Skip to main content
Interview

A Life of Contrasts

J. Lee Simons

From her auspicious birth in the U.S. to her recently published book, Europe Undivided: Democracy, Leverage, & Integration After Communism, Milada Vachudova has led a life of contrasts. In 1967 Czechoslovakia, there had been a softening politically. Vachudova’s parents had convinced the authorities to let them travel outside the country for a year. “They convinced a ship captain to take them and my brother with their little car to Canada and that’s how they came over,” she said. “Their plan was to camp for a year and see the United States, leave the car, and fly home. They had absolutely no intention of staying here, but halfway through the trip, while they were camping in Big Bend National Park in Texas, they heard the news about the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia.”

The period became known as “Prague Spring.” Alexander Dubcek, first secretary of the Communist Party, had started reforms that included freedom of speech and freedom of the press. Those freedoms came to an end when the Soviet army invaded Czechoslovakia, arrested Dubcek, and effectively marooned Vachudova’s parents in the U.S.

“Both sides of my family were very politically active before the communist rule. After the communist coup in 1948, many family members lost their jobs. They had been lawyers, judges, and professors, but the intellectuals, people who had advanced degrees, were fired from their jobs and assigned jobs in the factories to do manual labor,” she explained. “So you have these wonderful stories of people, like that of the former Czech ambassador to the UK, Pavel Seifter, who worked twenty years as a window washer in the 1970s and 80s.

“My father refused to work in a factory, and he became an artist, but he was not allowed to sell his paintings, because he refused to join the Communist League of Artists. He did join when my brother was born in 1964 in order to feed my brother.” Vachudova’s father became a successful artist and lithographer. One of his pieces is the cover art on her book.

Not knowing exactly how to react, her parents continued their camping trip until they reached the Seattle area, where she was born. Devastated by the turn of events, it took them about a year to determine to stay. That decision would dramatically influence the rest of her life. “My father was in his fifties and my mom was forty. He had wanted to be a professor, and he had also wanted to be foreign minister of Czechoslovakia—he was extremely ambitious,” she said. “He saw all those prospects evaporating, and when I was growing up, I felt his frustration of not having fulfilled his life’s dream. By the 1980s, everyone had given up hope for democracy [in Czechoslovakia].”

Although her father taught for a time at Evergreen State College in Washington state, he also dealt with illness and the family experienced poverty American style. “My father worked mostly as an artist during my life, and they were very poor, because my father was sick,” said Vachudova.

Having used up their savings, they lived in housing among other immigrants from Thailand, Laos, and elsewhere. Parents who could not converse with one another did not stop the children from bridging the various language barriers. “These were families in transition and essentially it was really good for America, but this was a twist on the American dream,” she recalled. “My family went from very well off in Czechoslovakia to nothing here. Then through education, my brother and I have achieved the American dream, but it has so much to do with parents who valued education.”

Growing up in a small apartment overflowing with books, Vachudova said her father had high expectations for his children. “My father wanted me to come home from American school and do all the subjects again in Czech,” she said. “I made an effort, here and there, to try to do homework from Czech textbooks, but his expectations and what one could actually accomplish were quite different.”


High school summers were spent as a family at Yellowstone National Park. She and her brother worked as geothermal observers. Her job was to collect data on the geysers. “I would time them, try to predict when they would erupt again, and write reports on several small geyser basins at the end of the summer—it was a great job for a teenager,” she said.

In 1986, as a senior in high school, a Rotary scholarship sent her to study in Angouleme, France. Next, as an undergraduate at Stanford, she flirted with American public service, but it was the fall of communism in 1989 that began to shift her focus. She was a junior in Stanford’s study abroad program in Paris, when the Berlin Wall fell in October. And she went to Prague soon after the Velvet Revolution began. While there, a fascination with Europe was kindled as she watched Czechoslovakia’s Civic Forum movement triumph over communism—a triumph her father did not live to witness.

“If my father had lived, it might have been more difficult for me to take the path I’ve been on. That was an absolutely amazing time in 1989–90,” she remembered. “After writing my undergraduate honors thesis on Czechoslovakia’s new foreign policy, I applied for the British Marshall scholarship to study how Europe was going to be put back together after the fall of the Iron Curtain. I got the scholarship, and that gave me a place to be to study the transition.”

After remaining abroad to acquire a PhD at the University of Oxford in 1998, Vachudova spent two years working in the new Czech Republic. “I was there partly to teach at the university, partly as a consultant of the government, and partly as an American social scientist conducting research,” she said. Vachudova received a contract to publish her dissertation in 1999, but things in Europe continued to change, and she was reluctant to go to press with so much history in the making.

I FEEL LIKE IT SUMS UP FIFTEEN YEARS, AND IT TAKES THE STORY TO AN ENDING POINT WITH THE EU’S ENLARGEMENT.


