Czechoslovakia: The Party Is in Control

A stagnant economy and oppressive monitoring by Communist functionaries have reduced the once buoyant Czechs to frustration and resignation.

At an outdoor café in one of CzechoSlovakia’s larger cities this past summer, a woman looked up from her coffee and ice cream, her eyes wide. “You don’t know how much I envy you these things,” she said, as she thumbed through a recent Joan Didion novel I had brought with me from New York.

When 1 showed a copy of the New York Times, however, everyone at the table reacted in a way I came to understand all too well in this Eastern European socialist country. They squirmed in their chairs, looking anxiously at the other tables to see if anyone was watching. One man turned gray and ran his finger under his collar as if sweating. Yet they would not ask me directly to put the paper away. Soon I got the message and stuffed the paper back inside my briefcase. The bubble of tension evaporated.

“We never imagined that they would take away everything,” said Milena K., a former newspaper editor. She leaned forward and lowered her voice. “After the Russians came [in 1968], they did very little at first. But now it becomes worse and worse each year—harder to travel or get news and magazines from the West. Little by little they have clamped down. They are taking away every trace of the freedom we won before 1968 and under Dubček. Now there is almost nothing left. And there is no hope.”

At first glance, this depressing view seems unjustified. To a Western visitor, Czechoslovakia is a clean, safe country where no one goes without adequate food, shelter, or education. The restaurants, kavarnas, and vinarnas are filled with good-natured people eating knedliky (dumplings) with small portions of meat, drinking the famous Czech beer, and exchanging upbeat chatter. If a table has an empty place, you ask permission with a gesture and are invited to sit down. Soon you are all chatting together, if a common language can be found. And with some Czech soldiers, whose only foreign language is Russian, you can discuss the atmospheric side effects of the Mt. St. Helens eruption by means of drawings, hand signs, a Czech-English dictionary, and much willingness to communicate.

Fifteen years had passed since I had last visited this nation of 10 million Czechs and 5 million Slovaks, tucked like a keystone among the Warsaw Pact nations of blast Germany, Poland, the Soviet Union, and Hungary on its northern, eastern, and southern borders. On the southwest and west it touches Austria and West Germany, close enough to whet the Czechoslovak appetite for the free and prosperous life seen via Western television stations. And with thousands of Soviet troops still garrisoned in camps only a few dozen kilometers from Prague, the closeness of the world beyond the Iron Curtain is tantalizing.

Czechoslovakia is the consumer’s paradise of the Eastern bloc. Many families own their own Skoda car; most Czechs dress as well as average working-class Americans; new highways and modern public housing are being built. Yet an oppressive mood and a sense of stagnation and hopelessness prevailed among the dozens of people I spoke with. The feeling of oppression is not a consequence of jackbooted soldiers with whips beating people in the streets. On the contrary, Czech police and soldiers are rather meek looking, generally polite, and easier to negotiate with than their rigidly businesslike counterparts in democratic West Germany.

The fear in this country comes from a secondary control, a system of records and checks that build up over the years and weigh heavily on anyone who isn’t a model socialist citizen. No one will be beaten or arrested for wearing a cross, attending church, or associating with dissidents. But when permission is needed to travel abroad, get an apartment, or move into a higher position at work, the path may be blocked. Even attendance at a university depends on the records. Did you go to the Communist Youth League (SSM) meetings regularly? Did you sign the petition denouncing the signers of the Charter 77 on human rights (though no copy was available and you didn’t even know what it contained)?

After thirteen years of tight control by the Communist party of all aspects of academic, economic, cultural, and personal life, Czechs have begun to escape from the country in increasing numbers. Last summer, Western embassies in Vienna reported they were “flooded” with requests for immigration permits. The Austrian government reported triple the rate of defections from Czechoslovakia, and the Traiskirchen refugee center outside Vienna was overflowing with families seeking immigration permits and cash to go to Australia, Canada, and the United States (in that order of popularity). As many as 30,000 Czechs defected last year, one Czech former diplomat estimated.

The pulsing discontent under the surface calm of Czechoslovakia’s ancient villages and towns seems unlikely to provoke a Polish-worker-style strike or a repetition of the 1968 intellectuals’ movement for “socialism with a human face.” Instead, the Czechs are abandoning the hills and cities of Moravia and Bohemia to strike out on their own.

