What is the Czech Republic about?

25. 1. 2010 / Jan Čulík

On the November 2009 anniversary of the fall of communism in Czechoslovakia, the Czechs were subjected to saturation coverage of the events of twenty years before. Media celebrations of the `1989 Glorious Revolution' presented the stereotype of `heroes of the Revolution' courageously defeating the `monster of communism', in a way that recalled the ideological and dogmatic style of political celebrations during the communist regime.

Originally published in The Edinburgh Review, January 2010..

In the neo-Stalinist era of the so called post-1968 `normalisation', when Czechoslovakia was a subjugated colony of the Soviet Union run by pro-Soviet collaborators, secondary school teachers were in the habit, on political feast days, of organising students into `living statues': in school playgrounds across the country, hundreds of students would create the shape of the letters `KSČ' (CzCP) or `VŘSR' (Great Russian October Revolution). In an ironic echo of this practice, a secondary schools in the North Bohemian town of Liberec celebrated the twentieth anniversary of the fall of communism by creating a giant living sculpture of the number `20' with their bodies. Old habits die hard, perhaps?

Commentator Karel Dolejší points out that the kitsch elements of these celebrations are not merely remnants of communism. In his view, kitsch played an important role in Czech dissident culture even before the fall of communism. Kitsch flowered after the victory of the 1989 democratic revolution, when `President Philosopher' Václav Havel invited Frank Zappa and Michael Jackson to his `fairy-tale' Prague Castle and adorned it with a giant heart, of glowing neon red light.

In spite of what the media might convey, among the general public there is an atmosphere of profound disillusionment with the current political situation. According to an opinion poll conducted by the STEM polling agency in November, 2009, a mere 11 per cent of Czech citizens are of the opinion that the twenty years since the fall of communism `have been a good time' and 57 per cent believe that it has `not been the happiest period in Czech history'.

Such a verdict seems surprising, given that Czechs have been much better off during the past twenty years than during most periods over the past two centuries. Most Czech towns and cities now look affluent. City centres have been beautifully restored. While under communism people had enjoyed full security of employment, their opportunities as consumers were modest; people seemed to have had more free time but fewer opportunities. These days, the Czechs work long hours but many of them appear relatively wealthy. Although there is much less social welfare available, there are many more entrepreneurial opportunities. Under communism, the Czechs were incarcerated in their country; now they travel abroad as a matter of course. Thousands of young Czechs study at Western universities and work abroad. Why then are the Czechs so dissatisfied?

A clue to the widespread disillusionment lies in an article by Martin Komárek, which appeared in the highest-circulation Czech daily newspaper Mladá fronta Dnes on 19 November 2009. Komárek is an old-style journalist who once praised `socialist construction' and the ruling communist party. After 1989, he switched sides and is now regarded as a right wing commentator. In response to the opinion poll results, Komárek states bluntly that his compatriots are wrong: in his view, the current regime in the Czech Republic is the best possible world, there is no alternative, and the disillusioned 57 per cent should wake up. A couple of days later, Mladá fronta Dnes added insult to injury by publishing an interview with psychologist Stanislav Hubálek, who argued that so many Czechs did not rejoice over the anniversary, `because a large part of the nation is stupid'.

It is precisely this kind of media commentary which puts people's backs up in the Czech Republic and contributes to what former president Václav Havel has described as blbá nálada: a depressed mood in contemporary Czech society. Czech journalists tend to think they know best and they impose their simplified views on a disaffected public. Czech politicians ignore public opinion. For several years now, no political party has secured an outright majority at the elections, and governments in power with the slimmest of majorities often implement radical policies in direct opposition to the views of the majority of the voters. Democratic institutions may have been created in the Czech Republic, mostly with the help of the European Union, during the EU accession process, but they have not been internalised, says Jiří Pehe, former adviser to Václav Havel. There is no democratic culture, no public sphere, democracy in the Czech Republic has been privatised, says Pehe. In his view, Czech political parties do not behave like their counterparts in the West. They do not defend the public interest. They are more like private firms, trading in power and influence.

