Book Review: Velvet Revolutions: An Oral History of Czech Society by Miroslav Vanek & Pavel Mucke.

Author:Sorensen, Benjamin
Position:Book review
 
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Vanek, Miroslav, and Pavel Mucke. Velvet Revolutions: An Oral History of Czech Society. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016. xii + 251 pages. Hardcover, $34.95.

Miroslav Vanek and Pavel Mucke, academics of Oral and Contemporary History at Prague's Charles University, have done something remarkable. They have created the first work of Czech oral history. Until this book, no work existed that documented people's perceptions and opinions of living in communist Czechoslovakia from 1968 until the Velvet Revolution of 1989, as well as how the Czechs view the more recent capitalist era.

Vanek and Mucke have compiled oral narratives from 138 Czech citizens, born between 1922 and 1967, and emanating from all walks of life. These narrators discuss a plethora of topics from their lives in communist Czechoslovakia covering education, politics, family life, and leisure activities. They also give insightful commentaries on how the new capitalist and democratic system in today's Czech Republic has changed these aspects of life since the Velvet Revolution. Vanek and Mucke capture the people's nostalgia for the old, communist system, yet the range of narrations on the various topics mirrors the variety of personalities among the narrators.

For example, the majority of the narrators believe in the practical value of education, though how much depends on their station in life. However, they differ on their view of the effectiveness of education during communism vis-a-vis today's educational system. Many of the narrators feel that education today is effective, while others think that today's teachers are far too lenient towards students, thus failing the Czech tradition of high-quality education. Some of the varied findings are also surprising; for instance, many of the narrators who skipped mandatory Party meetings at work because they thought that the meetings were pointless and ineffective, were the same people who felt that the Communist Party of the 1970s and 1980s was a monolithic entity that would not account for their misgivings!

The book has many wonderful insights into how the Czechs viewed foreigners during Communism. Strikingly, the consensus presented from the narrators is how they may have been envious of the material prosperity of the West, but found that the Westerners' work conditions detracted from the important aspects of life: family, friends, and personal growth. Although these narrators found personal value in work, they go on to...

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