Słowacja - Slovensko - Slovakia
In Search of a Lost Slovakia
Publication: 14 October 2021
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We voluntarily, zealously and gladly relinquished not only the kings and castle gentry, but also the enlightened ones, urban craftsmen and merchants, that is all people who did not fit the myth of our plebeian, rural pedigree.
The Kingdom for a new mythology for Slovakia!, one would like to cry. But what Slovak kingdom and what mythology would they be? Where would this mythology come from? And who would bring or announce it to us? The answer to the first question is obvious: it should be a mythology which would allow us to enjoy ourselves and prosper in the 21st century. Which would release us from the claws of 19th-century myths and superstitions, which like underground roots suck out our life energy and optimism. The roots have long withered, shrivelled, but they still entangle everything that tries to grow in our soil with their stiff tentacles, and we still do not intend to heed the old advice and warnings of the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss. However, for we desperately need a new mythology to open the future before us. But where should we get it from?
If we enter the headquarters of the no longer existing Tatra banka (not to be confused with the first private bank in Slovakia which was established in 1991 using the same name – editor’s note), a very noble institution, in the former coronation city of Bratislava (Pressburg), we instantly notice the colourful stained‑glass windows, which should symbolise Slovak wealth and prosperity. And what do we actually see in these windows? The ruins of medieval castles on steep rocky outcrops and a lonely shepherd in a high‑ lander’s coat, musingly and sadly looking after sheep on the mountain meadows. The stained‑glass windows in the municipal theatre building present village girls and boys in simple costumes, raking hay and minding cows. Slovak presidents choose shepherd pipes and manually forged shovels as gifts to foreign delegations. No, the 19th‑century mythology presenting Slovaks as uneducated and oppressed plebeians, who have to climb a summit before they are able to shout with joy, is not the best therapy and cure for everything which seems intolerable, painful and sick in modern life. We have successfully thrown away all 20th‑century myths, these destructive and naïve dreams, full of racism, egoism, immaturity and fanaticism, making them politically and media‑wise incorrect. Along with the rest of the civilised world, we decided that they are too dangerous in our global village. But neither rationalism, nor realism and other “isms” liberated us from these older myths going back to Romanticism. As Karen Armstrong writes in her book A Short History of Myth, pure logos is helpless against ancient myths. Yes, the anxieties, desires and neuroses of modernity can only be suppressed by a new transcendence, a new sanctity of our life and ambitions. But where would the new story‑tellers emerge from, so that we could sit around them on the floor, and with activated internet connections listen to stories where everything would again be simple, comprehensible and lucid? Where it would be clear who is good and who is evil, and who will get the desired kingdom in the end? Let’s hope its not the village idiot again
I am not sure if the return to the original, mythical foundations from the 9th‑century Great Moravian Kingdom with Svatopluk and his wicker twigs of our culture makes sense. We have historians aiming in this direction, although their efforts have come to nothing; they are a laughing matter and culminate in national schizophrenia, where we desperately try to reconcile the myth of St Methodius, an apostle of Christianity, with the cruel banishment of his disciples. What we are dealing here with is a rejection of Medieval Byzantium and today’s Moscow, plus a gesture towards Western Rome. Is it at all possible to find this myth behind the mass graves of our fellow citizens, plundered castles and cathedrals, heaps of rusted cars and collapsed chimneys, and the tons of discarded radios and typewriters? Are we to look for it again in the mouldy village trunks of our great‑grandma or patches of ploughed soil among the fields? Or in the often failed efforts at retrieving the glory and importance of our historic cities in their ancient form and forgotten content, which in our creative toil we have turned into ruins – ruins of reality and spirit? I walk at night across their empty, deserted squares, looking into blind, dark windows of medieval houses, trying to suppress the disappointment produced by the interrupted tradition of life once teeming there, and lots of questions come to my mind. The vision of ourselves as legitimate heirs of our entire history, our kings and burghers, miners and mining managers, Catholic and Protestant priests, as well as all these multilingual people in the early years of the 21st century again seems hopeless.
