This research is based on life story interviews with 12 Czechs/Slovaks who emigrated during communism and returned to the Czech Republic after 1989. The aim of the study is to understand these biographies in the context of cultural discourses in the Czech Republic today, and in particular, to shed light on the tension that at times emerges among those who emigrated and those who stayed in communist Czechoslovakia. The basic theoretical premise of this research is that we depend on others to validate our life stories and to establish ourselves as moral, integral beings. The stories we tell about our lives are always interwoven with broader narratives about the community in which we live, and with other biographies (Gergen, 1999; Gran 2000). Historical change, such as the fall of communism, can alter the rules for biographical evaluation. The new narratives favour certain kinds of pasts and discredit others, thereby strengthening the positions of different communities of memory. The encounters between returning emigrants and the majority serve as an illustration of the struggle about which criteria that should be considered valid for the construction of a moral biography today. Divergent interpretations about the communist past and the individual’s responsibility during the communist regime can lend support to or undermine the validity of life stories. Returning emigrants constitute a biographical mirror that challenges the life stories of some people in the post-communist space. At the same time, emigrants’ biographies are also open to scrutiny. Upon return, they find that few people are able to understand their experiences from abroad, and their motivation for leaving is often questioned. Idealised images of the West and narratives about suffering at home overshadow significant parts of the emigrants’ own biographies.
The main point of this study is to investigate the relationship between individual life stories and broader cultural and historical narratives. This may be a means to gain insight into important social processes, particularly in a society that is recovering from a historical epoch that is defined today as a national trauma. The tension between returning emigrants and the majority may be viewed as a symptom of the fact that the Czech Republic, as a post-socialist society, is still grappling with its own past and the ways in which the communist epoch is interconnected with present biographies.