I wrote this letter in June 1990. I started writing it on a yellow legal pad on the evening of June 9, 1990, filling in what went before and finishing it in Sitka.
Wednesday, June 6, 1990 Ceske Budejovice, Czechoslovakia
This morning we crossed the border into Czechoslovakia. On Monday all visa and currency requirements for Americans were lifted. We expected exchange at the official rate of 9 crowns to the dollar, instead we got 25.5. We have a lot more money than we expected. We were staying in a “motel” connected with the campground. There is obviously an election going on.
The map shows a CEDOK (Czech tourist) office. It turns out to be a campaign headquarters for Civic Forum. The ladies in the office give us posters and buttons. They insist we take a poster of President Vaclav Havel. At the headquarters of the Christian Democratic Union (KDU), they give us a campaign poster with a picture of the Pope. The Prelate vs. the Poet.
In Czech “Civic Forum” is “Obcanske Forum.” Its symbol is “O.F.” with a smiley face in the “O.” Satirist Harry Shearer did a routine about the National Endowment for Democracy going into an Eastern European country and renaming the main political movement the “Have a Nice Day Party.” Is life imitating art? This may be the first mass political movement in history that overthrew tyranny with the international symbol for “have a nice day.” (I saw a poster, along with the political posters, advertising the “Tour de Radio.” It is a bike race between Vienna and Prague sponsored by radio stations in each city.) This afternoon we visited Ceske Krumlov, an old fortified town on the Vitava (Moldau) River. It is a bit run down and not at all touristed. At the museum we start on the third floor with exhibits of pre history. We move to the Czech migrations, the Bohemian kings, and through the Austrian-Hungarian Empire on the second floor. The laminated placard that explains the museum in English says that the next room will tell us about “the so- called first republic, and its bourgeois pretensions.” We will see how the paper worker’s strike led to the foundation of the Communist Party. The room after that will review the World War II liberation by the Red Army and the establishment of the Worker’s State under Klemment Gottwald. These rooms are locked. On the first floor there is a temporary exhibit explaining that the Americans actually liberated the town. History is written and rewritten by each generation’s victors.
Thursday, June 7, 1990 Ceske Budejovice, Czechoslovakia
Not many people speak English. Every Czech student has been required to take 8 years of Russian. I try to talk to a person in Russian. She turns her back and walks away.
At dinner we ran into a British journalist. He is having a more expensive experience. Since Great Britain is in the European Community, and the E. C. will not let Czechs freely across the border, they still have currency restrictions. I get twice as far on my money as he does. He is just in from Prague and is very excited. He tells us that it is unbelievable, that we should skip the museums and just hang out on the street in the “New Town” and watch the action. He has written about the expansion of free speech, as demonstrated by the showing of “Emanualle” in Prague for the first time. In Ceske Budejovice he is writing about the Budweis brewery, which has made a light pilsner beer named Budweiser for several centuries, and is currently in a trademark dispute with a company in St. Louis, Mo. With all that is happening, I ask him why he is writing about pornographic movies and beer. He tells me he writes for the London Daily Mail. Friday, June 8, 1990 (election day) Prague, Czechoslovakia
Prague Spring. It is so beautiful I want to cry, so I do. Friends who had been here six months earlier told me of a sullen and depressed city. Fodor’s guide says “People have tended to turn in on themselves … maybe wait for better times … There is a kind of sluggishness about the country … ” We came out of the metro at Narodni, at the foot of Vaclavske Namesti (Wenceslas Square). It is palpable. There are card tables set up everywhere with people selling copies of various manifestos. The xerox machines have been unlocked and people are distributing every kind of hand bill. New copies of plays and poems, which had previously been distributed only in “samizdat” editions, are openly displayed.
There are knots of people vigorously arguing and people with megaphones expressing points of view. Brian says it is like a flower growing in a bud, ready to bloom. At the foot of the street is a brand new statue of Tomas Masaryk, the philosophy professor who became the first President of Czechoslovakia in 1918. At his feet are many bouquets and a Czech flag. We visit the Civic Forum Press Center. They give us translations of their manifesto and a rundown on the 23 parties participating in the elections. My favorite party is the “Friends of Beer,” which stands for having a good time and not taking this all too seriously. Civic Forum is party number 7, the Communists (KCS) are # 10 and the Christian Democrats are # 23. Civic Forum has called its election manifesto “Accepting Responsibility for Our Own Future.” It quotes Churchill and Kennedy in calling for individual sacrifice. The English translation says: … exhortations to make sacrifices do not make for a very popular electoral platform … citizens who vote for the candidates of Civic Forum know that no easy way is promised them. Those who, despite their verbal criticism, were on the whole satisfied with the previous system, which did not require much work from them, should know that if our election program succeeds, they will have to work to the limit of their abilities… We appeal to the confident good citizen in each of us, not to the humble timidity which has been cultivated in us for a long time. We do not promise anything, but we appeal to our sense of responsibility.”
