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September 16, 2005

Back Over the Curtain - Lincoln Allison revisits Prague and eastern Berlin after thirty-one years

Posted by Lincoln Allison

Lincoln Allison revisits Prague and eastern Berlin for the first time in thirty-one years. He reflects on what has - and what has not - changed in these cities and their surrounding areas, and on whether they still bear the mark of communism.

Summer 1974. A young English couple approach Prague from the South. They are made vaguely apprehensive by the low cloud, drizzle and unseasonable darkness. This apprehension is exacerbated by the frequent red banners with pictures of Lenin. But they are more specifically apprehensive about the behaviour of their A35 van. It splutters, "misses" and cuts out. Several times it has been revived by drying and separating wires, but, finally, near the city centre, it dies completely and refuses to show any life. Gallantly, the young man sends the young woman off to find help while he fiddles fearfully and incompetently with wires. She returns with a kitchen porter from a nearby hotel, but this is post-Dubcek Czechoslovakia and he is a former diplomat who speaks sixteen languages. He in turn summons two mechanics from the hotel garage who quickly restore roaring power to the old A-series engine using only sticking tape. They laugh heartily at the prospect of finding the "proper part" and are happy to accept a pound note each. Their repair reaches England without further mishap.

The couple find a camp site by the Vltava which they share mainly with track-suited East Germans. For a week they stay in the beautiful but gloomy city, riding the trams without ever finding out how to pay the fare. Restaurants prove to be a problem: menus only in Czech, vast menus with little or nothing "on", fellow customers who consist entirely of Soviet officers and restaurants who charge entry fees ("Das ist ein restaurant mit musik!"). When they finally leave the country in the direction of Nurnberg they are involved in a potentially difficult incident at the border. An officious border guard orders them to take everything out of their van. The young man, rendered irrational by a week in an occupied city, refuses point blank and there is a stand-off. This is broken by a young, long-haired, American hurling a Frisbee at the guard. Fortunately, he catches it; a broad smile crosses his face and there is an international friendship moment as the Frisbee is thrown and caught for some minutes. The contents of the van are forgotten: it contains nothing heroic in any case, not least because the young man is used to the effect that his van has on anyone in uniform. But the couple have never been as pleased to cross a border as they are to see sleek Bavaria.

Summer 2005. The same couple, now upgraded to a VW Golf which never splutters or cuts out, approach Prague again. Madame la Navagatrice aims unerringly at the garage of the Diplomat Hotel and we set off to walk to the Castle. Our partnership has outlived communism and also (more surprisingly) the partnership between the Czech and Slovak republics. The city looks particularly colourful in the sunshine, especially from the terraced gardens of the castle. Perhaps it owes something to Communist administrators who never tried to redevelop it. The density of tourists around the castle, on the Charles Bridge and in the Old Town is second only to Venice in the whole of Europe.

We feel sorry for the numerous stag parties, mostly English, which patrol the city: already bleary-eyed and pasty-faced from the first night they face a second night on the booze. Every kind of food is available, though "traditional Czech food" still proves to be remarkably like traditional school food. There are many hawkers in the streets advertising chamber concerts at all hours of the day and we attend a 5pm concert, a young and highly proficient ensemble of three clarinets, an oboe, a bassoon and a flute. Ten of the fourteen pieces they play are of Czech origin. Our evening includes a rather flash bar where our neighbours are two lads from Manchester accompanied by two traditional Czech blondes. This may be the liveliest city on the planet.

Prague is the easy and extreme case. In the 1990s I used to set myself the "parachute test". The general form of the test is to pretend that you have been dropped out of a plane without any idea of where you are and you had to try to work out purely from what you could see what sort of place it was. The more specific version applies to Communist and former Communist countries and you must ask yourself the question of whether there is any evidence that the place has been subjected to Communism. In Guangzhou, for instance, I decided that the only clues, in a city still nominally ruled by the Communist Party, were insignia on uniforms. In Tbilisi, on the other hand, the city with which I am most familiar, you could not possibly conclude that the city had been part of a "normal" capitalist society. But in central Prague there is nothing, except possibly the ultra-subtle observation that the city is almost too well preserved.

