1
2
3
4
5

True Grit: Impressions of Prague
June 18, 1969
S. K. Oberbeck

Mr. Oberbeck is an Alicia Patterson Fund award winner, on leave from Newsweek, Inc. This article may be published, with credit to S. K. Oberbeck and the Alicia Patterson Fund.

Dreams & Defeats
Prague’s Charles Bridge at Night: In the Footsteps of Hopes, Dreams & Defeats

Marciana Marina, Isola d’Elba—It might be well to begin with a declaration by writer/critic Kenneth Tynan, written in April of 1967 after a trip to Czechoslovakia: “The Hungarians showed their hand too soon [in 1956], and were savagely slapped down. The Poles embarked shortly afterward on an artistic insurrection that had its moments of glory on stage and screen but before long the authorities flexed their muscles and it was safely quelled.

“The Czechs were biding their time,” Tynan continued. “Historically, their culture had always looked westward, and they waited until Soviet policy had decisively turned its face toward a reconciliation with the West. Then—and only then—the Czech artists began to raise their voices, secure in the knowledge that the days were past when retributive Russian tanks might rumble through the streets of Prague.”

Many people felt about like the Czech artists and Tynan did: the world was changing, the Soviets were mellowing, the moment to start some long-needed reforms had arrived. I never got to Prague during the intoxicating period of its “Spring,” when the wine of freedom was being drunk in gulps rather than little sips. I was there for the hangover time the next April. And the “morning after” seemed very drear indeed.

But to go back to the beginning…

“You must go to Prague,” friends told us when they discovered we were to spend a year traveling in Europe. “You must go...” “You mustn’t miss Prague...” Such was the refrain from friend after friend who had been there.

“The jewel of the East,” one described it, waxing lyric over its fabled roof-tops, sun-drenched spires and surprise-filled, meandering streets and cobbled lanes. Memories of steaks sizzling over charcoal at luxurious Carlsbad and Marienbad were recollected; the Tatra mountains and rolling Bohemian plains idyllized. Prospects looked good; it was “Spring” in Prague and we had generous friends living there who invited us to occupy their apartment when they took a vacation. Before we even went to Europe, we had boned up on the Karel Plicka photograph albums of legendary Praha.

Judas-Kiss

We were ready to go around the middle of August last year—and were, in fact, due in Prague sometime on the 18th. The news from Czechoslovakia (the sanguine “Warsaw Letter” had been followed by hopeful meetings at Cierna and Bratislava). Brezhnev had embraced Dubček in the eyes of the world that watched—whether he actually delivered the Judas-kiss, I forget. We were ready to go, but something intervened. Not just the Russians and their cronies (that came later), but an odd premonition I conceived, coupled with the inconsequentially gray news coming out and historical distrust of Soviets..

We were in Stockholm at the time. At a beach several miles from the city one afternoon, I made up my mind to postpone the Prague trip. I said to my wife: “Let’s wait on Prague, it just doesn’t sound right somehow. Let’s go down to Germany.” Two days later, we cruised into the charming university town of Freiburg im Breisgau, a gateway to the Black Forest just 20 minutes from the French border. We stayed for four months.

Housing Problems

Finding a place to live in student-packed Freiburg proved difficult. We stayed in a wonderful modest hotel and concentrated (to the exclusion of everything else) on locating more permanant quarters. I didn’t look at a newspaper for days. I remember a sinking feeling: since we were planning to spend time in Paris, I had better get the jump on the housing situation there and phoned up a colleague in my paper’s Paris bureau.

I phoned him early on the morning of August 20. After exchanging cordial salutations, the gentleman asked me what he could do for me. If he had a minute, I replied, could he suggest a good agency for renting Paris digs or lead me to someone who could help.

