Sunday, December 25, 2011

This blog (along with is meant to serve as a companion to my book From Good King Wenceslas to the Good Soldier Svejk: A Dictionary of Czech Popular Culture. On this blog I will occasionally add new entries to the dictionary - either ones that did not occur to me at the time or ones that through poor judgment I did not include. I will be happy to write new entries suggested by readers or post corrections to the dictionary as well. Simply write to me at

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

pracující inteligent (intellectual laborer).

Though the communist regime declared itself to be a workers' state and elevated manual labor above other forms of work, at least symbolically, it also couldn't ignore the services produced by non-manual laborers like doctors, engineers, and lawyers. This term was a way of putting these fucntions on the level of miners and factory workers.

soudci z lidu (people's judges).

This communist innovation to the legal system saw panels of judges supplemented with ordinary citizens without any legal education. The idea was that "The people don't just make the laws, they also carry them out."

středisková obec (central municipality).

In its drive for centralization of power as well as efficiency, the communist party eliminated the self-governance of many small towns and villages. Their powers were transferred to the nearest larger town known as a středisková obec and their cultural, transportation, and commercial needs were all subordinated to this center. Since the Velvet Revolution, self-governance has been returned to villages with the result that a country of ten million now has six thousand self-governing municipalities, most of them with populations of less than 2,000.

SCSP (Svaz československo-sovětského přátelství/Union of Czechoslovak-Soviet Friendship)

Membership in this organization was mainly a way to signal one's loyalty to the regime and its activities included planning the celebration of the Great October Socialist Revolution (=> VRSR) and other events that showed the close ties between the two countries like readings of Soviet authors, trips to the Soviet Union, and courses in the Russian language.

SVAZARM (Svaz pro spolupráci s armádou/Association for Cooperation with the Army).

This organization was borrowed from the Soviet Union to help popularize the army and connect it with civilian life. Numerous hobbies that were considered potentially dangerous could only be pursued under the auspices of SVAZARM. This included dog training, sport shooting, amateur radio, sport flying, as well as driver education.

úderník (shock worker).

This was the Czech version of the Soviet word Stakhonovite which referred to Alexei Stakhanov, the mythical worker who overfulfilled his norm by 1400% by mining 102 tons of coal in one shift. These shock workers were not much admired by their fellows who often had to help them to achieve their records.

umistenka (placement ticket).

High school and university graduates under communism couldn't simply look for a job whereever they pleased, but had to obtain a placement ticket from the party allowing them to work at a particular enterprise. In the absence of market signals, this was the way that the regime allocated labor to places where it was most in demand.

šmelinář (black marketeer).

Price controls under communism led to massive shortages and thus gave birth to a wide-ranging black market. Though the black market in fact made most goods more available than they would have been otherwise, black marketeers were frequently blamed for shortages and punished accordingly. Most communist states, however, gradually came to tolerate the black market as a way of defusing public discontent over shortages. Among the goods most widespread on the black market were Western consumer goods, fruits and vegetables from garden plots, and foreign as well special domestic (=> bony) currency.

sběrová akce (collection action).

The inefficiency of the communist economy meant that most enterprises suffered shortages of key inputs. The regime thus frequently called upon students and sometimes adults to collect scrap paper or metal for recycling or pick wild herbs for making tea. As motivation, prizes were offered for the classes or individuals who collected the most.

RsDr (doktor sociálně politických věd/doctor of social political sciences).

This academic title was held by graduates of the Vysoká škola politická (=> VUML) in Prague-Vokovice and represented the highest party education that one could achieve under communism. Because the completion of these courses mainly signified one's undying loyalty to the party rather than any educational merit, it was commonly said that the abbreviation stood for rozhodnutím strany doktor (doctor by decision of the party) or rychle snadno doktor (doctor fast and easy).

pan Vajíčko (Mr. Egg).

This character was featured in communist-era television advertisements for eggs. One of the peculiarities of these ads was that since just about every good was produced by a state-owned monopolist, they simply promoted a product - meat, milk, tea - without any mention of a particular brand (because there was only one).

