Letter from Europe: Czechoslovakia's Quiet Revolution

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Czechoslovakia's Quiet Revolution

"Havel to the castle": In the doubly festive mood just before Christmas the heart of Prague was full of posters bearing that slogan and a picture of Vaclav Havel, the famous playwright, his shirt open at the neck, looking implish, irreverent and very youthful for his 53 years. There were also less numerous pictures of a more dignified Havel, with suit and tie, as if somebody had subsequently decided that people want a more respectable image of a man who would occupy the presidential palace. When events move so fast it is necessary to improvise.

I had come to Czechoslovakia with one obvious question in mind. Stalin's exported revolution had collapsed throughout Eastern Europe. On its ruins it was possible to restore capitalism or to build something different. The Hungarian and Polish rulers had clearly opted for the capitalist road; where it will lead them is another matter. Do the Czechoslovaks have an alternative?

Prague, with its variety of architecture--Gothic and Renaissance, splendid Baroque and more Art Nouveau than in Vienna--remains a superb setting for any investigation, only the answers here never seem simple or predictable. Thus, as a slogan on one poster put it in a nutshell, the Czechoslovaks had just won in ten days what it took the Poles ten years, the Hungarians ten months and the East Germans ten weeks to achieve. Yet they have managed to perform their heroic symphony in a minor key and couple the word "revolution" with such unexpected adjectives as "peaceful," "moderate" and "orderly." There is a distance, an irony, a sense of humor in the cultural climate here and, once bitten twice shy, an allergy to romantic illusions.

I get a taste of this mood from the very start in the flat of Petr Uhl and Anna Sabatova, one of the rare places, particularly in this part of Europe, still conveying the spirit of the 1960s New Left: a picture of Che Guevara on the wall and a poster proclaiming "Marxism is dead" with a winking Marx replying, in French, "My eye!" Uhl, just out of jail, where he has spent nine of the last twenty years, apologizes for the little time at his disposal. On top of many new tasks, he still has his old job as a stoker in the subway. There were four men on the job and now there are only three. Still, he can't complain since the man who left, friend and former journalist Jiri Dienstbier, was transferred to the seventeenth-century Cernin Palace, not as a stoker but as the new Minister of Foreign Affairs. When I told this story to Ladislav Hejdanek, the subtle philosopher and former spokesman of Charter 77 who as such had much bitter experience with odd jobs, he lectured me on the virtues of being a stoker: There are not many manual jobs in which you can find spare time for reading.

This Czechoslovak version of the "pride of understatement," which Hemingway attributed to the English, is not the only reason for the complexity of the answer to my original question. There are more objective grounds for that. The Czechoslovak economy, as we shall see, badly needs an overhaul, but its crisis has none of the urgency of Hungary's, let alone Poland's. That is why the radical political transformation has not been combined so far with a major social upheaval. Add to it two tendencies pulling in opposite directions. Between the wars Czechoslovakia was the only country of the future Soviet bloc with a genuine democracy and strong left-wing roots (the 38 percent of the poll captured by the Communist Party in a free vote in 1946 was not accidental). Against this must be set the Stalinist purges and trials as well as the Soviet tanks dashing the hopes of 1968. The balancing act is not easy. In the city of Kafka and of Jaroslav Hasek, the author of Good Soldier Schweik, the questions may be crude, but the answers are never simple, or only deceptively so.

The "Velvet Revolution"

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