After a moment of silence on the Paris end of the line, he said: “Uh, do you think you could call me back later sometime. Things are pretty tied up around here right now.”
“Oh. Really,” I returned, ever the newshawk, “something going on in Paris?” He then informed me that the Warsaw Pact forces had invaded Czechoslovakia, accepted my burbled apologies and we rang off. So, they caught me by surprise too.

Hotfooting over to the local newspaper office, I found people clustered around the window in which the bulletin reporting the invasion was posted. A bookstore down the street had a window display that afternoon featuring books about Prague, a news bulletin in black borders of mourning. The SDS people, with others, organized a march—in which American Imperialism in Vietnam shared honors with the Warsaw invaders.

Reaction

I bought a small German short-wave radio. French news coverage of the invasion was far superior to anything I heard in English. With my crippled German, I caught only snatches of the German reportage and reaction; but the tempo and tone cast an unmistakable atmosphere: the bear is at the door. Weeks later, a young German girl asked me in all seriousness: “I know they won’t invade us, but if they did...Would you help us if they occupied Germany?” Interesting question.

Initial surprise and shock over the invasion refused to wear off for weeks. Reports and pundit’s columns in the English and American papers, written quite often in that tone of wounded gravity journalists reserve when caught flat-footed, struck me as a bit illogical in light of Eastern Europe’s history—though the callous audacity of the Soviet invasion, even for the Russians, was at first astonishing. Yet the crocodile tears fell so unabated, it seemed the Western press felt somehow personally responsible for the cruel repression meted out by the Russians.

How Could They?

How could they do it, went the submerged refrain, when things were going so beautifully in Czechoslovakia? How could they so utterly betray these well-meaning, hard-working, visionary men who postulated “socialism with a human face”? And just when they—with much encouragement from the liberal Western press—were about to produce a softer ideology palatable even to the most benighted Kiwanis Club anti-Communist. The warts of Stalinism, however, proved not so easy to remove from the face of socialism.

Europeans reacted with more equanimity; they had been that route before and appeared to be looking ahead for signs of the consequences of the invasion. Germans with whom I spoke—mostly older people—exhibited scant wounded faith nor the “you can’t trust the Russians” line. They simply froze into cold logic, no doubt remembering what real confrontation and real consequences could mean.

Younger Germans were outraged with that edge of blustery impotence that signaled their sudden distrust of the regime whose slogans and concepts spring so easily from their lips. The Mao-and-Marcuse folks, after a dutiful expressions of condolence, quickly played up the invasion as proof that the Soviet “revisionists” were corrupt, imperialistic—no worse than the Americans. But they were Germans, too, and everyone was anxious. As one young man, whose political stripe remained to me vague, intoned fatuously: “This situation has for all of Germany the gravest implications.” We tried not to laugh.

The radical strains of Maoism or Castroism (or Marcuse-think) were winners in the Czech matter among Europe’s politically switched-on young. Its effect on the older generation of left-leaning voters or Communists will be interesting. Knowing how the Hitler-Stalin Pact demoralized so many Communists in 1939, possible changes in leftwing solidarity will be fascinating to observe. Perhaps we in the West have come to a point, exacerbated by years of Cold War, guerilla war and the nuclear trump-threat, where we can witness what has been called “the rape” of Czechoslovakia and swallow and digest it in months.

Deal Theory

At the time of the invasion, what intrigued me most was the West’s resort to all sorts of covering, or palliating, mechanisms in the face of its total inability to do anything to affect the situation. The paralyzing shock was warranted: NATO intel was presumably zero and the US spymasters were caught out too. Also, the invasion was a great propaganda coup for Warsaw Pact’s military might. Months later, rumors crept into the news (occasionally making reference to our failure to help Hungary in ’56) that the US did nothing because we secretly agreed to “spheres of interest”)--reflecting a powerful European anxiety—in some a conviction--that America and Russia would make common cause to freeze out China.

