Putin, Pussy Riot, and a Protest in Prague

I recently rediscovered a piece I wrote for an international reporting class in Prague, in fall of 2014. During my time in the Czech Republic, I became accustomed to bringing a recorder, my camera, and a pen and notepad with me everywhere I went, because unexpected encounters often necessitated a certain method of storytelling, or spoke best to a certain medium. On the day of the protest on the 25th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution, I had planned to solely cover the event for the PragueCast—but grabbed my camera on the way out the door, just in case it was useful. It was the day I realized I want to invest in my growth as a photographer. Some of the photos I shot from that day were published in the Prague Wandering webzine here. Read my previously unpublished article below.

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People placed hundreds of candles at the site of the violence 25 years prior.

November 23, Prague – Last Monday, Blanka Soulava, a Czech student in Prague, proudly held up a small rectangular red piece of paper as she stood by the Vltava River, her other hand buried in the pocket of her trench coat, small wisps of hair blowing gently in the damp November air. Though I was requesting photographic proof of her dissent, criticizing Czech president Milos Zeman, she did not hesitate to go on record with this political statement. She gazed levelly at the camera, a small but mischievous smile on her face, unmoving.

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Blanka remains a friend to this day. I got an excited message from her in July 2017 while I was in China, telling me that she had done the exact same monastic experience through the Woodenfish Foundation as I was doing, one year prior (a strange thing, to have so many unrelated mutual friends with someone from across the world).

Such an act would be brash by communist behavior standards. Under the totalitarian government that censored the Czech people for more than forty years, free expression meant becoming a target for the dreaded secret police. Such fear deeply affected the behavior of people living under the communism, leaving the free expression to dissidents such as Vaclav Havel, the playwright who helped overthrow the government and became the first president of a new democratic state.

Now, twenty-five years after the fall of communism, a new generation of college- educated Czechs is entering onto the scene. On the quarter century anniversary of the Velvet Revolution, people flooded the same street where a nonviolent student protest had triggered the fall of communism in 1989. They chanted and whistled, holding their red cards high in a reference to the rules of soccer—no more chances for the offender, President Milos Zeman.

“Havel’s children,” as the young generation is called, were among the estimated five thousand protesters at the anniversary event, as reported by the media. Born into Havel’s presidency, they do not remember life in a communist environment. Yet now, in their early twenties, they are on the verge of taking the reigns of a country whose former dreams of a free society look quite different than the current political situation.

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Never knew her name.

“Because we are a young democracy, people tend to take it for granted. But it just takes time to build it,” Soulava explained. “Of course there are problems, there is corruption. There are many dark sides of democracy.” The twenty-one year old joined the protest on November 17 because, as she said, “I’m simply fed up with feeling constantly embarrassed for the Czech president.”

President Zeman has a reputation for inflammatory behavior, most recently for his use of the Czech word for “pussy” on public radio . He described the Russian band, “Pussy Riot,” as “fucked up” and “shit” for criticizing Russian president, Putin. Zeman also invited Russian president Vladimir Putin for a visit, just hours after American vice president Joe Biden commended the Czech Republic on human rights work. Zeman leads a government that, according to the global anti-corruption watchdog, Transparency International, is one of the worst European countries for sleaze and scandal.

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Regardless of the current government’s muddle, Soulava still prefers it to the past communist regime because “that’s what I’ve been taught by my parents and by my grandparents.” She explained, “I was born in Czechoslovakia but in a democratic country, so for me it’s kind of impossible to actually imagine how it was [under communism]. But if I talk to my parents or my grandparents, it’s really cool to see the opportunities young people have nowadays.”

Petr Weiss, a psychologist and sex therapist in Prague, believes that these new opportunities have led to changed behavior from communist attitudes. For example, when travel was restricted, young people had “nothing to do but fuck.” Today, revolution has brought about opportunities to travel, and as a result, young people are waiting longer to have children. Weiss also noted a decline of popular homophobia among the Czech young, as only about 6 percent admitted to having homophobic views, compared to about 22 percent in the United States according to an ABC national poll.

Pavla Jonnsonova, a rockstar, professor, and gender theorist today, was the 28-year- old founder of an underground all girl rock band at the student protest on November 17, 1989. She was young under the communist government, and remembers the restrictions. “It hits you when you’re fifteen and you cannot travel,” she said. “You cannot read the books, you cannot listen to the music you love. You feel terrible.”

Despite communist oppression, however, Jonnsonova believes that her generation’s youth had it “so much easier.” She finds the current capitalist world in which her 15 year-old daughter lives to be lacking in originality. She looks back on her communist youth with fondness.

“What mattered was courage, and creativity, and a sense of being able to trust the other people—that they would not turn you in. So it was exciting and fun to be young at the time.”

She said she acknowledges her own “nostalgia for that period as a time of great friendship, times where money did not matter. What mattered was courage, and creativity, and a sense of being able to trust the other people, that they would not turn you in.” She continued, “So it was exciting and fun to be young at the time.”

Jonnsonova is not alone in recalling communism in a positive light. A new survey released five days before the anniversary revealed that one in six Czechs wants a return to communism, according to the Public Opinion Research Centre. The same survey found that almost half of all Czechs are dissatisfied with the current political situation.

Marek Pour, a 22-year- old political science student born and raised in Prague, was also at the protest on the anniversary. He said his mother attributes problems today in the Czech Republic to the fact that the country is no longer communist. “She maybe often thinks that the poverty and problems of today’s society are problems of the regime, which I think it’s not,” he explained. “I try to correct her all the time.”

Pour said that the tension between two regimes creates tension between two generations. “My parents often tell me that I was not living in that era, so I should not judge it so much because I’m not aware of all the things which were happening at that time,” he said. Still, he continued, “Young people don’t understand how the older people could live in such an environment.”

Though Pour himself is heavily involved in politics and worked on the most recent elections, he said that generally, young people in Prague do not speak out and get involved because “people are not raised or educated to do so, because our parents didn’t really involve in politics in the last regime.”

As to what other habits have been inherited from the prior generation: “It’s a basic thing, and that’s fear.”

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Site of overcoming fear, 1989 to 2014.

Jan Urban, a dissident of the communist government who was instrumental in its downfall, now teaches and writes in Prague. Twenty-five years after he risked his safety to fight for a freer society, he is “angry” to see old habits returning. “My sense is that most of the young generation today is lost, is individualized in their dreams and their wishes and disregard for the country. And that’s dangerous,” he explained.

Conversely, he admitted that although he believes today’s youth do not understand the communist world he once lived in, “what is much more dangerous is that we have not offered young generation a possibility to talk, to communicate about their wishes.”

Soulava said she was proud of the protest, because the world could see the youth starting to step forward into action. She was not the only young person holding a red card that day.

As Urban said, “Let’s use the twenty-fifth anniversary as an occasion trying to breakthrough.”

Pictured below: I remember a moment when, in the midst of the swarming crowds, I realized how significant it was that so many people felt safe opposing their government, publicly waving red cards, bringing their children along. If nothing else has been accomplished since the fall of communism (and much has): a protest like that in 2014 did not end in police brutality (as did the 1989 Velvet Revolution on the same street). I started asking people if I could take their picture, merely because I loved that they weren’t scared to say yes. More so than usual for my camera and I, strangers were unafraid of my documentation of them. I loved that they would smile, and look straight into my lens. It was like they were making up for lost time in the hush of the former Eastern Bloc. These are some of those portraits. 

 

 

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