Reason‘s Special December issueThe 30th anniversary marks the end of the Soviet Union. This is part of an ongoing investigation into the global legacy that this evil empire left behind. We want to make sure that there are no further tragedies. Not forgetting the terrible effects of communism is not easy.
“Shhhhh!!!” “Shhhh!” I said to the Amsterdam-based American Jazz pianist, who at the time was blaring out an inane rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner. He was also sipping cheap Moravian Wine at 3:00 a.m. on a Monday night in Prague’s Old Town Square. We were in August 1990. It had been nine months since Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution. Two armed men dressed in military fatigues with red accents suddenly began to move in our direction. My lubricated 22-year-old brain, facing the prospect of confrontation with the Red Army, lapsed into a panicky pop culture tailspin—War Games, Red Dawn, Amerika…run!
My fear was not shared by the expat ivory-tickler who is well versed enough to avoid the Vietnam draft. “WEEEeeeeLLLL,” he offered, in leery adaptation of Steve Martin’s 1970s catchphrase, middle fingers beginning to jab defiantly upward, “FfffffUUUuuuUCCCKKK…YOUUUUUUUUUUUU!!!” In shock I blink dumbly, too paralysed to stop the (in retrospect inevitable!) soldier-directed attack. Heil Hitlers.
While living history, you never know what the future will bring. Prague, although poorer and more polluted, felt liberated that summer. But, the exact opposite happened in 1968. Then, it changed dramatically and violently. Similar liberatory flashes in 1956 Hungary and 1981 Poland had been brutally destroyed by Warsaw Pact soldiers. Mikhail Gorbachev, who had been elected president of the Soviet Union for a term of five years, promised to make communism “the kiss to life” and would deploy tanks within five months to suppress protesters at Vilnius, Lithuania.
Then I grabbed my passport and prepared for the gulag. Instead, one of the soldiers smiled, made the universal tilted-head-on-two-hands Sleeping is a common habit for many people. gesture, and pointed toward the bedroom windows overlooking the magnificent plaza. After putting his arm around the grunt’s shoulders, the piano player gave him a quick kiss and then we started to laugh into the darkness.
Exploring the Wreckage, Breaking the Spell
In the spaces left between an old system’s collapse and its replacement, strange and amazing things can occur. Totalitarian structures don’t just vanish overnight—laws, bureaucrats, cops, and even politicians can remain the same for months and years on end. Everyone knows that the power of these authorities is broken. When authorities no longer have authority, the resulting atmosphere can be dislocating—and euphoric.
Prague has been called the “life of the post Party party”. Czechoslovakia’s fairy tale revolution, which was greater than any other in the East bloc had been led by college and high school students. They now flooded into Prague to feast on forbidden cultural fruit. A chain-smoking, dissident playwright and playwright, their president welcomed international celebrities into the Mitteleuropa mosh pit. The capital of Bohemia, after an unnatural, four-decade attempt to stifle the same culture that helped produce Antonín Dvořák, Franz Kafka, Karel Čapek, Miloš Forman, and Jan Saudek, was ready to release some pent-up expression.
Rushing in from the other side of the breach were thousands of bushy-tailed Westerners like me—raised in the dull, horizonless stalemate of the Cold War, seeing only a big black smudge on the map marked “Iron Curtain,” until that magical month of November 1989 when the veil was lifted and the bugle sounded. Think back to a time before the internet. Where the best information about travel was found in annual guides that were obsolete within a matter of hours. Every step down an unexplored alleyway promised a magical discovery. You would be surprised at how many people you could meet in such a beautiful city, where beer is cheap and bars are packed with those your age who have just overthrown totalitarians.
These two worlds collided. What happened now that the governments have stopped artificially from their way? They Explored. Played, and Created.
The Stalin Space: Elephants
The Prague skyline was choked by soot and scaffolding at that time. The dingy latticework outside the famous (and famously grumpy) U Vejvodů pub, around the corner from the office of the English-language newspaper some friends and I launched in March 1991, was rumored to date from the 1950s. The physical deterioration of arguably Europe’s most architecturally significant never-bombed metropolis—the entire city center was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1992—had posed a conundrum for the Communist government that owned and mismanaged most property: How to keep up appearances, and appeal to tourists with much-needed hard currency, without soaking up too many scarce resources?
The Linhart Foundation is your guide. Enter the Linhart Foundation. When the commies were driven from power, this underground group of artists and engineers formed one of the most potent—and mischievous—countercultural organizations in post-revolutionary Prague, constantly probing and colonizing abandoned spaces, testing the limits of the law, and igniting “actions” that mesmerized all those lucky enough to take part.