Tanks, Troops and Disillusioned Praugers
Tanks, Troops and Disillusioned Praguers Flood Wenscelas Square

Beyond the “Czech rape” cynicism of a “deal” theory, the invasion was a powerful, demonstration of combined Soviet military strength, logistical capabilities and blunt pragmatism. As to logistics, I remember the recollection of an English girl who was studying German at the Goethe Institute in Stauffen we attended. She was camped, with her parents, near the Prague airport the night of the invasion.

“Bloody Clockwork”

Her father, she recounted, had been awakened shortly after midnight by the sound of planes. Being an old RAF man, he lay awake and began counting what seemed to be an armada of regular landings. Far into the morning, as it happened, he ticked off a plane landing every few minutes—“like bloody clockwork,” he said. One hopes that, in an emergency, our NATO forces could do as well. Accounts of post-invasion NATO communications and alertness did not inspire any Europeans I questioned.

After the initial shock wore off, the Western media picked up on the nature of Czech “resistance,” and we were treated to ad nauseum Schweik. The funny stories were scarcely consoling but at the time they were all we, and the poor Czechs, had. The sly and wily progeny of the Good Soldier’s cunning undercutting authority showed itself in winning ways.

Anecdotes of how Czechs painted out street signs and road markers to confuse the dumb Russians failed to mask one central, crushing fact: they invaded and occupied with efficiency and caught Western defenses completely off-guard. This unpleasant fact provoked various face-saving reactions. One that struck me as pernicious was former Defense Department official (under JFK) Adam Yarmolinsky’s:

“The Soviet moves in Czechoslovakia have no significant long-run strategic consequences. They do not affect the underlying nuclear threat to Western Europe.” In this writer’s view, our primary worry should have been about the effect on arms limitation talks with the Russians. This logic, by which all political acts should be viewed only by their effect on nuclear matters, is akin to giving Rosemary’s baby carte blanche because we fear Dr. Strangelove more.

Note, however, that the Warsaw Pact forces did not invade and occupy Czechoslovakia with an affidavit attesting to their nuclear power, but with conventional armaments of force—planes, tanks, artillery and troops. Nor did they ever threaten nuclear warfare. Yarmolinsky’s sort of reaction, which may be lofty Realpolitik, does not impress our European friends.

Electric Eyes

The crying need to extract some vitiating humor from such a debacle was understandable and irrepressible. The best story I heard concerned invasion tank crews landed at Prague airport, which features a modern steel-and-glass terminal building. The tanks, it seems, were driven from the tarmac right through the central lobby, which meant they had to pass automatic glass doors. The second tank through the doors got no benefit from the electric-eye technology: the first tank’s crew, apparently startled by doors opening magically, shattered them with machinegun fire. Evidently, the Sputnik sophistication does not percolate down to army grunts in the USSR.

We met a number of young Czechs at the Goethe Institute who had been caught by the imvasion outside the country and probably needed some “official” reason for staying out. Many already spoke German passably well. Resplendent in Western clothes (we found out later Prague couture tends towards neo-Khrushchev), a group of Czech girls huddled during morning break from language classes around whomever was reading out mail from home: tears and laughter as girls hugged or consoled one another.

Students
Brave Students vainly try arguing for freedom under the heel of their occupiers

One girl in her early 20s told me, almost with a look of disbelief, how she had news of the tanks crunching down the Prague streets, tearing aside trees and caving in parked autos, of the shooting and raking of public buildings. She was expressing in metaphor what she, a young student, felt: hopes and hearts were being crushed by the tanks. The Czechs were still marking time with German when we decamped from Freiburg.

Not One Day

News of post-invasion months has been cataloged to death. Certain little nuggets, though, stick in the mind. Schweikian slogans adorned pre-invasion Prague walls: “With the Soviet Union forever, but not one day longer” and “Long live the Soviet Union, but at its own expense.” A joke went around about the fretting leader, Dubček: he went to a fortune teller seeking advice on his two major problems, lack of housing and food. The food problem was simple, the seer said, just close the eastern border to Russia. The housing problem wasn’t much more difficult: just open the western frontier.

