The report on Jo Cox and Brexit is from the beginning of the show. I’m interviewed from 5:30 to 10:00. The video of the show is available here: http://www.ceskatelevize.cz/porady/10316155327-horizont-ct24/216411058050616/
IMG_9740The following is a rough outline of what I said (it doesn’t correspond exactly to the words used but is close and gets the meaning across) – for those who can’t pick up the English over the Czech interpreter. The questions from the interviewer are followed by my answers

The death of Labour MP Jo Cox – the motive is yet unclear – but there are speculations that it could be political, even connected with #Brexit. If that were true – does it show, how divided and emotional the country is before this crucial decision?

  • Let me first say that my sympathies – as I am sure all of our sympathies tonight – are with Jo Cox’s family and friends. This is a truly awful event and unprecedented in recent British political history.
  • It’s not clear yet what the motive behind the attack was, but what is clear is that an increasingly hostile and tense atmosphere that have been propagated by anti-migrant and anti-Europe politicians from both the far right and the far left in the run-up to this referendum.
  • That’s not to blame or to smear the leave campaign that would be a disrespect to Jo Cox who said in her first speech to parliament “our communities have been enhanced by immigration … we have far more in common than that which divides us”. That can be understood in terms of the referendum debate as well.
  • Rather, it is a warning to those politicians, in this country, around Europe and around the world – who use the politics of hatred – when you use the politics of hatred you are playing with fire and when you play with fire there is no telling who will get burned.

According to what will Brits decide? Are the newspapers, celebrities, a bigger influence than the actual topics, like the economics?

  • Well, it’s interesting, there is the form and the substance. In terms of the form, indeed certain newspapers, such as those controlled by oligarchs like Rupert Murdoch the media have had a huge influence in spreading the lies, falsehoods and other scandalous statements primarily from the leave campaign.
  • Despite the fact that the remain campaign clearly has the better arguments and more evidence and so on, it doesn’t seem to be having quite the impact that we might expect. So people are perhaps engaging more emotionally
  • But on the substance, if there is one issue more than anything else, then it is migration.
  • Now, many people fear for their jobs, their security their families, friends and so on. That’s perfectly legitimate and it doesn’t make them racist in any way. However, to link those fears, without any grounds to migration or indeed to the European Union is wrong and it is those lies and that hatred that has been spread by the Murdoch media.
  • However it falls on fertile ground in the UK. There is poor education about the EU, the political class have failed to make the case for the EU, no one has made the big, positive case for it.
  • Britons experience Europe in a different way than continental Europeans do. Partly its geography – being an island – but mainly its mentality – being an island nation and having an oppositional relation to Europe. This makes the way that people deal with all these issues more about emotion than about analysis

Both camps – leave and remain – suspended campaigning today. But the polls are tight, and what’s more – they can all get it wrong. Still – is the remain camp of the pm Cameron getting nervous?

  • Definitely, but its not just David Cameron, we have to remember that the Remain campaign spreads across the political parties, across the political spectrum of Centre-Right and Centre-Left.
  • I think that anyone who, like myself, supports Britain remaining in the European Union is definitely getting nervous.
  • However I think that David Cameron is probably more nervous than most because his job is certainly on the line whatever the result of the referendum.

Did David Cameron make a big mistake in calling for referendum?

  • No, because it is important that people have a say on what is a very important and relevant issue for the UK, but it does raise questions about why, having called the referendum he has run such a dismal campaign. Cameron has failed to make any kind of good campaign whatsoever, or to make the big positive case for Europe – none of the politicians have – which again reflects the difficulties that Britain has in understanding the EU in its complexities but also in the big ideas
  • Mostly this referendum campaign has been a quarrel inside the Tory party, a squabble between cynical populists like Nigel Farage and self-promoters like Boris Johnson. It has showcased the worst rather than the best of British democracy.
  • This is not a proud chapter in the history of British politics, nor of our nation and it does raise questions about how referendums are managed.

Obviously 5 minutes is nowhere near enough time to say all that could be said on these issues but in the context of contemporary news media I’m grateful to Horizont for giving me that much time – and asking great questions!

It may seem odd that many British people want leave the EU, but to a Brit living in the Czech Republic it comes as no surprise. The low quality of the Brexit debate shows that for too many Brits, Europe is still a strange and distant place.

uk-eu-doors-web-800x500_c

The outcome of the British EU membership referendum is likely to come down to a few key factors: the weather (which affects voter turnout), the registration of young voters (who are less likely to vote but more likely to vote to remain), whether Boris Johnson can reign in his ego (and stop comparing the EU to Hitler’s project to “unite Europe”), and which way the country’s corrupt media Barons tell their newspapers to lean.

To steal a phrase from Neville Chamberlain, “how horrible, how fantastic, incredible” it is that such an important issue, which could see one of the most populous and potentially powerful European countries leave the world’s most exclusive and desirable political club, should be at the mercy of such superficial and arbitrary considerations.

For any Czechs and others still in thrall to the UK as the cradle of modern democracy or as an example of an independent voice to look up to in Europe, this state of affairs may come as a something of a shock. For me, however, having grown up in the UK but spent most of my adult life on the continent and most of my career working in the study or practice of politics and government, including for the EU, it comes as no surprise.
You can read the full article in English at the Reporter website http://reportermagazin.cz/a-faraway-country-of-which-we-know-little/  

This article was originally published in Czech in the June edition of Reporter Magazine 
and in Czech and English on their website.

I am a foreigner. A migrant. I live and work in Prague, the city that has become my adopted home. No one forced me to come here, nor even invited me – I decided to come here myself. I have been warmly welcomed by Czech people and love being a part of Czech society. As a foreigner and a migrant with such a positive experience here I now watch in disbelief at the stance the country is taking to the ongoing refugee crisis.

Barbed_Wire_Head

“Sit Down! Watch this, its important. You’ll remember it for the rest of your life.”

My Mum probably didn’t know it then, but she had sparked a chain of events that would have great importance for how – and where – I live my life and for how and why I am writing this article. Although I was born and grew up in the UK, I live and work in Prague and have lived most of my adult life in Central and Eastern Europe. Time and again when people have asked me – often somewhat incredulously – why I am so interested in this part of the world, I come back to these words and to the impact of the reportage that I was about to watch. Now I come back to them again as a migrant living in the Czech Republic and contemplating the country’s response to the migration crisis.

Originally published in Czech in Reporter Magazine on 12/10/2015
Read the full text in English at: http://reportermagazin.cz/a-migrants-story/

and in Czech at http://reportermagazin.cz/migrantuv-pribeh/ 

by Benjamin Tallis

full_komoda_ruzova_1
‘Who could possibly want such things?”
Pragotron_Sq2  Pragotron_Sq_1

When Jiří Mrázek and Adam Karásek started Nanovo in 2009, they were prepared for the fact that their salvaged and restored modernist furniture would not be to everyone’s taste. However, Karásek’s mother’s reaction (quoted above) shows the scale of the challenge they faced. Given the general revival of modernist architecture and design over the last decade, this may seem surprising, but it reveals much about a regionally particular politics of memory that colours attitudes towards domestic design as much as architecture. However, Nanovo’s success also shows how dominant narratives about the past and the present are being challenged and highlights the role of material objects in doing so.

Saar_TWA_1  Saar_TWA_Ineterior

 Saar_Arch_1 Saar_Arch3

Many Czechs share the – now widespread – appreciation of the International Style. This strand of modernism carries the echoes of the First Republic, the Czech golden age, when a flourishing of art and design and the big-thinking industrial dynamism of companies such as Baťa, combined to thrust the newly-stated nation onto the world stage. This celebrated history has long allowed Czechs to embrace the International Style as a part of their own heritage, exemplified in the Tugendhat and Muller villas, but mid-century meant something very different here than the purposeful elegance of Mad Men or the soaring hope of Eero Saarinen. After ‘89, the urge to disavow the communist past led to a disavowal of its aesthetics. At home this often meant junking the old in favour of the flat-packed or multinationally homogenous new and many design classics of this other modernism became flotsam and jetsam in the currents of post-communist transition.

Jested_Interior  liberec_me_bavi   Jested_Czechhotels.net

Mrázek and Karásek travelled and studied abroad, where they saw that, far from being shunned, the designs of this other time, of this other modernity were celebrated. These experiences drove them to question the conformism of domestic consumption after communism and to speculate that the objects, the material remains of that past could also have a place in the present. Inspired by flea-market-furnished Berlin, Mrázek and Karásek, set about rescuing the “gems” of communist-era domestic design from thrift stores and junk shops around the Czech Republic. Rescuing domestic objects from the garbage heap of history, resonates with bigger trends in Czech society that seek to reclaim private memories from the blanket condemnation that obscures the lived experiences of this period. This resistance to locally-dominant politics of memory is interwoven with a dissatisfaction with – what might be termed – the ‘multinational style’, the homogenizing blandness that became characteristic of much of the 90s and 00s in ‘transition’ and which manifested itself in the limited choice of Western-approved or Western-owned furniture, beer or politics.

Nanovo_Warehous

Nanovo’s focus is on domestic objects and their ever-changing collection of household and industrial modernism. However, the Jitona sideboards, Tesla desklamps, Pragotron clocks, workshop lighting are complemented by other minor markers of time and place: chicken-shaped plastic eggcups, vintage paddles for boats long stuck-up other creeks, maps of the world made for socialist classroom walls. These objects recall the private lives of Czechs and Slovaks in the period of ‘Normalisation’. This closing down of the public sphere, a social permafrost that followed Prague’s most famous spring, heightened the importance of creating ‘cosy dens’[1]: domestic realms of retreat, resilience and resistance which functioned as interior ‘outsides’, where children could grow up and happy times could be had, in spite of “post-totalitarian” one party rule. As Charity Scribner notes in Requiem for Communism[2] consideration of the domestic objects of these times allows for collective “memory work on a human scale”.

PeeM_Red Peem_Black

Despite muddled media reports,[3] Mrázek is adamant that Nanovo does not seek to satiate  Ostalgic desires for retro kitsch that rest on the allure of a dangerous regime now thrillingly exotic at a safe historical distance. The focus is on design quality rather than the period or conditions of their production. The Finnish PeeM chair – a leather upholstered armchair, which turns on an aluminium four-spoke base – has proved as popular now as it was in 70s Czechoslovakia. Mrázek argues that: “These pieces looked good 20 years ago; and they will look good in 20 years.” Nonetheless, Nanovo’s style certainly appeals to those, like its founders, who grew up in the 70s and 80s and who were “heavily shaped” by the architecture and urbanism of the time as these “styles unconsciously sunk under our skin” as Mrázek puts it.

Jested_Staircase  logo  HlavNad_Interior

Mrázek and Karásek grew up respectively in the lower and upper parts of Prague’s Smichov district, where they still live, although they have now swapped places on the hill. From flea markets to the annual design supermarket, via the opening of a large warehouse space (and mid-century Aladdin’s cave) in the outlying industrial area of Vysočany and, recently, the opening of a flagship store in Prague’s Old Town, Nanovo has come in from the margins and spawned a series of imitators. This growing acceptance and success speaks to the changing conditions of the politics of memory – and its material manifestations in the Czech Republic.

Nanovo’s founders are part of the generation known locally as ‘Husák’s Children’ – after the Czechoslovak leader Gustav Husák who oversaw the period of normalisation. Coming of age only after ’89, this generation has sought continuity between their past and present; to reconcile the material environments of  chidhood and adolescence with those encountered later. It is no surprise therefore that the ‘Nanovo look’ is commonplace in the new generation of bars and cafes they own, run and frequent: Café Kaaba’s opaxit glass-topped coffee tables, the industrial lamps in Café Sladkovsky, the Ton and Tatra chairs in Cafe v Lese and the plectrum-shaped formica ‘Brusel’ tables in the Malkovich bar are but a few of many possible examples. These hipster hangouts combine internationally recognisable traits with a distinctive Czechness that speaks of a resurgent self-confidence – a willingness to rescue their childhood from the totalising judgements of history and to reject the ‘post-historical’ ablandisements of transition.

