A tale of two towns and their post-communist transformation

Mikulov, photo: archive of Radio Prague

The Czech Republic is marking 25 years since the start of the Velvet Revolution which toppled the communist regime. The country has since undergone a dramatic transformation from totalitarianism to a free-market democracy, affecting virtually all areas of life. The changes have been especially marked in Prague and other big cities but in the regions, the transformation has been less smooth and often more painful. In our special programme today, we look at how two historic Czech towns, Mikulov and Stříbro, have changed over the last 25 years.

Mikulov,  photo: archive of Radio Prague
Each September, the annual wine festival brings tens of thousands of people to Mikulov, a beautiful south Moravian town lying right on the border with Austria. Besides wine, the town of some 8,000 boasts a unique history, architecture and location; surrounded by limestone hills, a Baroque chateau and the Holly Hill dominate the town’s panorama.

Mikulov has become a major tourist destination in this part of the country. Many historic houses in the town square with bright facades now house galleries, cafés and wine bars; hotels and pensions are scattered around the town.

But 25 years ago, the town was a very different place. Filip Brichta was one year old when his family moved to Mikulov, and he grew up in the centre of the town’s former Jewish ghetto.

“It was a grey, periphery town; it seemed smaller then. It was a one-way town – you could only come from the direction of Brno, but you really could not go south.”

It was right on the border of the Iron Curtain.

“Yes, exactly. Many people cooperated with the border police. You would regularly meet border guards in the streets. There was also a big military base here. We all knew you were not supposed to go south.”

Filip’s family moved to Mikulov in 1974, after his mother, Dobromila Brichtová, got a job at the local museum. The family settled in an ancient house in the main street of the former Jewish quarter which is now one of Mikulov’s main tourist magnets.

But when I spoke to Ms Brichtová in her living room, she told me that for the first few years, she and her husband seriously considered moving out again.

“It was a grey, sad town with many derelict houses, some of which were to be demolished, particularly in the Jewish quarter. There were only a few bright spots – the romantic Jewish cemetery, the Holly Hill with the Diestrichstein Tomb below, and the chateau complex. Apart from that, it was a very sad town.”

Until the end of WWII, Mikulov’s population was almost exclusively German-speaking. After ethnic Germans were expelled from Czechoslovakia in the post-war period, the town was repopulated with Czechs who came from the interior of the country.

Mikulov,  photo: archive of Radio Prague
But it took decades before most of the new inhabitants began feeling really at home there. The town suffered much neglect and disrepair as a result, and people formed a very tight community that would not easily tolerate difference.

“Not only was it ugly but we quickly found out we somehow didn’t fit in. We felt Mikulov was hostile, and it soon became obvious that it was very hostile in some respects. Many of our friends at that time were living in their own communities, in those enclosed intellectual ghettos, and this was our case in Mikulov, too.”

Life in a town right on the Iron Curtain was not very cheerful. But it became even more depressing with the Soviet occupation of the country. Security at the border and in the buffer zone was reinforced, and the border police was very active inside the town, too.

“The closed borders was something you had to think about several times a day. Up until the mid-1970s, it would happen that if the police didn’t know who you were, they would ask for your ID even if you just went across the street to take out the garbage. My husband once went for a hike on the Holly Hill and ended up spending a night at the police station before they made sure that he indeed lived in Mikulov.”

More than 300 kilometres northwest of Mikulov lies the town of Stříbro, one of the hidden jewels of western Bohemia. In several ways, the two towns are similar: Stříbro, like Mikulov, is a charming historic town; it is situated on a ridge overlooking a valley of the Mže River. Since its renovation in the 1990s, Stříbro’s precious Renaissance town hall in the main square plays a song on the hour.

Founded in the 13th century on a main trade route between Prague and the city of Nuremberg in Bavaria, Stříbro, as its name suggests, was a major silver-mining town. Mining for silver and later for lead continued for centuries, and the last mine was only closed in the 1970s.

By that time, however, the historic town had fallen into severe disrepair. Like Mikulov, Stříbro was in the German-speaking Sudetenland whose inhabitants – around three million in total, were forced out of the country after the Second World War.

And like in Mikulov, the communist authorities were planning to demolish some of the town’s most valuable buildings – including its landmark town hall. Vítězslav Šoltys served as deputy mayor in Stříbro between 1990 and 2002.

