our narrators managed, more or less, to re-create the environment of the  so called First republic in prison, they experienced existential crisis first after return from prison. The society they returned to was already communist. It was governed by fear and lies. Smartness, morality and empathy suddenly became an inconvenience.


When I got back everyone was avoiding me and showing me their back. I was living with my parents but they gave us an informant to live with us. His name was Kucera. He was listening to us and then sent the information on. He could do whatever he wanted there. Once, her husband broke my arm. All people feared him not just us. It was terrible; suddenly I was reduced to nothing. We did not have anything (Květoslava Moravečková)


Return to civil life was very difficult despite me having very supportive environment at home. To fit back into civil society is difficult. No one would believe me if I said that you miss the people in prison  certain shelter and protection...Jindřiška Havrlantová who did not have her husband - political prisoner - at home started to send mails to many people.  Her correspondence reached such high numbers that communists started to suspect her and she had to reduce it. That gave meaning to her life. She learned how to use brain in prison more than anywhere else her life (Hana Truncová)


After release from prison, it became clear to our narrators that schemas they learned in the past to appraise the world were no longer applicable. Their plans had to be changed and replaced by new ones. People's actions had to be judged according to new standards. They probably ended up in a psychological vacuum. If they had experienced post-traumatic stress disorder it probably was in this moment.




Therapeutic years


            The year 1989 brought about a relative feeling of security. Suddenly people rid themselves of the ever present feeling of anxiety caused by the omnipresent feeling of threat to their existence.[15] From these narratives it is unclear what 1989 meant to our narrators, the only exception being Jindřiška Havrlantová.


I was so happy, almost mad. I thought I could fly away how happy I was. I was hoping for something else though. I thought that the newly elected president would ban communists. But Havel acted differently. He gave them the possibility to breath and live in freedom in spite of the fact that they did not grant us this freedom.


            Mrs Havrlantová says that she got the opportunity to live and breathe in freedom. In other words, she experienced feeling of security at last which is crucial for processing traumatic experiences. The fact that it was not just Havrlantova who had this feeling is supported by the foundation of KPV, which gives former political prisoners the opportunity to meet and share their experiences.

            It is plausible that this organisation significantly contributes to the fact that these women appear reconciled with their past. As was mentioned earlier, people usually overcome traumatic experiences if they can talk about them with someone who has had the same experience. KPV facilitates this need. Its members provide each other with feeling of acceptance and with recognition of memories of one another. Together they may talk about things they would not have otherwise had the courage to tackle. Among such topics are probably traumatic moments such as torture, interrogation, hunger and feeling of extreme cold.[16]

            Apart from the therapeutic influence of KPV, its therapeutic strength can be seen as lying in its power to make ex-prisoners' experiences public and thus gain them moral recognition from the public; however, both these interviews and other historic publications suggest that ex-political prisoners still feel that they deserve considerably more credit for what they did (see e.g. Mayer 2009; see the related next theme) This enables political prisoners to have i) influence on the society; ii) pass on their experiential wisdom to next generations and iii) gain moral acknowledgement. That has been demonstrated as crucial for the success of therapy with political prisoners.[17]


The ability to forgive


            Reconciliation with the past is closely linked to the ability to forgive. Two narrators described how difficult it was for them to forgive. Moreover, one of them openly talks about her anger at the past regime.


At last there is life in prison as well. There is entertainment but terrible things also take place there. We had to survive it all. But do not forget to mention that there is twenty of us who were imprisoned; our husbands were imprisoned and we do not even get their pension (Drahomira Stuchlikova)


No one apologised to us for all those years. I did not say I cannot forgive. My father, clergy, said that even though one should forgive one should not forget. Those are two different issues. To tell the truth, I did not forgive them as they stole a huge chunk of my life. I had life plans. It can never be brought back. I just wanted to life in freedom, travel and do things that would please me. All that was restricted (Hana Truncova)



            Anger belongs to social emotions and always has moral underpinnings. When we feel anger towards a person we usually view this person as thwarting our goals and plans. In other words we feel that we have been wronged on purpose.[18]

            Anger expressed by one of our narrators has strong moral connotation. The narrator views herself as superior to the followers of the totalitarian rule. She is searching for justice by placing her heroism in contrast with their crimes. Such trail of thought was in compliance with narrators' view of the then newly appointed guards as less intelligent and evil. At the same time, female political prisoners tried hard to act morally in any situation so that they would not lower themselves to the level of the guards and would not threaten the meaning of their stay in prison. They thus placed their morality in contrast with the sordidness of guards.

            Such moral anger represents an obstacle on the way to forgiveness among our narrators. It will probably not happen unless our narrators gain feeling of moral compensation.




