Czechoslovakia: Myths and Musicians


In these heady days of glasnost, perestroika, and "democratization" in the Soviet world, it may be worthwhile to recall the fate of Czechoslovakia's brief experiment in economic liberalization and political tolerance.

Party leader Alexander Dub?ek described his program as "socialism with a human face." Others called it "Prague Spring." Twenty years ago this summer, Moscow called it off. In August 1968, Soviet tanks led an invasion of Czechoslovakia by Warsaw Pact armies that brought an end to Prague Spring and sent Dub?ek off to be a minor functionary in the forestry service in Bratislava.

Since then, an uneasy social peace has existed, based on a well-known (if unspoken) compact between government and people. The Communist Party rules—absolutely and according to Moscow's guidance. In return, the people of Czechoslovakia are provided with at least a reasonable standard of living.

Statistics available in the West seem to confirm this material well-being; Czechoslovakia enjoys the highest per capita income in the Soviet bloc, save for East Germany. Russians and Poles are said to cherish opportunities to visit Prague, where they can shop as they cannot at home.

Yet the enduring appeal of Poland's dissident trade union movement, Solidarity, is much better understood after just a few days in Czechoslovakia. Although the living is supposed to be easy, the "society of the working people" (as Czechoslovakia is described in its constitution) is nowhere to be seen.

The familiar story of all those tireless people working black-market second jobs is rendered a bit less impressive, as it becomes clear how little is done during office hours. Listless lunch-hour crowds fill the sidewalks of Prague by mid-morning, though few people seem interested in the paltry show window displays of canned Hungarian wieners, tiny green Cuban oranges, and Vietnamese banana paste. The famous Czech pilsners are quite popular, however, and evidently consumed throughout the day. Fridays seem to be a full part of the weekend for many people.

Housing is another disappointment. The desperate-looking concrete apartment buildings on the outskirts of Prague are grimmer even than the unkindest Western parody of Soviet architecture. Yet Czechs line up to move into these residential monstrosities even before construction is complete—so severe is the housing shortage. (One long-time resident of Prague claims that the 60 percent divorce rate in the capital stems in large part from the shortage, which forces most married couples to share quarters with at least one set of in-laws.)

Not even the builders are satisfied with their work. Thirty-five-year-old Martina S. recalls a childhood girlfriend who has emigrated with her husband—illegally, of course, since people below retirement age are not generally permitted to leave. "Many of their relatives and neighbors were surprised when they left. They lived very well here in Prague, with a big apartment and nice jobs. Both of them were architects.

"But, after a while, he simply could not stand the idea of designing yet another gray box decorated with only a red star. So, when they had a chance to go on a trip to Yugoslavia and Greece, they went—and never came back. I heard recently that they have moved from San Diego to San Francisco."

Among the insufficiently appreciated virtues of Czech communism, on the other hand, has been the preservation intact of a great deal of Prague's fin de siècle and Art Deco architecture and ambience. Unscathed by World War II and largely unimproved since, the heart of the city today is a kind of museum of the Central European world that ended here in September 1938, when Britain's Neville Chamberlain tried to mollify Hitler with portions of the country, a strategy that eventually gave appeasement a bad name.

Even in nostalgia, however, there are hazards. Ash cans and coal chutes around apartment buildings offer a quaint glimpse of the days of yore, but at a price. A very few just-painted façades excepted, Prague's lovely old buildings and handsome statues are all gritty, gray, and pockmarked by erosion, thanks to the soft brown coal and a regular acid-rain rinse.

Thirty percent of Czech forests are dead, and 60 percent may be destroyed by pollution before the end of the century. More than a third of the rivers in Czechoslovakia no longer support life. It is now empirically established that state ownership of the means of production does not ensure public-spiritedness on the part of industrial managers.

Some analysts suggest that Czechoslovakia is the country most likely to emulate the policies of Mikhail Gorbachev. For example, Charles Gati of Union College notes in Foreign Affairs that Czechoslovakia was one of the half-dozen most advanced industrialized countries in the world before World War II and the Communist takeover.

"Czechoslovakia," he writes, "is the country to watch; it is the test case of Gorbachev's impact in Eastern Europe. Having waged war against reformism for almost two decades, the Czechoslovak regime is particularly vulnerable to the winds of reform emanating from Moscow."

