Friday, 28 June 2013

Wenceslas Square

An invitation to accompany the elegiac urban narrator on a stroll around his chosen agglomeration may not be the most original literary trope, but what it lacks in formal novelty it more than makes up for in flexibility. So it is that I invite you, in the grand tradition of pop songster Ralph McTell, to take a walk with me through the streets of, err, Wenceslas Square (Václavské náměstí). Streets because Wenceslas Square is not really a square at all. It's an overgrown boulevard burrowed into the ancient hill that leads from neighbouring Vinohrady to just outside Prague's Old Town. Fanning out from this neon centre is a neglected underworld of cramped side streets and alleyways which make up the nefarious underbelly of the New Town. The grime-caked National Museum (Národní Muzeum) dominates the view to the south-east, a sort of grubby neoclassical partition between the New Town and the more convincingly bourgeois enclave of Vinohrady.

Though no one can doubt the bold intentions behind the New Town's design, it has long since parted with any pretensions to national splendour. The years when ambitious national revival architects exerted their most concentrated efforts on the New Town, and Wenceslas Square in particular, just happened to coincide with the first stirrings of mass culture, and the ideal of the city centre not just as a nexus of trade, but as a spectacular embodiment of the desires of the new leisure class (which in Hapsburg Prague were considerable). Thus Wenceslas Square was lavished with examples of that odd 19th century invention, the pleasure palace. Cinemas, cafes, restaurants, and no doubt other less savoury varieties of entertainment, blossomed in prettified arcades. Suddenly the alleys and aisles of mass consumption aspired to Versailles-like pomp - bequeathing a gloriously camp, kitschy opulence that still lies hidden behind the facades of the Square, funnelling curious pedestrians through its hidden walkways, even today.

Wenceslas Square's history can be described as a sort of circuit arcing from periphery to centre and back again. From its inauspicious 14th century beginnings as a glorified horse stable, to the images of mulleted rock and roll fans being clobbered on its cobbles in November 1989, and on to similarly thuggish floods of Brit lads looking for cheap booze'n'boobs, it seems the spotlight has been and left the Square. Despite being the one place in Prague that feels properly urban, it's still no Piccadilly Circus. And as people's attentions have turned towards the gorgeously restored Old Town and castle district, the casinos and strip bars have only got more garish. So while Prague's regular denizens rush down it to get to this or that tram, only the booze cruisers and the homeless and the junkies treat it as a destination in itself.

"Wenceslas square in 1667, 1867 and 1967 [cue rock and roll]..."

In the human swirl around the Muzeum metro entrance a few tourists stand eyeing the eponymous steed-mounted saint with scepticism. He in turn stares purposefully ahead, taking in his stiletto-heeled subjects and their glittering confection of lights with impassive Bohemian nobleness. Even in the Square's prime this buff monument to the Duke must have seemed at odds with its atmosphere of hedonism. It's like one of the Rushmore heads - probably the reverential Jefferson - being dumped in Times Square. From his plinth, however, the whole square unfolds. The Palac koruna, with its glittering flat crown and flank of sleeping stone guards, rises above the shunting trams and tall trees at the far end of the square, just gracing the Old Town. Closer, the boulevard is made up of faded Secese facades, their chintzy glory picked out for special attention by the afternoon sunlight. Domes mismatch with towers, municipal grey with bright yellow. Pedestrians duck between cars and sprint across the roads, shopping bags bouncing at their legs.

It was also near this plinth that famed student martyr Jan Palach burned himself to death in 1969, a sort of gun-wrenching coda to the Prague Spring. The sheer terrifying spectacle of his death appears to have disabled the last of the Czechoslovak resistance to the Moscow Protocols (committing the Dubček government to halting the reform movement in its tracks), and heralded the new reality of Soviet-led "normalisation". Far from galvanising the flailing resistance to the occupation, Czechs were, it seems, resigned to it, partly as a result of the extreme hopelessness symbolized in the act. The still-celebrated President Svoboda, who had earlier gone to Moscow to secure the release of Dubček and other Czechoslovak reform communists, patronised Palach's self-immolation as the misguided behaviour of a young man with otherwise good intentions. In that speech he assured the Czechoslovak public that "without you, comrades and friends, neither Comrade Dubček nor I can or want to govern." Some degree of public assent was won, and so the populace allied itself with the government even as its treasured reforms were being dismantled. Within months Dubček, already a bystander as his reforms were undone, was booted out of office entirely. A funeral for Palach took place in which hundreds of thousands lined the streets, yet the tone was one of commiseration and resignation rather than anger. Two young flag bearers stood beneath the equestrian statue on Wenceslas Square. The national colours - now the colours of mourning - were draped everywhere. Stanislav Milota's film Jan 69 captures beautifully this sense of resignation, especially in the shots of people filing calmly through the streets towards the Old Town Square. Despite the anxious faces and obvious sadness, it looks like yet another everyday bread queue, albeit in far larger numbers.

The film is available to watch, along with other videos about Palach, here:

Here is a summary of the "Czechoslovak uprising" in 1968:

City authorities are presently attempting to gentrify the Square. Having functioned basically as a magnet for sleaze for the past 20 years, it appears that those in charge would quite like to return it to its former glory. Apparently this is to be achieved by banning the rows of fast food stands that serve tourists with sausages of often dubious origin (Czechs speculate about the connection of the owners to some nebulous "mafia"). Meanwhile, Marks and Spencer has opened its flagship Czech store about halfway down Wenceslas Square. The ubiquitous architect Jakub Cigler was awarded the contract for the redevelopment of the Square some eight years ago, but progress is oddly slow.

The idea behind banning the sausage stands is that their absence will discourage homeless people from picking through the local bins - a tradition that presumably causes great consternation for delicate middle class onlookers. Yet this attitude completely ignores why homeless people are so often drawn to the Square. Owing to its bustling centrality, this was always the place to find a small act of generosity. A visit to Wenceslas Square is built into the daily routine. One man, Michal Hanel, who had been living on the streets for ten years, went every day: "Shortly after lunch he rushes down Wenceslas Square to meet Hare Krishna followers, the only people who have ever taken him in during his 10 long years on the streets."1 Just recently the "homeless problem in Prague" has become a major vote winner. A Civic Democrat (ODS) councillor by the name of Jiří Janeček has proposed transporting - voluntarily, of course - Prague's homeless population to a camp somewhere outside the city. When Prague is reported to have "the lowest share of people at risk of poverty or social exclusion"2 within the entire EU, you might wonder what all the fuss is about. The answer boils down to the concentration of homeless people in the city centre - part of an entire informal economy which thrives off the scraps of wealthy tourists. That and the fact that, as bankruptcies increase, the number of homeless people is likewise going up.

Only in the minds of conspiratorial city councillors do sausage stands and the city's homeless amount to a civic threat, the answer to which is Marks and Spencer! While its back streets are veritable dens of iniquity, the Square itself is only troubled by its array of frankly bizarre, occasionally intrusive sales techniques. The various backstreet Irish pubs are advertised by walking, grumpy placards - men who stand for hours at a time in the middle of the road wearing a stained neon shirt strewn with clovers and leprechauns. A jazz club is advertised by a walking, tooting saxophone. The effect of these outfits is obviously dehumanising, but also quite creepy. Outside the Thai massage parlour (it really does do Thai massages, if you're wondering) a gargantuan-gutted Shrek stands in a faded green dressing gown, multi-coloured umbrella held aloft at all times. His eyes, just visible through the forced gaiety of the mask, peer suspiciously out at passers by.

What keeps drawing the Square's collection of oddballs back? There is, for example, the guy with the placard who hangs around outside the Mustek metro entrance. For hours a day he bellows loudly about the alleged expropriation of his home by the Czech state. This practice, simply by dint of its regularity, has made him something of a celebrity. Needless to say, the authorities are yet to respond to his pleas. Then there's the guy who sits in wraparound shades on a tiny window-sill, quietly feeding two mangy pet birds, his hair frayed and tangled, exploding in unkempt knots around his head. Among the brightly coloured street entertainers, exhibitionists and sausage stands, he goes almost unnoticed. For these two, the Square fulfils opposite requirements: in the former case, it is the most public stage freely available; in the latter, its dense traffic provides the only place in the city where you can remain unnoticed for hours at a time. Police can be rough with the homeless, and it's sometimes worth staying out of their way.