The stereotype of ourselves, a proud shepherd from the stained-glass window in the bank, little women at the foot of the mountains raking hay, scarves almost hiding their eyes, all these people surrounded with miserable, straw-roofed cottages, cows, goats and sheep – this is a still present Slovak cultural code born in the 19th century. How far away the city is with its copper steeples, cobbled streets, sculptures, fountains, parks, and not a trace of carrots or manure. And besides, what would a shepherd from the mountain meadows do in the city all day long? At best he would be brought there by henchmen or gendarmes as a sheep thief, to be hanged there, in the city. Never in “our” village. They only hanged us in “their” cities. According to Eva Krekovičova (in the book Mýty naše slovenské [Our Slovak Myths]), we voluntarily, zealously and gladly relinquished not only the kings and castle gentry, but also the enlightened ones, urban craftsmen and merchants, that is all people who did not fit the myth of our plebeian, rural pedigree. Already our Štúrovci, educated in urban universities, disdained the proverbial urban “corruption”, adoring the originality and “purity” of the countryside. Even Karel Čapek – creator of robots and Krakatit – once wrote that the city was ugly, unhealthy and generally harmful for humans. A denizen of the streets lives in the city but not the universe, for he does not live under the stars. Under the stars a man may fall into madness or love but never gets irritated.
The communists also liked simple rural folk as the “makers of our history”. No wonder then that after more than 150 years of a strong, mighty wind from the mountains, dust covered the city streets, swept away the free‑thinking city‑dwellers, and like a true natural disaster destroyed modern urban culture, democratic urban self‑government, and the rule of law and freedom. I observe with amazement that we have even managed to export this antiquated “product” abroad along with criminals, that is bandits.
We do not know when Slovak myths will prove malignant like cancer, as the Slovak historian Ľubomír Lipták once wrote prophetically, and we may safely conclude that they have already proven remarkably malignant for our cities.
In 2003 the number of urban dwellers on the Earth surpassed the number of rural inhabitants, and thus we have become a “planet of cities”. The city and the countryside are two variants of life of every nation, and the quality of the future of a modern state is today determined by their proportion – in Slovakia still in favour of the countryside. If we perceive the city like the Romantics, as a mark of Cain, a hotbed of all depravity, and as a healthy community of “pure” people, as the primeval source of morality, then 21st‑century society is faced with a fundamental problem. For it is in the city that we found and still find answers to the questions posed by modernity. It was only in the city that humans gained their independence. In the city you never know what will happen tomorrow, while in the village you know everything, up to the place in the cemetery where the urn with your ashes will be put. According to the Czech (or rather Moravian) sociologist Arnošt Bláha, urbanity means complexity, purposefulness, the farmer escaping from the grip of the land, emancipation from a purely personal experience and… freedom. And with freedom comes scepticism, criticism, going from simple reproduction to increasing production, the emergence of a free middle class. The city is chaos, movement, creativity, industriousness, welfare and power. New needs, new professions, new forces, new ideas. Broad pavements, comfortable, heated flats, special functions of urban buildings, squares with fountains and parks with paths built from scratch. All this for the individual, the urban dweller, the free man.
In the 8th century, the Celtic oppida and fortified castles on the territory of today’s Slovakia started to turn into castle towns as centres of political, economic and religious life. Written down city privileges appeared as early as the 13th century. First Trnava, then Pressburg (Bratislava), and Nitra. There were 17 royal cities, among them the Heptapolis, that is the seven wealthy mining cities of Kremnica, Banská Štiavnica, Banská Bystrica, Zvolen, Pukanec, Ľubietová, Banská Belá, as well as the Pentapolis: Košice, Levoča, Bardejov, Prešov and Sabinov. Other important towns include Kežmarok, Komárno, Krupina as well as Modra, Pezinok, Svätý Jur; about 110 settlements which had an urban character. Some of today’s villages, such as Jasov, Starý Tekov and Dobrá Niva, also belong to this group. In contrast to cities in the west of Europe, Slovak cities retained their autonomy and democratic elections in accordance with contemporary law long after assuming the throne of the Empire by the Habsburgs. They greedily devoured modern intellectual tendencies, they built schools and libraries, they became wealthy on trade and industry, they introduced new technologies, some as the first in the world, and… they were almost exclusively Protestant. They promoted the ideas of equal opportunity and freedom of choice. Without obedience, obligation to keep silent, subjection, intimacy and primordiality. It was a thorn in the eye of the ruling family and the whole rural surroundings, which until 1848 were stuck in servitude and… Catholicism. Cities resisted centralisation and constraining their rights until the mid‑18th century when Košice was the last to capitulate, adopting the country‑wide urban constitution and way of electing the municipal authorities. As György Konrád wrote, city dwellers simply make things unnecessarily complex! And on top of it all, Slovaks have been living in cities since 