The humor flagged rather quickly. “Cain and Abel were brothers too” announced one post-invasion slogan. “They have tanks but we have the truth” rightly expressed the doomed, last-ditch faith of the victims whose special brand of resistance works best after the tanks and troops are gone. It remains to be seen if the truth shall make the Czechs free, as their national motto promises. The relativity of modern “truth” and “freedom” will not be working in their favor.

Jabberwocky

What intrigued me in a black sort of way about post-invasion Czechoslovakia was the pathetic spectacle of Dubček (often referred to as “your friendly street-corner politician” I was told) carrying out the sentence of measured self-destruction imposed on him from the moment he was whisked off to Moscow like a common criminal. Stumbling through show-trial speeches of apology with the twisted jabberwocky of Communist rhetoric, he resembled a man who quite literally had been commanded to destroy himself and was loyally attempting to carry out the sentence. Dubček’s treatment, and sad submission, was a grim reminder. The Soviets have a special talent for scripting self-imposed humiliation. After all the self-abnegation and bland headlines reporting Dubček’s latest humiliation (“Dubček declares it’s hard to be a friend of the Soviet Union,” said one), the image remained for me of a swamped, sad man with his hand at his throat, trying diligently to strangle himself—for the good of his countrymen.

Tanks Again

The next time we made ready for our actual Prague pilgrimage, the Czechs had beat the Russians in those fabled hockey games (the scores were chalked everywhere when we finally got there). A crowd had sacked and burned the Aeroflot office on Prague’s main street leading up to Wenceslas Square, and the heat was on again. On April 4, I picked up a London Times to find the following story under the headline, “Soviet threat to use tanks in Prague:”

“Russia has given warning to Czechsolovakia that if steps are not taken to prevent further anti-Russian demonstrations the Soviet Army will intervene without the approval of Prague [sic]. Demonstrators would be run over by tanks.” But we were scheduled to fly to Prague April 7 and decided che serà serà .... I had never faced a Russian tank before, so…

We flew from Zurich on that sunny Monday morning, leaving behind jagged, ice cream alps glistening in golden, rosy light. We passed over manicured, patchwork farms of Switzerland and Germany, shimmering, huddled villages and towns in which steeples caught and splintered the sunlight. The earth, quite literally, changed suddenly to great expanses of brown soil, obviously fertile but seemingly fallow. We had the impression of desolation and depopulation, save for clutches of factory-like buildings and, scattered houses at points along the meandering silver of a river.

Our Swiss Air flight touched down smoothly at Prague airport, taxied past Czech and sleek-looking Aeroflot jets; a ruddy-faced young air hostess beckoned us into the right entry; an impassive face waited for visas and passports, studied our documents with impassive slowness, stamped us in.

Wedding-Cake In The Boondocks

Our friend’s wife was waiting. I cashed my minimum obligatory dollars into Czech crowns (16 to the US dollar; Czechs get 7 to the dollar; a currency black market yields as much as 15, and in Vienna some refugees paid 72) and off we went. Highway signs were virtually non-existent, roads no worse than Portugal’s, parched landscapes in buff and gray. A fine dust permeated everything, lending both the bleak rows of post-war block housing and the surrounding countryside an odd sepia hue. We passed, in the distance, the big Soviet-built “luxury” hotel, Stalinist wedding-cake in the boondocks, which our friend informed us is a major butt of humor among Czechs for its ugliness and vulgarity.

As we neared the city, my impression was of a post-war city, not so badly damaged but still postponing repairs. Nothing dramatic, of course; just a general atmosphere of over-use and scant maintenance—a Prague streetcar conveys the feeling perfectly: tired things, worn things.

Our friends live above the city, close to an Army barracks commandeered by the Russians during the invasion but turned back to the Czechs when the Soviets decided on less conspicuous occupation. I am told the Russians are back again, in spades, and we saw a jeepful, who whipped off and hid their wide military hats to be inconspicuous..