At the bottom of Wenceslas Square, turning left onto Na Příkopě, you can see Národní třída (National Avenue) and at its far end the golden bulk of Národní divadlo (National Theatre). If it exists anywhere, then this long, strange boulevard, with its bottom pointing out at the Vltava in a flourish of Neo-renaissance gold, is the self-conscious cultural heart of the Czech "nation". No surprise, then, that it was here that the November 17th student march - ostensibly a peaceful "anti-fascist" demo - turned serious. The SNB - the state's heavy-handed enforcers - choked off all access to the streets as the march, already deviating from its official route, made its way up Národní třída towards Wenceslas Square. The key was not only blocking the boulevard itself, but covering the many labyrinthine alleys that connect Národní třída with the Old Town, the New Town, and the logical finish line of Wenceslas Square. Though the protest was effectively dampened by police, rumour spread that one young man, a maths and physics student by the name of Martin Smid, had died of injuries sustained from a police beating. The echo of Palach, and student sacrifice more generally, was by that time written into the Czech national character. As the rumour spread, the crowds returned to Wenceslas Square, this time in unstoppable numbers. It was a measure of just how unstable the regime had become that they scrambled to find the young man, eventually shoving him in front of cameras to prove to the previously compliant masses that no martyrs had been created. By then, however, the powerful if senescent national resentment of the Czechoslovak people had been awoken.

Here is footage of the November protests on the square in Prague:

In a sense the 1989 revolution always belonged to the students. It was they who risked their necks; their leaders who formed the dissident class of intellectuals who were constantly in and out of jail; their sacrifices - symbolic and material - that eventually got the dozing people out of their homes and onto Wenceslas Square, the focal point of any successful Czech revolution. The students were battle hardened and organised, and this left them in an extraordinarily advantageous position when it came to taking power after the fall of the Party. Civic Forum and Public Against Violence were only the public faces of a large, extraordinarily well educated (free, decent higher education is still the norm) alternative power base. This class was exactly what Vaclav Havel implied when he spoke about "Civil Society" - the intellectual carriers of the Czech(oslovak) national flame.

They took Wenceslas Square; now, it seems, they have the right to re-shape it as they fancy. Although most Czechoslovaks surveyed at the time dreaded the imposition of all-out capitalism (partly rationally and, perhaps, partly due to decades of Party propaganda), the free market was rapidly imposed from above. The expropriated palác Lucerna, that symbol of fin de siecle bourgeois decadence on Wenceslas Square, was at first returned to its now legal inheritor, President Vaclav Havel. But like so much of Wenceslas Square, nobody really knew what constructively to do with it, so it was sold off to big capital. This, then, is the shape of the Square to come: a half realised, maybe only half understood, tribute to the great bourgeois party in the sky.


Wednesday, 19 June 2013

The Accidental Hike

"Like a magical realist composition from the time of liberation": Svaty Jan pod Skalou
Alktron/Wikimedia Commons

Siobhan's newest hobby is walking, doggedly and for miles. She started with a stroll along the river, past where the Vyšehrad outcrop juts forward like the land's steadying third leg and plunges into the water below. Last weekend we walked to Prokopské údolí, a long, thin valley in the heart of Prague 5. But roaming Prague's backwaters, where disused industry, sleepy villages and sudden granite cliffs all vie for your attention, ultimately pays limited dividends. With growing resignation, I agreed to go on a hike.

Hiking, I had always thought, was for the middle aged. It was a habit of the world weary, those willing to embrace their aimlessness: walking for the sake of it was always, for me, walking because you had nothing else to do. It was reluctant acceptance of one's essentially purposeless existence. 'I had nothing else to do, so I went for a walk.' Thus it came to dominate otherwise vacated lives. It was insidious, and in that sense alone I've been proved right. Suddenly everyone's at it. Who do you know who hasn't been on a walk recently? And let's face it, there's nothing qualitatively different about hiking. It's just walking further with some hills. Its one redeeming feature was the insistence on food and booze at the end, a pleasure even the most dedicated of walkers seems unable to relinquish. There's something horribly ascetic - self flagellating, even - about walking for your holiday, so the booze and food thing is warmly reassuring to an outsider.

It was with said promise of food and booze that I agreed to Siobhan's hike. Imagining a two or three kilometre stroll across a nice flat meadow (maybe we'd see a rabbit or a little stream with some fish!), I set out wearing my ridiculous grey shoulder satchel, looking exactly as I do when I walk the ten minutes up the road to work. I had on some old pumps, the thinning soles slapping delicately on the pavement. So what if it's a bit further, I thought, we'll end up getting a bus back anyway. The idea, hurriedly agreed upon fifteen minutes before leaving, was to go to Karlštejn and walk around a bit. Siobhan proposed walking to Beroun - a town about 16km away - which I might have accidentally said yes to.

Unsurprisingly, that's exactly what we ended up doing. Oddly, what unites me and Siobhan on any such endeavour is a horror of turning back or retracing our footsteps. This leaves us in the odd predicament of wanting all journeys to be either circular or one-way. In the little village below Karlštejn's massive Gothic castle we trawled about for a map to no avail. Pretty, old cottages, decked in hanging plastic toys and glassware, beckoned to passing tourists, offering nothing of any use. More surprising, however, was the so-called "Karlštejn lion", an angry looking lion cub on a lead, whose principal job was to bait tourists into a dingy pub. This was not the Bohemian idyll we had anticipated, but rather a dim echo of the world of queasy medieval "wonders". We mounted the hill as far as the castle gates, but found our particular trail cut into a steep slope, which led back down into the valley where the road ran. Reassured by the presence of sandal-footed families stumbling awkwardly over the crumbly surface of the path, we felt decidedly less under-prepared.

The first hill was fine. The lush spring-green canopy tumbled all over us, and though the once tightly packed land on the trail had come loose and crumbly, turning over old buried limestone, we stumbled and hopped our way down the ridge in no time. We cut past the road and quickly climbed out of that valley, the track growing less busy as the trees grew taller and more distinct until they were lean, free-standing conifers garlanding a wide stony path. Here a corn field rolled out across the hill's peak, the high ramparts of the castle just visible across the valley, sinking beneath its narrow horizon. Enchanted by this sudden spectacle, I imagined heavy-laden tinkers and grimy, shuffling peasants pausing here to smoke and contemplate their imperial destination. What must this chiseled bastion - wrought from the previously immutable, coarse landscape - have looked like but the promise of unthinkable danger? 

As we made our way back downhill the earth got wetter, at first just a bit slippery, but slowly forming a thick, dark paste under our shoes. The path swelled and slurred, its trampled surface gorged by greasy brown liquid. Last month's floods, devastating whole tracts of land, had left their mark even here, high up on the hills. The ground water was coursing together and finding its way down, and so like us it followed the trail. Though the miners of Kutná Hora had dug for ninety metres into the Karlštejn hill and found not a drop of liquid, now there was no shortage. As we slid and stumbled downhill the mud grew ever sludgier. The warm, muggy afternoon sun was blotted out by the dense canopy and there remained no inducement for the ground to dry. As we approached the valley's basin, impromptu rivers began forming in the narrow gulleys, winding their way towards the bottom with increasing speed.

Once there deposits of gravel and tree branch stacked up along the creek banks. The new streams were running quite a current and we had to hop stepping stones just to get across. After scrambling up the banks of the creek we wandered through a tall grass meadow, the afternoon sun keeping the still sopping mud in relatively decent shape. Everywhere walkers dodged the trail proper and trod the grass to its sides. As the stream curled back through the forest and met the path again we found some poor soul had erected a series of bridges - cut from the felled trees that littered the forest floor - over its swollen current. Tools and stripped tree trunks lay ready for work on the banks, anticipating further agitation in this otherwise quiet spot of forest. A series of sheer rock faces that cut into the hill had turned into waterfalls, which rushed over the mud slick and plumed downwards. The trail went that way, and so we had to shimmy across a dry ledge, just a few inches at its widest.

