A Few Remarks On the Elusive Quality Called "Slovakness"

As it happens, it was a British artist John Wilson who has had the idea to create an image of an ideal citizen of the European Union based on ironically conceived typical national features of its members – this ideal citizen should be, for example, witty as a German, quiet as an Italian, sober as an Irishman, and so on. (Unfortunately, I cannot remember the adjective attributed to an Englishman – if there has been any.) These characteristics, attended by a cartoon, have been supplied by the individual nations themselves as a demonstration of their self-reflection and their sense of humour. When, as a prospective member, Slovakia was asked to offer its own cartoon ironically illustrating typical quality of the Slovaks, our Ministry of Foreign Affairs organized a public competition, results of which were then evaluated by a special Commission consisting of representatives of the European Union, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and other governmental institutions, and even of one humorist. They chose a cartoon with a caption „unhospitable as a Slovak“. This is exactly the kind of institutionally approved humour and self-reflection you can expect to get from such a procedure, and I hasten to add that the Slovaks in general are not as humourless as that – there has been an outcry in media and the Ministry defended itself by saying that the characteristic had to be acceptable from the point of view of international politics, whatever that means. But I think that behind both these apparently conflicting standpoints there lurks the same apprehension: the Commission has been afraid that a genuinely self-critical cartoon might present Slovaks in a negative light, and the critics have been afraid that the lack of humour and self-reflection demonstrated by the chosen cartoon presents Slovaks in a negative light. This excessive respect to foreign opinion, this fear of  not being sufficiently known or understood abroad point to a feature that we might, with a wink, call typically Slovak: the lack of self-esteem and confidence.

            Now, I am not at all sure such generalizations about nations are tenable and plausible, and I am by no means an expert in the quality I am supposed to speak about, the quality so strange and elusive that there is no proper English word for it. Let us call it „Slovakness“. I guess I am a Slovak but I have never given it much thought and I have certainly never put any conscious effort into being a Slovak, the same way I have never put any conscious effort into being a male. But, admittedly, there were times when I regarded certain phenomena as typically Slovak, the epitomes of „Slovakness“. For example, as a child I used to spend holidays with my grandmother in central Slovakia, the heart, so to say, of our land. That is why I considered certain special words I heard there, words like „padláš“, „fruštik“, „pigľajz“ or „upískaný“, to be quintessentially  Slovak. Only later on, and with great dismay, did I learn that „padláš“ meaning a loft comes from Hungarian „padlás“, „fruštik“ meaning breakfast comes from German „Frühstück“, „pigľajz“ meaning an iron comes from German „Bügeleisen“, and „upískaný“ meaning dirty comes from Hungarian „piszkos“. And worse was yet to come: there is a special kind of a sheep cheese that is, so to say, endemic to a certain region of Slovakia and used to be exported to many countries of the world, usually under its German name „Liptauer Käse“, meaning „the cheese of Liptov“, Liptov being the name of the region. The Slovak word for this cheese is „bryndza“, and the meal made of this cheese, called „bryndzové halušky“, is probably the only unquestionably Slovak contribution to the world cuisine. When, as a grown-up man, I went for a holiday to Rumania, I found out that the Rumanian word for cheese – any cheese – is „brinza“. Well, I knew there had been a Valachian colonization several hundred years ago, but until then I believed that if the Slovaks had not invented the product itself, they at least gave it an original Slovak name. Such bitter revelations have made me very careful when trying to define „Slovakness“.

            The truth is that, due to its geographical position and history, Slovakia is a curious mixture of various cultural traditions and influences, and Slovaks themselves an equally strange mixture of various ethnic groups and nationalities that happened to live on this territory, or pass through it. Not to go too far back in the past, I will give you an example from my own background: in my mother´s family, there were four girls. One of them remained single, one married a member of German minority in Hungary, one married a Czech and one married a Russian exile, who came to Czechoslovakia as a child after the so-called October Revolution. All their children regard themselves as Slovaks now. But for you as students of literature another example might be of greater interest: of the Slovak writers of my generation, at least five have Czech ancestors, though some of them came to Slovakia several hundred years ago; one is partly Croatian, one belongs to an ethnic group called „gorals“ that has lived mostly in Poland and two have a Hungarian parent. On the other hand, one writer, a member of Hungarian minority writing in Hungarian, has direct family ties to a great Slovak poet Ján Kollár. I hope you don´t suspect me of Slovak chauvinism now – after all, I am one of the people on the list; I am mentioning this as a kind of peculiarity, because literature has been traditionally the main – if not the only – upholder and preserver of „Slovakness“ in our territory. By the way, three most prominent novelists of the previous generation have also some foreign strain in their blood: the name Mináč, I have been told, comes from the Turkish word for the tollman, Bednár has direct Moravian ancestors and the name Tatarka also points to an exotic origin, especially as the family probably comes from Poland. In the last years of his life, Tatarka styled himself as a „Carpathian shepherd“, and the term, with all its vagueness, might have a strong element of truth.

