Prague Spring 50 event to bring ‘world-class’ artists to Lincoln for commemoration of Czech history

Source: Lincoln Journal Star / / By Hana Muslic /

For several months in 1968, before the Soviet-ordered Warsaw Pact invasion, Czechoslovakia experienced a short, sweet time of political liberalization under an authoritarian regime.

This period was called the Prague Spring and, though the attempt was ill-fated, it instilled a sense of hope in the Czech people.

Now, 50 years later, those who lived through the Prague Spring have the opportunity to share their experiences with Nebraskans through the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Prague Spring 50 event.

James Le Sueur Courtesy photo
Courtesy photo, Josef Josten Collection/University Archives&Special Collections

The five-day event, running April 3-7 at the Sheldon Museum of Art, is a mini festival of concerts, photography exhibitions and speeches by visitors from the Czech Republic. It is an effort put on by the UNL Department of History, with contributions from UNL Libraries, the Sheldon and the Hixson-Lied School of Performing Arts.

“One of the nice things about doing this is that I’ve learned a lot more about the university,” said James Le Sueur, the Samuel Clark Waugh Distinguished Professor of International Relations and chair of the UNL history department.

“We basically work in silos, and that’s just the kind of nature being at a large university, but I wanted to see how we could break outside of that and do a really creative and beautiful collaboration.”

Le Sueur has been dreaming of this event since he came into the chairperson position two years ago. He had studied dissident playwright Václav Havel and the Velvet Revolution of 1989 — which replaced the authoritarian communist regime in Czechoslovakia — and wanted to commemorate Czech culture in Nebraska specifically, since the state has a long history of Czech emigration.

“I’m pretty familiar with the importance of the Czech Nebraskans and their size and population,” Le Sueur said. “I realized that we were looking at the 50th anniversary of the (Warsaw Pact invasion of) Czechoslovakia, and we had the resources to do something really significant to remember it.”

Le Sueur got the name of Mark Clinton, a UNL piano professor, when interviewing Joe and Kathy Vosoba, prominent members of the Nebraska Czech population. He reached out to Clinton about his desire to put on a festival for the anniversary.

“He called me out of the blue,” Clinton said. “I listened to all the great plans he had and said, ‘Of course.’ I started curating the concert like you would curate an art exhibit.”

He and Le Sueur reached out to contacts they had in the Czech Republic to recruit musicians, artists, photographers and academics for the event. Almost all of the people they contacted agreed to volunteer their time.

Among the speakers are Czech Ambassador to the United States Hynek Kmoníček, former Havel press secretary Michael Žantovský, author Tomáš Sedláček and artist David Černý. In addition to performances by world-renowned Czech artists, the UNL wind ensemble, faculty brass quintet and Chiara String Quartet will perform.

Photo exhibitions of the time period by Alan Pajer and Josef Sudek will be on display at the Sheldon over the five days as well.

Le Sueur said that the event is “a dream come true” for him.

“It’s important as a Lincolnite to talk about the importance of Czech books and writers and artists and photographers,” he said. “And for world-class artists to come here for a week, you just can’t imagine how exciting that is. You can feel like you’re experiencing something truly historical and magical.”

Le Sueur said he hopes this will set a precedent for honoring Czech culture, and that he’d like to see this kind of collaboration happen between university departments more often — maybe even developing a center for Czech studies there.

“We want to show how important Czech history is not only here, but to the world itself.”