The next hour was consumed by two further valleys, this time relatively dry; a deep silent world of conifers which climbed all across the ululating slopes, rising and sinking in every direction. The trail wound through these ups and downs, the sky occasionally vanishing entirely behind the staggered rows of branches. At last we arrived in the tiny village of Svatý Jan pod Skalou (St John Under the Rock), which looked like some magical realist composition from the time of the liberation: in the middle of the clearing, flanked on one side by the crumbling monastery and on the other by a rickety brown fence, sat an old tank, two kids hanging off the shaft of its gun. Next to it two young women in full traditional school uniforms stood drinking beer, while a Roma family in baggy sweat suits sat quietly, waiting to sell their fried potato chips. The trail fanned out onto a dirt track and then a tarmac road, which ran over the village bridge, the river once again swelling beneath it. All this was alive and moved with the balmly, late afternoon sun-glare. Inside the monastery a motley choir stop-started their turgid anthem each time they reached a certain insurmountable note. An exasperated conductor yelped ever terser instructions over their bellows. And there above the village church, as if growing out of its roof, the great rock which gives the town its name spread out in the sun like some warm iguana.

With five kilometres left we set off again, pale ales in hand, struggling with the last big hill of the journey. Once at the top, however, we made good time, even pausing to sign a note book placed under a wooden shelter: "We walked 16 km by accident." Finally we were circling Beroun, and in that sudden exhilaration I foolhardily promised to do further trekking. Perhaps, I was thinking, as I strode high above yet another valley, this could be our new thing. Tramping through the woods like Woody Guthrie - half the tree species of the Czech Republic were, after all, imported from California! Only after sitting down to our long anticipated food and booze did I question our idea. 'Well, maybe not every weekend,' I said pleadingly.

Monday, 17 June 2013

"Europeland!" Separating fact from fiction in Estonia

 On 1st January 2011 Estonia became the proud recipient of that much-coveted reward for fiscal prudence and limited government: the euro. It had for some time already been the west's darling bud of the Baltic, a kind of mini-Nordic warrior sans that region's troubling attachment to high welfare spending. The Economist celebrates what it terms 'Estonian exceptionalism', heralding 2011's return to 8.5% growth as a result of good old fashioned creative destruction (driven of course by the vital space created for innovation by draconian austerity). A plucky, tech-savvy attitude - a kind of Apple of the EU - and business-friendly politics has allowed a burst of start-ups to take advantage of the chaotic displacements of capital from Europe's new southern 'periphery'. Estonia's success apparently proves that a low-tax Europe has a (northern) future. Unemployment has 'plunged' from nearly 19% to just under 14% (proving perhaps that the gap between 'natural' and 'unnatural' levels of employment is narrower than some of us had thought!)1

There is something convincingly modern about Estonia's snappy, e-democratic stature, at once miniature and minimalist. On the matter of his own, in some cases traumatic, post-Soviet economic reforms, the former Estonian PM Mart Laar quotes "the well-known slogan: 'Jut do it'. In other words, be decisive about adopting reforms, and stick with them despite the short-term pain they may bring."2 One might quibble with his use of Nike's commercial branding as a metaphor for massive economic restructuring, but that aside, Laar's position is cannily expressed: a mix of excruciating, permanent austerity and openness to incoming foreign capital. The ebullient, bookish Laar presided for two years over the kind of radical shock therapy that usually wound up landing state assets in the hands of gangsters. Estonia, however, suffered no such repercussions. Laar, who claimed to have only read one book on economics before taking office (unsurprisingly by Milton Friedman), plunged giddily into that brave new world. He took over from Leszek Balcerowicz, Poland's finance minister and implementer of shock therapy there, the concept of an "extraordinary politics" - the idea that during a post-revolutionary lull a still under-represented, overwhelmed populace can be stunned into tolerating terrible hardships in the name of national liberation. The implementation of shock therapy depended on the absence of that very thing which was its supposed "historical mission" to create - an organised, democratic "civil society".

As part of the Soviet Union, and a relatively well-integrated part with a 40% Russian population (one that still troubles Estonian nationalists), Estonia had weathered the economic fall-out from the hard, final years of anti-communist struggle better than much of the former Socialist bloc. A simple referendum was enough to make Estonia independent in 1992. Crucially Estonia managed to dodge the poisoned chalice of massive borrowing from the IMF and indulged instead in the kind of austerity programme that European governments today would almost universally admire. The country became a laboratory for a new, distinctly European free-market utopia: "Estonia reduced trade tariffs and non-tariff barriers and abolished all trade restrictions, making the nation a free-trade zone."3 Europe's combination of welfare states and social markets has been celebrated by commentators from Jurgen Habermas to Tony Judt, not merely as a practical variant of capitalist accumulation but as constituting a qualitatively different 'civlisational' project to, say, the ruggedly individualist United States. Estonia is evidence that the real differences between European social welfarism and more cut-throat, liberal capitalism are being eroded, not only as a consequence of the long downturn, but also as part of a general structural adaptation of European capital to a much more competitive world market. The accession of so many apparently 'unsuitable' national economies to the EU - so-called 'basket cases' such as Greece, Cyprus and Hungary, but also 'under-developed' countries like Romania and Bulgaria - has by no means been carried through out of benevolence on the part of member states (in fact they have been punishingly tight-fisted throughout the unnecessarily protracted process, often boasting of how little aid they've given), but in fact because easy access to cheap labour is essential for Europe's competitiveness. In the case of Estonia, European capital is only interested so long as wages and taxes are kept low.

Following the 2008 crash Estonia clawed its way back to growth in the only way it knows how: by slashing public sector wages, raising the pension age, and restricting access to health benefits.4 The resulting conditions combine extensive liberalisation of capital with repression and atomisation of the working class. Just 17% of the workforce is unionised in a country ravaged by 15% unemployment. Such precariousness obviously results in isolation and vulnerability for large numbers of working people. A familiar enough story, of course, but what's surprising is the general chorus of celebration of these very conditions. While the EU bears down on the likes of Italy for its fiscal imprudence, Estonia is duly celebrated, despite having similar levels of unemployment. Indeed, signs suggest the situation of Estonian workers is not only to be thought of as permanent but is increasingly viewed as a model to be emulated. Estonia could even be a sign of Europe's future, where long-term unemployment is structurally normalized. The Estonian political class's avowed modernity and wonkish obsession with tech-wizardry closely resemble the young, ardent right-wingers gathered around the present British Chancellor (their potent euro-scepticism aside, of course). Here then is a free market liberalism-on-steroids that presents itself as the progressive radical alternative to welfare state stagflation. Estonia in 2013 is a microcosm of what a future entrepreneurial Europe might look like.

Though it is tempting, and very often morally necessary, to analyse the 'failures' (Azerbaijan; Belarus) or 'near-misses' (Ukraine) of postsocialist liberalisation within the former USSR (leaving aside the Warsaw pact states), the sheer weirdness of the success stories merits a decent look. Tallinn's medieval Old Town, consisting of the hill-perched administrative district of Toompea and the surrounding lower town, is a thing of intricate beauty. Contemporary Tallinn is an amalgam of constant efforts at restoration, dating as far back as its incorporation into the Swedish Empire in the 16th century, right up to the work done following a particularly brutal bombing campaign by the Soviets in 1944. Unlike many of Europe's plushly restored capitals, Tallinn's history of reconstruction and restoration is an integral part of the place itself. Despite this very history of reconstruction, it today exudes a certain commodified medievalism, stemming less from the architecture than those flogging their wares among its alleys. Whole streets are congested with 'traditional' German beer-halls. Bored undergrads in mock-up peasant dress hang around in gaggles awaiting their next victim. You are invariably served by a 'busty wench' with perfect English. The older female employees are made to dress-up as fisher-wives and washer-women. Swarms of American and Japanese tourists deal with such affronts to local dignity with a professional brusqueness. It is with a sinking sense of inevitability that you squeeze yourself into an alcove to allow a legion of British men to march past, each member bearing the legend "Sami's Stag-do". Strip-bars, that decidedly non-medieval east European tradition, are noticeably prevalent. Beer is served in clay flagons or mock chalices.

Of course, Prague also has medieval theme restaurants. Warsaw's Old Town is entirely reconstructed (having been completely torn down by the Nazis in 1944). Budapest is far too much of a tumultuous, living beast to be reduced to tourist fodder, but even its famous Fisherman's Bastion was constructed entirely for ornamental purposes. There is in every capital city a certain contest between modes of historical representation, one a display of culture, the other of power. Neither can be absolutely distinguished from the other, and the result is various forms of compromise: at some point the function of fortification is adapted to that of decorative triumphalism (the archetype being Berlin's Brandenburg Gate). What makes contemporary-medieval Tallinn different is its historical modesty: lacking the imperial history of Berlin, Vienna or even Budapest, Tallinn's claim to fame rests solely on its encapsulation of the medieval. You might be tempted to describe Tallinn's old town as a sort of "Estonia Land", a picturesque image of the country as it would like to be seen, were it not so lacking in historical specificity. Better might be to call it simply "Europe Land", condensing as it does something of the merry German consumption of pork and beer with the sun-dappled cobbles of France; the spires and cottagey intimacy of the Netherlands with the Baltic ports of Poland. Some restaurants offer freshly-minted medieval coinage with which you can claim a free cocktail. Novelty foot-stompers ring everywhere from loudspeakers, exhorting all to drink and eat heartily. It is this pan-medievalism that foists an unfair perception on Tallin: that of a generic non-place, a soothing, deracinated soup of comfortingly familiar Euro-tropes. While it is all very pleasant it lacks the coarseness, the rough edges of Europe's (and Estonia's) real history: a history, in the case of Tallinn as much as anywhere else, of domination by foreign powers.

