Czech-Arctic Connections: Interview with Amb. Zdeněk Lyčka

By Alisa Musanovic
Photo by Hasse Ferrold.

Alisa Musanovic 

I’m with Zdeněk Lyčka, who is the co-ordinator of the annual Czech Arctic Festival. He’s a former Czech Ambassador to Denmark, the recent co-author of a book on Czech-Alaskan relations and also a polar explorer. Could you start off by telling us a bit more about yourself and your career, and how you envisage your future career goals?

Yes. I will start with 1981 – I graduated from the Technical University of Ostrava. It is in north-east Czechia, and the branch of my studies was Systems Engineering, so in fact I’m an engineer. But in 1987, I graduated from Charles University in Prague in Modern Philology – Danish and English. And in 1989, I received a PhD in Nordic literature. After the fall of communism in Czechoslovakia in 1989, the so-called Velvet Revolution, I entered the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and became a diplomat dealing with North European affairs. From 1991 to 1996, I served as Counsellor at the Czechoslovak Embassy in Copenhagen. Between 1998 and 2002, I was Director of the Czech Centre in Stockholm. From 2008 to 2013, I was Czech Ambassador to Denmark, so I came to Denmark again to be Ambassador. After returning to Prague, I was Director General of the Czech Centres – an organisation trying to promote Czech science and culture abroad. Since 2016, I’ve been working at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs again. My future long-term goal is promoting Czech Arctic science abroad, and one of my short-term goals is publishing the first Czech monograph focused on the Arctic. It is just in progress; it will be published, if everything goes well, in 2023. 

Is this the one about Alaska?

No, it’s another one, a monograph about the Arctic. It will be published by the publishing house Academia. 450 pages, a big book. Alaska was just a booklet, but this is a real book I’m preparing just now. 

It’s interesting to hear that you started off with engineering and then moved to literature. What actually was it that kick-started the Arctic focus? Was there a particular point in your career that took hold? 

I think my university studies of Nordic literature and languages, enabling me to speak Danish and Swedish, were probably the biggest driver in my interest in the Nordic or Arctic regions. Since 1985, I’ve translated some 10 books from Danish, Norwegian, English, and partly Greenlandic, dealing with myths, legends and Indigenous peoples of the Arctic. I’ve started to learn Greenlandic because I was wanting to translate some texts that were not translated to Danish; otherwise, I was translating Greenlandic matters from Danish. And I was awarded a Creative Grant within the Josef Jungmann Prize in 1998 for the translation of Knud Rasmussen’s ‘Myths and Legends from Greenland’. 

That’s a real specialism you have.

I can tell you something in Greenlandic – ‘Suli iluamik kalaallisut oqalusinnaanngilanga tamaattumik tuluttut oqalussaanga’, which means ‘I don’t speak Greenlandic well yet, that’s why I would prefer to continue in English.’ 

That’s always a key phrase to learn in another language. How did these interests then develop over the course of your career? For instance, how did the Arctic Festival that you co-ordinate come about? 

I would start with saying that living for 10 years in Denmark and for five years in Sweden has definitely deepened my knowledge of both Danish and Swedish. And, as I said, I started attending courses of Greenlandic to help me translate Greenlandic texts. So, I started with that, and then the idea of the Arctic Festival came later. At the beginning, I was working on translation and being a co-ordinator between the Arctic and the Czech Republic. 

What is important is that during my working stay in Denmark and Sweden, I visited all Northern European countries and met with the Danish Queen, the Swedish King, the President of Iceland and the heads of the Greenlandic and Faroese governments. Also important is that, in 2011, I crossed the Greenlandic ice sheet on skis and wrote a book about my expedition. So, all those things were just the foundations for my next step, the preparation of the Arctic Festival. 

