I came across an intriguing “freedom of opinion” story that ran last week in Respekt, hands down the best Czech newsmagazine. Written by Katerina Safarikova (she also writes a regular column for TOL), the article tells the tale of Gracian Svacina, a young man who lives in a “detsky domov” (probably the best translation is a children’s home, since not all the children are necessarily orphans).

Last fall, Gracian dared to write a column for a magazine targeted at such institutions, describing, rather ironically, the intense cleaning and preparation that took place in anticipation of a visit by Livia Klausova, the country’s first lady. He recounted, for example, a mad dash to pick up every fallen leaf in the grass, and other Potemkin-village-like attempts to fancy up the place in time.

Instead of receiving praise for his writing skills, Gracian garnered strong criticism, especially from the directors of other children’s homes. They lambasted him for essentially making fun of life in such a place and for being ungrateful to those who have taken care of him. One director even wrote: “Every intelligent writer must say to himself: ‘And such a boy grew up supported by state money from taxpayers, from my money?! What will become of such a person?” Another suggested that he should be kicked out of his home.

The story gets worse. Soon after Respekt reprinted his column, Gracian says that he got a call from Klausova, who, he recounted, asked him how he could blacken the name of his children’s home and why he wrote the piece about her visit. Gracian says he told Klausova that she hadn’t understood, that it wasn’t about her, at which point she became infuriated and wondered how anyone could imply that the first lady (the first lady!) hadn’t understood something. Now I’m not sure if Katerina tried to confirm that interaction with Klausova, but if true, that’s pretty bad—just the notion that the president’s wife would find a need to call up a kid who obviously hasn’t had an easy life and complain about an article he wrote.

The piece goes on to quote the man, Pavel Prosvic, who advocated kicking Gracian out, who now says that he didn’t mean it; he actually likes Gracian, but says that he should have taken into consideration that the director of his home needs to behave a certain way to ensure that donors continue to give. And, said Prosvic, institutions are also dependent on the Livia and Vaclav Klaus Foundation, which supports such homes. Prosvic says that he once decided not to pretty up his institution before an important delegation of politicians and private sponsors, to show what life was really like there. “Then I found out that the delegation didn’t imagine things that way. Our home afterward got less money than those that showed what sponsors, private or state, want to see: a perfect world.”

As for Gracian, luckily for him, his worries about being forced to leave the home were not fulfilled. The director there wasn’t happy about the article (she said that she admires Klausova so it was a pity that Gracian chose the preparation for her visit to mock). But she said the incident was behind them and he wouldn’t be punished in any way. A constructive attitude at least on her part, and apparently in line with her long-term support for Gracian’s passion for writing (a real success story, he’s now studying at university in Prague and wants to be a journalist).

The article ends with Gracian’s words: “The director doesn’t like to hear opinions different than her own, but she’s not bad … And no one can really punish me for expressing my opinion, or can they?”

The original article can be viewed here. My translation of parts in this post is a bit different from the English-language version on Respekt’s site, but that one is very good. Photo credit: Michaela Danelova / Respekt.

Jeremy Druker

Jeremy Druker is the executive director and editor in chief of Transitions Online. Twitter: @JeremyDruker Email: jeremy.druker@tol.org

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