Saturday, March 08, 2014

More timid than the Poles

Two days ago, a blogger at The Economist wrote the article
More timid than the Poles
that describes the author's surprise that despite the Soviet-led 1968 occupation of Czechoslovakia, Czech and Slovak politicians avoid loud shouting of "War to Russia" and reject the sanctions, something that is heard from Poland. The article rates this "insufficiently heroic" Czech and Slovak attitude negatively. As you know, I think that in this very context of the Ukrainian crisis, our moderate reaction is a positive thing, and we should perhaps be even less anti-Russian.

But I want to mention a few words about our relations to "Mother Rus" and our national character (e.g. pragmatism and cowardliness) in general. Let me emphasize that – if you allow me to be frank – the author of the text below probably belongs to the 1% of most political heroic Czech citizens, when it came to the opposition to the totalitarian regime(s) and what I was or would be ready to put at risk or sacrifice. This will be a part of the story but the special history of our relationships with Russia will be another part.

First, the dear reader should realize that unlike your humble correspondent, most of the Czechs – and to a similar (perhaps lesser) extent the Slovaks (I will omit them at most places, sorry) – are indeed mostly pragmatic, opportunist people who are used to bend their backs if it makes their lives safer and more convenient. You may imagine that I've been upset if not ashamed about this prevailing national feature quite often. But over the years, I realized that this has some irreducible advantages, too.

We may be looking for some abstract Slavic history but the true history of the Czech nation only begins with the Czech kingdom about 1,000 years ago. Despite (or because of?) the geographic location at the center of Europe, we would never think about any kind of "neutrality" like the Swiss. The Czech kingdom would pretty much belong to every empire or bloc that was close enough to Central Europe and that was on the roll.

The Czech kingdom itself (which would rarely display some credible imperial ambitions, so I won't talk about this topic anymore, despite some interesting exceptions) didn't start like some abstract monarchy trying to separate itself from other powers or to live in the vacuum. Since the beginning, it was an autonomous component of the Holy Roman Empire that defined the broader civilization context. Even though the Orthodox missionaries brought us the scripture and Christianity, the Western influence began to emerge very quickly so we became a clear part of the West, a part of the identity that lasted for 900 years or so.

(Slovaks would have Hungarian overlords for many centuries. Those would be a bit more "Eastern" but much of the logic is closely analogous to our German-speaking overlords.)

The Holy Roman Empire would be German-dominated for quite some time. It actually existed through 1806 – a year most of us don't consider important at all – when it was formally abolished and replaced by the Austrian Empire and other successors. We tend to be taught that it had been "Austria" at least since 1620. At any rate, the Battle of White Mountain in 1620 was a tragedy for the Czech (mostly protestant aristocracy) in particular and the Czechs' control over their territory and first-citizen status in general. Since that time, Germans would tend to be the "bosses" while Czechs would "prefer" to be "peasants". The Czech language itself was threatened as the intellectual elite was being Germanized. This threat was ended by the Czech National Revival that erupted among the Czech patriotic elite in the late 18th century.

The revival brought us some ideas that would sound UFO-like before – like pan-Slavic ideas. Roots of words were being imported from Russian (and perhaps other Slavic languages) and remolded along a template to guarantee that the Czech language was able to express everything that the German language could, and more. This was the first period that brought "Mother Rus" closer to some Czech hearts.

The Austrian Empire became a federation in the mid 19th century – Austria-Hungary – so the Slovaks were finally parts of the same empire sharing the same status with us because their Hungarian overlords were promoted to the peers of our Austrian overlords. ;-) It gradually became enlightened enough – and allowed the Czech lands to grow into the industrial heart of the monarchy – so even some Czech nationalists were imagining the future of our nation within the empire. (There would be the Old Czech Party and the Young Czech Party in the 19th century, and so on, I wonder whether the teenagers are taught any of these things today at all.)

