Vol 1, No 1, 28 June 1999
Ten Years after Communism:|
The great Czech malaise
By Jan Culik
A couple of years ago, in a course of Czech literature in English translation, I was conducting a seminar on the 19th-century Czech literature classic The Grandmother by Bozena Nemcova. The Grandmother is an idyll, deliberately written by its author to console herself at a time of great personal distress and to boost the Czech national consciousness at the time of serious political repression. (this article is in Czech HERE)
I played to my students a ten-minute excerpt from a film adaptation of The Grandmother, made for Czech television in the early 1970s. The work was one of the early "experimental" broadcasts by Czech TV's Second Programme, transmitted in colour.
The film, especially its opening, is fully charged with sentimentality. During a hot summer's day, young children lyrically romp about in a meadow of wild flowers in full bloom near a brook, playing and making wreathes. Then, somebody notices the arrival of a horse-drawn carriage.
"Grandmother!!" "Grandmother is here!!" they exclaim joyfully and run towards the house.
The international students watching this excerpt said that the film, with its rustic garishness, reminded them somewhat of Nazi propaganda.
A Czech student in class that day became quite upset with this judgement.
"You must remember," she said, "that Czech society IS primarily rustic. Most of us have roots in the countryside. We DO have grandmothers who live in villages. We HAVE all played about in blossoming meadows in mid-summer, when we were small. We DID sit on the banks of a stream, making wreathes. We have had nice and kind grannies whom we loved. Did YOUR grandmother walk about with a MACHINE GUN?"
A discussion developed. When one finds oneself in deep trouble, is one entitled to console oneself by writing an idyll, or is one duty-bound to analyse the situation rationally and dispassionately, pulling oneself up by the bootstraps? The Czech student advocated everybody's right for indulging in an idyll. Most of the Westerners - perhaps because they have never experienced any real hardship - opted for the harsh, rational analysis.
I think that this little story illustrates rather graphically the quandary in which the Czech Republic finds itself now.
Its values and its identity are being undermined. For the most part, it can be argued that Czech civilisation and its political attitudes are the product of the 1970s and the 1980s, when the post-invasion "Normalisation", presided over by Communist Party leader Gustav Husak, gave Czech society an indelible imprint which has proved more lasting than anyone would have expected.
This culture of easy-going, undemanding consumerism and collectivism seems to be breaking apart. There is not much left to support it. The desire to live in a pleasant and comfortable idyll is being overshadowed by the need to subject oneself to rigorous, rational, critical analysis. But is anyone willing and able to actually undertake such task? People would prefer their old, comfortable ways, although the world they have been used to is crumbling around them.
I am writing this on a Friday afternoon, at about 4 pm Czech time. In spite of fierce competition in today's printed media, I have just failed miserably at trying to raise any member of staff in the editorial offices of a leading Czech news magazine. What can you expect? On a Friday afternoon, everyone in Prague would have left for their summer cottages.
Quarterly GNP figures have again registered a dramatic fall of more than four percent - the second time in the past six months. The European Union is criticising the Czech government for not pulling its finger out fast enough in harmonising Czech law with the acquis communautaire. And now, as the EU is destroying Czech agriculture by flooding the Czech market with cheap, subsidised, agricultural goods, the Czechs do not even know whether they want to join the EU.
Many Czechs do not really know whether they want to be in NATO, either. There was no referendum about joining the military alliance, and right after joining, the Czechs look on as NATO seems to pull a fast one - it implicates the Czech Republic in what most Czechs see as an unsavoury, inhumane and aggressive war against Yugoslavia. And this despite the Czech media's constant attempts to persuade the Czech population that if they did not want to be seen as a bunch of Communists, they had better support NATO in anything it might do.
Overall, the Czechs now seem to be trying to ignore the outside world. They don't really give a damn about what the outside world thinks of their treatment of the Roma minority. When the internet daily Britske listy published the latest communique by the US Helsinki Commission, praising the Czech government for its stance against the envisaged construction of a wall which would effectively separate ethnic Czechs from their Romani neighbours in Usti nad Labem's Maticni Street, hardly anyone bothered to read it. (Officially, the wall is meant to separate average citizens from disorderly rent dodgers, but this leads to many questions: How do you deal with antisocial tenants? How do you deal with people, who, regardless of their race, refuse to pay rent?)
Surely the situation, many Czech citizens claim, is much more complex than the black-and-white solutions that the outside world is trying to impose on us. Why is the world making such a fuss about one little wall in Usti, when whole affluent neighbourhoods in the United States are hermetically sealed from the outside world by barbed wire and armed guards, and nobody gives a peep? Why are Great Britain and Canada accusing us of racism, and then issuing blanket visa requirements on a whole nation? (In Slovakia, applicants for British visa have to travel to the British Embassy to present themselves personally to the visa issuing officer. Obviously, out of political correctness, Britain cannot say publicly that Roma need not apply, but I'm sure the skin colour of the applicant does not go unnoticed.)
And this is what it is like with everything, they argue. Why do Czechs have to allow cheap West European imports that destroy their agriculture? Why were they expected to support a war they do not believe in?
Czechs are now often very wary of the West. There is talk of unsavoury Western imperialism - the American conspiracy to master the world under the pretext of globalisation. Prague anarchists stage demonstrations, attacking the American Embassy.
Because of a lack of regulation on the domestic scene, many Western entrepreneurs have been able to behave much more aggressively in the Czech Republic than they would ever dare to in their own countries. Maybe the countries of the European Union should have exercised their little bit of benign imperialism, helping to systematically introduce West European regulatory practices into many spheres of life before the Czechs allowed Western entrepreneurs in.
Since this did not happen, there seems to be quite a lot of irritation in the Czech Republic towards the West after the fact. Czechs seem to find themselves between a rock and a hard place: on the one hand, they feel impoverished among the local frauds and impostors, the truly "right wing" local entrepreneurs who asset-stripped whatever state property they could get their hands on, and on the other hand, they feel mocked and humiliated by the affluent, aggressive Western entrepreneurs who are behaving so wildly and spreading their own "values" so insistently that it creates a rather negative overall reaction.
Amidst all these troubles, some young people from the West are chiding the Czechs for their old, backward ways. Much of this criticism is justified, but it is very hard suddenly to accept absolutely new ways of life, certain aspects of which moreover can be dismissed as somewhat intolerant political correctness.
The Czechs would best like to stick to their idyll, living as they have done to date. The trouble is that the model is obsolete - both economically and politically. Maybe they do not need to embrace the entire civilisational system of the West wholesale; indeed, does such a thing even exist - aren't the civilisations of France, Spain, Italy, Britain and Sweden worlds apart? Still, Czechs will need to make changes, in order to at least stop the rapid economic decline.
At the moment, nobody seems to really knows how to go about it.
The author is the publisher of the Czech Internet daily Britske listy.
Postscript: Is the Czech situation particularly difficult because of the two harsh neo-Stalinist decades which Czechoslovakia experienced after the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion, or are there parallels in the other Central and East European countries?
Maybe the contributors to the Central European Review could devote some time to the question of whether the other post-Communist countries also have their own escapist idylls and look at how they are confronting the real world.
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