Maybe. Last year the party launched the poetically named "Comprehensive Experiment in Enhancing the Responsibility and Independence of Economic Organizations for Efficient Development." Still, official circles in Prague evince little genuine appreciation just yet for "responsibility and independence" on the part of those outside the party.

Several journalists trying to start an independent newspaper, of a kind now permitted in the USSR, were arrested in March. Two peaceful public demonstrations by Roman Catholics last spring, one in Prague and one in Bratislava, were broken up by force. (The church's principle demand is the right to select its own bishops without clearance from the state.) In April, a popular 35-year-old dissident named Pavel Wonka died mysteriously in prison. He had been incarcerated off and on since he tried to run for public office in 1986.

None of this should be surprising. Czechoslovakia is, after all, still run by the people hired by Moscow after Prague Spring to stamp out precisely this sort of pluralist heresy. Gustáv Husák, the party man installed by the Soviets after the Red Army invaded, managed to keep the Bohemians from acting like Bohemians for 20 years. He remained head of the party until last December, when he was replaced in the first such changing of the guard in Eastern Europe since Gorbachev's ascension to power. But the transition in Czechoslovakia has not yet marked the start of a new era.

Husák remains president, a largely ceremonial position. The party leader is now Milos Jakes (yah-kesh), a man little known in the West but quite famous in Czechoslovakia. He was the functionary responsible for purging 500,000 men and women from jobs of any prestige or influence after 1968—virtually anyone who had been associated with Dub?ek's liberalization drive, save himself and Husák.

The people of Czechoslovakia quite naturally do not expect much in the way of serious reform now from the man who did so much to suppress it two decades ago. As one Czech filmmaker said recently, "We were 20 years ahead of our time; thanks to him and his kind, we are now 20 years behind the time."

Europe's unusually warm temperatures last winter, in fact, fueled one of those bitter little jokes that people in Communist countries recite to explain their predicament. Asked about the significance of the change in party leader, Czechs would furrow their brows, nod thoughtfully, and say, "Yes, it certainly used to snow more under Husák."

Real change, when it comes, will not be the work of the government but of the people of Czechoslovakia, some of whom are already developing the infrastructure for a civilized society in which people assume responsibility for their own lives.

Karel Srp is one such. He is head of a musicians union in Prague, called the Jazz Section, which enjoyed official sanction until its leadership spoke up for rock musicians when they were harassed and arrested for disseminating "antisocial culture." Formed in 1971, the Jazz Section quickly grew beyond the traditional roles of an official union: its leaders actually started speaking up for members' interests.

Until 1985, the group sponsored concerts and forums on controversial topics and published a Jazz Bulletin, which enjoyed a readership of about 75,000, along with a paperback book series and art monographs. It was the most active and successful cultural organization in Czechoslovakia since 1968. As Joseph Skvorecky wrote in A Besieged Culture, the Jazz Section's publications "became the haven of authors, artists and theorists of art interested in genres and trends that were, for all practical purposes, outlawed."

After seven years of growing harassment by the authorities, who were apparently determined to turn these artists and musicians into political dissidents, the Jazz Section was officially outlawed in 1984. But the group's 10,000 members refused to disown the leadership, and Srp and his colleagues did not suspend their activities. As a result, six of them were arrested in October 1986 and eventually tried and convicted of trumped up charges of "economic crimes."

Srp spent 16 months in jail—during which the Jazz Section's activities ceased—and was released in January. He says his incarceration persuaded him that he had no choice upon release but to resume his work on behalf of what he calls "independent culture."

He is busy restoring the Jazz Section to its active role in encouraging the arts. The group has applied for legal status and welcomes international affiliations with other musicians and other unions. And Srp claims, convincingly, that he is not much concerned with the Jakes successsion.

"It really doesn't make much difference to us who is in what position in the government. They can either make our work easier or more difficult, but it is still up to us, the people of Czechoslovakia, to exercise our rights under the national constitution and international agreements like the Helsinki accords.

"The government cannot create independent culture. It is up to us to create it, and defend it."

Thomas O. Melia, associate director of the AFL-CIO's Free Trade Union Institute, visited Czechoslovakia this past spring.