Czech Nostalgia Through the Ages: How Did Communism Change People?

As we walked through the small village of Rakové where my adopted Czech grandma was born, she remarked on how much had changed. From the former cowsheds to the fields of fruit trees to the little streams running through the shaded wood, it was all different…

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My first couple of years in Czech Republic made a huge impression on me. I was exploring every facet of Czech life and finding it to be grounded in traditions, history, and philosophies that were completely foreign to me, despite the fact that by the time I arrived (August 2014), Czech Republic had been considered part of “the West” (a super loaded term) for 25 years, since the fall of Communism in Czechoslovakia.

These traditions covered everything from the love of “tramping”, which means something very different in Czech than in English; from the densest network of hiking trails in the world (with about 70,000 km marked territory total); and from the fact that people actively build their own houses and actually chop wood to heat their fireplaces

…to the Christmas fairytales, the ups and downs of the health care system, and the in-school cafeterias that serve food that don’t come frozen or in cans.

See also: Why Are You Really Here? Part 2

Czech Republic is a much different country than it was 31 years ago. It is economically successful, has a high rate of employment and education, and its young people are becoming more and more worldly, embracing democracy, travel, and capitalism (and with it, budding consumerism).

Yet if you look past the surface, you will see that much of the country’s modern way of functioning is a legacy of Communism. That is the case with the love of nature, the universal health care system, and the education system (including those full canteen meals, even if they’re not nearly as good as what your grandma makes).

It is also the case with the nature of Czech people themselves. In my article about Czech “satisfaction” and the classic Slavic enthusiasm curve (see here), I mentioned that complaining is considered a Czech national sport. Most complaining is to family, friends and colleagues – the “everyday” kind. The only things Czechs will really make a scene about is when their beer is not tapped to legally required levels. But otherwise, Czechs keep a lot bottled up inside.

Modern supermarkets are a wonderland of consumer choice!

This is a heavily negative inheritance of the Communist period. When you could put your farm, your schooling, or your career at risk by raising even basic concerns about the Communist government or system, most people answered by, well, not answering. They got quieter, and complained privately. There were, of course, means of organized resistance like the samizdat movement of covert publishing or the Charter 77 movement, led by well-known public figures and artists. While these methods contributed to the fall of the regime in 1989, the threat of personal ruin was, on the whole, a successful means of repression for 40+ years.

In addition to that, by attempting to – ahem – “make people equal against their will,” the Communists perpetuated rampant feelings of jealousy by Czech people towards their neighbors. For example, people with access to fertile land were required to produce a certain amount of crops for the government. This was often not possible for small farms, and resulted in land being taken away and made public. On the other hand, if you sympathized publicly with the Communists, you might be rewarded with a higher position.

While the Communist system was successful at raising employment rates to nearly 100% (by literally punishing unemployment with imprisonment), people did not have the same amount of money or access to resources. Instead, they envied their neighbors for what they did not have – whether that was a job, a garden, or material things – and the anger simmered beneath the surface (another way to redirect anger from the ruling system responsible).

A wine cellar and woodpile next to a house in the village of Rakové.

To put it informally, this is what makes Czechs famous for their side-eye. I have many times been speaking English in public and felt eyes on me. When I return the gaze of the staring person, they quickly avert their eyes. But believe me, those eyes will be back as soon as I look away. This could in some cases be from jealousy, but more likely it’s combined with annoyance that I am not speaking Czech. Still, it’s the way of things: People don’t say things to your face. They watch carefully, internalize, and then complain privately.

Believe me – I’m not complaining about Czechs. I am very fond of all the quirks I’ve encountered living and loving here. However, understanding this trait is a great first step towards opening these conversations and finding deeper intimacy with people here.

I’ve mentioned before my interest in the history of Communism and my inquiries as to my friends’ experiences under the regime. One of the things that shocked the pants off of me was being told by a doctor that she liked it better under Communism because she didn’t have to fight with the insurance companies to get paid. It made me realize two things:

1) The American history books are not nearly nuanced enough,

2) People will adjust to any situation if the economics suit them.

A view of the house where Grandma was born, as well as the little chapel, in Rakové.

What if you grew up poor, like my adopted Czech grandma, in 1940s Czechoslovakia? We recently visited Rakové, the village of now – get this – FOUR PEOPLE, where she grew up. There weren’t always four people there. When roughly 20 people made up a family (as they did hers, as she is the oldest of 9 children), there were once 80+ people.

As we walked through the small village, located in the hills of Vysočina, she remarked on how much had changed.

Perhaps funniest for me, a New Yorker, “Oh yes, this used to be a barn with cows. This too. Also this.”

Uncovering some stone stairs hidden well by bushes: “There used to be a spring here that we would drink from. Is there any water left in the well?”

Speaking of a fenced incline next to a lovely house under reconstruction, complete with a sign marked PRIVATE PROPERTY: “They didn’t used to have these barriers. Of course someone owned the property, but they never forbid us from going anywhere we wanted.”

And as we walked through a shaded path towards the next village, bordered by fields, “None of these woods were here. You used to be able to see for kilometers around. Then the Communists took the land and planted all the trees.”

The cemetery in Doubravník. There are sometimes problems with people stealing flowerpots, vases, and candles that family members leave on loved ones’ graves.

As we walked passed beautifully restored houses with front lawns done “like from an advertisement” (Ondra mentioned), my adopted Czech grandma remarked sadly about how they used to be able to take apples and cherries from their neighbors’ trees, no problem.

“We didn’t even lock our houses,” she said. “We always had a loaf of bread with a knife and ham on the table, always, in case someone would stop by.”

I said something like, “You weren’t worried?” in surprise since this was such a foreign idea to me, and then Grandma said with emphasis,

“To se nekrádlo.”

To translate roughly, “People in those days did not steal.”

She continued, “We all had nothing, so people used to help each other. Not anymore. Now, people are more likely to be jealous of each other.”

For some Czechs today, nostalgia is looking back towards the Communist era. (As crazy as it might sound for the young and international, that is their right – capitalism scares them, as well it should.) In fact, though, the Communist era was known as a period of normalized stealing despite TG Masaryk’s founding advice to the contrary, from corruption in government offices to taking toilet paper from work. While many don’t like it, this “tradition” continues until today as another informal cultural legacy.

Perhaps that’s why for others, mainly older Czechs, it is looking back on a period when you didn’t know anything more than being poor and happy. There were cowsheds and neighborhood kids to play with and fruit trees to take handfuls from as a mid-afternoon snack for free (after walking up and down a hill to and from school). There wasn’t a lot of money or meat to go around, but you could go anywhere you wanted and ask anyone for help, and reasonably expect to receive it.

My aim is not to say that any time in history is better than another – it almost never is! Often, the times are more different than better. Today, you could argue, there is less poverty than ever. There is also a lot more division – for example, about important public health measures like wearing a mask, which have even become a form of political division in the US. But I see a very interesting comparison along the lines of generosity vs. jealousy here. It’s worth a thought towards what kind of future we want to have, on both the interpersonal and global level.

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