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Czechoslovakia: The Velvet Revolution and Beyond by Robin H. E. Shepard

Towards the end of the nineties, it became possible to step back and offer big-picture assessments of what exactly happened in the Czech Republic since the fall of communism...

'Czechoslovakia: The Velvet Revolution and Beyond' by Robin H.E. ShepardTen years seemed enough time to make semi-firm judgments on everything from the development of democratic institutions to the relevancy and historical place of Vaclav Havel. For those who weren't here to watch these developments firsthand, Robin Shepard's The Velvet Revolution and Beyond makes a fine introduction.

Writing with an easy tone somewhere between soft academic and journalistic, she offers a sharp interpretative narrative of Czechoslovakia's birth at the end of World War I, the political culture of the First Republic, the German occupation, the expulsion of the Sudetens, communism, the Velvet Revolution, the intellectual biography of Vaclav Havel, the failed economic reforms of Vaclav Klaus, the Velvet Divorce, and the thug-lite regime of Meciar.

In short, all of the defining elements in the modern history of Czechoslovakia. Experts will find little that is new here, but novices and generalists will appreciate Shepard's eye for the memorable anecdote as well as her crisp pace and pointed opinions. She is particularly good when explaining the historically complex relationship between Czechs and Slovaks, the roots of which she traces back to the different experiences the two nations had under the two thrones of Budapest and Vienna.

The section on Klaus is damning but not hostile, and the economics of 'transition' is laid out simply for the layman. The author is not optimistic about Czech or Slovak chances for joining the EU anytime soon - and documents the deterioration of the Czech Republic's lead over her neighbors during the 90s - but she isn't really so concerned about it either.

Even after taking the reader through the dizzying and often brutal modern history of this country, she concludes, rightly I think, that while the Czech Republic is no utopia, "life is good." She ends a chapter that discusses sub-western business and management standards with a sensible question: "Could it be that the overall quality of life for the average Czech is such that there is not the incentive to drastically change lifestyles in the way that is necessary to produce western style prosperity?"

Indeed, listening to foreigners b*tch endlessly about listless service Ten Years After, one would do well to reflect on that finest of Czech sayings: if you've got enough potato soup and a good woman, don't complain. Maybe Brussels should 'harmonize' on that.

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