On the Grammar of Slavic Verbs

I’m done – I defended my dissertation and completed all the requirements of my degree. Wherever it says I’m a PhD candidate,  I need to change that to PhD.

One of the last sections I wrote is actually one that I had a lot of fun writing – because it is so completely weird and not like any other part of the dissertation, and because it gave me a chance to talk about language, which is one of my favorite activities. Hope you’ll enjoy!

The grammatical concept of aspect differentiates between perfective and imperfective actions. The perfective aspect emphasizes the finality of actions, whereas the imperfective aspect denotes continuity or ongoing action. It is the difference between ‘I watched a movie’ and ‘I was watching a movie’. In English, this distinction is mapped onto verb tense; in Slavic languages, verbs have two separate forms, which linguists call ‘aspect pairs’: a perfective and an imperfective form.

During field research in Prague and Bratislava, I realized that this grammatical distinction illustrates the dilemmas of transitional justice quite well. For starters, transitional justice is an English term that does not exist in Czech or Slovak – přechodová spravedlnost, a direct translation into Czech, conveys nothing of what this new concept has come to denote in English. Instead, another term that loosely translates as ‘dealing with the past’ is most commonly used to cover the range of practices to which transitional justice refers. The catch is that this term forces a temporal choice on speakers of Slavic languages. While the English language frequently allows speakers to be ambiguous about aspect, Slavic languages such as Czech and Slovak make speakers decide: are they speaking about an imperfective, ongoing process, or about a perfective, definitive action? In the latter case, the verb of choice is ‘vyrovnať sa’, but in the former, the preferred verb is the imperfective ‘vyrovnávať sa’ (the -va- infix turns the perfective verb into an imperfective one).[1]

Peter Dinuš is one example of a Slovakian speaker who faced this choice: his book on Slovakian transitional justice (2010) is entitled Vyrovnávanie sa s minulosťou, that is, Dealing[imperfective] with the Past. Dinuš’s choice is intentional: he does not foresee that the Slovakian process of dealing with the past can be completed. Instead, he presents this process as self-perpetuating and never-ending. Many interview respondents, however, consistently used the perfective form, speaking of vyrovnanie sa s minulosťou instead. By doing so, they suggest that at some point, to ‘deal with the past’ will become ‘to have dealt with the past’.

So, what does it mean when English speakers talk about transitional justice as ‘closing the books’ (Elster, 2004) or ‘coming to terms with the past’ (Elster, 1998)? What happens once the books are closed, or when we have come to terms with the past? Can the books ever be fully closed or the past finally dealt with? Despite the inherent linguistic ambiguity, much scholarship on transitional justice does clearly assume transitional justice to be a perfective process with catharsis, or reconciliation, at the end.

These assumptions remain untested, which is why it is so important to produce rigorous accounts of transitional justice effects. This dissertation has sought to address that gap, and the findings suggest that Dinuš’s decision to use the imperfective may be more appropriate. Transitional justice is an on-going process. Transitional justice legislation appears in a context in which the past is already debated and subsequently reinforces that debate, keeping it alive in perpetuity. There is no finality and no catharsis.

This is not to say that contestation and debate over the past cannot produce anything of value, or that transitional justice only succeeds if it leads to consensus over the past that it addresses. Transitional justice legislation may, for example, improve the lives of individual victims of human rights abuse (cf. David and Choi, 2005; 2006). In addition, there is no a priori reason to assume that debate over such issues in a democratic society should be seen as problematic and that consensus is necessarily preferable.[2] My conclusions do not rely on an assumption of the desirability of consensus over debate. However, other points of view are informed by such assumptions and have formed the basis for arguments by scholars and policy makers in support of transitional justice. With this in mind, the conclusion that transitional justice legislation as designed by policy entrepreneurs has led to persistent contestation over the past gives pause. Insofar as this analysis is persuasive, it should encourage researchers to pursue a more comprehensive theoretical framework to analyze the effects of transitional justice.

[1] Translated most literally, vyrovnať means to straighten (rovný is straight) or to balance. Adding ‘sa’ (or ‘se’, in Czech) makes the verb reflexive, so that vyrovnať sa/vyrovnávať sa literally means to straighten oneself out, or to balance oneself out. Vyrovnať sa s minulosťou, then, is to straighten oneself out with one’s past.

