Prague is a very important city for Russian culture.
One hundred years ago, after the Bolshevik revolution, those who were at odds with the Soviet regime were either forced to abandon the country or had to emigrate intentionally because there were no prospects of life for them in the new state.
Prague became a new home for more than 25 000 Russian emigrants (at different periods this number could change). These people were a part of yet another, bigger flow of fleeing professors, intellectuals, writers, students and many others who got scattered in the years following the revolution.
Most of those who settled down in the then so-called Czechoslovakia ended up staying there for their entire lives although they themselves deemed their stay a temporary affair. They thought that the Bolshevik revolution was a provisional illness and that they would be able to come back after the inevitable collapse of the impotent (that was how most of them thought about it) Soviet regime. To help them live through the period of exile, the Czechoslovak government initiated a special support program known as the Russian Action. It came to an end when it became evident that the country of the Bolsheviks would not fall.
In the book “Russia Abroad” historian Mark Raeff discusses the idea that the Russian emigration in Europe created a complete community with its own institutions, literature and other attributes of a full-scale society. The only thing that this society lacked was the land.
Being close to the history of Russian emigration is one of the most important aspects of my life in Prague, although I would not call myself an emigrant. At the moment I am studying in a university in Prague and, frankly speaking, I do not know what my future will be like. But Prague and Czech culture help me understand the history of my country (and thus myself) better. The city has preserved some traces of the life of the interwar Russian emigrants. The experience of meeting with the artifacts of their lives (which is mainly the experience of reading memoirs, or communicating with emigrants’ children and grandchildren) is like living in an alternative world where the history of Russia has not been fatally separated into the new Soviet culture and the old prerevolutionary culture pushed into exile.
Café Louvre at Národní třída is said to be the place where some of the Russian interwar emigrants used to meet. Today its red carpets and other obsolete-like details of interior look stylistically unusual, but back then it must have been a commonplace reality.
I sometimes come to Louvre to think about what those emigrants’ conversations could have been like. There might have been a student, for instance, who would come after university and ask his or her friends their opinion on this or that piece of news from the Soviet Russia. Or, there could be a political discussion which, after several glasses of beer, would result in a fist fight. How are we to know that for sure? Also, the café could have been a meeting place for those thinkers who – even after they had been exiled, even after they had been humiliated and insulted by their motherland – still continued to discuss their possible political prospects if Russia were to be regained from the Bolsheviks. As I said, most of those emigrants believed that they would return very soon, so in their view, it was necessary to come up with a new political theory to rule the country. Now Bolshevism is a thing of the past. But they, of course, could not know it.
This may sound strange, but if I were to choose one of the four elements that are the most characteristic of Prague, I would say that it is water. Sometimes I think that Vltava is a sea, not a river. I feel this especially at Letná Park where I can see the length of Vltava from above. It feels like only those who live in cities without access to big bodies of water can really appreciate the freedom of the sea. When I stand by the Metronome at Letná I can feel how the idea of waves is mirrored in the stipple of the metronome’s movement.
By the way, the Metronome is another thing that I love in Prague. Built on the place where an enormous statue of Stalin used to stand, it represents what I someday want to see in Russia. There is, perhaps, no better symbol of overcoming the painful past than the Metronome.
One thing that a Russian may experience in Prague is the awkwardness of speaking the Russian language in public places. Some people may even not reply phone calls from their Russian acquaintances while on a bus or in a tram. The reason for this inner feeling of uncomfortableness is, of course, the fact that in the past Russian was spoken in very sad circumstances, namely the invasion of the Warsaw Pact armies in 1968. As a young person I always try to do all I can to overcome the trauma of the military intervention. From a moral point of view, one does not have to feel guilty for what he or she has not done. Yet, if I were to describe what I feel about the year 1968 I would definitely choose the word “guilt”. I always try to let my Czech friends know that plenty of people in Russia are ashamed of the intervention. But, to be honest, we do not often discuss this topic with my Czech friends. Rather, we speak about things that constitute the reality of our lives: literature, cinema, things that we like. I think, however banal this may sound, that it is important to concentrate on the present and look into the future.
