Months of deflecting extended family members’ inquiries and foraging for half-hearted small talk have whittled my justification for spending a semester in Prague down to “just tryna get me a piece of that democratic transition, ya know?” Which of course nobody does, considering the aforementioned statement doesn’t really mean anything. And if you’re looking for a typical bullshit excuse for study abroad that also indirectly smacks of American privilege, well, there you go.
But with traces of the past around every corner, it’s almost impossible to ignore the Czech Republic’s geopolitically fraught history. Taking into account my outsider’s bias toward interpreting the most innocuous cultural differences as exotic socialist relics, it’s obvious living here that Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) remains a region of mixed political allegiances quite unlike the unifying ethos of capitalist individualism we Americans put so much stock in. While young Czechs tend to be passionate about Western ideals of freedom, some older conservatives are nostalgic for a time when homelessness and unemployment were technically nonexistent in a country not yet governed by the ruthless laws of neoliberal self-interest. Certain foundational assumptions behind the functioning of our society, though influential in Eastern Europe, are not always taken as givens by its inhabitants.
Prague has become a popular travel destination because of its cobblestoned streets and baroque charm. Ride to the end of the Metro line, though, and you’ll see buildings get real Soviet real fast. The neighborhood of Háje, a functionalist sea of once-grey high-rises since painted garish pinks and sickly yellows in some feeble gesture toward architectural cheer, lies just beyond Prague’s storybook center, a fringe of historical reality surrounding touristic delusion. There are no bustling streets or beckoning storefronts in Háje; in fact, the area appears to host no commercial activity at all, as if capitalism as a geographical force has not yet extended its reach outside the inner city. It’s easy to forget how little time has passed since communism shaped every aspect of daily life here, and just how deep its effects go, even now.
That isn’t to say things haven’t changed for the better. Evidence of America’s Cold War victory and subsequent global hegemony is almost inescapable in Eastern Europe’s metropolitan centers, to the extent that I’m tempted to wonder whether the region hasn’t simply been conquered by another power. Where once everyone learned to speak Russian, now English is required to get by in an international capitalist hierarchy with America at the top. Whenever I speak English to native speakers of Czech or Polish or Romanian or any other equally beautiful and culturally rich tongue, my conversation partners will almost always apologize for their incompetence, however proficient they are in a language so distant from their own.
Sure, this display of humility is partly just politeness. But in each of these interactions, which should ideally serve as equalizing instances of mutually beneficial cultural exchange, I can’t help but detect certain rotten power dynamics at play. While my atrocious Czech pronunciation, butchered Polish consonants, and nonexistent Slovak are assumed and generally accounted for, imperfect English on their end is treated as some inexcusable transgression for which they should feel ashamed, as if I have somehow earned the right to feel my country’s influence in the farthest corners of another continent.
With common sense and a little historical consciousness, it shouldn’t be too difficult to figure out who’s to blame for these strangely unequal relations. Take, for example, this illustrative yet unsettling conversation I had with some random American douchebag on a train from Kraków to Prague:
Me: I always feel like such an asshole when I can’t speak Czech in their own country. Like I literally can’t say words.
Random Douchebag: Yeah, I kind of just follow a policy of “you don’t speak my language; you don’t get my money.”
Me: What? That’s ridiculous! It’s gross and discriminatory enough when people talk like that in America, but that logic doesn’t even apply here, etc.
RD: Whatever, I mean, we give them all their business.
This all-too-familiar example of entitlement is indicative of something many of us have come to associate with the American traveler, engaged as ze often is in a process of simultaneous (indeed, codependent) cultural appropriation and assertion of U.S. supremacy. To enumerate the ways I’ve seen American students in Prague disrespect and ridicule the country hosting their European adventures would be a long and unnecessary exercise. Yet I can’t help but draw connections between our brand of appropriation and Eastern Europeans’ seeming resignation to being appropriated: it’s as if everyone has mutually agreed to designate the entire world as America’s playground.
Cultural imperialism is far from America’s only mechanism of obtaining power: we establish dominance by attraction as much as exertion. I’ve seen young Eastern Europeans get starry-eyed at any mention of New York, listened to them talk about America as the holy grail of opportunity that jaded U.S. citizens have long since accepted does not exist. Though CEE countries are for the most part considered democratically consolidated, poverty is widespread, and governments are often disorganized or rife with corruption. America’s wealth, however disproportionately distributed, looks pretty good in comparison.
Still, anti-American sentiment is alive and well in Eastern Europe, however contradictory that may seem (it isn’t). There is an undeniable tension between the perception of America as a benevolent messiah of Western capitalism and as a paternalistic international aggressor, perhaps because we ourselves haven’t yet decided what kind of superpower we are. Even the greatest country in the world can’t figure itself out.
The current crisis in Ukraine has reminded us all that the seemingly antiquated East/West dichotomy is very much extant and making everyone nervous about its implications for the tenacity of liberal democratic values outside America and the EU. We speak again about a domino effect, speculating as to whether Russia’s continuing imperial ambitions will extend its influence way past anything anyone is comfortable with, and we’re right to worry. After a few years of democratic consolidation and explosions of repressed ethnic tension following the fall of the Iron Curtain, CEE countries were considered for the most part to be “taken care of,” their role on the global stage negligible, their boxes checked. Where Clinton focused his diplomatic eye on former Eastern bloc members, Bush turned the country’s attention toward the Middle East. Though the shift didn’t seem all that important at the time, relations with Eastern Europe suffered.
In 2009, CEE politicians and intellectuals issued a clairvoyant letter to the Obama administration urging America to understand that their nations continued to operate between two worlds—with Russia still uncomfortably influential both culturally and economically through its monopoly on energy, Eastern Europeans were at risk of becoming neutralized in their allegiance to the West. I came to Prague in part because I was curious about the globalization of modern capitalism, but I’m leaving wondering under whose jurisdiction it took hold in the first place. The so-called neoliberal consensus may or may not have actually happened, but if it did, who really consented? And will it last?