Ton_Chair kaaba sladkovsky lampblack2

The Ambiente restaurant group has also got in on this act with its haute reinterpretations of classic Czech cuisine but, even more so, with its ‘Lokál’ pubs. These locales pride themselves on serving only Czech products – and some of the finest Pilsner in Prague – but it is in the décor and in the small touches, such as the flea-market-familiar plastic bread baskets, that Lokál really stands out. The wooden benches and wall coverings feature etched, backlit graffiti of the kind familiar from school desks Europe-wide, harking back to the schooldays of designer Maxim Velčovský (born 1976) and many others. The bathroom decoration takes things a step further with the walls (in the gents) covered from floor to ceiling in a scrapbook collage of images from the 70s and 80s: Niki Lauda’s Ferrari and Škoda sports editions; Franz Beckenbauer Michel Platini and Antonin Panenka; glamorous foreign air hostesses and local soft porn. These images are taken from period magazines – not only from Czechoslovakia and other Warsaw Pact countries, but from Western publications as well. Lokál’s fixtures, fittings and collage questions the sweeping judgements that emphasise clear-cut difference between West and East and the isolation and inferiority of the latter, by recalling the ways in which people lived and the connections between the blocs.

 IMG_2833  IMG_2835

IMG_2842 IMG_2838

Mrázek – a big fan of Lokál – was also quick to note the international influence in Czech design during communism: “You can see that a magazine came from, lets say Italy, and that then there are some designs for lamps that, don’t copy but somehow work with, what the designers had seen there.” A generation of what Mrázek describes as “open-minded” Czechs are looking afresh at the aspects of their past, which, far from being something to be ashamed of are now celebrated: for the skill of designers and architects in remaining conversant with and making major contributions to modernist design under testing circumstances. Emphasising the connections of this modernism to Western outsides, rather than seeing it as product of isolated communist inferiority, has helped spur public re-appraisals of brutalist architecture as well as of Nanovo-style domestic design.

Pragotron_Circ_1  Plectrum table

However, the Czechoslovak modernism of the 60s, 70s and 80s also testifies to particular lived experiences – of communism and of what followed. Contemplating the worth of the design of this period invites reflection on the ways that Czechs can find their place in their increasingly interconnected post-communist world without totally disavowing their past or surrendering to the false diversity of much of the multinational present. Charity Scribner, quoting Maurice Halbwachs, argues that: “‘Space is a reality that endures.’ Indeed, we can only recapture the past by understanding how ‘it is preserved in our physical surroundings’. Place and group mutually constitute one another.” Nanovo’s founders Mrázek and Karásek provide material ways in which this can happen and spur modernist questioning of the pseudo-diversity of the postmodern present. We should seize the chance, as many Czechs are doing to consider their place in the international order and in their own cosy dens.

JitonaSideboard Pragotron_Circ_2

www.nanovo.cz  

A version of this piece originally appeared in The Modernist, ‘Domestic’ issue in 2014.

[1] Cosy Dens is a literal translation of the Czech term ‘Pelíšky’ which is also the title of a well-known, 1999 Czech film, directed by Jan Hřebejk.

[2] Charity Scribner (2003), Requiem for Communism, Cambridge: MIT Press.

[3] For example in Czech Daily MF Dnes – http://nanovo.cz/ostatni/PR/press/mf_dnes-3.10.11.jpg; or online news site Czech Position – http://nanovo.cz/ostatni/PR/press/ceska-pozice25.10.11.jpg

P1010891

Prejudiced and Prefabricated Judgements obscure the lives that were, are and can be lived in housing estates built during the communist period. Debunking these myths – these panel stories[1] – can help promote wider and deeper reflections on the communist period, postcommunist transition and the material politics of both the past and the present.

 

By Benjamin Tallis

Despite their best efforts neither jetset shock therapists nor home-grown dissidents and their various governmental inheritors have been able to make postcommunist transition a clean break with the past. Apparatchiks and functionaries were denounced and (occasionally) lustrated, only to re-appear as nomenklatura capitalists and even government ministers. Statues were removed, but the metronomic passing of time in their after-image triggers memory, not forgetting. Streets and metro stations were renamed, but we still know who Evropská and Dejvická used to be.

Evropska_Leninska

The persistent presence of the communist past is a key site of struggle for Czech (and Slovak) collective memory. Competing interpretations, both domestic and international, significantly impact the ways in which people can live today, how post-communist societies are structured and whom they are for. Material reminders of that time have come in for particular criticism and none more so than the paneláky, the concrete-panel blocks that make up the sídliště and sídlisky which became such prominent features of Czechoslovak socialist cities. While a nascent revisionism has begun, belatedly and hesitantly, to recognise the architectural quality and even (shock, horror!) beauty of Czech brutalist architecture, it tends to focus on particular marquee buildings (such as the Nova Scena of the National Theatre or the Nova Budova of the National Museum). Meanwhile the communist-era housing estates are still routinely damned from all sides.

However, recent research has shown that both domestic and international criticisms of the paneláky and sídliště are wide of the mark. Blinkered by ideology and blind to the plurality of panelák and project life lived both then and now, these flawed critiques are indicative of wider problems of both understanding and policy in postcommunism.

This essay sets out to debunk three of the most significant myths or ‘panel stories’ associated with communist era housing projects: (1) that paneláks and sídlištěs were a ‘communist’ idea that were imposed on Czechs and Slovaks from elsewhere; (2) that problems with high-density public housing are indicative of the futile and flawed pursuit of modernist and social-democratic goals; and (3) that people lived, live and will live badly in paneláks and sídlištěs.

 DSC_0197

Tall Tales & Sweeping Judgements

Condemned by some at the time of their construction as “cement deserts” good only as “battle grounds for high-rise brats,[2]” the estates provide an all-too-easy synecdoche for the time of their building; “monotonous and repetitive, banal, inhuman […] poor in quality[3]” or most commonly (and lazily) “grey”[4] or at least “grayish.”[5] Normally nuanced and even-handed judges have been moved to unequivocal castigation of the aesthetics and morals of the ‘structural panel buildings’ that make up the vast majority of Czech housing constructed between 1955 and 1990. Sean Hanley of the UCL School for Slavonic and Eastern European Studies describes the “monster estates” as “hideous” and “awful,” and Václav Havel famously spoke of “undignified rabbit pens, slated for liquidation.”[6]

The controversy and criticism that continue to batter these concrete facades, from both home and abroad, reflects and reinforces a particular politics of memory, identity and belonging. It stems from a combination of blanket judgements on the communist period, teleological notions of neoliberal postcommunist ‘transition’ and particular (Western European and North American) experiences and ideological interpretations of high-density social housing.

Negative Czech judgements on paneláks in popular discourse and the statements of well-known figures seem to stem largely from the circumstances of their making – they were built by the communists and must therefore not only be bad, but are a malaise forced upon Czechs (and others) by unwelcome intruders and occupiers.[7] The popular and academic focus on the myriad crimes and appalling injustices of the communist regime have helped to support such views.

These are undoubtedly important stories that needed to be told about life in communism. However, they are not the only stories of that time and cannot be used to sustain uniformly negative views of an era in which, under trying circumstances, people continued to live, laugh, love, have children and make the homes in which they could grow up. The regime failed in its totalizing ambitions, but has been posthumously been granted success that it could have only dreamed of in a totalizing memory of the time that erases the positives of this painful past.

Similarly, while institutional design and the processes of re-adopting democratic politics, market economics and re-integrating to international institutional structures have been highly significant, they have often obscured lived experiences of transition, what came before and what may come after.[8] This blinkering, combined with the prefabricated opinions of many Americans and Western Europeans towards large scale public housing projects has allowed skewed views of the material and social conditions of sídliště life to dominate past and present.

After the fall of the wall, it was easy for incoming investors, advisors and other ‘tutors’, keen to school the ‘children of the revolution’ in their neoliberal ways, to tar the paneláky with the same brush as their own concrete jungles. They knew of the riots in Toxteth and Brixton and heard in the Sídlištěs the echoes of the doomed Pruitt-Igoe housing project in St. Louis. The self-styled ‘tutors’ found eager prefects in the dissidents of the communist period, all too happy to run-down the remnants of a hated regime, often with little thought for the people who lived there. Unlike many dissidents and their quieter sympathisers, the Sídliště dwellers were not waiting for prime real estate to be restituted to them.

Many of these tutors also had a double interest in denigrating the communist past. It would both bolster their own superiority (and thus legitimacy as teachers) and enhance the case for neoliberal transition as a greater contrast to what had gone before, rather than a more social-democratic approach. Tearing down the old structures of ownership and usage was more feasible than destroying the paneláks themselves and raised the potential for Western-owned banks to introduce market rates to these rent-controlled worlds.

Social research conducted over the last two decades has questioned the basis for each of the criticisms leveled at Paneláks and sídlištěs, exposing them as mere ‘Panel Stories’. Challenging these stories and telling new tales of panelák life not only has specific relevance to these persecuted places but opens up the possibility of questioning the socio-political settlements of transition more widely. It can allow us to ask again what type of societies we want to build, who they are for and how they are constructed, as well to re-examine the various roles of the state, the market, the individual and the collective.

 

DSC_0020 Detail from building at  Sídliště Invalidovna, Prague

Panel Story 1: A Communist Idea, Imposed from Outside

Over the last five years, the writings of Kimberly Elman Zarecor have made a good deal of multidisciplinary Czech scholarship on paneláks and sídliště’s available to Anglophone audiences. Zarecor has exposed the double fallacy of claims that concrete tower blocks were a communist idea and that they were only accepted in Czechoslovakia under Soviet duress[9].

KEZar_CZ  Zarecor

Zarecor highlights how far from being imposed from outside, the specific circumstances of postwar Czechoslovakia spurred the continuation and development of interwar architectural practices and politics to accelerate and intensify, but not intitiate, the development of prefabricated structural panel housing in the communist era. The construction technology for Czech paneláks owed its development to the Building Department of the Baťa shoe company in Zlín, which had been experimenting before the war with prefabricated building technologies. The architects Hynek Adamec and Bohumil Kula had continued these experiments during the war and headed the projects on new structural panel housing at the time when the department was incorporated into the communist Stavoprojekt building co-ordination system. Despite Zlín having been renamed Gottwaldov after Czechoslovakia’s first communist leader, Zarecor points out that Adamec and Kula were still working in the same office when developing the first panelák – the G-building (named for Gottwaldov).

zlinBata

zlin_estate  zlin

Zlin, Bata building from Zlin.cz; Zlin  workers housing, pre-war brick (erasmusu.com) and post-war concrete (zippomaniac.fr) 

Far from following developments elsewhere, Czechs (and Slovaks) were actually ahead of the game in panel building. The crucial breakthrough – as Zarecor shows – came when an innovative solution was found to the problem of joining the concrete panels together in a stable way. The use of a series of steel ‘hooks’ and staples’ allowed for full exploitation of their structural properties and eliminated the need for an additional skeleton.[10] The pioneering architects who found this way previously worked for the feted (and avowedly capitalist) Baťa company and were actually continuing construction-technology research that had begun long before the communist takeover. It is also significant to note, however, that the ideas which inspired the social aspects of both the panelák and the sídliště can also be found in the first Czechoslovak Republic (as well as elsewhere).

The First Republic under the ‘Liberator-President’ and ‘philosopher king’ Tomas Garrigue Masaryk is widely hailed as the Czech golden age, a brief and glorious interlude of independence, after empire and before both Nazi occupation and Soviet subjugation. The wave of creativity in both culture and commerce that was unleashed during this time merits this golden reputation, with companies such as Baťa and Tatra stylishly propelling Czechoslovakia into the ranks of the top-six exporting economies in the world. The poetry of Vítězslav Nezval and Jaroslav Seifert; the painting of Frantisek Kupka, Jindřich Štyrský and – the already post-gender – Toyen; the buildings of local talents such as Josef Havlíček and Karel Honzík, Josef Fuchs and Oldřich Tyl, alongside those of proto-starchitects Adolf Loos and Mies van der Rohe, ensured that there was plentiful art to accompany the industry.

  teige_stavba_basen Teige teige_nejmensi

Karel Teige, Building and Poem (1927) & the Minimum Dwelling (1932).

