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Two decades of transformation of inequalities: New identities and new fears in the post-communist Czech society



This chapter aims to demonstrate the dynamic aspects of inequalities forming within the family and friendship networks. The Velvet Revolution in 1989 triggered strong transformation processes in Czech society. Since that time, many changes in social relations have emerged in both the public and private spheres. The example of Czech society will be used as a model for the extraction of more general reflections in our study. The following outline is matched according to the planned topic areas of the manuscript: (1) Emergence of new identities: The process of interiorisation of the economic view of the world, self, family and social relations in individuals influenced significantly the emergence of new identities during the post-communist period. An interesting phenomenon is, for example, the emergence of the “entrepreneur woman”, or the still existing inequalities between women and men in the labour market and a related gender wage disparity. In relation with these issues, we will explore the trend of the increasing age of first-time mothers. (2) Shaping of new fears: Many sources of social fears in the communist period were based on the existential uncertainty that was artificially propagated by the communist system. We discuss three groups of actual fear elicitors and their development: aging, parenting and security. (3) Meaningfulness of private life: What does the “new freedom” mean for our private lives? What are the new opportunities vs. the real possibilities? Survival within a totalitarian regime vs. life in a globalising society: new personal responsibilities, challenges and risks. New sources of social fears have emerged since the Velvet Revolution. One of the key sources is the corruption of the judicial system and politics. Post-communist citizens largely do not trust to the efficacy of the judiciary and the police. The ongoing stratification of Czech society produces new inequalities that are mostly based on the economic factors. Members of the economic elite, who control strategically significant resources, are failing to follow the rules and norms of society: they represent the identity of “new elites”.
It has been twenty-three years since the Czechoslovakian Velvet
Revolution brought socio-cultural changes, which transformed personal
and public lives nationwide. This chapter is focused on the mapping of
newly constituted inequalities in private and public dimensions within
Czech society. We aim to provide a contemporary interdisciplinary insight
into the process of transformation of inequalities in our country including
gender inequality. We begin with basic information regarding the
historical background, adding a brief overview of the development of
Czech post-communist society, then continue with related theoretical
concepts selected to be both innovative and inspirational and report our
particular findings from additional research projects that we have
undertaken or participated in during the last two decades. Our conclusions
have been extended by the emergence of new questions. It cannot be said
that the process of the transformation of inequalities is losing its dynamics.
On the contrary, what we present here are ongoing trends.
1 This work was supported by the Czech Science Foundation (GAČR)
Two Decades of Transformation of Inequalities 105
Introduction to the historical context
Five decades of totalitarianism in Czechoslovakia ended at the close of
1989, having begun after the German occupation during WWII (1939-
1945). Parliamentary elections in 1948 “were won” after a coup, for
numerous reasons, by the Communist Party (Davidson 1998, 227-32).
Those fifty years of totalitarianism (1939-1989) contained only two bright
moments of freedom. The first came in 1945, when at the end of WWII a
sense of euphoria erupted as the Nazi regime collapsed. But the elation
was matched by puzzlement as to why this was undertaken mostly by the
Red Army and not US forces poised to roll into Prague from the west.
Later, it became clear that geopolitical rather than strategic reasons were at
play in this decision (in 1945, US forces halted their troop advancement
fifty kilometres west of Prague and waited several days for the Soviets to
advance from the north-east) (Pogue 1996, 468-9, Davidson 1998, 229).
The fact that significant territories in the west and south were nonetheless
liberated by US forces was systematically suppressed after the communists
came to power in 1948. The second important moment of freedom began
in 1968 when a series of internal reforms were undertaken by the ruling
communist apparatus. These were initiated by the young and popular
reform-oriented communist leader Alexander Dubček (Davidson 1998,
234-8), under the motto: “Socialism with a human face” (Wasserstein
2007, 597-608). But this short movement (known as the “Prague Spring”)
ended abruptly in the summer of 1968, when around half a million mostly
Soviet soldiers invaded the country (then a part of the Warsaw Pact), at
first by air, then by land. Czechoslovakia was occupied, but conservative
communists, who had invited the Soviet troops, quickly legalised this
aggression as an act of “brotherly assistance”. Soviet troops finally left
Czechoslovakia in June 1991 after twenty-three years (Kenney 2006, 129-
These brief moments of hope experienced in 1945 and 1968, coupled
with the memory of a successful democratic state2 between WWI and
WWII (1918-1939) (Olson 1997, 189), provided the Czech people with
sources of hope during the tough times of the Nazi and then the
communist totality.
