One day Helga was leading a tour group near the Czech Republic’s parliament building in downtown Prague. Traffic had stopped because of a small fire in one of the adjacent buildings. Approaching a fireman Helga asked, “Was our President in the fire?” The fireman smiled faintly and replied, “You’re going to have to pray a lot harder for that to happen.”
Simple as that story is, it’s loaded with significance. Helga is in her mid-50s, which means that for much of her life she had lived behind the Iron Curtain where mere citizens never ridiculed government officials in public, particularly to men in uniform. The reason she dislikes President Miloš Zeman, a converted former Communist who’s the country’s first popularly elected Chief Executive (his immediate predecessors were selected by parliament), is not because of doctrine or persecution but because he smokes – incessantly. He smokes when appearing in public. He smokes when addressing parliament. “He is disgusting,” Helga says. To Helga, the lungs are more important than Lenin. As we toured I saw many old buildings where kings, tyrants and composers visited. History is displayed in many layers. Nevertheless, despite the many grand art works I most enjoyed watching the locals discover themselves. At one point Helga wanted to show us a garden in a parliament courtyard. She asked a policeman who politely explained that our group could not enter because parliament was in session. Nevertheless Helga’s was thrilled: “A few years ago I could have never asked a policeman a question,” she said, “and if I did, he would not have answered.”
In case there is any doubt who won between capitalism and communism, one of the downtown businesses is a capitalist showcase: The Museum of Communism. For the price of admission, visitors can see displays about the bad old days, including the disregard for environment – the reds never thought green. The museum is located in a former palace that now contains a casino, and across the alley from the museum’s entrance is a McDonald’s.
Most of the world knows Good King Wenceslas from the carol. In Prague the king’s towering statue is venerated as the site of the 1989 protests that were the beginning of the end of communism. Václav Havel, the first post-communist president, who was a philosopher and a poet as well as a revolutionary, is very much of a beloved figure in the Czech Republic; but here, too, Helga, the liberated social commentator that she is, was critical: “Perhaps he did not fully understand government.”
European history is so filled with wars and upheavals that one is hesitant to feel too optimistic, but it’s noteworthy that people move freely between countries as the Iron Curtain has been ripped to shreds. At the Czech/German border, a tour guide pointed to dreary looking buildings off to the side. Once they headquartered border control operations; now they’re empty, a victim to the conquest of liberty.
Today Helga still leads her tours and is no doubt giving her opinions. I should point out that Helga is not her real name, but that’s my choice. Peace has broken out, but there is always someone who might not have gotten the message.