Poučení z krizového vývoje (Lessons from the Critical Development).

This document, adopted in 1970 by the Congress of the Communist Party, represented the official interpretation of the Prague Spring (=> Prazske jaro) and the invasion of the Warsaw Pact. It averred that since January 1968 the country had found itself in a crisis and required the brotherly help of the Warsaw Pact to find its way out. Agreement with this interpretation - in the form of signing a form of assent - was a precondition for remaining in or attaining any position of authority in the seventies.


A member of the ozbrojená stráž železnic or armed railway patrol. One aspect of communist control of the citizenry was limitations on their ability to travel freely, not just abroad but even within the country. Citizens weren't supposed to travel unnecessarily - both for economic and political reasons - and as a result the railways were given their own police force to make sure that travelers had legitimate business and weren't moving themselves or goods without reason.

Aleš, Mikoláš (1852-1913).

Though Josef Manes was the country's first "great" painter of the modern era, it is Ales who has won the hearts of the people as the most Czech painter. His realist paintings of ordinary Czech life showed village life as it was without Manes's romanticizing. His output was prodigious and ranged from his famous lunettes in the National Theater (=> Národní divadlo) and large-scale historical scenes to illustrations for magazines and text books, shooting targets, playing cards, calendars, and post cards.

Mozorov, Pavlik.

The Soviet Union had a large set of communist role models who were gradually transferred to the other satellite states. The most infamous was Pavel Mozorov, a young boy who reputedly turned in his father to the police for selling forged documents and was then brutally murdered by his family. The lesson was supposedly that one could trust the state more than one's family. Others included Alexei Maresiev, a World War II pilot who was shot down by the Nazis, had both his legs amputated, but still managed to return to battle (immortalized in Polevoy's novel Story of a Real Man) and Pavel Korchagin, a timid youngster who finds the strength to enter the ranks of the revolutionaries, goes blind as a result of his wounds, but still manages to be useful to society (immortalized in Ostrovsky's novel How the Steel Was Tempered). In both cases, the lesson was that for true believers nothing was impossible.

hlášení pobytu (report of residence).

In order to keep better control of the population, the communist regime required citizens to keep the local National Committee (=> Národní výbor) informed of their place of residence as well as any temporary stays of more than 30 days. One's current official residence was noted in citizen's identity cards (=> občanka) and the police (=> VB) would conduct spot checks of these cards to make sure that people had a justified reason for being where they were.

hraniční pásmo (border zone).

Besides closing the country's borders and laying down barbed wire, the communists also designated a several kilometer wide buffer zone inside the official boundary known as the hraniční pásmo. Citizens could only enter these areas with special permission and many towns and villages were either moved or destroyed because they stood too close to the border.

Otec Kondelik (Father Kondelik).

The title character of Ignat Herrmann's novel Otec Kondelik and Zenich Vejvara (The Father Kondelik and the Groom Vejvara) has since come to symbolize a certain kind of provincial Czech type (=> maloměšťáctví). The novel concerns the attempts of Vejvara to persuade Kondelik to give him his daughter's hand in marriage which Kondelik initially opposes then consents to. The critic Josef Jedlicka describes Kondelik as an "honorable artisan, a little hidebound, a little narrow-minded, comfortable and petty, and at the same time on his own level a person of firm principles, good-natured social feeling and simple but uncompromising morality" who represents the attempt to hold onto the traditional and patriarchal values of the village even after moving to the city.

funkcionalismus (functionalism):

In addition to Czech baroque, it is this architectural style that gives many Czech cities their distinctive look. Named for the idea that form should follow function, functionalist buildings eschew ornament and use simple geometric forms, often giving them a boxy or blocky look. Czech architects were among the leaders in worldwide movement and included Brno native Adolf Loos, who worked mainly in Vienna, along with Bohuslav Fuchs. Some of the country's functionalist landmarks are Mies van der Rohe's Villa Tugenhadt, Vladimir Karfik's company town of Zlin (later => Gottwaldov), and Loos's Villa Muller. Socialist realism and => panelaks might be viewed as the bastard child of functionalism, but stripped of its aesthetic qualities and quality of workmanship.

družba (friendship).