2 The Czechoslovakian state emerged in 1918, following the collapse of the
Austro-Hungarian Empire at the end of WWI. Following independence, the
country experienced both stability and prosperity as a democratic state, known as
the First Republic. The Bohemian part of the country belonged among the most
developed areas in Europe.
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Inequalities within Czech society before the Velvet Revolution were
delineated by the membership or non-membership of the Communist Party
and consequently via the respect or disrespect of totalitarian rules in
everyday life. Or, it was sufficient to convincingly declare one’s respect
for the regime and methodically teach the same to one’s children—
namely, a put-on public display of respect. These criteria also played an
important role in opening opportunities to reach higher social status,
meaning the possibility of studying in schools of higher education, to build
a professional career (Holý 1996, 156) and also, crucially, to have the
power to control other people in almost all levels of not only public, but
also private life.
People lived in fear as to whether even their closest relatives and
friends might be informants of the secret police. Most remained afraid to
express their own views or to entrust these private views to others. An
overwhelming and ubiquitous sense of fear existed, one that very often
served to entirely supersede notions of trust. And if you did trust someone,
then it was usually within a small group of friends and family, trying to
create a kind of escapist alternate reality (Bren 2002) from the official one
propagated by the regime. Outsiders, but also many insiders, represented a
potential threat. It was part of an everyday strategy of survival to pay
attention to what was said, who might overhear what and report it to the
secret police.3
Research background
The authors of this chapter are senior researchers in the area of cultural
studies, cultural anthropology and psychology and are based in Prague.
Texts in this chapter reflect not only their recent research activities, but
also their own life experiences.
The text contained in this chapter is underpinned by a longitudinal
research project undertaken by the first author from 2000 – 2010 (Kuška
2010), in which a sample of 422 university students (f = 246, m = 176)
filled in a short questionnaire. Respondents answered two open questions:
(1) “What have we gained from the contemporary world?” and (2) “What
3 For example, listening to foreign radio, e. g. Radio Free Europe and Voice of
America was illegal. Transmissions by foreign broadcasters were routinely
jammed, but many citizens still found ways to receive them. Possession of any
information contrary to the party line was always a risky endeavour and those who
sought out such information remained careful with whom they shared it.
Schoolchildren could get their parents in trouble if they inadvertently revealed that
their parents were listeners of illegal radios.
Two Decades of Transformation of Inequalities 107
have we lost in the contemporary world?” The minimum length of each
answer was limited to 650 words. All respondents, unlike students from
non-ex-communist countries, perceived the fall of totalitarian systems as a
fundamental change of the country’s socio-cultural reality. An analysis of
the collected narrative data has helped us to demonstrate the formation of
specific groups of fear elicitors and new identities in Czech society. This
source of data also served as one point of departure for the formulation
and realisation of the empirical research project “Stress in the Emotional
Meaning Space” (2009 – 2011), targeted at emotional coping mechanisms
(Trnka et al. 2011).
A research project undertaken by Charles University in Prague,
Department of Cultural Studies, represents a further source of data. In this
team, the first author undertook the individual empirical study “The Czech
Public, Culture and Globalisation”. The aim of this study was to determine
the existing attitudes of Czechs towards the processes of globalisation and
to interpret these within a wider context of this dominant form of socio-
cultural change (Kuška 2004).
Theoretical mirror
In this section, we would like to highlight several theoretical
foundations to social inequalities in transition societies. We omit for
reasons of limited space “traditional” and well-known theories of social
inequalities by figures such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1755), Karl Marx
(1867) or Max Weber (1922), and instead introduce selected contemporary
theoretical approaches.
