Martin Jan Stransky - a return to Prague, and family traditions

01-06-2004

Martin Jan Stransky's great-grandfather was a minister in the first government of Czechoslovakia in 1918, and founded the newspaper Lidove Noviny. Mr Stransky's grandfather and father were also involved in high politics, until the family had to leave after the Communist takeover of 1948. Martin Stransky, a doctor, moved to Prague in 1990, where among other things he revived the family's journal, Presence, which was shut down by the Nazis. When I met Mr Stransky at his office on Narodni Street, I asked him what he had been doing before he moved to Prague.

"I was and still am a physician; I was and still do work in Connecticut and teach at Yale University as an associate clinical professor in neurology. My life was entirely devoted to medicine. My family before and now, in addition to the medicine, we engage in publications due to the genetic tendency in our family to publish something at all times.

"I'm also active politically in the so-called citizens' sector, in terms of being in and around certain citizens' initiatives, as well as foundations. And we have some other activities here in Prague as well."

What do you recall from the time in New York in 1989, in November of that year when the Velvet Revolution happened here, and how long did it take you to decide to move here to Prague?

"Well, after the year 1948 my family spent its entire time essentially combating communism - this in the form of my grandfather and father working for Radio Free Europe, and founding Radio Free Europe, respectively. My grandfather ended up in the British desk in London and my father founded the Czech desk in Munich, and eventually the one in New York.

"So because of that, and because of the fact that we lived in New York and were surrounded by the Czech community in exile, which included many dissidents, we also had basically day to day discussions and activities concerning Czechoslovakia, so for my family it was is if Czechoslovakia never really ceased to exist as a free country, it was only a matter of time until it became free again.

"When 1989 came around it was essentially a natural fact that one of us go. In fact we were directly asked by Lidove Noviny. My father knew Vaclav Havel, who visited us in New York when he was a dissident, so it wasn't as if we were removed from the cultural and national mainstream while we were in the United States."

So you were the only family member who came back?

"Because of my young age and my father's older age I was literally sent out, although my parents have visited - my father has passed away since, but he was fortunate to witness the rebirth of the country."

Could you speak Czech then, back in 1990?

"I was born speaking Czech; English was my second language even though I grew up in New York. But of course home Czech and business and medical Czech are two different things. I did have a little catching up to do, and I think now I'm essentially all caught up."

Tell me more about the Czech community in New York: was it big, was it active? I've often heard that Czechs tend to not stick together so much when they go abroad.

"Well, the Czech community in New York goes back a long, long way; it actually goes back into the 18th century, and at one time there were about 70,000 Czechs in New York.

"When I was born in 1956 the community was still strong; it was centred on the East Side in the 70s, and I would say that it was a looser community. But it still had shop signs on the street in Czech, on the East Side and another community which sprang up in Astoria, Queens; altogether I'd say it comprised anything from five to ten thousand Czechs. It had a cultural hall, a cultural centre etceteras.

"The Czech communities are extremely complex, because they're historically and psychologically divided by the waves in which they left. Our community was formed primarily formed by people who left in '38, '39, therefore older people who were intense patriots. And they viewed Czechoslovakia with nostalgia in the positive sense of the word.

"The community who left in '68 were an entirely different blood-group; many left purely for economic reasons. They were regarded by the older types as sort of pseudo-communists, while they looked at the older types as archaic forms which they really didn't understand.

"But you're right, Czechs do constitute a unique...foreign body, in the sense that they are not unified like the Poles are, for instance. Which is unfortunate in many aspects."

You came back here in 1990: what were you expecting? And how have you viewed developments in this country since that time? I know it's a huge question.

"It's a huge question and it would probably be a longer answer, but the reason I came back, essentially, was to get back what had been stolen; I came back basically to restitute as well as to help the paper.

"But one is never really prepared for the amount of deceit, corruption and the lies and the underhandedness that go on with a communist regime, as well as a post-communist regime.

"In many senses of the word, for somebody who's not a tourist and who's doing business here, whether you're a Czech or not, very little has changed in that respect. The Communists really did nothing but step aside so that they could change into suit and tie and continue to run things, in a sense much more efficiently than they had before."

A few years ago you wrote a book called Czechs Don't Want Democracy - isn't that a terribly strong title?

"It is and it was purposefully changed from Do Czechs Want Democracy? to the one you mentioned. To make a long book short, the title comes out of the premise that you can't really want something that you don't really know.

"The book explains, as does an article version which is considerably shorter, it gives ten salient points as to why Czechs never really experienced democracy, and what the solutions and what the path to democracy essentially entails.

"And I think because of the title, and because of these points a lot of discussion has been generated in the positive sense of the word, and continues to be generated."

Have you yourself ever considered entering politics?

"I've been asked to enter politics for the last five years or so, I'd say. I've received offers from several political parties to run for the Senate. And for other organisations and at this time I'm backing an initiative of minor parties which is coming together to form a major party - they don't even have a formal name yet.

"But I found out that in my present capacity I do very well as an independent commentator, and a sort of agitator. Occasionally I like to call myself a sniper, where I take aim at individual politicians or individual issues."

In this building here on Narodni you have a nightclub also: I read somewhere that the space used to be some kind of communist publishing house, or something - is that the case?

"Well, the whole building used to be a communist publishing house - before that it was our publishing house. And downstairs the nightclub used to be the former so-called National Literary Tavern, where the journalists who worked on the floors above traditionally would go down and stay until the wee hours of the morning. Which journalists here particularly tend to do.

"We even resurrected that tradition, and I'm happy that that's going well. It's now called N 11, and it's a New York-style music club and restaurant and tavern, but before it was called the Literarni Kavarna; we have the old original menus on the wall and it is a historical landmark."

For more information about Martin Jan Stransky and his various activities go to www.narodni.cz/en

01-06-2004

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