The Czech Question: Do You Want to Live in a Zoo or a Jungle?

<i> Milos Forman, an American director, left his native Czechoslovakia 20 years ago. His last Czech picture, "The Fireman's Ball," was nominated as best foreign film in 1968. His most recent film is "Valmont."</i>

Do you want to have a good time at a moment of lethal crisis? Then, the place to be is Czechoslovakia.

In 1968, the day after Leonid I. Brezhnev’s tanks rolled in to crush the Prague Spring, I was in Paris and got a call from a friend in Czechoslovakia:

“Do you know what communism is?” he asked. “Communism is the most bloody road to capitalism!” he said, and then laughed while my heart sank because my wife and sons were still there.

But do not let this joke lead you to believe that the Czechs and Slovaks underestimated the gravity of the situation. For a people endowed with a tradition of humor, the greater the danger, the deeper the laugh. Humor, even gallows humor, becomes indispensable to keep one’s sanity in a small country--be it Czechoslovakia or Poland.


If, for more than four decades, Czechs and Slovaks--as well as Poles, Hungarians or East Germans--were obediently bowing their heads under the regimes that brutally betrayed their aspirations and hopes, it was only for the fear of tanks, for the fear of ruthless force. Brutal force is something small nations fear most. If you hit an elephant with a stick, it will not kill him. But what if you hit a small bird with the same stick? The moment Mikhail S. Gorbachev renounced the use of military intervention--it doesn’t make any difference if he did it out of wisdom or necessity--the peoples of Poland, Hungary, East Germany and now Czechoslovakia raised their heads.

The irony is that, for 41 years, Czechs and Slovaks dreamed of a day when they would wake up in the morning and Big Brother is not there. Today they are all praying to God to keep Big Brother at bay. They know as long as Gorbachev is in, the tanks are out. The moment Gorbachev is out the tanks might come back. That’s why they are feverishly grabbing as much as possible from the newly found freedom before it is too late.

Unlike East Germany, Poland and Hungary, where liberal elements in the Communist Party are somehow protecting the peaceful transition of power, Czechoslovakia’s Communist Party does not have a liberal wing. After 1968, all members carrying even a germ of liberalism were mercilessly and meticulously purged from the party--so meticulously that today it cannot produce anyone who would have the trust of the Czech people.

As a consequence, the overwhelming majority of the population is joining the dissidents, the opposition. But opposition members do not want any superficial “reforms.” They believe any effort to reform futility is itself futile. They want to change the basic system.

That is why the bargaining in Prague is so intense, even potentially explosive. At the bottom there emerges a question far beyond politics: Where do you want to live? Do you want to live in the jungle or do you want to live in the zoo?

Life in the zoo is somehow comfortable. You don’t have to try hard and you still get your food. True, you don’t have any choices: you eat what they give you, but you do eat. And you are protected: No tiger will attack you, no snake will bite you. True, you are in a cage, but so are the tiger and the snake.

On the other hand, the jungle is alluring, beautiful. You can see it in the eyes of East Germans when they cross the wall. They are fascinated by the variety of colors that life in the jungle can offer. And you are free! You can go wherever, whenever and however you wish. But you can get lost, or attacked by the tiger, bitten by the snake, stung by parasites or leeches. It will not be easy for people who have lived for decades in the zoo to adapt.

That is why people on both sides of the Iron Curtain are looking for compromise. It seems all the reforms in the Soviet Union today are designed to make the zoo look and feel a little bit like a jungle. Let’s open a few selected cages, bring in a few orchids and let one tiger and one snake free--and see what happens. On the other hand, the West is trying to build a few safety nets here and there to make the jungle more hospitable, while insisting the essential character of the jungle must be maintained. Besides beauty, it must, of course, include cruelty.


Will it work on this side? Will it work on the other? Or will the intellectual turmoil in communist countries, long condemned to silent fermentation, come up with some new ideas about life on this planet? In the final analysis that would be the only consolation for millions who wasted their lives because of ideas that simply didn’t work.

Last week, 21 years later, when the government of Czechoslovakia sat down for the first time to face the leaders of the opposition and the outcome of this meeting was still unpredictable, my friend called again from Prague:

“Do you know what Czech-style perestroika is?” he asked. “It’s a serious effort to transform a pigsty into a luxury apartment with one proviso: The pigs must stay in!” I hope the joke will remain a joke.