Traditional theories of social inequalities were based on the existence
of social classes. Such constructions are still usable in Western countries
of the Euro-Atlantic socio-cultural area. It is significant for totalitarian
regimes that they essentially side-lined or marginalised the pre-existing
elites. The communist regime struggled for a new world order via the
elevation of the proletariat. It is historically evident, that the working
classes, as they exist (or have existed), are not inherently predisposed to
initiate processes of transformation, instead they may easily be
manipulated by those with greater knowledge and power (Wolin 2004,
During the post war rise of communism, force was used to implement
change in the name of the working classes. Existing elites were labelled as
enemies of the new order. Business owners, large and small, as well as
larger property owners became enemies of this totalitarian socialist state.
They then fell victim to nationalisation, collectivisation in farming,
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punitive taxes and currency reform as well as being accused and
frequently convicted (in show trials) of being agents of foreign powers;
intellectuals and church leaders, or anyone else representing an alternative
reality or fighting against the new regime would be made to suffer for their
opposition (Navrátil 1998 Rupnik 1989, Kaplan 1990).
The post-Velvet Revolution situation in Czechoslovakia, which can be
generalised for all post-communist countries in the ‘90s, contained no
traditional classes. Barbara Heyns (2005) surveyed market transitions in
post-communist countries and brought some well-argued and contextual
findings: she describes increasing inequalities by age, education, region of
the country, and health status in Central and Eastern Europe and she also
highlights declining differences by gender. In 1989, women were better
educated than men throughout the region; they were also over-represented
in professions that in the West were highly paid and dominated by men,
such as medicine, dentistry, management, law, education, and
administration. Of course, these jobs were not paid salaries equivalent to
their value in market economies, nor did they permit much self-direction
or professional autonomy. Under socialism, manual labour, especially in
heavy industry, was highly rewarded and “almost exclusively male”
(Heyns 2005, 180). As noted in the above text, inequalities, which arose
during the totalitarian era, notably in the fields of wages and gender,
continue in Czech society to this day (Fischlová 2005).
The general typology of the most important competencies that cause
social inequalities was developed by Nico Stehr, who focused his research
activities on the transformation of industrial societies into knowledge-
based societies. He created a typology of the most important competencies
that cause social inequalities today: the capacity to exploit discretion, the
facility to organise protection, the authority to speak, the ability to
mobilise defiance and the capacity of avoidance and exclusion (Stehr
1999, 58). He draws from George Simmel’s “Philosophy of Money”
(Simmel 1900) and conceptualises knowledge as the capacity for action.
New reality: emergence of new identities
The process of interiorisation of the economic view of the world, self,
family and social relations in individuals significantly influenced the
emergence of new identities during the post-communist period.
To better illustrate the dynamics in the transformation of identities, we
selected the following types of citizens: politician, entrepreneur, labourer
and judge. We briefly characterise their roles and positions in totalitarian
Two Decades of Transformation of Inequalities 109
communist society and in contemporary post-communist society in both
the personal and public spheres.
To be a politically active person during the former totalitarian regime
generally meant one had to embody this regime. We can map these basic
motivations: personal interests to have better access to material wealth and
career; the possibility to actively exercise power over other people’s
everyday lives; to be a privileged member in society. From the outside, it
was impossible to recognise if politicians were really in line with
communist ideology in their minds, but either way, they had to
demonstrate unquestionable outward devotion.
The 1989 revolution brought new demands on new politicians. A
significant factor was the wholesale rehabilitation of the very notion of
being a politician. This was widely discredited by the former totalitarian
regime in the minds of those who cared about politics, but were not yet
active in this field. There were only a few other sources for the new
political class: dissidents and returned exiles.
