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Czech Communist Nostalgia in an Immature Democracy

A society that keeps looking in the rear-view mirror is bound to crash into something.

by Vanda Thorne 10 February 2014

In the wake of the mid-January anniversary of the tragic death of national hero Jan Palach in 1969, the debates about the need to address communism and its crimes were revived in the Czech media, parliament, and wider political circles. The somber remembrance of Palach, who set himself on fire to protest the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, contrasted sharply with the growing number of public discussions in which citizens argue that the time has come to stop talking about the evils of communism. In a former Soviet satellite state where an unreformed Communist Party ranks as the second strongest political party, politicians and other public figures argued that the former dissidents have said enough, and we should put the events of the last century behind us as more a historical curiosity than an actual threat to society. Hoping to ride this wave of selective amnesia, Communist members of parliament requested the repeal of the so-called lustration law, which bars former Communists, especially members of the secret police, from holding political, army, high academic, or civil service positions. Rather shockingly, the Communists were joined by the two winning parties of the recent parliamentary elections – ANO 2011 (a liberal political newcomer founded by a businessman with a questionable Communist past) and the Social Democrats.

 

 

Meanwhile, mementoes from the Czechoslovak Communist regime, especially from the consumer culture of the so-called normalization in the 1970 and 1980s, have become almost fashionable and cool. Television “retro” shows have gained popularity, and reruns of old communist series continue to occupy prime slots on most Czech television channels. Czechs watch with pleasure the new documentary magazine Retro and the fictional series Wonderful Times. Both focus on the not-so wonderful years during communism, but mostly from an aesthetic rather than ideological point of view. Naturally, the public prefers to discuss the accuracy of the costumes and furniture rather than the terror of the secret police. The communist-produced and propaganda-filled crime show Major Zeman and the working class epic Woman behind the Counter have aired many times since the fall of the oppressive regime, and plans for a post-communist sequel of Major Zeman are in full swing. Communist-era consumer products (food, drinks, detergents, or gym shoes) are experiencing a massive revival as a familiar alternative to the confusing overload of foreign goods. Disappointed with many side effects of the post-communist transformation, Czech society has mused nostalgically over the relatively safe and comfortable (if empty and insincere) life during late communism, while drifting away from any critical assessment of its own past failures.

 

The expectation of the state as an automatic and reliable provider is one of the most commonly shared nostalgic visions.  People miss what they had been bribed with during communism to keep quiet: generous social programs, artificially sustained job security, low-cost housing, and subsidized public transportation, food, and services. Yet most people quickly gloss over the memories of everyday harassment by the authorities and the inability to travel or speak freely. Similarly, long lines in front of every store, the appalling condition of houses and roads, mandatory public rituals like the 1 May parades, or people stuck in meaningless jobs have diminished as the central themes of the collective memory. Instead, many often reminisce about the state-imposed egalitarianism as something not only acceptable but even desirable. Generations that grew up being told publicly that personal ambition destroys the collective spirit now struggle in an open market economy. Millions who were taught by their parents that indifference is the safest political stance now doubt their power as voters or civil society participants. People believe that post-communist governments are just as corrupt as the communist ones, only now many say the corruption is more visible. A large majority of the populace concludes there is simply nothing they can do about it.

 

Yet, without a continuation of the public debate about communism, the Czech Republic is doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past. Exposure to the different means of examining this critical period of Czech history must increase, not evaporate in a nostalgic haze. The Czech Republic still has no real museum of communism backed up by research institutions. Instead, tourists and Czechs flock to propaganda-themed bars and drink beer in 1970s décor-pubs complete with plastic tablecloths and communist newspaper clippings as wallpaper. Twenty-five years after the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia, communism is frequently reduced to a fashionable product that sells. Not surprisingly then, the retro-chic businesses help sideline the serious social debate about the continuing effects of communism on Czech society. Many serious academic and public discussions on such topics are dismissed as out of touch with today’s real issues. A case in point is last year’s speech by former Czech President Vaclav Klaus, in which he declared that communism belongs to the past and it is meaningless to keep returning to it. Declaring topics dead to avoid challenges to his authority was one of the hallmarks of his presidency and is clearly a tactic lifted from his Communist predecessors. In the meantime, one of the country’s most significant and successful educational projects about communism (designed by a well-respected organization, People in Need) has been attacked by parents of high school students for supposedly inundating their children with unnecessary information about the distant past and campaigning against the Communist Party.

 

Perhaps nostalgia for communism as a protectively egalitarian and almost family-friendly system is a natural backlash to turbulence caused by the introduction of a market economy. However, the political consequences of such uncritical recounting of the past are obvious. It has undermined the Czech Republic’s democracy: instead of participating actively in the new system, many people linger within their comforting memories of the past. Growing support for the Communist Party is the inevitable outcome of this biased memory of the communist period among the Czech people, even though the Communist Party has never officially renounced its own totalitarian legacy.

 

It is time for Czechs to move away from their distorted nostalgic visions of the past, while more rigorously confronting their own communist history and its impact on the present.

Vanda Thorne teaches sociology at New York University in Prague.
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