All the theory which is supposed to help us understand the transition would suggest that Prague should change smoothly and quickly. It had a "civil society", a history of cosmopolitan connections, a tradition of trade and an experience of democracy. And a geographical position at the heart of Europe: Neville Chamberlain's "far away place of which we know nothing" is less than 700 miles from London.

Unfortunately, my experiences are not a good fit. I was in Russia, Uzbekistan, Tajikstan and most of the Yugoslav republics, for instance, before the transition but not since and I have been in Georgia, Hungary, Poland and Romania since but not before. At least this summer I was able to revisit East Germany and the Czech Republic as well as visiting Poland for the first time.

There is something almost unbelievable about Berlin. A young Aussie, excusing his ignorance, asked me in the Checkpoint Charlie Museum whether I spoke English and if so where was this wall and why did they build it and how the hell did they get away with it. Insofar as one can agree with a question I agreed with all his questions. But the mark of Communism is on East Berlin much more than on Prague, not only in architecture, but also in the generically Soviet idleness of much of the service. And if you try a small town in the former DDR (Cottbus in our case) the failed modernist architecture, slow pace of life, obvious poverty and unemployment remains utterly distinct from most west German towns though reminiscent of industrial towns in Northern France or Northern England which have experienced economic decline and a disproportionate state sector.

Krakov is a fine city with enough interest in Wavel Castle and the Old Town to compete touristically with anything in Europe. The success of its partial transition is symbolised by the new Sheraton, full of stars for the making of a movie of the life of John Paul II. It would be an insult to say that this was up to American standards because the staff were more efficient, better looking and certainly more intelligent and linguistically skilled than they are in any hotel in the USA I've ever stayed in.

But there is another Krakov outside the tourist areas, where people look at you with that old-fashioned Soviet look as if you were likely to get them into trouble and where service is shambolic. People don't speak English and because it is the language of the globe and the future they feel inferior and resentful about not speaking it. This was typified by a woman running a liquor store from whom we tried to buy interesting vodkas. In the old fashioned communist way she seemed to want to make this as difficult as possible and was probably losing a lot of money by taking that attitude. Out in the countryside, where appalling old roads alternate with good new ones and both are lined by peasants selling varieties of fungus scavenged from the forest, even the most casual observer would see transition. When asked what I thought Southern Poland would be like in twenty years time I replied confidently that it would be indistinguishable from the West. Which I would never say of Georgia.

On the whole I think that the successful transition of the former Soviet "satellites" and the Baltic States to democracy and capitalism is irreversible, that of the other Soviet constituent republics much more doubtful. We must always remember that there are two different dimensions to this experience. There are the abstractions and generalisations: "political culture", "civil society" and the like. But there are also individual people who make decisions and strike attitudes. There is a lot of poor service in the old DDR, but just off the former Marx-Engels Platz we found a "typical Berlin" restaurant run by a young woman brought up in the DDR and run with friendliness, efficiency and some style, speaking good English without ever having been to an English-speaking country. You can either choose to join in this global capitalism business. Or not.

Lincoln Allison has recently retired as Reader in Politics, University of Warwick. To read further thoughts on their travels by Lincoln Allison and other Social Affairs Unit authors, see Touristic Reflections.

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A wise and liberal advisor to then-president Kuchma in Ukraine, Dr Vladimir Paskhaver, explained to it to me: "We are much like the Poles or Hungarians, " he said, "but they have only experienced communism since 1945 and so they have a living memory of life before. By suffering communism since 1917, we have no such living memory and it will slow us down by a hundred years."

Posted by: s masty at September 17, 2005 12:19 PM
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