In Helsinki, an hour by boat over the gulf, we had, in one of those peculiar European coincidences, bumped into someone I knew from university. He told us that, with the long summer days (properly dark only at two), a sense of hysteria descended over residents of the Finnish capital. Tallinn was much the same, though with cheaper booze. The flood of increasingly inebriated wanderers never seemed to abate. The light seems to last forever in the lanes of Tallinn, a feat that entirely eludes Prague. At times in the Czech capital the very existence of light seems apocryphal, a fog-mirage decomposing in the late, wet morning. What light there is - grey and frumpy - appears to emanate not from the heavy sky, but from the dull stone of the buildings themselves. Tallinn in summer, on the other hand, is a cacophonous light-stage, its fresh sea skies beckoning the clouds north. The sun continues to creep between walls until well into the night, its angles of shadow growing vertiginously sharper, as dizzy drinkers stumble from one bar to the next. By two it betrays a hint of Kavos or some other Greek island, where an interminable, cheap party grinds on and on forever.

At a sprawling outdoor museum just outside the centre, where we went for some authentically cultural respite, dozens of lovingly preserved examples of Estonian domestic architecture sit like herds of sheep in rolling fields. Estonia has a long tradition of wooden housing and the museum does its best to fit in every example. They are brought in from the real world and nursed like wounded birds in this peculiar sanctuary. In reconstructed, ranch-like homesteads (garrulous fowl and the occasional pig trotting past) they put on surreal medieval folk rituals for baffled tourists. Audience participation is obligatory. For most of the older Americans, arriving by the coach-load and hurriedly ferried into the pens by tour guides, this entailed sitting and clapping with whatever jollity they could muster. For me, like an awkward teen roped into a final cruise holiday with his parents, this meant line-dancing and high-kicking to a tune from an old cassette-recorder. This routine, surely exhausting for the blonde, traditionally-clad dancers, repeats itself maniacally every fifteen minutes. As you wander round the exhibits you realize the entire place is a performance. Peaking into one reassembled 19th-century town house I was confronted with a costumed couple engaged in an argument over lunch, a performance that would continue even after I left.

Our tour of Estonia eventually took us, on the only bus of the day, to the tiny village of Altja (permanent population: 21). There on the shores of the Baltic we climbed big erratic boulders, hopping over the lapping tide, and went on a hunt for beavers (final tally: 1). Altja is tucked away in the heart of Lahemaa, a national park in the north of the country. Here, surely, we would discover a more authentically Estonian Estonia, away from all the peasant costumes, crap beer and tourists. Upon finding the local inn - which looked more like a dishevelled barn - I was intrigued. We went inside to get a drink. Upon entering we found ourselves in a surprisingly well-turned out beer hall. It was then we caught sight of the bar staff: two blondes faithfully kitted out in mediaeval costumes. Upon seeing us they promptly kicked off a medieval fanfare. "Welcome," they chorused, and proceeded to take our orders in perfect English. We could only assume that, even in the depths of the forest, Estonia has managed to do something very peculiar to itself: the real Estonia has become, authentically, a medieval parody. Whereas with other tourist faves, a reality was supposed to exist beneath the surface, hidden from the view of tourists, Estonia embodies fully the myth of its plastic, pan-European aspirations. In reaching out to Europe, has Estonia lost its essentially Estonian character? Has it become a place where one is either an entrepreneur or a (mock-)peasant, serving endless beer and pork to German and Japanese tourists?

1'Estonian exceptionalism', The Economist, text available here:
2Laar, 'Estonian Success Story', Journal of Democracy, available on J-Stor
4Moulds, 'Estonia and Latvia: Europe's champions of austerity?', Guardian

Thursday, 13 June 2013

Mr Jelinek

Pankrac, Luděk Kovář, Wikimedia Commons

(Somewhat unseasonal, this article was originally written in the depths of winter, during the Czech Republic's first ever democratic presidential elections.)

On Tuesday mornings I teach at the second tallest building in Prague. The City Empiria, immodestly labelled a skyscraper, can be found in the so-called "skyscraper district" in Pankrác. Its sole competitor, the City Tower building, is located just across the road. It takes about ten minutes if I catch the 193 from the stop outside my door. As we approach the City Empiria by way of an orbiting, grid-like housing estate (sídliště), the bus makes a sudden left turn and heads round the back of the complex of hotels and shops huddled at its feet. There we wind up in a service industry hinterland of semi inhabited, half finished construction projects, somehow grubbier for the thin winter light that floats across it.

A building-site runs like a rusty moat around the base of the modern glass-and-steel office blocks. Empty lots await the return of workers who, inundated by the caked, frosted mud that permeates everything, have either migrated or gone on strike. This border-world of incompletion spills out over the finished buildings, sullying their anonymous surfaces. Pristine shoes are muddied as smart-suited staff clamber over the sludge to reach distant, whirling entrances. All those small touches that make a completely new place approximate reality - trimmed hedgerows, manicured lawns, pebbled paths - are absent. It's a lot like inhabiting a half-programmed computer game where some lazy designer has forgotten to give colour to the fittings in a room or to add tone to the surface of the grass. You feel you might open a door and fall into a grey, static mist because somebody forgot to put anything there.

Just down the road is Pankrác remand prison (Vazební věznice Praha Pankrác). Still the most populous prison in the Czech Republic (which comes in for a fair share of criticism for conditions inside its prisons), the Pankrác prison was a favourite spot to send dissidents or resistance members during both the Nazi occupation and the years of the people's republic. Immediately after the War the Slovak wartime Fascist leader Jozef Tiso was kept there before being hastily executed. The Nazis executed over a thousand people there. The guillotine is kept for display purposes in the same room it was put to work. This graphic memorial, surely one of the few prison memorials housed in a still-choked prison, is sometimes open to the general public. This strategy of remembrance has its risks, of course: as recently as 2011 police uncovered and suppressed plans for a full-on riot by inmates. Thousands of improvised weapons were collected. It all seems a bit like opening a memorial to mine victims in the middle of an active minefield. During communist times, at least up to the abolition of capital punishment, most of Czechoslovakia's hangings took place there (this according to Wikipedia). Vaclav Havel himself was kept in storage in the prison for a while. Czech parents still use it as a ploy to get their kids to eat their vegetables: "Eat up or you'll go to Pankrác!" It was also the sight of the famous hanging of Milada Horakova, whose bust stands outside the prison today. Her trial and execution at the prison in 1950 were among the first of many similar Stalinist trials in Czechoslovakia. If the prison complex houses a memorial to an unresolved past, then the Pankrác business complex is testament to a not-fully-thought-out future.

Pankrac Remand Prison, Luděk Kovář, Wikimedia Commons

This morning I get off the bus at the entrance to Arkady Pankrác, a hyper-modern shopping centre which is already filling-up with those, like me, seeking respite from the cold (we are at present experiencing particularly savage blasts of icy wind). The mall itself opens before its shops, which keep their doors suggestively ajar, shop assistants hurriedly making the final opening preparations inside. I wander through, a warm three minutes to postpone the inevitable start of the working day.

Coming outside I smoke a quarter of a bad roll-up, clotted, damp tobacco stuffed irregularly into thick paper. The residual taste coats my mouth and the smoke combines in the air with the sting of the cold. A ceaseless parade of workers spills out of the nearby metro and crosses the giant courtyard. Swanky offices with gastro pubs built into their lower halves slumber under layers of churned snow. A pyramidal Billa, all tacky plastic and bold lettering, sits awkwardly in the distance. To my right stands the City Empiria, a more convincingly Pharaonic monument to hubris. As the parade approaches, the workers hang their heads low, as if by looking at this vengeful sun-god one might risk a smiting.

