Archive | August, 2008

>Czech Republic: Georgia on their minds

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Czech newspapers were pretty quick in getting correspondents onto the ground in Georgia and there was some pretty vivid eyewitness reporting in the Czech press from the war zone. Czech politicians, by contrast, most of seem to have been on holiday went the crisis blew up were initially fairly slow off the mark. However, when they – and Czech journalistic commentators – did get a grasp of what was unfolding in the Caucuses and its wider implications. Some of these echoed the wider debate in Western Europe. Other, however, had a more distinctly Czech perspective.

As elsewhere, the first issue who was more at fault. The centre-right governing coalition, the centre-left opposition and most Czech commentators, while not absolving the Georgians, saw the Russian response, as sinister and excessive and advocated a fairly robust response. There were, however, no immediate and dramatic gestures of solidarity with Georgia along the lines of the lightening visit to Georgia undertaken by the Polish and Baltic presidents. One person certainly not going to join them in the plane was Czech President Václav Klaus. After an initial period of silence and a vague early statement about his ‘deep concern’, Klaus came out firmly against the Georgians, who he felt had provoked the conflict by embarking upon a foolish military adventure.

Klaus has a record of criticizing (potential) Western intervention supported (at least lukewarmly) by many others on the Czech centre-right. He was against both NATO intervention in Kosovo and the Iraq war. So his contrarian position in opposing the centre-right government led by the party he himself had founded – he is now publicly at loggerheads on the issue with Prime Minister Topolánek – was not a total surprise. Even so some of the Czech press struggled slightly to find reasons for Klaus’s position. Pure egotism? The generous deals with Russian oil companies to publish his writings denying global warming? In fact, Klaus has had fairly consistent views about Putin’s Russia for some years and there is a kind of method in his madness. As his published writings over several going back several years highlight that while he doesn’t think Russia is anything like a normal democracy and doesn’t much care for its authoritarian state capitalism, he doesn’t see it a threat to Europe if left alone with its now rather narrowly defined sphere of influence. If it was, of course, that might imply the need for (God forbid) a more integrated European foreign and security policy, rather than a fight for Czech national interest against a German-dominated EU. And that would never do, would it?

As carefully explained by the high-flying young Social Democrat chair of the Czech parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, Jan Hamáček, in an interview with the business daily Hospodářské noviny, the Czech Social Democrats have a similar but more nuanced position, stressing the need for a realistic and pragmatic approach to Russia, rather than counterproductive confrontation; a clearer sense of the dangers of US hegemony and the potential usefulness of Russia (as well as China and a strong EU) as part of a more multipolar arrangement and a more frank admission of the inconsistency of the West’s position in endorsing Kosovan independence (just recognized by the Czech government). Interestingly, Hamáček seems to hold out hope of democratization in Russia, suggesting interestingly that the Kremlin’s tame opposition party Fair Russia might transform itself into a rough and ready form of social democratic party if engaged properly by the Socialist International.

All Czech political forces, whether for or against the stationing of a US anti-missile in the Czech Republic, denied that the Georgian crisis had any bearing on this issue as, despite Moscow’s threatening noises, it was not directed against Russia. The Czech Communists, predictably, had a pro-Russian position, reflecting both predictable political reflexes and anti-Americanism.

A second issue was just how Czechs should understand Putin’s Russia, its intervention in Georgia and its place in the world generally. This debate was conducted in shorthand form in a contest of historical analogies. As the conflict coincided with the 30th anniversary of the August 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, there was much consideration of parallels between Russian military intervention in Georgia and Soviet intervention in Czechoslovakia in 1968. As most writers noted, there are some obvious flaws in the analogy. In 1968 the USSR and Czechoslovakia were allies in the same military alliance with an agreed relationship (Soviet leadership), similar – and very ideologically defined – political systems. The Prague Spring was a reform project not a geo-political clash over territory. As Klaus and were quick to point out in 1968, Czechoslovakia had not pre-empted intervention with its own military action.