Czechs surround their homes with flowers, even growing them on public strips of earth between the sidewalk and the street. As you enter an apartment you are asked to remove your shoes and are given slippers. While waiting for the grounds to settle in your cup of black, Turkish-style coffee, you sense an aura of civilization and culture, even in village homes, that is strangely familiar. As I observed the inevitable “wall furniture”—floor-toceiling sets of cabinets and glassenclosed shelves revealing books and painted pottery, silver cups and family photographs—I recognized the lifestyle that my grandparents brought from the “old country.” This is a land of cobbled streets, clay-tiled roofs, and Gothic towers above the vaulted passageways running around the squares. It is a land where the longest lines form not for watermelons and fresh vegetables but for new books when they are put on sale in the bookstores each Thursday afternoon.

Yet this is no longer the Czechoslovakia of the middle sixties. Though for the first time many are driving cars, and the Slovaks are freed from the bondage of hand agriculture, Czechs face their own energy crisis, rising divorce and abortion rates, ten-year waits for housing.

“Nice clothes and cars don’t mean everything,” one medical student told me over a glass of orange-amber beer. He pointed to the article about Afghanistan in Rudé Právo, the Communist party daily, which he had been helping me translate. “When I see that shit, it makes me sick and sad,” he said. The article told about the killing of “bandits” by the Soviet-backed Afghan army. Czechs are all too aware of what is going on there, being skilled at reading between the lines of government reportage. And they know they are powerless to oppose the Soviet Union.

Czechs are no strangers to foreign domination. They were vassals of the Austro-Hungarians for 500 years until the breakup of that empire in World War I. Thomas G. Masaryk headed the first Czechoslovakian republic, whose independence in 1918 led to an outpouring of creativity by native writers such as Karel Capek and Franz Kafka, musicians such as Leos Janáček, and painters and architects. The best of them died during the Nazi occupation that began after Munich in 1938 and continued until Russian soldiers and tanks liberated Prague in May 1945. American forces had advanced as far as Plzeň, but held back to let the Soviets enter Prague in accordance with the Yalta Pact.

The postwar democratic government formed by Edward Beneš and Jan Masaryk (son of Thomas) struggled for three years to remain independent. But in March 1948, Jan Masaryk was hurled to his death from a window, and the Communist party took full control of the government under the heavyhanded Clement Gottwald.

As for Thomas G. Masaryk, he “never existed” according to the Communists, and his name does not appear in textbooks or histories because he failed to accept the Marxist ideology that took hold in Russia during his lifetime. The last statue of him has been moved from the town square of Vyškov in Moravia to a lawn at a nearby castle, where it stands atop a bare stone cube. No name identifies the man in the overcoat, but the people know who he is.

The brief flowering of freedom in 1968 under Alexander Dubček, known to the West as the “Prague Spring,” is described in current guidebooks as the time when “right-wing forces endeavored to revoke the [socialist] development, but with the assistance of the countries of the Warsaw Agreement, their efforts were defeated.” On August 21, 1968, Soviet and Warsaw Pact armored divisions tore up roads and shook houses as they occupied the country. Dubček was forced to repudiate publicly the abolition of censorship and other reforms, and was banished to a minor job in his native Slovakia, his name, like that of Masaryk, stricken from the nation’s history books.

When I asked Jana R., a nurse in the mining city of Ostrava, whether the younger generation remembers Dubček, she refused to answer until we had walked some distance from any passersby who might have heard me pronounce that name. “He did not exist. At least that is what the new history books say. I have some of the old books that were published in the sixties, and one, by Milan Kundera [now in exile], tells of life in the fifties, how children were made to tell on what their parents talked about at home. And I am telling you that now it is becoming again like that.

“No one trusts anyone anymore. We stay at home and turn more into the family. I know what the West is like because I have been to Italy, but I do not tell my friends at work that I have been to the West. I think some of my friends have other books that are ‘censura’ [banned] or not printed anymore—by Kafka and other writers— but I am afraid to ask for them.”

Jana said she would like to escape, but worries about her parents and her brother (with his wife and child), who share a flat with her. Once she goes, they might never be able to leave, and might be blocked in their careers and in their search for housing. Those who defect can eventually return to visit Czechoslovakia after they become citizens of their adopted nations and pay back the Czech government for their education (generally between $2000 and $10,000).

Petr B. lives in a suburb of Prague and is afraid of the old woman living on the ground floor of his house. She watches his mail and knows when he gets letters from abroad. When a car with foreign registration drops him off, she takes note. When he fails to put out red flags for national holidays, she again makes a note. She wrote about these things to the block committee, which entered her letter in Petr’s permanent record. If the flags fail to appear two or three times running (and Petr has no excuse), an “agit-prop” couple wall come to visit him and urge him “for his own good” to be patriotic and obedient.