However, like much of Europe at the time, the First Republic was also awash with radical Marxist ideas. A mixture of proactive idealism and reaction to the polarized living conditions of the time inspired those such as Nezval and Karel Teige – writer, architecture critic and ringleader of the radical Devetsil group – to rail against the inequalities and injustices they saw around them. They sought collective salvation through both art and industry, but saw that both should serve functional, social goals rather than being beholden to the monied mores of the market. Teige in particular struggled with the tension[11] between instrumental social function and liberating creative expression, but in architectural terms prioritized the former, arguing that beauty would spring from the minimal forms that would most efficiently serve their purpose.[12] Demanding that those at the sharp end of the housing crisis at the time receive only “the best of the best,” Teige publically upbraided Le Corbusier for abandoning such functional purity and effectively re-introducing decoration; he slammed Mies’ much-praised Tugendhat Villa as the “pinnacle of modern snobbery.”[13]

Villa Tugendhat exterior

Villa Tugendhat, Brno, from the guardian.com

It is therefore no wonder that Zarecor is able to draw a clear line between the construction of paneláks and sídlištěs in the communist period and social tendencies in First Republic Modernism, which were, however, also strongly connected to non-marxist Bauhaus figures such as Walter Groupius. Although Stavoprojekt, a state-run system of architecture and engineering offices, replaced private practice in the late 1940s and changed the profession profoundly, the vast housing estates in many Czech and Slovak cities are, in fact, the fulfillment of an interwar vision of modernity that emphasized the right to housing at a minimum standard over the artistic qualities of individual buildings (a debate that Teiger wrestled with and which continues to animate discussions over functionalism and modernism’s social purpose into the present).

Zarecor highlights intensified construction of Paneláks, as the Czech version of what she beautifully terms “Socialism with a Modernist face” in the wake of the success of the Czech pavilion at Expo ’58 – the Brussels Dream of ‘One Day in Czechoslovakia’. The socialist students of Karel Teige – notably Karel Janu, Jiři Stursa and Jiři Vozelinek – that rose to prominent positions in postwar Czechoslovak architecture helped shape the estates. However, so too did Havlíček, Honzík and other non-Marxists who continued to build for the new regime, sharing the common idea that building housing was a social good.[14]

 While it is almost certainly true that the scale and scope of panelák-based sídlištěs was greater in Czechoslovakia due to the communist takeover, it cannot be claimed that these architectures and urbanisms were imposed on Czechs from outside, nor that they were a communist-era idea. However, emphasizing the links, rather than the rupture, between the First republic and the Communist period goes against the currently dominant and highly Manichean politics of Czech collective memory that divides positive and negative in fairly bald temporal terms – 1918-38: Good; 1938-1989: Bad. 1989 onward: Good again (we hope).

DSC_1472

Panel Building at Hloubětín, Prague

Panel Story 2: High-Density Public Housing as Failed Socialist & Modernist Dreams

Dissident attacks on paneláks have resonated with wider narratives of neoliberal transition about the role of government in society and related attitudes toward public housing. The ‘End of History’ consensus that laissez-faire, (neo)liberal-market-democracy is the only way to govern chimed with hostility towards high-density public housing as architecturally flawed, naively irresponsible and ultimately dangerous social engineering. Scepticism of government born from bad experience of a particular regime has met ideological opposition to the state as such. The failure of social housing projects in the West has been conflated with the failure of state socialism in the second world with both used as evidence of dangerous burdens of utopian dreams.

DSC_0009 DSC_0282

Buildings from Sídliště Invalidovna and Sídliště Cerveny Vrch, Prague

Such attacks generally eschew the controversialist, yet architecturally adventurous and open-minded iconoclasm of Charles Jencks.[15] They tend to prefer the offended traditionalism of Simon Jenkins, whilst retaining their mutual weakness for décor and ornament – eyebrows simultaneously arched and furrowed in facial gymnastics that Alec Guinness would be proud of. Crucially they often combine this aesthetic position with the selfish Hayekian/Friedmanite socio-economic Darwinism that seeks to entrench power for those who already have money and which, since ’89, has come disguised as freedom. A supposedly hard-headed pragmatism in which politics is disguised as economics; a refusal to be suckered into social dreaming. Often accompanied (in some quarters at least) by faux-rueful laments for the failure of stillborn social schemes that never had a chance, they are wheeled out time and again as evidence for why even marginally idealistic or minimally visionary social endeavours can never work.

Pruitt_Igoe

The Death of Modern Architecture

Long before Jencks famously used the dynamiting of this massive and ill-fated housing project to proclaim the death of Modern Architecture “on July 15, 1972 at 3:32pm or thereabouts” the Pruitt-Igoe story had come to symbolise the supposedly hopeless futility of well-intentioned social housing in the US. A recent documentary film, The Pruitt-Igoe Myth,[16] exposes even this – the nadir of all the panel stories – as just that, a myth. The documentary, which takes an academically informed, socio-anthropological approach, effectively refutes the charges against the architecture of Pruitt-Igoe (and by implication against the principles of modernist-inflected high-rise and high-density public housing in general).[17] The joy with which the initial residents recall first moving in to the sufficiently spacious and well-appointed apartments (particularly in comparison to the slums where many had previously lived) is manifest. One resident – Ruby Russell – who moved into an apartment on the 11th floor coined the affectionate and memorable term “the poor man’s penthouse” to describe her apartment, while others describe the feelings of community, of safety and the possibility this provided for children to play and adults to live.

However, this was not to last. As the documentary shows as it details the total collapse of this housing project to the point where the police were afraid to enter and the tower blocks ended up being dynamited, this fate was largely pre-ordained. Cutbacks to the original design and the failure of the 1949 US Federal Housing Act to provide any maintenance money for such projects – requiring that such funds came from the rents paid by the low-income tenants – was the first nail in its coffin. Racism in both planning policy and the everyday practices of citizens continued de facto segregation policies long after they became de jure impermissible.[18] The combination of ‘white flight’, a declining city population (robbing it of necessary tax revenues to pay for essential services, including housing maintenance), the selling off of the downtown to property developers and official encouragement for sprawling suburban, low-density housing at the expense of the rotting urban core meant that the estate failed within grim socio-economic context. Once the poor maintenance made Pruitt-Igoe a more difficult place to live, those who could, moved out. Low occupancy rates further diminished the money available for upkeep and repairs, unleashing a vicious cycle of decline and degradation. As the documentary powerfully shows, this was not accidental. Rather, it was rather the result of the deliberate diminution of governmental power to act in a socially progressive manner in a politico-economic environment stacked against the most disadvantaged and predicated on the myth of the socially-unencumbered, all-consuming individual.

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Park Hill, Sheffield, bdonline.com; the guardian.com and Robin Hood Gardens from detail-online.com

Significantly, the documentary specifically links the failure to support social housing to its associations with socialism, which both during the cold war and in the aftermath of ’89 made it ‘un-American’ and thus taboo in the US. While European experiences of public and social housing have not been as extreme as Pruitt-Igoe, the problems of housing estates such as Park Hill in Sheffield and Robin Hood Gardens in London, as well as many of the French banlieues can similarly not be blamed on their modernist (or, too-often, modernish) architecture, nor on the social intentions that inspired their construction. Rather, it was the failure to adequately address the underlying social conditions that prompted their creation and then the lack of conviction in backing the estates – with proper materials and maintenance – to provide (part of) the solution that sealed their fate.

That this lack of conviction held after the fall of the Berlin wall is not surprising. The very construction of such estates as a response to the demand for rapid urbanization and the ongoing postwar housing crisis in communist countries can be described after ’89 as “arrogant”[19] or dismissed as being “in the best traditions of vulgar Marxism” which apparently implies that, “the Communist regime believed that people were shaped by their environment.”[20]

It would be hard to think of a government – or indeed practically any other institution – that didn’t believe people were to at least some degree shaped by their environment. Indeed the prospect of people being impervious to their built environments would mean the end of architecture as anything more than art, or worse, decoration. When Sean Hanley claims that this substantiates his charge that the building of the paneláks was ideologically motivated, the point made by Michel Foucault and echoed by Slavoj Žižek that ideology is at its most powerful when it is most hidden, should also be considered in relation to the ‘pragmatic’, post-’89 treatment of social housing and the damage done more widely to ideas of social democracy and transformative governance by the collapse of communism and the neo-liberal consensus that filled the vacuum.

 

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Panel Building at Hloubětín

Panel Story 3: People Lived and Live Badly in Paneláks and Sídlištěs

The fall of Pruitt-Igoe, the Brixton and Toxteth riots and the postmodern malaise that long beset the Unité d’Habitation and its ilk have been particularly unkind to millions of Central & East Europeans. They have been forced to belatedly ‘learn’ that the places in which they grew up, laughed, loved, raised children, realized creative activities, plotted defiance, cohabitation, collaboration or escape and where they created their cosy dens[21], insulated to some degree from the party regime, were no longer appropriate for their lives as ‘New Europeans’.


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Sídliště Invalidovna

Crucially however, as even noted by critics[22] of the appearance and intentions of the paneláks, the social mix of the communist-era housing projects was very different than that of their counterparts in the West. In the second world, largte numbers of people from different walks of life and from varied social strata finding themselves (willingly or otherwise) thrust into high-rise neighbourhoods. This is partly due to the sheer number of people who live in such developments. Zarecor[23] quotes figures of 3.1 million people living in 1,165,000 apartment units in 80,000 paneláks in Czech Republic. With almost a third of the total population and nearly half the city of Prague living in paneláks, the issues facing postsocialist sídlištěs are, in most cases, very different than those experienced by residents in their deprived and marginalized western counterparts.

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Building at Sídliště Dablice

Many communist-era estates are well-planned. Well-connected and well-provided for communities: house-proud and successful places. Their abundant and well-kempt common spaces (leafy in summertime, albeit rendered climactically bare in winter) host a variety of public services and private activities and allow collective grandmothering in the ample and adventurous social space they provide for children. There was not the same stigma attached to living in these places and as the artist Eva Koťátková argues, these were places where many people grew up happily and well, learning to be the creative and independent, experiencing concrete as schoolyard rather than jungle and certainly not succumbing to the attempts to create new uniform ‘Socialist [Wo]Man’:

I was born in Prague, grew up in one of the typical grey block-houses on the periphery and went to school there. Many people find this kind of architecture awful or boring but I have a strong nostalgia connected with this place – a place of the most formative periods of my life. Many motifs appearing in my work have their origin in the time of my childhood and adolescence and in the specific atmosphere of this location.[24]

Koťátková’s comments are not the isolated opinion of a nostalgic or contrarian artist. Zarecor’s work also draws upon several academic studies that show consistently high levels of satisfaction with sídliště life. Research conducted in 2001 by Lux and Sunega showed that 64% of Czechs considered their accommodation ideal and only 11% planned to move within three years. Moreover, Zarecor also cites studies that show that this is not a new trend, with many sídliště residents recalling moving to their new Haviřov homes in the same excited and reverent terms that the Pruitt Igoe tenants did. Recent work by Eva Špačková and Martin Jemelka in the Hranice sídliště in Karvina also shows generally high degrees of satisfaction, although mixed with calls for further improvements relating to upkeep and noise issues. As Špačková put its in an interview with Zarecor:

Generally it is possible to say that the majority of imperfections in the housing development, according to the opinions of the residents, are not conditional on architectural solutions but rather on the unmaintained, disordered, and unsatisfactory control and commercial abuse of public space and the former civic facilities. [25]

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Hotel Kupa at Jižní Město

In a widely cited ethnographic study of the Prague sídlištěs at Jizni mesto and Jihozapadni Mesto, French anthropologist Laurent Bazac-Billaud concluded that people in paneláks generally know their neighbours and that both social and transport networks not only exist but also work.[26] Furthermore, Hanley repeats Bazac-Billaud’s finding that:

panelák life is based on a intense drive for privacy and individuality. Inside their standard panelák flats – identical in layout and to thousands of others the length and breadth of former Czechoslovakia – the key impulse of Czech panelák residents is to create their own private worlds.

This is still however not enough for Hanley who claims that “In a democratic society, [paneláks] would never have been built. Such hideous-looking, poorly planned public housing would quickly have attracted criticism and protest (as it did in the West). In a market economy, no one with any money would have invested a crown into a panelák flat.”