            What I want to say, really, is that it would be rather difficult to find an object or a feature that this diversified group of people could agree upon as being „typically Slovak“. Due to a rapid succession of contradictory interpretations of crucial historical events that we were exposed to in the last century, there are in general very few ideas – or facts, for that matter – that the Slovaks are able to agree about. The major part of the Slovak history took place within the realm of old Hungary, where the ethnic origin of its inhabitants did not play any important role – until the end of the 18th century, the predominant language of educated people had been the Latin, and it was only in the second half of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century that the distinct tendency to transform various nationalities living in Hungary into a unified Hungarian political nation could be felt, but the Slovaks – perhaps because of their readiness to succumb to the pressure – are inclined to dismiss their own history as a thousand-years-long oppression. The void created by the history thus renounced is filled up by myths, which, being more vague and romantic, seem to some Slovaks better fitted to gain general acceptance than the facts.

            This belief can lead to comic episodes. Shortly after the foundation of the Slovak Republic in 1993 there was a conference of historians, at which, as a special guest, the then vice-president of the Slovak National Bank also took part. His presence at such a conference is interesting in itself, but what was even more fascinating was the speech he held there. He pointed out that what the Slovaks are in dire need of at this moment of their history are myths, and appealed to the historians to supply them. Now, it is true that the Slovaks have no myths in the proper sense of the word; on the other hand, however, our history, as reflected in minds of  common Slovaks, even those with academic education, is just a heap of myths, and the task of historians is not to create new myths, but to replace those already existing with facts. It is a difficult task, because the Slovaks are in love with their myths. In other words, they are mythomaniacs. It is not an exclusively Slovak feature, they share it with other small nations, but I think we can regard this quality as typically Slovak: behind the feeling that our past – or present, for that matter – is not glorious enough there lurks the same old lack of self-esteem and confidence.

            Apart from the myth about the thousand-years-long oppression under the Hungarians and the parallel myth about the thousand-years-long fight for an independent Slovak state there is, for example, a deep-rooted myth about the foundations of the Slovak culture having been laid by the Byzantine missionaries Constantine and Methodius who were invited by the Great Moravian monarch Rastislav to spread the Christian religion in our territory. It is true that they invented a new alphabet for the local Slavonic tribes and wrote several works in their language but the Christian religion had been introduced in the territory before their arrival, and the Slovaks are of Roman Catholic, not of Orthodox denomination, and write in the Latin alphabet, not in Glagolitic or Cyrillic. There are no traces of their short pastoral activity left in our culture except for some fragments of their works, but the Slovaks readily identify the Slovak language with the one that was approved as a liturgic language by the Pope in the 9th century, and under this pretext claim it to be the oldest European language. And they believe that the missionaries acted out of brotherly love between Slavs, although neither Constantine, nor Methodius, nor even the Byzantine emperor who had sent them were of Slavic origin, and the reasons for their mission were clearly political.

            In a similar way, the Slovaks mythologize their historical figures. The best known example is probably the figure of a highwayman Jánošík who was hanged at the beginning of the 18th century. His robbing activities were limited to two years and, in those times of feudal uprisings, were in no way exceptional, but in the Slovak folklore he has taken up the role of a Robin Hood who „took from the rich and gave to the poor“. I think it is the first part especially that has been to the liking of the Slovaks who to this day show a lenient attitude towards a theft or robbery, if it happens to be successful. Jánošík´s name has adorned so many organizations, institutions, public events or products, even such as a popular processed cheese, that both he and the admiration the Slovaks feel for him have eventually become a laughing matter, a subject of numerous comedies. It might be, hopefully, a sign that our nation has come of age.