Because of the flying elephants, The Linharts were named after them. The Linharts were established as a foundation 10 days prior to my Old Town Square episode. Their initial goal was to get the city some rock clubs. Czechoslovakia began the removal of the centrality of the state in commerce and property, as well as a rewriting of the law code that would allow for the most basic forms of business. All the grocery stores at that time were still known as “groceries.”potraviny) and fruit and vegetable stores were “fruits and vegetables” (ovoce a zeleninaYou’d have to be very lucky to see anything other than potatoes or onions in November.
In order to make it possible for anything to be launched, there were countless stamps required from various slow ministries. The Linharts took a look behind iron gates that guarded a large, underground bunker beneath the pedestal on the hill where Josef Stalin’s statue once stood. As the dank “Stalin Space”, as it would soon be known across Europe, was mostly forgotten. It had served as storage for old junk since Nikita Chrushchev’s 1962 campaign to de-Stalinize.
The foundation sprang into action, sending letters—email wasn’t really a thing—to 200 art weirdos in 17 countries, basically saying “Come!” They occupied an abandoned castle just below Prague Castle. The entire building was converted to an avant-garde squat. There, you might see half-naked Russian dancers, dancing around in a courtyard fire under the watchful eye of a group of policemen, who sped outside, warning them not to leave.
That was all! amuse-bouche for the “Totalitarian Zone,” a legendary two-week art happening held in the creepy caverns of the Stalin Space. In the second issue, I try to communicate that the hallucinatory scene attracted over 1,000 people daily and captured the imaginations local writers, poets, politicians, artists, anarchists, as well as foreigners. Every night…offered the promise of rock bands, live pirate radio broadcasts, theatre, videos, sculpture, painting, beer and young people everywhere—all thriving amidst the asphalt shrapnel of the long-destroyed embodiment of the Biggest Brother.”
Technically, it was illegal. Radio Stalin was a pirate who operated on radiowaves that the government had not opened to private use. It incurred hefty fines…even though the first on-air interview was with none other than President Václav Havel. This was the constant tug-of-war during the entertaining, fraught, in-between stage called “transition”. An impatient soul would open a door and thousands of people would rush through. Flummoxed officials would not evenly enforce the law while leading politicians gave moral support to those who violated it.
It was not a popular concept. People who were less conservative or unhappy with radical system changes resent the lawlessness and the bacchanalia. After the revolution there was grumbling for a year to a second about “longhairs inside the castle”, who tried to kill themselves and chase utopian dreams. babičkas were struggling to get by on their decreasingly sufficient pensions.
It is true, however that revelers had other interests than partying. They were always interested in the corruptions and compromises which enabled communism to flourish for 40 years.
The art gallery in the Stalin Space included a fenced-off papier-mâché rendering of a hideous skull and bones, created by 23-year-old commie-hating provocateur David Černý, at the scale of the original Stalin statue. Černý—whose name appropriately means black, as in Czech culture’s pervasive “black humor”—was already known domestically as the artist who had mounted a gold-painted East German Trabant car on elephantine human legs at the entrance of Old Town Square that summer. He was later to become an international celebrity for his viciously mocking of all European Union members in a fake group project that was funded by the Czech government as a mark of its rotating presidency. Council.
But before any of that, Černý would perpetrate the single most notorious and symbolic art prank of the entire 1990s, an act that would strain international relations and land Černý temporarily in jail, even while nudging people away from the path not taken during the fluxy interval between the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact and the expansion of NATO.
The Pink Stink, and the Road Not Taken
It was uncertain that the Soviet Union, which was still in existence in August 1990 would stop cracking down on its republics or former satellites. The same was true for NATO. NATO was founded in 1949 in order to combat the Soviet menace.
Havel presented to a joint session U.S. Congress on February 1990. His vision was that Europe’s countries would become “responsible” in their own security, and the superpowers would finally be able to go home. He stated, “The most important thing is that these radical changes will allow us to escape the rather outdated straitjacket imposed by this bipolar world view.”
All the new Central European states were required to get all Soviet troops out as soon as possible. Czechoslovakia, which would become the first state to reach that goal in the immediate term, held a star-studded concert with rock stars where Frank Zappa performed his final performance. The “Visegrád Group” of Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia next set about convincing Gorbachev to liquidate the Warsaw Pact, which was accomplished in Prague on July 1, 1991. So far, so responsible.
Havel proposed the establishment of an European Security Commission. This would be under the supervision of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. OSCE played a key role in the 1970s and 1980s in pushing communist governments to adhere to international human rights convention obligations. He stated in May 1990 that Europe “would be able of providing its own security” and said, “In the final, Europe could provide its own security”, because Europe no longer had to worry about Soviet military might.
