DECIN, Czech Republic — When Vaclav Havel died a little more than a year ago, a Czech friend wrote to me that she feared for the future. For many Czechs, the former playwright and dissident remained a moral authority long after he had led the peaceful Velvet Revolution that brought down Czechoslovakia’s Communist dictatorship in 1989.
On a New Year holiday visit to Decin, a town of 52,000 in northern Bohemia, I’m struck by how gloomy the mood still is.
Some 20 years ago, I got my first job after college teaching English here: During my stay, Havel was the Czechs’ first post-Communist president, and Czechoslovakia split into two separate countries. Many industries in northern Bohemia, including Decin’s chocolate factory and forklift plant, have been forced to close since that time. The unemployment rate in some districts in the area tops 15 percent. Ethnic tensions with the local Romani minority have flared amid poor economic prospects. And most young people with ambition have turned their backs on the region.
A sort of collective midlife crisis is gripping Czechs who were in their teens and 20s during the Velvet Revolution. The lofty struggle for freedom has degenerated into the horse-trading and pork-barreling of parliamentary democracy. The wonders of a consumer economy have brought comfort and convenience but little happiness.
Former students from the secondary school where I taught now live in Prague, London, New York, Australia or Bali. It’s not unusual for locals to spend weeks away from their families working in Germany or the Netherlands.
My friends who stayed behind are disillusioned with the state of Czech politics, which has been marred by corruption scandals and backroom deals. Jan Fischer, the front-runner in this month’s presidential election, is likely to become the Czech Republic’s first head of state with a Communist past. Vaclav Klaus, Havel’s pugnacious successor and an acolyte of Milton Friedman, steps down in March.
Meeting with old friends over beer and dumplings, I try to remind them how far the Czech Republic has come since I lived here. Twenty years ago, Decin was located in one of the most polluted regions of Europe. Power plants fueled by low-grade brown coal spewed out a soupy smog that enveloped the town in the winter, and the tap water had a metallic taste. The idea that the Czech Republic would one day join the rich European Union seemed like an unattainable dream.
Today, the country takes its membership in the E.U. and NATO for granted. New technologies have helped improve the environmental situation in northern Bohemia dramatically.
As a result, not everybody is giving up hope on Decin. Honza, one of my best former students, recently moved back after years living on the Cayman Islands. Next week he’s opening a travel agency that will not only send Czech adventurers abroad but seek to attract foreign visitors.
Just about halfway between the tourist hubs of Dresden and Prague, Decin is nestled in the Elbe River Valley, a picturesque landscape of unique sandstone formations. The town boasts architectural monuments spanning five centuries; the castle overlooking Decin has been meticulously restored since the Soviet Army left it behind as a ruin in 1991.
Decin is located in what was once the disputed Sudetenland that gave Hitler a pretext to march into Czechoslovakia. Today, thanks to European integration, the Czech border to Germany has all but vanished.
After facing the dangers of Nazism and communism for nearly a century, now Czechs just need to come to grips with postindustrial capitalism.