Czechoslovakia — now divided into Czech and Slovak republics — is probably one of the rare states that has suffered at least three name changes in the last century. It has been dominated almost entirely by foreign forces throughout its 1000-year history, most recently being a communist satellite for some forty years.
Nevertheless Czechoslovakia has steadfastly maintained her cultural integrity and national identity, and has produced intellectuals and artists greatly disproportional to its size and population. Einstein, Kafka, Devorak, Max Bod, and Rilke were world-renowned citizens of this tiny country, and Czech intellectuals such as Kundera, Havel, Klima, and Harabal, have dominated the intellectual discourse of the late twentieth century.
Czechoslovakia is the only nation that peacefully and noiselessly broke into two nations. Additionally, the Czech Republic is the only country run by a writer/intellectual, Vaclav Havel. The Prague uprising against the stultified communism imposed by the Soviet Union was probably second in kind and took place twenty-five years before the downfall of communism.
The Velvet Revolution of 1989, which was among the first rebellions against the Soviet domination, led to the liberation of the nation. So this nation of 12 million seems to have accomplished a lot, but more importantly, it has maintained a cultural and national identity that has not only sustained a very unique Czech character, but an intellectual leadership in Europe that dates back to the Middle Ages. Jon Hus, a poignant example of Czech leadership, called for church reforms a century before Martin Luther.
It is noteworthy that the Velvet Revolution was initiated with a demonstration to commemorate the deaths of eight students killed by the Nazis in WWII; a reference to the value of the individual in Czech society, and an act which was possibly a take off of the Iranian revolution of 1979. We may observe the same Czech appreciation of human rights in the continual commemoration of the two students killed by Soviet forces in the Prague Spring of 1968.
This civility and the respect for life are in sharp contrast to our governments' view of life. For example, after the recent savage murders of scores of intellectuals by some out-of-control secret police members, Iranian authorities maintained that the death of a few “unimportant” figures did not deserve all the commotion and brouhaha created by the press!
Visiting Prague, one can observe that even 40 years of destructive communist rule has not succeeded to erode Prague's cultural heritage. In other communist cities such as Beijing, anything left standing from the glorious past is just by accident, otherwise, the city is no more than cinder block housing units to provide shelter for the “proletariat”. To be sure, the peasant origins of Chairman Mao had a lot to do with his hatred for the city, while Bohemia and later Czechoslovakia have been urban centers, as evidenced by the 15th century astronomical clock in Prague's main square.
Designed by master Mikulas of Kadane, the clock was installed at the Town Hall tower in 1410. Four figures beside the clock represent sources of fear among the Czechs of the time: death, vanity, greed represented by a Jewish moneylender (later altered for PC reasons), and foreign invasion represented by a Muslim Turk. The clock marks the passage of time by the hour, month and year. Legend has it that master Mikulas boasted that he could make even better clocks. Fearing that another city may get it, the authorities blinded him. To avenge this injustice, Mikulas crawled up the tower and disabled the clock, later repaired by another master.
Mikulas' legend resembles Senmmar in Nezami's Haft Peykar. The Christian-Byzantine architect builds the most fantastic palace for the king of Yemen named No'man. The king had ordered the building to house the son of the king of Persia, the legendary Bahram. Once the palace named Khowarnagh was completed, Senemmar the architect was praised by everyone including the king. Elated by all the praise, the poor man announced that he could build even a better building if the materials were available. That remark sealed his fate. Fearing that Senemmar may indeed build a better palace for another king, No'man ordered him thrown off of the highest wall of the palace.
One of the most valuable of literary achievements of the Czechs is their works in exile, or their underground literature inside the country known as Samizdat. Czech people maintained their civility through these intellectual channels. Writings of Ivan Klima, the contemporary Czech writer and a main Samizdat organizer, have been a valuable source to shed light on understanding the life of a nation in an undesirable political milieu. He, Havel, and many other intellectuals were forced to abdication or menial labor inside the country.
Klima writes that many lost their integrity due to long years of menial work, although some drew good lessons from it and became more familiar with the essence of life in Czechoslovakia. To overcome totalitarianism Klima writes that they used “culture and non-violence, meaning avoiding violence consciously.” Prague also survived the same way throughout history: it just yielded to invaders, not unlike our own Shiraz.
The glory and magnificence of Prague emanates from a culture of passive-resistance, a culture known only to very refined people, and those who have suffered long in history, be they Czech, Hindu, African American, or Iranian. But it is also a reference to the value of individual life in Czech society.
Rasool Nafisi, Ph.D., is the Discipline Advisor of General Studies at Strayer University in Northern Virginia. He visited Prague in January of this year.