Velvet Divorce and marriage: real-life Czech-Slovak couples
The dissolution of Czechoslovakia in 1993 is poetically known as the Velvet Divorce, carrying with it connotations of a marriage that went sour but ended amicably. This belies the fact that there were – and are still – many real-life Czech-Slovak couples whose relationships lasted, or began, despite the ending of the union between their two countries.
As the product of a Czech-Slovak union myself, I was curious to know if the political separation of the two states had had any effect at all on the real-life marriages and relationships between actual people – are fewer Czech-Slovak couples getting together now than when it was one country?
According to figures from the Czech Statistical Office, in 1989, prior to the Velvet Divorce, there were 3875 Czech-Slovak marriages in Czechoslovakia: 2098 between a Slovak bride and a Czech groom and 1777 between a Slovak groom and a Czech bride. In 2021, 1915 Czech-Slovak marriages took place in Czechia – 950 Slovak women married Czech men and 965 Slovak men married Czech women. Meanwhile, in Slovakia in 2021, 1234 Czech-Slovak marriages took place, with 892 of those being marriages between a Czech man and Slovak woman, and 342 being marriages between a Slovak man and Czech woman.
If you add the Czech-Slovak marriages from 2021 that took place in Czechia and in Slovakia together, you get 3149 – 726 fewer than in 1989. So if these two years are any indicator of pre- and post-Velvet Divorce trends, the number of Czech-Slovak marriages taking place on Czech and Slovak territory has slightly decreased since the two countries went their separate ways.
And while more Czech men married Slovak women than the other way around pre-1993, it seems that nowadays the balance is much more equal – at least in Czechia (in Slovakia, it was still the case that more Czech men married Slovak women rather than the other way around, every year for the last five years – usually two or three times as many). Since gay marriage is not legal in Czechia or Slovakia, there are no figures for same-sex couples.
So it seems that despite the split of their two countries, Czech-Slovak unions are still happening almost as frequently, if not quite as much.
I was also interested to know if the split had had any qualitative effect on how Czech-Slovak couples thought about each other. Did it make any difference to them that they were from two countries rather than one?
I spoke to two couples in their early 30s: my downstairs neighbours, Jiří (Czech) and Ivana (Slovak), and another young couple living in Prague, Marian (Slovak) and Andrea (Czech). Jiří is from Janské Lážně in northeast Bohemia and Ivana is from Senec, a town close to Bratislava, while Marian is from a village in Slovakia just a few kilometres from the Czech border and Andrea is from a village near Kutná Hora.
Which country to live in?
Perhaps the first and most obvious question facing any international couple is: which country are we going to live in? Prior to the Velvet Divorce, Czechoslovakia was one country, with a unified legal and political system, so there was no decision to make. But with the split of the two countries, suddenly Czech-Slovak couples had to make a choice.
Jiří and Ivana say this was a topic of some debate for them. Ivana says she never planned to live abroad.
“I was maybe hoping for a moment that we would settle down in Slovakia, because my whole family is there and I was living in the city where my family lives. I was growing up having all these relatives around me and I liked it.”
But after Jiří tried living in Slovakia it was evident that that wasn’t going to work.
“I’m trying to forget it, but actually I spent almost half a year in Slovakia – yeah, it was that bad. I feel like I would rather live in so many other countries than Slovakia [laughs].”
After that, Ivana realised she had to move to Prague if the relationship was going to stand a chance.
“I realised that if I want to have a happy partner, this just needs to happen, and that I would probably adapt much better in Prague than he in Slovakia.”
Meanwhile, for Marian and Andrea, where to live was never much of an issue for them, as both were already living in Prague when they met, says Andrea.
“Not in terms of whether we want to live in the Czech Republic or Slovakia – I think it was never a discussion [laughs].”
Even Marian, who is from Slovakia, said he didn’t have much desire to live there, as it’s more important for him to live in a major city.
“I consider Prague the only metropolitan city in the two countries – Bratislava is really small for me, it’s less than half the size. And I personally just don’t like that city at all [laughs].”
Misunderstandings and miscommunications
Which language do the couples speak with each other? Do they each speak in their own language as the two are more or less mutually intelligible, or does one adapt to the other?
In this case, both couples said the same thing – the Slovak half of the couple could speak Czech so both couples speak Czech together.
Marian says he could speak Czech easily because of the region of Slovakia he grew up in.
“We speak Czech but that’s only because I was born so close to the border that my dialect has such a strong influence from Czech that if I went to Bratislava, people would think that I was Czech. So it was very easy for me to switch to speaking Czech.”
