Europe’s dark center, Ostrava

Deindustrialization has struck Europe hard, just as the former Eastern bloc seeks its place in the capitalist sun. Ostrava, a city smack in the center of Europe, is like a canary in the Continental coal mine.

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In the opening months of 1994, Europe is a troubled continent, east and west. The heady euphoria of 1989, with its globally televised images of young Germans scaling the Berlin Wall and their Czech counterparts swarming over the police barricades of Prague behind a playwright prince, has yielded to the somber realities pictured in Viktor Kolar’s photographs. The playwright, Vaclav Havel, remains the Czech Republic’s prince but presides over a parliament that has largely rejected his progressive views, and over a country shorn in half by the secession of a now-independent Slovakia.

In many ways, however, the Czechs have so far been luckier than their eastern neighbors and former Warsaw Pact allies. They face neither Ukraine’s utter economic collapse nor Russia’s growing neofascist right wing, which humiliated the reformist supporters of Boris Yeltsin in December’s election. Czech inflation, projected at 10 percent for 1994, seems piddling compared with Poland’s 35 percent.

But the deeper question–especially for cities like Ostrava, where Viktor Kolar’s remarkable photo essay is set–may have less to do with the pain the Czech Republic shares with the old Russian Empire in the East than with the risks it has undertaken by casting its lot entirely with the West. For it is there–in the affluent and increasingly anxious nations of the European Community, whose consumer triumphs seduced and conquered the Soviets and their satellites–that the crisis of the late 1990s is taking root.

At its core is a problem that will be familiar to Americans: acute, cancerous deindustrialization, with its partner in social crime, irresolvable unemployment. After two generations of unprecedented peace and plenty, the brilliant success story of Western Europe is sliding fast into the nightmare of abandoned central cities and an embittered underclass of discarded human beings. Joblessness in early 1994 stands at nearly 11 percent, almost double the American figure and four times that of Japan.

More than their American or Japanese counterparts, the Europeans seem willing to take radical steps to cope with this blight, including vast investments in high-technology infrastructural development and a much-discussed shortening of the work week to four days, in an effort to squeeze more people into a shrinking job market.

But it’s difficult to imagine that any such revolution will stave off the apocalypse for rust-belt cities in the German Ruhr Valley, French Lorraine, and British Midlands–much less the antiquated Soviet dinosaurs of Czech and Polish Silesia. The new infrastructure will be built elsewhere, as it was in America, leaving a trail of ghost towns across Europe east and west. That may be the final irony of the eastern saga: the men and women of cities like Ostrava have braved half a century of life in the cold shadow of Moscow, only to end up in the same graveyard that swallowed Detroit.

The city of Ostrava is not simply ugly. It is spectacularly, memorably ugly, the immense tombstone of an idea carried to its illogical extreme. Set on the southern edge of the Silesian hills where the Czech Republic, Poland, and Slovakia meet, Ostrava was the crucible that forged the aspirations of Eastern European communism for two generations, the foundry that poured the Iron Curtain. It was populated according to a production plan, and the days of its 350,000 residents are regulated still by whistles and clanks.

Abandoned mine shafts, smokestacks spewing grit into the air, mountainous slag heaps, the blackened faces of men and women just up from the coal pits, children who never stop coughing: These are Ostrava’s landmarks and citizens. This is Viktor Kolar’s unlikely home. He has been here for most of a lifetime, searching out the same essential truths in the gray city of his birth that Leonardo da Vinci found in Renaissance Tuscany and Edgar Degas on the stages of belle epoque Paris.

Ostrava is Dickens’s world come to life. It is the ghost of the Communist state, which preserved the Industrial Revolution in a time capsule. It is also the unlikely home of one of the finest photographers in Europe.

Photographers are restless by nature; they don’t stay put. Visionaries don’t live in places like Ostrava; they flee them. The transcendent grace and dignity of a Leonardo Madonna or a Degas ballerina are contextual, Tuscan and Parisian; they are supposed to be inconceivable in a sooty Czech mill town.

But Kolar–arguably one of Europe’s great photographers–lives here amid the millwrights and miners. Not in Montreal, Dortmund, Frankfurt, Amsterdam, Paris, Prague, or San Francisco, where his work has hung in museums and galleries.

There is no distance between his camera and its subject. To tell the story of Viktor Kolar is to tell the story of Ostrava and of the strange, transitory moment that made them both: the Eastern bloc, before the fall.