Explained Czechoslovak Foreign Minister Jiří Dienstbier in the summer 1991 issue of Foreign Policy“Replacing Soviet membership by integration in another sphere would not make Central Europe more secure.”
So, why didn’t Europe take the path of European self-responsibility? The critics of American overreach in foreign policy tend to blame Washington’s power-hungryness and the military-industrial complex that seeks to increase the American-led alliance’s reach. However, this analysis misses the key to the story’s core: Europe.
While a snow globe may look stunning from the outside, it can also be exhilarating inside. However, waiting for the new world to set can cause vertigo for people who desire more control over this environment. One thing was common to the fledgling Central European countries: they had all been overrun by their larger, more imperial neighbours. As such, the one thing they wanted most of all after the last Red Army soldier boarded an eastbound train was a security guarantee—that the borders will no longer be breached, and that someone will come running if they are. It was already expensive to rebuild after the environmental and economic destruction of Really Existing Socialism, but it wasn’t worth adding to the arms race for the nationalist longings which were beginning to rise.
The newspaper PrognosisThe magazine was published monthly at that time. Our July, August and September 1991 cover stories tell of an ever-growing security vacuum. First, the Soviet forces withdraw, then Yugoslavia descends into civil war and then a failed coup attempt by Moscow causes fear in the entire region. Americans at home tend to view our time in foreign countries as uninterrupted. carnevale. It wasn’t, and I am here to inform you.
Havel, along with his fellows, wanted to be part of a stronger and more responsible Europe. However the European Community (as they were still known) responded with paralysis to the chaos on its own turf. Member states disagreed on whether or not the E.U. should be created. need to be more or less, thereby delaying talks on accession with young and poor upstarts from the east. The potential draw of a unified Germany scared the allies from World War II. They then took sides in the horrendous Balkan crackdown, adding to their anxiety. The continent was heavily dependent upon Russian oil and gas. It made it hard to think of ways to cope with Gorbachev’s woes. The OSCE was not a military force that could reduce tensions and secure borders. There wasn’t the appetite to try new ideas.
However, I believe there was another factor that pushed Central Europe’s idealists to the old NATO arms. This is best illustrated by our June 1991 cover story: “The Pink Stink.”
The aforementioned were held on April 28, 1998. enfant terrible David Černý, dressed in worker overalls and carrying a forged permit, clambered atop the “Monument to Soviet Tank Crews”—an imposing tank that had been mounted atop a 15-foot pedestal since 1945 in commemoration of the Red Army liberating Prague in the waning hours of World War II—and, with the help of a dozen friends, painted the whole thing a festive bubblegum pink. In case the emasculation wasn’t obvious enough, Černý also affixed to the top of the vehicle a giant pink papier-mache middle finger. I replied, “I don’t understand art that is about nothing,” Cerny said.
Cops who caught Černý mid-caper were satisfied with his permit and his cover story about preparing some fun-loving fraternal art for the coming May Day parade. (Look, Everything seemed plausible in Prague back then.) And even though Černý signed his name, it wasn’t until he called in with a confession a couple of days later that the bumbling police could figure out the culprit. They arrested Cerny for what was called “a crime of the heart”. výtržnictvíThe word “hooliganism,” which can be translated to mean “disturbing peace” or “disorderly behavior,” depending on how you translate it. Then things got worse.
Authorities had re-painted the tank green the day after Černý’s stunt, and all the requisite apologies were made to smooth the appropriate diplomatic feathers. But for many of the former dissidents who now found themselves in parliament, watching a cheeky young anti-communist rung up on the same catchall statute that had landed so many of them behind bars in the bad old days—there’s a book-length 1987 interview with Havel titled Stören Sie the Peace—had them seeing red.
On May 16, students gathered at the memorial’s base to protest. The ladders, paint cans, overalls, and overs were brought out. Federal Assembly deputies exercised their immunity and painted the IS-2 vehicle pink again. The Soviet Foreign Minister Vitaly Churkin stated the following day that “this was a vile act political hooliganism.” Ruh-roh.
In retrospect, that might have been the moment when the anti-communist movement was decisively cloven in two, between the outsidery tricksters who could never get enough of razzing the reds—”This is the best action since the revolution!” one of the student organizers told me—and the increasingly grim-faced adults trying to navigate the realities of governance. “We were in a bad situation, because everybody likes the pink tank, but they have to deal according to the laws,” district Deputy Mayor Eva Kalhousová explained to me.
