Czechs and Russians: A love-hate relationship
Czechs have always had a complicated relationship with Russians. At some points in history, they saw them as their Slavic brothers who could help them gain independence and freedom. But Czech hopes for a mutually respectful relationship were repeatedly dashed by the arrogance and aggression of Russian political leaderships.
In November 2018, Czech folk singer Jaromír Nohavica received an award in the Kremlin: the Medal of Pushkin from Russian President Vladimir Putin. The fact itself that he flew to Moscow to receive an award from the Russian president provoked a lot of criticism back home. Why? The Russians cannot be trusted. This was already understood by at least some of the Czech intelligentsia back in the 19th century. For example writer Karel Havlíček Borovský who spent quite a long time in Russia, concluded:
“I can testify that Russians do not treat other Slavs as brothers and that they are dishonest and selfish. I have more understanding for Hungarians who fight against us openly, rather than for the Russians, who approach with a Judas kiss, and then they want to put us in their pockets. Russian gentlemen first assure us that we are all Slavs so that they could later say that everything Slavic is Russian and must be subordinated to them.”
And in a similar vein speaks the co-founder of the Czech Facebook group “Russia is a world enemy” Otakar Brabec:
“I see present-day Russia mainly as the result of the Bolshevik revolution of 1917. Ever since Czechoslovakia was founded as an independent state in 1918, the Russian secret services did everything they could to undermine our state. It started with the so-called “Cheka”, which then morphed into NKVD and later KGB. And it is still going on with the present Russian services FSB and GRU. They have always been undertaking activities directed against the interests of our state and our citizens.”
But there are other social-network groups that are much more friendly to Russia. Musician Jiří Suchý founded one of them:
“You asked me why I think we should be friends with Russia and other eastern countries rather than the West. What has America shown us in the past 100 years? What have the Americans demonstrated in the world? How many countries has the US destroyed? How many people died because of that? How many wars has America started? How many countries has it visited with its so-called “democracy” and “freedom of speech”? How many dead people were left in the carnage? And now tell me, when did Russia or the Soviet Union before that behave in such a manner?”
No mention there of the historical fact that under Stalin, millions of people died in labor camps. For four decades the Soviet Union de facto controlled Czechoslovakia through the Communist Party, and Czechs, who are over forty-five or fifty, remember very well what it was like and how bad the repression was.
The Czechs' relationship with Russia underwent a rather interesting development after 1989. The Institute of Sociology of the Czech Academy of Sciences has been monitoring social attitudes towards other nations for a long time. Jan Červenka from the Public Opinion Research Center confirms that the attitude of Czechs towards Russia has changed significantly in recent decades:
“We can see very clearly that in the 1990s up until 2001, there was a general feeling of deep scorn when it came to our view of Russia. Well over 70 percent of Czechs considered the economic situation in Russia as very bad. The overall picture of that country was very negative and there were next to zero positive views that we recorded in this respect. It started to change gradually sometime around 2005. This trend continued and in 2019 the share of overall positive and negative views towards Russia became equal: 45 percent for both sides. Significantly, the perception of the Russian economy in Czech society changed, too. The scorn of the 1990s I mentioned, the view of Russia as a backward country is a thing of the past.”
When I spoke to the singer Jaromír Nohavica some time ago, he explained that he sees Russia mainly through the prism of literature. He started reading it in adolescence:
“I think it was in 1967 or 1968. I was a teenager, playing the guitar, simply great times. And one day I opened my father’s copy of Plamen, the official literary journal published by the Czechoslovak Writers’ Union. I found a translation of one chapter from Bulgakov’s novel The Master and Margarita. I had never read anything so great and fascinating before and I started looking for other such authors who were, at that time, partially banned. Later on, I found my way to the Russian classics, and I never stopped reading their literature. But the first impulse was Bulgakov and The Master and Margarita.”
I have traveled to Russia quite a few times and I see Russians in a way as a nation of extremes: they either love you or hate you. There is no “middle position”. Would Jaromír Nohavica agree?
“You can find it in the literature, too. We Czechs are different. To put it figuratively, we like the volume to be between 4 and 6. We like everything, and everybody measured. We are afraid of extremes, to fly too high or too low. And the same applies to hatred and love. So, I agree, and you can find it in Russian literature and poetry. There is often some sort of insidious darkness and depth that we do not understand and expect. You read something so dark that you think the author cannot mean it seriously. But he does. He means it, he really does.”
When the fighting in Ukraine started, Jaromír Nohavica publicly denounced the war. His concerts in the Czech Republic and Poland are usually sold out. But all of those that have been planned and advertised in Poland and some in the Czech Republic have now been canceled. The organizers blame the singer for clearly and publicly “not distancing himself from Vladimir Putin sufficiently”. But other concerts in some cities will take place.
Despite his refusal to return the Medal of Pushkin to Vladimir Putin, Jaromír Nohavica remains arguably the most popular and successful living Czech folk singer. He is denounced by some, while still very popular with others. It is in a way a reflection of the complicated relationship that Czechs will have with Russia, and anyone who is associated with it.