Public opinion surveys have demonstrated, in general, that view of the Czechs on Russia and Russians has remained stable in last two decades, i.e., it is rather negative than positive. According to surveys regularly conducted by Centre for Empirical Research (STEM) in Prague during last twenty years most respondents (40%) has negative approach towards Russia, 37% neutral and 23% respondent hold positive attitude.
Taking into consideration the development of the analyzed public opinion since 1945, when the Czechs found themselves in a closer contact with the Soviets, we would get more colourful picture going through substantial changes.
We could roughly define following periods: 1945-1948, 1948-1968, 1968-1985, 1985-1991, 1991-2000 and 2000 until today.
1945-1948. However, behavior of some the Red Army soldiers was not exactly exemplary, the Czechs were grateful to the Soviets for the liberation and their attitude towards the U.S.S.R. was more or less positive. Comparing with the situation in neighbouring countries the Czechs were an exception. This time the Czechs used to recall a slogan of some Czech revivalists in 19st century: It will be well in Bohemia when Cossack horse will quench its thirst from the waters of the Vltava River.
This positive attitude helped to Czechoslovak communists, regarded as the best friends of Moscow, to win the parliamentary elections in 1946 and to make a crucial step towards the establishment of the communist dictatorship later. A newly installed regime opened door to the strengthening of the Soviet influence and a following dominance in the country. Many of Czechoslovak communists paid later for their service a heavy toll.
1948-1968. During this period majority of the Czech society substantially changed its approach towards the Soviets. Moscow was accused that it had installed the communist regime in Czechoslovakia. From historical point of view it was not fully true but a public opinion very often does not follow real facts. Simply said, the Soviets were taken as enemies installing and supporting regime committing oppression and crimes.
Understandably, this opinion was strengthened and confirmed in eyes of the Czechs after 1968 when armies of Warsaw Pact invaded Czechoslovakia. However, it was work of almost all members of this pact led by the U.S.S.R. the Czechs used to speak only about the Russians, better said “Rusáci”. Mythic Cossacks horse drinking Vltava´s water was changed by a cry written on walls of Czech towns: “Ivan, go home. Natasha is waiting for you!”
There is evident a different position of various layers of the Czech society towards the U.S.S.R. There was an official position presented by communist establishment being in a sharp contrast with opinion of a majority understanding the Soviets in negative way.
A negative stance towards Moscow is very clearly reflected in a lot of gleeful jokes showing the Soviets like stupid bumpkins. An undignified role was always played by “Rusák“ only representative of all Soviet nations than.
1968-1985. Occupation of Czechoslovakia was the most important factor having impact on thinking of the Czechs about the U.S.S.R. Although, the communist government spoke about love forever, the Czechs added to this motto “but no for any minute longer.”
Due to occupation the U.S.S.R lost also friends among communists. A lot of them did not approve the intervention and they were expelled from party.
Hockey matches CSSR vs. U.S.S.R. were taken rather more political than sport event and atmosphere surrounding them was a true mirror of relationship between these two countries.
1985-1991. Perestroika was gradually changing understanding of the U.S.S.R. by the Czechs in more positive way. People finally wanted to apply old communist slogan: “the U.S.S.R – our torch-bearer” but Czechoslovak communist establishment was against it at that time. In this period non-communist part of the nation often demonstrated more positive approach towards Moscow than representatives of Czechoslovak communists.
Týdeník aktualit, weekly published by Soviet´s occupational army thatwas for a long years ignored, became demanded and popular newspaper bringing to the Czechs interesting information on perestroika and history of the U.S.S.R. Communists again were not too happy about the fact that people finally started reading Soviet newspapers.
Velvet revolution and withdrawal of Soviet troops from Czechoslovakia removed the U.S.S.R. and its successor–Russia from horizon.
1991- 2000. The Czech approach towards Russia is possible to characterize like more or less positive neutrality. President Yeltsin was taken as an amazing figure respecting the independent development of former Soviet satellites. Positive attitude towards Russia, better said towards Russia looking for democracy, was evident in 1991 when the coup d´état attempt happened in Moscow. Sympathy of the Czechs was decidedly on Yeltsin´s side.
However, at the same time the Czechs started understanding Russia like a potential resource of problems with increasing criminality in the country. The Russians were identified with mafia. Karlovy Vary, nicknamed by Czechs Ivan´s Vary, became of the symbol of presence of the Russians in the country and this presence has not been understood in positive way.
2000-until today. Vladimir Putin coming into power has gradually worsened not too positive attitude of the Czechs towards Russia. 25% of the Czechs consider Russia like a one of the biggest security threat for their country and 48% like medium threat. However,it is comparable with assessment of the USA; but USA is taken much more positively in other subjects of public opinion surveys (STEM, 2011).
Although, the situation is better than 10 years ago (in 2001 Russia was considered by 48% of the Czechs like the biggest security risk for their country - STEM, 2001), assessment of Putin´s policy has been predominantly negative. During the Russia-Georgia conflict 42% of the Czechs supported Georgia whereas Russia 19%. (STEM, 2008)
Also the Russian community living in the Czech Republic is not too popular among the Czechs. About 60% of the Czechs would not like to have the Russians like a neighbour. The Americans 26%. (STEM, 2011)
Russian factor is present in various discussions linked with domestic issues in the Czech Republic: an intended extension of nuclear power plant in Temelín or presidential election.
Ice-hockey has been step by step losing its escalated political content, new jokes about the Russians are rare, but relationship towards Russia and the Russians has remained almost unchanged.
State of affairs which we have now is a result of the impact of various historical and current elements. Among historical ones the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia is the most substantial. 64% of the Czechs are not ready to forgive Russia the 1968 occupation (STEM, 2008). Among current reasons we can find behaviour of today´s leadership of Russia as well as the Russian community living in the Czech Republic. Not too positive role also plays a suspicion that Russia wants to restore its influence in the Czech Republic.
Studying the issue of Czech-Russian relationship it is necessary to distinguish between various social and political groups as well as between generations. Critical position is more characteristic for older generation. There is also a difference between members of various political parties.
Right wing voters are more suspicious than left wing voters. For example, in mentioned Russia-Georgia conflict voters for communist party supported Russia (42%) whereas right Civic Democratic Party voters supported Georgia (57%). Russia was supported by 15% of them. (STEM, 2008)
There is, of course, a question if it is possible to change the situation. Based on said above:
- it is possible to expect that change of generations will gradually change the Czech approach and attitude towards Russia will be more neutral;
- an important role could play the Russian community in the Czech Republic. Will it continue in its current behavior or will it try more to cohabit with the Czech society?
- future development in Russia and its foreign policy also presents a very important factor having impact on analyzed issue.
It would be unreasonable to expect some substantial changes in the near future. Change of image of the Russians in the Czech society will be a long–term process with unpredictable result. Once upon a time all began so promisingly: It will be well in Bohemia…