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London’s Broadwater Farm Estate, from trainwalkslondon.com and flickr.com 

Hanley’s critique could be read as a dire warning about the potential fate of paneláks in the postcommunist period after the end of rent controls, although currently this has only happened in exceptional cases. In the town of Most, the semi-ghetto of Chanov carries the real echoes of Pruitt-Igoe, not in its architecture, but in the social neglect that led to the decay and near abandonment of this Roma-majority housing estate. Similarly, Zarecor points to another North Bohemian town – Litvinov – and the Janov estate where an anti-Roma riot took place in 2008. Research conducted by a team lead by the prominent geographer Luděk Sýkora showed that the situation in Janov had been exacerbated by the sale of municipal apartments to ‘investors’ who refused to invest in repairing or upgrading the buildings and rented the declining apartments to low-income Roma groups, helping to create social segregation and stoke racial tensions.[27]

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Chanov, Most, from wikimapia.com; Pruitt-Igoe from Radiantwriting.hubpages.com

In many more cases however, the right-to-buy schemes allowed tenants to purchase their apartments affordably from municipalities and rent controls remained in place until recently. Right-to-buy schemes were balanced with incentives to form tenants associations and residents committees in order to be able to benefit from EU-funded refurbishment schemes. These schemes have largely consisted of the installation of new windows, doors, elevators and the application of fixed Styrofoam cladding directly to the outside of paneláks, which are then covered with plaster in order to improve insulation. Residents have then been able to choose from a variety of colours to repaint the new cladding, eliminating the darkness at the edge of town. However, transforming the dreaded grey into what Zarecor terms a ‘rainbow’ of colours threatens to create what Špačková terms “multi-coloured kitsch.” Zarecor too warns against the loss of architectonic detail such as the definable edges of panels or surface texture which give the buildings a sense of proportion and without which they risk becoming “cartoon likenesses in the shape of apartment buildings with undifferentiated surfaces.”

Popular with residents, these largely cosmetic renovations seem to please Hanley, who in a later piece states “After this beauty treatment the hideous grey paneláky look pretty civilized” passing in an augenblick, for Holland or Germany. This confirms Hanley’s mainstream hierarchical view of transition (where success equals imitation of the West), but also Zarecor’s observation that, if all that took was a lick of paint, then perhaps there wasn’t so much wrong with them in the first place.

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Sídliště Rajska Zahrada (Paradise Garden)

 Building New Panel Stories: Re-evaluating and reviving the realities beyond the myths

The difficulty of disentangling aesthetic judgements on ‘grey’ or ‘ugly’ panel buildings from their context in the politics of communist memory and the particular political economy of the post-89 world makes it unsurprising that they should provide rich material for visual artists with social sensibilities. That artists with praxis as different as Veronika Drahotová, Tomáš Džadoň, Patricie Fexová, Eva Koťátková and Katerina Šedá should find inspiration or fascination in these massive structures and micro-societies speaks to their significance as sites for the interaction of and negotiation between public and private, uniformity and individuality, enabling constraints and bounded freedoms.

The work of scholars such as Kimberly Zarecor, Eva Špačková, Laurent Bazac-Billaud and Luděk Sýkora, as well as the engagements of the aforementioned artists call into question what we know about paneláks and sídlištěs and the contexts in which we know it. This challenges the how we remember both the public politics and the private lives of communism and the ways they have been re-negotiated in transition. It questions the social relations that are possible on housing estates today and between the estates and elsewhere. In turn this prompts us to consider who we live with, how we want to do so and to what extent we can achieve that. It questions the underlying assumptions of post-communist societies and they ways these societies are constructed – now and in the future – as well as who they are for.

Paneláks and sídlištěs are too often seen merely as monumental milestones on the way to a future that was never built: as inconvenient reminders of a past that would be better forgotten or as hangovers of uneasy dreams. Zarecor rightly calls for the rehabilitation of paneláks, which would act as a catalyst for re-appraisals of other aspects of Czech society. If this is to happen, then the old myths of outside imposition, misdiagnosis of the ills of social programmes and social democracy need to be exposed. Fallacies of indignity and malicious attacks on panel dwellers need to be put to rest in order to better deal with real emergent inequity and emiseration. To start telling new panel stories, we need to experience and embrace the diversity and vibrancy of sídliště life, aesthetically and socially, from the clean neo-functionalist lines of the Invalidovna estate to Ďáblice’s open green spaces, Jižní Město’s thriving brewery and the panoramic views from the Hotel Kupa

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This is a re-drafted version of a piece that was initially published hard copy in Vlak 4, Prague, London, New York, Melbourne, Paris, Amsterdam: Eqqus Press (2013) and is also featured in Abolishing Prague, ed. Louis Armand, Prague: Litteraria Pragensia (2014).

 

[1] The title refers to Věra Chytilová’s legendary film ‘Panel Story’ which provides a supposedly candid, but largely negative look at the early days of the Jižní Město housing estate.

[2] From the poem Jižní Město (South City) by Jiří Žáček, reproduced in From a Terrace in Prague, ed. Stephan Delbos (2011) Prague: Litteraria Pragensia

[3] As noted by Els de Vos’ (2012) review of Lynne Attwood’s Socialist Housing in the Eastern Bloc: Gender and Housing in Soviet Russia and Kimberly Elman Zarecor’s Manufacturing a Socialist Modernity, published in Technology and Culture, 53 (2), April 2012, pp. 465-469

[4] Sean Hanley (1999) ‘The Discrete Charm of the Czech Panelák, Central European Review http://www.ce-review.org/authorarchives/hanley_archive/hanley22old.html

[5] Ivan T. Berend as quoted in Zarecor (2012) Zarecor (2012) ‘Socialist Neighbourhoods after Socialism: The Past, Present and Future of Postwar Housing in the Czech Republic’, East European Politics and Societies, 26: 486

[6] http://www.praguepost.com/archivescontent/40712-still-standing.html

[7] De Vos (2012).

[8] e.g. Alison Stenning & Kathrin Hoerschelmann (2008) History, Geography and Difference in the Post-socialist World: Or, Do We Still Need Post-socialism? Antipode, 40(2): 312-335

[9] Zarecor (2009) ‘The Rainbow Edges: The Legacy of Communist Mass Housing and the Colorful Future of Czech Cities in Peggi Clouston, Ray Kinoshita Mann, Stephen Schreiber, eds. Without a Hitch – New Directions in Prefabricated Architecture. http://scholarworks.umass.edu/wood/2008/; Zarecor & Eva Špačková (2012) ‘Czech Paneláks are Disappearing, but the Housing Estates Remain’, Architecture & Town Planning (Architektur & Urbanizmus), 34: 288-301;

[10] For the fullest treatment of this, see Zarecor (2011) Manufacturing a Socialist Modernity: Housing in Czechoslovakia 1945-1960, Pittsburgh University Press: Pittsburgh, PA.

[11] See for example Peter Zusi ‘s excellent (2004) ‘The Style of the Present: Karel Teige on Constructivism and Poetism’, Representations (88); & (2008) ‘Tendentious Modernism: Karel Teige’s path to Functionalism’, Slavic Review (67:4).

[12] e.g. Teige (2002[1932]) Nejmensi Byt (The Minimum Dwelling), MIT Press: Cambridge MA, trans Eric Dluhlosch

[13] Karel Teige, The Minimum Dwelling, p6.

[14] Zarecor (2011).

[15] Jencks (1991 [1977]) The Language of Postmodern Architecture, New York: Rizzoli

[16] The Pruitt-Igoe Myth (2011) dir. Chad Friedrichs.

[17] See for example Oscar Newman (1975) ‘Reactions to the Defensible Space Study & Some Further Findings’ International Journal of Mental Health vol 4(3):48-70.

[18] See also Elizabeth Birmingham (1999) ‘Refraining the Ruins: Pruitt-􏰅Igoe, structural racism, and African American rhetoric as a space for cultural critique, Western Journal of Communication, 63:3, 291-309

[19] Radio Prague’s Martin Mikule – http://www.radio.cz/en/section/letter/panelák-housing-estates-the-indelible-heritage-of-communism

[20] Sean Hanley (1999) ‘The Discrete Charm of the Czech Panelák, Central European Review, http://www.ce-review.org/authorarchives/hanley_archive/hanley22old.html

[21] See the Czech film Pelíšky (literally translated as ‘Cosy Dens’), directed by Jan Hřebejk.

[22] Sean Hanley specifically notes this in his 1999 piece.

[23] Zarecor (2012).

[24] Interview with Luigi Fassi in Koťátková ‘Documentation 2’

[25] Zarecor (2012).

[26] Hanley (1999) and Kristina Alda, writing for the Prague Daily Monitor both reference Bazac-Billaud’s work. http://praguemonitor.com/2009/10/27/praguescape-pink

[27] Sykora et al (2010), Rezidencni Segregace, Univerzita Karlova & Minesterstvo pro mnistni rozvoj v Ceske Republice.

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The Prague metro system’s design transcends the circumstances of its making, yet still provides a rich architecture of memory.

By Benjamin Tallis

Prague’s trams are its mechanised flaneurs; their scenic routes criss-cross the city in a dense meshwork that makes them a prominent feature of street-life in the Bohemian capital. For those leisured travellers with time on their hands there is no better way to ride the city. However, for those of us whose schedules and planning skills mean that we live more like futurists than flaneurs, getting there on time often means going underground.

Hidden beneath Prague’s richly layered material histories, the subway system, with its 61 stations and 65km of tracks is the 7th busiest in Europe, carrying more than 1.5 million passengers every day. This adds up to nearly 600m passenger rides per year: more in absolute terms than on either the Vienna or Berlin U-Bahns and, given Prague’s relatively low (1.25m) population, this makes it the best used metro system on the continent in per-capita terms.

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Begun and primarily built during the communist period, this massive public infrastructure project became one of the flagship projects of ‘Normalisation’ – the clamping-down on the public sphere that followed the crushing of the Prague Spring. The precarious Husák regime that sought to build socialism without a human face attempted to offset the loss of public-political possibilty by boosting material conditions. Increased consumption and enhanced infrastructure represented the politics of meagre promise, laced with threat.

Keen to show that ideology was no impediment to innovation, the regime invested heavily into architecture, prompting a flurry of public building. Brutalist shopping centres and high-modernist office buildings proliferated. Despite the popularity of these styles in the West, in Prague they continue to be associated with a distinct and ill-remembered, politically periodisable vision of how the future used to look. The tighter Soviet embrace of Czechoslovakia brought new technology and resources to bear on large infrastructure projects and it was with Russian help that a plan to take the tram underground was abandoned in favour of a building a proper subway system. This intervention allowed Prague to realise one of its recurring 20th century dreams[1] and become a genuine metro-polis, but like its overground counterparts it was realised in a style that became synonymous with the oppressive regime of the time.

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However, the metro system also provided the stage for one of Czech political performance art’s most famous actions: “on an escalator … turning around, I look into the eyes of the person standing behind me.” Jiří Kovanda’s attempt to provoke connections amidst atomisation and anomie was typical of attempts at low-key defiance of Normalisation’s numbing conformity. Like Havel’s contemporaneous Power of the Powerless, it suggested the fragility of the seemingly implacable post-totalitarian façade and the role that people would need to play to exploit its cracks.

After the revolution of 1989 many stations were renamed as the metro system shed its party nomenclature to become a velvet underground. Moskevská (Moscow station) became Anděl (Angel), while other socialist shibboleths were swapped for prosaic descriptions of location: Budovatelu (Builders [of the future]) became Chodov; Leninová became Dejvická, Kosomonatů became Háje, Družby (Friendship) became Opatov; more proudly, Gottwaldová (named for the first Czech Communist premier, Klement Gottwald) became Vyšehrad, the high castle that is a sacred site for Czech nationhood.

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(Photos from idnes.cz and ceskatelevize.cz)

The metro system recently celebrated its forty-first birthday and many new stations have been added in the last decade. However, it is the formal qualities – as well as the functional efficiency – of the older sections that continues to enchant. Entering the streamlined catacombs beneath Prague’s streets may mean sacrificing the breathtaking vistas afforded on certain tram routes, but in no way abandons aesthetic interest. Like the normalisation-era’s architectural flourishing above ground, the design of the metro – more modernist than the peoples’ palaces of Moscow or Petersburg – has stood the test of time. It transcends the loathed regime that made it and gives the lie to the notions that there was no creativity or quality production in the communist period, or that this era was somehow “post-cultural.”[2]

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Descending from the square at Náměstí Míru, with its art nouveau town houses and pitch-perfect neo-gothic church, toward the vanishing point of one of Europe’s longest escalators (87m length, 43m drop), is to allow oneself to be transported into a gleaming futuristic grotto. Filtered between thick set rectangular pillars, elegant in chrome and marble, passengers are greeted by the colourful, curving surfaces of the tunnel walls. Coloured rows of anodised aluminium tiles – silver, aquamarine, royal blue, aquamarine and amber-gold, provide a wonderful horizontal articulation and a dynamic modernist sheen. Concave and convex indentations and protrusions[3] in the tiles prevent heat warping, but also enhance the tension between motion and stillness that encapsulates the role of the station – a node in a fast moving network. The decor benignly (dis)orients passengers and helps immerse them in metroland as they are transported.