The tale is complex and, Kolar admits, not entirely understandable even to him. As much as anything else, it is rooted in a gesture, a wordless exchange four decades ago between a father and a son that ended one journey and began another.

We sit in Kolar’s flat, four warmly chaotic rooms filled with bric-a-brac and books in a turn-of-the-century building that looks out on a church in one direction and a garbage-strewn lot in the other. None of his photographs hang on the walls; they’re covered with paintings by friends and posters announcing plays for which his wife, stage and costume designer Marta Roszkopf, has created sets. A portfolio sits on the coffee table, and we leaf slowly through the prints.

Most of them–and all of the photographs that appear in these pages–represent his work of the past 18 years. They offer insight into the complex reasons why Kolar is not in Paris or New York. “You see, a world was vanishing around us, and I felt compelled–yes, that is the word–I felt compelled to move fast, to record it before it was too late. When things are about to disappear, the inner dynamic is at its most evident. It is stark, inescapable.”

“The people I photograph have secret resources,” Kolar says, “secret mechanisms that keep them sane, that keep them going.”

At 52, Kolar has the kind of nervous intensity, based in hard experience, that should have aged him prematurely, but he is just beginning to gray at the temples. His face creases with effort when he wants to make a difficult point in English.

The vanishing world in his photographs has a double identity. It is the world of the Industrial Revolution, Dickens come to life, populated by characters straight out of “Oliver Twist” and set in a landscape shorn of every allusion to nature. It is also the world of the Communist state, which preserved the Industrial Revolution in an Eastern European time capsule long after Dickens’s London–Karl Marx’s London–had lurched into another epoch.

A miner, unabashedly naked, stands alone in a changing room in which thousands of identical boots hang from the ceiling. On the dull concrete of a Stalinist apartment tower, a child has painted a square–an ad hoc basketball hoop–at which to aim his jumpshot. Another miner, in a tight close-up, looks the viewer in the eye, his blond hair tumbling sensually over a forehead rendered ebony by coal dust.

The faces are stunning: self-aware, majestic in their patience. Looking at these portraits you do, somehow, think of Leonardo. And of the graceful eroticism that infuses the canvases of Degas and the frescoes of Luca Signorelli. And certainly of Dickens, because he understood what Viktor Kolar understands about the bleakness of the Industrial Revolution–that it also marked a kind of triumph for those who labored in its wastes, the triumph of human dignity over circumstances that ought to have destroyed it.

“The people I photograph have secret resources,” Kolar says, “secret mechanisms that keep them sane, that keep them going.”

Two brothers, Pavel and Jozek Madicar, meet me for a beer on a winter afternoon. An arctic wind pushes the temperature to 10 below zero. “In the pits,” Pavel says, “it is always August, always very hot.” Like everyone in the bare-bones dive where we sit, Pavel and Jozek are miners, their eyelids caked with a fine black film that never goes away: You can wash a coal miner’s day off the forehead and cheeks, but not the eyelids.

We talk about many things: politics, mining, the collapse of the Soviet Union. But Pavel is restless. Suddenly he interrupts Jozek and says, “The forest, the mountains–that’s what matters to us, you understand. Why haven’t you brought that up?”

Kolar had told the brothers that I was from California, which is why they agreed to this interview. It turns out they are both climbers who have mastered most of the 9,000-foot peaks of the Tatra Mountains, 75 miles southeast of Ostrava. They want to know about the Sierras, Yosemite, the redwoods.

“Every minute of our vacation time, every hour of our days off, we are in the Tatras,” Jozek says. “They have our bodies down in the pits, but not our souls.” His eyes, under the coal shadows, have the depth of limitless vistas in crystal air.

Later, thinking about the brothers, I ask Viktor Kolar about his intentions, the fundamental aims of his work. He answers immediately: “To photograph someone with a common face as though he were the center of the universe.”

No one is quite sure when Ostrava was founded. It is first mentioned in the accounts of 13th-century travelers en route to Poland, whose own seams of Silesian coal begin just six miles away at the Oder River. That places the city’s origins in the golden age of Czech history, when Prague, 220 miles to the west, was building the Gothic masterpieces that still make it one of Europe’s loveliest capitals.

