In November 2018, Czech folk singer Jaromír Nohavica received the Kremlin Prize: The Pushkin Order from Russian President Vladimir Putin. The fact that he traveled to Moscow to receive the Russian President’s Prize drew widespread criticism in his country. Why? You can’t trust the Russians. At least some 19th century Czech intellectuals understood this. For example, writer Karel Havlíček Borovský, who spent a lot of time in Russia, came to the conclusion:
“I can testify that the Russians do not treat other Slavs as brothers and that they are dishonest and selfish. I understand more the Hungarians, who openly fight against us, and not the Russians, who come closer to the kiss of Judas , “and then they want to put us in our pockets. The Russian gentlemen first assure us that we are all Slavs, only to then be able to say that everything is Slavo-Russian and must be subordinated to them.”
Along the same lines, the co-founder of the Czech Facebook group, Russia’s global enemy, Otakar Brabec:
“I see contemporary Russia primarily as the result of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. Since the founding of Czechoslovakia as an independent state in 1918, Russian intelligence services have done everything in their power to undermine our state It started with the so-called “Czech”, which later turned into the NKVD and then into the KGB. And it continues with the current services of the Russian FSB and GRU. They have always carried out activities against the interests of our state and our citizens.
However, there are other social media groups that are more pro-Russian. One of them was founded by musician Jiří Suchý:
You asked me why I think we should be friends with Russia and other Eastern countries rather than the West. What has America shown us over the past 100 years? What have Americans shown the world? How many countries have destroyed the United States? How many people have died because of this? How many wars has America started? How many countries with so-called “democracy” and “free speech” have you visited? How many are left in the massacre? Tell me now, when has Russia or the Soviet Union done this before? “
Leaving aside historical facts, millions of people died in labor camps under Stalin. The Soviet Union had de facto control of Czechoslovakia through the Communist Party, and the Czechs, who are forty-five or fifty years old, remember very well what it was like and what repression was like.
The Czech relationship with Russia experienced an interesting development after 1989. The Institute of Sociology of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic has long monitored social attitudes towards other countries. Jan Červenka of the Center for Public Opinion Research argues that relations between the Czechs and Russia have changed dramatically over the past decades:
“We can see very clearly that there was a general feeling of deep contempt for our vision of Russia in the 1990s and up to 2001. More than 70% of Czechs consider the economic situation in Russia to be very bad. The public image of this country has been very negative and we have seen almost no positive opinion about it.Gradually this started to change around 2005. This trend continued and in 2019 the ratio of positive and negative opinions towards Russia has stabilized: 45% for both. In particular, the perception of the Russian economy in Czech society has also changed. The contempt for the 1990s that I was talking about seeing Russia as a backward country is a thing of the past.”
When I spoke to singer Jaromír Nohavica some time ago, he made it clear to me that he sees Russia primarily from a literary point of view. He started reading it as a teenager:
“I think it was 1967 or 1968. I was a teenager, playing guitar, just good times. One day I opened my dad’s copy of Flame, the official literary magazine published by the “Union of Czechoslovak Writers. I found a translation of a chapter of Bulgakov’s novel The Master and Margarita. I have not read anything so great and amazing yet, and I started looking for other authors which were partially banned at the time. Later, I discovered the Russian classics and never stopped reading their literature. But the first impulse was Bulgakov, Master and Margarita.”
I have been to Russia several times and I consider Russians an extremist nation: either they love you or they hate you. There is no middle ground.” Does Jaromír Nohavica agree?
“You can also find it in literature. We Czechs are different. Figuratively, we like a size between 4 and 6. We like everything, everyone is measured. We are afraid of extremes, flying too high or too low. The same goes for hate and love. “So I agree with you, and you will find it in Russian literature and poetry. There is often a kind of treacherous darkness and depth that we don’t understand and don’t expect. You read something so dark that you think the author can’t be serious. But he thinks so. He thinks it, he thinks it. It’s like that.”
When the fighting started in Ukraine, Jaromir Nohavica publicly condemned the war. His concerts are commonly sold in the Czech Republic and Poland. But all those that were planned and announced in Poland and some in the Czech Republic are now canceled. The organizers accuse the singer of “not getting him far enough away from Vladimir Putin”. However, other concerts will take place in certain cities.
Jaromír Nohavica, despite his refusal to return Pushkin’s medal to Vladimir Putin, remains the most popular and successful Czech folk singer. Some condemned it, while others are still very popular. It is in a way a reflection of the complex relationship that the Czechs will have with Russia and all those connected to it.