Others, such as Christian Democrat ex-foreign Minister Cyril Svoboda (now head of the government’s Legislative Council), saw Georgia 2008 as worse than Czechoslovakia 1968 because of the bloodshed and scale of the damage caused by Russian forces in Georgia and its not being part of a Russia-led military, political bloc. However, a deeper parallel picked up by several ex-dissident several commentators, was that regardless of exact parallels (or lack of) both 1968 and 2008 a betrayed an essentially imperial Russian mindset and a foreign policy bent on dominating small nations in its perceived sphere of influence. Václav Klaus, however, countered that, there was a difference between the ‘expansionist communism’ of Brezhnev’s USSR (hard to see, how ‘defending socialism’ in Czechoslovakia was expansion, but let that pass) and contemporary Russia or the Russian people. Implicitly, he suggested (in an interview with Komersant Daily, later reprinted in Czech on the Klaus website) his fellow Czechs were just a bit Russophobic.

However, Václav Havel, who roundly condemned the Russian side, saw the conflict as stemming from a more deeply grounded confusion of Russian identity about their country began and ended – a classic confusion between nation and empire, although he did not put it in these terms. This was an interesting perspective as it echoes the thinking of Czechoslovakia’s founding president Tomáš G. Masaryk, who wrote a long philosophical-historical treatise on Russia and Europe in the early years of the last century (translated into English as The Spirit of Russia), although Masaryk was curiously absent from most of the debate, perhaps because his conclusion that Russia is historical and civilizationally different from the West and poorly fitted for liberal democracy is an unspoken shared assumption of all participants in the Czech debate.

Other commentators, such as Lidové noviny’s Zbyněk Petráček, saw a better analogy in Czechoslovakia’s situation in 1918 in facing down Sudeten German ‘breakaway regions’ challenging the country’s internationally recognized territorial integrity at the behest of a revanchist neighbouring power, recently humiliated by losing an empire after defeat in war. For Russia read Germany, for Georgia read Czechoslovakia. The Czechs, in 1918, had had to send their army in to rebel minority regions to sustain the viability of their emerging democratic state, the Georgians in 2008 likewise. This recycled ‘Weimar Russia’ theme was taken up by the Czech foreign minister Karel Schwarzenberg (independent nominated by the Greens) and also the line taken by the news magazine Respekt, which he co-owns. The parallel does have the slightly unfortunate implication that Putin is Hitler and the Putinist ideology of semi-authoritarian ‘sovereign democracy’ as powerful and hypnotic as Nazism, which I doubt is the case even in Russia, although I suppose one might see a certain analogy between the Reichswehr and the FSB as a kind of revanchist state-within-a-state. For Klaus too perhaps the situation had an echo of 1938. His address to Czech citizens on the 30th anniversary of the 1968 invasion pointedly highlighted the ‘Munich mentality’ (mnichovství) – excessive faith in distant Western allies in 1938 who, when push came to shove, would not risk war – supposedly also characteristic of the situation in 1968.

Another LN contributor, Michal Romancov, went back still further, seeing the resurgent post-Soviet Russia assertively starting to play political hard ball with other great powers as historically equivalent to Russian after its defeat in the Crimean War of 1850s. The, slightly more flatteringly, casts Putin as an authoritarian modernizer, although the analogy also fits with the dismissal of Russia by Western politicians as a ‘19th century power’ operating with crudely outdated notions of spheres of influence and zero-sum national interest with whom ruled-based co-operation is impossible.

And, of course, there is the analogy of the ‘New Cold War’. This was taken up LN commentator Zbyněk Petráček but not many others and, as so often, seemed basically intended to dramatize the seriousness of the perceived threat and accent a few points, rather than suggest we should all start worrying about Putin’s tanks rolling through Prague. The key points of the ‘New Cold War’ tag seem to be that the new dividing line running through Europe and an ideological (perhaps these days one should say ‘values-based’) conflict with Russia making seemingly small states and statelets, rather important; and that as we were in it, we (the West) should try and win it. This is essentially the thesis of Edward Lucas’s book of the same name, although, revealingly, there seems to be no Czech translation out and the English language edition(s) to have little reviewed in Czech. (Although I thought the book rather overstated its case when it came out, but now seems unnervingly and prescient.). The New Cold War view also has the advantage of avoiding sticky issues of being consistent over territorial integrity and international law, as it stresses that, at bottom, the West is still a camp of liberal democractic goodies while Putin and sundry post-Soviet semi-authoritarians have the wrong values and the wrong system. The logic of this view in relation to Georgia might , to paraphrase Henry Kissinger, be that Saakashvili might be a unpredictable sonovabitch, but he is our sonovabitch and a more democratic sonovabitch than the current occupants of the Kremlin toboot.