            As a result of the dismissive relationship of the Slovaks to their history, they have got only a few historical figures at their disposal, and thus these few have to fulfill many, often contradictory, functions. To make them do so, it is necessary to turn the blind eye to facts, but that is something the Slovaks have no problem with. What they need is not the lesson history offers to those who are willing to learn, but heroes whom they could worship. Unfortunately, as I have already mentioned, the Slovaks consist of many diversified groups and, what with the varying ideological interpretations of their past, historical figures that are heroes for some are antiheroes for others. There has been no opinion poll about historical personalities, of course, but if it is anything to go by, we can have a look at those who have found a place of honour on our banknotes, and perhaps even assess their significance according to the denominations.

            Let us start with a twenty-crown banknote: Pribina was a ruler of the Nitra principality at the beginning of the 9th century. He built the first Christian church there and invited a German (Frank) archbishop to consecrate it. Soon afterwards he was expelled by the Great Moravians. It was his affinity to the Germans that made him something of a saint in the times of the first Slovak Republic, which was a sattelite of the Nazi Germany, and for the same reason he became a persona non grata in the communist regime. As the years went by, his sins were partly forgiven and he has been allowed to lend his name to a popular brand of salami and, in a deminutive form „Pribináčik“, to a cottage cheese delicacy for children.

            Constantine and Methodius, whom we have already mentioned, have been allotted the fifty-crown banknote. We can only speculate whether the higher denomination means they are more important than Pribina, or whether it simply reflects the fact that there are two of them. Let us skip the one-hundred-crown banknote, which is dedicated to Virgin Mary, and proceed to the two-hundred-crowns banknote depicting Anton Bernolák, a catholic priest who made the first – and unsuccessful – attempt to establish the Slovak literary language. It is a person with no distinct political or ideological connotations, and therefore mercifully forgotten by most of the Slovaks. His name, if not his work, is still remembered in Bratislava, where a popular university college is named after him. It seems only fair that the five-hundred-crown banknote bears a portrait of Ľudovít Štúr, another man who tried to establish the Slovak literary language, and succeeded. Though always a bit of a hot stuff, he has weathered all regimes – not even communists could deny his leading role in the building of the modern Slovak nation, though there were times when they were holding it against him: if there were no Slovak nation, there would have been no Slovak bourgeois nationalism, and, as Marx himself has pointed out, his behaviour during the revolution of 1848 was definitely reactionary. Which, in fact, it was. As for the predominantly Catholic first Slovak Republic, with a Catholic priest Tiso as its president, its leaders were not quite happy with the fact that Štúr and practically all his followers had been protestants, and handled him with care. You might find interesting that Štúr´s last – and biggest – work, written in German, has been translated into Slovak only recently, and so far nobody has payed much attention to his proposal that the Slovaks should merge with the great Russian nation and accept its language and the Eastern rite. Due to his general, though not unqualified acceptability, Štúr´s  name has adorned a big variety of institutions, a university college among them, but, interestingly, no food product, which might be a sign of a greater respect, or of a lesser popularity.

            The thousand-crowns banknote is decorated by Andrej Hlinka, another Catholic priest and politician, leader of the People´s Party, which fought for the autonomy of Slovaks in the first Czechoslovak Republic. Having died in 1938, he himself played no part in the totalitarian politics of the protofascist Slovak Republic, but his name became a symbol and many state institutions, including such paramilitary and criminal ones like the Hlinka´s Guard and the Flying Squads of Hlinka´s Guard, were named after him. That is why Hlinka has been a controversial figure ever since, secretly adored by some and openly rejected by others. After the fall of the communist regime, he has been „rehabilitated“ as a symbol of the thousand-years-long fight of the Slovaks for their independence. Still, it seems strange that such a controversial character has been allotted a higher denomination than, let us say, Ľudovít Štúr. It is perhaps meant as a kind of compensation for the long years of the communist regime when Hlinka was an anathema. 

            As the last specimen, there is the five-thousand-crowns banknote with a portrait of Milan Rastislav Štefánik. Beside being an astronomer and a general of the French army who moved in the highest social circles, he was one of the three „founding fathers“ of the first Czechoslovak Republic, the other two being Masaryk and Beneš. Upon his return home, by plane, he crashed and died at Bratislava airport, thus giving rise to a legend that he was shot down by the Czechs (Edvard Beneš, in particular) who were afraid of his pro-Slovak stance. In this way, Štefánik is able to serve two opposing purposes at the same time – for the „Czechoslovak“ Slovaks, he is a founder of Czechoslovakia, and for the nationalists, he is a martyr of the Slovak fight for independence. Moreover, his image of a „man of the world“ and his engagement to an Italian countess appeal to a romantic streak in the Slovak nature, and the fact that he was almost irrationally hated by communists gives him an added value. These were probably the reasons why Štefánik has been awarded the highest denomination.

