Archive | Czech Republic

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Restaging a Revolution

Posted on 17 December 2009 by admin

Currently in production, the independent feature film Listopad tells the fact-based tale of three Prague teenagers caught up in the seismic events of November 1989. In this TOL podcast, Daniela Ivanova talks to director Gary Griffin and producer Jeffrey Brown about the film’s inspiration and aims, the potential pitfalls for American artists tackling Czech history, and re-creating a seminal scene of the Velvet Revolution on the streets of Prague 20 years later.

Listen to the podcast or download it here.

You can read an abridged print version of this interview at the Transitions Online main site.

Director Gary Griffin (sitting, far right) films a re-enactment of the 17 November 1989 demonstration that sparked the Velvet Revolution.

Director Gary Griffin (sitting, far right) films a re-enactment of the 17 November 1989 demonstration that sparked the Velvet Revolution. Photograph courtesy of the filmmakers.

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The Kitchen Revolution

Posted on 08 December 2009 by admin

By Michael J. Jordan

LAKE BALATON AND PRAGUE | Laszlo Takacs sweats over a bubbling fryer, deftly wielding his tongs to pull out another Frisbee-shaped langos. One swimsuit-clad customer after another requests Takacs’ deep-fried dough disks, especially the classic: slathered with sour cream, sprinkled with grated Trappist cheese, and drizzled with garlic sauce for good measure.

“Hungarians have always loved langos, and they always will,” Takacs says. “It’s a national specialty, like goulash.”

This was Hungary’s communist-era version of fast food – oily, cheap, tasty, and reliably belly-filling. Today it’s a relative rarity, overwhelmed by Western staples like pizza, hamburgers, hotdogs, even shwarma and Chinese food. Continue reading …

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Communism Redux

Posted on 26 November 2009 by admin

By Meagan Sneesby/Argus

Katerina Konecna

Konecna

On 28 November 1989, in the face of a peaceful mass revolt, the Czechoslovak Communist Party announced it would give up its constitutional monopoly on power.  Two decades on, its successor, the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia, is the third-most popular party in the Czech Republic and has been gaining in recent polls at the expense of the mainstream parties, the left-wing Social Democrats and the center-right Civic Democrats.

Though still reviled by much of the public, the Communists wield sufficient support to likely prevent either of the leading parties from forming a stable parliamentary majority in next year’s elections. With young leaders such as MP Katerina Konecna, elected to parliament in 2002 at age 21, at the forefront, the party is working to burnish its image and expand beyond its elderly base, downplaying its association with 40 years of totalitarian rule and claiming a commitment to the values of democratic socialism. In this video report from the Argus, an online magazine produced by students in the ePhotojournalism program at Australia’s Griffith University, Konecna and other modern Communists talk about the party’s platform and its place in today’s Czech Republic.

Click here to learn more about the Argus’ Velvet Revolution anniversary project and view other videos about the post-communist Czech experience.

20 YEARS AFTER:Communism Redux from MeaganSneesby on Vimeo.

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Remembering ’89: Michal Horacek

Posted on 23 November 2009 by admin

horacekWhen Civic Forum emerged as the driving political force of the Velvet Revolution, its views were often relayed to the world by Michal Horacek. Then a 37-year-old journalist and co-founder (with singer Michael Kocab) of the civic initiative Most (Bridge), Horacek was a spokesman for Civic Forum and a key figure in talks with the tottering Communist regime. He would go on to become a successful lyricist, publicist, businessman, and public intellectual.

Horacek was never a darling of the Communist Party. At 22 he was expelled from journalism studies and jailed for forging an exit visa for the United States. Living in mid-70s Czechoslovakia, he says now, was like “living in a forced-labor camp, where one was constantly being discouraged from making a personal dream come true, even discouraging from dreaming itself. Risking a jail sentence then did not – and still doesn’t – strike me as risking so much.“

After his release, Horacek obtained a fake certification of mental illness, which enabled him avoid the unwanted attention from the authorities. In 1977 he started publishing abroad, and he eventually managed to secure a World Press Institute scholarship, which he used to study at Macalester College in Minnesota in 1984. Upon his return he went to work for the magazine Mlady svet (Young World), published articles abroad, and produced albums with the composer Petr Hapka.

Horacek continued making music after the revolution (his latest collaboration with Hapka, the verse opera Kudykam, premiered in October at Prague’s State Opera); a horse-racing enthusiast, he also founded Fortuna, the country’s first legal bookmaking firm. More recently he has entered academia as a teacher and doctoral candidate (in anthropology). In this e-mail interview with TOL contributor Lucie Kavanova, Horacek discussed his memories of 1989 and its impact on his life.

TOL: How did you manage to get your articles published abroad before 1989? What did you write about?