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photos from tuxboard.com

The majority of the stations on the Green ‘A’ line follow a similar pattern, distinguished by colour and the re-combination of modular components. The other lines have their own design identity. The Yellow ‘B’ line makes great use of reflecting and refracting surfaces, particularly visible in the chrome ‘lenses’ at Náměstí Republiky, the curved glass tiles at Jinonice and the . The Red ‘C’ line is plainer and was designed to provide a smooth transition from overground to underground,[4] generally employing wide central platforms and high ceilings. An exception is the dual-platformed, glass-walled Vyšehrad station from which trains are dispatched over a valley, encased in the belly of the Nusle bridge’s elegantly soaring concrete. The newer stations tend to be somewhat blander, although the elegant curves of Střížkov and Nemocnice Motol merit some attention. The stunning effects as coloured light plays on the chrome columns of Letňany’s platform space are in marked contrast to the rest of the station and its surroundings.

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Returning overground, Jože Plečnik’s famous Church of the Holy Heart (1929) dominates the square at Jiřího z Poděbrad. In front of the church stands an unusual structure – a distorted, tiled concrete cylinder, leaning and tapering before being opened and crowned by a series of chrome verticals, supporting what look like rusting venetian blinds. Around the corner, in the Svatopluk Čech gardens, another anomaly faces the monument to the 19th century Czech poet. An outcrop of angular, mosaic-tiled, micro towers, reaching, striving to their different flat-topped heights with the aid of sweeping, curvilinear chrome frontage, looking like something scalped from the head of a brutalist medusa.

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Resolutely functional, yet formed with the sculptural and material qualities of the best public art, these structures are just two of the many air vents that serve the Prague metro. They appear in sometimes-unlikely parts of the city and provide reminders of what lies beneath. These quiet monuments provide material-mnemonic links between the concrete estates of the periphery and the affably pretty inner suburbs and speak of the revenant presence of the past, even as their design transcends the conditions of their production.

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The best of Prague’s metro stations are gloriously encapsulated event architecture, while the air-vents often provide incongruously quotidian counterpoints that draw out the best in their surroundings. The now velvet underground and its above-ground eruptions are essential parts of Prague’s palimpsestuous psychogeography that disrupt all-too coherent narratives that oversimplify the recent past.

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[1] Previous plans for a Prague metro had been made in 1898 and 1926 –  http://metro.angrenost.cz/history.php

[2] As Milan Kundera claimed in his famous essay ‘The Tragedy of Central Europe’ – http://www.ises.hu/webimages/files/Kundera_tragedy_of_Central_Europe.pdf

[3] Known locally as ‘breasts’ (prsy) and ‘anti-breasts’ (anti-prsy).

[4] Interview by Ryan Scott (2013) with Evžen Kyllar, one of the architects involved in the Metro design, along with Jaroslav Votruba and others. http://www.expats.cz/prague/article/prague-metro/secrets-of-the-prague-metro-part-2/

A version of this piece was originally published in The Modernist, Issue 8 – ‘Carried Away’ in 2013.

The EU’s inadequate response to the migration crisis in the Mediterranean threaten the Schengen zone and the Union’s identity. Prevailing opinion among Czech elites is based on substantive errors, questionable political analysis and morally indefensible positions. Czech Republic and the rest of the V4 need an alternative approach if we are to prevent migrant deaths and prevent the idea of Europe from getting lost at sea.

by Benjamin Tallis, Michal Šimečka and Jan Daniel,
Centre for European Security, Institute of International Relations, Prague  

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European governments are struggling to find an adequate response to tragedies in the Mediterranean and the rise in irregular immigration from and through the conflict-torn Southern Neighbourhood. As members of the Schengen zone, the Czech Republic and other post-communist EU members can no longer pretend it is someone else’s problem. A serious debate on migration is long overdue at the European level and in the EU’s member states.

In this context, last week’s commentary by Radko Hokovský and Jakub Janda is significant, not least because it reflects the prevailing consensus among Czech political elites. While welcome in that it could kick-start the necessary debate, the position they outline contradicts the European values they purport to defend.

The authors loosely align themselves with the meagre package of measures adopted by the Council (inter alia additional money for Triton operation, police/military action against smuggling networks, addressing root-causes etc.). However, they warn against any moves toward a more cohesive and Communitarian migration/asylum policy, lest this would trigger an even greater influx of refugees/migrants and invite an anti-immigrant and Eurosceptic populist backlash that could threaten the EU’s very existence.

Acknowledging that it may sound “cynical and too pragmatic”, they argue against EU-wide burden-sharing of asylum claimants, resettlement of migrants, externalized offshore asylum processing of asylum application etc., insisting that decision-making on granting of residency and asylum must remain in the hands of national governments. Hokovský and Janda write that, in the absence of popularly endorsed political Union, transferring more competences to European Commission would be grist to the mill of anti-immigration populist forces. “Creation of a common asylum and migration policy would be the last decision of the EU before it disintegrated.”

This is a position espoused by the current government and PM Sobotka, which is unfortunate because it is wrong on substance, unconvincing in its political analysis, and morally more disturbing than its authors care to admit. 


Substantial Errors: Simplification, Conflation & Obfuscation

First, in substantive terms, the position advanced by Hokovský and Janda makes a series of untenable simplifications and straw man arguments: it reduces the present challenge to a choice between a Brussels power-grab and maintaining national sovereignty; it ignores the distinction between regular and irregular migration, as well as between refugees and economic migrants; and, crucially, it buys into the fiction that migration is exclusively negative – a threat to be guarded against rather than an opportunity to be embraced.

The migration situation that the EU and its member states face is much complex than that and, in fact, borders, asylum and migration are already semi-Europeanized policies – a patchy framework that, as the latest spate of tragedies show, simply doesn’t work: for migrants, border guards or Europeans. This means that while Schengen states share the benefits of common borders they do not share the burdens equally, leaving states such as Italy and Greece unable to cope. This puts migrants in unnecessary danger and threatens the continued existence of the Schengen zone, which relies on the integrity of its frontiers to facilitate regular, rather than irregular mobility.

However, an effective response would not require full Europeanisation of migration policy. Coalitions of willing states could establish offshore migration processing facilities and launch a naval operation to conduct SAR and prevent migrant boats reaching the high seas. These steps would reduce migrant deaths while meeting legal commitments to asylum seekers, while the Frontex Triton mission would provide border protection and guard against irregular migration. While Hokovský and Janda concede that member states could do this, they argue, in effect, that they should not as it would provoke a Eurosceptic backlash that would threaten the EU itself.

However, this worst-case scenario again ignores the complexity of border and migration policy. Member states would remain in control of decisions over asylum-seekers who arrive directly on their territory (as opposed to being re-settled) and they would also remain in charge of the entry and stay of economic migrants to whom, unlike to refugees, they have no obligation. It is unfortunately indicative of the prevailing climate that the focus is on the threats and burdens, rather than the opportunities and contributions, of migration – a distortion that the conflation of refugees with economic migrants compounds.

Shutting the door on such migrants is not only morally questionable, but also risks missing out on an economic windfall. Research has repeatedly shown that migrants bring benefit rather than cost, many are ‘exceptional people’ willing to risk everything for a better life and the majority are young, driven and willing to work. Managing such migration through regular channels, allied to political engagement with – rather than pandering to – discontented groups, also holds out the possibility of exactly the people-to-people contacts that mitigate the xenophobia that Hokovský and Janda lament – as it has within the EU.


Political Consequences: Falling Out or Falling Together?

Second, Hokovský and Janda’s article presents a flawed analysis of the potential political fallout of a more progressive response. The threat of populist backlash is wildly inflated and there are far more states that would be willing to partake in the type of common action to solve this common problem (as outlined above) than the authors allow for.

Those states that face the greatest burden in dealing with the high and ongoing migratory pressure driven by the need of those facing war and other catastrophes and the desires of those who seek a better life have expressed their desire for such common action. From Italy on the front line to Germany and Sweden who take the highest number of asylum seekers, have seen no surge in populist anti-European forces. Indeed, the attitude of those at the sharp end of migrant capsizes has been a welcome silver lining in this humanitarian crisis. In Germany, Pegida is in disarray and effective burden sharing would help blunt the attacks of parties such as Alternative fuer Deutschland. Both Angela Merkel and Horst Seehofer (neither known for being soft-touch, liberal idealists) support common action. Hakovsky and Janda claim that Europeanising asylum policy would be a ‘rash’ move that would threaten the EU. Merkel in particular is noted for avoiding such hasty or politically inconsidered moves.

In countries with the highest migrant intake (Italy, Greece, Malta, but also France, Germany, Netherlands, Sweden), increased EU solidarity and burden sharing would actually lend ammunition to pro-EU centrist governments against anti-immigrant anti-EU parties (insofar as “Europe” would be seen as a helping alleviate voters’ concerns over immigration). This leaves the Visegrad countries – who rightly revel in the benefits of Schengen for practical purposes as well as for reasons of belonging[1] – along with Denmark and Finland as potential objectors. In the case of the Visegrad group, such hostility is particularly problematic. 


European Values: Moral and Legal Responsibilities

In Czech Republic, the argument against common action on the migration crisis seems to be because it could actually work, leading to increased immigration and creating a new ‘pull factor’. It should be noted that similarly faulty logic was behind the decision to cancel and fail to replace the Mare Nostrum SAR operation. Disguised as a defence of Europe, this position effectively argues that letting people drown is warranted because it provides a powerful deterrent, although given the push factors driving the migration surge this is questionable.

Underlying this premise, which has thus far been illusory, is a worrying assumption about the innate xenophobia of the public. Tellingly, in many cases it is those communities least exposed to migrant populations who tend to be more hostile to them. If such xenophobia exists then, in accordance with European values and the history of the EU, should be challenged rather than simply accepted or, worse, instrumentalised to ignoble purpose. The Visegrad countries, which have themselves been on the receiving end of such prejudice and have been able to challenge it through the mobility that EU membership allows, know this all too well.

Hokovský and Janda’s analysis fails to account for EU member states’ legal commitments to allow potential refugees to claim asylum. More depressingly, it betrays willingness to free-ride in Schengen and to pander to the nastier sides of domestic populism. This is a morally indefensible and hypocritical position that contradicts the Union’s fundamental values and legal commitments. Should more EU Member States pursue this cynical strategy, it would indeed be the end of the EU as we know it.

[1] Like much of the analysis in this piece, this claim is based on the findings of the ESRC-funded research project conducted by Benjamin Tallis from 2011-2015 – publication of findings is forthcoming.

“At least they can’t divide the sky.

– [No], the sky divides first”

CZ_TV_Vez_Zizkov2

Manfred and Rita, in Christa Wolf’s DDR novel Der Geteilte Himmel (Divided Heaven), may have been discussing the problems of a nation, a city and a couple torn asunder by the Berlin Wall and all it stood for, but their words call to mind another symbolically divisive piece of architecture. The construction of the Prague TV Tower began more than 20 years after Rita’s gloomy response to Manfred’s forlorn optimism, but now, a further 20 years after its completion, it still divides opinion as it divides the Bohemian sky.

Looking across from the vantage points of Hradčany, visitors to Prague’s famed castle district visually retrace their routes across the city, eagerly picking out the gothic highlights of the old town, the neo-renaissance splendour of the national theatre and the crème-chantille of Malá Strana’s baroque. However, their affable ocular perambulations are disturbed by the tower, which sits on the opposite lip of the bowl that encircles Prague’s inner core. Both the size and shape of the tower – a 216m-high ideal home for an urban spaceman – are disconcerting for those seeking to lose themselves in dreamy, historical reverie.

