Jiri Roubek is a burly, 55-year-old bus driver who spends his workdays navigating the congested streets of Prague and his weeknights in a cramped city apartment.
Every free day from April to October, however, Roubek and his wife can be found here in a cozy two-story cottage along the tree-shaded bank of the Berounka River. In theory, they come to relax under their apple trees or in the lazy, leafy warmth of the riverbank.
Yet Roubek says it is here that his hardest labor awaits. "All I do here is work," he said one recent afternoon, proudly pointing out the new stairway and boiler that are his latest projects. He sighed with evident satisfaction. "Now we have to tend the apple trees. If I want a real holiday, I go somewhere else."
Roubek's zest for chores is not uncommon in Treban, where 600 weekend cottages now surround 200 permanent houses. In fact, industriousness seems to be the prevailing ethic among the tens of thousands of Czechoslovaks who have made the securing and tending of weekend cottages into a kind of national cult.
On Friday evenings, Prague seems to empty of life as cars jam the freeways, heading for the cottages. Helicopters are called in to monitor the traffic. Longtime residents joke that only East Germans spend Sundays in Prague.
For years, the economy of this tightly controlled nation of 15 million has been plagued by stagnation and low productivity. Political life has been frozen since the Communist Party's efforts at liberalization were crushed by a 1968 Soviet-led invasion.
So frustrated intellectuals, bureaucrats and workers seem to reserve their best ideas and time for country homes and private hobbies that have marked a whole population's quiet withdrawal from formal civic life.
"It's a way to live," a Czechoslovak journalist explained. "In the city, you live in a small apartment in a satellite suburb. In the country, you have your own place. You have your own garden. So you work like hell to fix it up and get the frustration out of your body."
Diplomats and intellectuals in Prague say the public's preoccupation with privacy has grown more pronounced with each passing year of rule by the country's hard-line Communist government. Since taking power in 1969, the leadership of Communist Party Secretary Gustav Husak has clung to the orthodox policies of the 1950s and 1960s even as most other Eastern European nations have experimented with political or economic reforms.
Here, public attitudes seem numbed by a penetrating sense of stagnation. "We don't have events in Czechoslovakia, we just have a situation," said Jiri Dienstbier, a spokesman for the dissident group Charter 77, "and it's been the same situation for the last 17 years."
The byproduct of this immobility has been a highly centralized, chronically sluggish economy that nonetheless has consistently offered citizens relatively high living standards in exchange for relatively little work.
Stores abound with consumer goods that in most of the rest of Eastern Europe are nonexistent or available only for hard currency. Locally manufactured autos are readily available for a price that has not changed in 15 years. And Czechoslovaks seem to delight in describing the relaxed standards and rampant opportunities for private gain available at workplaces.
The alienation from formal responsibilities has grown so great that it has become a frequent subject of analysis for the official press. The Communist Party newspaper Rude Pravo recently criticized "formalism and passivity" among young Communists and complained of low attendance at party education courses.
Other reports have pointed to a steep decline in worker productivity since 1980. A 1984 study in the region of Slovakia estimated that workers in some industries wasted up to 20 percent of their time on the job through such practices as arriving late, leaving early and taking long breaks.
Many here say this undemanding life explains the absence of popular unrest. "It's become a habit to be disgusted and blame the government, but on some level people accept it," writer Ivan Klima said. "Most people can earn enough to live at an acceptable level. Everyone has a car or a cottage. So they collect old furniture and engravings and they don't risk anything."
The only variation on this pattern has been the challenge to the government by the relatively small group of dissidents united as Charter 77, which was founded in 1977 to monitor the government's protection of human rights. Yet as the years have passed, even that group's battle with censorship and security forces has become a kind of routine.
Each year, for example, Charter 77 issues a statement to commemorate the anniversary of the Soviet invasion on Aug. 20, 1968. Each year, security forces arrest the group's leaders and raid their homes in an effort to confiscate the document and prevent its delivery to western news agencies.
When the police arrived at his weekend cottage this year, Dienstbier said, he was prepared. As the officers entered, he simply handed them a copy of the statement -- which had been smuggled to Vienna months before -- and thereby preempted the usual search.
"It threw them off," he said. "Once I gave them the statement, they weren't sure what to do." Eventually tradition held and Dienstbier was detained for 48 hours.
Some Czechoslovaks say that these well-publicized skirmishes obscure the real nature of the nation's condition. "For each member of Charter 77, there are a million people who are suffering a different kind of fate: the small persecutions, the slow demoralization, the corruption of daily life," one Prague intellectual said.
"The greatest danger here is not official doctrine -- which no one takes seriously -- but the demoralization of the people, the loss of any kind of ideas."
Recently, there have been signs of a revival of both ideas and activism among Czechoslovak youth, who are said to reject both the official political establishment and the quiet, passive alienation of those scarred by the failure of reform in the 1960s.
Catholic Church leaders report rising interest among the young in religion as an independent form of expression. Government officials estimate that up to half of the 100,000 who attended a church celebration of St. Methodius in Velehrad last summer were youths.
In Prague, interest in jazz and rock music has spawned a large network of semiofficial and underground associations that stage small festivals on the city's outskirts on weekend nights and circulate uncensored bulletins. A growing number of young intellectuals are said to be seeking out menial jobs that allow them to pursue independent research and writing.
Yet all these small signs of change are easily outweighed by phenomena like the rush for cottages. Official statistics show that one in 25 of Prague's families now has access to weekend cottages, and the rush has grown so great that authorities have banned further construction. Yet some people go on building, preferring to pay fines rather than give up the dream of a chata and its garden.
"Everybody likes to joke about how you become a slave to your 'hut,' " said one Prague professional whose cottage lies only a 40-minute drive from Prague. "But it's the only place where you can go and sweat for yourself and not give a damn about anything else."