Living in a bubble?

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Prague is one of the cities that was almost totally re-painted after the fall of communism. However, you are still able to find the difference between what they want you to see (a beautiful, coloured, renewed town) and what it actually is (a scarred city)…

Marina Gogeanu

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Jan Palach 2 : Media Portrayals

The story of Jan Palach and his dramatic action of self-immolation captured a lot of hearts. Many people and media outlets wanted to retell the story and help the world become aware of his actions, and message. From documentaries, music videos to simple references Jan Palach became world known as one of the heroes that actively stood up against communist Czechoslovakia.

One of the most acclaimed documentaries that told of his story and the days following his suicide, is The Burning Bush by Agnieszka Holland. Holland is a Polish born director who having had studied in Prague at the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague (FAMU), had knowledge and interest in the Czechoslovak revolution and Jan Palach.

Many bands and musicians also wanted to portray or dedicate and tribute their songs and music videos to Palach’s actions including Kasabian’s song “Club Foot”, Francesco Guccini’s song  “La Primavera di Praga”, “The funeral of Jan Palach” by the Zippo band.

As well as documentaries and songs, statues were also erected to commemorate Palach.  Though statues and art might not be considered media, they still serve the same purpose of informing and reminding the masses of a person or event creating a collective memory. Andras Beck unveiled a statue in the city of Melnik dedicated to Palach on the 40th anniversary of his death. This statue is currently in France.

beck_andras_palach1970

Mwen Fikirini

Jan Palach

Jan Palach was a student at Charles University in Prague that committed suicide in 1969 in protest against the invasion of the Soviet forces marking the end of the Prague Spring. His act of self-immolation was meant to remind the Czech people of their demoralisation, it was said a resistance group was set up for the purpose of acting out until these demands were met. Many different people some who spoke to Jan and knew him reflected upon their meetings with trying to explain why he did what he did. Many people spoke of his protest against demoralization of the Czech people and his hatred of the Soviet regime. These demands were abolition of censorship, the banning of Zprava (the official newspaper of the Soviet forces) also calling for the Czechoslovak people to strike in support of these demands.

The people of Czechoslovakia united in their sympathy for Palach and their realisation of what their government was doing to them.

“Last night, students in Vienna took to the streets to express their solidarity with Czechoslovak students. Equipped with dozens of banners, they organized a silent procession.”

Svobodné slovo daily, 25 January 1969

 

The world also sympathised with the Czech people, many newspapers reported of his suicide and even officials from around the world sent their condolences. Pope Paul VI paid tribute to Jan Palach’s memory in his message of 26 January 1969 when he stated: “We can uphold the values that put self-sacrifice above others to the supreme test, but we cannot approve the tragic form taken on behalf of their aims.”

Palach was buried at Olsany Cemetary, because of his politically charged suicide his gravesite became a national shrine. This scared the communist party as they did not want an anti-communist martyr, so the StB exhumed and cremated his remains sending them back to his mother. The urn with the remains was not returned until 1990.

Memorial

P1010732In 1989 people began airing their grievances in peaceful marches, these protests were named “Palach Week”, the police tried to quash these anti-communist demonstrations. Since they knew news of them might spread disobedience and revolt through the country, the Velvet Revolution occurred and less than a year later communism had fallen. In Tim Cresswell’s book Place an introduction, he states there can be “many manifestations of place” (2004:3), in Prague this can be related to Jan Palach’s (and Jan Zajic’s) memorial. After the revolution they were commemorated through a bronze cross embedded in Prague outside the National Museum, for the people this is a sign of hope and honour to their memory while for the communists it was a significant sign of the revolutions both Velvet and Prague Spring as well as the end of communism. Different spaces are made meaningful by different individuals making them places “a meaningful location” (Cresswell, 2004:7) because they become attached in a variety of ways.

When considering place it is also important to highlight that John Agnew (1987) defined place as having 3 components making it a meaningful location these are location, locale and sense of place. Cresswell also discusses the issue of gaining a sense of a place from filmic representations of the place, this relates to hyper reality. If you look into the previously linked BBC video of Jan Palach’s funeral which was broadcasted across the world, it is important to realise to the western world this was one of the few representations of war torn Czechoslovakia. This sense of place proved to be very different to what we came across when we travelled to the Czech Republic.

