Communism... Based on image by zscout370

On 25 Years Since the End of Communism

A quarter of a century since the fall of Communism was marked in Slovakia perhaps as it should be: in a quiet and analytical way, with a lot of discussions in the media on the progress the country had made during this time.

We have mentioned on Englishman in Slovakia some of the tributes paid to the tumbling of the regime which still, 25 years later, has such a profound effect on so much of this part of Europe (those with a Slovak theme anyway): that compilation of various docufilm directors’ impressions on the country two decades after gaining independence, Slovensko 2.0, is a good starting point.

But the main question on everyone’s lips: has Slovakia developed in a good way, in the way people imagined or hoped that it would? And of course a lot of voices answered: no, not nearly as “good” as expected.  To paraphrase from one of the discussion programmes I got a chance to listen to: Slovakia, whilst technically the easternmost reach of the “west” is more accurately in politics the westernmost outpost of the “east”.

It’s not our place on this site to dwell so much on thorny Slovak state issues. There are plenty of them, which are perhaps best summarised in the word “corruption”. Slovakia’s PM Fico can argue, citing such successes as the Kia and Peugeot automotive plants, that he’s helped the economy (well, at least in the west of SlovaKIA) but culturally? Democratically? In its legal system? Ahem. Polls by CVVM (Czech) and IVO (Slovak) showed only 51% of Slovaks viewed what took place in that autumn of 1989, up to and including November’s Velvet Revolution, with positivity, and that’s no doubt based on disillusionment with those facets of life where there’s a country mile of room for improvement today.

But on the subject of travel, I can say that I’m happy to be here right at the beginning. And I really do mean the absolute nascence – because for years the Slovak tourism industry was dormant and for years more it developed in the wrong way (ski package deals, stag weekends). The beginning of the opening of Slovakia to tourism is now. As new flight connections to Poprad and Košice illustrate, the “set piece” – the east of the country – is more accessible than ever. Enterprising Slovak adventure agencies are getting international recognition. Cool places to eat that aren’t afraid to champion the Slovak character of their menus are introducing foreigners to the nation’s traditional food. Slovakia is now catering to a more discerning type of traveler: the kind that really wants to discover. And the potential is as great as the mountains and forests are vast.

Raise a glass of your finest Demänovka (herbal liqueur) to the next 25 years. Actually, Slovaks are generally more partial to Becherovka, which is a Czech version of the same drink…

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Slovensko 2:0: Slovakia Through the Eyes of its Film Directors

To celebrate 20 years of their nation’s independent existence in 2013, ten Slovak film makers were asked to explore this question: “How to explain the notion of Slovakia to visitors from another planet?” And Slovensko 2:0 is the result: ten short films capturing the essence of Slovakia today.

These shorts make for often tragicomic or even bleak viewing at times as the frustration of ten directors who are impatient with how slowly Slovakia is adapting to being a country people can have faith in soon comes through.

They are accompanied by a booklet of ten interviews with the directors themselves, where the negative outlook on Slovakia’s post-Communist transformation is emphasised. But within that negativity, the films themselves are profound. Gone are the happy trappings of Slovakia’s mountains, medieval villages and forests as the foreign visitor normally beholds the country. Instead, these films are a harrowing look into political corruption, the attitudes and mentalities of Slovaks in different walks of life – from an aspiring club owner to a just-made redundant factory worker – and (the overall message, perhaps) some of the things Slovakia could in fact do to help change itself for the better. But they sure as Hell dispense with the cliches and get straight to the nitty-gritty.

The picture above is from my favourite of the ten – an animated account of Slovakia’s history, through Communism, the Velvet Revolution and the transition to democracy. Rules of the Game, the film’s title, is one worker’s view of the political bandwagon (which stays the same throughout, only with changing faces in the upper echelons) moving through the pivotal years of 1989 to 1993 and beyond into a democratic republic still riddled with corruption. There are hilarious moments when you see the sycophantic robotniky (workers) and later when you see the figures at the top of the machine wearing gorilla masks (a reference to the scandal that rocked Slovak politics during the 2000s when Slovak politicians, multinational representatives and representatives of Penta group allegedly met in a house on Vazovova Street in Bratislava to discuss financial incentives in return for land procurement, see the Economist’s report on the Gorilla Scandal for more).

But despite being one of the subtler films in this collection it urges most effectively the debate on what needs to alter at the top levels of Slovak politics for the bandwagon to change its current course.

For anyone who wants a fresh, healthy look at Slovakia stripped of its official state outlook, this series of films is essential viewing. “The genetic makeup of Slovakia”, as the blurb on the back of the DVD says.