Today, motivation to be a politician is perceived as personal ambition
to participate in the slicing up of the cake. This is accelerated by the
privatisation of state property in the 1990s, and later, by opportunities to
manage businesses in the public sector (municipalities, infrastructure,
state-owned companies and the redistribution of European funds) as well
as to work as a de facto servant for commercial interests of mostly foreign
The notion of the entrepreneur is a relatively new identity in post-
Velvet Revolution society if we omit the rare communist-era small
entrepreneurs like mini-farmers or so called entrepreneurs, illegal but
tolerated moneychangers4. During the 90s, the typical entrepreneur was
described as a middle-age male, wearing a violet jacket, white socks, black
moccasin and beige or grey trousers, equipped with a black briefcase and
cell phone in his pocket. Today’s Czech entrepreneurs are very similar to
their colleagues in Western countries and women are widely accepted in
4 In Czechoslovakia (as in other communist countries such as Poland, GDR or the
Soviet Union), a second currency called “bony” (the coupons) was in existence.
This currency, issued by the government, enabled the purchase of selected western
goods and also domestic products of reduced availability in a special network of
shops. Communist regimes in general had ongoing issues with securing hard
currency. This was achieved in part by having both foreigners and Czechoslovaks
travelling abroad (for example singers) convert their foreign currency wages or
gifts into “bony” upon their return. “Bony” could only be legally bought for
foreign currency not Czechoslovak crowns. The illegal selling of “bony” in
exchange for Czechoslovak crowns (and the exchange of hard currencies) took
place on the black market.
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this role; even the debate about a dilemma between career and family is
heard, often in the context of the ageing and low birth-rates of Western
During communist times, working men and women were archetypes in
the communist society. Workers were glorified. The official mythology of
the proletariat was an important part of communist ideology. The post-
WWII communist takeover was ostensibly initiated in the name of the
working class, while in reality workers had very little real say in their
government. Positive discrimination for labourers and for people with
“working class” origins was also initiated by this regime. Worker
professions were divided by gender, though the idea of women assuming
traditional male positions was welcomed. A typical labourer in the Czech
Republic is similar to that found in much of the Western world. For
example, such people work at supermarket checkouts or on the factory
assembly line.
The judiciary was essentially incorporated into the executive of the
communist regime. The manipulated trials of the 1950s had many
unfortunate victims (Hodos 1987, Davidson 1998, 236-43). A key
difference with democratic societies became evident: one could be
convicted and even executed merely for having an opinion that differed
from officially approved ideology (Marková 2003, 171).
For almost two decades now, judges in contemporary Czech society
have been criticised for inefficiency, with numerous trials running for
many years, leading many to fear prolonged and hopeless efforts in this
arena (Terterov and Reuvid 2005, 26-7). In recent years, there has been
consistent talk of a “judicial mafia”, which accedes to the whims of
politicians and is not solving clear cases of corruption, mostly by specific
politicians (Department of State 2010, 1271-2). The second half of 2011
brought media reports of one or more corruption scandals on a weekly
basis, but no politician has ever faced serious jail time for corruption in the
last two decades. Almost two-fifths of Czechs believe that fairness can be
achieved via international law courts (i. e. the Strasbourg-based European
Court of Human Rights) (Kuška 2004).
Empowerment and gender inequality
The most apparent phenomenon of the post-Velvet Revolution period
was the emergence of the “double workload” of Czech women. Each
citizen, with the exception of mothers with young children, had the
obligation “to be employed” during the communist period. A full-time job
was obligatory for everyone and breaking this law was punished by the
Two Decades of Transformation of Inequalities 111
system. On the other hand, salaries were equally low for everyone with the
exception of governmental officials and politicians. Wage levels were
often dependent only on the monthly amount of hours spent at the
workplace and therefore performance was rather poor in many labour
The situation has changed from the Velvet Revolution onwards. The
amount of contributed success or performance has become the dominant
factor relating to wages earned. This shift influenced both the public and
private lives of Czech women. Many Czech men expect that their wives
will proceed with full time jobs and that they will also be employed in
well-paid jobs. At the same time, the majority of Czech society continues
to share the social construct of woman as a “family care giver” and
expectation that a women should manage most domestic work (Radimská
2003). Many women have become more stressed due to the increased
demands of the workplace and insufficient participation of husbands in
domestic duties. Ivo Plaňava (2000) and Radka Radimská (2003) reinforce
this point in their findings that show that most domestic work still depends
on Czech women, despite their increased professional engagement.