As well as this memorial, Jan Palach was also honoured through different places, streets and squares being named after him in Czechoslovakia, Luxembourg, France, Poland, Netherlands, Italy, Bulgaria, United Kingdom and even Mauritius.

References

Cresswell, T. (2004) Place: a short introduction. Blackwell Publishing Ltd:Oxford

Mwen Fikirini

The Fall of Communism in Czechoslovakia

Velvet Revolution

Unlike any other communist country that had to go through a violent revolution, Czechoslovakia fortunately had a non-violent revolution. The non-violent revolution which saw the overthrow of the Communist government took place on the 17th of November to the 29th of December 1989 was named the Velvet Revolution.
On the 17th of November 1989, a group of students held a peaceful demonstration in Prague but was suppressed by the riot police. A student was attacked by the riot police (Tim Lambert, N/A). Following the incident, it sparked a lot attention and ignited the anger within the people thus causing a series of demonstrations that continued until late December. On the 19th of November, human right activist formed the Civic forum (Tim Lambert, N/A). The number of peaceful protestors in Prague grew from 200,000 to 500,000 in merely two days. Although the government resigned on the 24th of November due to the pressure, that was not the end as the demonstrations went on.

On the 27th of November, all citizens of Czechoslovakia took part on a two hour general strike. Eventually, the Communist party agreed to end the 1 party rule and promised to form a coalition government (Tim Lambert, N/A). The citizens of Czechoslovakia were not satisfied with the new government as they were still under the power of the communist party. So, the citizens held more demonstrations. Due to the pressure, a new government was formed on the 10th of December where the Communist became the minority. On the 29th of December, Vaclav Havel a playwright and leading opponent of Communism was elected as the president by the Federal Assembly.

Finally for the first time in 40years, Czechoslovakia held its first multi-party elections and a new government made up of a coalition of parties opposed to the transitional government and Havel was re-elected (Howstuffworks, (N/A).

Tim Lambert. N/A. The Fall of Communism In Eastern Europe. [ONLINE] Available at:http://www.localhistories.org/communism.html. [Accessed 15 April 13].

How Stuff Works. N/A. History of Czechoslovakia. [ONLINE] Available at:http://history.howstuffworks.com/european-history/czechoslovakia3.htm. [Accessed 15 April 13].

Foong Lin, Liew

Space

Space is a term that can be referred to as a boundless three-dimensional extent in which objects and event have relative position and directions. Physical space is often conceived in three linear dimensions, although modern physicists usually consider it with time.

The concept of space is considered to be of fundamental importance to an understanding of the physical universe. So many scholars have defined the concept of space, according Gottfired Leibniz  viewed space as a collection of relation between object, given by their distance and direction from one another (Leibniz, 1890:45). Immauel Kant also said neither space nor time can be empirically perceived, they are elements of a systematic frame work that humans use to structure all experiences (Cited in Dikshit, 2006:70) . Leibniz he also analysed space as not more than the collection of spatial between objects in the world: ‘space is that which results from places taken together. This brings us to the simply definition of space ‘space is an abstract; it is defined through maps and geography that are physically labelled (Leibniz, 1980:62).

Our main focus in this research is the geographical and culture space and mapping out our space (ie our research location), to make sense and meaning to the research.

Geography is the branch of science concerned with identifying and describing the earth, utilizing spatial awareness to try to understand why things exist in specific location and this is done by cartography, it is the mapping of space to allow better navigation for visualization purposes and to all as a locational device.

Geographical space is often considered as land and the have a relation to ownership usage (in which space is seen as a property or territory). Space also impact on human and cultural behaviour as one person’s space is different from the other. Space also being an important factor in the design of building and structures.

As a result of our research topic, we need to map out our space to make sense to us, but before doing that we need to look into the meaning of maps, According to Peter Jackson 1989, he refers to map as a meaning of a way we make sense of the world, rendering our geographical experience intelligible, attaching value to the environment and investing the material world with symbolic significance (Jackson, 1989:1). So this to say space is important in mapping out geographical culture.

In simple term a map is a visual representation of an area a symbolic depiction, highlighting relationship between elements of the space as object, region etc. According to O’Connor 2002, he said many maps are static two dimensional, geometrically accurate or approximately accurate representation of three-dimensional space, while others are dynamic or interactive. Many maps may represent any space, real or imagined (O’Conner, 2002:16).