Some limited successes ;-) of the Austrian Empire and its allies in the First World War have changed the counting and of course, after some negotiations of Prof Thomas Garrigue Masaryk with Woodrow Wilson and others (the former was our first president-liberator, the latter, the U.S. president, is arguably more popular in Czechia than in the U.S., as I could figure out, and there are probably many more bridges and streets named after Wilson here than in America), Czechoslovakia (including the Subcarpathian Rus, a part of Ukraine since 1945-46) was established as the most modern democratic successor state of Austria-Hungary in 1918. It was also the only "conservative" successor that actually kept the name of the currency, the crown.

President-founder daddy Thomas Garrigue Masaryk (1850-1937) speaks about a fresh American invention, surely not the last one, the film (in English). He is going to have his morning horse ride in the Lány Presidential Chateau in order to double his lung pressure. Cool seven minutes from November 12th, 1929! The woman who speaks about the Red Cross and President Hoover is TGM's daughter Alice Masaryková who became a de facto first lady after the death of Charlotte Garrigue in 1923.

It was a happy country, combining much of the modern culture and industry of the West with some traditional Czech/Slavic themes etc. Communists existed but were small. But the Nazis came, took over the Czech lands in 1939 (part was eaten in 1938 as the sophisticated German-speaking majority in the Sudetenland became more excited about Hitler than the average Germans) and unleashed the independent fascist spirit in (some of) our Slovak brothers. One must say that the typical Czech folks in the Protectorate Bohemia and Moravia were about as loyal to the Third Reich as they were during Austria-Hungary etc.

During the war, the land sort of worked well, just like in the First Republic (1918-1938). So the German protectors who were the actual rulers were proud about the success. That's one of the reasons why Reinhard Heydrich was driving in a car with an open roof – my Czechs love me, after all. Of course, the official Czechoslovak government in London didn't love him too much and sent a group of parachute-assassins who managed to execute the blonde beast in 1942. Executions of the members of the resistance strengthened etc.

You must (and even young Czechs should) understand that most of the nation wasn't fighting against the Nazis. As long as they avoided listening the London radio and other things, they were just doing fine. The nation may be even more cowardly and opportunist that it would be "naturally" simply because the bravest folks have been selectively executed by the Nazis and partly by communists (or de facto expelled by the communists). So this "natural selection" drives the nation closer towards opportunism.

Out of the 10 million citizens of Czechoslovakia (in 1938 borders), 350,000 i.e. 3.5% died in relation with the war activities and crimes against humanity. This sounds like a lot – 300,000 is also the total number of emigrants from Czechoslovakia during the communist era. But you should understand that a vast majority of this number – about 270,000 – were Jews murdered in the Holocaust. So if you only look at the non-Jewish Czechoslovak citizens, and yes, this may be the relevant perspective that some Czechs and Slovaks have in mind even if they shouldn't, you get down to something like 70,000 ethnic Czech or Slovak casualties, less than 1% of the population of Czechoslovakia.

This is nothing like the Polish casualties that were astronomical. Also, many of the Poles' death could be blamed to the USSR. We didn't have (almost) any deaths in the World War II that would be up to the Soviets. This makes a lot of difference.

I feel that the elite and "heroes" were being systematically liquidated and the Nazis had plans to remove the non-Germanized and the genetically inadequate part of the Czech population in the medium term. Prague was supposed to become a purely German city and there were – somewhat cold but OK – plans to change its architecture etc. Many of them plans were de facto realized in post-war Czechoslovakia, anyway. (Even though some subway stops were ultimately not called the Hitler Station but Gottwald Station, after our leader and Stalin's friend Gottwald, and other cosmetic differences occurred, too.)

But I want to say that the future of the Czech nation looked pretty dark and it was mainly the Soviets who changed that – of course, the liberation by the Red Army was the second major event that brought Russia closer to the Czech and Slovak hearts (see the revival above for the first). I was of course indoctrinated by this love towards our Soviet liberators – only some teachers would admit that my hometown was liberated by the Yankees but I've had a surprisingly high percentage of courageous teachers during communism... But they really did help us at a national level. This earned some political capital for the USSR in Czechoslovakia and that was really the main reason why communism started – it may have been inevitable given the circumstances.

