Prague – Martyrs and Modernity
With resounding echoes in Egypt and Tunisia, the Velvet Revolution, after more than two decades, deserves to be looked at again
In Prague recently on a tour for my latest book, Europe’s Promise: Why the European Way is the Best Hope in an Insecure Age, [University of California Press, 2010] it has been interesting to witness the remarkable events in Egypt and Tunisia from the land of the Velvet Revolution, with many people all over the world referring to these events as the Arab "Velvet Revolution" – not the Arab "American Revolution," or the Arab "Fall of the Berlin Wall," but as the Arab "Velvet Revolution."
Such is the hold that the Czech Republic, a land of only 10 million people, has on the imaginations of people all over the world.
Prague is a quintessentially European capital, combining beautiful architecture and urban décollage, with each crisscrossed street and winding alleyway of the old town whispering the tales of a storied past. Its thousand-year-old history stretches one’s concept of time, with kings and empires giving way century after century to usurpers and successors, only to see themselves defenestrated (literally "thrown out the window," a centuries-long Prague tradition for dealing with leaders who overstepped their authority).
Today, it is an energetic place, filled with entrepreneurs, artists, musicians, filmmakers and music clubs, and ranked fifth among Europe’s 271 regions in terms of economic output per inhabitant, achieving 172% of the EU average and ranking above Paris. The Czech Republic has become a regional auto manufacturing leader and energy exporter, and while like everywhere it has been hurt by the economic crisis, everyone here seems to agree that the country has emerged from that crisis in remarkably decent shape. Its people have not experienced nearly as much pain as most Americans have, with an unemployment rate hovering around 7.5% (compared to 9% in the U.S., almost certainly far below the real figure). Its face is set towards a future at the core of a peaceful and hopefully prosperous Europe, yet one foot drags behind as it still tries to shed vestiges of its communist past.
I had the honour of interviewing Petr Pithart, a leader of the Velvet Revolution and the first Prime Minister post-1989. Pithart is now a Senator who speaks frankly about the communist legacy of corruption that continues to plague the Czech Republic, estimated to drain away approximately 15% of the Czech gross domestic product. Various commissions as well as NGOs have targeted the no-bid contracts, sweetheart deals and other practices that amount to a partial theft of the Velvet Revolution’s promise.
Which is consistent with an atmosphere of melancholy that hangs over Prague, a city of martyrs. Its Old Town Square is dominated by a large monument honoring native son Jan Hus, a religious thinker who was burned at the stake for his beliefs in 1415 and for centuries has stood as a symbol of one who spoke truth to power and paid the ultimate sacrifice. Within walking distance from the Hus statuary is a memorial to Jan Palach, the Czech student who committed suicide in January 1969 by setting himself on fire as a protest against the Soviet tanks that had invaded to put an end to [the liberalising reforms of] the Prague Spring in 1968. The nearby Old Jewish Cemetery, with its twisted gravestones looking like rows of crooked skeleton teeth jutting out from layers of burial pits, is a constant reminder of the purges and pogroms that have targeted "the chosen people" for the wrong type of attention.
Empires always have their victims, and there is an enormous castle on the hill casting a shadow over the winding Vltava River and the famous Charles Bridge, dominating the spatial feng shui of the Prague valley. Since the 9th century, this is where the Kings of Bohemia, Holy Roman Emperors, Nazi collaborators, Czech communists and now the president of the current Czech Republic all have had their offices. The city has endured the suffering of the Protestant Reformation, the fratricidal Thirty Years’ War, Nazi invasion, communist occupation, capitalist consumerism and more. Indeed, the fine hotel where I am staying is located on Bartolomejska, Bartholomew Street.
This short alleyway and its canyon of buildings has long been a nest of the secret police, where communist authorities took their prisoners, many of whom were never heard from again. The very building in which my hotel now resides, number 9 Bartolomejska, was a former convent until the Communists ran out the nuns and turned the building into a dungeon. Cells were set up in the basement, offices loaded with interrogators and the church itself defiled as a shooting range.
Among the people who were jailed – right here in my hotel – was a young playwright by the name of Vaclav Havel, who later became Petr Pithart’s counterpart as the first Czech president of the post-1989 era. In the basement, there is a thick metal door indicating that the preserved closet-sized room was Havel’s former cell. The hallways of the three-floor hotel are lengthy and labyrinthine, and as I walk to my room each night I can’t help but reflect on how I feel like I am being swallowed down the passageway of a long dark throat that in days gone by gobbled the hopes, aspirations, indeed the daylight, of so many innocent people.
The hotel does serve a great breakfast, however, and the reincarnated rooms are spacious and comfortable. Yes, when in Prague, you are surrounded by all these sorts of contradictions and more. And yet, cutting through the centuries of fog is the fact that the Velvet Revolution amounted to a final triumph of a centuries-long struggle of truth and nonviolence over brute power and its lies. And that continues to inspire people all over the world, including the young people of Egypt and Tunisia. Vive la Velvet Revolution!
Steven Hill is a political writer whose latest book is Europe‘s Promise: Why the European Way is the Best Hope in an Insecure Age (www.EuropesPromise.org).