The Czech government has sent humanitarian aid to Georgia and seems inclined to add to its voice to those urging the opening of a clear path to NATO membership for Georgia. Schwarzenberg has also questioned the appropriateness of the Russian hosting the 2014 Winter Olympics. But most Czech politicians and commentators even of strong pro-Georgian inclinations don’t have the stomach or inclination or ideas to fight a New Cold War, even rhetorically. The Czech political tradition is one of caution, pragmatism and an engrained (but perhapsexaggerated?) sense of their weakness. Writiing Lidové noviny Luboš Palata, normally a rather sober and measured commentator on Central European affairs, did issue a ringing and most unCzech call to arms (quite literally) demanding that NATO peacekeepers should be sent to Georgia. Calls to send in the marines are not a sentiment you read every day in the Czech press. Perhaps he’s been spending too much time in Poland…

>Communist ice (cream) age

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The long shadow of the communist-era even reaches the ice cream stall at the Luhačovice municipal lido. My daughter wants a Helena ice cream – named after and endorsed by Helena Vondráčková, the politically conformist 1960s pop diva turned stalwart of normalization era light entertainment. Vondráčková looks about 20 on the wrapper, but must be well over 60. “Helena, she’s a famous Czech singer, kočičko”, the man at the stall helpfully explains to my daughter, who isn’t interested and also objects that she isn’t a cat. Curiously, the lolly is actually made in Poland. Presumably Vondráčková (her name is mis-spelled Vondráčkowá on the wrapper) has a few fans there . Meanwhile, as the anniversary of the 1968 invasion is near, on the radio they are playing a song by Marta Kubišová, another star of the Prague Spring era whose less than compliant attitude to normalization led to two decades of obscurity before 1989. She is a better singer, but doesn’t have an ice cream named after her.

>So near, so spa

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After six hot days in Brno, we finally head out for the countryside. My wife’s family has a holiday home dating from 1970s in rolling hills near the Slovak border. We speed a long a lot of bits of newly opened motorway between Brno and Zlín being built with EU structural funds, although there’s still a lot of driving through villages and on small windy roads to be done in between before we finally get there.

As we have already discovered, for any family holiday in the CR the koupák is king and we know from previous experience that the nearby village, a kilometre down the road, has a particularly pleasant and clean open air pool near the municipal football pitch. When we arrive, however, disaster strikes. The koupáliště has been closed down under EU hygiene regulations. The problem, as in many rural locations, is sewerage. Too few toilets and an outdated septic tank, they tell us in the village shop.

When walks in the forest, insect life and table tennis have amused the kids as much as they are ever going to, the only solution to get the bus to nearby Luhačovice, a small spa town nestling in wooded hills, which has historically been popular with Czech political and cultural elites of various ideological stripes (there is a direct train daily to Prague). As well as wafers and ice cream sundaes, crucially it also has a koupák – somewhat old fashionably termed a plovárna – where a good time is had by all and I even manage to have a swim and read the papers.

Later we hit the jackpot when we get given a leaflet about a children’s theatre performance the next day being given as part of the annual theatre festival by Brno’s Divadlo Polárka company. When we pack into the town’s small theatre, I wonder quite what we will have in store, but as it turns S koníčkem přes hory a doly (loosely translatable as ‘Travels with a horse over hill and dale’) is beautifully staged and also thoroughly entertaining for the kids, who emerge delighted.

