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Kitchen Table Democracy

I have two friends in Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic. Nora is a Czech-born American citizen. She was born in Prague in early 1968. Within months of her birth, Soviet and other Warsaw Pact tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia, and her parents took her and her sister out of the country for a better life. She grew up in Ohio, New Jersey, and California before returning to the country of her birth in December, 1989. She spent her first night back in Prague in Wenceslas Square with hundreds of thousands of others demanding freedom.

Her partner, Dusan, was born around the same time, and left the country for England around the same time, for the same reasons. His mother, however, became homesick in England, and the family returned to Czechslovakia in 1973. Dusan served a year of National Service in the Czechoslovak army, driving a tank and teaching the illiterate Romany conscripts under his command how to read. He finished his year in the army in the spring of 1989, and enrolled as a student at Charles University in Prague. We didn't talk specifically about it when I visited last year, but I get the impression that he was one of the students involved in the protests that eventually brought the government down.

Radio Praha PennantNora and Dusan both work for Radio Prague, the international broadcasting service of Czech Radio. I met Nora when I wrote her a letter thanking her for a program she had prepared for Radio Prague that I had found particularly interesting. Before I could post my letter, I heard her program the following week, which was about the Internet, since there was an Internet conference taking place in Prague; I added a brief note with my e-mail address and an invitation to send me mail if she was so inclined. When I got back from a brief vacation, I found e-mail from Nora in my mailbox. A friendship blossomed through months of answering her questions about the net, and when I visited Prague last summer, I stayed with Nora and Dusan.

Despite their positions at the radio station, they don't own a shortwave radio, so they were interested in the one that I packed in my backpack. I demonstrated the radio one hot evening in their kitchen with the windows open and a light breeze wafting in. In an attempt to fight the heat, we were drinking water out of a pitcher inscribed with the logo of the Sokol, the peculiarly Czech mass gymnastics movement supressed by the Communists and revived after their fall. Tuning around, I came across one station broadcasting in Russian. Dusan, being a product of the Communist-era educational system, speaks Russian, and could understand much of what they were saying. Nora speaks Czech, which has some small similarities with Russian, both being Slavic languages, and could pick out a word here and there. I don't speak either language, but with my years of shortwave listening, I was able to pick out the ID at the top of the hour. "Govorit Radio Svoboda". This is Radio Liberty. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, born out of the CIA and the cold war, now headquartered in Prague about a block from where Nora and Dusan work in the Czech Radio building (itself a symbol of freedom and resistance due to the fighting surrounding the building in both 1945 and 1968). Indeed, the Czech section of Radio Free Europe resides in the same building as Czech Radio itself, and is aired over Czech Radio transmitters.

Radio Building

After the ID, Dusan got a puzzled, then sheepish look on his face. "I just had a flashback for a moment," he explained. "I wanted to close the window for fear that someone would overhear us listening to the radio. You know, like in the old days."

I was surprised at what had just happened to Dusan. I think Nora, also raised in America, was too. Neither of us had really ever had to consider that someone might overhear something we were listening to, or something we said, or something we wrote, and that we might get into a great deal of trouble as a result. Yet here in a democratic Prague, free for over five years at that point, in a place where there was no longer any reason to fear such a thing, years of conditioning in a society where people were not free to express themselves or listen to others express themselves reared its head at the kitchen table.

It was a brief moment, and passed quickly, but I believe now that it spoke volumes about the chilling impact that being deprived of freedom has. Even years after the deprivation itself had been banished, the fear could still be felt. The absence of that kind of chill is something Americans take for granted. What I saw in Prague at the kitchen table reminded me that it cannot and should not be. What I see on the Internet today reminds me of the importance of that lesson.

This essay is copyright 1996 by Ralph Brandi
Middletown, New Jersey, U.S.A.

I don't just use the web for fun.
I make my living at it.
I'd like to continue making my living at it, thank you very much.

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