In 2016, a well-publicized Russian concert in the ruins of Palmyra just happened to overlap the centennial of the notorious Sykes-Picot Agreement. Russia had only a bit part in that hasty, furtive slicing up of the Ottoman Empire to please French and English interests. The new borders failed spectacularly to transform tribal Syria into a national state on the European model, or even into a viable French colony. The Syrian civil war continues into its tenth year.
In Europe, the new designation “Czechia” was approved last week by the government, if not the people, of the Czech Republic. Elaborate historical justifications for changing to “Czechia” omit a more pressing motive– that sports franchises want a shorter, snappier name for their teams and equipment.
Czechoslovakia was created somewhat arbitrarily—not unlike Syria—after a world war. In Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in the Moose Hall, a committee of Czech and Slovak activists drafted the agreement. Later that year philosopher-politician Tomas Garrigue Masaryk became the new country’s first president. Masaryk was nominated seventeen times for the Nobel Peace Prize that a later Czech president, Vaclav Havel, declined in 1991 in favor of Aung San Sui Kyi of Myanmar, formerly Burma. Just then, Havel might have been depressed about the impending breakup of his country.
The Treaty of Versailles has been blamed even more harshly and more often than Sykes-Picot for setting the stage for multinational conflict and carnage after World War I. Even now there’s some nostalgia for the old Austro-Hungarian Empire, dismantled and replaced by new nations with conflicting ethnic and linguistic minorities. Lebanon and Jordan were no longer part of Syria, and Slovakia no longer belonged to Hungary.
After my enthusiastic review of Milan Kundera’s Book of Laughter and Forgetting, I began to receive piles of freshly translated fiction by Slavic writers. I did note that Kundera was born Czech-Moravian, like Tomas Masaryk, Freud, Janacek–and my maternal grandparents. Still, I knew next to nothing about Czech history and literature. Auditing a meeting of Czech I on campus, I found that it was a conversation class, led by a small but dynamic American graduate student. McCroskyova argued that I would be a better critic if I knew the sound and structure of Czech. Followed, a slippery slope into unexpected years with the Czech language and culture.
In 1988, shortly before the fall of the Berlin Wall, we had ventured with my mother into Communist Czechoslovakia . After a tense crossing at the Austrian border, we stopped in the first town with a hotel. Sehr einfach, very simple, said the young innkeeper apologetically, showing the beds, foam pallets covered with large dish towels. Downstairs, an open kitchen spewed fumes of stewed pork and steaming bread dumplings. Good beer, we discovered, flowed in the pub.
Next morning, we drove around the Moravian countryside with a map, looking for my grandparents’ villages. And we did find them, dreary, plain rows of stucco cottages, sehr einfach. Our German proved useful.
At a bus stop in Mohelno, my grandmother’s village, we got directions to the cemetery. My great-uncle Antonin was there—according to my mother, a cocky, annoying fellow, who travelled more than once to California to sponge off his relatives. Several other Peskovi were on the memorial obelisk to World War I dead. On the horizon, a cluster of Russian nuclear reactor towers discouraged any idea of picturesque rusticity.
In the nearby village of Rohy, I was surprised to see my grandfather’s family name, Pozar, above the entrance to the most imposing building there. (Later I learned that pozar means fire, and the building was presumably the firehouse—whereas Rohy means simply Crossroads.) Outside the village, a wizened German-speaking farmer stopped hoeing long enough to point to a barn-like building on the opposite slope, as the Pozar place. My grandfather’s eldest brother Alois had become the head of the family. That Alois was a hard man, said the farmer, confirming the reason my grandfather, youngest son, had left home for California.
After the Berlin Wall fell, of course I followed the Czechs’ Velvet Revolution, and was in Prague in time to see Vaclav Havel’s very moving inauguration.
In 1992, I returned to Prague to research a piece on the state of the arts in post-communist Czechoslovakia. Long story short: deprived of government subsidies and samizdat glamour, publishing and the theater were in serious trouble. The Golden Age of Czech Arts turned out to have been under Soviet domination.
At that point Slovakia was already chafing at the dominance of the Czechs. Even Havel’s remarkable human skills failed to keep the Slovaks in the federation. In 1993, from the troubles leading to the Velvet Divorce, two countries emerged—the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
Federations of any sort, from fourth-century Greece to twentieth-century Europe, often have short lives. The Hellenic League against Persia fell apart after sixteen years, and the Weimar Republic after fourteen. Empires seem to survive somewhat longer, maybe by definition. An empire has one hegemonic state, while federations involve, theoretically if not actually, equal sovereign states.
In any event, the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia and of Syria are episodes in an endless kaleidoscopic shifting of national borders, altered to suit the interests of the reigning powers. Once, land and treasure were the prizes; then oil. It isn’t clear what prize every country seeks now. In America, not, surely, a state walled against immigration. East and South Asian immigrants now animate Silicon Valley, universities, finance, and the arts. Farmers, like my Pozar grandparents, came to Galveston and then California in hopes of a better life. Central American refugees flee violence and seek economic survival.