Since 2000, I’ve also prepared four travelling exhibitions with Arctic themes that have been shown many times in Greenland, the Faroe Islands, Denmark, Svalbard, Norway, Slovakia, Poland, Germany and Czechia. These were ‘Greenlandic Myths and Legends’ – illustrations by Czech artist Martin Velíšek; ‘Sámi Fairy Tales and Legends’ – illustrations by Luboš Drtina, another Czech artist; and then the Greenlandic one, ‘Igimarasussuk Who Ate His Wives – Inuit Myths and Legends Through the Eyes of Aron Kangermio’. He was a special Greenlandic author who lived 150 years ago. The last exhibition was the ‘North Pole Expedition – Illustrations by Julius Payer’, the most famous Arctic explorer and artist from the Czech lands ever. 

So, you seem to have developed a lot of links with different Arctic states then.

Yes. You ask about the Arctic Festival; I think the Arctic Festival started as a private initiative, but now it became a more official thing. The Czech scientists have helped us a lot with this. I think we have to start in 2017, when the Czech punk rock band, Už jsme doma, translated as ‘Already at Home’, were planning their performance in Longyearbyen for the following year. The Czech scientists from the Julius Payer House, which is part of the Czech Arctic research infrastructure in Svalbard, helped Míra Wanek, who is the frontman of the music group, and me to get in touch with Svalbard partners. Together we began preparing a cultural and scientific festival called ‘At Home in Svalbard’. It was because the name of the music group is ‘Already at Home’. 

The festival took place from the 21 August to 13 September 2018 in Longyearbyen, which is the administrative centre of Svalbard, and also in the abandoned mining ghost town of Pyramiden, previously run by the Russian trust, Arktikugol. The festival was held in honour of the 100th anniversary of Czechoslovakia, the 25th anniversary of the Czech Republic’s establishment and the 10th anniversary of regular research stays of Czech scientists in Svalbard. As I’ve already said, a private sponsor mostly paid the costs, but the University of South Bohemia in České Budějovice, the Embassy of Norway in Prague and the Czech Centres also financially supported this event. And this event was unofficially called the ‘Arctic Festival’ for the first time. The official name was ‘At Home in Svalbard’, but after the success of it, we wanted to have it on a more regular basis, so since then it’s called the ‘Arctic Festival’. 

Yes, I noticed there were a few different names, and that the first one was in Svalbard, but the second one elsewhere.

Yes, it was. The Arctic Festival means presentation of Arctic and Czech culture and science. In Svalbard, it was inspired by punk music and scientific conference. And to put together the scientists in a rock concert – can you imagine, the people who are just deeply involved in research, they are now at the rock and punk concert, which is very interesting and exciting. And the Czech rock musicians and their fans who came to Svalbard went to the scientific lectures! So, it was a good combination of both things. 

As I said, the Arctic Festival’s main aim is to deepen the already established contacts between Czech and Arctic scientists and artists, and start cooperation between new partners. In short, the festival tries to present how culture can increase media interest in scientific research in the Arctic and make science more visible to the public. But at the same time, the festival raises the public’s awareness of the Indigenous peoples of the Arctic – this is a special private field of mine – featuring especially the Sámi and Inuit cultures.

Now I’ll just put it together. After ‘At Home in Svalbard’ in 2018, the Arctic Festival 2019 took place in four cities and towns in the Czech Republic from November 2019 to January 2020. It was organised by the Centre for Polar Ecology of the University of South Bohemia in České Budějovice in cooperation (it’s always in cooperation with another partner in the Arctic) with the University Centre in Svalbard, and what is important, with financial support from the Fund for Bilateral Relations within the EEA and Norway Grants 2014–2021. It is very important, because since the Arctic Festival 2019, the Norway Grants are in fact paying most of the financial costs.

The third edition – the Arctic Festival 2020-2021 – took place in six cities. So, before that we had four cities, now six cities in the Czech Republic, and online, which is important. It was from 6 December 2020 to 31 December 2021. It was very long, more than one year. Its extremely long duration was caused by the coronavirus pandemic. We invited people and some of them didn’t come because of the measurements. So I had to adapt the programme and invite other people, and then we had to postpone the schedule, and so on and so forth. I think it is important that this time the festival was the result of the co-operation of another Czech university, which is Jan Evangelista Purkyně University in Ústí nad Labem in North Bohemia, with the Norwegian Polar Institute in Tromsø. This was again with financial support from the Norway Grants’ Fund for Bilateral Relations. Thanks to this support, the Arctic Festival became an annual traditional cultural and scientific event. 

