Central Europe Review find out about advertising in CER
Vol 3, No 8
26 February 2001
front page 
our awards 
CER cited 
jobs at CER 
CER Direct 
e-mail us 
year 2000 
year 1999 
by subject 
by author 
EU Focus 
music shop 
video store 
find books 


Old Values in New Hands Old Values
in New Hands

50 years of the
Prague intelligentsia

Robin Healey

Prague is a city where fine architecture abounds, fine music is everywhere and beauty is never far away. For at least 650 years, since Charles IV established a university and attracted scientists and artists to Prague, the city has always been an intellectual, artistic and cultural centre—even in those all too frequent and often lengthy periods of wars and oppression making life hard.

Such a centre can only be established and sustained by cultivated people. The architecture of the place could only have emerged through enlightened patrons and city fathers, skilled architects and committed preservers. The extraordinary richness of the performing arts in the city depends on skilled artists, appreciative audiences and generous funding from the public purse or from private sponsors. The sophisticated citizens of Prague are the successors of men (and their wives) who built up the city and made it flourish.

Surviving crises and diversity

The Prague intelligentsia (PI) has long played a major role in the life of the city, and also in the constant, often unsuccessful, struggle for an autonomous and well-run Czech state. It was prominent among the leaders of the National Movement, culminating in the formation of the first Czechoslovak Republic in 1918. This led quite naturally and very rapidly - according to history as passed down by the PI—to a major intellectual, economic and political flowering of city and country, which was all too soon crudely curtailed by the Germans in the late 1930s. Attempts to revive an intellectually and economically flourishing Czechoslovak state were again stunted, according to the same version of history, this time by Communism, with crises in the late 1940s and in 1968.

When the Nazis departed in 1945, the city's buildings were mainly intact. The Communists respected the architecture, artistic life and traditions of Prague. In the period between the late 1930s and the late 1980s, few major buildings suffered anything worse than dilapidation and the removal of valuable objects.

However, the PI suffered worse than the fabric of their city. The Germans saw the PI as a threat and set about killing its anti-German majority. Under Communism, dissident PIs were again in danger, but those who, for various reasons and to various extents, went along with the regime, flourished not only in their careers but often also in their art or scholarship. At most times in the period from the late 1930s until 1989, nevertheless, significant sections of the Prague intelligentsia were more or less oppressed, though perhaps not so much more than other groups in the country. But they were the ones used to playing a leading role and commanding respect, so they felt the humiliation more keenly than a peasant or a factory worker who was more inured to hardships and political elites.

The PI never was a cohesive grouping, and 50 years of oppression of various sections of it fragmented the grouping all the more. Until the Second World War, there had been major German and Jewish intellectual groups, but by the end of the 1940s these had been utterly dispersed. The diversity of the remaining PI needs to be emphasised. At its core there is an inner circle of old and established Prague-based intellectual dynasties, leading scholars from a wide range of disciplines, and famous artists, writers and musicians. The outer circle extends to intellectuals who failed to spend their childhood in Prague, as well as to less distinguished people from various backgrounds who, nevertheless, contribute in their way to the intellectual life of the city.

Outsiders, part-timers and women

Any intelligentsia has an unstable membership. Distinction is often achieved quite late in a scholar or artist's career, and talent tends to pass down the generations only in a very diluted form. Indeed, a great man may have only daughters, and in Prague few women are welcomed into the upper echelons of the intelligentsia, though they may be tolerated, even adored, as a great man's consort.

An intelligentsia constantly needs new blood. Prague, like all great cities, constantly draws its lifeblood from its hinterland. Young artists and scientists, writers, painters, musicians, engineers and architects—from small towns and villages in Bohemia, Moravia and Slovakia and from ordinary Prague families—come to the capital and work on their professions and, perhaps, finally achieve distinction, though never total acceptance as insiders from the old PI elite.

There are also plenty of part-time and occasional intellectuals. Men and women, who make their living in a less intellectually exalted way, form an enthusiastic if less distinguished part of the intellectual scene outside their working hours, singing in choirs, going to concerts and galleries, gaining knowledge and living civilised lives.

There have always been, of course, the talented and the less talented, the diligent and the idle, the talkers and the doers.

To make generalisations about such an ill-defined and disparate group is risky, all the more so as I lack titles before my name and evidence based on quasi-scientific studies that would give credibility to the mere impressions that I offer here. I may, indeed, have been lured into false impressions of this sophisticated but complex group of people, many of whom spent much of the 20th century concealing from outsiders more than they revealed to them. There will be many exceptions to any generalisation about PIs, as is to be expected in any grouping of exceptional people. And, naturally, the considerable number of exceptional and non-conforming PIs will always be far more interesting than the mass of their more ordinary counterparts.