It was this word that summed up the country's official relationship with the Soviet Union under communism. Friendship meant that children learned Russian in school and corresponded with Russian pen-pals. It also meant study in Russia for upwardly mobile bureaucrats and politicians as well as friendship parties (družební večírky) with the Russian soldiers based in the country after the 1968 invasion. Though there was some sincerity to this friendship in the early years of communism when Russian soldiers could at least be plausibly portrayed as liberators, by the time of the invasion this friendship was purely a show to keep in the good graces of one's superiors.

uhelné prázdniny (coal holiday).

Common in the fifties and sixties, schools were often closed for several days in the heart of winter due to shortages of coal and other heating material. Students last experienced a sustained closure in 1979, when a particularly severe cold stretch led to a two-week vacation. The problem was a combination of inefficient use of resources, lack of foreign currency to buy fuel, poor insulation of most buildings, and a tendency to overheat interiors in the winter. Those who were children at the time, however, remember these surprise vacations with fondness.

bývalí lidé (former persons).

The communist regime was expert in devising names for its enemies. Besides such standards as buržoazie (bourgeoisie), kapitalista (capitalist), konzervativec or pravicak (conservative, used to refer to supporters of the Prague Spring),  individualista (individualist - that is, one who did not subordinate himself to the collective), světoobčan (world citizen, in other words, a cosmopolitan who did not have enough national feeling), šovinista (chauvinist, in other words, someone who had too much national feeling), oportunista (opportunist), fluktuant (one who changed jobs too frequently), příživník (parasite), Titoista (Titoist), Trockista (Trotskyite), Sionista (Zionist), kulak (a farmer who owned more than 15 hectares), and revisionista (revisionist), the regime came up with such originals as bývalí lidé (referring to members of the defeated classes like factory owners and aristocrats) and deklasované vrstvy (declassed segments, referring to those like dissidents who lived at the expense of society).

alegorické vozy (literally allegorical vehicles): These parade floats were an indelible part of May Day celebrations. Individual firms and associations might present their wares in the form of live pictures or portray an ideological allegory  - a hydra of imperialism beaten back by the combined forces of the communist party and the labor unions - all complete with the requisite socialist slogans. Similarly memorable for children were the lantern processions (lampionove pruvody) that accompanied these parades.

Rema plátky (Rema slices).

This substitute for genuine cuts of meat - the name is a shortening of rekonstituovane maso or reconstituted meat - emerged in the sixties as a response to shortages in pork and beef. It was manufactured from scraps and lower quality cuts of meat. Such substitutes were common in a general economy of shortages and represented a way to replace quality with quantity.

interupční komise (abortion commission).

In line with its relatively areligious culture, abortion was legalized in Czechoslovakia at the rather early date of 1957, but the communist-era government still restricted its availability. One of these restrictions was the requirement that women who sought an abortion along with the father of the child sit before a commission of doctors and nurses who had the power to grant or refuse their request. Though most abortions were granted, the process - likr most encounters with the communist state - was humiliating: women were typically upbraided or browbeaten by the commission and forced to involve fathers who had often done little more than impregnate them. Interestingly, the abortion rate has dropped since the fall of communism despite the introduction of abortion on demand.

UHO (univerzální hnědá omáčka/universal brown sauce).

This abbreviation referred to the standard, tasteless brown gravy that accompanied the typical meat and dumplings (=> knedlíky) entree at communist-era cafeterias. The sauce was a corruption of the traditional sauces (=> omáčka) like mushroom or dill that form the basis of classic Czech cuisine and testimony to the homogenizing as well as destructive tendencies of the communist regime in all aspects of life.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

The Greatest Czech

In June 2005, Czechs voted, in a contest modeled on the BBC’s Greatest Briton program, for the Greatest Czech (Nejvetsi Cech) of all time. Citizens first picked a top 100 and then ranked the top 10 during a live broadcast. Unlike other countries who have largely picked contemporary figures as their greats – Churchill in England, Adenauer in Germany, de Gaulle in France – the Czechs turned back to the fourteenth century and their king Charles IV. While Charles certainly put his mark on the country – one can hardly turn around without running into something named after him – there is the minor problem that, as comedian Jan Kraus put it, he was greatest Frenchman to rule the Czechs. Curiously, the initial voting was led by the fictional character Jara Cimrman who was later removed from the contest and given a special award. The entire list (in Czech) can be found here - while the choices of other countries can be found here -