>Czech elections bring modest harvest of billboards

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With regional, local and parliamentary elections every four years and Senate elections every two, there’s pretty much always an election campaign in the offing in Czech Republic. So, although, it probably doesn’t seem to interest the electorate too much, for anyone who cares there are an emerging crop of campaign billboards about.

Most major parties are gearing up for the November Senate elections, which will have some consequence for the governing coalition’s plans to change the electoral law for which they would need a two thirds majority in upper and lower houses of parliament. In these French style two-round, first-past-the-post votes – characterized by derisory turnout – most parties now know they have to wage a candidate-centred, localized campaigns. The Czech Social Democrat are hoping to make inroads in Brno with a campaign centring on local health and transport issues although in the district where my parents-in-law live, their candidate Miloš Janeček (a surgeon, of course – no end of MDs in Czech politics) promises only very bathetically to ‘put right what I can’.

Meanwhile outside the local supermarket Christian Democrat regional governor for South Moravia, Stanislav Juránek, is all smiles wishing everyone happy holidays from a billboard , whose evocation of the golden corn of the Moravian countryside at harvest time echoes a beer advert. A poster in town told me he is also inviting citizens to drop in for coffee and chat with him about regional issues in a weekly event at local café.. The Christian Democrats, a minor party with some pressing problems of identity and strategy, are clearly hoping that he can hold on to one regional governor’s post they currently hold.

>Modernize the Czech Republic? Childsplay

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It’s holiday time and, as usual we are in the Czech Republic. As ever the country is visibly, if slowly improving. If the early 1990s saw an explosion of stalls and small shops and the late 1990s the emergence of superstores and hypermarkets what’s striking now is the obvious the investment in infrastructure. The panel built high rise estate on the Southern outskirts of Brno where my parents-in-law and sister-in-law, whose flat we are kindly borrowing for a few days before heading off for the countryside, is – at least in parts – being insulated and re-faced in pastel colours. After this beauty treatment after the hideous grey paneláky look pretty civilized. There seems to have been a slow draining of younger, better off people from the estate over the years and there’s a lot of graffiti, but French style urban ghetto it certainly isn’t. Indeed, looking at some of the refurbished blocks, you might blink and briefly think you were in Holland or Germany. At least, you might until you looked round at the rest of the estate at the remaining communist-era high rise monstrosities, or down to the ground at the scrubby and unmaintained grass verges. A large university science park, a new regional library and a new regional archive are springing up nearby, the borough council’s newsletter – stuffed into the letterbox with a mass of flyers for Interspar, Tesco and Kaufland – tells me.

The Czech Republic is still rather badly off for children’s play facilities, however, and the kids are quickly bored. There are plenty of playgrounds on the estate, but with a few exceptions they are small and poorly maintained. The sand in sandpits looks like builder’s aggregate, rather than anything you would want your kids to play in. There are few better, newer playgrounds, including one near where we are staying with an interesting climbing frame and a cable ride, which was built a couple of years ago as part of a EU backed scheme to humanize high rise estates. But the cable ride is broken, although a long-winded notice says the council will fix any faults reported within a week if the responsible officer is contacted. I wonder if anyone has bothered.

There is a rather arty playground with wooden sculpted animals in central Brno’s Lužánky park, where also has a complete miniature mockup road system complete with road signs next to, where some cops from the municipal police are putting kids through their paces doing some kind of cycling proficiency test. Our youngest like the wooden animals, but both kids are only really satisfied when we discover the cheap and cheerful open air swimming pool (koupaliště aka koupák) in the local sports club across the tram tracks on the estate. This has water, hot dogs, a trampoline and climbing frame. At last both are placated.

>Czech Republic: Same ole history (not ) repeating itself?

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I shouldn’t be reading about Czech politics, should I? But, as ever, I couldn’t turn down the offer of free review copy and a long deadline from a journal, so I have been doing precisely that. The book in question is Kapitoly z dějin české demokracie po roce 1989 (Prague, Paseka, 2008) edited by Adéla Gjuričová and Michal Kopeček of Prague’s Institute for Contemporary History (USD). This collection brings together by younger researcher associated with the USD and various Western specialists on Czech politics and society. The idea of publishing the collection is to move the sub-discipline of ‘contemporary history’ beyond its original German and East European rationale as a means of ‘coming to terms’ with the totalitarian past toward. More recent political events in the Czech Republic need unravelling using a historian’s skills the editors argue.

