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Prague's Velvet Hangover : After Their Revolution, Czech Artists Are Up Against the Wall

May 12, 1991|CRAIG UNGER | Craig Unger is a writer living in New York City.

Martin Kratochvil,the founder of Bonton, Czechoslovakia's first major entertainment company, sits in his living room, an expansive smile spreading under his mustache. The 44-year-old, blue-jean-clad jazz pianist laughs at the ironies that have made him the leading candidate for the unlikely role of Czechoslovakia's first entertainment-industry magnate.

"I never wanted to be an entrepreneur," Kratochvil says. "I'd be happy just playing jazz." Had he been American, Kratochvil might have been just another overworked musician trying to squeeze out a marginal living in an overheated cultural marketplace. But this is Czechoslovakia, a year and a half after its liberation from communism. The rules are being completely rewritten. Actors and rock stars are running Parliament. Vaclav Havel, an absurdist playwright, is president. Writers, artists and intellectuals who have been silenced for so long now can say anything they want.

And, within the confines of the country's rickety economy, they are doing just that. Following Czechoslovakia's "Velvet Revolution," plays, movies, books and records that had been banned, including Havel's adaptation of "The Beggar's Opera," became enormous hits. Investigative articles on drugs, skinheads, the black market, corruption in the Communist Party--all subjects that had been prohibited -- began to appear in the press. Street musicians, previously outlawed, sang Velvet Underground and Doors songs. Scores of new magazines and newspapers, more than 40 new record labels and 1,200 new publishing houses began competing in markets that had been previously subject to state monopolies. On Prague's vendor-lined Charles Bridge, hawkers started selling the uniforms and buttons of the once-dreaded Soviet Red Army as chic souvenirs.

And, of course, Western consumer culture, taboo for 40 years, arrived in all its glory. Bookstores sold "Fanny Hillova" and a famous epic on the American Civil War by Margaret Mitchellova. Personal computers and fax machines became available, at least to those few who could afford them. With pornography sold everywhere at makeshift kiosks, with movie-theater marquees announcing "Rambo" and "Emmanuelle," with heavy-metal music selling out of music stores, not all of the change is pretty. But free enterprise is finally here.

"In the States, all the markets are saturated," says Kratochvil. "But here you can produce chairs, records, hamburgers, anything--just like you could many years ago in the States. You'll see new Rockefellers and Morgans. Everybody is coming--RKO, CBS and NBC--and they want to buy everything from the Prague Opera on down. They'll go after castles and ruins and change them into Ramada Inns and restaurants."

Kratochvil himself has acquired some of the appurtenances of moguldom. Budikov, as his home is called, sits on a hill overlooking a lovely village 30 miles outside Prague and comes equipped with an indoor swimming pool, a satellite dish and a state-of-the-art recording studio--luxuries in a country that had slumbered under communism. And Kratochvil will soon make a trip to the States to buy a private plane. But these indulgences are the result of the hard currency Kratochvil earned scoring movies and playing jazz in the West, and to dwell on them would be to miss the point. Kratochvil is more at home with dissident intellectuals and avant-garde jazz musicians than with Michael Ovitz. William Paley, David Geffen, Martin Kratochvil? No, it just doesn't fit. But while many Czechs fear the new ways almost as much as they hated the old, Kratochvil is not about to sit idly by as capitalism shakes up his country.

"For 40 years, we couldn't do this," he says. "Now that it's here, I'm like a fish that suddenly found water. So why don't we take chances and see what happens?"

From the park atop Letna Hill you can see virtually every landmark in Prague. There is spectacular Hradcany Castle, historically the royal residence, now the office of President Havel. Its monumental silhouette is the best-known sight in the city. Below is the Charles Bridge with its avenue of statues of the saints. And there is the majestic Vltava River. The subject of composer Bedrich Smetana's symphonic poem, "Ma Vlast," the Vltava is also where the mythic Rabbi Yehuda Low breathed life into the Golem, a fantastic mechanical monster of mud and clay sent out to protect his community.

Prague is as beautiful as Paris or Venice, but it is only now becoming as familiar to Westerners. Because the city's 1.2 million residents heat with coal, a layer of soot coats the buildings, many of which date from the 1300s. Untouched by war or rapacious Western developers, Prague has been asleep for eons. Now it's beginning to awaken.

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