The Extraordinary Story of Gracián Svačina

How Livia Klausová’s children’s home visit sparked a bizarre freedom-of-speech controversy

Gracián Svačina never imagined he would become the focus of so much controversy, just because of a short piece of writing. He never thought the media would ask him for interviews and that even the First Lady would call him. That short article he wrote six months ago described only the preparations for Livia Klausová’s visit to the children’s home (dětský domov) where he grew up.

The children’s home in Jemnice looks squeaky clean. The grass is neatly cut and the whole building is as clean as a whistle and the staff is kind.

But behind these walls a little drama occurred last autumn. One of the children’s home’s residents, Gracián Svačina, wrote a short report about the cleaning frenzy the kids in the institute had to take part in prior to a visit by the Czech president’s wife, Livia Klausová. It was published in a local magazine, Zámeček, specializing in social care in childcare institutes. In the report, Gracián Svačina details the several days spent cleaning the home and its gardens, picking up all the fallen leaves. To his great disappointment, Klausová spent only an hour at the institute -- hardly enough time to notice how clean it was. Svačina’s article made some people very angry.

“Thanks to the extraordinary care of the Jemnice orphanage, Gracián Svačina is studying at university this year and now he is badmouthing it [the institute],” wrote the head of another home, Antonín Nachtnebl. “The sensible reader will wonder what kind of person he has grown up to be at the taxpayer’s expense?”

Some took an even harsher stance toward Svačina’s gently ironic tone. “What have you achieved in your life to feel entitled to criticize the kids’ home in Jemnice? What good have you done for the institute?” wrote Pavel Prošvic, the former head of a children’s home in Hodonín.

“I hadn’t expected to receive so many letters but at that time I wasn’t afraid,” says 21-year-old Svačina of the situation. He grew fearful only after receiving a phone call from Livia Klausová herself. “She asked me how dare I tarnish the reputation of the Jemnice home. I told her that I didn’t mean to do that and that she didn’t understand my article. Then she became angry and told me how cheeky I was to tell the First Lady she didn’t understand something.”

“I was truly afraid what would follow,” he admits, knowing that Klausová would call the director and expecting to be expelled from the institute. “If I was thrown out, I’d lose my entire background.”

A year ago Pavel Prošvic was among those who recommended Svačina’s expulsion. Now he talks differently. “You should know we are dependent on Livia Klausová & Václav Klaus’s foundation because they sponsor orphanages and children’s homes,” says Prošvic. “And it made me angry that Gracián, being a smart kid, hadn’t reflected this fact in his writing. I hate these ‘Potemkin villages’ myself but I learned a lesson: We once had a group of sponsors and I didn’t tell the kids to prepare a program, I just left everything to improvisation. Later I learned the delegation was disappointed that the kids hadn’t prepared anything. Our institute then received much less money than those who showed the sponsors what they wanted to see.”

The children at the Jemnice institute joined the protest against Gracián’s text and wrote him a sharply worded letter. “Although Gracián is our friend, we don’t agree with his article,” they state in the letter, published in the March issue of Zámeček. “We don’t like the fact people look at us as if we are being tortured just because we have to pick leaves up in the garden,” the letter continues. “It isn’t like that. We treasure Mrs. Klausová. Why hasn’t Gracián asked us for our opinion?”

Svačina’s text wasn’t much appreciated by the Jemnice home’s staff either. “It was poking fun at us,” says tutor Andrea Kadrnošková. “It made it look as if we never clean the home and we live in filth. That isn’t true.”

But wasn’t it a bit harsh to organize a protest against a young man who lives in the institute and is a friend of the kids there? “I didn’t organize anything,” says Kadrnošková. “It was the kids themselves who kept coming to me and telling me they didn’t like the article. So we sat down and, together with the older children, wrote the letter that was published in Zámeček.”

Asked which of the kids was among the protestors, Kadrnošková hesitates and then points out 12-year old Katka. “OK, so I didn’t like it,” says Katka somewhat shyly and immediately starts looking at the ground. She fails to explain why, though.

At that moment the door opens. “I’m sorry but you’ve been here long enough and the kids are tired,” one of Kadrnošková’s colleagues tells us. The order is clear: the kids have to leave and it won’t be possible for us to talk to them on their own. In the corridor, Gracián’s brother Tomáš speaks to us briefly. He thinks his brother is a hero. Fifteen-year old Maruška isn’t afraid to speak her mind either: “It was well written. We were cleaning too much.”

“But I didn’t like the vulgar words he used,” she continues, referring to phrases such as “shut up”. “And I understand that our ‘aunties’ [governesses] try very hard and he spoiled it for them,” she adds quickly.

No bad blood
Gracián “spoiled” it mainly for the director of the home, Dagmar Průšová. She proudly shows us all the diplomas and trophies her kids have won in various competitions. “Gracián is a smart, capable and self-confident kid and I am truly proud of him,” she says, somewhat surprisingly. But as soon as Gracián’s text is mentioned, she changes her tone. “I was so ashamed of him,” she says. “I think highly of Mrs. Klausová and I was sorry that he intentionally chose to criticize the cleaning methods in our institute prior to her visit.”

“We clean our place the whole year,” she adds emphatically.

It is necessary to add that the 21-year-old has been “spoiling” things for some time. He protested when closed-circuit TV cameras appeared in the institute’s corridors, asking the now-deceased ombudsman Otakar Motejl for help. Thanks to his intervention, the cameras soon disappeared. Before that he had a critical piece published in Zámeček complaining that the kids in the institute can’t be more informal when dealing with the “aunties”.

Luckily, Průšová has always supported Gracián in his writing and he is currently studying to become a journalist at the J.A. Komenský College of Higher Education (Univerzita J.A. Komenského) in Prague.

“He is doing what he likes and I support him,” she says. “We clarified the issue with the cleaning and there isn’t any bad blood between us. That is why Gracián is no longer afraid of revenge.”

“Mrs. Průšová doesn’t like to hear different views than those of her own, but she isn’t bad,” says Gracián. “And you can’t really punish someone for expressing his opinion, can you?”

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