The Pistil in the Flower of Eastern Europe

By Jheri St. James

     After centuries of conflict, domination and warfare in Slovakia—with Moravia, Hungary and Germany between 1868 and 1918—a policy of enforced “Hungarianisation” (“Magyarisation”) was instituted. By 1907, the Hungarian language was instituted as the sole dialect of elementary education. As a reaction to this, Slovak intellectuals cultivated closer ties with the Czechs, who were simultaneously being dominated by the Austrians. The concept of a single Czecho-Slovakian unit was born and, after the Austro-Hungarian defeat in World War I, Slovakia, Ruthenia, Bohemia and Moravia united as Czechoslovakia. In 1938, Slovakia declared its autonomy within a federal state; the former Czechoslovakia’s less-glamorous partner emerged disheveled and sleepy following the “Velvet Revolution” of 1989; and in 1993 the former federation of Czechoslovakia dissolved peacefully.

     This little country, about twice the size of New Hampshire, is bordered by Austria, Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and the Ukraine, and has no coastline. On a globe it resembles an amoeba-shaped pistil of what can easily be viewed as a flower on the map of Eastern Europe, whose actual, geographical center is located not far from the historic town of Kremnica, Slovakia, known as the “heart of Europe”. Spring wildflowers bloom in the 30 scenic valleys and almost 100 glacial lakes surrounding the Tatra Mountains in the north. The north and central portions of this country are rugged, mountainous land; the south is made up of lowlands. The Vysoké Tatry (High Tatras) are the only truly alpine (above the timberline) mountains in Eastern Europe and one of the smallest high mountain ranges in the world.

     Slovakia has mastered much of the difficult transition from a centrally planned economy to a modern market economy. Major privatizations are nearly complete, the banking sector is almost completely in foreign hands, and the government has helped facilitate a foreign investment boom with business-friendly policies, such as labor market liberalization and a 19% flat tax. Slovakia’s economic growth exceeded expectations in 2001-2004, despite the general European slowdown. Slovakia joined both NATO and the EU in 2004. The country’s production of metal products, foods, electricity, gas, coke, oil, nuclear fuel, chemicals and manmade fibers, machinery, paper and printing, earthenware and ceramics, transport vehicles, textiles, electrical and optical apparatus and rubber products is blossoming into a vibrant economy.

     Many beautiful monuments survive Hungarian rule in the old capital town of Bratislava in the Carpathian Mountains, which begin at the “Iron Gate” mountains of Romania. These mountains meet the Danube River by way of grapevines on the slopes of the Little Carpathian Mountains. The numerous museums and opera productions in Slovakia rival anything in Europe. Slovakia’s architectural wonders include the Gothic St. James Church in Levoca and the Renaissance buildings in Bardejov. There are also many castle ruins.

     This is a land of deep spirit, where folk traditions have survived the domination of foreign rulers, untold wars and civil conflicts to which a plethora of castles and chateaux pay testament. Traditional Slovak folk instruments include the fujara (a 6.5 ft. long flute), the gajdy (bagpipes) and the konkovka (a shepherd’s flute). Folk songs helped preserve the Slovak language during Hungarian rule, and in East Slovakia ancient folk traditions play an important part in village life. Slovakia’s oldest town is Trnava, which celebrated its 750th birthday in 1988, and was a center of the Slovak National Revival. After the decades of enforced Hungarian speech, some of the country’s first books written in Slovak were printed here. Nationalist L’udovit Stur was the creator of this Slovak literary language, which enabled the emergence of a Slovak national consciousness. Slovaks take great pride in their language. In rural Slovakia, most people speak only their native tongue. One of the leading artists of the Revival was poet Pavol O. Hviezdoslav, whose works have been translated into many languages.

     In the United States, doting parents lovingly call a highly energetic child a “pistol”, as in “he/she’s a real pistol”. Slovakia could be called a “pistol” of evolution in Europe, organizing itself as Slovenska Republika, growing its industrial base and domestic wealth with great energy and verve. We at Common Ground 191 salute Slovakia and thank Alena and John Bouska for their participation in collecting soil from Slovakia for our project.





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