Their apartment is near a square through which the occupiers’ tanks rumbled on the invasion morning. My friend is convinced he narrowly missed being shot (or shot at, as it turns out) that morning. His literary agent called him from New York at around four a.m. Prague time (a nice MacLuhan-cum-Kafka touch) to tell him of the invasion going on. And, indeed, he heard rumblings, hied himself outside and arrived at the square just in time to meet a tank on its way down into the city. In the pre-dawn light, he watched a Russian soldier emerge to take a shot at what appeared to be a fleeing taxi.

The Russian’s aim was unsteady and the taxi fast-retreating out of range, and so Ivan turned his gun on my friend, waving it back and forth in a signal to go away. My friend made tracks. And that was his first introduction to the “mellowed” form of Soviet Communism hailed so long and so certainly by so many intellectuals in the “warfare” state of America.

Luxury Living

Naturally, the housing situation (our friends’ apartment was to be ours the duration of our stay) interested us. We learned that around half a million Czech families still had no houses or apartments adequate to their numbers, and that space allotments still required many families to share dwellings, including apartments. The waiting time for housing is on the order of ten years or more; the waiting list is staggering. Yet the Czechs wait patiently and wrap their hopes in terms of decades.

By such standards, their apartment was luxury living: a two-bedroom flat, with large living-room and kitchen, ample bathroom (the fixtures were Yugoslavian, the best available in the East) and even a small, glassed-in study where my friend worked. In fact, the apartment was a three-bedroom flat, but a charming Czech couple had been allotted the third bedroom as their “house,” and shared kitchen and bath. They showed us their new quarters with obvious pride. We sat down to thick Turkish-style coffee, toasted with plum brandy and some cognac we had brought in. A big, brown plastic Blaupunkt radio occupied a place of honor almost like a shrine.

Our considerate hosts had made plans for us and created an sightseeing itinerary that bested the normal guide-books. But we are ruthlessly unschedulable people. Our SOP on arrival in any city is to head for the railway station, pick up a city plan, leave the car and begin exploring on foot. Whether in London or Munich, Freiburg or Lausanne, we always started out just walking around, getting a feel of the cityscape, the architecture, the people, shop windows and vistas as well as the general flow of traffic, shoppers and strollers in their own environment.

Castle Hradcany's forbidding gate
Castle Hradčany’s forbidding gate: Stern warning to be on your guard

We did the same in Prague, after visiting—albeit on roller-skates—such tourist essentials as the Strahov cloister, St. Vitus cathedral, Hradčany castle, the Loretto cloister, Gold Lane’s quaint, tiny houses, the Old and New Town halls and the Tyn cathedral with its twin gothic towers. We saw students in Wenceslas Square cleaning anti-Soviet slogans off the saint’s monument and soliders goose-stepping Soviet-style as the guard changed in the castle courtyard. Many signers of last Spring’s freedom manifestos were still in jail.

The Charles bridge, most famous of Prague’s 14, was a jumble of metal scaffolding, its stones and statues blackened by the soot and coal dust that permeates the Prague air when there is not a coal shortage. To Praguers, it is a welcome winter aroma: they won’t freeze.

Best Show In Town

On the bridge looking down-river, one sees on a distant hill a huge platform perched above flights of steps leading up to it. Monumentally empty, the concerete dias smacks of something missing. Something is: a giant statue of Stalin which brooded over the heart of Prague until it was decided (after Novotny’s ouster, I believe) that Uncle Joe should depart. The problem was how to get the massive sculpture down without creating a “provocative” spectacle.

