Jokes from the bathroom wall (about Communism)

My students laugh when I tell them I study cleavage in postcommunist countries, but sometimes, by accident, the image that flashes into their minds is the correct one. Those who lament the disappearance of communist era political humor can take some solace in my recent discovery of the following poem (badly translated by me) on a bathroom wall at the University of Muenster in Westphalia.

Was dem Weib sein Büstenhalter
ist für das Volk der Ulbricht–Walter,
denn beide bringen ganz enorm
die Massen in die rechte Form
A woman’s bra–a Büstenhalter,
is like our leader Ulbricht (Walter),
as both compress the quite enorm-
ous masses into their proper form

I have no idea why it should appear in “West” Germany 65 years after its likely origination, but I’m glad to see the genre still around. Seeing it sparks three small side notes:

  1. Political humor has been in the news in Slovakia with an interesting but ultimately inconclusive April fool’s day article on political humor in Pravda, the most interesting part of which is the report of an entirely characteristic joke (both in form and substance) told by Vladimir Meciar in 2006:  “Meciar goes to the WC with Dzurinda and Fico and they say to him, “Why are you turning away.  Don’t be ashamed, we’re all guys here.”  To which Meciar replies, “I know we’re all guys and I’m not ashamed, but I also know about you, and that whenever you see something big Fico wants to nationalize it and Dzurinda wants to sell it to foreign investors.”
  2. SME, for its part, has posted a rather elaborate online election game which involves making the right choices for candidates:  Some of the questions are themselves quite funny and there’s a nice selection of Shooty’s best cartoons.
  3. In the Czech Republic MF Dnes has done some decent photoshopping to put Necas in old-style Komsomol imagery (a visualization of Paroubek’s recent joke):
  4. Finally, in searching for the Ulbricht poem above I discovered that the Büstenhalter-Walter rhyme found another life in the best possible circumstances:  the German version of Monty Python’s Lumberjack Song, in which it replaces “bra” and “papa”.  Nice job here by Michael Palin.

Twenty Years Ago Today: Obituary for the Communist Party

Obituary for the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, 29 December 2009

Obituary for the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, 29 December 2009

A quick entry today which I should have posted a month ago.  Czechs and Slovaks had fun with the collapse of Communist Party and one of the best relics preserved for me by my students was this obituary (in the style of Eastern European obituaries pasted on the wall).  Interestingly the parodist was astute enough to bury the “leading role” of the party rather than the party itself which, in the form of the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia, still attracts a stable 1/6 of the popular vote but today has a leading role only in preventing coalitions and attracting disgruntled voters.

(Rough English translation)

Who sets traps for others
Falls into them himself

With pain in our hearts we announce to everyone the sad news that forever from us departed is the leading role of the

Communist Party of Czechoslovakia

After 41 years of dissimulation, 29 December 1989

We part from our dearly departed “after free elections”
In 1990

In the name of the survivors

And others closely related

Milos Jakes
Miroslav Stepan
Alois Indra
Miroslav Zavadil
Vasil Bilak
Josef Lenart

(Original Czech-text form but without without diacritics)

Kdo jinemu jamu kopa
Sam do ni pada

S bolesti v srdci oznamujeme vsem smutnou zpravu, ze nas navzdy opustila nase vedouci uloha


Odesila po 41 letech disimulace 29. prosince 1989.

S nasi drahou zesnulou se rozloucime po svobodnych volbach
V roce 1990.