If everything goes as planned, the Arctic Festival 2022 will take place in Iceland (Reykjavík and Akureyri) from 16 to 18 September 2022. The University of Life Sciences in Prague will be the main organiser, in co-operation with the Agricultural University of Iceland. And of course, we would like to get the financial support from the Fund for Bilateral Relations again. That’s the short history and what we are planning.

It’s developed in fascinating ways, the way it’s gone between different locations. Moving onto another one of your projects – how did your book about Czech and Alaskan relations come about?

Well, I’ve already shown you the book, it is just a booklet. But it is the first book published in this way, showing the history of Czechs in Alaska. The book is called Czechs and Alaska, and it was planned as a commemoration of the 225th anniversary of the first Czech visit to Alaska by Thaddäus Haenke. I didn’t know him before I started working on the book. He was a scientist on board Alessandro Malaspina’s expedition ship. We wanted to have the book published on the commemoration of this anniversary, but what happened was that unfortunately the Covid pandemic’s restrictions stopped all prepared promotional activities. 

Anyway, the Consulate General of the Czech Republic in Los Angeles, the publisher of the book, is still planning to open an exhibition in Alaska and prepare a few book presentations in Alaska and the US West Coast, when Covid allows it, hopefully this year. However, the delay was also good for something – for adding more materials to the planned exhibition, as more and more Czech-Alaskan connections are being found, which were not included in the original manuscript. Because if you start something new, you don’t tackle all the things that there are in the field. So you publish the book, and then new information appears and appears again. Now we have the possibility to make our exhibition broader than it was meant to be. So the pandemic was good for something!

Can you tell us a bit more about the links between the Czech Republic and Alaska?

The Czech Republic and the State of Alaska may be on opposite sides of the globe, but the interaction among their peoples, as well as the mutual knowledge of each other’s histories, cultures and natural beauties, continue to increase. One of about 3000 Alaskans claiming Czech heritage as descendants of Czech immigrants to the United States during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is Frank Nosek, who was appointed Honorary Consul of the Czech Republic in Anchorage in 1999. In 2006, he launched a non-profit organisation, the Czech Alaska Society, offering Czechs and Czech-Americans in Anchorage and the rest of Alaska a better way to connect with their heritage. The Society also organises a number of cultural events each year and hosts visiting Czech officials and dignitaries. 

Nowadays, the number of Czechs settling in Alaska – often after repeat visits – continues to grow. Many long-established Alaskans are married to Czechs. Around 500 Czechs regularly travel to Alaska for employment-related purposes, working on fishing boats or in fish-processing plants. For example, Vojta Novák – founder of the firm ‘Alaskan Fisherman’ – alternates his time between Alaska and the Czech Republic. Others work on oil platforms or in forestry. 

Another notable group are Czechs who have become enamoured with Alaska’s natural beauty and rugged wilderness. For example, the Czech-American Misha Wiljes, who lives in Alaska, regularly partakes in the Iditarod dog sled racing competition. Milan Šindelář, having gained the necessary experience as a dog manager and musher in Anchorage, organises dog sled racing competitions in North-West Bohemia. Scientist Jan Lukačevič of the Cosmic Physics Department of the Czech Academy of Sciences has also set out on dog sled across Alaska (Lukačevič’s scientific team works to develop experiments for some of the major space missions of both ESA and NASA).

What other past and present connections does the Czech Republic have with the Arctic? Are there any particular interests or specialisms that the country has?