Stříbro,  photo: Miloš Turek
“Before 1989, there were serious plans to demolish the town hall. Its structural stability was damaged, the building was beginning to lean to one side, its roof and some of its floors collapsed. It was literally a ruin.”

For the Stříbro town hall, just as for the entire country, the Velvet Revolution came just in time. A student march on Friday, November 17, 1989 that was brutally oppressed by the communist riot police triggered events that eventually ended communist rule in Czechoslovakia, after four long decades.

The next day, some theatres in Prague went on strike in protest against police brutality. By Monday, students at most universities were striking, and some 100,000 people showed up at a mass rally in Prague’s Wenceslas Square.

Public protests were also held in Brno and some other big cities. But it took days before the Velvet Revolution reached small towns like Štříbro and Mikulov. Dobromila Brichtová recalls that the mood of the first weeks of the revolution.

“It was very, very cautious here, for two reasons I think. People in Mikulov were very careful about what they said, how they said it and where they went because of the auxiliary border guards had their eyes everywhere. That I think was very specific here.”

Ms Brichtová says that three such “auxiliaries” lived in a block of flats directly across the street from her house, reporting to the police on whatever she and her husband did.

But by the time the singer and dissident Marta Kubišová, banned from publicly performing under communism, sang her “Prayer for Marta” to hundreds of thousands of demonstrators in Prague, the momentum of the events reached the periphery as well.

“Four young men, as far as I recall, first went to Prague as early as November 18 to find out what was happening. They would then travel there every other day, and when they returned, they would relate the news to a growing crowd of people in the town square.

“But these were mostly people around 40 and younger. Older people were scared, and the youth were not let out of home by their parents.”

Lukáš Houdek,  photo: David Vaughan
Developments in Stříbro were similar – people would travel to Prague to see what was going on, and locals began gathering in the square. Photographer Lukáš Houdek was only five years old in November 1989 but says these are some of his strongest childhood memories.

“My mother and I were at home, my father was in Prague. He organized a bus for people from my home town to go to the rally in Wenceslas Sqaure in Prague.

“We were so scared; my sister was on her way home that day from school and she got lost. We didn’t know what was happening. It was a very strong moment; it feels nice to recall the powerful atmosphere at home but it was not only enthusiastic but also worrisome.”

In Stříbro, Mikulov, and thousands of other Czech cities, towns and villages, the first free municipal elections in more than four decades were held in November 1990. Vítězslav Šoltys was elected deputy mayor for the Civic Forum which formed during the Velvet Revolution as a nationwide umbrella opposition group.

“In 1989, a group of friends who had lived in Stříbro all their lives and known each other for years came together and said, ‘If we care about Stříbro, we must do something for it. Let’s go try and see if can do something for Stříbro.”

While the new national government began with a fundamental political and economic transformation of the country, the new people at local town halls did something similar on their own scale.

”One of our major goals was to get the gymnasium, the grammar school, back. We lost it in the 1960s and since then, our children had to commute to Pilsen or Tachov.

“But more generally, we wanted to do something about the widespread neglect of the town, and to elevate its community life. It’s sad to talk about it now because we forget the enthusiasm and verve we had at that time.”

For the people in Mikulov, meanwhile, the suffocating atmosphere of the Iron Curtain was the first thing they wanted to get rid of, says Dobromila Brichtová.

“We knew that Mikulov would not be able to sustain itself just on services for the locals and for the army, and that one machinery factory was not important enough to save it. It was also important for people to travel abroad to see how people lived and what their towns looked like, to get inspiration.”

Mikulov,  photo: CzechTourism
“But we also believed that it would be good even for those who did not want communism to end. We thought that if they could travel abroad whenever they wanted and wherever they wanted, that this would give them a sense of freedom they had not known before.”

Immediately after borders opened up in December 1989, both towns faced a massive invasion of tourists, travelling both ways. In Mikulov, the first days saw cars queuing up to 12 kilometres to enter Austria, while in Stříbro, busload after busload of German tourists stopped on their way to Pilsen and Prague for a brief visit with lunch on the town square. Restaurants and shops started popping up, and prosperity seemed within reach, according to Lukáš Houdek.

“I remember this was something very new; there were many new restaurants and pubs because this was a border region, and it was very good for business.

“Many people tried their luck and opened small hotels or rented rooms to foreigners to make some extra money. That’s what I remember about the changes, that people were attempting to run their own businesses.”