The book divides into three loose thematic sections: the origins of the post-1989 Czech political system; Czech culture’s reflection of post-communist transformation; and the place the Czech experience into a broader Central European region. Despite its title, which loosely translates as Aspects of Czech Democracy After 1989 the book’s unifying theme is less democracy than the Czech national identity, the Czech transition from communism and the way the historical past has impinged upon contemporary politics and society.

The collection begins with a discussion of Václav Havel’s career between 1969 and 1992 by Jiří Suk. As author of a magisterial prize-winning history of the Velvet Revolution, Suk ably documents the decline and fall of Czechoslovakia’s communist regime, the emergence of the Civic Forum movement in November 1989 and the broader transitional power structures of 1980-90; and the new president’s place within them. However, like many similar English language treatments of Havel, Suk’s attempt to use the playwright-president as an emblematic figure encapsulating recent Czech political history is not wholly successful. Ultimately, his essay offers a rather familiar account which reduces the rich palette of anti-political, pre-political and political positions held by Havel and other dissidents to intellectual blueprint for the Civic Forum movement and catch-all explanation of their failure in political office after 1989. The omission of Havel’s record as President of the independent Czech Republic – his eloquent, but quixotic promotion of civil society in 1990s; his diagnosis Czech society’s ‘foul mood’; the condemnation on ‘mafia capitalism’; the Rudolfinum speech blasting the Klaus government in 1997 – also give the essay an oddly partial feel.

Magdalena Hadjiisky’s exploration of the emergence of the centre-right Civic Democratic Party (ODS) from disintegration of the Forum movement in 1990-1 offers more original insights. In her case studies of provincial Civic Forum organizations in Brno and Ostrava, she show that, in addition to the demands of a ‘right-wing’ coalition of grassroots anti-communists, frustrated Forum officials and ordinary Czechs sceptical of ex-dissidents claims to leadership on the basis of dissident activism in 1970s and 1980s, spontaneous pressures for more hierarchical party-like structures also existed. The question has to be asked, however, just when Dr Hadjiisky is going to publish her excellent research on Civic Forum – scattered in various articles and papers in Czech, English and French and a several years old doctoral theses. Are French academic publishers really so obtuse?

Similar tensions are also identified by Deanna Colley in her study of the Czech student movement in 1989-80. However, Czech students’ organizations suffered the additional problem of reconciling their role as an interest group with loftier images of themselves as ‘guarantors of the Revolution’. As James Krapfl notes in his novel essay relating rival political narratives of revolution of 1989-90 to archetypical literary genres shows, such mythologization was ubiquitous in the politics of the time.

Perhaps the most original element in the book is its discussion of reactions to post-communist transformation in Czech cinema, fiction, and popular culture after 1989. Interestingly, these are generally at odds with prevalent mainstream political discourses of essentially successful reform process. Despite the diversity of authors and genres in Czech literature since the fall of communism, Alena Fialová finds several common motifs in their treatment of political and social change: the Revolution of November 1989 as a time of political innocence, altruism and idealism, but it is invariably followed by fictional protagonists’ disappointment. The ‘turning of coats’ by former communists, who emerge as the real winners of the transformation process in everyday life, is another a stock theme. Works of pulp fiction, perhaps unsurprisingly, take such populist constructions to extremes, depicting both ex-dissidents and ex-communists as creatures of corrupt and shady political system with their roots in the Communist period. More literary authors, by contrast, stress the corrupting effect of money, power and consumerism and the moral and ethical dilemmas that flow from these.