Communism screwed the country's economy, morality etc. etc. for more than 40 years and you know that I hate it, as a "queen" of these disgusting totalitarian and left-wing regimes. But on the other hand, if I knew that the alternative was the gradual elimination of my nation, then yes, I am happy that the "parallel universe" with communism was the selected one, despite the drop of the GDP by an order of magnitude relatively to where it would be otherwise, and many other (and perhaps worse) things.

At any rate, our nation and its communist party built the communist "paradise" mostly by itself, and the influence of the USSR was something we accepted largely voluntarily. I think it's fair to describe it in this way. That doesn't mean that there were no Soviet agents here, and so on, but the Czechoslovak nation simply elected too many commies which always raises the risk that they take over everything. And they did in 1948.

In 1968, when Czechoslovakia was switching to a "third way", five communist traitors sent the "invitation letter" to [Soviet boss] Leonid Brezhnev and the USSR along with 4 other Warsaw Pact countries would stop the Prague Spring, the process of the liberalization of communism into the "socialism with a human face". It was terrible and made the country darker and less prosperous and less growing and intimidating and stagnating for 20 more years. And of course that we call it the "Russian occupation" or "Soviet occupation". Even I usually do. On the other hand, people sort of realize that it wasn't just the Russians – our Polish friends may want to be reminded that they were occupying us as well in 1968 ;-) – and the reasons were ideological, not nationalist ones. It was about the ideological purity and the emerging freedom in Czechoslovakia was simply unacceptable for all hardcore communists all over the socialist bloc.

So I would say that many of us don't instinctively translate the terrible events to anti-Russian sentiments. Just to be sure, many people do. But despite the devastating economic and moral impact of the 1968 occupation, one must understand that the occupation killed "just" 100 people or so. Again, nothing comparable to the extermination of the millions of the Poles by its neighbors has taken place here.

In this context, I should emphasize that even the official anti-occupation Czechoslovak radio stations and others were insisting that the Czechoslovak citizens shouldn't physically resist the Warsaw Pact forces. People only peacefully discussed with the mostly Russian troops and were sending Ivans back to their Natashas who were waiting for those Ivans. Everyone knew it would be suicidal and it wouldn't bring anything. The students who immolated themselves are partly heroes, partly unconstructive lunatics. I have mixed feelings about them myself. Well, they were mostly heroes for me but a suicide like that is unlikely to work and it may even be called a bloody publicity stunt of a sort. So sometimes I don't know.

In individual cases, it may be OK. But of course that I think that it is right that the whole Czechoslovak nation didn't try to physically fight against the Soviets and others. It would have been stupid. The "normalization" of the rather hardcore communism for quite some time was probably unavoidable. Members of the socialist bloc just didn't enjoy enough freedom to build their "socialisms with human faces". I could have some sympathies towards an emotional, heroic fight against the USSR or the Third Reich or someone else. On the other hand, I do tend to think that if it is really hopeless, it is stupid, too, and my nation's having grown out of these suicidal reactions is something that I probably count as a net positive although it's clearly a mixed ethical baggage, no doubts about it.

(The South Korean are vastly more opportunist and career-oriented than probably any other nation in the world. This is also the reason why virtually no one in South Korea gives a damn about the terrible lives – and equally terrible deaths – of their near-countrymates in the North. I am sort of repelled by that, too; we're surely not as productive as they are, with the ethical side effects it brings. But in average, Czechs may be closer to the South Koreans than to emotionally reacting nations such as... almost everyone in the Eastern Europe, for example.)

Most Czechs would be loyal to the Soviet-controlled post-1968 communist regime, and so on. Some of the people who were the most active aßlickers of the communists' buttocks became self-proclaimed right-wingers and Russia-haters after the fall of communism, and so on.