Inside the two receptionists, largely unbothered by the advancing throng, talk animatedly to each other. In fact this is the first time I've seen them together, having previously assumed they were the same person. Even with them sitting in front of me now I struggle to tell them apart. With red neckerchiefs and accentuated beauty spots they look like air hostesses. I tell them that I am an English teacher and that I must teach at nine, and I am greeted with only the slightest glance, as the conversation continues unabated. Assuming this is enough I make my way to the gate, and behind it the lifts. At this moment, however, the conversation stops and I notice one of the receptionists eyeing me flatly from across the broad, high desk, above which only her eyes and the top of her hair are visible. "Which company?" she calls. I don't know who to address my answer to, and nor does it come as quickly as I would like. I stammer over information I have already memorized. I'm aware, as they watch, stares growing blanker, that I am doing a thing with my eyes where they flit too rapidly between addressees, as if trying to give equal weight to both. I imagine the effect is one of shiftiness. "Info-tech," I say at last. "Worldwide." I give it its full name to bolster my credibility. She nods almost invisibly and over my shoulder the automatic gate swings open. The conversation resumes, quietly at first so that I can't hear it, but quickly rises to its former babbling pitch.

Info-tech is on the third floor. I'm not sure what they do, but in previous sessions I've established they've got a man in Paris with a heart problem and some big customers in Croatia. Something of importance is apparently shared between them all, and that thing necessitates offices in Prague's second tallest building. My "client" - actually student - might be the manager. I guess this because everyone calls him "Mr Jelinek" and no one minds when he is late, which is often.

The receptionist and I - my third of the morning - do our usual routine. She pops up nervously from behind her desk with a welcoming if vaguely distracted bounce. Her energy is in strict contrast with the gate-keepers downstairs. "Mr Jelinek isn't here," she says in English. This means he'll be here soon. Otherwise she'd tell me he isn't coming. This also happens quite often. She offers me some coffee, which I accept. As she comes round from behind her desk I offer to get it myself. She let me do this before, but this time she's having none of it. Perhaps I got her in trouble by doing it myself last time.

As she marches down the corridor Mr Jelinek swoops in. He bids me welcome, strategically avoiding my name, which I don't think he knows. He apologizes for being late. This, too, is now part of the routine. In a jarring balletic sequence, and without any noticeable communication, he and the receptionist assemble coffee, newspapers, tea and water in his office.

At the conclusion of this perfectly choreographed sequence Mr Jelinek stands, thumbs through his belt-straps, poised for applause. He has swiftly removed his jacket. His thick grey-black hair is combed back neatly. A lively smile rips its way across his face, drawing lines up around his eyes and forehead. The first thing I notice - and this will be a kind of 'punctum' from which I cannot draw my eyes - is his belt-buckle, thrust, silver and polished, slightly forward, emblazoned with a Levi's logo. Mr Jelinek is every bit the cocksure gun-slinger. He has Robert de Niro's face and attitude. He has the self-assurance that comes with wild success found at a moment of psychologically rewarding maturity. Business people in former socialist countries - the few successful ones at least - have been the recipients of a near-cosmic vindication. Their convictions, once dangerous and dissident, have become a celebrated orthodoxy. He now inhabits a world ordered entirely as his once unacceptable desires would have it.

"Big news," he says as he falls merrily into his chair, arms slumping to his sides. They hang there for a moment, swinging contentedly. He watches me, still grinning broadly, sunnily exuberant. "I've had my pond finished." His pond is actually a naturally self-regulating swimming pool burrowed into the grounds of his also newly-built log cabin. "The turbine, it was no problem," he says. "We celebrated..." he makes a shotting gesture "...with some slivovice." Mr Jelinek makes his own plum brandy - one hundred litres a year. Getting through it all, he assures me, is never a chore. One before breakfast and one before dinner and you don't even notice it.
"Did you bring me any this time?" I ask.
"I forgot again." He shrugs and holds his hands out in a mock-protest of innocence. "But you know," he says with some relish, "it's all nearly done." I can see the laminated designs over his shoulder. Mr Jelinek is the type of man who makes his own plum brandy, the family trawling gaily through his acreage, cradling gently the fruity treasure. He's also the type of man who builds his own house and self-regulating jacuzzi-pond. "My girlfriend today buys the last furnishings."

Mr Jelinek sees his log cabin as a rejection of decadent urbanity, of the city's tendency to upset the traditional rhythms and roles of life. He came, he says, from the Moravian country, where every year at Easter the young men get drunk and run around the village, playfully lashing unsuspecting women with whipping-sticks. At dawn the mothers venture out looking for youths felled by the plum brandy, sleeping like babes in the quiet streets. This longing for a more rustic, full-blooded existence, a yearning to return to the ancestral village, is by no means uncommon. The Croatian writer Slavenka Drakulić has written quite beautifully of the way that, throughout the more recently urbanised Balkans, the country mud seems to flood the cities, trailing after recent agricultural migrants. No excuse for the Czech lands, however, which were for a long time a Habsburg industrial powerhouse. Siobhan tells me that in pre-school the kids learn to distinguish coniferous leaf-types and paw-tracks rather than, say, the highway code. The phenomenon of tramping - whereby middle-aged, middle-class men go to live in the woods dressed as dust-bowl bums and sing folk songs and drink beer - has experienced a recent resurgence in popularity.

I drag us onto the subject of work. It's rare that I ask him directly about his company, and I quickly remember why. "It's not so bad," he says. "It's busy with them, you know," he says of the Croatians. I sit and wait, sipping my coffee and hoping he'll say something else. "We're late sending consultants over there," he offers eventually. "There was some strike in France." It's clear he considers the strike, whatever its causes, a nuisance. A provocation he nonetheless relishes going to task upon. "The socialism there is terrible." There is something like exasperation in his voice. "Strikes and arguments. Believe, I know the socialism when I see it." Mr Jelinek views himself as a sort of traditionalist - baffled by both American liberalism ("the home of feminism") and European social welfarism. For him socialism is the ghost haunting the European banquet; it waits in abeyance and creeps in where vigilance lapses. (It consists, if you're wondering, solely in the  bloody-minded despotism of economic regulation!)

In the same frank way he has told me before how to slaughter and skin a rabbit for dinner (his daughter, 5, who watched, wasn't convinced), he says, "It's madness when you have a private company and you can't do what you want with it." I imagine him saying the same thing over whiskey with the boys. This august company totes comedy cigars and home made rabbit stew and they cheer him heartily. This peculiar breed of rugged individualist has, in its simultaneous naivety and nostalgia, created a fantasy world that combines back-to-the-earth pastoralism with tough free market economics. They are the noble knights of finance, ascetically rejecting urban cosmopolitanism and big statist regulation; here the financial speculator meets the rugged backwoodsman.

Czechs are currently in the middle of a presidential election, awaiting a second round run off between the former ČSSD(Social Democrat) prime minister Miloš Zeman and the effete, vaguely louche aristocrat Karel Schwarzenberg. Framed as a battle between "left and right" by Zeman, the contest amounts more to a struggle between Zeman's chauvinism and interventionist, egotist tendencies and Schwarzenberg's 'traditionalist' fiscal conservatism and loyalty to the free market. Such is the bleakness of the choice. It is clear, however, that Mr Jelinek's type favours Schwarzenberg, though not solely for his "pro-business", welfare-slashing platform (little of which would be taken up as legislation, given the largely symbolic role of the Czech presidency). What Schwarzenberg represents is a deeper sense of continuity: the durability of the region's great elite dynasties. He is associated with a kind of pan-European exceptionalism, which pre-dates the tribulations of the nation state (even, despite his Austrian heritage, the eccentricity and bureaucracy of the Hapsburgs). 

A poster for Milos Zeman, whose campaign presence was practically non-existent in Prague 

National autonomy, lacking now the glamour of struggle, is reduced to "mere" central administration, and those defying it are glamourised as swashbuckling adventurers. Schwarzenberg is the grand inheritor of a noble, aristocratic lineage, which is precisely what endears him to a public enamoured with a pastoral vision of itself and nursing a disappointment with parliamentary government. Zeman's anti-Islamic rants and obsessive interference in the humdrum workings of daily politics make him look parochial, dim-witted and sort of communist. Of course, those actually living in the villages will almost certainly vote Zeman; those in Prague Schwarzenberg. The pastoral has always been, after all, a fantasy of the urban imagination. Schwarzenberg, with his pipe and touch of the old knave, looks to me like some Rudolfine courtier, a failed alchemist who only escaped death through exile. One can easily imagine Jelinek as this particular sorcerer's apprentice, enthusiastically letting the cat out of the bag.