Yes, it might appear that the inhabitants of the Czech Republic – not a particularly populous central European country, and lacking an ocean – would have no interest in events happening in the far corners of the globe, to say nothing of the Arctic Circle. But it turns out that the reverse is true. I will start with history. The Western part of the Arctic – Greenland, Canada and Alaska – was partially baptised by Czech missionaries in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. They belonged to the original Protestant Church of the Czech or Moravian Brethren established in the Czech lands. And, as I already said, Julius Payer was the greatest Arctic explorer from the Czech lands, and the most famous painter of Arctic landscapes. He discovered the land of Franz Joseph in 1873. He was German speaking, but he was born in Teplice in North Bohemia. He ended up dying in Slovenia and is buried in Vienna, but he was born on Czech territory.

I would like to speak about another famous Czech in the Arctic who was a radiologist, and a well-known polar researcher and writer with a long-standing interest in the Arctic. I mean František Běhounek, who was the first Czech to reach the North Pole, not on skis or with a dog sled, but as a cosmic ray specialist in Umberto Nobile’s expedition on the airship Italia in 1928. 

Czechia has a long tradition of involvement in Arctic research. From the 1960s to 1980s, a number of Czechoslovak scientific expeditions to the Arctic were organised and successfully completed. Since 2015, the University of South Bohemia in České Budějovice has been operating the Czech Arctic Research Station in Svalbard, named after Josef Svoboda. He’s still living, he is a Professor Emeritus of the University of Toronto, and he was also appointed an Officer of the Order of Canada last year. He is a Czech-Canadian, Arctic tundra botanist, and a former Czechoslovak political prisoner. So, we had some history, we had some continuity during the sixties to eighties, and now we have the Arctic research station that is specially named after him. 

It seems that there is a long-standing history of polar exploration. What do you see as the priorities for Czech Arctic engagement today? 

The Czech Republic, as a State Party to the Svalbard Treaty, has the right to carry out scientific research on the Svalbard archipelago, subject to the consent of the Norwegian authorities. As I’ve just said, since 2015, the University of South Bohemia in České Budějovice has been operating a Czech Arctic research station in Svalbard. Our main priority is to present the results of the Station’s work at the international scene for the benefit of Arctic science; it’s very simple, but that’s the way it is.

Having been an Ambassador to an Arctic/Nordic state, could you tell us more about any special bilateral relationships the Czech Republic has with Arctic and Nordic states, or perhaps difficult relationships?

Yes, I think I would start with the fact that the dramatic environmental changes in the Arctic are affecting us all, Arctic as well as non-Arctic countries, and irrespective of our geographical position, we constantly try to increase the potential for mutual collaboration between scientists, researchers in universities and other actors from Czechia and the Arctic. We would definitely like to strengthen our cooperation with the members of the Arctic Council, not only in science, but also in the field of economy. And we have embassies in all Arctic states, except for Iceland, where our embassy was closed some twenty years ago, purely due to economic reasons. Anyway, the Honorary Consulate of the Czech Republic in Reykjavík and the Czech Embassy in Oslo take care of Czech-Icelandic matters. 

As for the Arctic Council, potential granting of the Observer status for the Czech Republic in the future (our Minister of Foreign Affairs asked for the Czech Observer status last year in December), would give us an opportunity to enhance co-operation with all Arctic Council members. It would be a platform where we could identify issues of common interest. Our scientists work in Canada, Alaska, the Nordic countries, as well as in Russia. I believe we share the same concerns for the future of the Arctic with Russia, as do the other Arctic Council members – especially the problems related to climate change and sustainable development of the Arctic.

Having been in a lot of different fields related to the Arctic, both diplomatic and cultural, what would you say about the Arctic institutional landscape in the Czech Republic? Who are the key players and fields? 

It’s very simple again, because we don’t have any central organ or ministry purely dealing with polar matters. All research is based on university levels. As I’ve already said, the University of South Bohemia in České Budějovice operates its own Arctic research station in Svalbard, and the infrastructure includes three parts: the Julius Payer House, which is the base station in Longyearbyen; the second part is the field station Nostoc in Petunia Bay, 60 kilometres out of Longyearbyen; and the third part is the research vessel Clione, providing logistical support. The Centre for Polar Ecology at the University of South Bohemia and the University itself are the Czech base of the infrastructure.

