A rebirth in Prague

Posted: Sep 14, 2000 12:00 AM
PRAGUE -- I am in Prague, and you should be, too. The city has realized much of the radiant promise discernible to visitors from the West in the early 1990s, after Communism's fall. Prague has leapt ahead from being the grim capital of one of Papa Marx's most brutal Cold War despotisms to being the Paris of Middle Europe. Its long-oppressed citizens have peeled away the grime that masked its many Baroque splendors when I first visited in 1991 and regilded them. Centuries of imperial history deposited palaces, churches, monuments and fountains here that Communism apparently could not ruin. They were hard to spot in 1991, but an amazing beautification program has been underway for nearly a decade. Now the cobbled streets and squares of the vast Old Town area are alive with Czechs and tourists, happy with Pilsners and coffees, fine cuisine, and the unique Czech whimsy occasionally perceptible even in Communist times. Throughout this decade of renovation I have kept in touch with Czech friends who had bravely opposed the Red tyranny. Their whimsical wit had made their dissident movement as attractive to the West as it was befuddling to the Russian and Czech oppressors. Suggestive of it was the humiliation that fearsome Communist tank suffered in the last days of the Czech's 'Velvet Revolution." As vast crowds boiled in protest across Wenceslas Square, a droll Czech accosted the tank and painted it and its Communist red star pink. Today the impish wit remains. From an iron girder protruding from the upper window of a building near the historic square the bronze figure of a forlorn Chaplinesque gentleman hangs by one arm, his feet dangling above us. The building is near what was once Communist Party Headquarters. Statuary of two naked legs protrude from the water of a canal, their toes pointed skyward. Was this the consequence of an ill-conceived dive into the cool water or the consequence of a grimmer encounter? Prague has experienced plenty. In the 1930s this capital was one of Europe's most prosperous cities, secure and civilized. Then the French and the British made their deal with the Nazis, signing away the Czechs' formidable western defenses. Within months the Nazis rolled in, imposing their brute rule on Prague. Six years later the Red Army replaced them and in 1948 imposed a Stalinist dictatorship on the Czechs, expropriating property and harassing undesirables. What became one of the Soviets' most ruthless "social democracies" was to last over four decades. By 1991 Prague was almost a ghost town. Today it is reborn. Commerce, society and the arts, most notably music, flourish like no place else I know of. Mozart loved Prague it is said, and certainly the Czechs love him along with most other serious composers. Baroque music, classical music, romantic music, even jazz are played everywhere, in concert halls, ancient basilicas, clubs -- everywhere. The meanest ensembles here play superbly, and then the music lover can repair to a cafe or restaurant for viands and some of the best beer in the world. I repaired after a moving performance of Mozart's D minor Requiem to dinner with Pavel Bratinko, a heroic dissident, once coerced into shoveling coal for the Communists then made deputy minister of foreign affairs in a post-Communist government. Trained as a scientist, he displeased Prague's Russian puppets by his participation in the Czech dissident movement of the 1980s. The Communists gave him a shovel and a quota. Of course, so inefficient is a Communist economy that after an hour or so with his shovel Pavel had attained his daily quota and could get down to serious things like reading political tracts from the West, the works of free market economists, the American Founding Fathers, libertarian-conservative magazines. He knew more about the movement that led to the election of Ronald Reagan than the average reader of The New York Times . It was a curriculum that American colleges might emulate. As with his fellow Christian dissident, playwright Vaclav Havel, Pavel sees mankind in a heroic role. Many of the Czech dissidents sought freedom from tyranny to pursue a moral life in a world that recognizes a Supreme Being. Havel, now the Czech president, recently observed that without God mankind cannot maintain noble virtues and without noble virtues mankind's enduring dignity is disposable, depending on the needs of the state. The Nazis disposed of the dignity of the Czechs. So did the Communists. Christian democrats such as Havel and Bratinka see advances in secular society and fear non-totalitarian governments will intrude upon the nobility of the individual, too. Over coffee, Pavel speaks of the grisly possibilities attendant with cloning. The day will come, he fears, when scientists might clone humans merely for spare parts. One of the peculiarities of the Czech intellect that all the world beheld during the Velvet Revolution was its simultaneous grasp of modernity and its premonitions about it. Remember the man out there on the girder and the legs protruding from the canal.