Petra Dominková finds a similar preoccupation with the negative or ambiguous impacts of transformation in Czech cinema after 1989. Many Czech films take as their protagonists archetypical ‘Little Czechs’, whose provincialism and lack of sophistication leaves them struggling (sometimes comically) to cope with the opening of Czech society to the wider world and the demands of the market economy. Germans and Western foreigners are also generally presented as somewhat overbearing and unwelcome outsiders Despite some recent films exploring the harsh experiences of Czech Roma, minority groups are often depicted either stereotypically or not at all. Martin Franc’s study of ‘Ostalgia’ in the Czech Republic seeks to extend this perspective by examining how attitudes to the former regime are refracted through popular culture and patterns of consumption. However, despite an engaging discussion of the re-emergence of ‘normalization’ era detective series and soap operas, 80s pop music and utilitarian ex-socialists brands on Czech TVs and supermarkets, in practice, it seems difficult to distinguish a specific post-communist Ostalgia from nostalgia generally or work out where Ostalgia or commercial imperatives for cheap mass market TV.

Only three essays discuss contemporary aspects of Czech politics after the Velvet Revolution and its immediate aftermath. Hana Havelkova’s chapter on Czech feminism after 1989 gives an interesting overview of women’s organizations in the Czech Republic and provocatively argues that the much maligned Union of Women (SŽ), which dates from the communist period, has in fact genuine roots in small town and rural Czech society. The Communists, she notes, amalgamated but then rapidly dismantled Czechoslovakia’s once extensive mass women’s organizations after taking power in 1948. SŽ, she claims, was created as a result of societal and intellectual pressures in the Prague Spring. Sadly, however, we don’t hear much more of this as the chapter is rapidly sidetracked by a terminological discussion about whether women’s and feminist organizations are or are not a social movement. Vladimír Handl examines the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (KSČM), an electorally important, if isolated, force in Czech politics and a highly unusual example in Central Europe of an orthodox communist party with mass support. Handl‘s presentation of his own reseach and a effective and thorough synthesis of Czech, English and German literatures, skillfully tracks the party‘s development from 1990, rightly pinpointing how EU membership and the gradual shrinkage of its ageing support base represent both a danger and an opportunity for the KSČM. Adéla Gjuričová’s discussion of the centre-right Civic Democratic Party’s turn in late 1990s from Thatcherite neo-liberalism to historic Czech nationalist themes is also empirically rich. However, she is less thorough than Handl and misses opportunities for a wider comparative and/or historical perspective on the party founded by Václav Klaus. Klaus’s reflections on Czech statehood, nationalism and national identity as early 1992-3, as well his more recent writings as President on immigration, multi-culturalism and civic and national cohesion clearly merit examination. ODS’s ‘national turn’ of the late 1990s also needs to be set in comparative context alongside the ‘nationalization’ of liberal forces elsewhere in CEE. The experience of Hungary’s Fidesz is an obvious point of contrast. Looser parallels might also be drawn with earlier episodes in Czech history such the national liberalism of 19th century ‘Young Czechs’.

The issue of ‘liberal nationalism’ is addressed head on by Michal Kopeček, who surveys both dissident and academic writings on liberal nationalism in Central Europe, he argues that, although crosscut by nationalism, liberalism the region was historically stronger than is often assumed. Somewhat surprisingly overlooking the (neo-)liberalism of the Civic Democrats and their efforts to crafts a new form of ‘national liberalism’ he argues that despite the weakness of Czech liberal centrist parties after 1989, dissident historians’ debates of 1970s and 1980s firmly established a liberal nationalist consensus in Czech political life, which draws its strength precisely on the unresolved and conflictual nature of debates on Czech history and identity.

However, he suggests, this consensus was too weak to block legalistic forms of ‘coming to terms with the past’ such as the Czech lustration law, leading to polarized and formulaic public debates on communism and unwelcome attempts by the state to act as guardian of ‘national memory’. The USD is the process of being swallowed up into a new Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes and both the intellectual position sketched in this chapter and the introduction’s call for a contemporary history going beyond the study of totalitarian regimes seem a critical response to this.