            As a criterion for a more scrupulous selection, we can use Orders given by the Slovak Republic to politicians, diplomats, artists and other people of great merits. There is the Order of Pribina, the Order of Ľudovít Štúr, the Order of Hlinka and the Order of Milan Rastislav Štefánik. It would be nice to say that the choice of personalities often representing rivalling political tendencies shows that the Slovaks have finally found a more balanced view of their own history, but it would not be true. When Štúr´s Order was given to a former adviser of president Havel, one member of the parliament publicly declared that Štúr would not agree with the decision, and there were protests, too, when Pribina´s Order was given to a former diplomat of the totalitarian Slovak Republic. The critics did not say Pribina would not agree, because with this friend of Germans they could not be sure, but they objected to the very fact that such a person is being awarded. The bitter truth is that, instead of thinking about the future, the Slovaks are still fighting battles of the past, as if they were not won or lost long ago. This is another phenomenon we might call typically Slovak: violent ruptures of the national development, frequent changes of political and social conditions that have stifled ambitions and careers of whole generations have generated a deep feeling of frustration, and wishful thinking along the lines „what might have been, if only…“ has become a favourite pastime of many senior Slovaks who try to excuse their personal inadequacies and failures by putting blame on history.

            But let us reserve the last word for the most competent person, the present president of the Slovak Republic. Upon his inauguration, he has said he wants to be the president of all the Slovaks, and I have to admit that he is well equipped for the task. Though for many years a prominent „apparatchik“ and member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, he claims he has never ceased to be a believing Christian in his heart. He shows no signs of penitence for his past, on the contrary, he insists he is proud of all the good things he had done at the time. In this, he is of one mind with those numerous Slovaks whose memories of the past are restricted to the fact that, compared with neighbouring war-stricken states, the Slovaks had it easy under the totalitarian president Tiso, and that under the communists one litre of milk cost only two crowns. No matter how lofty and romantic in their fantasies, the Slovaks are very pragmatic when confronted with facts of life.

            On the first anniversary of his inauguration, our president put flowers at the graves of three important figures of the Slovak history: Ľudovít Štúr, Milan Rastislav Štefánik and Alexander Dubček. He has offered no reasons for his selection but knowing he is a representative of all the Slovaks, I have no doubts he made a right choice. Let us ask, then, what have these three men in common? They are Slovaks, of course. All three, it seems, were charismatic personalities. Two of them (Štúr and Dubček) were born in the same house, which is a kind of symbolism the Slovaks delight in. Two of them (Štúr and Štefánik) died relatively early, at 41 and 39 respectively. But the main reason why the Slovaks can so easily identify with them is, I think, that, due to the intervention of „higher powers“, none of the three managed to bring his efforts to a successful end. And, what is more, all three died under suspicious circumstances. I have already mentioned Štefánik, supposedly shot down by the Czechs. Štúr shot himself in the leg when hunting, and died of sepsis soon afterwards – but had it not been an attempt at suicide? Was it really him who gave the shot? Was Štúr not covering somebody else? And was it not the physician who secretly killed him with his treatment? As for Dubček, who was badly hurt in a car accident on his way to Prague, and then taken to a nearest Czech hospital – why was he not transported to Slovakia? They said it would have been too dangerous but was it not just an excuse? What had Czech physicians done to him to make him die several weeks later? Was the accident not staged by the driver who was only slightly hurt? And where had Dubček´s briefcase with secret documents dissapeared?

            What a fertile soil for legends and myths the Slovaks love so much! What an enticing task for our historians! Unfortunately, one of the most disturbing changes new times have brought about is that the young generation of Slovaks doesn´t seem to be interested in intricacies of our history. To tell the truth, they could not care less. They are so busy travelling around, seeing foreign countries and learning foreign languages that they find no time to be frustrated. If nothing happens soon, I am afraid we are in danger of losing that precious quality I have called, for lack of better words, „Slovakness“, forever.


(Paper written by Pavel Vilikovský for the seminar of the Centre for the Study of Central Europe at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies in March 2003)