Alienation among the general public seems quite acute and many people view the communist era with sentimentality (they were young and `everything was good'). To the argument that there is at last there is freedom of speech, they point out that with high unemployment, people are afraid of losing their jobs and fear they might be punished for expressing unorthodox views. Many feel that freedom of speech is as limited as it was under communism, or that no one is listening if they do speak out. People feel disenfranchised.

A case in point is the controversy over the building of a US military anti-missile base in the vicinity of Prague. In 2004, Czech politicians started secret negotiations about the stationing of elements of George Bush's anti-missile shield to protect Europe and the United States from nuclear attack from Iran and North Korea. The New York Times reported in spring 2006, a month before the general election in the Czech Republic, that the Czech government had requested secrecy in case it become a major election issue. Thus, the proposal to build the US military base in the Czech Republic was never part of the election programme of any Czech political party. The 2006 elections produced deadlock: 100 left-wing MPs faced 100 right-wing MPs, and for months it was impossible to form a government. The right-of-centre Civic Democratic Party (ODS) was only able to set up a government, in February 2007, after two social democratic MPs defected to their side. (On the very same day, the US Embassy formally requested the newly-formed right-of-centre government that permission be granted for the building of the US military base.) With a parliamentary majority of 1 per cent, the government started preparations for building the base, in defiance of opinion polls which showed repeatedly, that in spite of massive government propaganda in favour of the US anti-missile shield, 60--70 per cent of Czechs were against the presence of the base. Popular resistance against placing US troops on the territory of the Czech Republic is not particularly surprising, since Soviet troops were stationed in Czechoslovakia between 1968 and 1989. Most Czech journalists and politicians came to see the building of the base as a symbolic gesture, signalling that the Czech Republic was now an integral part of the West and that there was a `special relationship' between the US and the Czechs. (This notion was brutally destroyed by Zbigniew Brzezinski in an interview on Czech Television on 16 November 2009.)

Even Václav Havel's reputation was damaged by association with the US anti-missile shield controversy. Havel, a heroic figure in the struggle for the creation of an alternative civic society under communism, has firmly stuck to the notion that the Czech Republic must accept the US missile base. He seems to have misunderstood the new, independent civic movement which has arisen as a result of the wave of resistance against the anti-missile shield.

The most recent Czech right-of-centre government with its 1 per cent parliamentary majority pushed through various unpopular measures (such as cash payments for GP and hospital visits), before it fell after a parliamentary vote of `no confidence' in spring 2009, while the Czech Republic still held the post of the EU rotating presidency. From then until time of writing, the Czech Republic has been governed by an unelected government of temporary administrators. In September 2009, the constitutional court blocked parliament's decision to hold an early election that autumn, upholding the complaint of one MP who said that he had been elected for four years and would under no circumstances give up his post and salary prematurely.

This is how things have looked on the Czech political scene in recent times, but people have experienced frustration throughout the whole twenty years of post-communism. In the early 1990s, the then right-wing `economic guru' Václav Klaus, who had become Prime Minister, promised the Czechs that he would quickly turn their country from a backward communist state into a dynamic economic tiger. This has not happened. Most of the economy was privatised by shady means. People viewed this development as intrinsically unfair. To this day many Czechs believe that if you are wealthy, you must be a crook. Driving a white BMW is a stigma in the Czech Republic. Post-communist reforms have brought only a moderate degree of prosperity, based primarily on assembling parts manufactured elsewhere into finished goods. The hopes that the Czech Republic could stand at the cutting edge of technological development have not been realised. The country has been plagued by a number of economic and political scandals. There are problems with the educational system. Czech universities and research institutes currently find themselves under the onslaught of unscrupulous entrepreneurs who are trying to privatise academic research for the benefit of their businesses.