We are staying in a cabin in a campground just west of downtown. I went into a hotel downtown to change money. The woman at the desk is distressed. She says that she has three posted exchange rates and doesn’t know which one to give us. She has not yet received instructions, and she always gets instructions. She stops talking, looks at me, and says, “but today we are a free country, I do what I like, and I like to give you the best rate.”
Saturday, June 9 (polls close) Prague, Czechoslovakia.
Prague is like a city preserved in amber. It escaped the ravages of the Napoleonic and the First World Wars. It was sold out at Munich, so escaped Nazi destruction at the beginning of the Second World War. At the end of that war the Americans had gotten as far as Pilsen and the Russians to Bratislava. Prague saw no fighting. It was not bombed. Since the war, it has not suffered “coca-colonization.” There are no McDonald’s or modern skyscrapers. The architectural monstrosities of socialist realism were, with two exceptions, limited to the grim suburbs. Perhaps the metaphor of a quartz geode is more appropriate, the crystal heart surrounded by grey granite. The crystal city may change with the new freedom blooming all around us, but just now it must be the most beautiful city in the world. Goethe and Mozart saw the same city, perhaps a bit cleaner. Everywhere we see examples of gothic, baroque, and art nouveau styles. It is made more beautiful by the blossoming street life surrounding us. We have walked the streets from Prague Castle and the gothic St. Vitus Cathedral, through lower town to the Charles Bridge, through the old town square to the new town. We have walked a lot. The British journalist was right — stay on the streets and watch the action. Street musicians line the Charles Bridge. We sit for a half hour and enjoy a junior high recorder ensemble playing folk songs. There is an eldrely couple with a street organ singing old popular songs. A man with a fiddle and cymbals on his feet plays the “Beer Barrel Polka” over and over, and “folkies” with guitars and banjos sing Czech versions of Pete Seeger and Woodie Guthrie. “Which Side Are You On?” The polls closed at 2 PM. At 4 PM everyone is invited to the Old Town Square for a concert by the Czech Philharmonic. Maestro Rafael Kubelik conducts the Czech National Anthem and the square goes stone silent. President Havel comes to the podium, he and the Maestro embrace. The place goes crazy. The maestro mounts the podium and conducts the Czech Philharmonic in Smetana’s “Ma Vlast.” (“My Country”) I have never attended such a moving concert. Old men are weeping proudly, and the kids are standing quietly, perhaps a little embarrassed by their parents, perhaps just waiting for the rock concert scheduled at 7:00 PM.
After the concert we go the Civic Forum headquarters by the Masaryk statue. They have a stage set up and a band is playing “Johnny Be Good.” There is dancing in the streets. An ABC TV crew focuses on the dancing while exit poll results are posted on a blackboard. Civic Forum is projected to have a 52% majority.
At 7 PM we are back at the old town square to watch the pop concert. It is being broadcast all over Europe, and stage announcements are made in Czech, English, German and French. There are artists from France, England and the U.S. The biggest applause comes for Czech artists who get introductions like, “The following poet has been banned since 1968, and has been in prison for 7 years … ” or, “This singer was a signer of Charter 77, and served three years in prison. She did not preform in public from 1977 to 1989 … “Havel makes an appearance with Paul Simon and everyone sings “Bridge Over Troubled Waters.” The legendary Czech dissident band Plastic People of the Universe performed. An American artist ends her performance by saying “I’m so happy to be here, and I’m so happy for you.” Me too.
Sunday, June 10, 1990 Prague, Czechoslovakia
Prague is not the easiest place to get around these days. There is a very good tram and metro system but you don’t always know where you are. About a third of the metro stations have had their old names ripped down. There is no longer a Moscow metro stop, which happens to be the one we get off at. We wanted to go to a press conference and asked a Civic Forum press aid how to get there. He said, “Go to the Gottwald metro stop, or whatever the hell we’re calling it now.” Street names also change. It occurs to me that I need a 1946 map of Prague. Surprisingly no one has blown up the monument in the “Square of the Soviet Tankmen,” which we pass on the way to the campground.
Prague is in a gentle state of anarchy. The old rules are no longer enforced, and new ones haven’t been made. People don’t know what to do, so they improvise, like the lady trying to change our money. At the entrance of the Palace of Culture someone has set up half pipes for skate boarders. No one is saying “don’t do that on my property, you may hurt yourself and sue me.” Prague is at that wonderful moment between the fall of tyranny and the arrival of lawyers. We find the press conference where the election results will be announced to the nation on TV. I have foreign press card #1039. There are headphones for simultaneous translation. Languages are Czech, English, German and French. No Russian and, interestingly, no Slovak. The results are scheduled to be broadcast at 7:00 PM, but the broadcast is delayed because the World Cup soccer game between Czechoslovakia and the USA has not ended.