[2] In order to determine whether debate is better than consensus, one would require a way to measure the quality of debate. This dissertation does not evaluate the quality of the debate over the communist past in the Czech and Slovak Republics, nor does it estimate the effect of transitional justice on the quality of political contestation.


David, Roman and Susanne Choi (2005) “Victims on Transitional Justice. Lessons from the Reparation of Human Rights Abuses in the Czech Republic”, Human Rights Quarterly, 27:2, 392-435.

David, Roman and Susanne Choi (2006) “Forgiveness and Transitional Justice in the Czech Republic”, The Journal of Conflict Resolution, 50:3, 339-367.

Dinuš, Peter (2010) Vyrovnávanie sa s minulosťou? [Dealing with the Past?], Bratislava: Veda.

Elster, Jon (1998) “Coming to Terms with the Past. A Framework for the Study of Justice in the Transition to Democracy”, European Journal of Sociology, 39:1, 7-48.

Elster, Jon (2004) Closing the Books. Transitional Justice in Historical Perspective, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Start of the Semester

I guess every blogger eventually writes a blog post explaining how come they haven’t posted anything in nearly half a year. It still feels trite, but the truth is that I have had little time to write: I am getting ready to teach two classes, and I am getting ready to defend my dissertation. This summer, I moved, moved again, submitted my thesis, and prepared a paper for ECPR. ECPR was here in Montreal last week and it was a lot of fun. Here’s a link to the paper I presented, which is an attempt at offering my dissertation argument in a nutshell.

Dragoons Ride Through Czech Lands

Although the conflict in Ukraine has attracted attention world-wide, citizens and politicians in East and Central Europe are particularly eager to follow what is happening on their doorstep. In understanding Russia’s actions, they naturally rely on their country’s experience from the twentieth century. However, they don’t always interpret this experience in the same way. This was demonstrated clearly by Czechs this week when a US military convoy arrived in the country, leaving controversy in its wake.

The convoy is returning to bases in Germany from exercises in the Baltic, and are on Czech soil for about 24 hours. On their way across the country, both supporters and opponents greeted them, as the convoy – code name ‘Dragoon Ride‘ – awakened a broad range of historical sentiments.

Seriously, if you're going to stand in a field to great a US convoy, couldn't you find a bigger flag?

Convoy greeted by man with small US flag (c) Hospodarske Noviny

This is just one shot – Check out #dragoonride for more. [UPDATE: so a dragoon is just like a dragon, right? Wrong. Turns out it is some type of military unit. Better yet, when used as a verb, to dragoon means “1. To subjugate or persecute by the imposition of troops; 2. To compel by violent measures or threats; coerce“. Seems like a poorly chosen code name, to me.]

The Czechs, who have been US allies since the end of communism, and sealed this by joining NATO in 1999, are ambivalent when it comes to this military partnership. Some welcome being under the NATO umbrella, and view it as a guarantee of protection against Russia. Others reject Czech NATO membership and oppose NATOs approach with regard to Russia in the current conflict. Yet others are uncomfortable with supporting Russia, but are simultaneously reminded of the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion by a foreign military presence.

This debate is a repeat of the 2008 debate over a NATO anti-missile shield that would be based in the Czech Republic and Poland. This initiative, which never ended up being realized, provoked a great deal of debate with an uncommonly high degree of societal involvement. As it does today, with Dragoons riding across the country, the way people responded had a lot to do with how they view the Czech Republic’s place in history. Then as now, both sides of the debate accuse each other of being secretly communist – either because they don’t support the US, or because they support Czech adherence to a larger military alliance.

This debate was wonderfully captured in the 2010 documentary Czech Peace (Český Mír – trailer, IMDB). Brought to us by Remunda and Klusak, the creators of Czech Dream (the documentary that showed what happened when you promise people a fake megamall), Czech Peace does a great job of illustrating how passionately a lot of people approach this debate and how they make use of the Czech 20th century experience to make their points. In particular, it shows how versatile that experience is in serving as a source for a bunch of completely different ways of approaching things like a US dragoon convoy or an anti-missile basis.