It is perhaps remarkable that in spite of all these frustrations, political support for the two main parties in the Czech Republic remains stable, as Tim Haughton, political scientist at Birmingham University points out. The two main political parties, the left-wing Social Democrats and the right-wing Civic Democrats, each receive the support of 30--35 per cent of the voters. Why is it that the Czechs keep voting for political parties they do not trust? Repeated attempts to create new political parties have been unsuccessful. It would appear that the Czechs feel that all politicians are corrupt anyway, so you have to come to terms with their corruption. The feeling of dissatisfaction, however, remains widespread.

Does literature have a voice?

How do the arts react to all this? As mentioned above, the views of most of the Czech media are relatively monolithic. As under communism, they are trying to sell the public the notion that there exists only one, `correct', `Western' way of looking at things and those who do not subscribe to these views are not `nice people'. Advertising and marketing plays a major role in contemporary Czech society, maybe even more than in the West because advertising rates are cheap and you can get much more coverage for your money. When the telecommunication company 02 took over Czech Telecom a few years ago, it covered almost everything in Prague with its livery: even some of the bridges over the river Vltava.

Original Czech literature is being written, but its impact is much weaker than it used to be under communism, when it substituted politics. Petr Bílek, Professor of Czech Literature at Charles University in Prague, divides the history of Czech literature in the post-communist era into three stages. During stage one, in the early 1990s, the book market was flooded by hundreds of titles, previously banned under communism. It was very difficult for the reading public to absorb all these works at once, especially since they suddenly seemed irrelevant in the new era. Thus readers became quickly bored with these old books. In stage two, people were impatiently expecting great new literary talents to appear in freedom, but these expectations were disappointed. Thereafter came stage three, still current, when literature has become the subject of media manipulation. This is, in Bílek's view, the culture of `one day wonders': newspapers and magazines discover a `unique new literary talent', build up its reputation to celebrity status and within a few weeks the writer is forgotten.

To be fair, there are Czech post-communist writers worth mentioning and reading. Jáchym Topol (b. 1962), whose character and writing talent have been shaped by the underground culture in the communist era, produced in his novel Sestra (1994, published in English as City, Sister, Silver, 2000) a hard-hitting, psychedelic account of the destabilising chaos, experienced in the early 1990s by members of his generation after the regime change. Michal Ajvaz (b. 1949) is an author of a number of complex, postmodern narratives, written in a characteristic style (Druhé město, The Second City, 1993, Tyrkysový orel, The Turquiose Eagle, 1997). Ajvaz's texts are associated with profound philosophical reflection. Michal Viewegh (b. 1962), the only contemporary Czech author who makes a living from his writing, is the author of more than twenty highly popular, as he calls them self-deprecatingly, `commercial' novels, reminiscent of work such as Sex in the City or the Bridget Jones Diaries, which deal, often in a comic and ironic style, with the life of the yuppie generation in today's Czech Republic. Viewegh often uses various postmodernist tricks with different levels of the narrative and various meta-narratives. His work has been translated into more than a dozen European languages, although very little of it has been published in English. Perhaps the most interesting contemporary author, certainly if we look for authors who are capable of capturing the ethos and value system of current Czech society, is Emil Hakl (b. 1958). His novels and short stories (O rodičích a dětech, 2002, published in English as Of Kids and Parents, 2008, and O létajících objektech, Of Flying Objects, 2004, probe the nature of human relationships against the background of the traumatising events of modern Central European history and within the feeling of discomfort produced by the experience of living in the Czech Republic today.

But it is Czech cinema rather than literature which has experienced a real flowering since the fall of communism. Some three hundred Czech feature films have been made over the past twenty years; maybe about fifty of these can be regarded as significant works worthy of international attention. After the first spate of Czech feature films in the early 1990s, which were trying to come to terms with the trauma of oppression under communism, there was a brief hiatus after the Czech state-owned cinema industry was privatised. During this period, a number of mass-market commercial comedies were made. But from the end of the 1990s, a new generation of young film directors, mostly in their thirties, came onto the scene and Czech cinema has never looked back.