BUY IT: At Art Forum in Bratislava.

The Jeopardy of Reunification: James Silvester on his Czecho-Slovak Thriller Escape to Perdition

25 years on from the Velvet Revolution and a plan is afoot to reunify the Czech and Slovak Republics. Some – citing a shared heritage – are for, others – with darker motivations – are against. And thus the stage is set for Escape to Perdition, one of contemporary fiction’s bravest Czecho-Slovak-set novels.

Its beauty is that it masterminds an utter rewriting of 20th century European history… author James Silvester talks here about how this book and his next draw on Slovakia for their inspirations…

Channeling Slovakia: Thrilling Escapades in Central Europe

Do any film buffs out there remember the start of The Living Daylights? Not the exploding jeeps, daring parachute jumps and conveniently located, Bollinger laden yachts of the opening sequence, but the bit straight after the eighties infused tones of A-Ha settled us into the film. British Agent, 007, strides through the pitch night, from the colourful delights of a classical concert to the crumbling disarray of a Communist bookshop, from whose upper window he sits patiently, rifle in hand, waiting for his target to show herself.

It is pure Cold War stuff and exquisitely done. From the moment Timothy Dalton’s debutant Bond sits grimly loading his weapon, to the terse exchange with the defector he was sent to protect as they speed away from the scene, 007 is every inch the reluctant assassin, resentful of his job but compelled by his own professionalism to do it well. For me, the cinematic Bond has never so fully exuded the vision of his literary creator, Ian Fleming, than then. Even as a child, back in 1987, the image and the atmosphere struck a chord with me, as did this beautiful, foreboding city from which the pair were escaping: Bratislava.

Actually, quite a chunk of that movie is based in Slovakia’s Capital, including a similarly atmospheric sequence where the sublime Dalton silently stalks his quarry on a packed tram, not to mention one of the series’ best car chases across a frozen Czechoslovakian lake. At the time, I had no idea how much this image and this country would influence me years later as I set to work writing Escape to Perdition, the first in my (intended) trilogy of Thrillers, set in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, but the seeds were definitely sown back then.

My book’s protagonist, Peter Lowe, shares with Dalton’s Bond a resentment of his murderous vocation, only more so, and has few reserves of suave sophistication to fall back on, instead relying on the hard Blues and hard Drink of his adopted Prague for solace in between his loathed assignments. The book has been described as very much ‘of Prague’, and while it’s true that my love of that city is, I hope, evidenced between the pages, of equal importance is the unique voice of Slovakia.

I’ve been blessed to spend a considerable amount of time in Slovakia over the last decade or so, having met and married a spectacular Slovak lady and gotten to know many wonderful family and friends in that period and, I am forced to admit, I’ve used that time to the full. I’ve always been a keen student of history and Czechoslovak history is particularly intriguing. World renowned events like the Prague Spring and the Velvet Revolution, previously just exciting stories in the classroom, became real to me as I spoke with and learned from people who had lived through those times, felt those emotions and dreamed those dreams. I learned of the suspicion around the death of National hero Alexander Dubček, the deep mistrust of a political class so openly and brazenly corrupt and the resentment of a Slovakia so often considered the ‘poor relation’ of a more glamorous Czech Republic.

Those frustrations, and those strengths, combined as the basis for the character of Miroslava Svobodova, the Slovak Prime Minister vying to become Leader of a reunified Czechoslovakia. Svobodova’s inner strength, her passions and convictions (not to mention her love of Slivovice) were the embodiment of the proud Slovak women I met, and while the story is predominantly Prague based, the spirit of Slovakia, I hope, shines through.

My follow up novel is due out next year through the wonderful Urbane Publications. Set in the run up to The Prague Spring’s 50th anniversary, the newly reunified Czechoslovakia faces up to the threats of international terrorism and a vengeful Institute for European Harmony, with an expansionist and aggressive Russia poised at the border. In the face of such odds, characters old and new must draw once more on that famous Slovak spirit if they are to survive the events of The Prague Ultimatum.

 The Prague Ultimatum, James Silvester’s follow up to his 2015 debut, Escape to Perdition, will be released in 2017 through Urbane Publications. Readers in the Czech Republic can buy his book from The Globe Bookstore, while it can also be ordered from Slovak website Martinus. James is an HR professional and former DJ for Modradiouk.net, married to a lovely lady from Slovakia. He lives in Manchester and enjoys spending time in his adopted second home, Bojnice.