The results show that Civic Forum has just under half the votes, the Communists have 13.5%, doing much better than expected. The Christian Democrats collapsed with only 8.75 % in Czech lands and 18% in Slovakia. The Friends of Beer got .6% more than 45,000 votes. The U.S. lost the soccer match. After the official press conference we are back on the metro to the Magic Lantern Theater for the Civic Forum Press Conference. It is an appropriate venue for a party headed by a playwright. They are obviously happy about getting a plurality of the votes, and perhaps a majority of the seats in Parliament. They are disturbed, however, because some of the partners they have been expecting to work with in a coalition government, the Social Democrats and the Greens, did not make it into the Parliament. They had worked out an agreement with the Christian Democrats for a coalition, but the Christian Democrats did poorly. The Civic Forum is disturbed by the 13 + % showing of the Communists, and pledge that they will not form a government with them. They express concern that so many nationalist groups will get seats. They do not believe that they can work with the Slovak nationalists. They will have to sort things out.
The Civic Fourm has gotten support from all across the U.S. political spectrum from Joan Baez and George Bush to Shirley Temple and Frank Zappa. The election results suggest their support is also that broad among Czechs. The Civic Forum leaders at the press conference are a charismatic lot, and include professors, writers and government ministers. I like these people. This is the first time I have seen a successful political movement run by people who seem to be like me. I wonder if they can govern. June 11, 1990 Prague, Czech The country may be a blossoming democracy, but the economic system is still Soviet.
I have to buy gas. To get it I need coupons. To get coupons I have to go to a bank, stand on a line and order the coupons. After ordering them, the paperwork has to go to another counter. I wait until it arrives and the clerk calls my name. I pay the clerk, get a receipt and stand on another line to get the coupons. After that I have to find a gas station that sells lead free. I wonder if they do any banking in that bank. Actually they do. Someone was trying to change dollars to crowns. The bank was about to give him the market rate when the traveler produced a British passport. “Sorry, you get the fixed rate.” Suzi says that trying to buy some salami and bread for the road tomorrow is just as complicated, with multiple lines.
Suzi is trying to buy some crystal in a store, but what is in the window is not available for sale. While there is plenty of food in the markets, there is very little in the way of tourist type stuff. It has been picked clean by the foreign press corps, and the vanguard of tourists who have just discovered that you don’t need a visa. Brian got a Homburg hat. We stop by the Election Commission where they have converted the vote percentages into numbers of seats in the legislature. Civic Forum has 164 out of a total of 300 seats, an absolute majority. The Communists who set up this daft economic system come in second with 40 seats.
We are seeing an interesting phenomenon here, the re-education of the public in its own history. It is a little frightening. During the Communist period the First Republic was denigrated, and the socialist yearnings of the people emphasized. The new government is trying to emphasize the democratic nature of the First Republic from 1918 to 1938. Along one street there is a “history trail.” The flags above the street emphasize each period, and kiosks have posters telling about that period of history. About every fourth store window has an historical display from the period and a TV with a video explaining history. It starts with 1918 and Tomas Masaryk, and tells about democracy in those years. It takes you through the Munich sellout, the war, the Second Republic, and the Communist coup. There are displays from the communist period, including some amazing propaganda posters. Then, as the red flags give way to Czech flags, the story of Alexander Dubcek and the Prague Spring in 1968 ends with the street, in a maze of tank traps. The display continues in an exhibit hall that graphically shows the Russian tanks of 1968 and documents the dissident movement, the signing of Charter 77, and Havel’s imprisonment. It talks about the murder of the student in November in 1989 which set off the “Velvet Revolution.” The display leads to a lecture hall where a panel is discussing the future of the country. Lots of people are following the history trail. I wonder what it must be like to be a history teacher who has to tell his students “what I taught you last year was wrong. Here is the real story.” Will Czech students believe anything anymore?
It was difficult to leave Prague. It is such a beautiful city, and our Prague Spring was a reaffirmation of almost everything I believe in. If a vacation is designed to refresh and invigorate, this one is successful. My heart is still in Prague. Someday I want to go back and get to all those museums, castles, churches and opera houses we missed because of the action on the streets, yet I am almost afraid to go back. It may tarnish the image of this “Prague Spring.” I want to remember Prague just that way. There are difficult times ahead. The country has to make the transition to a market economy. That will mean unemployment and dislocation.
Back in Sitka, typing this letter I reflect on the flight home. At the airport in Seattle I met a couple who were part of the international observer team watching the Czech elections. They gave me some unused Czech gasoline coupons as a souvenir. They got on the wrong line at the bank and bought coupons for leaded gas which they couldn’t use in a car with a catalytic converter. Civic Forum promised difficult times, but Civic Forum also wants to maintain the social welfare system. I hope they can do it. I like Civic Forum, a government made up of professors, poets, playwrights and intellectuals. I want them to succeed, I pray they do, I fear they may not. No matter what happens, the moment was important; a spring morning whose memory will warm the heart of winter; a brief triumph of humanity over an inhumane world; a precious flower that can only bloom in “interesting times.”