Richard Stilicha, 1971
Richard Stilicha was born in Bratislava in 1971. His mother, Danica, a researcher, and his father, Peter, an editor, were both studying at university at the time he was born. Richard’s maternal grandparents helped to raise him in the family home in Bratislava’s Old Town. His maternal grandfather, Eugen Suchoň, was a very well-known composer who wrote the first Slovak national opera, and Richard himself began playing the piano at the age of four.
Richard says that one advantage of living in Bratislava was being able to watch Austrian television and gaining some knowledge of happenings in the West. In 1989, Richard graduated from high school and began studying computer science at Slovak Technical University. He also acted in the Slovak National Theatre as part of the background cast of Carmen. On the night of November 18, Richard arrived at the theatre to be told not to dress for the show. To support the student protests in Prague that had happened the previous day, his company went on strike – a moment that Richard says was the beginning of the Velvet Revolution in Bratislava. A few days later, Richard heard that the borders had opened and drove to Austria for the day; he returned home and then took his parents across the border.
Richard went to Finland for three months in 1990 to work on a translation project for computer systems, and he received his bachelor’s degree in 1991. He then enrolled at the University of Economics in Bratislava where he received his master’s degree in international business. In 1995 Richard went to the University of California, Santa Barbara, on a student work program where he developed the first web pages for the university. Although he was offered a full-time job there, he returned to Slovakia to finish his degree. For several years, Richard managed an internet service provider company. He married his wife, Monika (whom he had met during his time in the United States), in 1997. The pair decided to move to Canada in 1999. They arrived in Toronto where Monika quickly found a job with CitiBank. Richard worked as a project manager for five years before branching off to work as a project management consultant – a job he still holds today.
With his friend Pavol Dzacko, Richard began a non-profit organization called Canada SK Entertainment, which brings contemporary Slovak music and cultural acts to Toronto. Richard has one son who visits his grandparents in Slovakia each summer and has learned to speak Slovak. Richard himself returns to Slovakia several times a year and says that he feels both Toronto and Bratislava are his homes. He lives with his wife and son in Toronto.
Richard’s grandfather, Eugen Suchoň, was a very well-known Slovak composer
“He was the best person in the world. I never saw him arguing about anything. He had a really, really great soft-spoken personality. He never raised his voice, he was never yelling, and he was a really family-oriented person. I remember we had a cottage in Modra, which is about a half an hour from Bratislava, and always for the weekend the whole family gathered there. Weekends were dedicated to the family. He was working during the week, but weekends it was family. And he was the one who was keeping all the family together, which was really nice of him.”
Growing up under communism affected Richard and his family in a couple ways
“We had no choice. We were forced to become Pioneers, which was sort of the starting ground for communism. It was mandatory; you couldn’t say no. And then as we went to high school we had to be in a different communist organization; it was called Zväzáci [The Czechoslovak Union of Youth] and we had to be in that organization as well. Always from the very beginning, we had political propaganda in our classes where they were telling us in really plan children’s language ‘You are living in a really great side of the world, and on the other side of the fence there are bad people, capitalists, imperialists. People are suffering there. There are people who work long hours that are not paid for that and their life is so miserable. You should be so happy you’re here because we all together will build a better future for us and together with the Soviet Union it’s going to be wonderful. Eventually we’ll reach the time where money will no longer be needed; everybody will take only what they need, and this is how people will co-exist.’ So at first I was like ‘Ok, this sounds good. I’m happy,’ and then I started to grow up and I started to realize that not everything is the way they are telling us, especially because Bratislava had a great advantage; we were able to watch Austrian TV. So we were also able to get Western news. We were able to get a look from the other side of the fence. I think that was a big plus and, my grandparents, they were always watching the Austrian news at 7:30. The ORF, the Österreichischer Rundfunk, always had the news from America. So, for example, I saw when there was an attempt to kill the American president [Reagan] and how it was.
