A changing view of the recent past.
České Budějovice decided to remove Valentina Těreškovová’s name from the list of honorary citizens of the city, where it had been since the late 1970s. Predictable protests are heard from predictable corners of the room of national debate. However, they sound noticeably quieter than when we discussed the removal of Konev’s statue in Prague’s Bubenč a few years ago. Something is happening, and that something could be very welcome.
Through no fault of our own, we as a society have found ourselves at a historical turning point, one that may not be as dramatic as the period of the 1990s when a regime was being torn down, a new one was being built, and the common state of Czechs and Slovaks was crumbling, but for the sake of setting our national minds for the next decade, it may be more important. Putin’s Ukraine war is unexpectedly illuminating the folds of our history since the founding of the republic. Thus, we have the opportunity, time after time, to completely leave behind the fog of myths and ideological interpretations and, in some limited sense, to start anew. Of course, we cannot start all over again, but the furthest we can go from the necessary way out is to redefine the Soviet period, with which we are still more than fittingly linked by mental patterns.
Communist ideology gave the impression that there was a sharp break between the Russian Empire and the communist regime established by Lenin in 1917, that a new quality of establishment had emerged. Generations of students were drilled into their heads that the Bolshevik Revolution differed from other coups in that it was directed against tsarism, not just the tsar. This premise was then linked to all the fables about a just, classless society that was sure to emerge because Marx had supposedly discovered the iron laws of history. It is amazing where everywhere and how deeply the poison of Marxism has entered the body of humanistic studies. For example, four years ago, in the anniversary year of Marx’s birth, the New York Times wrote in its editorial that Marx’s analysis of the internal contradictions of capitalism is still valid today. Yet nothing could be further from the truth than this assertion in the neo-Marxist-enclosed mind of an American writer. As far as so-called capitalism is concerned, a lazy term that does not mean much, Marx was wrong on practically all the basic items of his analysis, and that is why Marxist economics is of no use today.
Marxist and Leninist doctrines rest on dichotomies and antagonisms, the two versions of the same thing differing only in their degree of radicalism, dogmatism and reductionism. Whichever derivation of Marxism you look at, in the end, in the thicket of esoteric-sounding intellectualisms, you will always find a fundamental contradiction between a group of people exploiting (oppressing, marginalizing, or otherwise abusing) another group of people. Such a dichotomy may be true in particular cases, but applied as a formula to all study of economics, political philosophy, and other humanities disciplines, it is a red herring that obscures the true nature of the world and human action. The damage done by Marxism through its ideological reading of works of art is most clearly and sharply seen in art history. When it comes to art, this miraculous fusion of aesthetics and epistemology, any artificially created formula, applied with slavish honesty to one artistic “product” after another, always does more harm than good.
But let us stay in the field of history. Despite Marxist historiography, the Soviet state was not fundamentally at odds with the Russian autocracy, but was in many ways a continuation of it. The empire that spread out to the east of us between 1917 and 1991 was just another form of Great Russian imperialism. The many ways in which the Communist state differs from both Tsarism and Putin’s Russia are certainly interesting to study, but in relation to our statehood, independence and freedom, the similarities prevail. The Soviet Union and Russia have always been and continue to be a major existential threat to us, a threat of a different nature to Nazi Germany, but a threat nonetheless.
From this point of view, the Communist Party, founded in 1921, was above all a fifth column of Moscow and an instrument of Great Russian imperial interests, which was clear from the very beginning of its existence, and clearer than the sun since 1929, when its most humble faction clawed its way to the top. To this day, the Communist Party is the fifth column of Russian imperialism because it consistently supports Putin’s interests, which certainly cannot be described as Marxist, let alone class-conscious. The people who were in the Communist Party in our country were agents of Moscow, whether they realized it or not. The only attempt to extricate themselves from the role of lackeys and governors in 1968 ended ingloriously – with Dubček’s cowardly whining and the signing of the Moscow Protocols and the baton laws.
Among the sadly interesting facts is the answer to the question of how we got there. It was largely our own fault. First, in 1943, President Benes went to Moscow and, despite numerous warnings from the Allies, signed a cooperation agreement with Stalin. And then, in 1946, the Czechs were the only nation in Europe to voluntarily elect a government with communists at its head. So the inability to see reality in its true form was not only caused by forty years of devastation of the education system and ideological indoctrination, we were susceptible to it before that.
Whole generations have bought into the communist fairy tales. The government, led by rapists and judicial murderers, created a series of legends that survive to this day. One of them is the legend of the liberation of Czechoslovakia by the Red Army. Let us please forbid the use of the word ‘liberation’ in connection with the Red Army. However, perhaps today’s sight of the brutality of Russian crimes in Ukraine, unfolding before our eyes on live television, will take the blinders off most people’s eyes and make them realise ‘whose side’ we were on for 40 years, what we participated in willingly and under duress, and how we managed to destroy our ability to see things without prejudice, as they are. Ludvík Vaculík wrote his famous essay Communism is a Beating in the late 1980s, and although many found it simplistic and exaggerated, he perfectly captured the essence of the system at the time. I remember a conversation I had with a communist who admitted that Vaculík’s essays had helped open his eyes.
In the same way, today’s Russian aggression in Ukraine should open our eyes and help us to realise where we have been going physically and mentally for so long. We should finally become mostly aware of our own identity, which is Central European or Western, informed by Enlightenment postulates and a specific perception of a smaller nation in a somewhat crowded geographical space. Looking at the Donbas, we see clearly who we are not and what they wanted us to be. We should be grateful to fate that they did not (hopefully in the end) succeed.
So let’s try to crystallise all the talk of Putin’s chauvinism and the muddled political science and historical fables into a very simple truth – minus all the redundancies, Russianness is murder.
This article was taken and translated from the Czech original published at Přítomnost.
published: 23. 5. 2022