            Narratives of six female political prisoners confirmed that ideology, happy childhood, self-confidence, internal locus of control as well as support of family and friends all serve as a buffer against the effects of traumatic experiences. Further, they revealed that one's will to redefine the meaning of one's life played a positive role in mental survival during the prison stay and a negative role at the time of release. Different outcome of this search seems to have been caused by the difference in the acceptance by others. While in prison our narrators provided each other with feeling of acceptance, they did not have each other back home.  Paradoxically, after release they lost audience and a certain feeling of security, which is considered necessary for reconciliation with the trauma. It is plausible that some female prisoners experienced a late onset of PTSD which they later overcome by themselves.

            From this research it appears that our narrators drew on most of the protective factors available to reconcile their individual psychological trauma. At the same time, they still expressed strong feelings of anger and difficulties to forgive. Since public acknowledgement of individual suffering is crucial for successful treatment of trauma related to political violence, we can infer that complete reconciliation will not happen unless individual trauma is expressed on a cultural level as a cultural trauma. The author will explore the relationship between psychological and cultural trauma and its role in healing in the upcoming book ‘Cold War and Trauma in Eastern Europe' (edited by K. Miklossi).


[1] BAUER, M. - PRIEBE, S. - HÄRING, B. - ADAMCZAK, K. Long-term mental sequele

of political imprisonment in East Germany. The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 1993, vol. 181, s. 257- 262.


MAERCKER, A. - SCHÜTZWOHL, M. Long-term effects of political imprisonment: a group comparison study. Soc Psychiatry Psychiatric Epidemiology, 1997, vol. 32, s. 435-442.


[2] BUŠKOVÁ, K. Understanding the experiences of daughters of ex-political prisoners in Stalinist Czechoslovakia in the 1950s using interpretative phenomenological analysis. Glasgow, 2009. 64 s. Diplomová práce na univerzitě Glasgow. Vedoucí diplomové práce Dr. Georgina Wardle.


ŠVEHLOVÁ, J. H. The enemy's daughter: The psychological effects of Stalinism on female children of political prisoners. Washington, 2001. Diplomová práce na George Washington University.


[3]RUTTER, M. Resilience in the face of adversity: Protective factors and resistance psychiatric disorders. British Journal of Psychiatry, 1985, vol. 147, s. 598-611).


LINDY, J. D. - LIFTON, R. D. Beyond invisible walls: The psychological legacy of Soviet trauma. New York: Brunner-Routhlege, 2001.


[4] POWER, M. - DALGLEISH, T. Cognition and emotion. Hove and New York: Psychology Press, 1997.


[5] CHESTER, B. Women and political torture: Work with refugee survivors in exile. Women and Therapy, 1992, vol. 13, s. 209-220.


[6] SCHLAPOBERSKY, J. Torture as the perversion of a healing relationship. In GRUSCHOW, V.J. - HANIBAL, K. (Eds.) Health services for the treatment o torture and trauma survivors. Washington D.C.: American Association for the advancement of science, 1990, s. 15-34 .


[7] SCHLAPOBERSKY, J. Torture as the perversion of a healing relationship, c.d., s. 15-34.


[8] CHESTER, B. Women and political torture: Work with refugee survivors in exile,c.d., s. 209-220.


[9] ANDERSEN, S. M.- CHEN, S. - CARTER C. Fundamental human needs: Making social cognition relevant. Psychological Inquiry, 2000, vol. 11, s. 269-318.


[10] BASOGLU, M. - MINEKA, S. - PAKER, M. - AKER, T. - LIVANOU, M. - GOEK, S. Psychological preparedness for trauma as a protective factor..., c.d., s. 1421-1433.


[11] SCHANTALL, T. The Experience of Meaning in suffering..., c.d., s. 96-124.


[12] COLEMAN, P.G. Creating a life story: The task of reconciliation. The Gerontologist, 1999, vol. 39, s. 133-139.


[13] BICHESCU, D. - NEUNER, F. - SCHAUER, M. - ELBERT, T. Narrative Exposure therapy for political..., c.d., s. 2212-2220.


[14] CHESTER, B. Women and political torture: Work with refugee survivors in exile, c.d., s. 209-220.


[15] POWER, M. - DALGLEISH, T. Cognition and emotion. Hove and New York: Psychology Press, 1997.


[16] Bischescu, Neuner, Schauer.....


[17] CHESTER, B. Women and political torture: Work with refugee survivors in exile, c.d., s. 209-220.


[18] Power and D POWER, M. - DALGLEISH, T. Cognition and emotion. Hove and New York: Psychology Press, 1997.

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