Why has the opinion that everyone should be employed in a full-time
job in Czech society, emerged? The key factor may lie in insufficient
awareness of the importance of time that is invested in domestic and
family life. The emergence of a market economy after the Velvet
Revolution (1989) started the process of interiorisation of the economic
view of the world, self, family and social relations. Therefore, prevailing
life goals within Czech society have changed to earning money and
cumulating material possessions.
Unpaid work within the family continues to have almost zero value in
the eyes of Czech people. Men in particular often see domestic work and
childcare as “natural” duties for women. Given the fact that men occupy
most top positions in Czech commercial and public sectors, there is an
absolute lack of “family friendly” jobs in the Czech labour market.
Quantitative studies from the 90s showed that requests for part-time jobs
were a frequent reason for the rejection of women in many job
applications (Hašková 2003).
Furthermore, negative stereotypes also exist with regards to women
who have chosen a life as home-makers. Many Czech husbands believe
that “household” women are more prone to having extra-marital sexual
relationships. This stereotype is rooted in the ‘90s, during which time a
new identity of “entrepreneur“ emerged. This post-Velvet Revolution
entrepreneur was typically a workaholic man, who spent 12-14 hours a day
working hard, perhaps in the development of his own company. Such
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entrepreneurs were looking for highly attractive women, who could best
“represent” them at parties and at social encounters with colleagues.
Concurrently, the wives of such entrepreneurs represented the first group
of household women after the Velvet Revolution, named “zelené vdovy”
or “green widows“. Green widows are defined as “wives of rich
entrepreneurs living in detached houses in the peripheries of city”
(Smolová 2009, 8). Such new entrepreneurs were often totally absorbed by
their business activities and invested very small amounts of time in their
private lives. “Green widows” reported increased levels of boredom,
loneliness, and isolation (Smolová 2009). Clinical psychologists Petr
Šmolka (Šmolka 2003) pointed out that the green widows are more prone
to having extra-marital sexual relationships and also to indulge in frequent
alcohol consumption. Czech men have even created negative stereotypes
such as “the only concern of ‘green widows’ is to capture a rich groom and
spend his money”, or “boredom motivates ‘green widows’ to commit
infidelity” (Smolová 2009).
Nowadays, the “double load” of Czech women represents a frequently
discussed issue within both the public and the private discourse. It seems
that the crucial factor is the insufficient work participation of husbands in
the domestic sphere. What constitutes the barrier of possible higher work
participation of Czech men at home? It seems that the most significant
barrier is the low social appraisal of family care within contemporary
Czech society. In contrast, earning money and cumulating material
possessions are highly appraised by Czech society. Therefore, men get
positive feedback from society when playing the traditional role of
breadwinners. Although some “ice-breaking” has occurred, the
mainstream of the Czech society still persists in the old paradigm.
Shaping new fears and identifying the most serious issues
in contemporary Czech society
Many sources of social fear during the communist period were based
on an existential uncertainty that was artificially propagated by the
communist system. Numerous reasons could lead to a person being the
subject of surveillance, listening to Western radio (Cummings 2009) or
even men having long hair (Bažant et al. 2010, 342-3), often as the result
of trumped-up charges. It was not just the individual in question, but often,
in more serious cases, his or her family and friends too were subject to
persecution. This included being expelled or banned from higher
education, being prohibited from gaining meaningful employment relative
to abilities or the truncation of career advancement (Eyal 2003, 42-58).
Two Decades of Transformation of Inequalities 113
Only those who actively proclaimed their allegiance to the regime had any
chance of climbing the socio-economic ladder. In our work, we have
identified three groups of actual fear elicitors and their development:
aging, security and, as previously noted, the context of parenting and
New actual fears are represented by the unfortunate state of the public
purse after the years of deficit-spending, now exacerbated by the current
economic crisis. Fears also exist that the state will be unable to pay out
pensions in the future to today’s tax-payers. At the same time, the
population is ageing. Taxes will have to go up and spending will have to
be cut, while unemployment appears to be doing the same. Simply put, the
privatisation of profits and the nationalisation of losses.
