Milena Kalinovska, born 1948
Milena Kalinovska was born in Prague in 1948. Her maternal grandparents emigrated from the Soviet Union following the Russian Revolution due to their anti-communist views, and her grandfather became a librarian who started the Slavonic collection at Charles University. Milena’s father’s family was from Moravia where they had a furniture-making business. Věra, Milena’s mother, worked as an accountant at TESLA, but was fired from that position in the 1950s when her Russian background was discovered; she was sent to work in a factory instead. Milena’s father, Adolf, built camera rails for the film industry and worked for several well-known directors.
Milena grew up with her maternal grandmother in the Prague district of Strašnice. She spoke Russian at home and observed traditional Russian holidays. In addition to participating in sports and the Pioneer youth organization, Milena was also interested in art, having been exposed to museums, film and other culture by her father from a young age. She joined an art club in high school and put on an exhibition at a local movie theatre. As a teenager during the Prague Spring, Milena recalls a ‘great sense of liberalization’ and took advantage of the music and theatre happening in the capital city. Following her graduation from high school, she began studying law at Charles University.
Shortly after the Warsaw Pact invasion in August 1968, Milena went abroad to work as an au pair in the U.K. She returned to Czechoslovakia in the fall of 1969 and, because of the ‘oppressive’ environment she saw forming the beginning stages of normalization, began making plans to leave the country permanently. With money given to her by her grandmother, Milena secured a three-week trip to the U.K. She did not return with the group and went to London where she was granted asylum. In 1975, she graduated from the University of Essex with a degree in comparative literature and began teaching Russian literature while also working with dissident and exile publications. She then received her master’s degree in Slavonic studies from the University of British Columbia and decided to pursue a career in the arts. Back in London, she found a job at Riverside Studios, a gallery and studio for contemporary and experimental art. In 1986, Milena married her husband, Jan Vanous, a Czech-born American, and moved to the United States.
Milena’s art career has flourished in the United States, where, in addition to working as an independent curator, she has held the position of director at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston and is currently the head of public programming and education at the Hirshhorn Museum, part of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. Milena’s Czech heritage has played a large role in her professional accomplishments, as she has made it a point to highlight artists from eastern and central Europe, particularly those whose work was suppressed during the communist era. Milena holds British, American and Czech citizenship, and she travels to the Czech Republic annually. Her two children speak fluent Czech and she continues several Czech traditions at home. Today Milena lives in Chevy Chase, Maryland.
Milena’s mother’s background would cause her trouble
“My mother went to an economic high school and she became an administrative accountant. She started to work, I think when I was already a small child, for TESLA, which was a major enterprise, where she ran an office. But during the ‘50s when there was persecution of people of different opinions and non-communists it was discovered that she was of Russian origin, was thrown out of TESLA, and ended up working in a factory called Kablo, which was three shifts during the night, day and afternoons, and that was extremely difficult for her.”
In 1962, Milena’s father had the opportunity to travel beyond the Iron Curtain
“During the [Cuban] Missile Crisis, he was, as part of the film crew, invited to film a movie called Komu tanči Havana, For Whom Havana Dances, in Havana. He was not allowed to travel because all of the people who went were communists. He was allowed, after many applications by the film director, to go with two people who would guard him. And I have a feeling that my parents discussed the opportunity, but it was very clear that if he would leave [permanently], she and the children would never be allowed. However, during this trip to Cuba, the plane stopped in Montreal and the people who were communists who looked after him themselves escaped. So he arrived to Cuba by himself.”
In high school Milena found an outlet for her lifelong interest in art
“I really wanted to find a club where maybe I can paint or do something and so, with a friend of mine who later on enrolled in art history, found a place which, again, was under this auspices of folk art, but the person who was there was an academic painter – and probably persecuted also – and he allowed all kinds of people to come at any time and to do all kinds of things. So I started to work with wood and so many things; he was so encouraging. And then I came up with an idea of doing an exhibition of all of these products at a local cinema, and he supported me and it was exhibited in the hallways, and it was a wonderful, wonderful outlet for me.”
Milena talks about being a teenager in the years leading up to and during the Prague Spring
“It’s already probably starting in 1964 to 1966. There was a sense of great liberalization, without us completely realizing it. We would listen to the foreign radio – Radio Free Europe, I think, and one other station – we would be completely into Beatles music and all of the contemporary music and outfits and all of these kinds of things. And living in Prague there were outlets; there were small theatres. So I would go to small theatres and see performances, Na zábradlí or Semafor, and they were all incredibly interesting; also kind of political but smartly political so they wouldn’t be closed. We would go to different musical performances. So life became extremely interesting and, at the time, you spoke more openly and my parents spoke openly and so on.”
Milena she made the decision to leave the country permanently after spending one year abroad in the U.K.
“It was then that I realized that what was ahead of me in Czechoslovakia was an extremely grim picture. By that time – and I immigrated, or left, in the summer of ’70, so from fall ’69 to summer ’70 – things were changing dramatically. You could already tell, even among young people, that people were making decisions – of those who stayed – who would be collaborating, how they would be collaborating, whether they will become members of the Communist Party, and so on. So you could already see the whole process and you also know that if you weren’t taking part in it you will be succumbed by the entire situation and there would be very few choices for you that would be left. One of the choices would be to live a decent family life, and that felt not enough when you think that you are 20 years old and the whole life is ahead of you. So I desperately, desperately wanted to leave. And at that time I became extremely secretive because I knew that if anybody learned about anything, everything would have been stopped.”
Once in London in 1970, Milena made a conscious decision to adapt to her new surroundings
“I think people really are not interested in your past. We can ask ourselves how many people do we ask what sort of experiences they have had in life, particularly when they are not from our culture. And so it became very clear to me that nobody is really interested in the culture that they don’t understand, and I have to thus adopt to the culture in which I am; to adopt those values; to spend free time like everybody of my age; to dress like them; and to start sort of understanding how they live. I found all of this extremely exciting. I can imagine that when you are older all of this is difficult, but I was shaping my personality and it was exciting beyond description; it was just absolutely fantastic.”
Milena had a favorable impression upon moving to the United States in 1986
“I was very impressed with the people that were around my husband, whether they were Czech or Americans. They felt extraordinarily energized, extremely positive, full of hope – for themselves, for their country, for what they’re going to do. It was almost as if I felt, ‘Well yeah, I am meeting myself; that’s how I feel. I want to be here. They are the same people like me. It’s very exciting; things can happen here.’ So that was kind of a feeling I had when I came to the United States.”
Milena shares her thoughts on the current state of the Czech Republic
“I think young people have enormous possibilities and it’s very much up to them if they are able to take these incredible opportunities. Of course, you can now see the country being economically very successful and people in certain areas really having very full lives. On the other hand, what is really disappointing, particularly during the Klaus period as well as now during Zeman, is the amount of corruption and the fact that kind of democracy and the hope of people, those who fought with Havel, haven’t really completely materialized. I think Havel represented some enormous spiritual and moral hopes, and I think some people hold them very closed in; it’s very important for them. There are many extraordinary talented people, but somehow the oppression, particularly of the government, which seems to be very corrupt, is disheartening for many.”
Category: Oral History