Unfortunately, this is all in Czech and there’s no subtitles. And that trailer is too short – so you can’t really get a sense of the powerful portrayal of these arguments [UPDATE: I found a longer ‘teaser’ video, which I now linked to, which gives a better sense]. The angry mustachoed man makes some great points though, saying to one protester: “I don’t want to go into your personal background, that’s what communists did. But I bet you’re the son or grandson of one of those communist bastards”. The protesters treat the man (who appears drunk) with good humor and gentleness, even though he uses several words that president Zeman employed recently as well. But towards the end, one of them can’t resist the temptation to say “I’ll tell you one thing: I voted green, I’m not a communist!”

A Little Explanation of My Twitter Handle

As part of my ongoing agenda to expand my social media empire, I have taken to twitter as a means of finding out cool new stuff and sharing it, and also as a way to share some of my writings with a broader audience. As is clear from the twitter feed that is now on the right hand side of this blog, I go by the handle @poslusnehlasim.

Poslušně hlásím, translated as ‘I humbly report’ or ‘I obediently report’, is a catch phrase of novel character Josef Švejk, a creation of prolific Czech author Jaroslav Hašek (wiki) (1883-1923). Hašek led a fascinating but tragic – and tragically short – life. A classic bohemian bon-vivant rolling stone type, Hašek was an uncompromising individual who went from job to job and apartment to apartment, often crashing on other’s couches, sometimes living out on the streets. His writing focused on short, absurdist stories, lampooning authorities and traditions.

During the October Revolution and the civil war in Russia, Hašek was in Russia working for the Bolsheviks. He soon became disillusioned with the revolution and returned to Czechoslovakia, which had now become independent, although he had little sympathy for the bourgeois first Republic under Masaryk. Back in Czechoslovakia, Hašek turned his attention to a multi-volume novel: The Adventures of the Good Soldier Švejk. (amazon)

Josef Švejk, is a retired soldier who makes his living catching and selling dogs. The novel starts just after Franz Ferdinand is slain in Sarajevo, when Austria-Hungary mobilizes its troops. In spite of his rheumatism, Švejk tries to enlist in the army. Hašek follows Švejk as he joins the armed forces, serves as a butler to officers, and travels to the Eastern Front. In his interaction with higher-ranking officers, Švejk addresses them ‘Poslušně hlásím’, often before launching into a lengthy tangential story from his rich experience as a Prague barfly.

 “I humbly report, mister field chaplain,” Švejk noted, “that this guy won’t give up, like that guy Boušek from Libeň. Eighteen times in one evening they threw him out of Exner’s and each time he returned, saying he’d forgotten his pipe. He climbed in through the window, the doors, through the kitchen, across the wall into the seating area, through the basement into the bar area, and he would have gotten in through the chimney if the firemen had not taken him down from the roof. He was so persistent that he could have been a minister or a member of parliament”– The Good Soldier vol. 1 ch. 13, p. 178.

Libeň is an area in Prague; U Exnerů is a bar there, one of the many referenced in The Good Soldier.

Unfortunately, death took Hašek before he could finish the book, which trails off without resolution halfway the fourth volume, just after Švejk is captured by Russian forces. Hašek left us with an unfinished but hilarious novel, brought to life by the illustrations of Josef Lada. The novel, which was turned into a successful movie during the 1950s, for a while secured Hašek’s position as the world’s most famous Czech author.

In modern political discourse, Švejk is alive and kicking. When I was in the field, interviewing, many respondents mentioned him, using the character as a model for Czechs’ adaptation to foreign powers – be they Austrian, German, or Russian. He’s invoked in different ways, though – some see him as a model of inventive, resourceful passive resistance against overbearing authorities. In fact, during the 1968 invasion, Václav Havel spoke on the radio and called on listeners to

“ridicule [the enemy], and reveal to him the absurdity of the situation … If at a certain moment you decide it is more appropriate to behave like Hus, behave like Hus, if you on the other hand, decide it is more effective to behave like Švejk, behave like Švejk.” – Havel, quoted in Žantovský’s Havel, A Life, 2014, p. 117

However, many other Czechs read both Švejk and the Czech nation differently. Rather than seeing Svejk’s action as willful and intentional passive resistance, they see Švejk as stupid, lacking in morality, readily and unquestioningly submitting to authority. And they see the Czechs like they see Švejk: as a nation in moral crisis, that sold out to the communists, going along and collaborating without compunction to save their skins.

It is easy to see how these two views of the novel could come about – Hašek leaves it open to interpretation how stupid or cunning Švejk really is. Tellingly, The Good Soldier was widely available during communist times.

