Bohemian Blues: Considering Communism in the Czech Republic

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Prague is a beautiful city with a complex history.

Going into my recent press trip to the Czech Republic, which was called “The Way We Were: A Look Back at the Communist Era,” I was curious how the subject would be presented by a Czech government that is for now led by the conservative, free market Civil Democrat Party. And now that I’ve returned, I’m more fascinated than ever by a country that is still wrestling with its past and unsure about its future – and one that seems a microcosm for economic and political struggles around the world.

As we toured epic, timeless Prague; the old Mayrau coal mining complex in Kladno; the beer-making region of Zatec; the German border cities of Most, Litvinov, and Kadan; and the beautiful resort town of Karlovy Vary, our English-speaking guide Martina Katerova pointed out the key sites and told stories, all with a subtle (or sometimes harsh) condemnation of socialism, communism and authoritarianism, three distinct governmental forms that she and others used interchangeably.

Our guide, Martina Katerova, in Karlovy Vary

Our guide, Martina Katerova, in Karlovy Vary

It was understandable and expected that communism would be vilified by many Czechs. But the political situation there is a far from settled. The Czech government has broken down, with the liberal Social Democrats in March casting a no confidence vote in the current leadership and calling early elections for October, an embarrassing development for a nation in the middle of its term as president of the European Union (an odd role for a country that doesn’t even use the Euro, still staying with the Koruna for now). And Katerova ruefully acknowledged that the Social Democrats are expected to take power next, in a coalition with the Communist Party, of all people.

“It’s not good,” Katerova said. She really didn’t seem to understand how this could happen, blaming young people who have no direct memory of life under watchful and demanding communism. But during my nine-day tour, I saw plenty of Czech discontent with life under late capitalism, and signs that it doesn’t work as well for the vast majority of citizens as its cheerleaders and conservative backers want to believe.

Consider what the Czechs been through. For centuries, they were ruled by kings (from the still-revered Charles IV to the long-reigning Hapsburg dynasty), until after World War I, when Tomas G. Masaryk led the creation of the democratic republican of Czechoslovakia and became its first president. Then, the Czechs and their allies gave the country up to Nazi Germany in 1938, with Hitler taking over with little resistance (the silver lining is that Prague was spared the bombing most European capitals endured). After World War II, the communists took over (first at the ballot box, then militarily after the Prague Spring of 1968) and ran the country as a Soviet satellite until the Velvet Revolution in 1989. A few years later, the country split into its constituent parts, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, and both pursued aggressive policies of privatization and free market reforms.

Violent sculptures mark the entrance to Prague Castle.

Violent sculptures mark the entrance to Prague Castle.

Under the romantic presidency of dissident playwright Vaclav Havel, life improved in the Czech Republic, which became a modern, rapidly growing, Westernized country faster than any in the former Soviet bloc. But now they have the same problems as every other country that pursued that course in unfettered fashion, with rising unemployment and crime and a widening gap between the rich and poor, which has fed the revival of old resentments. The gypsies, or Romas, are increasingly the object of violence and persecution, even by the police.

While I was there, former KKK leader and right-wing US Congress candidate David Duke – who had been brought there by Czech neo-Nazi groups — was arrested and expelled by Prague police for denying the Holocaust, which is a crime (at least for now – the Prague Post and other papers decried rising extremism in the country, but opined that Duke should have been allowed to speak freely and cast the episode as an embarrassment for the country).

As we drove past Hanov, a city near Most where the gypsies live with support from the government, Katerova (at the urging of two other guides on the trip) told us about a recent controversy about how the gypsies refused to work and when one of their aspiring leaders made a deal with the government to set up on office staffed with 20 gypsies, he couldn’t find anyone to fill the jobs. She cited it as evidence of their innate laziness. I don’t know the details of the story, but it seems likely that the stand was at least partly political, cultural, and based on the persecution they suffer, rather than sheer moral shortcomings. After all, let’s remember that Hitler tried to exterminate the gypsies with a focus and ferocity that he held only for Jews and those he considered social deviants. And it sounds like Czech conservatives haven’t made a whole lot of progress in their appreciation of diversity.