A cunning plan to dismantle the statue with dynamite by night went awry, however. Stalin proved ever the tough old bird. After the first night’s hardly clandestine labors, the best the sappers had achieved was to blow off Stalin’s head. They melted away with morning’s light, and there, to the surprise and amusement of Praguers, was a headless Stalin. No explanation or mention of the curiosity appeared in any of the news media. But word naturally got around, and the next night the Stalin sappers had company—and so on, for succeeding nights (how many I forget, but something like a week) until the “secret” demolition became the best show in town.

The statue may have been gone, but Stalin’s spirit still pervaded Prague of April 1969. It was on the Charles bridge that the first of the “money changers” approached us, wanting to swap Czech crowns for hard currency at an enticing black market rate. Throughout our stay in Prague, we were constantly pitched by these currency “speculators” on crowded, main streets and at historical monuments, sometimes at a rate of one every five minutes. Many student-aged youths approached us (only one woman) and numerous work-worn men of all ages asked in German or broken English to make a deal. We were intrigued by how very many men of working age and mein were walking the Prague streets; whether they were jobless or simply found profiteering more lucrative, we never were able to determine.

Extreme Politeness, Dogged Resolve

Of course, they want the hard currency for various reasons: to stake them if they should manage to get out of the country or for trading on a black market of goods or perhaps for bribes. Their extreme politeness makes it difficult not to succumb. But some might be provocateurs—government “plants,” so our friends advised us never to change money. I had been denounced in Komsomolskaya Pravda for favorably reviewing some Soviet dissident writing, so why risk trouble? I made it a rule never to change, and memorized the Czech phrase meaning “No. Very, very sorry, but no.” What haunted me was that, to a man (and to the woman), not once was there ever the slightest expression of impoliteness or even real disappointment. It was either a nod of understanding (they knew you had suspicions of plants too), an “O.K.” or an occasional “think yew.”

They often slid up slyly at your elbow like a dirty postcard vendor in Paris, whispering in an unmistakable tone or came on like rather proud panhandlers. But when refused, you could feel they simply checked you off without malice and away they went, eyes roving, culling out new possibilities from the streams of tourist strollers: the eternal, patient hustle, like standing in lines for hours to buy something that could be ordered and delivered by telephone in any Western country. That atmosphere of dogged resolve, with no trace of resentment, radiated grayly from the Prague populace and became a palpable presence to us. Like fishermen and farmers who live with steady wind or drought, Praguers seemed to lean into life with that posture of resigned patience.

Patience seemed not a virtue in Prague but a sentence. We had to register at the police station (on the famous Bartholomew Street from which the secret police in awful, phony leather coats operate most conspicuously), and dreaded sweating a long line while sights unseen beckoned. Since I’ve worked in police stations, I get no butterflies, even in Kafka-country, over walking into the ante-room of “dank cellars” and the third degree.

Padded Doors

But the padded doors (a bulk of cottony substance under sheet plastic) were a bit unsettling. I remembered a journalist friend telling me that the eerie thing about the Prague police station was its doorknobs: you just turned and turned but no latch never opened. The narrow hall was packed with people in neat lines, one facing forward, another facing backward and one in the middle, nervously shifting. These, I learned to my joy, were not people waiting to check in but waiting to get visas out, standing oddly silent, most of them withdrawn into their own private anxieties or dreams.

Once inside the right padded door, my wife and I were speedily and courteously checked in as official visitors. Handing back our passports and visas, the police clerk smiled and said “think yew.” As we left, it seemed we were walking through a bunch of super-annuated college kids cheerlessly trying to stuff a phone booth. But neatly, in ordered lines.

Lost Hours

How much time, or potentially productive hours, is lost to the Czech economy by the constant line-standing would make a fascinating statistical exercise. To buy most items in shops, my wife was obliged to stand in three sets of lines: one to get her turn to tell the salesgirl what she wanted (or for Czechs, simply to see what is currently available); one to pay for the item chosen; and another to pick up the wrapped item by turning over her cash-register receipt. In small grocery shops, such racing from line to line produces a Marx Brothers “Night at the Opera” milling but fails to produce the profusion of “pardons” one would expect from the constant jostling which occurs. It’s every man (or woman) for himself.