Favorite Cartoons

A neat contest to choose television viewers’ favorite Večerniček (evening cartoon) can be found here: The winner - though it has been criticized for perpetuating anti-German stereotypes – was Krkonošská pohádka which tells the story of young Anča and Kuba, servants to the self-important Trautenberk, who find an ally in the lord of the mountains, Krakonoš. In second place was About the Little Mole and in third Pat and Mat Return.


Almost all restaurants offer a lunchtime special – called a menu but pronounced meny – that features soup and a main course for a price that is about half the regular amount. These cheap specials keep most restaurants and pubs filled to bursting during lunch hour.

Burian, Zdenek (1905-1981).

Artist and illustrator. Generations of Czech children have grown up with Burian’s lifelike illustrations to classics by Jules Verne, Rudyard Kipling, and Karl May. As well known is his collaboration with the paleontologist Josef Augusta through which Burian produced masterful renderings of the ancient world replete with dinosaurs, wooly mammoths, and prehistoric man.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Schelinger, Jiří. (1951-1981).

Popular singer. The long-haired and gravelly-voiced Schelinger achieved fame with just his second record, the sentimental “Home of the Doves.” He went on to become a youth idol as the Czech popularizer of hard rock – his personal taste – in addition to singing lighter pop fare with his bandmate/prankster, František Ringo Čech. Schelinger died near the height of his fame under mysterious circumstances; he jumped from Bratislava’s SNP bridge, allegedly over a bet and probably after heavy drinking.

lesní zákon (forest law).

By the eighteenth century most of the abundant native forests of the Czech lands had been cut down for firewood. Empress Maria Thereza’s far-sighted forest laws, however, stipulated both that every tree felled had to be replaced with a newly planted tree and that even privately-owned forests must allow right-of-ways for pedestrians traveling from one town to another. While the former provision contributed to the reforesting of the country, the latter evolved into the extensive system of hiking trails in wide use today.

de Funès, Louis (1914-1975).

This French comedian is perhaps the Czechs’ favorite foreign actor. De Funès made his name in dozens of film comedies in the fifties and sixties where he typically played overbearing and quick-tempered figures of authority. The most famous of these is his role as the gendarme of St. Tropez who battles against nude bathers and tries to rise in the police hierarchy. His popularity among Czechs stems from a combination of his distinctive looks – he was short and bald with a plastic face – his prodigious gifts as a physical comedian, and brilliant Czech dubbing by the actor František Filipovský. All of de Funès’s films are reprised annually on Czech Television.

inspekce (inspection).

Rather than letting the free market or even the courts sort out problems of quality and discipline, Czechs prefer to rely on state-mandated inspections. There are thus inspectors who make the rounds of pubs – making sure that a half-liter beer measures exactly that and the 200 gram pork chop is no more or less than its listed weight – and others who check that employees who claim to be home sick have not taken a step out of their home. All this effort, however, makes little dent into widespread corruption..

dabing (dubbing).

Like many non-American nations, Czechs are serious and experienced dubbers of foreign films. Most foreign programming on television is dubbed and only more serious films in theaters receive the benefit of subtitles. Major foreign actors are assigned a specific actor so that viewers build up an association between a face and a voice. While standards of dubbing of course vary, many Czechs insist that in the best cases, the dubbed films represent an improvement over the original, particularly in the case of French comedies staring Louis de Funès. Indeed, a special award is given each year to the country’s best dubber.

Branky, body, vteřiny (Goals, Points, Moments).

