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Last week’s 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 minor role in that hasty, furtive divvying up of Syria and the Middle East to please French and English interests. As we have seen, the new borders failed spectacularly to transform tribal Syria into a national state on the European model.
In other news, “Czechia” was approved last week by the government, if not the people, of the Czech Republic, as a further clarification of its national status. Elaborate historical justifications for adding “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—but in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in the Moose Hall, by a committee of Czech and Slovak activists led by philosopher-politician Tomas Garrigue Masaryk. Having drafted the agreement, later in the year Masaryk became the new country’s first president. He was nominated seventeen times for the Nobel Peace Prize that a later Czech president, Vaclav Havel, declined in 1991 in favor of the Burmese Aung San Sui Kyi. 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, suddenly 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.
Shortly before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, we 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 was 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 traveled 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 Rohy, a wizened German-speaking farmer stopped hoeing long enough to point to a barnlike 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.
After the Berlin Wall fell, I followed closely, along with many others, the Czechs’ Velvet Revolution, and was lucky enough 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. Do I repeat myself?–the Golden Age of Czech Arts turned out to have been under Soviet domination. Also, 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 hang on 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. Although some say that we are entering the post-oil era, it isn’t clear what prize every country seeks now. When Donald Trump wants to Make America Great Again, what does he mean? Not, surely, a state walled against immigrants, who now animate Silicon Valley, colleges, finance, and the arts, or are farmers, like my Pozar grandparents, who came to Galveston and then California in hopes of a better life.
In a couple of years it will be the centennial of the Pittsburgh Agreement that established the new state of Czechoslovakia.
This occasion may not be much marked.