Rob McRae. Resistance and Revolution. Vaclav Havel's Czechoslovakia. Ottawa: Carleton University Press, 1997. xii, 331 pp. Paper.
The author of this engaging account is a Canadian diplomat who had the good fortune to witness the winds of change that swept throughout Central Europe as the Cold War was winding down. Posted in August 1988 to Czechoslovakia, Rob McRae was until 1991 Minister Counsellor or, as he writes, "number two" at the Canadian Embassy. In this post he did more than simply send political reports to the Pearson Building in Ottawa: McRae met many of the dissidents and got to know Vaclav Havel. On the basis of these contacts, in addition to the official ones he had with representatives of the Communist regime, McRae wrote a book that "is much like one of those 'I was there' adventure stories, accompanied by reflections of a totally personal character" (p. xii). Many of these reflections are linked to McRae's own love for philosophy, which he once taught at university, and his appreciation and understanding of Central European politics.
This very personal account takes the reader through events that marked the years 1988-1991 when the regime fell and its elite was replaced by dissidents, in particular members of Charter 77, a loosely knit organization of Czech opponents of the Communist regime that arose after Czechoslovakia signed the Helsinki Final Act in 1975. McRae focuses on Prague and its dissidents. One of his main protagonists is Vaclav Havel, as he indeed was in the political arena. Thus, although the narrative is endowed with unity and cohesion, it offers a somewhat narrow perspective to the historian and analyst of the fall of Communism. Nonetheless, the book is a valuable contribution to the literature on the fall of Communism in Prague.
What is interesting about McRae's account is his approach to Czechoslovakia. He indicates in the preface that he "knew little of this country that was to become [his] second home" (p. xi). Not knowing much about a country might be an asset for the diplomatic representative: it ensures that his focus is kept on events of importance to Canada and Canadian foreign policy. On the other hand, he may benefit from becoming acquainted with, and seeking to understand the major issues or problems that mark the political life of, the country to which he is sent. After all, he is expected to report on these. One gets the impression from McRae's narrative that this is something he did not do. Of utmost importance to him was keeping abreast of developments in Prague and being in contact with dissidents. This, perhaps, did not leave much time for anything else. However, McRae wrote this volume after returning to Canada and, for this reason, it is difficult to understand why he did not delve more into Czechoslovakia's history in order to understand what happened after he left, namely the country's break up. Whether still in Prague or later, it is impossible to tell, McRae adopted the nostalgic view shared by many about the Czechoslovakia of the inter-war years: "The golden age of the First Republic, under President T. …