All this maps with descriptions have embedded meaning in them about a space, and how one can relate to a space individually, collectively and culturally. This again has to do with cultural geography – Cultural geography is the study of cultural products and norms, in relation to space and place, it focuses on describing and analysing the ways language, religion, economy, government, and other cultural phenomena vary. In understanding cultural geography one has to understand the unique cultural character of a space.

The understanding of cultural location is to recognize that each, cultural location as space has its own unique cultural characters. How to understand this is to approach a city space and its cultural characters. Giving that Prague is our primary focus, which its cultural location (geography and character) is a distinctive one.

Prague is the capital of Czech Republic, it is the fourteenth largest city in European Union, it situated in the North West of the country, it is 496 square KM about 1.2 million inhabitants live there. The Vitava River is a defining geographical feature as it rolls through the city. Prague is spread with in the Vitava River basin over a series of nine hills: Lethna, Vitkon, Opys, Vetrov, Skalka, Emauzy, Vysehrad, Karlov and the highest Petrin. The city centre of the city lives on both side of the river and was/is traditionally divided into four sections.

  • Hradcany (hill on the left bank), site of Prague castle, a complex of Palaces and churches that dates from the 10th century.
  • Lesser Quarter: (below the castle) area of winding streets Baroque Palaces, gardens and medieval houses.
  • Old Town (on the opposite side of the river connected to lesser quarter by Charles Bridge) site of the old town square and many Gothic building.
  • New Town (connected to old town) newer developments including Wenceslaus square.

The city has a temperate oceanic climate, with its warm summer and chilly winter, since the fall of the iron curtain Prague has become one of the world’s most popular tourist destination, it is the sixth most visited in European city after London, Paris, Rome, Madrid, and Berlin. The city contains one of the world most pristine and varied collection of architecture (Geography of Prague, 2012).

The understanding of a map makes sense of space, place and culture, having done a research on space and map, this enable us make understand of our primary research location.

 

Reference

  • O’Connor J.J and E, Robertson, 2002: The History of Cartography. Scotland , St Andrews university.
  • Peter Jackson, 1989: Maps of Meaning. Unwin Hyman Ltd.
  • Leibniz. G, (1890). The Philosophical works of Lelbniz.
  • R.D Dikshit (2006). Geographical thought:  A contextual history of Ideas. Prentice. Hall of India.

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Lesoda Otu-Iso

‘Eastern Bloc’ Central and Eastern Europe Communist Countries

‘Eastern Bloc’ refers to the former communist states of Central and Eastern Europe, generally the Soviet Union and the countries of the Warsaw Pact.  These countries include Czechoslovakia, Romania, East Germany, Bulgaria, Poland and Hungary.  The term Communist Bloc was used to denote the groups of states associated with the Soviet Union.

eastern bloc

European Communist Countries (sourced 22 april 2013)

These European countries experienced communism and their dictators relied on spectacle in order to create and maintain their citizen’s compliance to their communist ideology and used fear, oppression, arrests and killings to suppress the public but in the end mass revolts helped restore democracy. “Whoever becomes the ruler of a city that is accustomed to freedom and does not destroy it can expect to be destroyed by it, for it can always find a pretext for rebellion in the name of its former freedom” (Debord 2009:113).

“Communist states claim to be guided by a specific law of interpretations and goals  – these are Marxism-Leninism” (Wesson 1978:13) and there is quite a lot of similarities within these countries during the periods they experienced communism.  These similarities include totalitarian rule, dictatorship, food shortages and terrible war crimes.

Communist societies are very militaristic and include long periods of military duty, glorification of military heroism, cult of leadership and of violence and loyalty is the basic virtue (Wesson 1978:12-13). 

Rose Muzvondiwa

Graffiti in Prague

In Prague, they too have a special wall that is dedicated to graffiti. The once normal ordinary wall became the famous wall of Prague in 1980s. The famous wall was then called the John Lennon Wall, named after the famous pop star from the Beatles, John Winston Ono Lennon. Although it was named after John Lennon, the legendary pop star has never been to Prague in his life. The wall was filled with quotes, lyrics and graffiti that are all inspired by John Lennon and his band, the Beatles.