This was also the case in Mikulov but this town has something Stříbro does not: it is located in the heart of the country’s biggest vine-growing region, and its post-war inhabitants quickly adopted the craft of wine making. Although individual enterprise was very much suppressed during communism, many people in Mikulov in the 1970s and 80s made and sold wine.

A local anecdote, which maintains that there are three kinds of wine: white, red, and then the wine to be sold to people from Prague, originated in those times. But that also when one of the town’s biggest wine producers, Petr Marcinčák, learned his trade.

“I made my first wine when I was 17, and I have been making wine ever since, first in small amounts, just like pretty much everyone here. Many people had vineyards, and although it was illegal to sell it, it was mostly tolerated that people would sell off part of their production. But officially, it was not possible to have a wine-making business.”

Mr Marcinčák’s business is now one of the best-known Mikulov wineries. The firm grows vines at an area of over 100 hectares, and annually produces some 300,000 litres of wine.

“You could officially set up a business after the act on free enterprise was passed in May 1990. And after special legislation on winemaking was approved in 1995, we started reviving the traditions from before WWII.

Photo: Filip Jandourek
“During communism, people were not really encouraged to travel to the border regions. But that changed dramatically, and new wineries and winemakers have played a big role in that. It has been a very dynamic process, and it keeps developing.”

Wine and tourism have been the central part of Mikulov’s development strategy since the early 1990s, and it has proved a success. The town is now among the top tourist destinations of the south Moravian region. Rostislav Koštial was recently re-elected mayor of Mikulov for the third consecutive term.

“Things like fixing the sidewalks, sewage and lighting, these are standard duties that need to be done in any town. But my goal has been to develop the town into one of the country’s most attractive and hospitable towns, and I think this ambition does make sense. Many people who come here now tell me that Mikulov is already among the top ten destinations.”

Mikulov’s regional museum has seen the number of visitors double over the past decade, with some 45,000 people now visiting its expositions in the Baroque chateau towering over the town. Many people also come to explore the town’s rich Jewish past, a recently renovated synagogue and a large Jewish cemetery.

Since the year 2000, the local Association of Friends of Jewish Culture has been promoting Mikulov’s Jewish heritage, setting up a marked path through the Jewish quarter and guiding visitors around the cemetery. Marie Leskovjanová is one of the group’s founders.

“I’m an agriculture specialist by education but I have always been interested in history, and Mikulov is an amazing place for that. I was interested in what was behind the gate of the Jewish cemetery, and in other significant Jewish sites.

“So we founded the group that began working at the cemetery, renovating it and opened it up for the public. We felt that even those 15 years ago, the Jewish heritage was overshadowed by other attractions.”

Since then, the Jewish sites in Mikulov have become increasingly popular with visitors. But Ms Leskovjanová says that even locals find the time to explore the history of their own town.

“We organize a weekend festival called Jewish Culture Days when we remember the community which no longer exists but which was very big at one point. As part of the event, we take people around the cemetery for free, and this year, we had 150 people.

“It’s true that the weather was exceptionally nice but I was very surprised that many people from Mikulov came for a tour of the cemetery.”

Stříbro,  photo: Miloš Turek
For nearly a decade, tourism also seemed the way to go for Stříbro. But in 1999, a new motorway connecting Prague and the German border opened, bypassing the town. This has had a dire effect on the town’s economy, and one that’s clearly visible, says Lukáš Houdek.

“It was from one day to the next that people stopped coming. You can still see the impact because there are so many restaurants that are empty nowadays. People keep opening up new restaurants in the former establishments but then they close down again, so this is a sad story.

“People now realize the importance of tourism which is something I don’t think they appreciated in the beginning because there were really too many tourists.”

Stříbro is now trying to bring the tourists back to see the town’s unique industrial heritage. Some 15 years ago, a group of people founded the Miners’ Association of Stříbro which has since set up an open air mining museum on the bank of the Mže River. Vítězslav Šoltys, who was among the founders of the group, took me around.

Mr Šoltys points to a large gate carved on the side of the rock, and explains this was one a major silver mine called Prokop.

“This is the entrance to the underground section of the museum. If you look some 200 metres over there, you’ll see the river entering the mine. Under this rock, there is a large dome with a big water wheel propelled by the river. It pumped water from all the other underground mines located inside this massif.”

The museum displays machinery and tools once used in the mines. It also features a short section of a mine railway that takes visitors in for a ride in small carts. Some 5,000 people visit the site every year but the problem is that even during the season, it only opens on two afternoons a week.

