I grew up in the United States late in the Cold War. I was one of the Americans continually told to beware of the Soviet evil empire and a threat of nuclear war always simmered in the background. But it was all rather a distant notion—a hypothetical that few thought would ever come to pass.
For Americans, wars happen “over there.” Not entirely without reason. The genocidal wars against native populations were over by the early 1900s and generations later, Americans had become accustomed to feeling that wars never happened on U.S. soil. The World Wars, the Korean War and the Vietnam War caused deaths to American soldiers “over there,” but the U.S. was not threatened.
Two Changes of Scenery
When I saved up enough money to return to school to earn my PhD, I narrowed my choices down to two schools. Both told me I would thrive in their department, and they really wanted me to join them. I choose the school in England over the one in the U.S., in large part so that I could experience living another culture.
True, England is not radically dissimilar than the U.S., but there are cultural differences both subtle and more obvious. One difference I soon realized was the cultural attitude toward the rest of the world. In the U.S., not only are wars “over there,” everything is. The U.S. borders only two countries. England has eight countries within 1,000 miles of it with different languages and culture. For the people in England, foreign nations are “right there” a short flight or even drive away, not “over there.” With few exceptions, people living in England have a much better grasp than do Americans on the reality that they are part of the world. In part, they knew that because they knew about war happening “right here.” Their parents or grandparents were bombed during World War II. Much of the rest of the war took place within that short flight or drive away.
A few years later, when presented with the opportunity to move to Prague, Czech Republic, I jumped at the chance. It’s a beautiful city with a richly amazing culture. Prague has been my home since 2018 and I enjoy it here. I have learned a lot being immersed in a different culture. Ale ne, moje čeština je pořád příšerná.
Czech people have a different view of the world than do the English or Americans. As a Czech business executive explained to me, Czechs have always been a small country surrounded by larger neighbors, usually hostile ones. Czechs have learned, he said, how to live with bullies and how to deal with oppression.
The Czechs know war. They know military occupation and oppression—a lot of occupation and oppression. I admire a country that celebrates four independence days (from Austria-Hungary, from Nazi Germany, from Soviet Union, and then the amicable divorce from Slovakia). The Czechs are strong and resilient people.
But yes, they know war; not “over there” but “right here”; right here. Within two blocks of my apartment in central Prague are multiple plaques marking where Czech citizens were killed either by the Nazis or the Soviets. Whoever was living in the room in which I am currently would have heard gunfire in 1945 and 1968.
After several years of listening to Czechs who lived under Soviet occupation and were children or grandchildren of those who lived under Nazi occupation, I have learned how incomplete are Americans’ concepts of war, freedom, and tyranny. That includes my former self. My wife remarked after we moved to Prague how we are for the first time not living in a seat of empire. The English were one, the U.S. is now. The Czechs have never invaded or colonized anyone else. That makes a difference.
Ukraine, Russia, and Europe
Kiev, Ukraine is the exact same distance from Prague as Chicago is from New York City. Not next door, no, but not that far away. Ukrainians are the largest immigrant group in the Czech Republic and ties between the countries are strong. A Russian invasion of Ukraine would be felt here.
I know that I feel that looming possibility of war. Growing up in the U.S. where war was a distant abstract thing, the prospect of war so close is unnerving. Living within a block of the site of former battles and walking by the plaques for years has only partially prepared me.
Last night I was at my local pub talking with the owner who shares my passion for craft beer. I asked him how the Czechs who he knew are thinking about the prospect of Russian invasion of Ukraine.
It depends on what information sources they access, he said. If they listen to a variety of international sources, they have a good idea of what’s going on, but, he said, if they only listen to local media or the Russian propaganda channel, they don’t know what’s going on. That made sense to me, knowing that most Czech media is owned and operated by two corporate conglomerates with strong right-wing leanings. Propaganda works the same everywhere. The Czech president is openly pro-Russian, though the current parliament is not.
He went on to say that people who know people in Ukraine (his girlfriend is one of several thousand Ukrainians living in Prague) are worried about friends and family in Ukraine. The rest of Czechs, he said, they just shrug and say, “what can we do?”
I can understand that attitude and am reminded of the conversations I had with my client the Czech executive. The Czechs have learned to live with oppression and war. They are a small country that is proud and independent, but know they are part of a larger world.
In one sense it is a shame that any people anywhere have had to learn to live with oppression and war. Yet, how many millions of people are living that life now? With all due respect to Americans, they get so worked up over issues that are, in the grand scheme of things, quite small and their complaints quite petty.
The politicians are correct that a Russian attack on Ukraine is an attack on Europe. Americans can discuss the Ukraine crisis in the abstract. The people here, not so much. They have been through this before.
Will war physically come here to my home in Prague? Probably not. But if Russia decides to attack its neighbor, I will never have been closer to war.
I can see this building from my window.