Tropical Fish, Beer, Porno­graphy and Havel

An inquiry into the baffling pleas of today’s Czech politicians to ­return to traditional values

Czech president Vaclav Klaus will soon leave office, and as only the second leader of post-revolution Czech Republic, he spends much time attacking and devaluing his predecessor’s legacy. One day he refers to “nothing but holes in the walls” he allegedly found in Prague Castle when he took over from Vaclav Havel, suggesting the former president was a thief. The next day he defines Havel for the Polish press as a “leftist extremist calling for the destruction of our current human order”.

One thing never changes though. Klaus almost always ends his criticism of Havel with a call for a return of the “traditional and true values” of Czech society to our daily lives. And he’s not the only one. The incoming president, Milos Zeman, presented himself in the election campaign as a “trustworthy, typical Czech” – in opposition to his challenger, Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg, who is of Czech-Austrian origin. Leaders of the main governing party, the centre-right Civic Democrats, have been calling on party members to go “back to the roots” and the second coalition party even has the word “tradition” in its name.

Former Czech PM Vaclav Klaus (l.) at odds with Vaclav Havel | Photo: Stanislav Zbynek/EPA/picturedesk

Former Czech PM Vaclav Klaus (l.) at odds with Vaclav Havel | Photo: Stanislav Zbynek/EPA/picturedesk

That might sound like nothing more than typical election-season pandering. But unlike in old nation states of Europe, such as Spain, Italy, or the United Kingdom, it has rather a different feeling in the Czech Republic. We will celebrate our centenary in five years, but of these 100 years, the Nazis ruled for some time shortly after the state was born and, after them, the Communists stepped in and stayed for more than 40.

In other words, our society didn’t have enough time to establish cornerstone traditions and values as it struggled to survive under regimes that were at best alien and at worst lethal. Referring to traditional and true Czech values is like calling the nation to gather around a giant box that – when you open it – is … empty.

The Slovaks have a similar story. They didn’t experience any kind of independence until 1918, when a united Czechoslovakia was set up after World War I. But – unlike the Czechs – the Slovaks have their little something to attach to. They have a priest, their homemade slivovice, and a fear of their confident compatriots of Hungarian origin since the Slovaks were long considered only a minor part of Greater Hungary.

One can say the same about the Poles. Regardless of whom you ask in Poland or where you are, and regardless of the many times Poland was conquered, dominated and torn apart by foreign empires, every Pole would swear on his or her motherland, Poland, the Catholic Church and a bottle of vodka, too, when family and friends are around.

The Czechs are different. We’re not patriotic, since the day our own president prevented us from fighting for the existence of our country back in 1938. Religion doesn’t unite us, either – we are the least religious people in Europe. No vodka on the table.

Beer? Yes, we are the No. 1 beer drinkers in the world per capita, but that’s more of a male thing.

On my way back from the office the other day, I was thinking what the empty box might be filled with now that we’re free and safe. I did some private, informal research of things that are unique to the Czechs or that we do remarkably well.

 

Here are the results:

The Czechs had Vaclav Havel, a worldwide icon who inspired both freedom fighters in South Africa and playwrights in North America. God knows why Havel was born Czech.

Next one: We are the only Euro-Atlantic state, and one in three worldwide (with the island of Nauru and the Marshall Islands) that allows for the holding of “anonymous shares” in a business. That means that no one can possibly establish the real owners of a company. (So if you want to safely cover up your business in Europe and embezzle public money, go settle in the Czech Republic. Nobody will ever find you.) That’s probably linked to our seemingly genetic penchant for disobeying the rules. If there’s a law that says one has to come clean when doing business, the Czechs will find their own “true and unique” way to shape it accordingly. The various totalitarian regimes we had lie at the heart of this national instinct.

I’ve already mentioned beer, but the porn industry is right up there. As we don’t spend much time with the Bible, and Communist morals were loose, the Czech Republic serves as a top place to shoot porn movies. Many university students, female and male, make easy money “acting” in porn for distribution abroad.

Against this loud and graphic world comes the fact that Czechs are the biggest exporters globally of exotic aquarium fish. We breed them and then sell them to foreign admirers of this silent world of magic colours and fantasy shapes. Maybe it’s because during the Communist era people invested their time in the few ideology-free activities, such as mushroom-picking, hiking, and having an aquarium with a few exotic fish. My father had one, too.

Next: Our culture is quite rich, for a country of only 10 million people that lost half its history to dictatorships. Some names don’t have to be explained: Kundera, Kafka, Havel, Forman, Menzel, Kupka.

Then I realised that we’re living in an era when, for the first time, our values and traditions – this empty box – can be filled with anything via our free will in an environment where we’re independent and safe. It will not happen overnight, nor will it be shaped by the statements of politicians.

In a few tens of years, we’ll know better. But it is truly a fascinating and unique journey ahead – including the fight over Vaclav Havel’s legacy. ÷

 

Katerina Safarikova is a jounalist with Czech Television. This article appears courtesy of the Prague-based news portal Transitions Online.

 

 

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