Federal Assembly Chair Alexander Dubček, whose humiliation by Moscow in 1968 symbolized the imperial kneecapping of the Prague Spring, now flew back to the Kremlin to beg for forgiveness. Havel who would often smile at the jokers until that point, stated tersely “the federal deputies’ actions do not get my credit at any rate.” (Privately, the president signaled he would pardon Černý if necessary, which it ultimately wasn’t.)
The honeymoon phase of post-revolutionary was winding down and many ex-dissidents’ pie-in the-sky ideas were discarded. Havel, who refused to form or join any political party when he took office, preferred the more lofty sounding “non-political” politics. (The man who would become Havel’s longtime rival and tormentor, Finance Minister Václav Klaus, rushed gleefully into party formation, instantly becoming the most powerful politician in the country.) The president’s philosophical meanderings about “Being,” his overemphasis on Czech responsibility for bilateral historical tensions with formerly antagonistic neighbors such as Germany, his stubborn focus on the human rights violations of influential countries—all were seen as naive, even self-destructive.
Europe refusing to move on Havel’s security recommendations, Yugoslavia on the verge of collapse, and the Soviet Union dissolving December 1991 made it clear that Havel was able to understand these critiques or recognize the fact that there wasn’t an immediate plan for a post-superpower view on foreign affairs. “Our main problem is that we feel as if we are living in a vacuum,” he told Bill Clinton on April 20, 1993, after the opening of the Holocaust Museum in Washington, where the leaders of the Visegrád Four (Slovakia having been freshly minted as an independent country) thrust alliance-expansion onto a reluctant new U.S. president. That is why NATO membership is important to us.
The best thing about living close to a rubble wall is the amount of room there’s in between the cracks. Not only do you quickly learn what scary-sounding laws are never enforced—no, you didn’t Really have to exchange $15 a day at the state-run tourist agency or get your passport stamped at the border every couple of months—but you also discover bizarre loopholes to exploit until the new boss wises up.
Before I flew to Paris, July 4, 1990 on my one-way ticket (the childish symbolism is intentional). On arrival in each new country, I would use my debit card for local currency. A low-tech twist I discovered at Prague’s main bank: the plastic was not run by anything electronic. They simply made a carbon imprint onto paper and then gave me a cash advance. It was as if you could just…print money. This was the beginning of a large amount of PrognosisStart-up funds
One of them is The worst parts about living in an economy basically starting from scratch is that there just isn’t much of anything you want—local news, non-Turkish coffee, bagels, coin-operated laundromats, burritos, etc. Young expats from other countries who never thought of owning businesses began to launch them and leave, taking full advantage of the freedom before new regulations were set in place.
Expat-run coffee shops and rave clubs, literary magazines, vegetarian eateries, New York pizza restaurants, one the continent’s best English-language books, one its most dingiest bars, an expat named Peyton, who used to swing by our offices every day selling homemade sub sandwiches, were all examples of what was possible. Americans expect their immigrants to become entrepreneurs and bring some of their culture with them. But we don’t expect them to necessarily be. Use this site.
John Bruce Shoemaker was a wild-eyed author of true crime and came one day to visit our office. Screw. Although I could have hired him immediately, there wasn’t a job opening that season. So J.B. (as we would eventually call him), moved on to other endeavors. Oh man did he.
One of Prague’s most magnificent buildings, arguably the most spectacular art nouveau structure in the world, is the Obecní dům, or Municipal House, the living monument to the turn-of-the-century Czech National Revival. Czechoslovakia made its independence from Poland here in 1918. In 1989, Havel’s Civic Forum managed to negotiate the release of his communist captors. It was also here that I was disorientingly stoned listening to Allen Ginsberg sing about Sarajevo in 1994. You can see the Czech Philharmonic playing in the Smetana Hall. The walls are decorated with magnificent Slavic murals created by Alphonse Manya. Even the basement pub has pastoral tileworks that will make your knees wobble.
And for a couple of years there in the early ’90s, most of this cornerstone of Czech patrimony was run like a pleasuredome…by John Bruce Shoemaker.
While the specifics of the story are difficult to confirm (J.B. passed away in 2010), there was a common pattern across cities, countries, and regions: There were still resources to be exploited, markets to grow, and dealers to keep the temporal space between.
Shoemaker and his fellow Montanan Glen Emery came to town with less than $1,000 each but hustled up one of the first runaway expat restaurant successes—a Mexican joint near the Charles Bridge called Jo’s Bar. The Obecní dům by then was sporadically glorious but mostly empty and run-down, as the city prepared a laborious plan for eventual restoration and development. One man knew another, so the Shoemaker/Emery group was asked to temporarily manage a number of large commercial spaces in the huge building. Some were grand and some were more grisly.