"How can you have capitalism," he is saying, "without freedom?"

I'm hardly going to raise any red flags - this is his turf after all. But even my short discourse on worker's representatives in Germany actually limiting the number of strikes over all has him glancing at his watch. At ten o'clock he has a video call with some people in Britain. It alarms me that, given our lesson is directly before this meeting, we've never done anything to prepare for it. I wonder why he tolerates me in his office for forty-five minutes a week. He tells me briskly it's time to go.

Schwarzenberg campaign poster: "Česká republika je srdce Evropy" 
("the Czech Republic is the Heart of Europe")

Outside the parade has dried up. A lone dog, skinny and giddy with cold, bounds up and down the big square. Two men changing the bins whistle as they clamber back into their van and the dog comes running over, hopping nimbly alongside them. I make my way down into the metro to use the public toilets. I take out my five korun coin and approach the cabin to pay. Inside, painted by a lurid orange bulb, a woman lies with her head on a desk. She is haloed by a thinning black perm. A dead cigarette lies fallow alongside her. She doesn't move the first time I say excuse me and for a moment I'm struck with terror. But suddenly she rises, cadaverous and sleepy, to accept my coins. As I leave her head is back in the same place - planted motionless on the desk. As I make my way to the escalators I notice a campaign poster for Schwarzenberg. On it is a slogan that's half geographical truism, half performative jargon for an aspirational middle class: Česká Republika je srdce Evropy ("The Czech Republic is the heart of Europe"). Tattooed on his kind if somewhat inexpressive face is a sticker which, weirdly in English, opines: "Goodbye, white pride." Two stick figures, one white, the other black, do battle over a skateboard. I hunch my collar tightly around me as that icy wind funnels itself down to the platforms.

Sunday, 9 June 2013

Povodeň (The Flood)

Inch by incremental inch the waters rose

How long had it been raining when the floods started? Estimates varied with the level of hysteria. I recall constant drizzle, interrupted only by flashes of violent storm, for ten days prior. The fantasists, losing all sense of perspective, began to say the rain started the day the snow stopped. But however calmly one faced the torrent, its eventual effect was still dizzying. The rain fell with such persistence, such determined obliviousness, that a feeling of celestial bullying was inevitable. 'How can there be more?' we asked on soggy Wednesday evenings, watching walls of rainfall slosh heavily to the ground. The earth was sodden, a clogged pulp choking under the onslaught. I alternated shoes - soggy or soaked? Neither pair had time to dry. I clambered over banks of saturated grassland; slipped swiftly along roads that danced frenetically in the downpour. So wet was the air I thought it made me short of breath! Dodging the fat, falling bullets became a kind of manic sport. The effect was somehow cumulative: every time I went outside, it wasn't simply that I got wet again; it was that I got wetter than ever before.

Evidence (if any were needed) of my melodrama: most Czechs shrugged it off. I darted into lessons, convinced it might be our last, the tumbling sounds of rain still audible on the roof. They said it had happened before, and worse. By mid-week the sirens were becoming increasingly regular. 'If it's the end of the world,' Siobhan said, 'it's very quiet.' It was like the Day After Tomorrow except nobody had noticed. 'This is the way the world ends,' I said, 'not with a bang but with the occasional siren.' Everybody just carried on: with work; with walking the dog; with washing the car.

One student, let's call her Barbora, told me of the night she'd been evacuated. The government had already issued a state of emergency when she walked down to survey the river. It hadn't yet crept over the rim of the bank, so she decided to leave it another night. Returning to her swanky apartment block (built in the 80s for the big dogs at the Ministry of Information), she washed the dishes in a growing puddle. It was two in the morning when they started banging at the door. Answering, half-asleep, she was told that everybody else had left the building. She grabbed her son, wrapped in a neon-yellow leather jacket, and carried him downstairs. Sirens blazed and squadrons of fire-fighters hurried past in the gloom. 'Wasn't your son scared?' I asked. He was half-awake when he saw the fire engines, blazing lights flashing on the rising water, and excitedly pointed them out to his mother. (Ah, the bravery of the half-asleep! As Siobhan tells me, nothing can get you when you're dozing!) They drove to her parents', elevated high above the tumult somewhere in Prague 4. She didn't take a single day off work, but was instead working shifts with the neighbours to monitor the empty building for break-ins. Such is the civil vigilantism that possesses Prague's middle class in times of crisis! Presumably they didn't want a repeat of last time, when -legend has it - gangs of Roma (always gangs!) went on looting sprees around submerged neighbourhoods. Apparently one group, caught carrying a flat screen TV by the police, claimed simply to be rescuing it from the water. They had found it idling downstream and were looking for the owner.

Siobhan took some photos of the city with the river at its height. What was Prague had become a giant waterway with just a topping of castle at its peak. Whole islands were consumed, just the tops of trees visible like the misplaced heads of broccoli in a very brown soup. Central Europe's biggest nightclub was up to its knees. Even the gulls had fled. Charles Bridge was taped off, a gaggle of police officers leaning heavily on its walls. Its fleet of stone bishops seemed to wrench their fists upwards in a desperate bid to escape the swelling surface. These contorted icons of the counter-reformation were ever-ready to lift off, to escape these heathen lands, but never more so than when the inflated top of the Vltava tickled their toes.

While for us ex-pats the floods were an unprecedented menace (imagine London flooding!), for Czechs this was nothing new. According to one website, which with typical black humour lists "floods" under the "attractions" section, the Vltava floods "more or less twice a year". 1432 saw the greatest flood, when "people paddled boats around the Old Town Square". In 1843 the "river was a kilometre wide at the Charles Bridge", presumably swamping Malá Strana. In 1890 "heavy rains persisted for the whole year, and for four days, from the 1st to the 4th September it rained continuously." So, celestial bullying is nothing new! Twenty soldiers were reportedly killed trying to dismantle a bridge at Invalidovna. Their intention, however misguided, was to save the bridge.

As the floods began started keeping an invaluable blog. Every school in Prague declared itself closed. That is, until half an hour later, when Pragues 9 and 15 changed their minds. Somehow Prague 6 (somewhere up the hill, defended by the almighty Castle) declared itself swamped. Though the zoo was flooded, we were told not to worry, as the gorillas were safely enclosed in their "flood tower". Some students reported the following day that the only casualties so far had been two rafters, but, given the speed and danger of the water, they were probably mad and it was no one's fault but their own. I saw it as an act of drunken bravery, a final act of infamy by a pair of local miscreants. Sadly for them, however, their deaths were met with a shrug: "Well, it's your fault for being there." Then came the news of randomly falling trees. One woman was squashed whilst walking her dog, apparently nowhere near the water. So sodden had the ground become that trees were simply freeing themselves from their earth-bound tethers.

There has always been something damp about Prague. Its Jewish Ghetto, Josefov, was perpetually overrun with ground-water. Ripellino describes the old cemetery: "Dense clusters of crooked, broken gravestones protrude, leaning like Bueghel's blind men, sinking, soon to be swallowed by the damp black earth."1 Rabbi Loew, the mythical creator of the Prague Golem, was said to have had his grave shifted in order for his grandson to lie next to him. He wasn't, however, dug up, but simply slid through the dank emulsion.

Indeed, the Prague Golem, the raging embodiment of mystical vengeance, was itself formed of the Vltava's silt. The Golem contains an element of the Vltava's dark, treacherous energy: animated clay formed by dubious alchemical spells. It is this same energy that periodically lashed out (in the form of pogroms) at the Jewish quarter. According to Liliencron the Golem "uproots trees/tosses houses into the clouds/hurls people in the air." Prague's Jews were, for centuries, locked up in the Ghetto. When they left, for reasons other than those matters of business which were strictly sanctioned, they risked being attacked. Even when they stayed home, they risked much the same. Josefov was eventually torn down, its slum-like lanes replaced by grand Parisian boulevards. Despite the fact that, today, it has become Prague's most expensive quarter, it remains indelibly linked to its Jewish past. The Golem, its very creation a matter of the necromancy blamed for centuries on Jews, is an expression of the forces arrayed against Ghettoised Jewish life. The perpetual sogginess was just one.