In Prague’s “super market” (for Czechs, really super), hand-held, wire shopping baskets limited the number of shoppers: you waited in a line until someone exited and handed you an empty basket. Lines for trams are usually long; once inside, the old streetcars are packed to overflowing, but no worse than buses or subways in New York. We wondered if perhaps the time lost in line-ups might not be a form of quasi-Parkinsonism that was compensated for joblessness by creating the “work” of line-standing. Or perhaps it was the Czech method, a la Schweik, of sabotaging the Soviet economy. At any rate, we were told most Praguers who saw a line went to stand in it, if only to inquire what commodity in short supply was at its end.

Two Experiences

Lest it seem that we saw Prague through a glass too darkly, let me recount two experiences etched in my memory. One was an art exhibit to which we were invited; the other an organ and choral concert we attended in the baroque majesty of St. Nicholas cathedral.

The art exhibit, with champagne and toasted almonds, was a Paul Klee collection, the first Klee to be shown in Prague since W.W. II we were informed—and by implication, the first German exhibit since the war (save for one in the Old Jewish Quarter’s museum which consists of photographs of Nazi depredations). The vernissage was in the old Sternberk Palace, home of a renowned Czech family in prewar Prague, now a museum which houses a collection of Czech gothic art as well as impressionist and mannerist paintings.

The palace is on the square fronting Hradčany castle—a sector of the city beautifully kept up since it holds many of Prague’s most precious monuments, including St. Vitus’s and other old palaces; farther up, opposite Černín palace (now the foreign affairs ministry), is the sacred shrine of the Loretto, the main Marian pilgrimage destination in Bohemia, also an art museum and famous for its carillon. The Klee exhibit appeared to be “an occasion.” Official cultural Prague was there; diplomats dropped in to sip champagne and exchange pleasantries; the dress was decidedly upscale. A neatly manicured garden, with some graceful sculptures, invited us into the sun. It seemed the first time we actually had encountered really green grass in Prague.

Pocket of Pleasure

We spoke with the host whose cordiality was mixed with palpable anxiety over our reaction to his beloved city. He kept murmuring, by way of latent apology, what an unfortunate time it was to see Prague. Surrounded by the Klees and French impressionist and mannerist canvases, savoring the sun-dappled, silent garden and gazing into the bubbling bottom of our beautiful champagne goblets (Prague was noted for its glassware), we seemed in another world—far from the crumbling streets and blind, pocked facades of so much of Prague. Through the trivialities we exchanged, our host conveyed some between-the-lines sentiments: this is how it can be, he seemed to be saying; this is almost how it was. We worked, we endured, we hoped, we juggled the system for just this sort of brief respite, this pocket of pleasure--art, sun, champagne, toasted almonds (quite a luxury). These are our hard-won indulgences, and we know that this could be, could have been. Don’t pity us, don’t patronize us, we’ll keep on trying...

Preoccupied

This is not what he really said...He said, “I think the Klees are very good, don’t you think?” They weren’t especially. “Yes,” I said, “some of the early ones really give you a feeling for his development.” He said, “Ah, now it is not a good time; the students are very worried, very unhappy...We met with the workers last night and I think it goes very well.” “Good.” I said, popping almonds. “Very, very encouraging,” he said, fiddling his pipe. “This champagne is quite good, don’t you think?” he said. It was Yugoslavian, and very good. “Yes,” I said, “excellent.” “Yes,” he replied, “very, very encouraging.”

His preoccupation seemed rather total, and so we excused ourselves, as good fifth wheels should. Before though, we had spoken of the Prague Zoo, where some little Przewalski horses, now virtually extinct in the wilds, are exhibited. The last remnants of the stocky, short-maned creatures used to roam the border area between Russia and China in Mongolia. But Chinese border guards, no doubt applying Mao thought, found a logical use for the animals: they shot and ate them. I asked if he knew that story. He smiled wanly, shook his head and found not a trace of irony in the anecdote.