I live in Střížkov. Not far from the metro station there is Dobrodružství park. There are ponds and swans there, and also a statue of my favourite Czech poet Jiří Wolker.
Once I was coming home late in the evening. As I went out of the park and approached a construction site not far from where I lived (they always build something right in front of your windows so that you can enjoy the noise) a gentleman addressed me:
“Excuse me please, dear sir. Do you, by any chance, happen to have a cigarette that you could loan me? I am a night guard here, and I am completely out of cigarettes, but I have to stay awake till the very morning. Will you kindly help me in my unfortunate situation?”
I gave him a cigarette.
“For your kindness, dear sir,’ these were his precise words, for some reason he spoke like an English lord:
‘For your kindness I will tell you a joke…”
After this gentleman (who looked rather like a character from a story by Bohumil Hrabal) told me his joke we engaged in a conversation. He realized that I was a foreigner because of my accent.
‘From Russia’ I replied to his question where I was from.
‘O, Rossiya, ja govoru pa Russki!’(Oh, Russia, I speak Russian!)
He told me that he learnt some Russian in school when it was obligatory to study the language.
Next time I met this gentleman we had a conversation again. And then again. I believe, he is my friend now. I meet him regularly, at least once a week. Sometimes we smoke together, sometimes we discuss literature (he read Turgenev and Tolstoy). We speak Czech, but if I forget a word and use Russian instead, he has no problems understanding me.
One of the funny problems I have experienced with my Czech friends is that some of them tend to get hurt by my not drinking beer when we are together in a café, or a hospoda. An acquaintance of mine took the labor of explaining to me the fallacy of my behavior. We were in the beautiful café Montmartre when he addressed me:
“You see, by refusing to drink beer you lower the quality of the drink. You probably think of it as alcohol, but it is wrong! Beer is not about alcohol at all. It is the liquid form of bread, that is the most basic food, and one must not refuse bread when he or she is offered a slice, because if bread was not so important, Jesus, our savior, would not be willing to give it to those in need. So, you should be really careful with that…”
Yeah, I would say I love beer now…
During one of my first stays in Prague I went to a café that was situated not far from the Muzeum metro station. Lost in the maze of streets, it was a very quiet place. I did not speak Czech then, but I thought that I would be more or less capable of handling the task of ordering food. The café was one of those little places where you just sit and drink coffee and contemplate existence. I was captured by its interior. In addition, I was reading a novel by Ernest Hemingway at the time, so I had a subconscious wish to copy his style: a dandy in Europe, coffee and cigarettes. That kind of thing. So, I picked up a meal that in my view sounded elegant enough to be eaten by “a smart-looking young man with a book” (that was my mental image of myself). Also, I ordered a cup of coffee and lit a cigarette. After some time, the waiter brought me a big plate of fried pork with potatoes. It turned out that, not knowing Czech, I had ordered the fattest dish they had. Obviously, the appearance of the fried pork signified the failure of my plans to read stylishly. However, I must admit that the food was really very delicious…
Last year I was walking home after a New Year’s party at a café near the Staroměstská metro station. It was snowing softly and I had a feeling that time had stopped. I think it was then that I realized what Prague was for me. What makes Prague different from other cities is its ability to instantly open up and close up spaces, to make new meanings emerge out of nothing, to promote the metamorphosis of appearances. It is the interconnection of themes, the living history that makes the city special in my view.
In the same way, if I were to characterize what my life in Prague feels like I would compare it to remembering things that have never happened to you. It is a feeling similar to that that one experiences when, being a native speaker of a Slavic language, he or she embarks upon learning another Slavic language. It feels like you have heard all these words, but there is a historical gap, an eclipse of the mind that separates you from them. An act of will is required to overcome this separation.
Author: Anton Romanenko