Jemenem pozustalych
Milos Jakes
Miroslav Stepan
Alois Indra
Miroslav Zavadil
Vasil Bilak
Josef Lenart

Twenty years ago today: At the feeding trough

At the Feeding Trough

At the Feeding Trough: Communist Party Headquarters of West Bohemia, November 1989

Twenty years (and about a month) ago, the students of the Vysoka Skola Strojni a Elektrotechnicka v Plzne (VSSE, the College of Machines and Electrotechnics in Plzen) participated in the demonstrations against Communist Party rule by creating a huge banner that read “U krmlecu” and affixing over the front door of the West Bohemian headquarters of the Communist Party on Moskevska Street in Plzen.   As I understand it ( and I would appreciate any further insight) “U krmlecu” translates roughly as “At the feeding trough,” a criticism of the crudness and corruption of the party, phrased in reference to the Czech habit of naming pubs with “U” i.e. “at” something or other: “At the Three Fishermen” or “At the Golden Tiger.”  This was a time of posters on walls–and from the picture it looks like the headquarters had already been a target–but the sheer scale and cleverness of this one is worth remembering.  The best part of the story, as I remember having it told to me, is that in order to affix the banner the students enlisted the help of municipal workers in a lamp-post fixing truck who were happy to oblige.

This is far from the only example of courage and wit from 1989 but for me it is one of the most memorable, because I received the picture from my then-student Ales Vlk (a force of nature in his own right and expert on EU higher education policy) and because when I first arrived in Plzen in 1990 to teach English, this building was my first destination: in a supremely ironic turnaround that seemed entirely appropriate in a country where a dissident playwright had become president, the regional party headquarters had by then become the main administration building of the VSSE and its fifth and sixth floors (hammer and sickle stained glass window still intact) had been turned over to teachers of English, mostly young Americans and Canadians.

Two minor footnotes.

  • First, in a transformation that is perhaps just as appropriate, the storefront next to this building became the location of Plzen’s first McDonalds (the family of McDonald’s pioneer Ray Kroc came from the Plzen area and the Plzen McDonalds boasts a bronze bust of Kroc himself).  It is also an entirely appropriate symbol of the Czech Republic’s changes that the former communist party headquarters and university headquarters has now reverted (in my understanding) to its original function: a bank.   But, perhaps because history tends to repeat itself or because doing so would be just too expensive, or because they don’t even know it’s there, the new owners have yet to remove the 4 meter Red Communist party star which stood on the roof of the building in the 1980’s and is still visible in the most recent Google Maps image:

    Star on the roof of the /former/ West Bohemian Communist Party HQ

    Star on the roof of the /former/ West Bohemian Communist Party HQ

  • Second, and relevant in almost no possible way, I need to relay my constant delight at the “U”/”At the” mode for naming bars.  Of all of them in Prague, my favorite was a bar across from the restaurant  U Zpěváčkůsouth of the National Theatre in Prague.  It’s become the Kavarna Paleta now but it used to be a dive with good, cheap beer you could bring out side and drink while sitting on the sidewalk (no fancy chairs or tables).  It was at this particular establishment that my friend John Gridley and I watched as a young guy holding a dachshund or beagle heaved it to his girlfriend so that he could go in and buy himself a beer.  From then on it became, for us, the Dog-Toss Pub or, even better, U vyhozeneho psa.

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Twenty Years Ago Today: Challenges to Democracy in Slovakia

As part of the 20th anniversary commemorations in postcommunist Europe, (one of the U.S. State Department’s outreach websites) has been soliciting academics and journalists to write on “Challenges of Democracy” in the region (in 400 words or less!).  They were kind enough to publish my own thoughts (with no editorial intrusions) along with other comments about other countries from eminent commentators including Vladimir Tismaneanu, Janos Bugajski, Charles Ingrao and fellow Slovak Studies Association member Mark Stolarik.  My own take on the question (utterly predictable to those who read this blog on occasion) is below, but read it here instead so as to let the managers of demonstrate to their superiors that the idea was worthwhile.

Slovakia today faces several slow and subtle threats to meaningful democratic representation. These hardly seem dangerous when compared to the near-collapse of the Slovakia’s democracy in the mid-1990’s, but they are serious in their own right, especially because their subtlety makes them hard to see and even harder to correct.