It is precisely these competing views over Czech history, Czech national identity, and the historical position of the Czechs between the great European powers – as exemplified by the different views of Švejk – that my research addresses. The fact that Czech politicians will invoke this character from a novel that I love to make their point makes studying Czech politics all the more fascinating. And that’s why I took @poslusnehlasim as my twitter handle!

By 10 PM, It Was Calm in the City Center

RP 891118 full page

Front Page of Rudé Právo, 18 November 1989. Click to embiggen.

Yesterday, it was 25 years ago that the Velvet Revolution got underway in Czechoslovakia. Protesters in Prague marched from Albertov to the city center, where they were confronted by police. One of the latest dominoes in the Soviet Bloc to come down, Czechoslovakia had not seen any of the political shifts that neighboring countries such as East-Germany, Poland, and Hungary had seen. All of that was to prove to be the calm before the storm. On 17 November, the end began.

So what did Communist Party newspaper Rudé Právo write on 18 November? I thought I’d check it out and thankfully, the Institute for Czech Literature has four decades’ worth of Rudé Právo available on-line. You can check out this astonishing resource here.

On Saturday 18 November, as the Civic Forum was forming and plans were being made for new protests, RP did report on the protests. On the front page, in the bottom right-hand corner, a short piece described some of the events in a casual, business-as-usual kind of tone. It concludes by stating that ‘By 10 PM, it was calm in the city center’. The full article reads as follows (my translation):

RP 891118 student demo article

Demonstration of Students
Prague (from our reporters) – On Albertov in Prague 2, about 15 thousand college students from Prague schools for higher education gathered at 4PM, to honor the memory of Jan Opletal, who was murdered by fascists [in 1939]. The collective action of the city’s college councils as well as unorganized students had an unorderly character. It showed how much the students want to speak out loud and openly about their problem, that they demand faster social change and also, how easily they let themselves be turn onto radicalism. That became clear already from the disruptive reactions to the speeches, especially by representative from the college councils. After the gathering on Albertov ended, its participants headed over to the Slavín cemetery on Vyšehrad, where they were to lay flowers at the grave of Karel Hynek Mácha.

Already on Albertov and later during the march, slogans and chants attacking representatives of the Communist Party, the leading role of the Communist Party, demanding the abolition of the People’s Militia, the resignation of the government, free elections, and the like. On Vyšehrad, the gathering had little left to do with the solemn ceremony that had been supposed to take place. More and more voices dominated that demanded heading over to the city center. In the evening hours, the crowd went over to the National Theatre and along National Avenue.

Police were called upon to maintain public order in the city center. They verified the identity of the participants in the demonstration and about a hundred persons were taken to the local police department. By 10 PM, it was calm in the city center.

RP 891118 student demo photo

The front page also had a little photo. The caption reads: ‘Overview of student gathering’.

Czech Senate and Local Elections

Today is election day in the Czech elections. In addition to local elections, its also the first round of elections to the Senate. The Czech Republic’s 81-seat senate is the product of layered elections, with one third of the six-year mandates being up for election every two years. Today and yesterday, then, the Czechs vote in districts that were up for election in 2008. Back then, the Social Democrats won big, gaining 23 out of the 27 seats. The other four went to the Civic Democrats (ODS, 3 seats) and the Communists (KSCM, 1 seat). See here the Hosp. Noviny overview which includes a map.

2014 Senate Elections

2008 results in 27 districts – CSSD in orange, ODS in blue, KSCM in red

Communist Senate Seat

It already looks like the communists may be losing their one seat (the only one they have in the senate) in the district of Znojmo. Indeed, the Znojmo KSCM candidate is not even making it to the second round gaining only about 13 per cent of the vote while the Christian Democratic (KDU-CSL) and Social Democratic (CSSD) candidates have over 20 per cent.

CSSD Majority?

Given the predominance of CSSD six years ago, they seem bound to lose at least some seats and the main question is how many. The big new contender on the Czech political scene is ANO, who came in second in last year’s parliamentary elections, with about 1 per cent fewer votes than CSSD.

UPDATE: CSSD hold a majority of 46 seats in the senate right now, which they will hold on to if they win 18 seats this year. Of course, we won’t know more until two weeks from now, when the second round of elections is held in those districts (likely all of them) that don’t produce an outright majority

UPDATE 2: With 87 per cent of the votes counted, it looks like CSSD is not making it to the second round in five of the districts they hold, although they are in the second round in a district they did not previously hold. Looks like CSSD loses at least 4 seats even if they win all second rounds they’re in.