A somewhat different perspective is offered in the book’s concluding chapter by Jiří Přibáň. Přibáň argues that the law always encapsulates and shape the collective and national memories, which underpin and legitimize both current institutions. Contrasting decisions by Constitutional Courts in Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic, he argues, that strict doctrines of legal continuity, which block retroactive decommunization laws, in the name of maintaining rule of law may be misconceived. Concepts of retribution are, he notes, an element in most systems of criminal justice. The notion of political discontinuity inherent the notions of 1989 as a democratic revolution, he suggests, can legitimately be accompanied by the principle of legal discontinuity of retroactive decommunization laws intended to enact historical justice and protect democracy.

The parallel theme of neo-liberalism and economic nationalism also emerges in Martin Myant’s discussion of the Czech capitalism after 1989. In the early 1990s politicians across the political spectrum were in thrall to historical stereotypes of the Czech industrial and entrepreneurial tradition. This led both neo-liberals and social democratic visions of distinct ‘Czech capitalism’ with limited foreign ownership. Only as these ideas went out of fashion, as the costs of flawed coupon privatization and asset sales to dubious would-be Czech captains of industry became apparent did a distinct Czech model of capitalism emerge. This, Myant notes, was a complex combination of liberal and social market elements which defied easy comparative classification with roots in the Czech Republic’s fine political balance between left and right.

I am sympathetic to editors’ call for a more professional and thoroughgoing research into more recent Czech political history. Although making great strides recently, Czech political science has occasionally been characterized by certain shallowness of empirical research. The genre of political history and political biography as they exist in the English speaking world seem wholly absent in the Czech Republic. Although his collected works and correspondence have come out, the only full length biography of Václav Havel, for example, is John Keane’s distinctly flawed Vaclav Havel: A Political Tragedy in Six Acts (see Kieran William’s caustic review here).

Kapitoly z dějin české demokracie, however, falls somewhat short of its editors’ ambitions to use contemporary history to break new ground and open up new perspectives in other disciplines. Much of the collection reflects Czech contemporary historians’ well established interests in the Velvet Revolution and the transition from communism. Despite reference to political science literatures, many contributions are essentially rather traditionally constructed pieces of historical writing lacking any real element of interdisciplinary synthesis. The collection succeeds, however, in bringing together a range high quality scholarship in a single, well researched volume, and, as such, deserves to pull in broad Czech-speaking readership interested in current politics and society in the Czech Republic and fed up of the superficial and partisan found in most Czech language books on contemporary politics.

>Solzhenitsyn’s funeral: how Russia has changed

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I wander down to the living room for a coffee break and switch on BBC News 24. The funeral of Alexander Solzhenitsyn. President Medvedev is among the mourners. Ex-President Putin pays tribute. “It shows how much Russia has changed that the ex-KGB man is honouring one of communism’s greatest opponents…” says the voiced over commentary.

Hmm, well, yes and no. The KGB were a powerful part of the country’s political establishment under Brezhnev and reconfigured as the FSB and looser networks of securocrats they still are. More powerful perhaps, given the disappearance of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and the institutions and industrial ministries of the planned economy. And – if the BBC’s rather better radio documentary reporting on the FSB is to be believed – much more corrupt, given the disappearance of the barriers to formal private ownership. Is what’s really changed that nomenklatura and its security apparatus have simply accommodated themselves to Orthodox-tinged conservative patriotism of which Solzhenitsyn was a representative? Perestroika and democratization just a messy transition to the nomenklatura-dominated state capitalism that Trotsky anticipated in 1930s and sundry anarchists as early as the 1920s?

As a student I read my way through a lot of Solzhenitsyn. The critique of communism is visceral, shattering even. Watching the TV coverage though, my mind turned to another book that made a impression on me when I read it as a student, Alexander Yanov’s The Russian New Right which examined the conservative-nationalist wing in the Soviet dissident movement of 1970s – something a phenomenon, which extended to many more obscure – and more extreme – figures than Solzhenitsyn. Most striking in Yanov’s book, which came out in 1978 just a few years after English editions of Gulag Archipelago, were the strong ‘neonationalist’ tendencies he detected in sections of the Soviet (cultural) nomenklatura establishment and the long term prospect discussed by some samizdat writers of a rapprochement between conservative Russian nationalists and the Soviet states. I just saw that on my TV, I think.