I had several conversations during the week with conservatives who idealize life in the United States and consider strict free market orthodoxy, the kind famously and evangelically championed by the late University of Chicago economist Milton Friedman, as the best path to the good life. Personally, I view Friedman the way that author Naomi Klein shows him to be in her excellent book “The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism” – as the destroyer of cultures and the ultimate enabler of the most brutal forms of ruling class empire.

But that’s not how Jan Novotny sees it. He is a Civil Democrat, head of Zatec’s tourist information center, and an elected member of the city council. We spoke (his English is good) for hours on my first night there as we drank stein after stein of Zatec beer.

Jan Novotny in front of the Zatec City Hall and a pedal-powered, keg-carrying vehicle that took us to the Hop Museum.

Jan Novotny in front of the Zatec City Hall and a pedal-powered, keg-carrying vehicle that took us to the Hop Museum.

He’s young, handsome, likeable, ambitious, and a strong believer in more rapidly privatizing property in his town and promoting tourism and development as the best – nay, the only – path to progress. He’s pushing a bill to slash the price of municipal property (which was all property in his town until the fall of communism), although he would temper that with fines for selling the property within a few years to prevent real estate speculation. But he’s in the minority party in his town, and it faces a tough road.

Novotny says he’s faced resistance among his colleagues and constituents in trying to get them to embrace capitalism and privatization, but his was the majority opinion in the room that night. As the night got later and the politics became more animated, it was just me and a writer for the Irish Times arguing against the Czech locals and journalists and tour operators visiting from Ireland, England, Luxembourg, and the United States (the rest, from countries that included Russia, Korea, Mexico, Germany, and Poland avoided the discussion).

We had a little more luck with Novotny’s friend, who showed up at one point (and was also around 30 years old), but it didn’t seem to confirm Katerova’s thesis that those who lived under communism hated it, while it was the young people who just didn’t understand. In fact, the person who seemed most comfortable with communism was an old miner, Jaroslav Grubner, who lived most of his life under its strictures.

Jaroslav Grubner in front of the old bomb shelter ("from when we were afraid of you") that is now a demonstration mine.

Jaroslav Grubner in front of the old bomb shelter ("from when we were afraid of you") that is now a demonstration mine.

In the ‘60s and ‘70s, the communists built huge residential buildings in Kladno for those working in the coal mining and steel industries, but after government support for those industries waned after communism, the mines shut down and Kladno became a bedroom community for Prague.

“Zdar Buh,” or God save us, reads a sign on the front of the mines. Grubner started working in the mines at the age of 15, and now he runs the mining museum. Inside the entrance, there are displays of various plans for the site – from a multi-modal transit station to a large theater – developed by students at Czech University. “The plans are nice, but the problem is nobody could pay for it,” he tells us though Katerova’s translation.

As we toured the Mayrau mining facilities, he noted that, “Everything is still functional and ready to serve is purpose.” But it’s a purpose that capitalism won’t support. The mine was active for 120 years, we learn from a promotional film that includes great footage from the mine’s heyday, including a scene with a room full of burly, naked miners smiling and washing each other’s backs in a line.

The Mayrau mine in Kladno.

The Mayrau mine in Kladno.

The mines were privatized after the fall of communism, but then they only lasted a few more years, closing in 1997. The biggest difference between the mine under communism and capitalism, Grubner said, was the communists gave them free meals, but they had to bring their own snacks to the privatized mine. Even under communism, they worked eight-hour shifts and were paid based on how much coal they extracted, so there was always the same incentive for hard work (one of many facts that baffled some of the Western journalists, who always understood the communist system to be rigid and inflexible).

Someone asked whether he was nostalgic for communism, and Grubner didn’t really answer the question directly, except to say this was a workers town even before the communists came, and it continued to be after they fell from power. But today, Kladno doesn’t really have any industry, a third of the people in town commute to Prague for work, and it isn’t the same tight-knit community it was. But the ex-miners – all of whom have good pensions – still get together regularly in social clubs and maintain a sense of solidarity.

The situation was similar in Most, where the brown coal mines shut down and little industry was formed in its wake. To boost tourism, the Czech government commissioned construction of giant auto racing, aquatic and horse racing centers, and they’re now in the process of creating the biggest manmade lake in Bohemia. But for now, unemployment in Most is around 15 percent.

