Prague (Praha to the Czechs) is one of the least "Eastern" European cities you could imagine. Architecturally, and in terms of city sights, it is a revelation: few other cities, anywhere in Europe, look so good - and no other European capital can present six hundred years of architecture so completely untouched by natural disaster or war. Culturally, it has always looked towards Paris rather than Moscow, and after four decades of Soviet-imposed isolation the city is now keen to re-establish its position as the political and cultural centre of Mitteleuropa.
One of Prague's most appealing characteristics is that its artistic wealth is not hidden away inside grand museums and galleries, but displayed in the streets and squares. Its town-planning took place in medieval times, its palaces and churches were decorated with a rich mantle of Baroque, and the whole lot has escaped the vanities and excesses of postwar redevelopment. Prague's unique compactness allows you to walk from the grandeur of the city's castle district, via a series of intimate Baroque lanes, across a medieval stone bridge, through one of the most alluring central squares on the continent, and end up sipping coffee on Wenceslas Square, the modern hub of the city, in under half an hour.
As well as having a rich history, Czechs have been at the forefront of European culture for much of the modern era. Before World War I, Prague boasted a Cubist movement second only to Paris, and, between the wars, a modernist architectural flowering to rival Bauhaus. Today, its writers, artists and film directors continue to exert a profound influence on European culture, out of all proportion to their numbers.
The city's recent history has attracted the attention of the west like no other capital in the former eastern bloc. The 1968 Prague Spring captured the imagination of a generation, with an explosion of cultural energy which, for a moment, made the "third way" between communism and capitalism seem a real possibility. Then, in the messy, sometimes bloody, upheavals of 1989, Czechoslovakia, and in particular Prague, outshone the rest with its unequivocally positive "Velvet Revolution". True to its pacifist past, the country shrugged off forty years of communism without so much as a shot being fired.
The exhilarating popular unity of that period, and the feeling of participating in history itself have now gone. Few Czechs continue to talk about the events of 1989 as a "revolution". Disorientation at the speed of change, the break with Slovakia, and the first real taste of western vices in the capital has taken its toll. Economically, too, the country is going through some difficult times. Ninety percent of state-owned property has been "restituted", that is given back to its pre-1948 owners in various states of disrepair. Foreign companies have bought up huge slices of Czech industry for a song and the traditional heavy industrial base has shrunk considerably.
Walking the streets of the city centre, you'd be forgiven for thinking otherwise. But then Prague is in a privileged position vis—vis the rest of the country - as the place where the majority of the country's new businesses and corporations have made their head offices, and, of course, thanks to its potential for attracting western tourists. The feeling in much of the rest of the country is that Prague has prospered at the expense of other cities and regions. Which is not surprising, given that it is something like seven times the size of any other city in Bohemia, all the government ministries are based here, and it's where all the big decisions are made.
That's not to say that Prague doesn't have more than its fair share of problems. Its recent mini-boom may have brought crowds of tourists and hordes of, mostly American, expats, but it has done little to improve life for much of the city's population. The westernized shops and restaurants in the centre, with their glitzy window-dressing, are out of reach for most Praguers. Racial tensions, suppressed under the police state, have surfaced once more, with a spate of skinhead attacks on the city's considerable Romany and Vietnamese communities, which the police seem either powerless or unwilling to prevent. The lifestyle gulf between Party and non-Party members has been replaced by the western malaise of rich and poor. There's nothing new in this, but it does serve as a sobering footnote to the city's glowing image in the west.
Prague is also trying to come to terms with its more distant past. Both the forced, and frequently violent, removal of the German minority and the virtual extinction of the Jewish population had a marked effect on the city, but were never discussed openly under the previous regime. Much of the current retrospection is positive, a cultural rediscovery of the cosmopolitan interwar period, when the city was ethnically far more diverse. There is also the extremely sensitive matter of the events of the last war: the degree of collaboration with the Nazis and of acquiescence in the fate of the Jews. These are issues that need to be addressed if the city is to break free from the monocultural straitjacket, which makes it stand out amongst the multicultural capitals of the west.
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