Everyone's a poet in front of expressions of the sublime. As the river swelled, I imagine pens scribbled. Only the police remained sulkily unimpressed, if only because they had to stand in the rain and watch it longer than anyone else. Inch by incremental inch it grew. It's nonetheless fitting that the only poem I've tried (unsuccessfully) to write about Prague is about its sogginess. In it Petřín Hill (so noisily verdant in spring) is a gnarled black boot; the trams are feral creatures hunkered down at its foot. Everything is grey from months of saturation, the colours drained steadily out. A water sprite (Vodník) splashes around in the shallows of the canals around Kampa. Its central problem, as a work of poetry, was that it existed only to formulate a grumble, and so beyond my complaints, the poem - unlike the water- was going nowhere.

2002 saw the greatest floods of recent times. By the 14th August the river had reached a flow rate of roughly 6000 m3/s. Its typical rate for the time of year was just 50 m3/s. 50 000 people were evacuated. Karlín, already one of the city's poorest quarters, was utterly ruined. At that time an eighth of the city's surface was underwater. It took a decade to repair the damage. Compared to that destructive force, this year's downpour was a mere blip. Indeed, the city's new flood defences appear to have held up pretty well. Just as the rain began to slow, the river's force began to abate.

On the day the rain stopped a snowfall of white blossom swept the city, every inch the archetypal rom-com love metaphor. Despite the undertow of cliché, the effect was breathtaking. Dryness itself (previously taken for granted) was felt with the force of liberation! Amid the new warmth, however, the forecasts continued, day after sunny day, to predict new rain. It was as if the weather forecasters had simply relinquished scientific analysis and were going on bleak odds alone. Always assume the worst, they seemed to be telling us. Fatalism, at least in the Czech lands, seems to pay sombre dividends.

1Ripellino, Magic Prague, 114

Thursday, 6 June 2013

The 'In-Between Space': Eastern and Central Europe as Incubators of Racism, Nationalism, and Fascism?

Budapest with 'traditional' central European climate

The Sexual Automatons are Coming!

On a recent visit to Budapest we came across a liberal English language weekly left lying around various hipster cafés in the upstart grad district that is Erzsébetváros (despite the nasty authoritarian bent of the present government, Budapest is a much more 'hipster' town than Prague, which feels sleepy by comparison). The paper was running with a report on a founding member of the ruling Fidesz party. Writing in a popular right wing daily (Magyar Hirlap), Zsolt Bayer had claimed:

A significant part [sic] of Gypsies is not fit for coexistence and not fit to live amongst people. This part [sic] of the Gypsy world are animals and behave as animals. Seeing anyone, they get into a state of rut... whenever and wherever they want. When they meet resistance, they commit murder...1

Let's not assume the awkward translation (with its interesting grasp of quantity and conjugation) is concealing a smarter logic. Hard at work here is a truly corrosive racism, though one possessed (perhaps unsurprisingly) of an equally far-reaching stupidity. Imagine the exhaustion of the poor Gypsies! To be so powerfully aroused by the sight of anyone! Although this assertion is swiftly contradicted by his insistence that this horniness happens willingly. Gypsies are, therefore, simultaneously automatons at the mercy of their sexual drives, and masters of their own sexual capacities, able to arouse themselves at (literally) the drop of a hat.

Fidesz, of course, is only a centre-right party (by admittedly lax Hungarian standards). Its leader and prime minister Victor Orban was an opposition stalwart during the socialist years. Formed in 1988, and despite its ever growing radical nationalism, the party has somehow maintained a grip on mainstream voters. Apparently, anti-gay legislation, increasing control over the media, and overt racism are all things that were fought for by the opposition in the name of an open, tolerant, civil society. Except, of course, they weren't, and Fidesz's 2010 victory at the polls amounts to a scary nationalist revanchism in the face of a brief pro-EU interlude. You can probably imagine what to expect from the similarly charming far-right Jobbik party, who regularly organise marches against 'Gypsy crime'. One Jobbik MP, Marton Gyöngyösi, recently called for all Hungarian Jews to be 'catalogued' on account of their threat to national security.2 As is so often the case, Fidesz and Jobbik have a weirdly symbiotic relationship (far more so than Europe's centre- and far-left parties do these days) in which Fidesz, despite its growing monopoly over parliamentary power, is occasionally forced to chase Jobbik's radical 10% of voters.

It might seem odd, then, that Hungary was once considered one of the leading-lights of post-Communist Europe. Many had high hopes owing to the country's flirtation with reform communism and market socialism (read: 'state-centralized consumerism') under the Kádár regime. Its underlying civil society was deemed 'mature' because of the grand-bourgeoisie's long association (and at times formal equality) with its Austrian counterpart. Václav Havel included Hungary in the Visegrad group, a sort of geographical and political vanguard of the former socialist states, along with Poland and the Czech and Slovak Republics. Hungary was the stand-out player for a line of thought that strongly believed in a 'Central Europe' that had been artificially separated from 'the West' by historical mishap, and was basically ready to rejoin the latter's cosmopolitan, open society. This picture was, of course, flattering for both.

Heroes' Square

Homage to Horthy

Commentators both within and outside Fidesz are quick to draw parallels with the ultra-nationalism of the Horthy regime, which presided over the deportation of 400,000 Auschwitz-bound Hungarian Jews. Spiegel Online reports the recent unveiling of a statue of Horthy in Kereki in southwestern Hungary.3 However, with their obsession with the Magyar nation and national identity, Fidesz can lay claim to a cultural and historical legacy that reaches back to the years of high Magyar chauvinism, when Hungary was (for a time following 1848) perceived to be in the vanguard of a progressive, nationalist Europe.

How to account for the swing towards racism? Conceived as a symptom of a specific kind of "ethno-linguistic" nationalism, racism in east European countries is seen as an extension of the victory of intolerant, anti-cosmopolitan, illiberal historical currents. For Bideleux and Jeffries, Hungary contains traditions of both this virulent, exclusionary nationalism and another, more liberal strain (imported, of course, from 'the West'). Between 1875 and 1905 the Magyar elite (personified in the Liberal/National Party) centralized power in the state, pursued a policy of cultural 'Magyarisation', and pursued an ideology of demonisation of 'inferior' (Slavic, Jewish, Romani) minorities.4 As a tactic to maintain and consolidate power in the face of the 'liberalising' arrival of capitalism, with all its attendant 'destabilizing' effects, Magyar nationalism was a success insofar as it identified the state with the interests of the Magyar nation and created a linguistic hegemony for Hungarian. More tolerant, inclusive national tendencies were, however, suppressed.

Here's some typically weird footage of today's far-right out in full commemorative force:

This Mess We're In

This account of Magyar nationalism (of which the present Fidesz government is one manifestation), chimes with a more general account of east European nationalism. Here it gets a little confusing. Although many commentators draw a line of cultural and historical distinction between 'Central Europe' (broadly Germany, Austria, Poland, the Czech and Slovak Republics, Hungary and sometimes Slovenia) and the rest of 'the East', they still tend to group the various nationalisms together. In his weighty tome The Balkans: 1804-2012 the journalist-cum-historian Misha Glenny divides nationalist movements in Romania into those influenced by the Romantic (i.e. German or Central European) exclusionary varieties and the republican (i.e. French or Western) inclusive varieties. On the one hand there was allegiance to the soil, the colloquial language, the blood (all exclusionary); on the other, the allegiance to a common cultural ideal (at least potentially inclusive).5 Yet this dichotomy is complicated when one considers the more typically 'cosmopolitan' British model, which with its massive naval empire, established very different grounds for an ideology of national identity (built far more successfully than the French on the idea of a paternal metropole).

In reference to Hungary, Glenny says, "Liberal constitutionalism had too often become inseparable from national intolerance."6 This could be an epitaph for Hungary's internal political conflicts. Indeed, an epitaph for eastern and central Europe more generally. While in western Europe, the argument goes, nationality is defined in territorial terms, its ideology benignly inclusive, in eastern and central Europe nationalism is always defined in terms of blood, soil and ethnic identity. The problem, of course, is that liberal and conservative nationalisms, or tolerant and exclusionary ideologies of national identity, are conceived as separate, mutually antagonistic worldviews. No account is given of the point at which, in order to survive, liberal nationalism transforms into more virulent strands. There is a reason that the prime vessel of Magyar political identity was interchangeably called the National or Liberal party.

Moody black & white Prague by Siobhan 

The Czech Exception?