TVTower1

The TV Tower is one of Prague’s few genuine ‘cloudscrapers’ [2] and the only one in the ring of historic suburbs surrounding the inner core and, as such, is a dissonant presence. The high-point of Václav Aulický’s architectural oeuvre has attracted considerable derision, being named in a list of the ‘world’s 21 ugliest buildings’ by the Daily Telegraph and as the ‘2nd ugliest building in the world’ by tripadvisor.com, to which the Daily Mail added “As if Prague’s television tower was not ugly enough, it now sports statues of crawling babies on its exterior.” Local architect Martin Krise who is part of the ‘Club for Ancient Prague’ agreed, “the TV tower is a crime against the old town.”

But for me, it was love at first sight; a condition, which, in retrospect I can see was partly brought on by the circumstances of our meeting. Arriving on the late train from Berlin, without local currency and in need of abed, I was wandering through the decaying depths of the main station[3], when a Czech student, upon seeing my backpack, asked me if I was looking for a place to stay. This stranger’s kindness was not limited to a mumbled tip and a biro’d cross on a map, instead helping me get a metro ticket and guiding me to the Clown & Bard in Žižkov, which he had heard was a good place to stay.[4]

churchtower

Taking what I now know to be a slightly unusual route, we changed to the A-line and rode underground to Jiřího z Poděbrad. I was first struck by the expanse of the square, ringed by secession town houses, and by Jože Plečnik’s masterpiece, the Church of the Most Sacred Heart of Our Lord, but my eye was quickly drawn upwards. Rising, massive, yet elegant, was the TV Tower and the affect was instantaneous. I lost sight of the tower as we walked on towards the hostel through a five-storey valley of apartment buildings. Then we entered Škroupovo Náměstí, the peaceful circle where Václav Havel spoke to great effect in 1988 and, crossing the quiet garden in its centre, I looked to the right and there it was. In the space and time between the two squares, the Tower had drawn itself up to full height and, illuminated in the Prague night, I could get a clear look at what it was made of.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA           tv_tower_prague

The battleship-grey high-tech tubes, between which the pods of its three gantry-like decks are slung, the porthole and ribbon windows, the elongated cream hand grenade of its aerial mast reaching skyward, its climbing babies and its perfectly balanced asymmetry all played a part, and I would come to appreciate these aspects of the Tower over time. However it was the Tower’s sheer size and incongruity with its surroundings that impressed me most; the sheer chutzpah of doing that; there – exactly what Krise complained of! In a Herzogian moment of aesthetic ecstasy I had stopped in my tracks. My companion waited patiently before telling me that the tower had been built by the communists and while it was pretty unpopular, he liked it and was happy to see that I did too. We walked on to the hostel, where despite my offer of a beer by way of thanks, he had to go home and study. I’ve never seen him again, but I wish I could thank him.

I have subsequently spent a good part of the last decade living in the neighbourhoods around the TV Tower, which stands close to the border between ‘Red’ Žižkov, that formerly working class warren of bawdy pubs, and bourgeois Vinohrady with its broad boulevards, secession villas and charming cafés. Returning to Prague, the sight of the tower always brought an excited feeling of arrival, of coming home. Many nights I walked there: in the warmth of the summer after times with friends at the Riegrovy Sady beer garden, with the lazy air lapping slowly around its masts; in the winter, with biting cold and frozen breath, the ground crisp and unevenly reflecting the tower’s lights. The stillness, the preternatural silence, testify to the respect and wonder that the tower commands, of the shock and awe of approaching an architectural sublime.

babies_tv_tower    bizzare_sculpures_by_david_cerny_15

Innovations (tricolour lighting from 2006) and renovations (new interior, bar and restaurant) speak of an ongoing commitment, of a recognition of the need to deal productively with the tower as it is, as well as where (and when) it came from, and reflect a wider trend in negotiating Prague’s painful pasts. The Miminka, the terribly deformed enfants that artist David Černý attached to the tower add a further layer of reflection. The babies, with their television shaped heads, bisected by a deeply embossed barcode can be read as comment on what came after ‘89, on the strange contradictions of neoliberal ‘freedom’ and the consumption-entertainment nexus. While most of the babies appear to be making their way up the tower, some are heading the other way, having seen the view and decided to come back down.

It seems that even in applied critique, the tower divides opinion, but its functional magic and architectural daring are now combined with a sense of humour that softens its hubris without denting its pride. It is all that its critics and boosters say it is and as such lives up to its nickname “Jakeš’s finger” and so follows in a long Prague tradition, called into appropriately stark and beautiful relief by the surrealist poet Vítězslav Nezval.

Hundred-spired Prague
With the fingers of all saints
With the fingers of perjury
With the fingers of fire and hail
With the fingers of a musician
With the intoxicating fingers of women lying on their backs

With fingers touching the stars
On the abacus of night[5]

     Prague_030612_-043 a-prague-beauty-2

This piece was initially published in Issue 10 of The Modernist, Published in Manchester by the Manchester Modernist Society in 2014. The final image is taken from http://www.jenniferlynking.com/2013/02/05/snow-charles-bridge-and-the-beauty-of-pragues-spires-in-winter/

[1] Cloudscrapers is the literal translation of the Czech word mrakodrapy which is used in the same way as ‘skyscrapers’ in English.

[2] Which has since been restored to stunning effect – bringing out the beauty in both Jan Bočan’s brutal high-tech fusion and Josef Fanta’s Art Nouveau original

[3] It was – and Geoff Berner agrees https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wX8Ss0P7Bq8

[4] As fully translated in Stephan Delbos’ stunning collection ‘From a Terrace in Prague’ Litteraria Pragensia, 2011.

Commentary on Timothy Snyder’s talk ‘Russia, Ukraine and the Central Significance of Civil Society’, Charles University, Prague, 27/01/2015.

 

By Benjamin Tallis

On 27th January, the renowned historian Professor Timothy Snyder spoke to a packed hall at Charles University on the central role of civil society in understanding the Ukraine conflict and what is at stake in wider tensions between Russia and the West. Snyder compellingly made the case for critically re-examining received wisdoms about what civil society is, what it does and why it matters. He situated his analysis of the need to re-invigorate and actively enact civil society in relation to the complacency of Francis Fukuyama’s ‘End of History’ thesis. Snyder claimed that following the great upsurge in civil society activity of 1989 we have allowed ourselves to become complacently post-historical in expecting both a vibrant civil society and ‘progress’ (towards liberal market democracy) to occur “automatically”.

Snyder based his argument on discussion of the convergence and divergence of Russian and Ukrainian histories and national myths. He then presented insightful analyses of certain aspects of the Ukraine conflict and their links to civil society, history and collective memory, particularly with regard to the driving forces and goals of Euromaidan and the obstacles to achieving these. Snyder also provided an illuminating contextualization of the Ukrainian conflict with regard to the wider objectives and orientations of the Putin regime’s domestic governance and foreign relations. However, this led into a discussion on propaganda, which, I argue below, was became less credible the more it was pursued and actually showed the flaws in Snyder’s own arguments and methods. This was particularly the case when he linked the fight against Russian propaganda back to the importance of believing in history, which, he had earlier asserted, provided the platform for effective civil society. Snyder also repeatedly contradicted himself – something he accuses Russian propagandists of doing – and was also guilty in some instances of aping their dissembling tactics, while trying to slip through claims that do not stand up to further scrutiny.

 

Civil Society and the Malleable Communities of History and Memory

The presentation began with a very reasonable definition of civil society as occupying the space between the level of the individual and the level of the state and as providing a way to translate private concerns into meaningful collective action. The collective aspect of this necessitates the delineation of communities within and for which with such action can take place. As Snyder argued, an important example of such a community is a nation, although he dismissed related although different ideas of ethnicity and language as “silly.” For Snyder (and many others), the role of history and the nation’s collective memory is a key aspect of community cohesion, which can also help it bond with other communities or create distinctions from them. This led into a discussion of the contested legacy of the Kyivan Rus, which Snyder pointed out was populated by “Vikings and Jews” yet is nonetheless claimed as a part of both Russian and Ukrainian heritage. He identified the formation of the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth in 1569, as significant because it meant that the sizable parts of Ukraine that were included in it experienced ‘normal’ European development – “the renaissance, reformation, counter-reformation” – while Russia did not. Despite Snyder’s ostensible rejection of Fukuyama, this analysis points to an acceptance of some aspects of the ‘historicism’ that were smuggled in with ‘the end of History’, specifically the notions of natural or correct paths of development.

 

Snyder then jumped to the divergent experiences of Ukraine in the early Soviet period, with particular reference to the industrialization and collectivisation of Stalin’s first 5-year plan, which led to the Holodomor, the starvation famine that affected Ukraine to a far greater extent than Russia. However, Snyder then noted that the experience of the Second World War served as a unifying force, with narratives of great patriotism obscuring the activities of Ukrainian nationalists to a significant extent. Echoing the arguments made by Andrew Wilson in a recent book on the Ukraine crisis, Snyder then claimed that the events of the last 18 months had “overwritten and overwhelmed” memories of WW2 as the intense experience of (Euro)Maidan and then the conflict with Russia had been such an intense experience that it had created a new socio-political national myth that left Russia and Ukraine “as different as any pair of European countries”.

Crucially, Snyder emphasized the role of civil society in this process and countered claims that EuroMaidan was led or dominated by Ukrainian-nationalists or Ukrainian-speakers by asserting that it’s driving force was Kyiv’s Russian-speaking middle class. Language, had thus gone from “silly” in other analyses to significant in Snyder’s and was about to become even more so. He plausibly identified a confluence of Ukrainians’ desire for ‘European’ governance and disgust at the “oligarchical pluralism” that had characterised governance in independent Ukraine. The failure to sign the Association agreement meant the continuation of the latter at the expense of the former and provoked a spontaneous surge in civic activism, culminating in the overthrow of the Yanukovych government. Snyder argued that this showed exactly why civil society was so threatening to Putin-type governance, at home and abroad, particularly because the protestors shared a common language (and much else) with Russian citizens, again seeming to contradict some of his previous claims. He then went on to talk about various dimensions of the conflict that ensued, focusing on its military, strategic and propagandistic elements.

 

Dimensions of Conflict: Military Tactics, Strategic Worldview and the Propaganda War

With regard to military tactics, Snyder termed the well-described ‘hybrid’ warfare of the Eastern Ukrainian separatists and their Russian allies as ‘reverse asymmetric warfare’. This label implies that the state (normally the ‘stronger’ party in asymmetric conflict) has in effect adopted the tactics of ‘the weak’, of guerrillas and irregular combatants. This analysis jarred with Snyder’s assertion, when trying to emphasise the magnitude of the conflict earlier in the talk, that Eastern Ukraine had witnessed the largest tank battles since the Second World War (between Russian and Ukrainian regular forces). However, the notion of reverse-asymmetric warfare fits Snyder’s overall analysis of Russian strategy, which he describes as “strategic relativism” – an idea that has long been common currency in the discipline of International Relations, but was presented by the Historian as something new. Snyder argued that Russia sees itself as relatively weak compared to the powers supposedly aligned against it: the West (in various configurations) now joined by a corrupted or kidnapped Ukraine. According to Snyder, this is why the seemingly stronger side in the conflict in Eastern Ukraine adopts the tactics of the weak, although there are also plenty of other reasons for doing so.

Snyder also argued that this self-perception of relative weakness, which does fit with narratives of victimization and humiliation in international affairs that have been prominent in much Russian discourse since the end of the Cold War, also lies behind Russia’s propaganda war against the West. In this analysis, a weak Russia can become stronger by weakening other powers, particularly the EU. This weakening has taken two forms. Firstly, Snyder claimed that Russia has sought to undermine European unity by supporting anti-EU parties and groups on both the far-right and far-left, many of whom have bought into the type of propaganda discussed below. Secondly, Russia has sought to undermine the confidence of Europeans and their political leaders in the EU and in their own societies, branding them as decadent. As Snyder cleverly pointed out, this term not only differentiates the EU from Russia in terms of values – “gay latte drinkers [vs.] true defenders of Christianity” – but also implies the decay of Europe and European societies. If true, this would weaken the basis for political action, by states and by the EU, as well as by civil society actors, which Snyder claims requires a re-assertion of true ‘history’ rather than the nihilistic relativism that he sees as further weakening Europe.