First Round Preliminary Results - Source: ihned.cz

First Round Preliminary Results – Source: ihned.cz

ODS Seats

A second issue of interest is whether ODS, who have been suffering badly in the polls in recent years, will be able to hold on to their three senate seats, or whether they’ll lose those too.

UPDATE: Based on early results, ODS seems to be at least making it to the second round in the districts were they are incumbent, but not in many other places; as a comparison, in 2008 ODS candidates competed in the second round in 20 out of the 27 districts.

UPDATE 2: The map above has ODS competing in second rounds in six districts, although they’re runners-up in all of them.

Former USTR Director Candidacy

Of particular interest for me is the candidacy of Pavel Zacek in the Prague 5 district. Running for ODS in one of the three districts were ODS is incumbent, Zacek faces an uphill battle now that his party has fallen on hard times. The reason that Zacek’s candidacy is interesting to me is that he is the first director of the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes, and is one of the historians who has worked hard to have the communist past be remembered and to publish on the history of the secret service in particular. Zacek is a controversial figure and had to leave the institute after only a few years, first being dismissed from the post of director, then being fired from the institute altogether. The cross-over from the world of historical research into the world of party politics confirms many of my arguments about the way in which historiography in the Czech Republic is politicized. Of course, it remains to be seen whether Zacek’s candidacy will be successful. To be continued.

UPDATE: Prague 5 results are being posted here – With .8 % of the votes counted, Christian Democrat Václav Láska is up ahead! Turnout in Prague 5 only 18 per cent, as opposed to a national turnout of 40 per cent. Should make the counting go quicker!

UPDATE 2: Those turnout numbers are also going up, it’s now put at 26 per cent, so part of the counting apparently includes figuring out turnout. Láska still ahead, but Žáček now in second place (2.3 per cent counted).

UPDATE 3: In Prague 5, 24 per cent of the votes have now been counted, Láska has 27 per cent, Žáček in second place has 17.

Why Does Zeman Oppose Sanctioning the Russians? He’s On Their Payroll (says Respekt).

In my previous post I mentioned a list of things that I needed to write about. One of them, and a topic that I’ve been following with some interest, is the politics of anti-Russian sanctions. This issue is interesting enough throughout Europe, but gets an added layer of memory politics in Eastern Europe. Views on the current Russian government don’t always align with views of the communist past (although KSČM has been supportive of Russia). Indeed the current and previous Czech Presidents, Zeman and Klaus, have been two of Putin’s big supporters in the Czech Republic. Especially Klaus cannot be accused of being in any way pro-communist, although his approach to the past has always been one of pragmatism (less the case for other ODS politicians).

Both Zeman and Klaus are known to insist on speaking Russian with representatives of the Kremlin (something that for many smacks of the submissive pre-1989 relation between the Castle and the Kremlin) and apparently have pushed others in the Czech elites towards speaking Russian. I’m not sure this means all that much but as someone who is keen on languages, I find it an interesting detail.

In the recent conflict in East Ukraine, both Zeman and Klaus have taken the side of the Kremlin, denouncing the sanctions as misguided and the result of Mephistophelian backroom politics, propaganda, and purposeful disinformation. (The last is a favorite ingredient when Czechs are discussing their opponent’s politics. They also like ‘provocation’. Both terms strike me as being drawn directly from the communist vocabulary. But I digress.)

Many Czechs view Russia’s action in Ukraine through the lens of the 1968 invasion and see with apprehension how Russia flexes it muscles. But in spite of this common view, many continue to support Zeman.

Czech media are all quite skeptical of Zeman’s position, wondering why he is so devoted to the Kremlin line.

Weekly magazine Respekt now offers an answer to that question by suggesting that Zeman is on the Russian’s payroll. Under the title ‘Russians are paying Zeman’ (Zemana platí Rusové), Respekt argues that Zeman’s recent visit to the Greek island of Rhodos was paid for by Vladimir Yakunin , one of Putin’s close friends and targets of the recent sanctions. This also brings back the discussion of Zeman’s campaign financing, which back in late 2012, early 2013 included contributions from LukOIL. Clearly, to be continued.