Now Free, Some Czechs Fear Complacency
Now Free, Some Czechs Fear Complacency
This week marks 20 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, which divided the city and served as the symbol of a Europe divided between communist East and democratic West. In a weeklong series, those who lived through those events two decades ago share their memories of the momentous change in Eastern Europe.
Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic, is brimming with commerce, optimism and a steady stream of tourists two decades after the Velvet Revolution brought dissident poet Vaclav Havel into the presidential palace.
But some Czechs worry their once-dynamic political culture is declining and active citizenship waning. Czech artist and provocateur David Cerny is one of them.
Cerny rose to notoriety shortly after the Velvet Revolution when he was arrested one night for taking a paintbrush to a prominent Soviet World War II memorial of a tank in central Prague. Other Soviet tanks crushed the Prague Spring democracy movement in 1968 and symbolized 40 years of communist repression. Cerny decided the memorial would look better in pink.
When asked whether it was a political act or an artistic one, Cerny laughs: "It was probably a pissed-up act, [an] anger act."
"If I'm doing something, I usually know it might bring me [trouble]. That's the way of my life," he says.
After The Revolution, A Quiet Complacency
Nearly 20 years later, Cerny's penchant for lampooning the establishment and getting into trouble hasn't waned. The country's conservative President Vaclav Klaus is a source of great embarrassment to some Czechs. Klaus is anti-European Union and dismisses global warming as "hysteria."
One of Cerny's recent works takes Klaus to task.
In a courtyard of Prague's Futura Gallery, visitors can climb 20 feet up a ladder and stare into two giant sculpted fiberglass rectums as their weird, pointed bodies melt into the wall. Inside each giant buttock sculpture is a video screen of someone wearing a puppet-like mask of Klaus gracefully spoon-feeding slop to the director of the Czech National Gallery, all to the sound of Queen's rock anthem, "We Are The Champions."
"In terms of having such fun [with] politicians during the communist era, that was simply impossible," Cerny says. "You would have ended up in jail immediately."
The artist isn't simply making the most of the freedom of expression he was denied before 1989. His satirical sculptures resonate with Czechs fed up with the current political malaise. Cerny decries what he calls mindless nationalism, petty squabbles and corruption in parliament and city hall.
"That piece was supposed to be very temporary, but the situation is still the same," he says. "And it looks as if it will stay for a couple of years. A lot people who saw it say they think it's universal."
Cerny is frustrated that just 20 years after the revolution, there is a sense of quiet complacency in his country. The consumer is king, he says, while former communists roam the halls of power.
"I don't want to sound like I would in any way compare and say 'Before the end of communism, it was better," he says. "That was hell. The skepticism which I have is about what we expected, or what we hoped for. And it's not really fulfilled."
"We were stupid, but we thought the remains of communism would be gone in 10 years, but 10 years later we still had communists in government," he says.
"In parliament, there is one guy who was in prison where he tortured dissidents and he sits in parliament. How the hell is this possible?" Cerny asks.
Democratic Citizenship A Work In Progress
It's a frustration shared today by many Czech writers and political thinkers. After the Velvet Revolution, the EU and the U.S. helped the Czech Republic quickly install the institutional structures of democracy. But some Czechs lament that "the state will solve it" mentality is still prevalent.
"I think that 20 years after the fall of communism, we realize there's a big difference between democracy as a set of institutions — a sort of procedural democracy — and democracy understood as culture," says Jiri Pehe, a Czech political commentator.
Pehe says it has proved far harder and taken longer than he had hoped to get citizens more engaged in the deeper responsibilities of democratic citizenship — to energize people who for 40 years were used to being only inactive, passive citizens.
The difficulty, Pehe says, is turning Czechs who were "citizens only on paper only, but otherwise not allowed to exercise their citizenship" into active citizens.
"It's also petitions, demonstrations, things of that sort, things I think the young generation here is increasingly getting involved in. And that's a hopeful sign," Pehe says.
Vaclav Havel, the former president, recently celebrated his 73rd birthday. The one-time dissident poet and playwright, a revered figure in the Czech Republic and the country's first post-communist president, has been in ill health and isn't doing many interviews these days.
In a crowded 10th century church turned into a gorgeous concert and performance hall, a birthday party was thrown for Havel and crowds lined up to wish him well.
When asked what he sees as the biggest challenge facing the Czech Republic in the next 20 years, he replies: "I had hoped that the country would be more humanistic and less materialistic by now. And I'm still waiting."
The changes since Havel led his country into a new era 20 years ago are evident nearby at Prague's Museum of Communism. The private museum is next door to a McDonald's. At the museum, visitors can view the tools of Soviet bloc repression amid the smell of Big Macs.
A poster at the museum reads: "We're above McDonald's and across from Benetton, viva la imperialism."