In her history of Czechoslovakia the American historian Mary Heimann reintegrates the apparently surprising post-War electoral success of the Communist Party into a tradition of corporatist, nationalist socialism stretching far back into the country's history. Against the Whiggish interpretation of (particularly) Czech history, she claims:

A particularly Habsburg way of conceiving of national identity - as tied to language and culture even more than to race and religion - ended twice in the creation, and twice in the destruction, of a state called Czechoslovakia. It also led its peoples into authoritarian demagoguery and caused millions unnecessary suffering.7

This begs the question: where, on the continuum of nationalisms from republican to romantic, are we to place the Czechoslovak one (which itself was informed by Habsburg ways of conceiving individual nations according to language)? Even Soviet-style socialism and the success of the Communist Party, in Heiman's view, become expressions of the legacy of Habsburg imperialism and a reactionary conception of linguistic groups as nations. Czechoslovak nationalism (as articulated by the Philosopher-Liberator T.G. Masaryk) was always decidedly more tolerant than its Magyar cousin. However, this might well have been practical: the Czech-Slovak national coalition could hardly afford to persecute its national minorities (given that there were, in fact, more German speakers than Slovaks in pre-war Czechoslovakia). There is, then, a darker edge to central European ideas of national identity.

Treading similar ground, Timothy Garton-Ash has written: "A superbureaucratic statism and formalistic legalism taken to absurd (and sometimes already inhuman) extremes were, after all, also particularly characteristic of Central Europe before 1914."8 For him the "most exact, profound and chilling anticipations of the totalitarian nightmare" were produced by central European authors - Kafka, Musil, Broch and Roth. Bideleux and Jeffries are in agreement:

The widely assumed superiority of east central Europe over the Balkans has been greatly exaggerated by those who conveniently forget that east central Europe was a major incubator of fascism, the Kafkaesque state, and racial and religious atrocities of the 20th Century.9

All, in the radical depths of their nationalisms (be they Balkan "ethnic", German "ethno-linguistic" or Habsburgian "cultural-linguistic"), are equal in their betrayal of a separate, west European liberal tradition.

Old map of central Europe

Dreams of Central Europe

A countervailing historico-cultural argument, espoused for example by the late Russian regional and religious historian Dmitri Furman, asserts that the very inclusion of that states stretching from Estonia in the north to Hungary in the south in the great (west) European civilisational project left them particularly well-equipped to join the EU.10 Those to the east of that line, however, are sadly consigned to membership of another, Byzantine or Ottoman tradition. Similarly Ramet and Wagner outline an "in-between space" somewhere in central Europe, which "shared with the west most if not all key phases and elements of development: Christianisation, Reformation, Renaissance, Enlightenment, the creation of nation states, even (to some extent) the double revolution of industrialization and democratization."11 Milan Kundera said much the same in his famous essay 'The Tragedy of Central Europe': "For a thousand years [Central European] nations have belonged to the part of Europe rooted in Roman Christianity. They have participated in every period of its history."12

Even for those attempting to suture central and eastern European history, the motif of a certain 'in-between space' has been vital for cultural approaches to understanding Europe and the inter-relational differences within it. What the West invents the Centre distorts, only for the East, finally, to pervert and destroy. The distinction is usually articulated in 'civilisational' terms, i.e., as part of the expression of a purely historico-cultural inheritance. Yet it's as absurd to believe that the Balkan nationalist wars were the product of power relations in the Ottoman Empire as it is to blame inherent racial characteristics of the constituent people. Cultural interpretations of the series of conflicts that took place in the Balkans between 1989 and 1999 serve only to obfuscate socio-economic causes, specifically the destruction of the Yugoslav federal state and the devastating flight of capital from that country.

For Garton-Ash the "elective affinities" that bind the likes of Hungary, Poland and the Czech and Slovak Republics to the West through the "mythopoeic" manifestations of the "idea of Central Europe" bind them just as readily to an alternative tradition - not one of tolerance, liberalism and scepticism, but one of racism, anti-semitism, and Romantic uber-statism. This phenomenon, in a familiar reductio ad Hitlerum, reaches its apogee in Nazi Germany. It is this view that requires the motif of the 'in-between space' - a 'quilting-point' between eastern barbarism and western civilisation. It was in this way that 'Central Europe' became a political subject; the point of mediation between 'Western Civilisation' and 'Eastern Barbarism'; a crucible where the Century's great conflicts would be played out and European ideals tested. It was through the idea of 'Central Europe' that a generation of intellectuals found the means to articulate a perceived struggle: one that would end in either the redemption of Europe or its total destruction. It is from this perspective that Derek Sayer has called Prague the "capital of the 20th century". And it was also in this mood of historical tumult that Milan Kundera described the various revolts that shook communist regimes throughout the region:

The contradictions of the Europe I call Central help us to understand why during the last
thirty-five years the drama of Europe has been concentrated there: the great Hungarian revolt
in 1956 and the bloody massacre that followed; the Prague Spring and the occupation of
Czechoslovakia in 1968; the Polish revolts of 1956, 1968, 1970, and of recent years. In
dramatic content and historical impact, nothing that has occurred in "geographic Europe," in
the West or the East, can be compared with the succession of revolts in Central Europe.13

The Heimat Manoeuvre 

Central Europe's boosters and detractors all agree on one thing: that the region is home to a dual heritage, half-despotic and half-enlightened. Yet the attempt by liberal critics to write Nazism off as the grotesque flowering of the pan-Germanic Heimat is simultaneously an attempt to wipe out the specifically western legacy of nationalism, imperialism and racial domination. In accounts such as these it is as if slavery never happened and western nationalism was always benignly inclusive, if frumpily paternalistic.

It is probably no coincidence that the high-point of Magyar nationalism (1875-1905) fell entirely within the years identified by Eric Hobsbawm as the 'Age of Empire'. In many ways chauvinist nationalism was the direct inheritor of the revolutions of 1848 (themselves largely the product of a disenfranchised intellectual class) and their eventual suppression. In fact Hobsbawm claims that this period (1875-1914) experienced a "transmutation" in the nature of nationalism. Sovereignty as the project of a flowering people was substituted for autonomy, as it became increasingly important to achieve some ideal, narrowly defined notion of statehood (in many cases, perhaps mirroring generally "protectionist" and "mercantilist" trends in the world economy). Autarky, or self-sufficiency, became a reaction against the expansive territorial empires of the Great Powers. Also, "there was the novel tendency to define a nation in terms of ethnicity and especially in terms of language."14 In many cases the language which was to become the carrier of national identity had to be dredged up and reassembled either from oral or ancient sources, and then fiercely defended. Masaryk, the Czech Liberator himself, had to learn Czech as an adult (his first language was German).

The turn to "ethno-linguistic" conceptions of the nation and nationality should be understood in terms of the causes for which national sentiment was drummed up. The dichotomy between (western) liberal variants and (eastern) ethnic national ideologies may contribute a glimmer of nuance to the usual accounts of Balkan and eastern 'vice', but ultimately fails to account for why the Imperial west went about colonizing much of Africa and Asia, while to its immediate south and east the Imperialists' neighbours ended up taking their losses out on each other.

In the late 19th century, as Hobsbawm shows, all the ingredients that would eventually fuel fascism were latent in the new turn taken by nationalism (apologies for yet another reductio ad Hitlerum): an elevation of ethnicity and language to the role of transmitters of national identity; a strong emphasis on the state as guarantor of sovereignty; imperial/national autarky; a deep suspicion of national minorities. Yet in rejecting the suggestion that Nazism was an extreme product of a supposed Central European 'in-between space' (the embodiment of both good and evil; barbarism and civilisation), I would like only to stress that nationalism as a modern ideology has a definite line of continuity, arguably sub-divided into two strands, perhaps equally pernicious: one belonging to the winners; the other to the losers of the great European scrum.

1qtd., 11-17/01/13, The Budapest Times
4See: Bideleux and Jeffries, A History of Eastern Europe, 253-254
5Glenny, The Balkans: 1804-2012, 63
6ibid., 56
7Heimann, Czechoslovakia: The State That Failed, 324
8Ash, The Uses of Adversity, 166
9Bideleux and Jeffries, A History of Eastern Europe, 14
10Read his interview with the NLR here:
11Ramet and Wagner, in Central and South Eastern European Politics since 1989, 14
12Kundera, text available here:
13Kundera, The Tragedy of Central Europe, text available here:
14Hobsbawm, The Age of Empire, 144