In addition to the block committee, Petr and all other Czechs have two more records: one at their place of employment, and the other at the Interior Ministry. These contain complete work records and biographical data plus allegations and overheard conversations reported by the million or so (the real figure is withheld) Party members scattered in every shop, school, nursing ward, and construction site. No one can see his own records, and when a visa or a job promotion is denied, no explanation is given. The result is that people stop trusting friends, become increasingly prudent, and struggle to reduce even the suspicion of disloyalty to a government and system apparently almost universally despised.

In Prague and in Vienna as well, Czechs argue whether it is politics or economics that drives so many abroad these days. Perhaps the answer is that when the economy turns sour, political issues such as censorship and closed borders seem increasingly unbearable.

The Czech economy is reeling from the disastrous 1979 winter, rising oil prices, gasoline selling at nearly $4 per gallon, and aging industrial plants. Because Czechoslovakia surrendered to the Germans, the country was spared the destruction of cities and industries that Poland and other European nations experienced. But now the old plants gobble energy and raw materials at higher rates than the newer plants in neighboring nations.

The major problem with the economy, according to Eastern European specialist Tibor Vais of Harvard’s Russian Research Center, is fear of the word “reform” after what happened in 1968. For the first five years after 1968, the lack of innovation was “stabilizing,” but in the past few years “stabilization” has become “stagnation,” according to Vais. And real income is falling as Soviet-supplied oil takes a bigger bite out of the economy.

Vais cites the Russian view that the Czech economy is too diverse and needs to specialize in order to master modern technology. But a recent decision to specialize and shift 40 percent of their engineering efforts to the production of parts for nuclear power plants (for the Eastern bloc) ties them even more closely to their “Eastern neighbor.” The rubles, zlotys, Hungarian forints, and East German marks they earn are “soft” currencies, useless in Western markets. Czechoslovakia has become an industrial colony, taking from its imperial master raw materials such as iron ore, oil, and gas, and selling shoes and other manufactured items in return, under binding, long-term trade agreements.

What few items Czechoslovakia has left for trade with the West that still meet international competitive standards fail to offset the drain of foreign currency from increased agricultural imports. American feed grains cost the Czechs $500 million in 1980, ten times the 1977 figure. But exports to the U.S. dropped to $50 million in 1979, according to a report by the American Embassy in Prague. As a result, the importation from the West of technical magazines and measuring instruments needed for research and development has been halted in many sectors, making it harder than ever to break out of the cycle that has cost the Czechs their international reputation as the people with the “golden hands.” The quality of Czech goods is also declining.

One hears here, as in all the socialist countries, stories about labor and production. Workers come late, drink coffee or beer all day, and race home to work on their private gardens. Materials disappear from state job sites; people say, “If you don’t steal from the state then the state steals from you.”

The historic Tyn church and dozens of other buildings in Prague have been draped in rusty iron scaffolding for ten years because the scaffolding installers had goals to meet. But not nearly enough workers are available for the restoration, which drags on.

A cement truck arrives unwanted at a construction site. It had been ordered by “the plan” but the carpenters are not ready. The cement workers aren’t responsible to the carpenters, so the cement must be poured out, wanted or not.

A man charged with the export of machinery rented a warehouse in West Germany where he stores the machines. His job is simply to see that they leave Czechoslovakia, and he doesn’t care if they are sold or not.

A shop selling the famous Czech-cut crystal is closed for inventory during the month of July, the height of the tourist season.

Waitresses and barkeepers deliberately slow down service in the last week of a busy summer month so that they won’t surpass their sales goals and be assigned higher goals the following month.

Few Westerners visit Czechoslovakia, discouraged by the $15 per day they are required to change at the inflated official exchange rate of nine korun to the dollar. The flourishing black market offers up to twenty-two korun for the same dollar. Western tourism is also dampened by strict visa procedures with long lines at consulates, waiting periods if shipment by mail is required, and staff poorly trained in languages other than Czech. Of the 42,000 Americans who visited the country in 1979, about half came to see relatives, according to American Embassy officials. Most of the rest were on oneor two-day group tours with little opportunity to explore on their own.

All this suits the government, which is not enthusiastic about the prospect of thousands of Americans tainting their world view with stories of Western affluence and freedom. Yet the Czechs say that the absence of Americans and the dearth of news in the West about Czechoslovakia make them believe the West has abandoned them to their Eastern-bloc fate.

Jana has a different perspective: “It is so sad and depressing here because our past is torn up and there is nothing to look forward to. Under socialism there is no history. There are only the seasons of the year.”