Let me also add my personal stories with Russia. I was in Sverdlovsk – named after a bloody communist mass killer Sverdlov who hatefully murdered the tsar family, among others – our twin city in 1988. (The Eurasian border is near the city, we were there, and I have been to Asia 150 times because of that. What else would you be doing on such a boring place for two hours than jumping back and forth?) I was chosen because I had won several maths and physics olympiads, and so on. Of course, they wouldn't choose me on political grounds, not only because of my 2 uncles on both sides who were in emigration. But it's fair to say that even my friends who may have been chosen for slightly more political reasons were sort of "child anti-communists", relatively to our Russian friends. It was a summer camp of the Czech language, a cute variation of the imperial theme (the international summer camp "Artek" was actually in Ukraine!) in the "opposite direction". And indeed, those friends and their families learned Czech pretty well. We would be shooting a TV program to teach Czech for the local TV, and so on. I decided that the Russians over there are good, hospitable people, despite their belief in all the communist idiocies and their pride that they managed to shoot down an American aircraft in the 1960s (they were feeling threatened even by Gorbachev who was too anti-socialist for them). And I saw lots of Czechoslovak flags in Sverdlovsk, an indication that their superficially cordial relationship to Czechoslovakia could be a bit real and special. I won't hide that I still like some Russian songs, perhaps even cartoon and other things that we were exposed to during communism.

In 1992, I/we went to Moscow to the International Mathematical Olympiad. A fun experience, even though some already outdated Russian commies nearly killed me near the Red Square when I started to explain various things to them. But it's fun to be in a somewhat less concentrated, but extensively larger and more powerful country that speaks a language that is remotely related and that I was learning since I was 8 (because I attended a special elementary school with the extended education of languages – but it was only Russian at the beginning and just when I was supposed to start with English, in Fall 1984, I switched to the math-loaded elementary school, so I would never learn English as a kid).

Despite my clearly right-wing values, it should be easy for you to see that you just can't expect any nationality-based anti-Russian attitude from me whatsoever. I am just not getting it. Now, it's fair to say that there are not too many people of my age who combine these values in similar ways. And yes, I tend to avoid discussions about Russia with friends or people of my age. But one must understand that much of the older generation, especially those with some nostalgia about communism, tend to like Russia. And there are some genuinely right-wing people who converged closer to Russia because of some "postmodern" developments in the West.

Meanwhile, the economical interests are clearly more important than some anti-Russian gestures for most Czechs. In an Internet poll I saw yesterday, 2/3 of Czechs answered that they would oppose sanctions against Russia if they would mean economic losses; 1/3 would recommended sanctions. It's very clear where the majority stands. And the losses from a full-fledged trade war could be huge. 5% of our imports and 5% of our exports involve Russia; for Slovakia, at least the import number stands at 10%. You surely don't want to slash this part of the GDP. At least we don't want that. And I am pretty sure that Germany doesn't want to do such things, either. As someone in Berlin said on Russia Today, sanctions against Russia would really be sanctions against Germany. ;-)

The refusal of the majority to participate in a similar escalation of violence would be similar during the war, I admit. In a joke, a Serb talks to a Czech. When we would see a German in our village, the Serb says, we would cut his throat. "We would have done the same thing," the Czech replies, "but it wasn't allowed in our Protectorate." ;-)

So yes, the cowardliness and opportunism of the mainstream Czechs is annoying and, from some perspective, disgusting. On the other hand, it's this attitude that has kept us more productive than virtually all other countries that became parts of the socialist bloc. And it's the attitude that has protected Prague and other Czech cities from destruction in the war. Whether you like it or not, the readiness to "sacrifice everything" is strongly negatively correlated with various measures of "productivity". As Karl Marx correctly observed, "the proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains." And that's why I am often scared of similar people who have nothing to lose. That applies to most of the crowd (mostly unemployed people and low-level workers) at Euromaidan, too.