There are more universities than the University of South Bohemia, though. There is also Masaryk University in Brno. They regularly host students in Polar and Alpine research conferences and have annual workshops on bio-sciences in Polar and Alpine research. Furthermore, we have Jan Evangelista Purkyně University in Ústí nad Labem and the University of Life Sciences in Prague. What is also important is that, in 2017, Czechia hosted the Arctic Science Summit Week, and Czechia publishes Czech Polar Reports, a semi-annual international journal of original research papers related to the polar regions. So, Arctic research in our country is not very developed on the ministerial level, but it works well at the university level.

I would also add that we are active in international fora. Czech representatives have participated in the activities of the International Arctic Science Committee, for example, and Czech experts have been actively involved in the work of the University of the Arctic, the Forum of Arctic Research Operators, the International Science Initiative in the Russian Arctic, the US National Science Foundation, Arctic-FROST, INTERACT, EU-PolarNet and more. 

I already mentioned Masaryk University in Brno – they also have their own polar station in Antarctica. It means we have two stations, one in the Arctic in Svalbard, and one on James Ross Island in Antarctica. This is the landscape of polar research in our country.

Are there any Arctic strategies that you know of being implemented in the Czech Republic? 

The EU updated its Arctic strategy, which is pivotal for the Czech Republic. We think that the EU has relevant tools for contributing to prevention and reduction of negative impacts of climate change. It is important that the EU continues to focus on supporting scientific research and it is very important for us. Furthermore, it is crucial that the EU plans to invest in the future of people living in the Arctic, including more involvement of Indigenous peoples, women and youth. 

Czechia also agrees with and fully supports the goals and objectives of the Arctic Council, as defined in the Ottawa Declaration. Czechia respects the values, interests, culture and traditions of the Indigenous peoples of the Arctic and of all inhabitants of Arctic regions. Our scientists, research and academic institutions will continue contributing to various fields of Arctic science, especially to detecting, understanding and minimising the impacts of human-induced climate change in the Arctic. Czechia supports, moreover, efforts to make use of new technologies for the sustainable development of the Arctic. We also help with raising the public’s awareness of the Arctic’s Indigenous cultures throughout the region of Central Europe, especially via our annual Arctic Festival. So, we don’t have one strategy, but we have many strategies for how to tackle Arctic matters. 

Especially with the Arctic Festival becoming more officially recognised as the years have gone on.

My plan is to put it on the European level. This year, if everything goes well, it will be in Iceland. Then next year, maybe we’ll come back to Prague. Maybe the book on the Arctic will be published in 2023, so that will be a big event. Then maybe the following year, 2024, we can prepare a big Arctic Festival on the European scale. But of course, it is a future idea, and let’s stay on the ground – Iceland would be excellent, if everything goes well.

Let’s hope so. To end with looking to the future, what do you see as the greatest challenges to the Arctic?

The greatest challenge to the Arctic is climate change. The Arctic has actually been warming two to three times faster than the planet as a whole over the past five years. The pace of climate change in the Arctic poses many threats, including thawing ice and melting of the Arctic permafrost that leads to releasing methane, damage to critical infrastructure and re-emergence of harmful bacteria and diseases – our Czech scientists are working on this. They are specialists in these small animals. It is also necessary to protect the Arctic environment and biodiversity.

Czechia is also closely following the developments in the Arctic in the security context, of course. We see climate change, environmental degradation and natural disasters as part of the emerging threats and challenges that will impact our security landscape over the next decades. And growing political rivalry and influence is another reason for our concerns. But let me tell you that Czechia has a deep and abiding interest in maintaining the Arctic as a zone of continued peace and international cooperation.

Thank you.

Thank you very much for inviting me.

(This interview took place on Wednesday, 26 January 2022)

Alisa Musanovic is a Global Leadership Fellow at Polar Research and Policy Initiative. She is a graduate of a History BA at the University of Oxford and a recent graduate of an International Double Master’s Degree jointly studied at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies at UCL and University of Helsinki. 

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