Image
Credit: Prague.net

John Lennon was considered as the pacifist hero for the Czech subculture during the totalitarian era (Ron Synovitz, 1998). While the communism ruled the country, western pop songs especially songs by John Lennon and his band the Beatles were banned by the Communist authorities simply because their songs were praising the freedom that doesn’t exist there and then. Some unlucky musicians who were caught playing those songs were jailed.

John Lennon becomes a hero when he was murdered in 1980. Upon hearing the news of his death, fans of John Lennon gathered and mourned his death together in Prague but were at risked of being caught and put in jail by the authorities over the offence of “subversive activities against the state”. His pictures were painted all over the wall and a group of anonymous youth group in Prague set up a mock grave for the famous pop star.

8325566017_208c3169d5_z
Credit: thehaymans

The threats of prison weren’t all that successful in stopping these people from coming out at night to scrawl graffiti in honor of John Lennon. Slowly, the wall was filled with feelings and dreams of the painter as they had limited freedom of expression. The communist authorities tried every single way they could to keep the wall clean either by repainting the wall or installation of surveillance cameras or even an overnight guard was not good enough. The wall will be filled with graffiti the very next day. It was basically a war between the people and the communist authorities who cleaned the wall. The Lennon Wall represented not only a memorial to John Lennon and his ideas for peace, but also a monument to free speech and the non-violent rebellion of Czech youth against the regime (Prague.net, 2008).

Image
Credit: broadgairhill

What makes the John Lennon Wall special today is the history behind it, although it may have looked like any other graffiti walls around the world. The wall had to go through reconstruction of its crumbling façade in 1998, but the spirit of the wall lives till today. The famous John Lennon Wall was once filled with anti-Communist graffiti is now filled with graffiti and messages on love and peace. You can still get a glimpse of tributes to John Lennon and a yellow submarine if you looked hard enough at the wall.

Image
Credit: experienceprague.com

Ron Synovitz. (1998). Prague’s Lennon Wall. Available: http://www.bagism.com/library/lennonwall.html. [Accessed 10 April 13].
Prague.Net. (2008). John Lennon Wall. Available: http://www.prague.net/john-lennon-wall. [Accessed 10 April 13].

Tony Hayman, (2012), John Lennon Wall Prague [ONLINE]. Available at: http://www.flickr.com/photos/tonyhayman/8325566017/ [Accessed 10 April 13].

Experienceprague.com, (1998), The John Lennon Wall [ONLINE]. Available at: http://www.experienceprague.com/mala_strana.htm [Accessed 10 April 13].

Prague.net, (N/A), John Lennon Peace Wall [ONLINE]. Available at: http://www.prague.net/gallery/john-lennon-wall/pic1.php [Accessed 10 April 13].

broadgairhill, (2008), Prague – John Lennon wall [ONLINE]. Available at: http://photo.broadgairhill.com/index.php?showimage=7 [Accessed 10 April 13].

Foong Lin, Liew

How do people feel about communism?

We’ve also asked Jan Sladek how does he think that people feel about communism now. This was his answer:

“Talking about nostalgia and about protest, I believe this goes down in the family… you can do much with education, everyone has different experience even the dissident had many faces… some part of the new life in the Czech republic, children then but now my age whose parents were arrested because  the were against communism, they reach for a new life.

What we have witnessed again the last regional election… communist parties went high and got some of the seat in the regional parliament. Young people, especially high school student, started protesting against it. Now this is called in the Czech society anti-communism. This is my own interpretation, I think it is simplifying the way communism was because anti-communism says communism is a bad thing, everyone who supports it supports something bad, this is something that cannot and do not work in the majority of the society because you have to face the fact that some people (not a large, but few amount of people) felt better in the society.”

25th of February 2013, Prague

25th of February 2013, Prague

Marina Gogeanu

Interview transcribed by: Lesoda Otu-Iso

Panelaks (Part 2)

Jan Sladek about the panelaks:

Source: Photographing Prague Architecture (1922-1968)

Source: Photographing Prague Architecture (1922-1968)

“One of the symbols of communism, everyone who been around Europe knows panelak can be found in France, if you look at south cell it’s one of the biggest panelak in France, in Czech republic it depends on the location, you can be part of the cities with panelak which are beautiful with good transports and some that are isolated. Now I talked about shortage, the same shortage that there was with wages was the same with housing, I remembered that my family, it was so hard for them to get a flat because they could not buy a flat. So we had to wait for the regime to build a new one and it took the regime 15yrs to build a flat… for some people that was quite a long time.