Of all things Ostrava visibly is not, Prague is the most obvious. In Ostrava, the skeleton of a medieval church remains from the golden age, along with a 16th-century town hall, both rendered architecturally unrecognizable by subsequent reconstructions. A 13th-century castle just outside of town was once perched on a commanding hill. But it is dangerous and inaccessible today; the hill has sunk catastrophically, undermined by coal shafts, and now the castle barely breaks the horizon. Even in the city’s own tourist literature–a slim 1991 pamphlet produced in English and German in the futile but heart-wrenching hope that the Velvet Revolution would bring busloads of rich foreigners here–Ostrava’s history reads like a dirge:

“In 1565 the whole town was burnt down. The period of Thirty Years’ War and the plague epidemy [sic] in the year 1625 brought further downfall. Further more the big fires in 1625 and 1763 damaged the town heavily. Towards the end of the 19th century Ostrava was a small and insignificant town.”

Except that it had coal, discovered a century earlier. That was to be Ostrava’s salvation in one sense–the idiom that gave it meaning and thousands of jobs–and its sorrow in many others. The Hapsburg Empire sowed the industrial seed between 1828 and 1868, opening up the coal pits, establishing a rudimentary ironworks, building a railway. The short-lived Czechoslovak Republic expanded on this base between the great wars. But the big leap came after the 1938 sellout of Czechoslovakia to the Nazis at Munich, with the arrival of an industrialist no one wants to talk about today. In 1942, on the outskirts of Ostrava proper, Hermann Goering personally opened a munitions plant, one of the largest in the Third Reich.

Exactly one decade later, the postwar Communist regime of Klement Gottwald launched its own showcase project here, a huge steel complex on the very ground where the Hermann Goering Works had turned out grenades and artillery shells. In an era when the new and confident Socialist bloc believed that the future lay in gigantism–immense factories, vast cooperative farms, a sprawling geopolitical blueprint–there were few landmarks to match this complex. At a cost of 10 billion Czech crowns, it was one of the largest single investments ever made in Eastern European industry. It would employ nearly 30,000 men and women brought to Ostrava from towns and villages all over Czechoslovakia to lend their muscle to the march of history. It would roll the steel for the Marxist utopia, build for the day when the state withered away and the paradise of labor dawned.

In the clean and uncluttered language of socialist realism, the government in Prague called the gargantuan project Nova Hut: “New Forge.” There is a picture in its official archive of the first workers arriving, waiting to be sent to their posts. They are young, all in their twenties, carrying red flags. Many of them are laughing. They look like heroes.

Viktor Kolar was born the year before the Goering Works opened, to a father who was a talented documentary filmmaker and Ostrava’s principal photographer, and a mother who lost three brothers in the 1943 partisan revolt against the Nazis.

The mother was regarded as an asset in the new society: the daughter of a bona fide heroic family in the great patriotic war. But the father was a liability. He was a committed Social Demo-crat, and he owned a business–the unmistakable brand of a petit bourgeois mentality. The brand stuck even after the senior Kolar’s photography studio was shut down and his bank account seized; at the age of 51, he was assigned to work as a photographer on construction sites.

The father’s suspect class background haunted the son’s adolescence and gave it form. “I was an outsider, beyond the pale, and it made trouble for me at school. So I forgot about school. Instead, I hung out on the street, and I learned to look around me–with clear eyes, without sentimentality.”

Viktor Kolar also began, at 13, to document what he saw. The day is riveted in his mind: “Very quietly, my father invited me into his darkroom and showed me how photographs were processed. And then afterwards, again with very few words, he simply handed me his Leica.”

Trouble loomed.

But there was the mother, too. Because of her pedigree, the state would forgive Viktor Kolar’s truancy and scrapes with the law, would overlook his petit bourgeois genes, would give him a chance to be a proletarian success. At 18, he was told to show up for work at the Vitkovice Steel Works, the ancient mill where the Hapsburgs had conceived Ostrava’s industrial life back in 1828.

“By day I took photographs. By night I stoked the blast furnaces, shoveling in coal. It was terrible in one way but also important, very important for me. It was another kind of visual education, full of images that still drive me. The smoke and the flames, the people who work amidst them.”

In 1964 Kolar had his first show, at a museum in Ostrava. He was 23. But he was still the outsider in a conformist Czechoslovakia, and a terrible test was impending for his kind.

