The secret university

Roger Scruton’s work with dissident intellectuals in the Eastern Bloc was risky but crucial

This article is taken from the May 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

After Roger Scruton’s untimely death in January 2020, many tributes were written by friends and colleagues about Roger the man, Roger the conservative and Roger the writer and philosopher. Some of these mentioned his years of dedicated work with dissidents in Eastern Europe in the 1980s, but only in a general way. Not enough has been written about that extraordinary work, especially on the day-to-day details — the seldom-mentioned practical side of how Roger operated in Eastern Europe, how he organised what became known as the Underground University, mostly in Czechoslovakia, and helped rebuild the utterly destroyed education system after 40 years of communism.

He had also enlisted a prominent group of twenty patrons which included eminent figures such as Harold Pinter, Tom Stoppard, Yehudi Menuhin and Iris Murdoch

The Jan Hus Educational Foundation was founded by Roger, the philosopher Kathy Wilkes at St Hilda’s and three more Oxford philosophers. By the time I joined in 1983, Roger was leading the meetings. He had established a fully operating charitable foundation, for which funds were raised discreetly. He had also enlisted a prominent group of twenty patrons which included eminent figures such as Harold Pinter, Tom Stoppard, Yehudi Menuhin and Iris Murdoch. They were generous in their grants and believed deeply in the importance of the work they were supporting.

It was hard work — and of course all the Trustees had day jobs. Roger’s capacity for work was extraordinary; he worked harder than anyone else I have ever met. Besides teaching philosophy at London University, writing a weekly column for The Times, and having several serious books on the go, he was recruiting academics from Cambridge and top scholars in other UK universities, to which he later added others from France, Germany, Holland and America, to conduct seminars in Prague and smuggle in proscribed books so that the Czechs could keep abreast of the civilisation they had once shared.

Every two months, there would be a trustees meeting in Roger’s London flat, where he chaired a very full and incredibly strict agenda. First, we analysed the latest report each visitor to Czechoslovakia had handed in on their return, then chose the next lecturer and arranged a date to brief him. Next, we would consider new requests for stipends for typing up and printing illegal samizdat literature. Finally, we would assess a variety of essays written by dissidents and smuggled back to Britain for publication. If a text was suitable, it would be given to The Times under a pseudonym. My husband, Charles Douglas-Home, was then editor of the paper. He and Roger would edit the text, keeping an eye out for anything that might contain clues to the identity of the author.

Besides the British lecturers, we also recruited students to take coded messages into Prague to ensure the Czech philosophers knew when the next visitor would appear. This was a crucial form of back-up, as the postal authorities in the sorting office checked up on foreign addresses, so that all too often the coded letters we sent by post failed to arrive.

I had been invited to be a Trustee after requests from Prague to expand the philosophy seminars to include other subjects in the arts and humanities. On my first visit to Czechoslovakia I was taken by Roger to meet five philosophers to get the hang of life behind the Iron Curtain. Roger had briefed me on the basics: how to deal with arrival at Prague airport, how to behave if the books I was smuggling in were discovered in my luggage, and what to do if I was arrested. But not much else. In the end, however, it was not I, but Roger, who was searched at the border. He had travelled by train from Vienna and all the books he was carrying were confiscated by the Czech border guards.

Often there was no safe place to talk. Then we would communicate with pencil and paper.

Over the five days I spent there, I was given a subtle tutorial on how to ensure I would not compromise the dissidents. To this day, my meetings with those teachers, philosophers, historians and priests remain deeply embedded in my mind. We visited them in their private flats, where the rooms were infested with bugging equipment in every wall, under every floorboard, and with every light. Often there was no safe place to talk. Then we would communicate with pencil and paper.

Or we would meet down in the bowels of the earth: the dungeons where they stoked and shovelled coal into the vast cylinders every four hours, free from any interference. This particular job, among all the other menial work such as road-sweeping or night-watchman duty, to which most of these courageous intellectuals were reduced in order to make a living, had its uses. Close to the boilers, the philosophers had a small room, with a shelf to hold their books and a table to sit at, to study, to read, and to think deep into the night.

The philosophers, men such as Heydanek, Radim Palous, Pavel Bratinka and Petr Pithart, had all been expelled from their academic or university positions, and were constantly harassed and frequently imprisoned. We were there to provide the books they needed and were denied access to, as many as possible. We also handed over cash for the requested grants and stipends, and for printing samizdat, and planned future seminars. When parting, we took their precious articles to smuggle back, for possible publication. There was never time for any small talk.

Our final meeting was in Rudolph Kucera’s apartment in the heart of Prague, where Roger was to give his lecture on Edmund Burke. It was a stunning performance. He led us through Burke’s attack on the French Revolution and dissected the nature, motivations, and social pre-conditions of revolution. His technique of periodically shocking his listeners with an unexpected quotation or with a revolutionary thought of his own, while at the same time distilling an argument to its core and stripping it of jargon, was devastatingly effective. The lecture was helped by Alena Hromadkova’s beautifully crafted translation.

The meeting continued well past midnight. Alena left the seminar to walk us back to the hotel. She had news for us — or was it a charming order? She had arranged two new contacts for us in Brno, in southern Moravia. We would work with Jiri Muller — the mastermind of the Moravian underground — on a new programme connected to the arts. Then we would meet Petr Oslzly, the famous director of Theatre on a String.

The Jan Hus Memorial stands in the Old Town Square, Prague

Brno had been given a prize for the best-policed city in the Soviet bloc: bugs had been installed in restaurants, theatres, galleries, shops, private homes and cars. Word had it that they were also to be found in the streets. But we would be looked after.

The lectures and seminars in Petr Oslzly’s house would become one of the most exciting and effective of our efforts. I was able to visit Moravia for the next four years, but Roger was arrested while talking with Jiri Muller in the park in Brno, away from the bugging system in Muller’s house. He was forced to go to the border under police surveillance, strip-searched by the customs officers, ordered across the Austrian border on foot and registered as an enemy of socialism and of the state.

Brno had been given a prize for the best-policed city in the Soviet bloc: bugs had been installed in restaurants, theatres, galleries, shops, private homes and cars

Back home, and although no longer able to travel to Czechoslovakia, Roger placed Brno high on the agenda at trustees’ meetings. To him it was as important as the Prague seminars. He remained the “controller behind the scenes”, and briefed every one of our art historians, artists, playwrights and musicians who stopped first in Prague, and then went on to Brno.

They were an eclectic range: the historian David Pryce-Jones, the novelists Piers Paul Read and Dan Jacobson, the poets Carole Rumens and C.H. Sisson, and the musician David Matthews, whose first lecture was on Mahler’s tenth symphony and contemporary English music. Mine was on contemporary British painting, later on German expressionism.

Then there were the philosophers: Alain Finkielkraut spoke on Heidegger and Eric Voegelin; Professor Anthony O’Hear on the role of art in human culture; the art critic and magazine editor Peter Fuller on the poverty of modernism. He reminded his audience of “the inexhaustible human richness and spiritual power of the European tradition of figurative and landscape painting, something both capitalist West and communist East seemed bent on having us forget”.

In all, 28 different lecturers gave 62 seminars in the course of 40 visits, and Petr Oslzly estimates that the number of students rose to as many as 50. Most pleasing too was that five years later, with the fall of the Berlin Wall, 90 per cent of our dissident academics returned to the positions they had once held, and in some cases even higher ones: rectors of universities, top businessmen, members of parliament — and president of their country.

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