Many people in Czechia – especially in Prague – tend to emulate what is the "mainstream U.S. or EU attitude", including the nationally based anti-Russian sentiments. But I would say that they're really not the bulk of our nation, however, and this makes a difference. So it's not just the cowardliness, opportunism, and our focus on economic considerations that prevents us from supporting tough responses to Russia. Way too many people over here disagree with their substance. We generally don't think that the Ukrainians in Kiev were fighting for the same values as we did – in 1968 or in 1989. It was about freedom in 1968 but it is much more about sending one nation against another (or another part of the same nation) now in Kiev. And we generally don't think that the Russian participation in the solution of the crisis is fully analogous to the 1968 occupation. It has very different reasons and goals, too.

I don't expect too many people to read these Czech-history-oriented blog posts so I don't plan to proofread the text above, sorry.


  1. I know this doesn't contributed a thing, but that's a nice post. I enjoyed reading it, that is.

  2. Lubos - thanks. Very sincere and very personal. I understand your attitude, but I don't share it. That's why I live elsewhere.

  3. Interesting essay and I share most of your sentiments. I have worked in Russia between 93 and 97 and most of my co-workers were Russians. Like everywhere, some were assholes but most were warm and friendly people, so warm and friendly that most Czechs are cold in comparison. In most of them, though, two things were constant: despite being very poor, at least on per-capita basis, they still considered themselves the superpower and pinnacle of civilization, in terms of technology, humanism, values etc. The idea, that they have some "special rights in the world", simply because they are Slavs and Russians, and the WWII sacrifices etc, was very strongly shared and in my sort of cynical/pragmatic view, bordering on delusion. Also, they were very apologetic towards their history, the millions of people killed by Stalin, the Gulags etc counted not for much because there was some bigger good worth the sacrifice and so on. There was no way to explain to (most of) them that maybe under liberal democracy Russia might have achieved more in the 20th century, definitely in terms of individual quality of life.
    As much as I liked some of the people, the whole society, institutions, bureaucracy seemed very dysfunctional and basically shitty, people in shops, streets and so on quite rude and unfriendly, corruption everywhere, police and bureaucracy threatening and currupt, all in all, on every trip home (where ironically the "bad mood" was culminating at that time), I was almost physically feeling how much better, functional and enlightened our system is. I am not sure how much has changed there in the last 15 years, but probably I would hate to see their way of civilisation imported here too much.

  4. Lubos, thanks for this. I've read Skvorecky, Kundera, Klima and one mystery by Kohut set in the last days of Nazi occupied Prague and your sort-of historical overview gives useful background. Thanks again

  5. Seduce Russian soldiers. A good pot of coffee, a decent meal, bottles of incendiary rakia, recreational pharmaceuticals. We can engineer against failure but not against sabotage. Cadres of ladies of easy virtue spread HIV as a broad pulse. Those are suicide missions, but with a good long term injured and killed ratio to the enemy. Shorter? Banquet troops with mushrooms, Cortinarius rubellus and Cortinarius orellanus containing orellanin, LD_50 = 12 – 20 mg/kg. You get a 3 day to 3 week delay, then their kidneys die. Tetrahedron 42(5) 1475 (1986), ibid. 49(37) 8373 (1993).

    If you prefer spectacle, Angew. Chem. 61 365 (1949), J. Org. Chem. 55(25) 6098 (1990). Lethal dose is 7-10 mg/person, 100x more potent than potassium cyanide, kills by epileptic convulsions, Ann. Emerg. Med. 45(6):609 (2005). A time-release formulation is indicated (perhaps a disulfide-crosslinked polymer coat that reductively cleaves in the colon).

    War is not about battles, it is about logistics. Be patient, make it expensive, as Afghanistan defeated the US after 13 years of "coalition building," and Vietnam before.