On August 21, 1968, Ostrava woke to the ear-shattering din of a tank division grinding through its streets, headed for Prague from the Soviet border. One column split off and took up positions in the city center, its cannons pointed at Viktor Kolar and his neighbors in what Leonid Brezhnev, the Soviet party chairman, called “fraternal solidarity.”

The Prague Spring–the brief interlude of fresh ideas that had inspired Alexander Dubcek’s dream of “socialism with a human face”–was over. By the week’s end, 500,000 Warsaw Pact troops were patrolling the cities of Czechoslovakia. By the month’s end, Kolar had written himself an invitation to Austria and had a friend overseas post it back to Ostrava for presentation to the passport authorities.

It probably fooled no one. But the new government of hard-liner Gustav Husak was just as happy to be rid of such people. Kolar got his exit visa, and soon he was a free man in Canada. Free and miserable. “Bitterly alone,” he says, “and no longer sure what my purpose was, what my life was about.”

Five years later, after a sojourn as a miner in British Columbia, then as a photographer of growing reputation in Vancouver, Toronto, and Montreal, Kolar returned to Czechoslovakia. Cornell Capa, the founder of New York’s International Center of Photography and a man who recognized genius and invested in it, was paying Kolar’s lab fees by that point; Capa tried desperately to talk him into remaining in the West.

But Viktor Kolar was in the grip of an obsession, drawn irresistibly to the city that had always been his lover, his oppressor, his passionate subject.

The confident young people in that archive photo of Nova Hut’s grand opening in 1952 had reached middle age by 1974. Their smiles had edged into something else: the quiet strength under adversity that infuses Kolar’s work from the 1970s and the first half of the 1980s. But the faces change again at the end of the decade. A certain tension is evident in the eyes. There is no escaping, now, the realization that this is a vanishing world.

A troubling paradox dawns. The dream evaporated long ago, and the nightmare is waning. But the men and women of Ostrava are the nightmare’s heroes, as well as its victims. When the Eastern European time capsule does shatter, what will become of them?

“We were silent in 1968,” Jan Bystron, who has worked at Nova Hut since 1958, tells me at the mill gate one day. “What could we say? What could we do then? It left us feeling like cowards. But what could we do with a Russian army in our streets?”

Bystron pauses, peers silently at the forges behind us. Later, I learn that four years ago he turned in his Communist party card and resigned from a powerful advisory committee when a student protest in Prague was squelched by club-swinging police. But he doesn’t mention it. “This time when everything began changing, we talked,” he says, breaking his silence. “But we wondered, too: Where would it lead for us?”

November 1989: Millions of Czechs march against the regime.

December 1989: The Communist government resigns. Mikhail Gorbachev is in power in Moscow; there will be no Russian troops sent in fraternal solidarity.

June 1990: Civic Forum, the protest organization formed by dissident playwright Vaclav Havel, wins the first free elections since 1948.

The Velvet Revolution guarantees that the strange, frozen world of Ostrava will thaw into something new and different. But in fact, the vanishing was under way long before, written like a prophecy into the misjudgment that attended modern Ostrava’s birth. This isn’t to be the epoch of gigantism after all. Steel mills for 30,000 workers are hopelessly inefficient. The wholesale resettling of people according to a production plan doesn’t forge proletarian heroes; it induces lethargy, resistance, passive sabotage.

Nova Hut was a mistake. Ostrava was a mistake. Communism, in the perverse form it assumed under Brezhnev and Husak and their fraternal allies, was a mistake.

But it was also what the people of Ostrava knew, a kind of grim cushion that protected them from the vicissitudes of change, just as paralyzing emotional depression can be a cushion against the terror of acting.

In Kolar’s recent photographs, the ambiguity of freedom is striking. People stare uncertainly at the city’s first commercial billboards, which shout the praises of Mitsubishi sedans and Apple computers that no one here has the money to buy. An ominous crowd–fueled by the unfamiliar taste of pure greed–gathers to snap up the Czech Republic’s first shares of stock. A local entrepreneur opens a business in “personal security equipment”–bulletproof vests and burglar alarms.

“They don’t reassure you about the future,” Kolar says of these images. “But I have to be as realistic about the new order as I was about the old one. Sentimentality will not save us.”

Frank Viviano covers Europe for the San Francisco Chronicle. He is the author of “Dispatches From the Pacific Century,” published in 1993 by Addison-Wesley.


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