Both towns have also benefited from the proximity of Austrian and German investors. Several Austrian firms, such as the cable maker Kabelwerk, have opened their plants in Mikulov, providing hundreds of jobs. In Stříbro, meanwhile, the Germany-based multinational machinery firm Siemens opened a major plant in 1993, creating around 2,000 jobs.

But five years ago, production was moved to a cheaper location in Rumania, the plant closed down and unemployment in Stříbro skyrocketed to over 20 percent. The situation has since improved with the arrival of new employers, and today, the local unemployment rate is well below the national average. But the experience of so many people losing their jobs at the same time shocked the town, with many people feeling deep frustration. Lukáš Houdek again.

Illustrative photo: Filip Jandourek
“It seriously affected the quality of life in the town. But there was another thing – this was the start of interethnic clashes between the majority and the Romanies.

“There was nothing like that before because both white people and the Romanies had jobs. But suddenly, the Romanies were unemployed, and they began accusing one another.”

That is in fact one of the most frequent complaints I heard from people here, that there are “these Romanies” and they cause trouble. They don’t work and hang around in the square. Do you think the town does have a problem with the Romany community?

“I don’t think there is a big problem. I know the community quite well, and yes, many of them are unemployed. But there are many people of the majority who don’t have jobs either.

“The problem is that there are these accommodation facilities for poor Romanies in the town, many Romanies who recently arrived from Slovakia are now living there. These people are socially excluded but people tend to confuse them with the Romanies who have lived in the town for generations.

“Also, people don’t like the Romanies sitting in the square. But they are just using a public space. People here are probably not used to using public space like the Romanies do. But that’s the purpose of the square. This is a strange situation.”

Many people in Stříbro and in Mikulov say that unemployment and low-paying jobs are the biggest problems their communities are now facing. Despite the fact that there are vacancies in the industrial plants, the average monthly salaries range between 10 and 15,000 crowns which makes it more profitable for some people to stay unemployed and live on welfare.

This is a nationwide problem, as shown by a recent government study. Critics of the welfare state believe the benefits should be cut to get people to work. But Milan Damborský from Prague’s University of Economics says this is a structural problem that will take decades to fix.

“We are the end of the transition process. If we want to become a well-developed country with a strong middle class, we need to find a source of productivity which is not based on low cost investment. But that will take decades.

“The advantages of low-cost investment are expiring but we have not yet started building a new type of economy based on education and creativity.”

While Mikulov continues to develop as a town with a strong tourist industry, people in Stříbro seem to be ready for a change. October’s municipal elections produced a new coalition at the town hall, with 35-year-old Karel Lukeš as the new mayor. It will also have a council member for the Pirate Party which received 10 percent of the vote in Stříbro.

Stříbro,  photo: Miloš Turek
Its leader and councillor Jaroslav Hais became a well-known figure in his town after he founded Dolníci, a group of young people who organize concerts, lectures and film shows. They are based in a mediaeval bastion just off of the town centre.

The name of the group – Dolníci – could be roughly translated into English as Minors. It is a joke poked at the miners’ association that runs the open air museum. Jaroslav Hais explains.

“We even wrote a short history of the Minors, Dolníci, in the spirit of Jára Cimrman, about how they came here and taught the miners how to mine. That’s probably why they don’t like us.”

So how did it all start?

“Well, we thought that culture in the town was underfinanced, and the miners were getting all the funds earmarked for people’s activities. So we said, there are several music bands, let’s all get together, and it has worked so far.”

You are also a newly elected representative, the first ever for the Pirate Party. What made you run for the seat?

“It is very closely connected with Dolníci. We would go to council meetings and when I sat there, I thought, what the hell is this? There was no transparency, it was impossible to get to the town’s contracts, and details about what was happening. And this is exactly the agenda of the Pirate Party, so I tried it, and wow, it worked.”

What do you think the town should do to make its economy more solid, and to attract more visitors?

“First of all, it should focus not only on the big international companies that build factories but it should also support local firms and businesses. As far as tourism goes, people need a reason to come here, and the question is, what it is.

Maybe horníci?

“Maybe. But I think in a lot of ways, the town is stuck in the past, in the early 1990s, and we need to move forward. If we want tourism here, we need to inform the tourists. Have you seen the town’s webpage? You are smiling so I guess you have. It’s not even available in English. So little things like this.”