Other core Czech industries have also suffered in recent years under late capitalism. The Bohemian glass factories that produced some of the world’s finest glass survived the Nazis and the Communists, but are now collapsing without state support, Katerova told us. And the Czech beer factories, which produce good beer the old-fashioned way (the one benefit of anti-Western Communism that she overtly praised, its resistance to adopting industrial production methods developed in the ‘60s and ‘70s, proudly noting that it made Czech beer so much better than American beer), have hard a hard time competing under globalization.

Santosh and I enjoying a fine Czech beer in Prague.

Santosh and I enjoying a fine Czech beer in Prague.

Pilsner Urquell was bought by Miller a few years ago. And Budweiser, the Czech brand that first developed the name and has won all the court challenges by its same-named American competitor, recently had to sell itself to Anhauseur-Busch, which makes American Budweiser. “It’s sad,” she concedes.

Katerova’s most convincing condemnation of the communists was with their purges and cultural repression. She said that many of the country’s leading figures – intellectuals, professors, war heroes, doctors, lawyers – were sent by Stalin to the gulags or the uranium mines in southern Bohemia, where few survived for more than a couple years.
To replace the lawyers, there was a one-year training program, turning the Czech legal system into a joke. “So we look like idiots now,” she said.

She was also animated by the Communists’ treatment of churches, and the tour highlighted how the Communist government in the city of Most moved a Gothic cathedral, Church of the Assumption of Virgin Mary, 841 meters after coal was discovered beneath it in the 1960s. It is still listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the heaviest building ever moved on wheels.

Communist era buildings in Most.

Communist era buildings in Most.

We toured the church and the sprawling basement complex that was built underneath it, looking at a beautiful art gallery and doing a tasting of local wines. Much of the small town was moved, and the mining never did happen. But Katerova was mostly upset over the moving of the church by the godless commies, and how they had publicized it as showing how accommodating of religion they were (which is actually how it struck me – that and just sort of cool, moving this massive Gothic church without damaging it and placing it on a huge underground basement complex they built to go with it).

The main Christian church in Zatec, the similarly named Church of the Ascension of Virgin Mary, was there for 1,000 years and was even open right through the communist era, which surprised some of the tour, who asked Katerova about how religion could be banned but allowed. She said the communists would watch who attended church, “and then you’d be on a list,” making it more difficult to attend a university, get a good job, or advance in society.

The church in Zatec.

The church in Zatec.

She made this point vehemently, again using the anti-religious bias of the communists to make a point about their supposed malevolence. But, as I consider what religious fundamentalists of all stripes have done to the world since then (and really, throughout history), I had a hard time summoning much indignation. In fact, maybe the communists were right about this one.

Again and again, we had this basic disconnect, looking at the same set of facts and seeing different things. In Kadan, she casually mentioned how almost everyone in the Czech Republic has always had both an apartment and a summer home. I was astonished and told her how only the rich in America have summer homes, but she defended it, saying they need the summer homes, “because people live in these little boxes and need to go be with nature.” I told her that I understand the sentiment, but that all I have is my little box of an apartment that I rent, no summer home, and no pension waiting for me at retirement (with the exception of the small amount that Social Security promises me for my lifetime of toil). I’m not sure whether she believed me when I described how the average American lives.

Sculpture on the front of the Crown Plaza Hotel in Prague, which was built by the Communists and still has a red star on top.

Sculpture on the front of the Crown Plaza Hotel in Prague, which was built by the Communists and still has a red star on top.

In the end, she conceded only this about Communism: “The idea is maybe good, but that is only the idea.” And it is an idea unrealized. We can all probably agree that Communism is dead and probably not coming back, and that all of us should rightfully be wary of Authoritarianism. But to throw Socialism out with this bathwater is to accept the destruction of the planet and further stratification of the world people, with all the social unrest that we know that will provoke.

One feels the long sweep of history when touring Prague, where I enjoyed a full free day with no programming on my final day in Europe. With my friend Santosh, a writer of travel books, we snaked through the city, starting on the massive walls that guarded the city from invaders during the Middle Ages.Those times of chaos seem so far from the modern order of things, so hard to fathom returning to. I suppose we can hope that we’ve really reached the end of history, but I’m not confident. I see the struggles yet to come.

I was mesmerized by St. Vitus Cathedral in Prague Castle.

I was mesmerized by St. Vitus Cathedral in Prague Castle.

