Prague

There was an old Communist joke about the man who died and was offered his choice of the Communist hell or the capitalist hell. He took the Communist hell.

“What?” said the clerk. “You’ve been a Communist all your life. Are you really so faithful you want to go on for all eternity? You must be a true believer.”

The man replied, “That’s not it. As you say, I’ve been a Communist all my life, and I know how things work. But in the capitalist hell the fire will probably really burn, and the brimstone will really sting, and the pitchforks will really be sharp.”

In the first cycle of Czechoslovak Communist rule, from 1948 until the fall of Antonin Novotny as Party chief in 1968, one thing did work. The economy was sliding downhill, true; Czechoslovak youth were repelled by the rulers of the new society; and the intellectuals felt choked by Party demands. What did work efficiently and effectively though was the terror. Throughout the East German uprising of 1953, the Polish upheaval and Hungarian revolution of 1956, and the gradual Rumanian withdrawal from Soviet hegemony in the early 1960s, Czechoslovakia stayed in line without so much as a Soviet platoon stationed on its soil.

The “administrative controls,” as mass arrests, purges, trials, and other more subtle forms of pressure for conformity were euphemistically called, were adequate. People kept their mouths shut and did their best not to break the unspoken and sometimes mysterious rules for avoiding trouble. But the order gradually broke down, crumbling from inside the Party, initially over strictly economic issues. Then, in 1968, spring came to Prague.

There was a burgeoning of criticism, of innovation, of pressure for change and for a basic restructuring of the way authority was exercised. This awakening was suddenly stilled by the Soviet invasion of August, 1968. Three years later, the second cycle of undiluted Party rule is developing. But the terror isn’t what it seems. In keeping with the old joke, it no longer works either.

There is, with hindsight, a general understanding of what the invasion was about. It had nothing to do with any real or even imaginary threat from West Germany (the excuse for it that Moscow gave at the time), nor with any other questions of military security. This now shows clearly enough in Moscow’s indulgence of Bonn’s efforts to normalize relations with Prague. The five Red Army divisions deployed in Czechoslovakia are not posted on the borders with the West—with West Germany and Austria—but along an arc stretching from the northwest border with East Germany to the southeast border with Hungary. That is, the Western front is still manned by the Czech Army, regardless of how reliable it may be, and the Soviet force is strung behind it, through the center of the country.

The essential purpose of the invasion, as now perceived by Czechs who still bother to analyze it, was to assure the unquestioned primacy and authority of the Communist Party. Evidently, Moscow came to the conclusion that First Secretary Alexander Dubeek’s reforms were eroding and endangering just that. What historical evidence is available supports this judgment, but in any case, since it is what people in Prague now think, it is the premise on which they act.

Them

Conversation between father and son, repeated for my benefit:

Father: “You’re old enough now to join the Party. When will you get started on it?”

Son: “You know I don’t want to be involved with politics. There’s nothing useful I can do, and I don’t see why I should pretend.”

Father: “With your languages and your training, you could have decided to be a teacher or an engineer or something like that. But no, you decide you want to go into foreign trade, you want to travel. All right, that’s a political field. You know very well you can’t do any of that without getting involved with politics. You made your choice, and if you choose that sort of thing, then you have to accept what goes with it. You can’t take the cherry without the pit; you have to face up to it.”

The son accepted the advice and applied to be a Party member.

In the same way, the country now appears to be accepting the Party without in any way accepting its arguments. Neither conviction nor fear impels people, only a kind of bemused survivalism. The young harbor more anger, more irritation than their elders who lived through it once before, and who managed to survive.

Conversation with two friends, A and B:

I say: “In the old days, you only told me jokes and made cracks when we were outside walking. Now you sit in this public place where anyone can hear you, where there’s bound to be surveillance because of all the foreigners, and you don’t seem to worry at all. You don’t even glance around to see if someone’s listening. Is there no more need to be afraid, then?”

A: “Well, it’s true I was more afraid in the spring of 1968, the last time you were here, than I am now. That’s because in 1968 I was afraid it wouldn’t last. Now I know this will last, so what’s the good of worrying?”

B: “It’s different for us now. We hear all the same old slogans, all the same old threats. We see all the same old mistakes and the same old empty promises. It’s all familiar, and you don’t react the second time. Even if they went back to the midnight knock on the door, and the disappearances and the labor camps (which hasn’t happened on any scale, so far), it wouldn’t be as frightening as it was before. We know now what happens if somebody disappears. We know what happens if you’re put in jail. There really isn’t any unknown anymore, so you live your life as best you can, and if you have bad luck, well . . . it’s nothing to be surprised about.”

The old city, one of Europe’s most beautiful and best preserved, still absorbs and delights and soothes with its testimony to human imagination and endurance. It is being looked after, softened and brightened for the pleasure of the people. The drabness which characterized Prague before 1968 and kept reminding everyone that life was hard and authority real has not returned. The electric lights in the streets around the Old Town Square have been replaced with gaslights in handsomely wrought posts. The gentle yellow glow curls around the baroque arabesques of the old facades and sidles up to the ornate roofs. Warm, happy, easygoing dreams are not discouraged.