New sources of social fears have emerged since the Velvet Revolution.
One of the key ones is the corruption of the judicial system and politics.
Post-communist citizens largely do not trust to the efficacy of the judiciary
or the police. The on-going stratification of Czech society produces new
inequalities that are mostly based on economic factors. Members of the
economic elite, who control strategically significant resources, are failing
to follow the rules and norms of the society they represent, instead of
proudly carrying the identity tag of “new elites”.
Meanwhile, both personal and public debts have soared in recent times
(Ministry of the Finance of the Czech Republic 2012), while the political,
private and judicial spheres have become ever more intertwined. The
aforementioned term “judicial mafia” is frequently used colloquially to
describe those behind such lawlessness (Druker 2007, Department of State
2008, 1257-8, Department of State 2010, 1275-6).
Contemporary Czech society is an example of transformation, whereby
old inequalities fostered by the former totalitarian regime are now being
replaced by new ones, created by the currently established distribution of
power in a globalised world. The most apparent and important post-Velvet
Revolution processes taking place within the framework of democracy are
the ones that bring qualitative change.
In the Czech Republic, a synergy of fifty years of totalitarian
devastation of moral and ethical norms is evident. Today, incorporating
the country into the global economy represents historically unique
conditions for people democratically elected during the last two decades to
serve the public. However, as underscored by a headline article in the
Financial Times (Ciensky 2011), Transparency International reports or
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The Economist (K.M. 2011) rates of corruption in the Czech Republic
match those found in many African dictatorships.
There is a unique perception of the current global economic crisis
among Czechs. Debates often centre on beliefs that if there were no public
sector corruption there might also be no significant public-sector debt. The
post-Velvet Revolution political environment is also the result of a post-
totalitarian sense of resignation and resistance towards taking “res
publica” into one’s own hands. But the who, how, and why of those
politicians able to take matters into their own hands, often at the expense
of the greater good, perfectly underscores the previously outlined
complexities related to non-altruistic self-advancement. Barbara Heyns
(2005, 188) notes:
Social and economic transitions have no final chapter. The post-communist
saga is just beginning. The eight countries that joined the European Union
in 2004 and the five that have achieved growth with equity are surely in a
far better state than the former Soviet Union. The bulk of the evidence
indicates that economic development and poverty reduction depend on
collective policy choices, and not invisible hands.
Education and health as instrumental means towards one’s well-being
have gained more economical momentum in the developing competitive
social order. Significantly some traditional features of society, such as
marriage and child-care, have become less important as individual social
class advancement has increased.
Czech society, similarly to other countries in Central and Eastern
Europe, has gone through fifty years of totality. Yet it also has a rich
tradition of prosperity and democracy stemming from its experiences
during the years prior to the Second World War. Thus, Czechs arguably
have a historically cultivated sensitivity for identifying various forms of
inequality and lack of freedoms, and we “only” lack effective institutions
to properly implement the desirable steps for tackling such societal ills. To
this end, and in this phase of the Czech transformation, the European
Union presents a framework that enables us to actively envisage the idea
of a functional democratic society, albeit one that can bring about new
... The Velvet Revolution in 1989 brought sociocultural changes which fundamentally transformed personal and public lives. The emergence of a market economy after the Velvet Revolution started the process of interiorisation of the economic view of the world, self, family and social relations (Ku ska, Trnka, & Balcar, 2013). Therefore, prevailing life goals within Czech society have changed into earning money and cumulating material possessions. ...
... The post-Velvet Revolution situation was typified by the increased value of earning money and cumulating material possessions in contrast to the low social appraisal of family life (Ku ska, Trnka, & Balcar, 2013). For example, one of the most evident phenomena of the post-Velvet Revolution period was the emergence of the double workload of Czech women. ...
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