First broadcast in 1956, this sports program which follows the evening news is the country’s longest running television program. It features highlights not just of major sports like football and hockey, but also less well-known ones like team handball, bicycle soccer (kolová), football tennis (nohejbal) and a thousand others, especially in cases where Czechs have some international success. For most Czechs, sporting achievements are one of their greatest sources of national pride – indeed, a recent poll put them in first place above even the country’s contributions to world culture.

pacy, pacy, pacičky (hands, hands, little hands).

The Czech equivalent of “Pat a cake, pat a cake, baker's man”, its rhyming text goes “Hands, hands, little hands; Daddy bought a pair of shoes; Mommy a belt made from cat’s tail.”

Sunday, January 29, 2006

úřední dny (days open to the public).

State offices in the Czech Republic, like the Department of Motor Vehicles or the Unemployment Office, are not open to the public every day as one might expect, but only on scheduled úřední dny. These are typically Monday and Wednesday, with the more citizen friendly ones opening their doors for half a day on Friday, all of course minus an hour-long lunch break. It is unclear how bureaucrats spend the rest of the week, but the habit of opening infrequently – inherited from Austro-Hungarian days and further entrenched under communism – is surely evidence of a society where government employees are not used to helping citizens, but to dictating to them.

OPBH (Oblastní podnik bytového hospodářství – District Enterprise for Apartment Management).

This communist-era institution was responsible for managing the country’s large number of state-owned apartments, particularly the prefabricated apartment blocs known as paneláky. Denizens had to visit OPBH whenever they required any maintenance on their flats – whether leaky roofs, broken windows, or stalled furances. The organization was famed for its laziness and corruption, so that repairs would take weeks unless a requisite bribe was offered. Because of this corruption, many claimed that the abbreviation OPBH stood for “Odevzdej Peníze, Bydlíš Hned” or “Hand over your money and you can live right away.”

Friday, January 20, 2006

Matějská pouť (Matthew Fair).

This traditional fair has been held continuously in Prague since 1595 and gained fame as the first spring fair. It begins on the name day honoring Saint Matthew, February 24 and continues until Easter. The fair, likely the country’s largest, features amusement park rides and stands selling various sweets.

melouch (moonlighting).

Under communism, all sorts of skilled laborers offered their services to customers for cash payments after regular working hours. These melouchy or side jobs were theoretically illegal – the state after all was the proprietor of all businesses – but widely used and tolerated as a way of coping with both low salaries and long waiting lists for all consumer services. Interestingly, the word melouch comes from the Yiddish and refers to services offered by Jews to Gentiles at a time when such exchanges were banned.

zapírat, zapírat, zapírat (deny, deny, deny).

This popular advice from famed sexologist Miroslav Plzák to all spouses accused of infidelity has reputedly preserved many a Czech marriage and saved the country from its philandering ways.

“Holky z nase skolky” (Girls from our Kindergarten Class).

This gimmicky song was probably the biggest Czech pop hit of the eighties. A hymn to the girls of one's school years, the song features a saccharine melody accompanied by chants of girls’ names – it begins thusly, “Majdalénka, Apolénka, and Veronika and also Věrka, Zdenka, Majka, Lenka, and Monika.” The empty-headed music and lyrics epitomized the Czech music scene of the late normalization era. The brains behind it was the ubiquitous producer František Janeček who commissioned the song and recruited two good-looking young singers – Petr Kotvald and Stanislav Hložek – as his manufactured teen idols.


This variety show was one of the most popular shows on Czech Television from the seventies through the early nineties. It was hosted by the comedians Jiřina Bohdalova and Vladimír Dvorak who performed simple sketch comedy scenes and were complemented by musical and circus acts. Similar variety shows remain a staple of Czech television up to the present day as Czech tastes remain stuck somewhere in the 1950s.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006


This term is used to refer to members of the Czech People’s Party (Česka strana lidová) - today also known as the Christian Democratic Union - a political party with roots in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Its voting base has always been with the country’s religious Catholics – mostly concentrated in rural areas and particularly in south Moravia – and the party has traditionally tried to represent their conservative values. General irreligiosity means that the People’s Party is condemned to receive a maximum of only 10% of the vote in general elections. But thanks to its charismatic leader during the First Republic, Jan Sramek, the party has taken as its ethos a willingness to participate in government at all costs, even sacrificing its programmatic commitments. It is this ethos which allowed the party to survive the communist regime and even join most post-communist cabinets, though typically without much effect on policy. Members of the party address each other as brother and sister.

poradnik (waiting list).

