November 1, 2022 - 7:00am


Eastern European governments are among the world’s firmest in support of Ukraine, but Putin’s war is also ushering in a new era of popular division over culture and identity in the region.

This weekend’s events in Prague showed that there’s more than meets the eye to the Czech Republic’s portrayal as a bastion of pro-Ukraine solidarity. On Friday, the latest in a series of huge anti-war and anti-government protests was attended by tens of thousands of people, before similar numbers flocked to a counter-demonstration on Sunday evening.

The pro-Ukraine rally profiled itself as an “anti-fear” demonstration, and organisers told me it rejects “extremists” who are becoming “louder and louder.” The intention, they said, was to “spread hope instead of hatred.”

Their language echoes rhetoric used by the Czech establishment when talking about protestors who object to support for Ukraine. No matter how much one agrees with pro-Ukraine sentiments, this should be cause for concern. There’s something jarring, in a country with a painful history of enforced ideological conformity, about dismissals of protestors as “extremists” guided by a “fifth column” hostile to the state. This is especially true when such claims are being made, among others, by the nation’s prime minister.

The Ministry of the Interior’s Putin banner

But rhetoric is just as heated on the other side, with anti-war protestors claiming the West sees Czechs as “slaves” and that institutions such as NATO and the EU are inimical to national sovereignty. The government is feeding this oppositional environment, too. On Friday, the Ministry of the Interior hung a huge banner between the Czech and Ukrainian flags depicting Vladimir Putin in a bodybag. The display was interpreted as a rebuke to the anti-government protests taking place that same day, with the Interior Minister saying “the enemy” would not be allowed to “steal the concept of patriotism or our flag.”

Such bitterness shows that this dispute is now about much more than Ukraine. Russia’s invasion is the focus for a wider culture war building in intensity and acrimony.

Unlike in Britain, where support for Ukraine is widespread among both conservatives and progressives, here attitudes towards the war are broadly reflective of divisions on the Czech Republic’s place in the western international order. Support for Ukraine, support for membership of the European Union, support for progressive values and support for a technocratic style of government tend to go hand-in-hand. This could be clearly seen in Sunday’s pro-Ukraine demonstration, which also advocated for LGBT rights and was marked by an abundance of EU flags.

Indeed, some social parallels can be drawn with British social attitudes towards culture and identity during the Brexit vote. The Czech Republic’s metropolitan pro-Ukraine, pro-EU faction sees itself as “on the right side of history,” while opponents feel ignored by an elite which they claim is more concerned with international interests than their own.

This merely shows that similar social divides can latch onto wildly different causes depending on a nation’s geography and history. Divisions aren’t the same throughout eastern Europe, either. Poland is another country where social conservatives and progressives are united in loathing of the Kremlin. Still, in parts of this geopolitically contested region, the narrative of East vs West in Ukraine is feeding new battles at home over culture and identity.

William Nattrass is a British journalist based in Prague and news editor of