28 July 2010


Two days ago I watched a nuanced and very moving Czech film called Kolya, on DVD. The story is set in what was then Czechoslovakia (see map below), one of the satellite republics of the former Soviet Union. My mother's parents immigrated to the US from Prague (see image above), so my interest in the film's story was heightened.

You may recall that Czechoslovakia was the setting for reformist Alexander Dubcek's Prague Spring, an attempt to grant additional rights to citizens through partial decentralization of powers, and through democratization. Dubcek's reforms posed a threat to the Soviet leadership, who launched an invasion and occupation of Czechoslovakia by Warsaw Pact troops and tanks. Dubcek was removed from office, and Soviet dominance with an iron fist reigned until 1989, when peaceful student protestors sparked a nationwide general strike, in what is now known as the Velvet Revolution. The Communist Party relinquished power, and in subsequent elections, Vaclav Havel was chosen as the nation's President, and Alexander Dubcek became the elected speaker of the federal parliament. With the fall of the USSR in 1993, Chechoslovakia as a nation was dissolved, becoming two independent nations -- the Czech Republic and Slovakia. I have family and friends in both nations.

The film takes place on the eve of the Velvet Revolution, during a time of flux when it was still dangerous to express anti-Soviet sentiments. And yet the indomitable Czech spirit refused to be crushed. An active underground existed, and ultimately prevailed. Against this backdrop, the title character is a middle-aged cellist and hedonistic bachelor, with no family ties until his life becomes complicated by .... well, you'll have to see the film. This is a warm and personal story, one which both warmed my heart and moved me to tears at the end.

It also revived in me a feeling of pride in my family's cultural heritage. My family roots lie in Bohemia, one of three Czech districts (the other two being Moravia and Czech Silesia). Imagine, having roots in a land where revolutions are achieved peacefully, without violence or bloodshed. The human history of the region is ancient and rich with achievement. The list of famous Czech writers, poets, musicians, composers, artists, philosophers, politicians, and scientists is long and impressive. It is one of my dreams to spend a year in Europe, including significant time in the land of Kolya the cellist.

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