“My grandpa, the communists were threatening and trying to get him to join the Party. They said ‘Look, you are a showcase of Slovak culture. You composed the first national opera. It’s appropriate for you to be in the Party.’ And he always refused. He said ‘I’m not going to do that. I’m sorry; I’m not going to do that.’ But he was trying to make peace with them. He was not fighting against communism. He said ‘You know what. You leave me alone, I’m going to be composing, and I’m not going to work actively against your regime.’ He was also very religious, so he was refusing to be in line with the communist propaganda.”
Richard describes the night of November 18, 1989 – the beginning of the Velvet Revolution in Bratislava
“I was acting in the Slovak National Theatre as a background person and that night we were supposed to play Carmen. Usually we came to the opera – it started at 7:00, so we came at 6:00 – we put on our clothes and we were waiting for our performance. That night, we didn’t know what was going on. I finished school at about 4:00, on the way I went through the city, and then at 6:00 I came to the dressing room and, suddenly, there are no costumes and nobody knows what is going on. I’m in the background and the director of the theatre – at that time it was Juraj Hrubant who was actually a great baritone and acted in all my grandparents’ operas – says ‘Don’t dress up. Just go to the stage and stay there.’ And the stage was not ready as well. So at 7:00, the whole opera ensemble stays there, the singers in the front and us in the back together with the players, the whole orchestra. Everybody on the stage. 7:00 comes, the curtain goes up and suddenly there is huge applause. As I said, I was 18. I had no idea what was going on. At that time, Hrubant says ‘We’re going to strike because of what happened in Prague yesterday.’ That was the start of the Velvet Revolution in Slovakia. I was right there. By coincidence, but I was right there.”
A few days later, Richard had a ‘life-changing experience’
“We were just driving down toward the New Bridge in Bratislava, and we hear on the radio that the borders are open. That was the first day that the fence actually went down and they opened the borders to Austria. Coincidentally, we had our passports with us. So I’m telling my buddy, ‘You know what? Let’s see. Let’s check.’ So we go to the [Bratislava-Berg] border crossing which was already crowded and we said ‘We want to go to Austria.’ The guy said ‘No problem. Here is a piece of paper. Just write your name, give it to us…’ and suddenly we got to Hainburg. The feeling was unbelievable. Something which our parents couldn’t achieve for 40 years, suddenly, without any papers, just my passport, I was able to go to Austria. I saw a guy at the borders; he went back and forth 20 times. He couldn’t believe it. He was crying. He filled out 20 papers, because for every crossing you had to fill out one, so he was going back and forth; he was crying, kissing the ground. He said ‘I never believed that something like this would ever happen during my life. And then I go to Hainburg and we park in the main square, and there is a guy with a coffee shop and he says ‘You’re from Slovakia right? You can finally travel. Come; let me treat you guys for coffee.’ So he gave us cake. They were really welcoming. They said ‘You guys are finally free. We live so close to each, but at the same time we were so far away. Suddenly you’re here.’ The feeling was unbelievable.
“I come home and my parents know nothing. So I tell my dad – he was sitting in the kitchen – I said ‘You know what? I just came from Hainburg.’ He says ‘What do you mean you just came from Hainburg?’ I said ‘I went to Hainburg. The border is open.’ He says ‘You are crazy. I can’t believe that.’ I told him ‘Come.’ So I load them in the car, said ‘Bring your passports,’ I drive through the borders. They didn’t watch TV; it was very fresh news, and they started to cry. As I said, I was 18. I went a couple of times for a family vacation to the former Yugoslavia and back, but for them – for all of us – it was a life-changing experience. Really life-changing experience.”
Richard describes how he feels about his two homes
“We had this philosophical discussion with my dad last time and he said ‘Really, tell me. Where do you feel at home?’ And of course he was expecting that I’m going to tell him here in Bratislava. I said ‘I’m at home here. I’m at home in Toronto as well. Really, when I’m returning from Slovakia, going back to my work, and my plane is landing at the Toronto airport, I feel at home here.’”
Category: Oral History