I had my own religious moment in Prague, bathed in the pastel light of the stained glass in St. Vitus Cathedral in Prague Castle, feeling as if it was maybe the modern beautiful building that I’d ever seen. And we drank beer in the old Communist beer hall Black Ox and at an outdoor patio along the river, where we met Andrew, who was played guitar and sang American rock songs for an enthusiastic crowd, particularly a big group of drunk Germans.

We chatted afterward and he went with us to U Kata (the Executioner), the oldest bar in Prague. He was from Toronto but had traveled the world and ended up living in Prague for the last four years. I liked him, and appreciated his perspective on the Czech culture and the global economic situation, even though it was different from mine, more of a middle view between mine and that of Katerova.

Chatting with Andrew in U Kata.

Chatting with Andrew in U Kata.

He said the Czechs are very accepting and feel no need to work hard and excel. He didn’t know whether it was a holdover from their communist days or just something endemic to the culture. But he said they approach work like someone who’s retired and just looking for something to do with their days in order to stay productive and be social. They accepted Fascism, Communist and then Late Capitalism without a fight – as Andrew said, they greeted the invaders with bread and beer and helped them change the flags. So maybe the world’s easy acceptance of globalized capitalism is less an embrace that simply an ascent by people still buffeted by the astounding events of the 20th Century.

Again, with just over a week of observation, I’m hardly an expert on the Czech Republic, or much of anything, really, having spent my life as sort of a professional dilettante – a longtime newspaper journalist, hopping from one article to the next, parachuting into people’s lives, turning them into stories, then move onto the next life.

But as we wrestle with a late capitalist system that has severely overtaxed the planet’s natural resources and still requires an annual growth rate to survive, it’s probably a good time to ditch the old phantoms and boogiemen and deal with the reality of our moment. Just one generation into free market capitalism, the Czech Republic is already exploring what’s next.

Maybe it’s time we all did.100_2233

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One Comment

  1. I just returned from Prague myself. Admittedly, I didn’t have the time to venture outside of Prague, but I think you’re a bit overly skeptical about what your guide told you. My guide had many similar stories and views – and she was definitely not giving the official government party line (she was pretty open about her less than high opinion of the folks in charge of the National Gallery of Art, for instance, and was pretty open about her paganism); since she also owns her own business, she was also not giving the official line of any big corporation.

    We had asked to see highlights of the Prague Castle, but left the rest of our tour up to the guide, asking only that she take us to her favorite spots. The result? We went to the Lennon Wall, the Trabant statue behind the German Embassy, and the TV Tower. She told not only of the problems going to church faced by her grandmother, which were actually far more severe than those you’ve described here. That you suggest that “maybe the Communists were right about this one” is a bit disturbing, to be honest (and for what it’s worth, I’m essentially an agnostic). Even if you think that religion is, on net, a negative in world history, the fact is that freedom of religion is necessary to a just and free society. A state in which atheism is rewarded and religion punished is materially no different from a state in which a particular religion is rewarded and atheism punished.

    We also were shown, in the Castle, a plaque on which the writing had been partially removed – specifically, the name of Tomas Masaryk was removed. Why? Because the founder of Czechoslovakia, its first democratically elected President, national hero, and – I jump to add – early advocate of women’s equality had been deemed in effect a non-person. References to him were scrubbed from all the history books, and our guide related how her mother, on the first day of school shortly after the Communists took power, was ordered to rip out pages of the history books that mentioned Masaryk by name.

    A few other quibbles – stating that the Communists held power justly between 1948 and 1968 ignores that they were not given the type of power they held during that period democratically. While they won an election, they did so as part of a coalition – they got less than 40% of the vote, hardly a mandate for the absolute power that they seized two years thereafter. They were expected to be heavily defeated in May 1948. The Communist Minister of the Interior sought to purge all non-Communist elements from the police force, which precipitated the resignation of all non-Communist ministers after the government refused to stop him. The President, with armed Communist militia in the streets, eventually capitulated to the Communists and allowed them to form a government without any non-Communists even though non-Communists had been part of the coalition that was elected to form the government in the first place. The President resigned shortly thereafter and died a few months after that. Thus, to say that the Communists took power peacefully and were democratically elected in 1948 is utterly wrong.

    There are a number of other areas here where I question your interpretation, but lack the time right now to go into it.

    Reply

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