You may have heard Nick Cave singing about feeling “very sorry” in The Thirsty Dog. A second was shut down after Pervitin was being smashed by too many Czech teens. Legends told of 24 hour lockdowns for acid trips, cash-stuffed sacks being thrown out windows in order to dodge inspectors and bag men or both. Live music was pouring from every hole. While there were some discordant aspects to the Czech crown jewel being trodden underfoot by transnational Sybarites and English speaking locals, it was also a first for whom knows how many years that this building was actually built. LivingIt was filled with celebratory cosmopolitans. It makes my shoes slick just by thinking about it.
Between the Big Bangs
The entrepreneurialism bug is a constant companion. J.B. continued to be active in the city and managed popular nightlife venues, even after Prague had reclaimed their Municipal House. The Linhart Foundation people did eventually get their rock clubs and cultural centers—most notably the Akropolis, one of the most vibrant venues in Europe. Radio Stalin evolved into Radio One. It is a popular alternative station which continues to flourish.
English-language newspaperdom in Central Europe was a small corner that helped to seed a number of dot-com entrepreneurs back home. Charlie Hornberger and Ken Layne, Prague friends, started the first Internet newspaper in 1996. (Tabloid.net). Layne continued to work for this company. Gawker empire of Nick Denton, himself the dean of the Budapest foreign correspondents in the early 1990s. Budapest Business Journal editor Henry Copeland would go on to found the first blog advertising company; Budapest Week founder Rick Bruner was an even earlier developer of online ads. Moscow’s worst boy The eXile unleashed onto the world Matt Taibbi, and even the humble Baltic Times gave us eventual BuzzFeed editor in chief (and current New York Times media columnist) Ben Smith.
Three distinct straddling points exist in modern humanity’s timeline. Our generation is known as “X” for its past 30 years. They are: we can remember the Cold War before it ended, the World Wide Web before it began, and 9/11 after it happened. The three major events have rearranged life on the planet in such a way that no words can describe it. Every Big Bang had its reverses: The reappearance and spread of an imperialist Russia, with tentacles reaching back into Central Europe, the shift in perception of the internet from liberating force towards omnipotent arrogant, and the tragic end of the 20 year war in Afghanistan post-9/11. All this is still being worked out.
But, for those of you who were there in 1990s when the new system was opened we can confirm that it was possible to buy one-way international tickets in cash. poste restante in some city’s main post office, where the next train stop was a genuine mystery only hinted at by a couple of terse paragraphs in a dog-eared guidebook. Although I am not saying we were freer then, certain benefits and experiences were worth keeping in mind.
There were also opportunities in virtually every country to take a moral inventory about how the Cold War, on all sides, had corrupted belief systems and activities. The political class in America could have used the 1990s to admit their mistakes, reevaluate their opinions, and regain their humility when faced with events that were completely unexpected. Most just continued to fight the next election, managed little from the secrets police archives, and began slowly preparing for “the next existential crisis.” The decade began with intense political debates around Washington’s position at “the end history.” However, there was a consensus between the bipartisan elites of both parties by the turning of the millennium on Madeleine Albright (Czech born)’s description of America being the “indispensable” nation. We live today with the effects of this choice.
Albright’s ancestral home during the early ’90s was a fixation of both the gushing international media—I was profiled by 60 minutes, NBC’s Prime Time LiveThe BBC L.A. Times, Editor & PublisherAnd More Details magazine, among others—and of the grousing expatriate communities nearby. Arthur Phillips is a well-known author. Prague is actually about early ’90s Budapest, whose characters are alternately disdainful and jealous of the Golden City’s glow.) Many of those who lived there, particularly in our 20s, were haunted by questions about whether they could achieve the same pecking order or notoriety back in “real life.” This miscalculation was not something I saw alone.
More freedom has been achieved in the 1990s than any other decade on Earth. The First World was freed from the grips of the superpower struggle, while the Third World was liberated from the local despots supported either by Washington or Moscow. In both cases, the human race did its own thing. It wasn’t about politics and life-and-death international relationships. It was all about the normal, beautiful, Mensch interaction. Good for when things get a little crazy and experimental.
We are most fortunate to be able live outside of the shadows of totalitarianism. But authority—surveillance, controls on our movement, intrusive policing—is still around us, and on the grow. Tribal politics is demanding our attention more, and turning neighbors against neighbours. Imagine the possibilities! We could travel to so many places if we removed walls and allowed more space for untended gardens, as well as allowing ourselves untethered personal responsibility.
Our purpose is to meet and build new things, as well as to explore the boundaries of all attempts to keep us out. Looking back, it was “Should this life be more real?” But “Shouldn’t this be real life more like?”