Ivana says she could also speak Czech without problems but at first she wanted to speak Slovak with Jiří.
“I could speak Czech fluently but at first I was like ‘come on, if we are going to be partners and if we’re going to have a family, I want our kids to understand Slovak, it’s not that difficult, come on.’ But he has these moments where he pretends he doesn’t understand, so he makes me repeat myself a few times, and then I give up and just say it in Czech.”
Jiří says Ivana mostly only speaks Slovak to him when she’s angry.
“I was amazed that, even though she lived her whole life in Slovakia, she was able to speak Czech pretty fluently right away. It’s quite problematic for me to speak Slovak because it’s too close, so I am not able to catch the small differences. So when I realised she was able to speak Czech pretty easily, we just started speaking Czech together. Sometimes when she’s mad, she starts speaking Slovak and I pretend that I don’t understand so well.”
What about raising children? What language will their children speak, and what nationality will they have?
Ivana says she would like her kids to speak Slovak, or at the very least to understand it.
“I definitely want to speak Slovak to them, but let’s see – it’s really difficult to predict how I will behave eventually. I can imagine that I won’t be pushing them to speak Slovak, but I want to get to the point where they understand Slovak.”
Jiří thinks it might be hard to get their children to speak Slovak.
“It’s going to be difficult because they will be Czech kids living in Prague, having Czech friends, going to Czech school. It’s going to be something funny their mum sometimes says.”
Marian and Andrea both say they think it’s more important for any potential children to speak English than to speak both Czech and Slovak.
“I think I would go with Czech and English, if we were to stay in Prague.”
“For me it’s more important for the kid to know at least one international language, which would probably be English, and then Czech.”
As for citizenship, both couples are less sure. Ivana says she doesn’t know what the law says, but she would like the kids to have both:
“I’m not sure about the law, but I think that since I am a citizen of Slovakia and Jiří is a citizen of Czechia, they will get both citizenships. And I would love them to have two citizenships.”
Andrea says she has never thought about it that much, and Marian says with the EU it doesn’t make much difference.
“Again, if we were to stay and have the kid in Prague, it would be better for him or her to have Czech nationality. Just practically it would make more sense.”
Both couples are too young to remember the Velvet Divorce, but how do they feel about it? Do they wish Czechoslovakia still existed, or that they had been around to see it?
Marian says he doesn’t see much difference now to when it was one country.
“Being born so close to the border, my father always worked in the Czech Republic, so we used to travel there every week. We had our own little Schengen back then – you didn’t need any passport or anything, you just needed some form of ID and no one really checked it between Czechia and Slovakia. So when all the European Union and Schengen came, all the people living close to the border were just like, ‘So what’s going to happen, is it going to be the same?’ ‘Yeah it’s going to be the same.’ ‘Ok, well, good.’ [laughs] Yeah – nothing really changed that much.”
“From my point of view, I don’t see any difference. It’s very similar to what it is today with Schengen and the EU – we still can travel back and forth without showing our passports.”
However, she says in some ways, she might have preferred living in a united country.
“I think it’s always better to have a larger country rather than a small one. So from the political perspective, I guess a larger country would be better – probably, but I’m not sure, I’m no expert.”
Marian says that on the whole, he thinks that he, like most people, doesn’t care much either way.
“I don’t know anyone who would be very sad about the fact that we split or think it’s a really bad thing – I’ve never heard that in Slovakia or the Czech Republic. People make jokes about each other, but no hard feelings basically. I think if we split because of different reasons, like we didn’t like each other that much – like usually when two countries split it’s for very different reasons – then it would be different. But given that Czechia and Slovakia split because – I don’t even know why – but it was the friendliest split of two countries in history.”
Jiří is glad that the two countries went their separate ways.
“If I could remember the time when Czechoslovakia got separated, I would say it wasn’t nice actually. The way Slovak politicians and maybe some citizens as well were behaving towards Václav Havel, I wouldn’t like it and I would have got mad probably, so I’m glad we are too different nations, two different countries with different histories, except for those 74 years. It just seems the right way.”
Ivana is a bit more wistful.
“It’s a mixed feeling. In the long run, I think it’s good that it happened – it was necessary for the development of Slovakia. But I’m glad that I don’t remember those days. I know if I had been older at that time I wouldn’t have supported the division. Knowing myself, I would probably consider it a black spot on our history. I can be really sensitive about these kinds of things – it was basically kind of a relationship, and it’s always sad when a relationship ends.”