AUTHORCaroline Holkeboer Caroline Holkeboer graduated from Georgetown College in 2012 with a major in American Studies. Originally from Chicago, she studied abroad in Prague, Czech Republic, and wrote for the Junior Year Abroad Network during the spring 2011 semester.
March 7, 2011
The Junior Year Abroad Network (JYAN) connects Georgetown students studying abroad in a variety of cultures. Students share reflections on religion, culture, politics, and society in their host countries, commenting on topics ranging from religious freedom and interfaith dialogue to secularization, globalization, democracy, and economics.
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Caroline Holkeboer on Communism and the Development of a Culture
April 14, 2011 | 2 COMMENTS
While the demise of Communism in Central and Eastern Europe happened over 21 years ago, the marks of an oppressive and totalitarian regime can still be seen in those cultures previously under Communist rule. The Czech Republic is no exception. The post-Communist culture that has emerged both retains and visibly reflects a previously enforced collective identity, where members of the society were both expected and forced to live under a mass-driven system. Today, the remnants of Communism are increasingly apparent as both a government and a people come to terms with their identity in the wake of a totalitarian regime and subsequent developing democracy.
These cultural attributes are striking. First of all, on the trams and in the metro, there is a general sense of reservation and any sort of commotion or chatter solicits concerned glances from passengers. Traveling to and from class our first few weeks here, we attracted lots of attention as we tried to acclimate ourselves to a culture, in many ways unlike our own. Furthermore, there seems to be a general apprehension towards authority and governmental officials. During my first week here, we had to register with the Foreign Police as to the nature of our extended stay here in Prague. During the visit, our program advisors expressed an underlying apprehension towards the conduct of the Foreign Police, which only heightened the uncertainty of the experience due to the fact that none of us spoke a work of Czech. As an outsider, these cultural mentalities have been both surprising and eye opening, revealing the extent to which Communism has affected an entire people.
In addition to my own observations, these cultural remnants of Communism are something that the Czech people are not only aware of, but often poke fun at themselves. In my Czech language class, many of our assignments have revolved around “Typický Český”, or those stereotypes that generally describe Czech people. In fact, my Czech teacher, Petra, is often the first one to point out the oddities and idiosyncrasies of the Czech culture.
These are only small examples, but these observations reflect a larger cultural identity that has emerged in the aftermath of a repressive regime. While these “Typický Český" characteristics may seem overly simplistic and at best a surface level perspective on an otherwise intricate culture, they are in fact a reflection of many years of hardship and oppression for the Czech people.
My experience with Czech culture here in Prague has lead me to wonder how long it takes for the mentality of a regime to cease it’s influence upon a culture. The older generations in Prague, who personally suffered under the Communist regime, certainly are the most reserved and skeptical of the government—my 70-year-old professor scoffs at “the corrupt police officers” every time a police car passes by us. But, these cultural attitudes have also been translated down to the younger generations, even those born after the fall of the Berlin Wall. In fact, most of today’s University students in Prague were born after the end of Communism, yet their lives appear so much different then my own, in part because of what Communism instilled in their parents and in turn on their own upbringing.
It may take two or even three more generations before the memory of Communism is removed from the psyche of the Czech culture, but is an important question as to the nature and lasting effects of a totalitarian regime. Communism is certainly an important part of their past and it will be interesting to observe how the Czech people continue to move forward with the memory of Communism in the future.
COMMENT FROM XOCHITL LEDESMA MAY 4, 2011
Upon my recent visit to Prague, I found myself in many similar situations that you describe in your essay, such as people staring at us or anyone else that was being the slightest disruptive in the metro. It wasn’t until I went on a guided tour in which they explained many of the cultural aspects of the Czech people are, as you mentioned, a reflection of the communistic rule and their constant changing national identity. I agree with you in that Communism is the main underlying factor for many of the “Typický Český” , but from what I learned in my short stay, I would also attribute the collective discontent towards authority to the lack of self identity the Czech people feel after having undergone a constant changing national identity.
In my opinion this lack of identity is attributed to their image of government and therefore any form of governmental authority. Something that I found interesting is that the national song of the Czech Republic is not about patriotism as many other nations, but about not knowing where their home is, symbolic of the fore mentioned history. Upon my travels in Europe, I can say that the Czech culture has been strongly impacted by Communism. Even in comparison to Berlin, which I visited after Prague, there was a sense for the remembrance of the effects of Communism, but in the German (Berlin) culture of the people there wasn’t as strong of a remaining impact.
COMMENT FROM CAROLINE HOLKEBOER MAY 9, 2011
Thanks so much for your comment. I would definitely agree with your assessment of Czech culture and the shifting national identity for the Czech people. In many ways, the history of the Czech lands can be seen through the lens of continual occupation and changing leadership, dating all the way back to the Holy Roman Empire in the 14th century. Even the changing name of the land--Bohemian Crownlands, Czechoslovakia, and today's Czech Republic--have had an impact on the identity of the Czech people.
I also had a similar experience when I visited Berlin, as I tried to draw comparisons between Berlin and Prague in their post-Communist existence. Personally, I think a lot of the progress that's been made in East Berlin, not only politically, but also culturally, has to do with the relationship between East and West Berlin over the past two decades. East Berlin's immediate contact with Western money and culture after the Berlin Wall fell has allowed Berlin and Germany as a whole to develop as a free-market democratic state, to a greater extent than other Eastern countries, such as present day Czech Republic.
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