A man in his forties, a man who likes to laugh and take his comforts, says:

“You see, the Hapsburgs were here for three hundred years, and they didn’t Germanize us. The Russians can be here three hundred years, and they won’t Sovietize us. We always outlast them.

Not much of a dent has been made in that comfortable resort to the long view. The Good Soldier Schweik is still around, more roguish and insidious than ever, with his sly, knobby peasant’s face, reminding his people that you can enjoy yourself in the worst of times and survive as well, if you learn the knack. The Good Soldier Schweik was invented by the writer Jaroslav Hašek, and first published in 1920-1923, to divert and hearten his countrymen, who had chafed under Austrian rule. But the Good Soldier is more of a reality in the cafés and cubbyholes of Prague than Party leader Gustav Husak and his government. There isn’t as much in the way of banners and slogans and flags and mammoth portraits of the glorious leaders as there used to be. There are, instead, the lovely buildings and the theater posters and advertisements for art shows, and especially there is Schweik, winking from a beer coaster or a decal. His motto, universally understood, is “Don’t excite yourself.”

Lid

It wouldn’t be easy for the most hardhearted of regimes to cope with that attitude. This regime is trying not to be so hardhearted as to provoke the people once again into utter lassitude, utter refusal to help make the country function at all.

Husak is struggling on a tightwire to hold his line of “consolidation” against the hard-hitters, like Party official Alois Indra, and to avoid mass arrests or dramatic trials which could rend the Party itself. He seems to have Moscow’s support. Certainly, Moscow would be more embarrassed than it is now if it had to resort to the old terror to assure control. And it might not succeed if it tried. At the same time, Husak must hold the lid down tightly enough to make sure no one misunderstands the season. Spring is over, and the question is only whether things will stay as they are or get worse. From the rulers’ view, it is essential that everybody understand this clearly, because it was the hope for more change, more liberalism, that stirred up the country in 1968, until Moscow ended it.

Writers, journalists, directors, actors, and especially television personnel are the people most exposed and most watched, because it is they who set a country’s moods and spark its hopes and fears. Many of them have been punished, mostly with removal from any but menial jobs. Some have been jailed. Most painters, singers, designers, people whose art is totally devoid of political implication, have escaped personal trouble so far, as have the people who just go to work every day and go home, minding their own business.

Soviet force is real enough behind the current, papier-mâché reign of terror. But for all its muscle, the government finds it difficult to select the best means to fit its ends. It is said that Colonel Emil Zatopek, the Olympic runner and former head of physical training in the Czech Army, was punished for his outspoken opposition to the invasion by being stripped of all privileges and made to earn his living as a garbage collector. The people learned his route and gathered on corners to help him, giving little cheers as they hauled ash cans together. That was officially unacceptable. Zatopek had to be submerged in the masses, not displayed to them.

One writer, demoted from one job after another, yearned to be a bus driver rather than accept a mindless little office job. But he realized that it was probably an impossible hope. Contact of recognized figures with the general public, however innocent, is felt by the regime to be provocative, and the regime is right. The people show their feelings in insidious ways when opportunities arise. Obviously, that is why there are constant rumors and constant denials about the current occupation of Alexander Dubček, the 1968 Party leader. What he is doing doesn’t matter so much to officialdom as that he be more or less invisible doing it, lest he become a magnet for subtle expressions of forbidden opinion.

Above all, punishment with sharply reduced earning capacity and occupational degrading is an awkward procedure for the self-proclaimed representatives of the proletariat. It seems to speak tomes about their real attitude toward simple workers. The leaders have found no solution to this ideological handicap for a proletarian state. They appear to be embarrassed about it, but they go on shoving the “culprits” of 1968 down among the workers—as inconspicuously as possible, however. When a supporter of Dubček who is marked for purge from influence of any kind is old enough to qualify for the state pension, officialdom seems almost grateful. Rather than being deprived of the pension, as was the practice in the real terror, the person is encouraged to retire and do nothing.

Blanking out

So there is calm, an everydayness about the life of Prague. The mood might be called one of resignation, but there is something more: a quality of unreality, of suspended animation. In Kafka’s city, people go through all the ordinary motions of their joint existence and blank out, as Kafka did, the ordinary meaning.

In conversation, an artist says:

“I just go on with my work. I wasn’t really involved before, and I’m not involved now. Every weekend we go to the country, and I chop wood or garden or do repairs on the cottage. I don’t think about politics or talk about it. What is there to say? I have some exhibitions scheduled abroad. So far, I’ve no reason to think I can’t go. So far. So far, there’s been no trouble exporting pictures.”

“There is calm, then?”

“All is calm, but it is external calm. Not internal. That is quite different. Do you understand?”

There are a few political jokes, not so biting as the old ones, and they are exchanged rather casually, without the tingle of excitement that whispered satire once brought:

—“TV news comes in three categories: true, probable, and false. The time signal is in the first category, the weather report in the second, and the rest in the third.”

