Image Credit: Side-street in Staroměstská, Prague. Taken on B&W Fomapan 400 by Lu Gallagher.
On a Sunday evening in Malostranská, returning from Shakespeare a Synové where I had just traded a few old books, I turned down the long and walled-in cobbled street of u lužického semináře, where in the darkness of the hardly lit way ahead, I saw four men wearing black and brown, their red-white-and-blue Czech tricolours draped over their shoulders, or hoisted above their heads. None of them were wearing masks. Immediately, I crossed the narrow way, and when I did, these men who were quite jolly became fairly quiet. One of them coughed to himself. They marched on.
As I came to the corner of the Jelínek distillery, I could see that the Monument to The Fallen was lit up with pale blue light, that all across the park at Klárov, from the tram-stop to the Mánesův bridge, was a crowd of people, more Czech tricolours waving over their heads, as supporters flocked towards them, wearing the flag on their clothes like football colours. Out of this scattered brightness of red-white-and-blue, were scores of fluorescent green jackets. Police. Riot vans. Squad cars, their own red-and-blue lights blaring. Those in the gathering who wore masks seemed to have opted not for hygiene, but concealment.
I watched for a while from the pavement. I kept trying to leave, but then finding myself coming back, a few others lingering near the entrance to the station. Somewhere in the mass of people came a male voice through a megaphone, insisting on freedom from terror. In the biting weather of a Prague December, I decided not to wait around, to head home as soon as possible. But as I went into the metro, a short woman with thin hair (dyed black) was laughing at something, impossible to tell if it was out of dispute or triumph. She was elderly, though her eyes were very bright, and she wore a threadbare Czech flag pinned vertically to her coat with metal stars.
Pardon, co to je? Mluvíte anglický? I asked her. She stopped mid-step. English? Yes. She pointed at the crowd, visible through the dark station glass. Tady? Tady? she asked. Jo, jo. A moment passed as she searched for the right words. It is revolution for Covid, she eventually said, her voice proud, giving me an uncertain look. Aha! Thank you. I turned back to the doors. As I went, I saw her hesitate on the escalator, weighing this interaction in her mind. Outside, the crowd had begun to sing Kde domov můj, the Czech national anthem, so passionately sentimental, I was moved to a strange feeling of elation, bordering on tears.
According to the third level of the PES COVID-19 regulation system in the Czech Republic, only one-hundred people can take part in a demonstration, divided into socially-distanced groups of twenty, wearing masks. Around ten times this number had attended the rally outside the government offices in Klárov on the sixth of the month, having marched through Old Town Square, all the way from Palacky and Václavské náměstí, starting at around four o’clock. Some people will be reported to the administrative body, a police spokesperson later told ČTK, a major Czech news outlet.
Two months earlier, on the eighteenth of October, also a Sunday, I had been walking in Rajská zahrada not far from where I live, in Žižkov. The name of the park in English can be rendered as either Paradise Park, or the Garden of Eden. Over the rooftops of Prague, I heard a series of fast explosions, like fireworks, then sirens, klaxons, air-horns. A column of white dust rose, then dispersed. For a moment, I half-believed civil war had been declared, that fighting had broken out on the streets. Briefly, I even laughed. But it was getting cold under a sky blank with clouds, and I was underdressed for a riot.
The following day, the nineteenth, I had read reports that some two-thousand people had gathered in Staroměstské náměstí, the Old Town Square, ostensibly to protest government restrictions. Asking a Czech friend, I was told that she believed many of them were football hooligans and out-of-town hockey-ultras from Ostrava. In the morning, heading to the office of a student I tutored in Nové Butovice, the metro-car was more or less empty, but for a few commuters, and a young man in black-block. Black pants. Black boots. Black mask. Black hoodie. Faded tattoos on his fist. Nervously, his leg bounced, his eyes sleepless. He looked very lost, then relieved as he got off at Anděl, a major station for external lines. Whatever the nature of the riot, when I had first come to the city some eight months earlier, in February, there had been no lockdown, and the square had been shoulder-to-shoulder with tourists, chewing delicious trdelnik and squinting at the astronomical clock.