Yes it was a solution to quiet a massive shortage in housing and people were all glad for having this, not all the buildings were that bad, some of them were in beautiful location. What the problem was…the management of the building where you have 8 buildings and 40 flats. (I am talking about the panelaks where I grew up) I remember several things when the lights went out, it took days for someone to get it fixed because you had to call to get it fixed, there was no private sector who would fix the problem, you had to call the municipality  and they would say we would put you on the waiting list, our electrician would come and solve the problem in a few days, the same with the lifts systems as well. These are for common places as well as flats.

The flat was also owned by the state so the state was responsible for fixing it, this happened frequently that the people started to help themselves; I would say this was irresponsible form the government, under normal setting, you are a tenant, and you are investing in fixing up the place. People started developing close ownership of the flat. So when the regime failed on of the first question was to what is there to do with all this state flat, they had to find a way to give it out to people so the flats were privatised, so people where glad that they had one secured thing in their lives which was housing.

Again I am coming to my flat 8 stories 40 flats, 40 families. In 1994 each family got the chance to buy the flat which was on the condition that all families would do this, which not everyone wanted to stay or to buy. So there was a huge negotiation we had to renovate all the building, this went okay but there was no law about the management of the public space. So again the problem of lift and light management was still the same, it took some time to develop a strategy on how to solve the problem even though it did not work, one of the problem was, that we shared difference flat but who share the ground beneath the building all this little things lead to do with the ill management of the building and it started to de-tolerate which again was a huge contribution to all the bad image of housing.

The interesting thing about Czech panelaks which is difference from British housing, French housing, I would say even American housing, was giving their housing shortage which was distributed all around society. We had very great mix of social demographic mix in one building it was not like only poor people would leave there, we got professors, physicians and workers in the same building.”

Marina Gogeanu

Interview transcribed by: Lesoda Otu-Iso

Jan Sladek about the Plastic People of the Universe

Jan Sladek is a  lecturer at Charles University- Department of Sociology, Faculty of Arts and Philosophy. During our stay in Prague, we had the pleasure to meet and interview him. One of the very first questions was about the Plastic people of the universe as we were very interested in finding out what’s his opinion regarding the way the communists treated the dissidents. Here is what he said:

Source: Museum of communism

Source: Museum of communism

“This is a paradigm case of the totalitarian regime. Harriet a famous thinker of the 21st century, had this idea about totalitarian regime. She said “in a normal democratic regime you can separate private sphere, public and state sphere. Example in universities you have private, public and state universities. You can have your private life and have public.  For example, I am a teacher and lecturer, and if I go to a political party I will try to get some share of the state power… that is how it works.

In totalitarian regime one of the best pictures you can find in 1984 by Howell, it basically sees no difference between this. In Howell there is a quote where he said “sex is an empty state thing”, that is to say your private intimate thing is seen by the state as an offensive.  This is what happen to Plastic People of the Universe- a bunch of crazy guys making songs or singing songs de-picturing the consummate society. There was a great joke about this consummate in a country with shortage economy. A group of people who say we are consuming in the society, they didn’t even have strong anti—regime or anti political quotes but the regime was so sensitive to its opposition and felt it everywhere.

Even these things that are seen as just a normal, public expression is seen offensive and felt as an ethic on the state. Even the fact that the people choose to have long hair (which is a private thing)… the regime felt it  has a state opposition. what happened was that they went into trials, most of them went to jail, this was what triggered the opposition and charta 77, which was the appeal to the court for human right and the appeal was based on the ground that Czech Republic sign a treaty saying as a country that they would defend civil liberty.

This is one of the trigger and one of the pictures of how silly the regime reacted to any kind of unconformity to identity. Fighting against music group and make it triggers the biggest opposition in the Czech republic/Czechoslovakia at the time “I think this a joke of history”

To conclude this, even though we have many face of communism and many face of dissident,  one thing was sure that the regime in Czech republic was very sensitive, it was very paranoid and this is what basically, with together in the shortage economy lead to the end because if you go against people who play music then no one feels safe in the country because they were not politicians and they were not political. So if you fight this people will be afraid, and when people start getting afraid due to what they say, insecurity comes in.”

Marina Gogeanu

Interview transcribed by: Lesoda Otu-Iso