Skilling’s Return to Prague: The Work of H. Gordon Skilling in the Light of Contemporary Research

A report on the international conference of that name, which was held in Prague on 27–29 May 2012.

The conference opened in the Chapel of Mirrors at the Klementinum, at 6 pm, on 27 May 2012. The evening’s programme consisted of speeches, recollections, audiovisual presentations, and singing by the Besharmonie Choir led by Libor Sládek.

The evening opened with the choir singing some of Skilling’s favourite folk songs from the album compiled by Jan Masaryk, accompanying the projection of 234 photographs (from the family archive of David Skilling) showing Skilling at various moments of his life, from childhood to old age. Afterwards, the Czech Minister of Foreign Affairs, Karel Schwarzenberg, gave a speech praising the unusual life of this great Canadian and his contribution to Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic. The Canadian Ambassador to the Czech Republic, Valerie Raymond, talked mostly about the main stages of Skilling’s career, and expressed her gratitude that the conference was being held. The Chairman of the Board of the Czechoslovak Documentation Centre, Vilém Prečan, spoke about some of the future tasks connected with the study of Skilling’s life and work.

The actor Jiří Ployhar read an essay by Milan Šimečka, written in 1982 to mark Skilling’s seventieth birthday, and also Skilling’s notes about the gala dinner in honour of Madeleine Albright, held in New York in September 2000. An excerpt from a 1995 Czech TV interview with Skilling was also shown to the audience.

The historian Petr Blažek gave a talk describing how the Czechoslovak secret police had kept files on Skilling from the 1950s right up his last visit to Czechoslovakia, in 1987, before the end of the Communist in November 1989.

Skilling’s elder son, David, gave a talk about his mother Sally, who had been Gordon’s lifelong partner. Jana Oldfield, of the Centre of Russian and East European Studies at the University of Toronto, recalled working for Gordon Skilling. Samuel Abrahám, the Rector of the Bratislava International School of Liberal Arts, also gave a talk full of personal memories. Other recollections were sent to the conference by Josef Čermák, an important representative of various Czech associations in Canada.

The academic part of the conference continued in the Czernin Palais on the following two days. A total of eighteen papers were given by scholars from Prague, Bratislava, Cambridge (Massachusetts), Madison (Wisconsin), Oxford, Paris, Toronto, and Washington, D.C., accompanied by lively and fruitful discussion. (Written versions of the papers will gradually be posted on the Czechoslovak Documentation Centre website.) The academic part of the conference concluded with Paul Wilson’s talk about Gordon Skilling, followed by the closing remarks of the Director of the National Security Archive, Thomas S. Blanton, summing up the conference and its results. The very last words were Vilém Prečan’s suggestion to establish the Perennial Skilling Forum on the Centre’s website, an idea warmly welcomed by the conference participants.

During the conference, CT2 recorded 'Skilling: Advocate of Czechoslovakia,' for its series historie.cs, which was broadcast on 19 June 2012. (For a computer-translated transcription of the programme click here).