Columnists > Voices

Youthful impatience

High expectations unmet and a culture of communism still trouble Czechs

Issue: "Beginning of the end," March 29, 2003

Only a few hours before, a young man had walked up to the very spot where we were now standing last week in Prague, doused himself with a container of gasoline, and set himself on fire. He left a long explanatory note on the Internet.

Zdenek Adamec, 19, was terribly distressed, he said, that so much of the promise of the Czech Republic's "Velvet Revolution" of 1989 had still gone unfulfilled. Fourteen long years had gone by, and progress seemed to have stalled.

The young man had chosen this spot, at the top of Wenceslaus Square and just below the National Museum, because it was near the location where in 1969 Jan Palach, a student then at Charles University, had staged a similar protest-although that complaint was against the iron domination of the communist Soviet Union. The Palach suicide had ignited a national student movement, lighting fires of freedom that could not be extinguished over the next 20 years, and leading finally to the peaceful election of Vaclav Havel and the rebirth of a free democracy for the Czech people.

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If poor Mr. Adamec expected something like the same response to the spectacular spending of his life, the actual results would simply have added to the bleakness of his sad worldview. His fellow citizens seemed more intrigued than moved, and more bewildered than motivated. The piles of flowers and candles at the suicide site were small and desolately unimpressive. Passersby were curious-but that was all.

Indeed, there were signs that Mr. Adamec had become mentally unbalanced. But ironically, his death was greeted with the very apathy he deplored. "People are not talking about it here," said a woman at his hometown railway station. "They are not really interested."

I sensed, however, another kind of sad symbolism in the death of Zdenek Adamec. After two weeks in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, I concluded that he may indeed be a tragic picture of a significant part of the population here. For them, the promises of freedom and a market economy have already turned to disillusionment.

Expectations, at least for some people, were clearly too high. And why not? After 40 years of crushing domination by the Soviets, who can blame anyone for setting his sights on the stars when freedom finally came? And for everyone, even now, the promise is so tantalizingly close. Gleaming shopping centers, much sleeker than the 20-year-old models you're used to in the United States, surround Prague and even poorer cities like Ostrava in the far eastern part of the country. Every shopping center I saw was busy and filled with people.

But the spread between the haves and the have-nots in Eastern Europe is painfully wider than in the Western world. In the Czech Republic, unemployment right now is reported at 20 percent-and underemployment may be an even more acute problem. Lots of people can only dream of what it's like to head for the mall to buy something.

Their impatience is understandable, though 14 years are just a speck in the sweep of human history. But then a more deeply disturbing problem arises. Miroslav Kucharu, who is both the owner and the prize-winning chef at the hotel where my wife and I stayed for our last few days in the country, told me candidly that the economy's root problem right now is that so few people are willing to work. "Companies are looking for workers," he said, "but no one wants to work."

Mr. Kucharu blames the 40 years under communism. "It took away people's work ethic. They thought they could work from Monday to Friday noon, and then go to the country every week for a long weekend."

Mr. Kucharu, his wife Lenka, and their family do not shrink from hard work. Over the last 10 years, they have built the 12-room Hotel Diana, just 20 minutes from downtown Prague by the underground metro, into a happily prosperous business. It is as gracious and comfortable a place as I have ever stayed; the gourmet meals are worth crossing both the Atlantic and then all of Western Europe to savor. For your lodging, you'll pay about what you do at a Comfort Inn, and for your meals, less than you do at Olive Garden.

I would be wrong to construe my friend's words as a characterization of all his countrymen as lazy. A lazy country would not have responded to last August's terrible flooding with the industry you see everywhere here. A subway system and hundreds of riverside buildings have been largely restored in just eight months.

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