Slovak-born sociologist, publisher, and writer, 1945–
Slovak among Czechs, federalist vainly trying to stop the “velvet divorce,” Jewish intellectual who helped start a phenomenally successful private TV station – Fedor Gal’s life in the past 20 years has been a study in contrasts.
Gal was born in 1945 in Terezin, the Jewish ghetto in northern Bohemia where his pregnant mother had been transported from Slovakia in the last stages of World War II. His father died a month later in Germany during a forced march of concentration camp inmates, a journey Gal retraced for the 2009 documentary Krátka dlouhá cesta (Short Long Journey).
Gal went on to study chemical engineering and economics at universities in Bratislava and Prague. According to his website, in the mid-1980s he became one of the first scientific researchers to break loose from the rigid academic system and work on a freelance basis.
The quick fall of Czechoslovakia’s communist government and the rush to fill the resulting power vacuum made Gal a leading figure in Slovak politics, and by his own account a target for much vitriol and bigotry.
Along with figures such as actor Milan Knazko, lawyer Vladimir Meciar, and dissident activist Jan Budaj, Gal helped transform the main Slovak dissident group, Public Against Violence (VPN), from a free-floating anti-regime coalition into a broad-based political movement that easily won the first democratic vote in June 1990. Recently, on his own website, Gal recalled the welter of emotion and released tensions that accompanied the Velvet Revolution: “So many illusions, so much euphoric enthusiasm, naivety, amateurism, and at the same time human hyena-ism, collected frustrations, egoism broke through in the course of days and weeks to the surface of our daily lives.”
But the euphoria for Gal was short-lived. As splits began to appear in the VPN between the nationalist wing around Meciar and a more federalist-inclined faction, he found himself at the receiving end of grotesque anti-Semitic caricatures published in hard-line communist and nationalist newspapers. Disgusted, he decided to leave Slovakia and has lived on the Czech side of the former federation ever since.
Established in Prague, he returned to his academic career for a time, but more significantly, became part of the group that won the first license for a private television station in the former Czechoslovakia. Nova launched in Prague in 1994 with a diet of foreign shows, sensationalist news, and late-night porn, becoming by far the most-watched Czech station for many years and earning Gal enough money to devote his days to publishing (through the G plus G publishing house he started with his son Robert) and writing. He has published a string of books on travel, spirituality, and popular science, as well as collections of essays.
This year Gal jumped headlong into the pool of revolutionary retrospection, co-producing a series of online video documentaries on the events of 1989 and ‘90 for the Slovak magazine Tyzden. His own view of the legacy of the past 20 years was expressed in an April discussion at the Catholic University of Ruzomberok, Slovakia. “Democracy is not freedom,” Gal said, “only an environment where it is better to fly than during communism.”