1608, had equal rights with Germans and Hungarians, and the Slovak language was one of the official languages alongside Latin, German and Hungarian, with all four languages being regarded as part of the culture of the Hungarian Kingdom. Autonomy, privileges and freedom were ultimately abolished with the Parliamentary Act XX / 1876 – and the fact that it occurred after the division of Austro‑Hungary was probably something more than a coincidence. And then a time came, as Antoine de Saint‑Exupéry wrote, that barbarians started to demolish the house for they did not know what it was. They banished the builders, city dwellers had to pack their bundles and go to the countryside, to murder camps or to other places in the West, together with their industriousness, love of order and command of languages. What followed was a rapid destruction of the remains of the Habsburg Empire: multicultural, multiethnic, multilingual country of multicultural, multiethnic, multilingual cities. The demolition started from a vision of the city as a factory, where Gothic churches and Baroque palaces did not fit. The anarchy of ineptitude and haphazard urbanisation destroyed the logic of squares and pavements, banality and provincial hostility perceived urban buildings as absurd piles of bricks and stones. The urban public space no longer belonged to free citizens. But when people squander what is important, they do not know what they have squandered – adds Saint‑Exupéry. I have always been curious about what happened to all these and carpets, paintings and books, sculpted chairs and silverware? Where did it vanish to? The law of conservation of mass suggests that all these Renaissance gates and Baroque door fittings could not have completely disappeared. Velvet curtains and braided lace. As if we always took things out and away, not bringing in anything worthy of the future. I often ask myself a question of whether people disguised as exiles at least regretted the loss of all these pieces of furniture from knightly halls, the golden monstrances they greedily stole from the city, when they were storing fresh grain from the fields within the ancient walls of chapels and castles. Whilst striking off heads of marble sculptures, just as the barbarians had done before them. But the barbarians always came from nowhere, while they were destroying their own house – and this seems unimaginable today. No one has ever written a book about how they put a Louis XIV bureau into the hen house to use it to feed corn to the hens. It would be of no avail to comb memoirs for fragments on using Renaissance chairs as firewood and burning books in kitchen stoves. They became victorious heretics and they went to Mass, as Konrád writes. Barbarians do not write their own history, they destroy ours. They trampled down the source from which a new myth of the Slovak might have grown – a heir of beauty, scholarship and importance of our cities.
No wonder that our historic cities died. Their builders vanished forever. It is in vain that cathedral bells are swinging today, Schubert’s songs are resounding on the square, white‑clad children stream out from the church once a year, ridiculous drawings of graffiti “artists” are painted over by volunteers, and municipal workers sluice away vomit from the pavements. All this adoration of the countryside was invented by urban people. All Romantic ideas of beauty and innocence were created in the cities, in urban universities, and rural dwellers became passive objects of idolatry. This new religion, this new dream of the urban inhabitants returned to cities as a devastating cancer, devouring its own healthy core – as part of a pleasant and seemingly harmless resistance to modern civilisation, which is so fiercely haunting us today. Haunting us, for example, as an ideological contradiction between the necessity to modernise the city in order to create a pleasant space to live in a modern style, and maintaining deserted skansens for crowds of tourists and onlookers, the absurd preserving of every detail which had some meaning for people living in the city 200 years ago but is incomprehensible today. It seems to me that besides social schizophrenia this contradiction also produces a kind of architectural cynicism in Slovakia, spitting out an indigestible and untenable content, and again destroying, like the barbarians before, the squares and centres of our ugly cities. As if collaboration between builders and inhabitants, for ages a foundation and binding agent of urban life, never returned from exile.
Slovak cities gave an opportunity to understand and support growth and industriousness, education and culture, to preserve freedom and encourage individuals to take responsibility for communal life. And opportunity for stories which could have led us away from the blind alley of stinking rotten, antiquated myths. Our cities still have their pluralism, which have survived in the memory of urban chronicles. An impressive multicultural character, where two domestic languages are mixed with the stuttering English of the young. A multi‑ethnicity with which we are again unable to deal – to such an extent that some started to dream about the “ultimate” solutions from the previous century. What will we do with such unique – even if perhaps only potential – wealth in the new century? Are we not going to waste the relics of it, succumbing to sterile musings and looking around for some apostles who will explain everything lucidly and propose a new faith? A new myth?
And what would we offer them?
 Štúrovci – protagonists of the Slovak national revival active in the first half of the 19th century, grouped around its leader Ľudovít Štúr [ed. note].
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