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The Impact of the Soviet Union on the Czech Republic, and my Study Abroad as a Russian-American
The Czech Republic has an incredibly complex history for a country that is relatively young. As an average American, there was little that I knew about this country as I came into it to study abroad in Prague this spring, but coming out of the city 3 weeks later, I felt that I have learned more than I ever could have back in the United States, both through the class that we took, as well as my personal experience.
Our class, titled Nationalism, Minorities, and Migration, was about exploring the history of the Czech Republic, former Czechoslovakia, as well as the bordering countries such as Poland, Hungary, Austria as well as the Soviet Union and others with the a big focus on their interactions among each other, and the role of nationalism that played within these states.
As a brief history, Czechoslovakia was formed in 1918, after the first world war, and was occupied by the Nazis during WWII (where it wasn’t called Czechoslovakia), and then later was a Soviet State during the USSR rule. In the late 1980’s it got its independence, and then later broke up into the two countries knowns as the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Thus during it’s time as Czechoslovakia, for most of that period it was occupied by Soviet rule. This was relatively recent and thus many of the citizens of the Czech Republic still remember being under communist rule, and in fact many of them still speak Russian, even some of the younger generation.
The relationship between the occupier, the Soviet Union, and the occupied, Czechoslovakia, was a difficult one, especially due to the fact that not only was the state of the Czechoslovakia was stripped of its independence, but it was done so in a back-to-back fashion, right after Nazi rule, which as we all know were incredibly harsh times.
So as I figured, the rule under communism was not particularly a good time, and as I understood, many people of Prague would not be too fond of Russians, or people of Russian descent. As someone who is of Russian descent, realizing this made me a tad bit nervous and concerned about my identity in the Czech Republic, especially since I’ve only realized this about halfway through our stay in Prague, where I have already used the Russian language to communicate with some of the citizens of the city, especially in small situations like ordering food or asking someone for directions to something.
What did these people think of me when I spoke to them in Russian? Did they think of me as insulting? Did they think I was being entitled? Did they not care? These were all questions that ran inside my head after I realized the difficult relationship that the Czech people went through with the Soviet Union.
As someone who has been abroad several times, this was one of the biggest times where the questions of identity filled my head and made me way more aware of my position in the country and how I was interpreted.
Although I never experienced any harsh words or harassment during my stay in the Czech Republic, nor did I even have people behave rude towards me in any way whenever I spoke to them in Russian, I still wondered quite a bit about the perspective of those of who I have talked to in Prague, because in terms of history and time, this could still be considered a fresh wound to the country.
Yet as I thought a lot about my own identity, I also thought about the identity of others like me- other travelers and visitors, and I noticed something- there were a lot of Russians who were both visiting and living in Prague, and many other places in the Czech Republic. In fact, the city called Karlovy Vary in the Czech Republic is an incredibly popular tourist destination for Russian travelers, and, as I understand, most people in the town speak Russian.
Observing these other, ethnically Russian people, I also thought about their perspectives of themselves and the people of Prague, which led me to think more about the perspective of Prague citizens on groups of Russians, vs them as individuals and how that might lead to me.
The things that I found out is that from person to person the perspective can differ greatly, from liking Russian people, to not caring for them, to not liking them at all, but the way that these are expressed fall into some of the same general categories. The biggest one being that people don’t want conflict, and don’t care enough to put conflict in their lives in order to express their thoughts or emotions in person to somebody, thus this is why I believe that I never explicitly got any straight forward indication on whether a person had any problem with my Russian heritage, and I could only wonder what their thought process was. Yet, when I think about the general population and the history of the Czech Republic I do believe that there is some sort of resentfulness to the people of Russian origins.
After some discussion with a local student, as well as one of my administrators about her husband who is from Prague, my prediction of resentfulness, especially that that would be made in private was right. As both of these people told me about people they know very closely, such as their parents, or husband, etc. do show their resentfulness towards Russians in minor ways in private conversation. I did also learn that sometimes this can even carry to those that they interact with who were not around during the Soviet era, especially in the case of the local college student that I spoke too. She says that even she sometimes finds herself randomly thinking to herself resentful things about Russians when she interacts with them sometimes.
In conclusion, as though these perspectives might come off as non-confrontational and maybe just a tad bit passive aggressive, I still believe that there is quite a bit of an effect on my identity, and I think that this experience made me realize just how important history and context is when it comes to people’s beliefs and ideas about other people, both as a group and as an individual, yet people’s decision to withhold those perspectives in person bring up interesting thoughts about the psychology of a person, and their ability to realize that the things they think should be kept to themselves, whether they think those thoughts are petty or wrong.