To achieve the goal of a relative re-balancing of power, Snyder claimed that the Kremlin has employed methods of dissembling and confusion, throwing up enough lies (of varying degrees of plausibility) to obscure what Snyder sees as ‘the truth’ in the long run, or even ‘facts’ in the short term. He claimed that this type of propaganda not only effective in Russia, where it falls on favourable ears and eyes, but also in the West where rather than trying to get us to believe something in particular, the propaganda further “corrode[s] our ability to believe anything.” Snyder links this to the West’s embrace of what he sees as a radical postmodern skepticism that has not only undermined our ability to read the present, but has also undermined our “confidence in history.” Crucially, Snyder sees this undermining of history as having a doubly detrimental effect in that it hinders the action by both civil society and states (and the EU) in the face of situations such as that which has developed in Ukraine, as both interests become obscured and communities fail to bond or to believe they should or even could act.

 

History, Politics and Critique

In responses to questions, which unfortunately were required to be in written form which hindered the level of critical engagement, Snyder discussed how Russian propaganda could be countered, while emphasising the importance of not resorting to counter-propaganda. Instead, Snyder made a convincing argument for the need for reporters on-the-ground to provide information and for academics and others to point out the contradictions or inconsistencies in propaganda and political messaging. Both measures are attempts to re-assert the value of ‘truth’ and ‘fact’ in opposition to the confusing “postmodern” “cacophony” that Snyder bemoans. It was unfortunate therefore that when answering a question on the supposed presence of right wing or ‘fascist’ elements in Eastern Ukraine, Snyder resorted to the same tactic. He offered a bewildering list of those that have been alleged combatants, ranging ranged from the Polish army to Blackwater and the (non-existent) NATO foreign legion, in order to cast doubt on the validity of claims that the those such Azov battalion, which has been pictured using fascist symbols, are indicative of a right-wing presence.

This essay has shown some of the inconsistencies in Snyder’s own positions, which do not necessarily undermine the overall thrust of his argument, but do cast doubt upon some of the foundations upon which his scholarship is based. This is particularly the case with regard to the inconsistent treatment of ‘language’ and ‘ethnicity’, which move from being “silly” constructs to ‘real’ factors in explaining conflict and community as suits the argument. This is perhaps linked to Snyder’s unwillingness to talk about intersectional identity politics for fear of its proximity to the postmodernism he so abhors, but it is not good scholarship and nor were his quasi-orientalist remarks about Russian and Chinese propensities for skulduggery and cunning respectively. Despite criticising the complacent assumptions and conclusions of the ‘end of history’ Snyder reproduces many of its aspects, particularly regarding its liberal goals, while somewhat incredulously claiming to be “true left wing”.

More worryingly, Snyder also smuggled in big, political claims under the banner of academic scholarship, such as the questionable assertion (particularly in the EU context) that “you cannot have a foreign policy if you don’t have an army.” Taken together with Snyder’s argument that we need to believe in history rather than fall prey to dangerous critical relativism, this amounts to an attempt to put his own politics beyond the pale of serious critical questioning. This sits uneasily with the first point Snyder made – the need to critically examine received wisdoms or stabilised concepts, such as the notion of civil society. This inconsistency is the most serious critique of his talk as it undermines his own challenge to the propagandists, who he is more similar to than it would be comfortable for him to admit. There is much to admire in the detail of Timothy Snyder’s scholarship, as the astute observations reported above testify, but we should also hold his work up to the critical standards that he applies to others, rather than allowing it to be off-limits to thoroughgoing critique.

A Full video of Timothy Snyder’s talk is available here

By Benjamin Tallis

As the situation in Ukraine swung from hopeful to horrific and then from tentative victory for people power in Kyiv to Russian power play in Crimea, it has been difficult to keep pace with events. Excellent reportage from brave journalists has, as usual, come side by side with witless simplification and reprehensible cynicism. However, with the media understandably chasing the storm, it is too easy to get caught in the whirlwind where ‘high’ politics and low morals blur some of the most important factors that led Ukraine into this situation, as well as obscuring potential ways out. As well as offering my own analysis, I provide links to insightful or informative commentaries on recent events and try to draw out the wider or deeper points they raise.  Based on my long-standing interest in and experience of Ukraine, as well as on academic and journalistic writing and research, the following issues stand out amidst the maelstrom of information and ideology circulating in both traditional and social media.

These four, linked yet distinct, pieces address different aspects of the crisis that has arisen in Ukraine.

  • The first looks at the achievements and significance of  EuroMaidan and how they have been traduced by prejudiced or ideologically blinkered commentators. I argue that  we must reject these analyses and nurture the new post-Maidan Ukraine that is emerging.
  • The second piece challenges the fixation with Ukraine’s ‘territorial integrity’ arguing that it ignores issues of legitimacy and obscures the symbiotic relationship between borders, identities and orders. It asks whether Ukraine’s long-term interests would be best served by being more flexible about its borders.
  • The third piece examines the ignorance that has characterized much of the commentary and reportage on Ukraine and arguing that this has been politically exploited by the Putin regime.
  • Finally, the fourth piece looks at the role of the EU in the crisis, arguing that while it could and should have done more, it should not change its overall approach, but rather should re-affirm its belief in its own values and methods and its commitment to Ukraine as a European country.

In each piece, embedded links connect to freely accessible articles that are mentioned in the piece or which provide interesting substantiation, elaboration or contextualization of the themes discussed.

1. EuroMaidan is a triumph for the power of the ‘powerless’ & must be supported not smeared

In the face of a brutal crackdown by a repressive government, propped up by an even more brutal Russian regime, the protestors of the Maidan made a mockery of the asymmetry of the means at their disposal. By staying true to the principles that sustained their protest through the freezing nights and fiery days since November and by refusing to be intimidated they have shown the cracks in the façade of Putinism. As Vaclav Havel argued in ‘The Power of the Powerless’ authoritarian regimes depend both on the illusion of their own invincibility, which makes resistance seem futile, and on the de facto complicity of large numbers of the population, to sustain their power through conformity and the small, everyday actions that performatively re-affirm the regime’s grip.

Ukrainians have refused to be governed like that, believing that another way is possible, expressing themselves peacefully but defiantly and ultimately demonstrating their willingness to die for this cause. The crucial defections of police and military forces to the side of the protestors were triggered by the steadfastness of Maidan’s belief, the attraction of its hope and the practical example it set. In a country where for far too long too many have lived without hope, the fact that the protests could topple the government is a highly significant and welcome development. It is no wonder that Andrew Wilson described a new Ukraine built on these foundations as “Putin’s worst nightmare.” If Ukrainians can do it, Russians can too. It is no wonder therefore that Putin’s response has been to significantly up the ante, in his latest attempt to disguise weakness as strength.

Predictably however, not everyone has recognised or celebrated the success of the EuroMaidan for what it is. This failure stems from two main sources: anti-Eastern European prejudice and ideological blinkering. Chrystia Freeland exhorts us to treat this as 1989 all over again and make sure we are on the “right side of history” but, as Andrew Wilson points out, narrow-minded scepticism surrounding intra-EU migration and further EU enlargement means that it might be like 1989, but with an overwhelming response of cynicism rather than hope, as if it was Nigel Farage rather than Vaclav Havel setting the agenda.

The archipelago of prejudice against Central and East Europeans extends from the distorted debates about mobility in the EU as well as the Union’s hesitancy over confirming that Ukraine would, as any European country, have the potential to join the EU in the long run. The liberal broadsheets are not immune to this prejudice; Boyd Tonkin patronizingly dismisses the history of Ukrainian independence as “a primitive peasant throwback” and one wonders if he would be comfortable describing Irish or Scots nationalism as “backwoods chauvinism.” This prejudice has also made fertile ground for the slurs thrown at the EuroMaidan, primarily in relation to the supposed dominance of far-right groups.

Highly selective and sensationalized reporting has bought into Putinist propaganda and grossly exaggerated the role and prevalence of right wing groups in the protests. That nationalist parties with some extremely distasteful views are present is undeniable, as is the use by some extremists of Nazi or fascist insignia. However, Timothy Snyder and Anne Applebaum, both scholars of the holocaust and the latter with Jewish roots, have strongly criticized the disproportionate reporting of these elements. BBC Newsnight seemed to make special efforts to seek out teenagers espousing views that would not sound out of place in the fringes of ‘eurosceptic’ parties in the UK. Moreover, it says much about the Maidan that its broad church has remained just that, with only those who support the Yanukovych and Putin regimes excluded. The vast majority of the millions involved in EuroMaidan are not right-wing and certainly not extremists. It is a disgrace that their courage and dignity has been dragged through the mud by others who are prejudiced or, at best, gullible.

Aside from the contemptible ranting of the Putin-regime and its media puppets, further criticisms of EuroMaidan have come from the left. One form of this is a critique of the goal of closer integration with the EU, which is interpreted as merely a neoliberal stitch-up. There is serious merit to the critique of unfettered neoliberalism – the economic crisis of the last 6 years should have convinced anyone who previously held any doubts about that – but the EU is about much more than neoliberalism; it certainly is to the majority of Ukrainians who support integration, even if it needs to do a better job of showing this. Even the avowedly left-wing activists that I interviewed, while highly critical of the neoliberal aspects of the EU still saw integration as the best option for Ukraine and highly valued its guarantees of rule of law and freedom of movement.

Apparently the left critics of Maidan either don’t care about the views of the majority of Ukrainians who support integration with the EU, or they patronizingly see them as dupes of false consciousness, one of the great dead-ends of left-leaning analysis. Another is dogma, which, to paraphrase the geographer Derek Gregory, too often serves to do the victims of injustice the indignity of making them the objects of theory. Sadly this is not confined to the fringes, with journalists like Seumas Milne and academics such as Immanuel Wallerstein reducing Ukrainians to mere pawns in their ludicrous interpretation of the greater games they see being played. Dr. Lee Jones, pronounced on twitter that “both sides [Euromaidan and the Putin regime] are equally ugly” and called for a “plague on both their houses”. This inability to distinguish between people coming together to overcome a repressive regime in order to seek a better future and the murderous, repressive kleptocracy of Vladimir Putin is shocking but not surprising. Dr Jones cites libcom.org as backup for his claims, particularly an article branding EuroMaidan as a “right-wing, reactionary” movement and thus “unsupportable from a radical, libertarian communist point of view.

This speaks volumes for the confusion that occurs when dogma replaces reflexive thought as it has also done in claims that the changes brought by Maidan are merely the switching of one oligarch guard for another. It is simply too early to tell if this is the case and it will remain so until after elections have been held. Ukrainians are not blind to this danger. They saw a stolen election followed by a stolen revolution ten years ago. Nonetheless, the way that that the temporary, transitional government has gone about its business, the distinctly frosty reception given to Yulia Tymoshenko’s release from prison and the presence of many left leaning and highly critical groups in the Maidan gives cause for optimism in this regard. However, optimism is one thing that the cynical contemporary Western left seems to struggle with; it will be an all too predictable shame if it continues to provide useful idiots for Putinism.

At the time of writing, as we wait anxiously to see what follows the illegitimate invasion of Crimea, it is too early to tell what the final outcome of the revolution born at EuroMaidan will be. It will be easier to tell after the elections in May, if they go ahead. However, what is certain is that what has been achieved should be celebrated as a triumph in the face of adversity. The victory of the EuroMaidan should be cherished and nurtured and has come as a timely reminder to the EU of what it stands for. In order to deliver on its promising start and ensure it does not succumb to the fate that has befallen previous attempts at progressive change in Ukraine, we must stand with Ukrainians and their Maidan.

2. Self-determination & legitimacy, not ‘territorial integrity’ are key to Ukraine’s future

As any scholar of Ukraine knows, the name of the country means ‘Borderland’. Orest Subtelny begins his majestic history with this and Anna Reid used it as the title for her journey through Ukrainian history, to give just two examples. Ukraine’s borders are again the subject of much interest, but one possibility hasn’t been seriously considered – that for Ukraine to have a sustainable future as more than a borderland, it may need to change its borders.

