Compatriots who are worlds apart – a lingering legacy of the communist years

The expat conference 2012, photo: Barbora Kmentová

This week the Czech capital is hosting a gathering of Czech expats. People of all ages and professions scattered the world over who maintain close links to their native country are here to exchange ideas, forge new ties and help overcome a lingering legacy of the communist past –the yawning crevice between Czechs at home and Czechs abroad. This year’s St. Wenceslas Day on September 28th is dedicated to Czechs living abroad and Czech Radio helped co-organize a week-long festival of expat events leading up to the holiday. I asked Miroslav Krupička, the head of Radio Prague, who is heavily involved in the project, to explain the idea behind it.

The expat conference 2012,  photo: Barbora Kmentová
“There are an estimated 2.5 million Czechs or people of Czechoslovak origin living abroad, most of them in the US, and that’s a large number of people so the idea was to bring these people together with the Czechs living here and have then exchange ideas – interact somehow, to put those two worlds that are separate together.”

So what exactly is taking place?

“There are a number of interesting events. One of them is the expat conference which starts on Wednesday. It is a two-day event and there are about 200 people registered from more than 20 countries. They will exchange ideas about how they live, what they do in their communities what their problems are, whether they have maintained the Czech language, whether they have maintained their cultural heritage and it is different each country it is different. Somewhere there are more people and very active people, elsewhere there are fewer Czechs with no financial means to support their activities, so we expect an interesting exchange of ideas. Apart from the conference there is an expat folklore festival where dance groups and music ensembles of various kinds will come together and show the Czech public how they keep their cultural heritage alive –how they sing, how they dance, how they play. The festival takes place in the streets of Prague so it is a show for the public basically and about 15 or 20 folklore ensembles from 10 or 12 countries are registered. Then there is a discussion organized by Respekt magazine on the subject of identity – a philosophical phenomenon – whether the expats feel themselves to be more Czech or more American. Also, last Friday the daily Lidové Noviny came out with a special supplement profiling 50 interesting Czech expats. A special book will be published about the Czechoslovak exile and so on. So it is really a festival of events and publications.”

Miroslav Krupička
Apart from portraying the life of Czechs abroad this project allows Czech radio and tv audiences to elect the greatest Czech living abroad in a popular vote. Can you tell us who is in the running for this honour and how the contest works?

“The whole festival of events takes place under the auspices of Czech Radio and Czech Television – the country’s public broadcasters. And when we had a debate two months ago at Czech Radio about how best to contribute Radio Prague came up with the idea of having this contest – the Greatest Czech living abroad. Czech Radio appealed to the public, to its listeners to send in nominations and received hundreds of suggestions naming Czechs living abroad. We selected 20 of them both important, interesting and well-known people and complete unknowns scattered around the world, people of all age groups so that we had a good representative short-list of candidates. And then we invited listeners to cast their vote and support one of these personalities. The voting took place in the past four weeks and ended last Friday. We are now counting the votes and the top three are Bohdan Pomahac, a plastic surgeon living in the US, Madeleine Albright, the former US secretary of state, and Bela Gran Jensen from Norway who established the Centipede charity. The winner will be announced on the day of Czech Statehood – on Friday September 28th. The week of Czech expat activities will culminate with a gala event at Prague’s National Theatre on St Wenceslas’ Day and the winner will be announced in the course of this festive evening on Friday.”

Madeleine Albright
Is there a prize involved?

“No, no just symbolic gifts from Czech Radio and Czech Television. No money is involved.”

You have spent much time studying the life of Czechs abroad (or Czechs in exile during the communist years) and written several articles on the subject. Do you think that those two worlds -the world of Czechs at home and Czechs abroad – are worlds apart?

“It is getting better. They used to be two separate worlds even in the 1990s. They did not even overlap. Of course the four decades of communism are to blame, because in the eyes of many Czechs the exiles were the enemies. That began to change slowly with Vaclav Havel’s presidency. But it is only in the past five to seven years that these two worlds have started coming closer. This is due to globalization, due to the fact that Czech exiles have started visiting the Czech Republic on a more regular basis and Czechs have become more open since they gained the freedom to study and work abroad. All this has contributed to these two worlds coming together –slightly –in the past couple of years. But still, there is a lot of work to be done.”

You said that exiles were often perceived as the enemy – can you explain why? After all many were forced out of this country or fled from the communist regime...

Photo: archive of Radio Prague
“Simply because the communist regime, which indoctrinated us for decades, presented them in that light. They told us that those who fled were traitors; that they fled to make a better life for themselves abroad and in doing so betrayed us and became an enemy of the state. They accused them of speaking against the country and slandering it. And those ideas planted in people’s heads lasted for years. People who didn’t think about it simply accepted it. Many people accepted it without question, without knowing the circumstances. It was only when these expats started coming back to the country and these two worlds started to interact somehow that this gradually began to change. But it is a slow process that will go on for years.”

I am sure some of them feel very hard-done-by because of this sentiment. You speak to them quite often –do you think they are disappointed by developments in this country? That they expected things to be easier, smoother, for the country to have a better reputation?

“Yes, there are all kinds of opinions on that of course. The exiles who fled persecution by the communists –those who fled in the late 1940s, in 1968, in the 70s - they are rather disappointed. They say it is not the kind of democracy they envisaged. That it is too slow and there is too much corruption in the Czech Republic and so on. The older expats whose parents or grandparents left the country at the end of the 19th century take a far more moderate view. They do not criticize anything. They are happy to come here and see their relatives and find their roots. But those who fled let’s say after the war are really quite critical of the political and social developments in the Czech Republic.”

When you say that it will take many years for those two worlds to come together –do you think that there is a real chance of changing these attitudes or will it only come with a change of generations?

“Basically, yes, it will come with a change of generations. The new generation of my children for instance –children who are now teenagers – they are not anchored in the past. They do not know much about communism. They live in a totally different society. They know there are Czech expats living abroad and they find it perfectly natural, they do not have a problem with them. So yes, it will change with the change of generations and with the process of globalization –people coming here, Czechs leaving the country to live abroad for a few years or for the rest of their life – it’s becoming normal so this attitude will disappear completely in due time.”