Some current threats echo the problems of the 1990’s, particularly the growing politicization of the judiciary and other state functions and the sharpening of ethnic rhetoric. Questions of ethnicity in Slovakia are genuinely difficult, and it is no surprise that they remain at the center of political debate, but the shrillness of today’s exchanges risks long-term damage to relations between groups which have no choice but to live together. Although these problems are worrisome, Slovakia’s own recent history suggests that the cycle of alternating government and opposition tends to redress imbalances. Slovakia’s democracy survived worse periods of politicization and polarization, because Slovakia’s voters rejected extremes and opted for parties that offered more moderate alternatives.

But Slovakia’s political party system faces its own threats. Slovakia’s party system has become dominated by political parties which are less like classic European parties than like Internet startups: well-branded, CEO-driven organizations with a big-money investors, lots of consultants and short-term goals. They remain intact only as long as they continue to serve their function; otherwise they split or merge. Ordinary people become consumers, persuaded by flashy advertising campaigns to spend their vote on one product or another. These parties do not violate the formal rules of democracy, but the resulting interactions are thin and unsatisfying. In the worst case scenario, parties become vehicles for gaining office rather than for governing, and since they themselves do not expect to be around for more than one or two election cycles, they have little reason to pursue long-term and difficult policy changes. Faced with a parade of volatile new parties fighting for attention with famous faces and promises of renewal, voters become cynical about the political process and stop expecting that politics offers any solutions to public problems.

This problem is more akin to a chronic illness than a fatal disease. A sloppy, unresponsive, celebrity-driven democracy is still a democracy and can probably limp along indefinitely, but not without a huge cost in unsatisfied needs and wasted resources. Slovakia will not be alone in this—the same trends are emerging throughout the east and with only a slight lag in the west—but misfortune shared is still misfortune.

Reprinted from

Twenty Years Ago Today (or The Audacity of Hoax Prequel)

havel closeup1

I have been waiting quite a while to post this on just the right day. Two decades ago, a month before the first large-scale protests against Czechoslovakia’s communist government, the following brief announcement appeared on the “Society Chronicles” (Spolocenska Kronika) of the “Hello Saturday” (Halo Sobota) supplement to the official newspaper Rude Pravo (“Red Right”). It says:

Dne 5. 10. 1989 oslavil narozeniny Ferdinand Vanek z Maleho Hradu. Za jeho namahavou praci, kterou ve svem zivote vykonaval a vykonava, mu dekuji a do dalsich let hodne zdrave a dalsich pracovnich uspechu mu preji jeho spolupracovnici a pratele.

Which translates roughly as:

On the day 5 October 1989 Ferdinand Vanek of Maly Hrad celebrated his birthday. Thanks to him for the hard work which he has done in in his life and continues to do, and his friends and co-workers wish him many more years of health and further success in his work.

The picthavel closeup picturehavel na hradure, of course, is that of Vaclav Havel who within 10 weeks of the Halo Sobota article would feature prominently on hundreds of thousands of much higher resolution pictures recommending him for the presidency of Czechoslovakia.

Ferdinand Vanek is the name of one of playwright Havel’s most famous (and most autobiographical) characters, the protagonist of a trilogy of plays: “The Audience” “Unveiling” and “Protest. “ The address, Maly Hrad, is almost identical to Hradecek (both meaning “Little Castle”) where Havel had a cottage.

So what? Well, twenty years ago, when Poland and Hungary were changing but Czechoslovakia was not, someone had the courage to submit to the Communist Party’s main newspaper a birthday announcement for the country’s main dissident praising him for his work and wishing him a long and productive life! And because the dissident’s picture and works had been suppressed, the announcement made it past all of the potential censorship points. Either the editors of the Society Chronicle page didn’t know what Havel looked like and had not heard of characters in his most famous plays or they were complicit in publishing it but could plausibly claim that they didn’t know. Either way, a combination of individual daring and official ignorance and incuriosity put a subversive message in a very public place. It’s no surprise that this same environment produced the Pink Tank and Entropa.

Thanks to my student Daniela Brabcova from Plzen who knew enough about Havel to spot this gem when it came out, kept a copy and shared it with me in the spring of 1991. Below is the full page from which it came:

havel halo sobota