Waiting lists were an essential part of acquiring any important goods under communism. Because of low state-mandated prices, citizens could “afford” just about everything – from cars to refrigerators to stereos. However, the inefficiency of the economy and the low prices themselves meant that all of these goods were available only in limited quantities. Thus, to acquire a new car, for example, one had to take a number in a waiting list which might stretch for several years. This naturally gave rise to corruption as favors and money were exchanged for a better place on the list.

Below are the official descriptions of the exhibitions at two museums from the communist era. Both were frequent destinations for school fieldtrips and foreign visitors.

Klement Gottwald Museum

Expositions: history of the revolutionary workers’ movement and the KSČ (Czechoslovak Communist Party) from the beginning of the 19th c. to the present day (the documentation of individual exhibition spaces is complemented by authentic sound recordings and slide programs; the last exhibition hall includes an audiovisual program entitled “The Path of Socialism,” depicting the results of socialist construction in Czechoslovakia); one part of the exposition is the Klement Gottwald Memorial Hall (120 short documentary films); expositions are complemented by thematic exhibits on the most significant periods and events of the workers’ movement and the KSČ and the anniversaries of political figures.

History: the museum was opened in 1954; it is located in the renaissance revival building of the former City Savings Bank of 1894 (architects Antonin Wiehl and Osvald Polívka)

Collections: political posters, banners, emblems, photographs; mementoes of Kl. Gottwald, A. Zápotocký and other leading figures of the KSČ; newspapers, periodicals, brochures, artistic works, medals, the first London edition of the Manifesto of the Communist Party from February 1848, a postcard with Lenin’s signature, objects from Saljut 6 (the 1st international space flight of Czechoslovak-Soviet friendship in 1978), original pen-and-ink drawings by Jean Effel reacting to the Munich betrayal, Julius Fučík’s indictment and death sentence

V.I. Lenin Museum

Expositions: on the first and second floors the life and work of V.I. Lenin as a brilliant leader of the world proletariat, founder of a new type of revolutionary party, creator of the world’s first socialist state; basic writings and essays of V.I. Lenin; the influence of Leninism, the CPSU (Communist Party of the Soviet Union) and Lenin personally on the origin and development of the KSČ; theory and praxis of the leading role of the communist party during all historical stages (preparation for the revolution, the overthrow of tsarism, the battle against capitalism, the period of civil war, and the years of socialist construction); Lenin’s experiences from the battle against revisionism and opportunism and in the international workers’ movement; Lenin’s theoretical and practical activity during the formation of the first socialist state; his plan for the socialist transformation of a backwards country; the origin of the global socialist system as the avant-garde of social development; the expansion of the international workers’ and national liberation movements; a visit to the museum includes a film showing and a viewing of [POLYEKREN – ed. I don’t know this word], which concludes the topic of the history of the CPSU; documentation is offered in all major languages.

History: the core of the museum is the Lenin Hall (where in January 1912, Lenin led the all-Russian SDDSR conference, known as the Prague conference), opened in 1945 in the former People’s House which since 1907 has been a center of the Czech workers’ movement (the editorial office and the printing house of The Rights of the People, known after the founding of the KSČ as Red Right) and played a key role in the clash between the Czech working class and the governing bourgeoisie in December 1920; in 1948 part of the People’s House was set aside for the construction of the Lenin Museum, prepared in cooperation with the Central V.I. Lenin Museum in Moscow and opened in 1953; the Lenin Hall is also used by Pioneers for the taking of celebratory oaths and for induction into the ranks of the SSM (Socialist Youth Union).

Collections: historical material (photographs and negatives, Russian and Czech newspapers, facsimiles, historical posters, flyers, photographs, banners, awards); the archive of photos is among the largest of its type in the ČSSR.

Source: Václav Pubal, Muzea a Galerie v ČSR (Praha: Olympia, 1985).