Much of the opposition to the Russian invasion of Ukraine has come on the basis of respecting guarantees about Ukraine’s territorial integrity. This territorial integrity is based on borders that, like those of other countries, are not natural, but rather are distinctly political constructs. This does not mean they are not ‘real’ or important, but it does mean that they are neither permanent nor sacrosanct. Borders are intimately related to Identities and Orders; reflecting and reinforcing who the people within them are and how they live with each other. US ambassador to Russia Jack Matlock is only the latest  – although surprising – addition to the long list of those to point out that US and EU respect for the principle of territorial integrity  – and national sovereignty – has been distinctly flexible in the past. Border change should not be ruled out in this case, but only if it reflects the democratically expressed wishes of Ukrainians.

Crucially, much of the legitimacy of the Maidan protests has been based on the desire to live differently. The protests were sparked by the desire of many Ukrainians to intensify integration with the European Union, which Yanukovych (backed by Putin) so callously disregarded. However, as Timothy Snyder has compellingly argued, they developed into a more general protest against a corrupt and violent governing elite and in favour of democracy, the rule of law and accountable government acting for the population rather than for itself. That these are values generally embodied by the EU, for all its faults, is no coincidence. Many of the Ukrainians who disagree with this approach and have stated that they don’t want these things have identified with Russia and some have openly called for Russian intervention to ‘save’ them from the new regime growing out of the Maidan. These people have the same right to self-determination as the people of the Maidan and should also be able to choose how they want to live.

Calls for a referendum on the status of Crimea have been widely denounced, with one comment on facebook comparing it to being asked to vote with a gun to your head. However, it could instead be used as a way to help find a long-term solution to some of the problems Ukraine currently faces. A referendum could be held in each region of Ukraine posing a simple question asking whether the people want their region to be part of the state of Ukraine. It is possible that this would mean that several regions – probably in the South and East – would choose not to be part of Ukraine. They would then be free to choose their own future, potentially allowing them to seek integration with Russia. This would indeed challenge the integrity of Ukraine’s territorial borders in their current form, but more importantly it would massively boost the viability and legitimacy of the newly bordered state and give a clear mandate to a post-election administration in Kyiv to govern for the people who chose to be live on its territory. It would also let people who – rightly or wrongly – feel threatened in post-Maidan Ukraine to leave and put the lie to claims that they are being kept in the state against their will.

The various grievances voiced by different groups, often in different parts of the country reflect to some extent the shifting borders that characterized Ukraine’s pre-independence history. Even though divisions in Ukraine are often exaggerated or wrongly identified (see 3), speculation about them has been a significant source of instability, which has been ruthlessly exploited by the Putin regime. Giving Ukrainians the chance to choose would remove this possibility either by confirming that they don’t exist or, if they do prove insurmountable, by giving them legitimate political expression. Ukrainians across the country voted for independence in 1991 and now it’s time to check again. If post-Maidan Ukraine is to stand a chance, it needs a solid foundation based on not internal mistrust and division and destabilization from outside.

Clearly these plebiscites would raise many practical issues, but none that are unfamiliar or irresolvable in a democratic context. They would in fact give Ukraine the chance to prove that it can deal with difference by p the rights of Russian speakers who want to remain part of Ukraine. Such a vote would also provide the platform for real public debate, a comparison of the options on the table, and as such would give Ukrainians a very good reason to cut through what Snyder calls the ‘haze of propaganda’ that has distorted the debate. If having done so, some people still prefer Putin’s tender mercies to life in the new Ukraine, then good luck to them. They will need it.

3. Useful Idiocy: Western Ignorance is a significant obstacle to a new Ukraine

The sheer level of ignorance about Ukraine in the West has been one of the most striking features of the media coverage of events in Ukraine since November. From Evan Davis’ astonishment at the size of Ukraine’s population, to the repeated confusion of Yanukovych and Yushchenko and Germaine Greer’s identification of Ukraine as a Northern, Baltic country, basic, yet indicative ignorance abounds.

There are other levels of ignorance that are equally damaging, such as the uninformed prejudice and general stereotyping as well as the willfully ignorant and innumerate smearing of the Maidan (See 1). However, it is also ignorance that fuels the claims about linguistic and ethnic division repeated ad nauseum across so much of the mainstream western media and in supposedly critical commentaries such as those of Immanuel Wallerstein. This supposed schism might fit nicely with the new-cold-war and Russia vs. the West narratives that infuse much of the reporting on the issue but do little justice to the complexity of the lives lived by most Ukrainians, ignoring them in favour of the seductions of ‘the great game’. The eagerness to switch the discussion to the geo-strategic level and to focus on the role of Russia is perhaps another symptom of ignorance born of the (relatively) greater familiarity with Russia, and of a press-corps based in Moscow rather than Kyiv who feed information to their often simplifying and sensationalist Western hubs.

As discussed in point 2, this is not to say that there are not divisions, but that they are not necessarily and certainly not exclusively along the ethno-linguistic lines that are normally given. Thankfully, more nuanced analyses are available. Peter Pomarantsev’s explanation of Ukrainian linguistic complexity gives substance to claims such as those made by the eloquent Ukrainian translator who explained to her hosts on the BBC’s Weekend Live that growing up, her family had spoken Ukrainian at home but that she had gone to a Russian speaking school and was comfortable with and happy in both languages. Ellie Knott’s research in Crimea also complicates the clear narratives coming out of the propaganda machines and questioning the simplistic analyses offered up by much of the media. Age, relation to current and previous regimes, material and financial benefits and possibilities, desire for certain types of lifestyle or other forms of preference and prejudice play significant roles in producing a political spectrum that straddles ethno-linguistic divides.

As Mary Dejevsky points out, it also underplays the ties that unite Ukrainians across  ethnic or linguistic lines. This rings true from my own experience in Ukraine when, in the course of living, working and subsequently researching I found significant commonality between the young people I met, regardless of whether they spoke Ukrainian or Russian as their first language. I also found significant difference between them, but this was the kind of difference that one could find between people in any country, a sign of healthy plurality of opinion and not determined by ethnicity or language. As Anne Applebaum has pointed out, Ukraine’s differences – like those of countries elsewhere – are primarily political and Pomerantsev is right when he says

“The big winner from the conceptual division of Ukraine into ‘Russian’ and ‘Ukrainian’ spheres may well be the Kremlin. The idea that Russia is a separate political and spiritual civilisation, one which is a priori undemocratic, suits the Kremlin as it looks to cut and paste together an excuse to validate its growing authoritarianism. So every time a commentator defines the battle in Kiev as Russian language v. Ukrainian, a Kremlin spin doctor gets in another round of drinks.”

4. The EU should stick to its (lack of) guns

For many people, the development of what is now a crisis in Ukraine has been an indictment of the EU as a failed foreign policy actor and a sad confirmation that old fashioned power politics will inevitably trump the values, laws and standards that lie at the heart of the most successful peace and prosperity project in European history. Andrew Wilson, author of many of the best-informed and insightful commentaries on Ukraine, coined a catchy phrase in this regard when claiming that the EU had ‘brought a baguette to a knife fight’. Indeed, for anyone who believes in the potential of the EU to be a force for good in Europe – within and beyond the Union’s current borders – closely watching the unfolding of events since November has been a deeply painful process. The guarded, hesitant support; the words rather than actions; the missed opportunities and slow response times highlight significant problems in the way that the EU has conducted itself as well as about its attitude to Ukraine and Ukrainians.

However, properly analyzing and identifying these shortcomings is essential if EU Foreign Policy action is to be improved – both generally and specifically to offer real and effective support the emergent post-Maidan Ukraine. Rather than being a problem of strategy or tactics, the main problems relate to belief and commitment: EU belief in its own ability to act effectively and a commitment both to its own values and to recognising Ukrainians as Europeans.

The Eastern Partnership, launched after the Russia-Georgia conflict in 2008 sought ostensibly to deepen integration between the EU and its Eastern neighbours, including Ukraine. However, despite the negotiation of the association agreement  – rejected by Yanukovych, prompting the EuroMaidan revolution – progress on opening up the benefits of the EU to Ukrainians was too slow. A ‘Deep & Comprehensive Free Trade Area’ had been negotiated but not enough progress had been made on visa liberalization or on other measures that matter directly and deeply to Ukrainians. Dubious security concerns had come to dominate the mobility agenda and a general climate of populist hostility to Central and East Europeans in the gutter press was reflected in the lack of official EU recognition of a membership perspective for Ukraine in the long term. This is something that I have written on before, and which is a central concern of my research. Tim Judah also examines this and one of his interviewees, Hanna Shelest, a researcher at the Ukrainian National Institute for Strategic Studies put it succinctly when explaining her reasons for supporting the association agreement “it is a question of self-identification. Sometimes we don’t feel ourselves European but what is worse is when Europeans don’t see us as European.”

The key to effective EU policy in Ukraine is confidence in its own attractiveness that would allow for a combination of commitment to its own standards with the principled openness that allow these to be shared with other Europeans. This is not asking for a lowering of standards to fast-track Ukrainian membership – it is precisely these standards that make the EU so appealing to Ukrainians – but rather for a clear demonstration that Ukrainians belong in Europe. A good way to show this in the short term would be to offer visa-free travel and in the long term to make clear that Ukraine does have a chance to join, but only if it reaches the necessary standards. The former will also help in achieving the latter.

However, the EU can  – and belatedly has – taken other actions in regard to Ukraine, but again it could go further and could have acted sooner. Travel bans, sanctions and asset freezes are crucial sticks to add to the carrots mentioned above. Canadian MP Chrystia Freeland, quotes a Russian joke about Putin seeming to want to rule like Stalin and live like Abramovich and that this is facilitated partly by allowing others (like Abramovich), to live like Abramovich. As Freeland notes, the EU and its member states, particularly the UK, are complicit in this and could take action to limit the activities of Russia’s super rich, which would lessen the appeal of their tacit support for Stalin-like rule.

Banning autocrats and their oligarchs from travelling, studying, banking and partying in the west poses no such dilemma. We don’t need to allow autocrats to outsource the domestic demand, and their own desire, for the perks of democratic capitalism. Without them, they may find that ruling like Stalin loses some of its allure.

Timothy Snyder goes further,

“Soft power can hurt. General restrictions on tourist visas, a few thousand travel bans, and a few dozen frozen accounts might make a real difference. If millions of urban Russians understood that invading Ukraine meant no summer vacation, they might have second thoughts.

However, while this may be effective, the ethics of punishing people for the actions of a regime they may not support need to be seriously considered here. Targeted focus on the elite would seem a fairer way to proceed. By contrast, the oligarchs and their entourages, who maintain the Putin regime and conspicuously enjoy its trappings, at the expense of others, must however bear their share of responsibility for the crisis that is unfolding. As Ben Judah compellingly argues, the EU and its member states need to their game in enforcing their own laws and upholding their own standards rather than kowtowing to the obnoxious wealth of this toxic plutocracy. UK politicians (and population) might wish to consider the nature of the real migration problem from Eastern Europe – the

Both the EU and Ukraine must be careful not to slide into anti-Russian rather than anti-Putin stances. Doing so would only be grist to Putin’s mill and would alienate ordinary Russians, many of whom also suffer under the current government. Given the views of Navalny, et al on Ukraine, it is not surprising that the Russian opposition has not made more of the current crisis. It is perhaps, slightly wishful thinking, but it would certainly be refreshing to see a broader based opposition movement emerge in Russia, as the practical contrast between authoritarian nationalism and the way chosen by Ukrainians becomes clearer. As in Ukraine, punishing ordinary people for the sins of a regime they have little connection to is not only unjust, but also ineffective in securing support for change.

Notwithstanding the slings and arrows of the twittersphere, arguing for EU engagement to support the goals that it purports to share with the EuroMaidan is not the same as war-mongering. As Andrew Wilson observes, the EU does not do geopolitics in the classic sense, and nor should it. Some, like Robert Cooper, have suggested previously that it should, patronisingly stating that “Among ourselves, we keep the law but when we are operating in the jungle, we must also use the laws of the jungle” while advocating the creation of a ‘post-modern imperium’.

Such an approach would if course undermine the EU’s own values and thus its legitimacy, but we should also ask if there would have actually been a better outcome if the EU had brought a knife or a gun to the fight, or had thought of the issue as a fight in the first place? The EU’s very credibility (and indeed its success) rests on eschewing those tactics and the perspectives that underpin them. The Union has the whip hand in soft power in the region, something that Putin also knows – otherwise he would not have resorted in desperation to hard power. If only the EU were as confident in itself and as willing to live up to its principles and goals in order to do well by doing good in Ukraine.