Determined to return and teach in the U.S., she was faced with something of a challenge. “When you’re trying to get a job as a professor here, it’s an extra challenge if you have a degree from outside of the U.S.,” said Vachudova. “I had to ‘re-Americanize’ myself.”

Thus she spent a year at Princeton and then at Harvard working on her research, and she joined the political science faculty at the University of North Carolina—Chapel Hill (UNC) in 2001. “Europe was still in flux; we didn’t know whether the European Union (EU) was going to enlarge or not, or which countries would come in and in what order,” she lamented. “I kept halfheartedly working on the manuscript, but it wasn’t until I was established at UNC that I had a really good base to work from.”

Once there, she taught classes and received help from her students. “My students were wonderful; they read chapters and proposed graphs and tables. In the end, the manuscript from those years was completely rewritten in twelve months, but I’m really happy with it now,” she affirmed. “I feel like it sums up fifteen years, and it takes the story to an ending point with the EU’s enlargement. I finally got to the point where I was ready to state ‘I have something to say—here’s my book.’”

In her book, published by Oxford University Press, Vachudova analyzes “how the leverage of an enlarging EU has influenced domestic politics and facilitated a convergence toward liberal democracy among credible future members of the EU in central and eastern Europe.” Albeit not by design, she argues, “The most powerful and successful EU foreign policy tool has turned out to be EU enlargement.” And her book sheds light on why and how it works.

When asked to compare students in Europe with U.S. students, she offered insight to European teaching methods. “My U.S. students are by far the best students in the sense that they’re very curious and intellectually motivated, but they’re also very ready to speak up and to have a debate,” she replied. “The problem in Europe, especially eastern Europe, is that the style of education has always been that the professor lectures, and the students just sit there. The professor lectures for two hours while looking out the window, and the students sit there. Exams are all about repeating what you’ve heard.

“And the idea of a seminar, where students debate one another and the professor is relatively quiet, is not common in France or Germany, but in communist eastern Europe it was completely unheard of. I feel like my teaching was having a significant impact there, because in the classroom I teach students to sit down together and listen to one another and to debate; I teach them that their voice matters.”

This sharing of ideas has had amusing consequences. “Sexism there is much greater. My presence in a classroom shows young women that it’s possible to have a position as a politician, a lawyer, or whatever they choose,” said Vachudova. “I feel like I do good when I teach. My favorite story is from my first time teaching in 1992. There were students from all over eastern Europe who had never been in a seminar before: one person from Russia, one person from Estonia, one person from Romania, etc. At some point we were talking about democracy and what it meant, and a woman from Romania, who had been very quiet, raised her hand and said, ‘I just want Romania to be a democracy where people can live with dignity.’ And this Russian man stood up—he was only about five foot two—and yelled at her, ‘You sit down, and you be quiet. Pretty soon little girl Romania is going to come crawling back on her hands and knees to big brother Russia.’ And the Estonian man punched him.

“All of them were older than me, right? I was 22, and they were all 28 or 30. Things have come a long way since then.” And did relations improve with that particular class? “They did. We took them dancing. We were all American. The relationship between professors and students was extremely hierarchical in eastern Europe, and the idea that you would go dancing with students would never happen, but we would take them all out. Once they got to know one another, things got much better.”

This remarkable life journey has taken Vachudova back to the country her parents were forced to separate from, where she was reunited with extended family who had remained there during the communist takeover. Recently, her brother left a thriving career in New York and moved with his wife and children to live and practice law in the Czech Republic.

MY NEW PROJECT FOCUSES ON CROATIA, BOSNIA, SERBIA-MONTENEGRO, AND MACEDONIA.


When asked what had surprised her most along the way, she replied, “I have been surprised at how hard it is to have a career as a woman. When I graduated from college in 1991, I thought that the inequality between men and women in the professional world had been removed. Now it strikes me that although women can receive an education with relatively few disadvantages, I am surprised at how many women have felt that they have to choose, even now, between a family and a career.”

Reflecting on the course of events that led her to this point in her life, she remarked, “I have been incredibly lucky to have an idea of what I wanted to do from the time I was an undergraduate and to have a lot of support. I was self-motivated, but I had breaks along the way. I became who I wanted to be: a professor, teaching, conducting research, and writing. I also enjoy going to conferences where I interact with politicians and political policy makers about the real world implications of my work.”

Vachudova is already at work on the next project as a sequel to Europe Undivided. “My new project focuses on Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia-Montenegro, and Macedonia. I have a two-year grant to spend a lot of time in those countries, which I began doing last fall. Some of the questions are the same, but some of them are so different because of the war,” she explained. “The aftermath of ethnic cleansing and war means that politics are much more polarized. I will never have the same inside feel for this project that I had about east central Europe, but I’m trying to study the political dynamics in each country since 1995 and look for similar patterns in them.”    

Milada Anna Vachudova recently married a colleague who shares her interest in eastern Europe.