Three or four film directors of the older generation continued to produce significant work in the 1990s and 2000s: Jan Švankmajer, Karel Kachyňa and Věra Chytilová. The animator Jan Švankmajer (b. 1934), has always gone his own way and stands somewhat apart from the Czech cinematic mainstream. His short surrealist experiments in film have led to the creation of coherent, feature-length works of art with a profound philosophical subtext, such as Lekce Faust (The Faust Lesson, 1994), a parable about human life which warns that Man is fatefully determined by his instincts and by his biological nature; Otesánek (Little Otík, 2000) which warns Man against his instinctive arrogant desire to change the perennial nature of things and Šílení (Lunacy, 2005); where the author's pessimism reaches its highest point. In Šílení, Švankmajer argues, evidently on the basis of his experience from the post-communist Czech Republic, that people either behave like egoists and eccentrics, or use irrational cruelty against their fellow human beings.

The `father of Czech film-making' Karel Kachyňa (1924--2004) made more than sixty feature films in total. Several of them have come into being since the fall of communism, and all of these are works of remarkable quality. Perhaps the strongest is Poslední motýl (The Last Butterfly, 1990) a film about a famous French mime artist who ends up in a Jewish ghetto in Theresienstadt, during the Nazi occupation, where he and a group of Jewish children imprisoned in the ghetto are required to stage a performance for an international Red Cross delegation. He uses the performance to communicate to the international inspectors that Nazis murder people in the camp. The film is a typical Central European work in the sense that it argues that art can work as a palliative when one faces death. Věra Chytilová (b. 1929), who became famous in the 1960s for her proto-feminist experiment Sedmikrásky (Daisies, 1966), has continued making hard-hitting social commentaries into the present time, the latest of these being Šťastné chvilky bez záruky (Pleasant Moments, 2006), a film based on the experiences of Chytilová's psychologist friend, about how people make hell out of their lives.

But it is the work of the younger generation of film-makers which is perhaps the most significant. Of these, female directors such as Alice Nellis and Michaela Pavlátová are gaining increasing prominence. Alice Nellis makes highly accomplished analyses of interhuman relations, especially within families: (Ene Bene, Eeny Meeny, 1999; Výlet, The Outing 2002); most recently in Tajnosti (Little Girl Blue, 2007), where the theme of uprootedness and confusion returns, this time in a portrait of a dissatisfied upper middle class middle-aged Prague wife. Bohdan Sláma, with his films Divoké včely, Wild Bees, 2001 and Štěstí, Something like Happiness, 2005, started a trend in Czech film-making, with a spate of features made in the first half of the 2000s analysing the life of the poor and disenfranchised members of society. Štěstí can also be interpreted as a contribution to the debate about the future of the Czech nation whose cultural heritage is under threat by contemporary global political and economic pressures. The great provocateur and mystifier Petr Zelenka also draws in his film Knoflíkáři (The Buttoners, 1997) a picture of restless, chaotic and destabilised Czech society the life of which is governed by a series of coincidences of which people remain unaware. The popular film maker Jan Hřebejk offers viewers his personal interpretations of various traumatising periods of modern Czech history. Of his work, perhaps the most significant is the film Musíme si pomáhat (Divided we Fall, 2000), about the dilemmas and stress people suffered from under the Nazi occupation -- there are the obvious parallels for Hřebejk with life under communism and his view is conciliatory: people should not be accused of how they were behaving under totalitarian regimes because no one can really tell the intensity of the pressure they were under. Nuda v Brně (Bored in Brno, 2003), Vladimír Morávek's serious comedy about loneliness, social mores and human relationships has rightly been characterised by some Czech film critics as the best film made in the Czech Republic since 1989.

Contemporary Czech film-making shows that in spite of all the political and economic pressure and in spite of overall disillusionment and commercial manipulation, independent, original and talented artists working in the Czech Republic are capable of self-reflection and reflection on the state of their society, and deal with themes of general relevance that resonate with all.


Obsah vydání | Pátek 26.2. 2010