Horacek: I simply wrote them using my typewriter, put the result in an envelope, and mailed it to Australia, U.K., U.S.A. Such envelopes might have been opened by a secret-service officer from time to time – but that was not my problem. My problem was to put a feature together. In fact, all of my articles reached the magazines I was writing for. From the point of view of the Communist regime, they were harmless: I was writing about the history of horse racing and the thoroughbred horse.

How did your studies at the Macalester College change your life? How did you manage to get the Communist Party´s permission to study abroad then?

The Soviet Union and its satellites signed the Helsinki agreement. Therefore they had to observe the mutual visits of the closest kin, provided the sibling or parent lived in the West “legally” (meaning they did not “desert the camp of peace and socialism”). I was simply lucky. My sister got married and was legally living in France. On paper, I was going to visit her. In fact, I went to study in America. Those studies changed my life fundamentally; I got introduced to a world in which truth was observed as something not owned by a central committee of a party, but as an ideal courted and individually sought by anyone who felt like courting and seeking it.

Did you face any problems from the party when writing your columns called “Letters of Love and Hate” for Mlady Svet?

Sure I did. The magazine was being published by the Socialist Youth Union and many a member of its leadership protested against what I was writing. But I got another lucky break: the editor-in-chief was a stubborn, weathered woman capable of defending what she had approved of (my writing).

Where were you when the Berlin Wall fell, in terms of both your life and also literally, when it happened?

I was writing for what was then Czechoslovakia’s most popular weekly magazine, Mladý svět (circulation over 500,000) and also writing song lyrics. Two of my albums co-written with the composer Petr Hapka became best-sellers (selling over 150 000 copies each – something unthinkable today). I was living in three-bedroom apartment in Prague. When the Berlin Wall was being taken down I was busy preparing MOST, the civic initiative looking for providing grounds for eventual dialogue between the Communist Party and its opponents.

What were your thoughts and feelings at the time? What impact did you expect it to have on your country and you personally?

Thoughts were few, feelings many. In a time of such an upheaval the welled-up dreams burst the dam. I expected what I had never been able to truly expect: living in a country respecting the individual, observing the free-market rules, offering anybody a chance to seek and achieve a true knowledge, read whatever I feel like reading, formulating an opinion and freely stat[ing] it . . . and much more. All of that was eventually fully achieved. I do feel lucky.

What do you feel now when looking back at the Most initiative?

Pride. We did bring the two antagonistic parties together for talks, minimizing the very real chance of a bloodshed. And we did shake the monolithic nature of a totalitarian regime which can be totalitarian only when talking in one voice. When Prime Minister Ladislav Adamec did sit at the same table with Vaclav Havel, who had been jailed only months before, that monolith was gone. And, with it, the grip of the Communist Party over our lives.

Had the wall and the regime not fallen, how would your life have been different?

It would be a life of an aging inmate, frustrated at the loss of chances one living in a free world may expect to take. I would never [have achieved] material wealth, never traveled the world, never studied anthropology, never written what I eventually did write. Thank God for the miracle of anno domini 1989.

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Velvet Recall: ‘We Are Not Like Them’

Posted on 20 November 2009 by admin

By Natalia O’Hara

On 17 November 1989, police in Prague cracked down on a student demonstration, triggering 10 days of mass protest and political action that peacefully brought down Czechoslovakia’s communist regime. To mark the anniversary, all this week TOL features prominent Czechs offering their recollections of the Velvet Revolution. Today: human rights activist and former student leader Simon Panek.

I was completely out of money. I’d just got back from Siberia, traveling overland and rushing to get back in time for the demonstration on 28 October. On the 17th of November I was in South Bohemia earning money. I heard what had happened on Radio Free Europe that night and returned to Prague the next day. Students from the Drama Faculty suggested a strike, and word spread quickly. Sitting in one of the faculties in the middle of the night on Sunday [19 November], we drafted our first statement. After that I went home, put on a warm coat, boots, and stuffed a few pairs of socks into my pockets. My father said to me, “Take enough warm clothes because you might not return for days, once you start.” I left home on Monday morning, and did not come back for three weeks.

On Monday morning we held a meeting outside the faculty. My friends found a rubbish bin, and I climbed up and asked the students if they agreed to a strike, which they did. After that I went to the Drama Faculty, which became our headquarters. On the second day of the strike I was elected co-chairman of the Central Strike Committee. Continue reading …

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Remembering ’89: Robert Troska

Posted on 19 November 2009 by admin

Robert Troska was born in Prague on May 1, 1930. A veteran of various technical and industrial fields, he worked during the communist era at the state Research Institute of Technology and at Czechoslovak Television. In 1992 he founded the industrial consultancy RITMO and remains its managing director. In this interview with TOL contributor Sarah Kunkler, he offers his view of the Czech Republic’s bumpy transition to private enterprise and a market economy.

Remembering ’89: Robert Troska from Transitions Online on Vimeo.