The repetitive explosions I had heard that Sunday afternoon had been firecrackers, other small bombs, and intermittently, the police responding with water-cannons and tear-gas. More than one-hundred people had been arrested following the country’s first major anti-covid protest, Prague police spokeswoman Eva Kropáčová later told ČTK. Fifty people had been detained before the protests had even begun, she added, having been found with fireworks, brass-knuckles, a telescopic-baton, and a firearm.
In the same month, health minister Roman Prymula was dismissed from his position for violating his own hygiene regulations after being caught maskless at a Vyšehrad restaurant. I had already seen reports on anti-covid protests in Trafalgar Square in August. COVID-19 is a hoax and 5G is to blame appeared to be a common theme. I was still considering the Cummings scandal and the resignation of Scottish Health Minister, Catherine Calderwood, as far back as April. Was it a collective delusion that the virus was all a bit overblown? A folie of self-destruction? I was seeing depressing similarities. Details varied, but the scene was strikingly familiar. Where the Czech Republic had been lauded globally as a success story after its spring lockdowns curbed the first wave, the poorly-controlled second wave had destroyed this reputation entirely.
And this restless failure begs the question: what do The People want? The easing of restrictions and the opening of retail services on the third of December had brought flocks of Christmas shoppers to the streets. Many of them had been aboard the metro B-line as I left Malostranská, frightened children huddled in close quarters with protestors brandishing flags too big for the carriage, police in black raincoats, four-a-car, overlooking the situation, everyone in masks. One older woman in a sky-blue jumper was fidgeting in her seat, getting increasingly bothered. She was only trying to finish her crossword.
A prosperous, or at the very least functional, economy. Shops, wealth, happiness. The same old preprogrammed fantasy of capitalism that existed in every formerly-Soviet country. But no, this is not the case, it is not enough. There is something beyond this. A universal element shared between many other nations. A fear of, yet impulse towards, collapse. An overactive death drive. A longing for auto-da-fé. Everyone wants some kind of change (this is evident enough in a nation born out of mass-resistance) and it is only just over thirty years since the Czech Republic came into its nascent form following the Velvet Revolution, in 1989. There are the symbols of nationhood, of unity, the songs, the flags. They are there as messages, as weapons. Fists are tight on their poles, voices loud on their words. But what to do with them? What movement to support? What terror to fight?
Against the risk of infection, against the obvious spread of the virus, the elderly and the young gather together in the cold. There is so little explanation given or needed for yearning. And so little safety in longing to disappear in the mass. Globally, the anti-covid protests continue, and Prague is only a sample. When these demonstrations demand the easing of restrictions, their exact objective is unclear. In these anti-covid rallies, there is a moment taking place, adopting various forms, under varying degrees of sanity, longing, or conspiracy. The same language is there, the language of protest, of upheaval, but there is no exact lexicon to express the direction of this change, only that some change must take place. Instead, there is the language of paranoia, desperation, nationalism, and hope. A revolution for COVID.
Two middle-aged men in cycling spandex had shaken their bikes in their arms as they ascended the escalators from the metro platform to the demonstration in Klárov. They appeared healthy, in great shape. There was no sign of the elderly woman with the dyed-black hair, but at this point, I was on my way home. Descending a few steps ahead, a well-off-looking couple looked at these cyclists as they passed us, not going so far as to join in with their chant, but grinning, then smiling back at me. The cyclists began to shout in my direction, but I stayed quiet, as they continued to bellow all the way to the exit at the top, until eventually there was no way I could hear them anymore. Out of the echoes of what they were shouting down the long escalator shaft, the only thing I could understand were the Czech words: jste malo. You are small. You are small. You are small. Smallness. The protests, of course, are nice and big.
Joshua Jones is a writer based in the Czech Republic, where he is the literary critic in residence for Prague Writers’ Festival. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in English and in translation to Czech in a number of journals, including The Stinging Fly, Filler, 3:AM, Marble, Literární, and Snitch.He is currently working on a first collection.