—“Czechs are silly to keep agitating for color television. We already have it. The pictures are black and white, and the programs are Red.”

But there isn’t much interest in tossing this sort of dull dart. There are other matters to concentrate on: one’s country cottage—which has become the national obsession—sports, clothes, vacations, household goods, things and more things to acquire.

That is the central peculiarity of it all. Unable to tap the people’s energy with ideology or emotion, reluctant and probably wary of trying to drive them with fear, the cold Communist government of Czechoslovakia has begun to rely on consumerism. It has stocked the stores with consumer goods to lure its people into picking themselves up and caring again about getting work done.

In late 1969 and early 1970, consumer goods nearly disappeared. This was partly the result of an inflationary siege begun in that heady spring of 1968, when labor unions began acting like unions and factory managers had some freedom to act like management. It was partly the result of subsequent reimposition of tight controls, which took away what urge there was to raise productivity. And it was partly the result of plain and widespread apathy. The unspoken popular creed, in the manner of Schweik. was “Don’t exert yourself.” There is a saying among Czechoslovak workers that “Communism has its faults, but it’s better than working.”

One product vanished after another—women’s underwear, children’s shoes, bed linens. The department stores and specialty stores emptied out, and then the grocery stores grew bare. There was a meat shortage, an egg shortage, a butter shortage, as people snapped up food for lack of anything else to buy. The winter of 1969 was very severe, and there were coal shortages and power failures. The streetlights weren’t turned on until 9 P.M., and that Christmas many women found the gas pressure in their ovens too low for their holiday roasting and baking.

The hard-liners blamed it all on the period of reforms. This, they said, is what moving toward a market economy brings: factories produce for export to make hard-currency profits, and neglect domestic needs.

So the Husak regime imposed more controls. These led to soaring rates of absenteeism and staggering demands on the national insurance budget as more and more workers reported themselves sick.

Whoever was to blame, it was an economic collapse in a once rather prosperous nation. The government came finally to see the collapse as a serious political problem. Morale was at rock bottom. So in desperation, the regime introduced consumerism. Substantial foreign credits in the East and the West had been built up during the years when the economy was functioning. The decision was made to splurge them on consumer goods, to meet the sense of emergency at first and then, it was hoped, to ignite once more the stalled engine of production.

Now the shops are bulging again. Oranges and bananas were available all through the winter of 1970-1971, an unheard-of luxury in the bitter 1950s and early 1960s. There are refrigerators, washing machines, even dishwashers—small, rather old-fashioned and clumsy, and wildly expensive, but they are there for the buying. There are even Italian knit dresses and shoes, French perfumes and cheeses, British woolens, German record-players, as well as some of the more tempting products of the ruble bloc. The Western imports, which cost the state hard currency, often go for from five to ten times the price of domestic and Communist-bloc goods, but they are traded vigorously, and the shops, now refurbished attractively, are always crowded and busy.

“Of course it’s worth paying 350 crowns for an Italian handbag when I could get a Czech one for 50,” a friend told me. “It’s that much better quality. It has to be, because we know how we work, so we know what our products must be like no matter how they look on the shelf.”

There are arguments within the regime on how consumerism is working. Some say it will get the economy launched in a few more months, some say it will take a few more years, some say it can take a decade. But despite the near depletion of the backlog of credits abroad, there seems to be a consensus within the regime that it will work—if only because no one can think of anything else that might. And, in fact, production is beginning to climb again.

“It shouldn’t be too hard,” an economist said. “Labor discipline is so bad, work is so shoddy and slack now.

Even a slight gain in productivity would mean billions for the gross national product.”

Kafka at home

Materialism, then, is the term upon which the government and the people seem to be coming together. It is an unusual thesis upon which to base a Communist regime, a regime which is now devoted above all else to the preservation of the Communist Party’s monopoly of power. It seems all the more odd and old-fashioned to an American, coming from a society steeped in arguments about the “quality of life” and the evils of materialism and the need for protection of nature, a society whose youth have developed contempt for materialism as the curse of capitalism.

There is scarcely any of the talk in Communist Prague that is heard among radicals in America. If the slogans (“free enterprise,” or “Communist ideals and the just cause of the worker”) were beeped out, Prague talk and Rotarian talk would sound much alike. People don’t read the newspapers in Prague, or listen to the government’s endless exhortations and reports, but they do have a sense that life is not tranquil out in the big, rich Western cities.

“We know about your American restlessness and your frustrations,” a woman said. “We know what you are saying about having too many things, and the crisis of industrial society. But it really doesn’t concern us in the least. We don’t share any of those worries. You see, we have no lack of desires to fulfill.” And an old Communist said later, “Yes, those problems that are stirring you will come to us one day too. We will begin to think of them when we feel affluent, I’m sure, because consumerism really doesn’t solve all the needs of society. But that’s a long way off. There’s a lot to be done first just to keep the country going.”

Kafka would feel at home again in Prague. It isn’t quite a real world. Nothing is what it calls itself. But then, Czechs don’t bother reading ideological or political or philosophical labels these days. They are busy existing.

-FLORA LEWIS