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Velvet Recall: The Rushed Revolution

Posted on 19 November 2009 by admin

By Natalia O’Hara

On 17 November 1989, police in Prague cracked down on a student demonstration, triggering 10 days of mass protest and political action that peacefully brought down Czechoslovakia’s communist regime. To mark the anniversary, all this week TOL features prominent Czechs offering their recollections of the Velvet Revolution. Today: photographer Jaroslav Kucera.

kuceraMUGI was living in a little flat near Narodni trida with my partner, Marketa. On 17 November and we were walking nearby when we saw a big demonstration. My partner wanted to go over, but I said, “No, I’ve seen all of this before, I know what it’s like.”

In 1969 I was at a demonstration on the one-year anniversary of the Soviet occupation when I was arrested by the secret police. First they took us to the police station, and then to Pankrac prison. The guards lined both sides of a passage with truncheons, and we were made to run through while they clubbed us. They repeated it five times, and many of the other prisoners broke down mentally or physically. Then they tried to make us name names. Continue reading …

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Klara Vesela Samkova

Posted on 18 November 2009 by admin

Czech attorney, post-communist MP and legal advocate for Romani rights, 1963-

Samkova-facebookIt can be difficult for an outsider to wedge her way into the trust of an ethnic community that has been the target of much discrimination, much less to carve a name for herself as a staunch advocate for that group. This is what Klara Vesela Samkova has achieved in a career that includes a stint in the first post-Velvet Revolution parliament, constant threats from extremists, and almost attaining the highest position in the Czech legal system.

Born in Brno in 1963, the well-known human rights lawyer is not Roma by birth, but she holds a deep interest in Romani affairs and is married to the prominent activist Ivan Vesely, who is of Slovak Romani origin. Both are known for provocative public pronouncements on the problems facing the Roma and other minorities in what is still a very homogeneous society.

Samkova’s interest in the “Roma question” dates to her student days at Prague’s Charles University, but she was only able to fully immerse herself in the issue after the Velvet Revolution. The anti-communist movement made 1989 “the first time in the 700-year-history of the Roma in our country that the Roma spontaneously joined the gadje and their political life,” Samkova noted in an interview with Radio Prague.

On 27 November 1989, the president of the Prague-based International Romani Union, Emil Scuka, addressed an enormous crowd on Prague’s Letna park and promised full support for the budding revolution. The Romani Civic Initiative, a new political party Scuka and others founded, joined the anti-communist Civic Forum coalition and party members were elected to the Czech, Slovak, and federal parliaments.

Samkova was one of those deputies in the Czechoslovak federal parliament. The party tried to raise public awareness of Romani issues, but it soon dropped off the political radar. Today, Romani representation in Czech political life consists of a few members of municipal councils.

Samkova began practicing law in 1994, the same year she and her husband founded the civic association Dzeno to publicize the plight of the Roma community. She’s become one of the country’s best-known lawyers for her work on civil rights cases, notably on behalf of Roma who complained of mistreatment by local authorities. In 2003 President Vaclav Klaus – not known as a friend of the Roma – surprisingly nominated her to the Czech Constitutional Court, but the Senate rejected her and Klaus’ other nominees.

Samkova and her all-woman law firm still specialize in discrimination cases. The need may be greater than ever, with ultra-nationalist organizations boosting their public profile and attacks on Roma on the rise. But at least two of Samkova’s early goals have been attained: nearly 20 years after the Romani Civic Initiative proposed it, there is now a cabinet-level Ministry of Human Rights and Minorities, and a long-delayed law banning racial and other forms of discrimination is finally on the books, passed by legislators over Klaus’ veto.

Betsy Mead

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Velvet Recall: ‘I Didn’t Believe It Would Last’

Posted on 18 November 2009 by admin

By Natalia O’Hara

On 17 November 1989, police in Prague cracked down on a student demonstration, triggering 10 days of mass protest and political action that peacefully brought down Czechoslovakia’s communist regime. To mark the anniversary, all this week TOL features prominent Czechs offering their recollections of the Velvet Revolution. Today: novelist Ivan Klima.

There are moments in history when a spirit falls down on the mob, and people are filled with joy and hope. It happens in every revolution. The feeling has no connection to the real world. It was the same in the French Revolution and in the Russian Revolution. There were even many happy Nazis. Continue reading …

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Velvet Recall: Dancing Days

Posted on 17 November 2009 by admin

By Natalia O’Hara
On 17 November 1989, police in Prague cracked down on a student demonstration, triggering 10 days of mass protest and political action that peacefully brought down Czechoslovakia’s communist regime. To mark the anniversary, all this week TOL features prominent Czechs offering their recollections of the Velvet Revolution. Today: National Theater ballerina Adela Pollertova.

When it happened I was at home alone. The 17th of November began like a normal day, but when I got home from school no one was there. My mother was always at home in the evenings, and usually my father, too. I wondered what could have happened.

My parents and older brother returned late. They said that they had been to a demonstration in Narodni trida [National Street in Prague]. My parents were talking about what had happened but I didn’t understand, because I didn’t know the first thing about politics. Continue reading …

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