July 7th, 2022 AAAA
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Think Visegrad


Vrba, Tomáš: Breakfast with a Billionaire, or a Central European Dream

Twenty years ago, we used to have recurring dreams. Most were rather frustrating: our émigré friends living abroad would dream that they had managed to return home secretly, only to be informed on by someone and sent straight to prison. Those of us who lived here, on the other hand, would dream that through some administrative slip-up, we'd been given permission for a twelve hour visit to New York, but that the submarine put us ashore somewhere on Long Island, fifty miles from Manhattan, with 25 cents in our pockets... You know it, I'm sure: it's Kafka's Amerika. Or you might have dreamed that the regime had finally fallen and someone had arranged a breakfast with you and a billionaire who wanted to give you money to fulfil an ancient hope: to put out an intelligent newspaper for Central Europe.

In the end the regimes did fall, and at last, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Poland enthusiastically embraced friendly cooperation with each other through the Visegrad Declaration. The hangover arrived a couple of years later. The first generation of revolutionaries was replaced by a new professional political establishment, and the original idea of advancing together into Europe was replaced by a none-too-gentlemanly horse-race. A war was raging in Yugoslavia, and in each of our countries, nationalists and other extremists were popping up all over. After Czechoslovakia fell apart in 1993, Mečiar and his people took power in Slovakia. With trepidation, we realized that we now knew less about our neighbors from the former Soviet bloc than we did in the bad old days.

In the spring of 1994, Václav Havel invited six of his colleagues - all of them central European presidents - to the East Bohemian town of Litomyšl. At the same time, he opened a meeting of Central European intellectuals, an event that had the melancholy title: "A Shared Seclusion." Was there a more appropriate place to introduce the idea of the Středoevropské noviny - the Central European Gazette - given that its Czech acronym (SEN) means "dream" in Czech?

Several years passed before the first issue came out. The idea for such a publication had been in the air for quite a while. During the early years of Visegrad cooperation there were impulses in that direction of varying strength. Adam Michnik pushed the idea from the beginning and, in the end, his practical steps were the decisive factor in setting things in motion. Petr Pithart had originally planned to publish the Czech version in his magazine Přítomnost (The Present), but in the early stages he was preoccupied with politics, and then his magazine got into financial trouble. The liberal daily, Lidové noviny was the next choice.

The most difficult task was to persuade the management of the paper to take it on. They found it hard to believe that they'd be receiving a ready-to-lay-out supplement each month, with no financial outlay on their part except for the cost of the paper. At the time, the editor-in-chief's post at Lidové noviny was a bit of a revolving door. Luckily, when the moment of decision came, the chair was occupied by Jaromír štětina, who readily agreed. He was gone by the time the first issue appeared, but by then it didn't matter. The work was well under way.

Central Eurepean Gazette appeared as a slim monthly supplement in four major Central European dailies - the Gazeta Wyborcza in Warsaw, Magyar Hírlap in Budapest, Sme in Bratislava, and Lidové noviny in Prague. This gave the supplement a combined readership of a million. The supplement's mission had an air of Old World nobility about it: to educate its readers to become better acquainted with each other. In other words, it was consistent with the aims of the Visegrad Library that was just about to get under way at the time. The national editions were not identical, but some regular features appeared in all four languages. Month after month, the pages of the supplement were filled with articles in a variety of genres: reportage, analysis, and commentary, complemented by photographs and cartoons and chronicles of important events from the preceding month in the other three neighbouring countries. Sometimes the issues would include articles that had appeared in the mother publications in the other countries, but for the most part the articles were written directly for the supplement.

From our sponsor, we received funds to cover contributors' fees, copying machines, faxes (remember the days when a text would arrive by fax and then have to be typed into the computer by hand?). The staff were all volunteers and highly committed to the task, full of ideas, elan, and good will. We were surprised to discover that nevertheless it was sometimes hard to agree on everything; given that this were so, how much harder must it have been for neighbors who didn't care about agreement? It was a useful lesson in the realities of Europe, and we were fortunate to be able to learn it on the forgiving sands of Visegrad.

The main lesson? Good will alone is not enough without the will to cooperate. We often, and mostly (though not always) in jest, threw stereotypical insults at each other, based on the prejudices that Czechs, Hungarians, Poles, and Slovaks had accumulated about each other throughout their history - and when we gathered these together in a series of articles, they turned out to be one of out greatest hits.

Gradually, we worked through our somewhat naive optimism to a position of healthy scepticism. In this, however, it's always worth paying attention to the Hungarians: in Europe, they do pessimism better than the Portuguese or the Czechs. In December, 1994, we reprinted an article from the Magyar Hírlap headlined "Obituary for Visegrad", - and just to make sure the point wasn't lost, we ran the sub-head: "Visegrad Has Lost Its Meaning". The following June, Adam Michnik picked up on the gloomy tone in an article entitled "The Imaginary Visegrad Museum". Suddenly, however, against all expectations, the Czech Prime Minister at the time, Václav Klaus, proclaimed: "Visegrad lives!" (Středoevropské noviny, August 1995) and on we went.

The billionaire's name, by the way, was George Soros, and the breakfast was held in the temporary headquarters of his Central European University in the Prague working class district of Žižkov. It was in a hotel once operated by the former Communist trade union. Dreams sometimes, temporarily at least, become reality, except that on that particular day, the person in charge of the dream-like stage-props had a bad day. The venue was no Rainbow Room. Through a serving window in the canteen, we were each handed a battered tray with a cup of thin trade-union tea, a rubbery, day-old roll, and a miniature plastic container with an unidentifiable jam-like substance inside. Welcome to Kafka's Prague.

Tomáš Vrba
Czech publisher and translator. In the 1970s and 1980s involved in the independent publishing movement. Currently lectures on Central European literature at the New York University in Prague.

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