  6. As I’m getting older more and more I prefer the boring ground states rather than the highly excited ones. That’s why I remember with nostalgia the Soviet epoch. Although I've never lived under these regimes in my mind they represent conservative peaceful and noiseless societies, where people live and die quietly without much anxiety.

  7. So, Russian full-scale military occupation of a part of a foreign country, with 30 000 soldiers on the ground with no signs on their uniforms, is ok? That's "Russian participation" in resolving the crisis, according to you. I hope that you would apply the same generous standard if Germany was to invade the Sudetes in order to 'participate peacefully' in the solving of the problem of Germans expelled from Czechoslovakia after 1945...

  8. In a way, your perspective on Czech identity is more important than your theory posts.

  9. I'm sure China would be perfectly happy for Russia to redirect
    European gas flows their way. Russia probably wouldn't mind that either, taking Ukraine out of the picture. If anyone should be opposing sanctions strongly, it's the Europeans.

    The US regime is being remarkably stupid here, unless it's
    deliberately trying to provoke conflict against Russia and China, destabilize Eastern Europe, and blackmail Europe in general to be on its side via energy restrictions. In that case, great job America -- clap, clap, clap!

    No. What really needs to happen here is that the US minds its own business and that the Ukrainian people get their act together to elect a clean government that isn't corrupted by oligarchs (of ANY nationality), isn't full of psychopathic nationalists, won't sell itself as a slave to NATO and the IMF, and works on real economic reforms so that Ukraine no longer has to rely on sovereign welfare, blackmail and rent-seeking as a business model.

  10. that's because you're pretty dumb. being imprisoned and tortured for reading a random book not approved by the party sounds really peaceful indeed. well, people could in fact leave pretty much without anxiety, if they were brain dead, to not notice or care about what was going on around them. i guess people like you. why don't you move to north korea, so you can die peacefully there, and spare us dumb comments on the internet?

  11. Isn't communism awesome!

    And that, my friends, is that best that socialism can offer!

  12. Thanks for the history. My mother was 7 when she emigrated from Czechoslovakia to the United States in 1920, and as best I can tell, my fraternal grandparents were from what is now Slovakia. So, I have roots, but little or no understanding of political history and attitudes. I know what Churchill told me about WWII, and being 77 I'm basically familiar with what happened to the "Iron Curtain" countries over the years. Thank you for the analysis and history. It will help me understand the current dust up.
    Tucson, Arizona, USA

  13. Well, I don't think you're quite right there. I can well believe what you say may be true of socialism of the international kind, i.e. kommunism, but there are other brands with different musical 'offerings'.

    For example, if you take national socialism—as tested to destruction in Germany a while back—then I'll think you'll find they had far snappier tunes. Very good ones indeed. But then the Krauts are excellent at that sort of thing, and engineering. Of course, neither might have anything to do with socialism as such, of any variety — it's difficult to say.

    Anyway, you can really get your foot tapping to the Horst Wessel Lied, for instance. I recommend it. Indeed if you're not careful you can find yourself on a stomping spree over a vast areas crushing the skulls of your neighbours and even people in other countries. It's got a bit of poke to it, that one. Very catchy. I find myself happily whistling it quite often these days. It's how I like to celebrate our unrequested diversity. I'm very pluralistic, see?

    It's all part of bring a good yurpian — fucking the EU and everything it stands for. Which is mostly unaccountable nation-destroying international socialism too, with lots of corporatism [think Krupp and IG Farben etc] and corruption thrown in for good measure. The only good EU is a dead EU.

    But I digress...

  14. Thanks for your experience! I forgot to discuss my Russian friends and colleagues in the U.S. Of course, very good people in general - mostly detached from some detailed Russian politics, of course.

    The warmth sounds great but I would still say that there is something very dark and frustrating about most Russians, the atmosphere (and perhaps, to a lesser extent, the Poles as well).

  15. Lol! Both Giotis and Bob are so cute. Just like an old couple living together ;-D

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