Renewal—despite oppression

Under Socialism, there was the dissident intelligentsia and the red intelligentsia, though the dividing line between the two was very often unclear at the time, and has been quite impossible to sort out in the years since 1989. The dissident intelligentsia ranged from a limited number of outspoken anti-Communists who were oppressed together with their families, to the majority who resisted more or less passively, were careful what they said and went out on to the streets in November 1989.

Under Socialism, however, renewal of the intelligentsia went ahead rather strongly. The universities and the professional arts expanded, and large numbers of fine artists and scholars emerged. Few of the PIs who complain about education under Socialism would agree that they personally—products of the criticised system—emerged from the era hopelessly ill-educated!

Some of the new intelligentsia were dissidents or crypto-dissidents, others were working, with varying degrees of commitment, inside the system. Some were fortunate to have professions, eg professional musician or engineer, in which they could excel and get ahead with few political compromises. Others, journalists and lawyers, came into constant contact with the official ideology throughout their professional work—these professions involved a complicated and unclear combination of implementing that ideology and/or finding ways of hindering or limiting its implementation.

1968 was a turning point: until that time, a PI may have believed that he could somehow operate sincerely and with integrity inside the system, that "Socialism with a human face" was a possibility. However, the entry of the Warsaw Pact forces in August 1968 made it quite clear that the Czech(oslovak) intelligentsia was not going to be excluded from playing a role or even being consulted in any decision-making processes.

How did the PI react to the three blows in the middle of the 20th century (the German invasion, the Communist take-over and the events of 1968) and to the long years between and after these disasters? Open resistance was very dangerous, and it was not the tactic of choice. Some managed to leave the country, but the majority stayed, lay low, buried their heads in the sand, and practised passive resistance. During a 50-year period of oppression, this loose grouping managed to survive without surrendering the old values it held most dear.

I will attempt to list some of the values that seem to have sustained the PI over this period of 50 years, and the values that they managed to keep alive. No doubt, scholarship was the greatest. Knowledge is something that can hardly be taken away from people, and it provides self-confidence and self-respect for the oppressed. A second great value was the arts. Music, theatre, painting, sculpture and the other arts sustained many. Any true PI should be able to play a musical instrument quite well, and to talk with knowledge about the serious forms of art, know the biographies of great artists, etc.

A third value was civilised leisure pursuits. In addition to his knowledge and love of architecture and the arts, a PI should be a competent ballroom dancer and should have a deep if highly sentimental love of the Bohemian countryside. He should be very much at ease when spending the weekend in his house in the country, going on long rambles, skiing across country in winter, building a camp fire and joining in the sing-song in the evening. All of these time-consuming pursuits fitted in well with the relaxed work environment when "we pretended to work and they pretended to pay us."

Those intellectuals whose career prospects were blighted, in reality or in their imagination, dedicated themselves to their personal and family lives: having civilised values and educated minds, living in a fine city; they were able to enjoy a private life of considerable leisure and, perhaps, spiritual quality. Under Socialism, Prague was very far from being a cultural and educational desert: there were cinemas, theatres, concerts and good cheap beer, bookshops and long weekends in the country. Ordinary people could afford to go to top-class cultural events.

Survival strategies

The lack of a distinguished public career was, of course, frustrating for those who were, by nature, ambitious (including those whose disappointments were based on an exaggerated assessment of their own frustrated talent). Indeed, many PIs were reluctant to give up all possibility of having a public career, and made enough accommodations with the regime to achieve some kind of public office and have the opportunity, once in a while, to travel abroad.

However rich their private lives may have been, dissident PIs needed to adopt strategies to survive in public and at work. Open resistance was rare, the main strategy being passive resistance. PIs learned a hundred ways of quietly sabotaging the plans of their oppressors while appearing to comply with instructions. They learned always to have a hundred plausible excuses for failing to take any action at all. They avoided acquiring or admitting to skills that would serve their oppressors. For example, they might retreat into an abstruse area of academic specialisation, so that they could be considerable scholars without getting involved in the real world.

The good soldier, Švejk, was not considered as a figure of comedy—he was taken as a model of how a patriotic Czech can survive in times of adversity. Since there was no linkage—as far as disadvantaged intellectuals were concerned—between merit, promotion at work and income, there was little pressure to rise in the world or even to make money. Those in high positions were assumed to be collaborating with the authorities, while those who had money were assumed to be crooks.

At the hardship of—freedom

In November 1989, the heads of PIs were suddenly and unexpectedly jerked out of the sand. There was again a nation to be run. PIs led the "Velvet Revolution" and assumed that they would take over positions of political as well as intellectual leadership. Their attitudes were widely considered arrogant by the rest of the country. Very soon, a group of Slovak politicians campaigned against what they considered to be ongoing and endemic Pragocentrism and, as soon as 1993, succeeded in gaining a velvet divorce.

Many Moravians and provincial Bohemians also consider the PI arrogant, and populist politicians have been able to play on this until the present time. The intelligentsia lost its grip on the main political parties that emerged in the 1990s, the ODS and the ČSSD, whose leaders know that anti-PI statements can bolster their popular appeal.