We admired the champagne goblets and inquired if perhaps he knew where we could find some. He knew, and directed us to what was presumably the only shop in Prague that sold them now.

Opulent Violence

The concert we attended one smoky evening was memorable for many reasons. St. Nicholas cathedral is a splendidly “decadent” example of man’s glorification of God. Most art critics consider it one of the finest baroque structures in Europe. Its ornate columns and pilasters, its undulating alcoves in wine-red, green and bluish marble are brilliant with swatches and sunbursts of gilt that broadcast shafts of sunlight streaming from high windows above the altar. Statues of stern saints, crosses held aloft, cast down devils at their feet, creating a metaphor of subdued evil.

interior of St. Nicholas cathedral
Gilded Barqoque interior of St. Nicholas cathedral – Arpeggios of ice-crystals

It is the sort of edifice that never warms up, like the Medici Chapel in Florence. Its pews must have been designed by torturers of the Inquisition, but then you don’t come to church to be comfortable. When we arrived, early, the cathedral was already crowded; the inflow continued even after the concert began, late. We heard works by Slav composers, pieces by Kodaly, Palestrina and the sonorous, soul-stirring thunder of Bach. The people of Prague overflowed the pews, stood clustered in aisles, leaned against walls, even sat on the cold stone floor. The sun had just finished its own symphony on the gilt and marble.

Without stretching the imagination, it was an emotional moment. A clear, female voice in solo pierced the utter stillness of the gathering darkness with the precision and pathos of a soul in torment. Later, the hushed beauty of the clavichord, arpeggios like cascades of gorgeous ice crystals, and finally an organ--Bach’s volcanic hymns to the power and the glory of God.
It took that moment, and that mood, to make apparent to me the grand irony that surrounded us and in which we were participants—as tourists, as wanderers in the cultural landscape of Europe, as contemporary human beings in a politicized world. For months, an irony enfolded us we scarcely recognized: that the story of Europe has been religion and royalty; that everywhere we went we were confronted by creations in tribute to God, or the works which men of power, by commission or command, had brought to fruition. Kings and the Church, and the princes of both, made Europe what it is physically. And it is still beautiful.

Mini-Monuments

In Prague, the most impressive (and most cherished) monuments are still a castle, cathedrals, cloisters and several palaces. The least impressive, even to Czech socialists, is the Moscow-built hotel. Most depressing, to us, were those mini-monuments to social planning, the Soviet-style housing blocks (which reminded me of our US housing projects) that stand like bunkers along the main highway into the city.

Ah, but think on the injustices of these sometimes cruel elites of church and monarchy, one might say. Think of the corruption and coercion, think of the unjust disparity between the jeweled noble and the struggling peasant! All legitimate, relevant questions. But still one wonders, in light of the great leveling effect occurring in the world today, what overwhelming monuments will be created by the modern power brokers—the substitutes for popes and kings—in the name of, and to the glory of, Man?

Epi-Center

There we were, then, at the epi-center of the movement to soften the system that had violently replaced monarchy and the church with the force of dictatorship and social engineering, among the souls gathered in an ancient cathedral to hear music created in a different epoch.

What monuments are being built in the East? They were building a new brand of socialism to be sure, but the Czech reformers found out quickly how hard it is to alter ideology. I thought of headless Stalin and “socialism with a human face,” while all around us many people, young and old, had their heads bowed in prayer or tears.

And I thought of the wily comment made by some Polish leaders at a party congress in 1961. “Yes, we are for socialism,” they said, “but we are against all the roads that lead to socialism.” That remark serves to illustrate the dilemma not only of the cruelly repressed Czechs but also all the Eastern peoples under Soviet domination.

Received in New York on July 24, 1969.