In 1989, the PI assumed that it would, as usual, provide the natural leaders of the nation. They had led the dissidents, they were the nation's best and brightest. However, fifty, or forty, or even twenty years of development cannot be lost without a price. PIs, quite simply, were not ready for 1989. Their minds had set in 1968, or 1948, or even 1938. They lacked the skills, know-how and experience (especially in management) to run a post-Socialist country, a post-Socialist university, a post-Socialist theatre or television station. (So did the tougher, less gifted men who soon swept them aside.)

The intelligentsia was accustomed to being superior, but it was not at all prepared for running a country at a time of difficult transition. The previous 50 years had left PIs better at criticising than at constructing or managing, better at finding reasons for doing nothing than at taking action, better at writing satire than at writing the minutes of a meeting, better at sitting with congenial friends than at spending long Saturday evenings arguing with hard men who were determined to take power and make money; in general: better at talking than at doing. For five decades, PIs had not been judged by what they produced but by what they were. To prevent had been more important than to construct. In the 1990s, they were found wanting.

The habits of survivalism and passive resistance die hard, especially among the older generations who, in some cases, still feel under a degree of threat from the brave new world into which they have been released in their old age, a world where judgements on what is "good" appear to be made by Baptist accountants from the southern United States, rather than by Prague philosophers.

New generation

What of the future? PIs, who spent their formative years learning to imitate the good soldier Švejk, are still having difficulty adapting to the new requirements for leaders of a society in transition. They are still enjoying a pleasant, if somewhat impoverished style of life—unless they received a windfall in the restitution. As a generation, they are lost, but there are very many honourable exceptions: intelligent people who have worked hard in their 40s and 50s to acquire the skills that are required for leading positions in the new age: learning English and computer skills, accountancy and management.

Their womenfolk have been almost unmentioned until now. Educated women in Prague have been and still are pre-occupied with caring for their PI menfolk and their offspring, or, all too often, with surviving after divorce. Their income from a public sector job, like that of their man, is meagre. However, the family's lifestyle and aspirations requires not just two incomes but also plenty more from free-lancing.

Fortunately, for the stressed housewife, cum mother, cum public sector employee, cum free-lancer, she is not expected to be diligent in her main job. She may be able to spend quite a lot of time "at work" relaxing and winding down before saying good bye to her colleagues in mid-afternoon and setting about her more arduous free-lancing and family tasks. Only exceptionally do Prague ladies of a certain age show commitment and application at their place of work. Their daughters, though, belong to a new generation.

Few educated women in Prague have enough leisure to join the intelligentsia, which is a men's club anyway, and prefers to welcome women only as accompanying persons. As a consequence, there are only a limited number of prominent female PIs, honourable exceptions every one of them.

More than 11 years have now passed since 1989. In that time, the PI has continued renewing itself, and a new generation is coming along that is well educated, sophisticated and full of ambition to acquire the skills necessary to lead the country into a new golden age. It is no longer the old, leisured, academic or artistic intelligentsia. Its values seem to be more mercenary than those of earlier generations. Young men and young women are prepared to work longer, harder and more efficiently, often in the private sector, but expect to be recompensed for doing so.

This new generation prefers the Swiss mountains to Špindleruv Mlýn, a hotel by the Aegean to the cottage in South Bohemia. Its horizons, interests and aspirations stretch beyond the borders of Prague. The PI has changed in a short period of time from being a set of people with time but no money, to a set with money but no time.

Will the legacy of supporting the wonderful tradition of intellectual life in Prague be safe in the hands of the new generation of Prague intelligentsia and city fathers? Let us hope so. Let us hope that the coming generations will care about the cultural life of the city as much as their forefathers have, that the city fathers will continue to find public (as well as sponsors') money to support intellectual and cultural activities and, above all, that the new century will bring fewer political setbacks than the previous one, so that Prague can be a city that will continue to generate a fine quality of life to be enjoyed by its citizens and by large numbers of appreciative visitors.

Robin Healey, 26 February 2001

Robin Healey has lived in Prague since 1991 and works in the international office of the Czech Technical University in Prague.

Moving on:


Robin Healey
Prague's Intelligentsia

Brian J Požun
The Future of Otpor

Sam Vaknin
Macedonia's Unemployed

Mel Huang

Ivana Košuličová
Cesta z mešta

Štěpán Kotrba
Sow and Reap

Brian J Požun
Shedding the Balkan Skin

Martin D Brown
Czech Historical Amnesia

Dejan Anastasijević (ed)
Out of Time

Gusztáv Kosztolányi
Hungarian Oil Scandal

Sam Vaknin
After the Rain

Press Reviews:
Oliver Craske
Thinking the Unthinkable

Andea Mrozek
Odd Man Out


CER eBookclub Members enter here