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Prague’s Czechered Past

In Prague’s sophisticated shopping district, nestled between a casino and MacDonald’s,  sits the Museum of Communism. The museum is easily missed, set back off the street inside the grand Palace Savarin and unremarkable compared to the garishness of its next-door neighbours. It looks uncomfortable in its surroundings and like communism itself, unable to resist the encroachment of alien ideologies. 

As you enter and mount the sweeping staircase, a nine-foot tall statue of Lenin meets visitors. The soviet figurehead towers above in familiar pose, ever the determined visionary grasping the collar of his overcoat and peering into the distance. Below him is the ticket office where memorabilia is available to buy. Once symbols of a super-power, posters and badges can now be purchased at a souvenir stall. Changed days indeed, but days not so distant if you are old enough to remember the Velvet Revolution of 1989.  Sixteen years ago in Narodni Trida, a demonstration demanding democratic reforms was interrupted by riot police in which 167 people were injured. Mikhail Gorbacev’s Perestroika had put increased pressure on Gustav Husak, who was unwilling to modernise his government.

The people who demonstrated that winter in Prague, were putting their weight against a door opportunity was knocking on. Rallies, protests and strikes over this period delivered the decisive blow to the establishment. Husak departed and free elections were to be held in Czechoslovakia for more than 40 years.   Katerina Dolezalova, a caretaker at the museum, was 12 in 1989 and like many Czechs too young to remember what life was like under communism. “This museum teaches children about the conditions in which people lived and how life was for them under communism. School children often visit here with assignments to discover as much as they can about the old way of life. Many of them are not told about it by their parents, so this is a way in which they can learn.”  Katerina explained that it isn’t just Czechs that come to the museum to deepen their knowledge; tourists also come to widen their appreciation of what was once a typical Czechoslovakian existence. She said, “The exhibitions are updated as and when required, based on what people like and dislike, and has been running since 2001”. 

The exhibitions are modest in size, but cover a variety of fields ones celebrated by the old regime, including daily life, politics, history, sport, economics and media propaganda. However, the building in which the exhibitions are housed reveal more about communism than is perhaps intended. The old building appears jaded and in need of redecoration. Carpets once a deep red are now stained and beginning to show signs of wearing thin. Ironic similarities to Gustav Husak, the Czechoslovakian President at the time of the Velvet Revolution, when the country demanded a modernized interior.  The entrance corridor documents the fall of the Austro Hungarian Empire after WWI, the events of Nazi fascism of WWII, through to the Russian invasion of 1968. 

At the end of this concise history lesson, the visitor arrives at a replica workshop, which epitomizes the hard working and industrious condition of that era. The workshop is cramped and dirty but it was the type of work that the communists were proud of. Where workers “clocked in”, is a sign which states, “Timely arrival for work deals the decisive blow to American aggression”. These citizens worked for the country first, themselves second.  Industry became the symbol of everything that communism stood for and boomed in the Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union alike. Mining brought rich raw materials that fuelled the empire. The industrial age was thriving and strong in Czechoslovakia, but at the cost of the environment and the health of the populace.  In border areas where forests and wildlife once thrived, birds and trees died under the constant plumes of toxic smoke. Remarkably, once the communist government fell, the average life expectancy of the Czech people rapidly rose by 5 years.  

Glenn Spicker, the museum’s creator says it is increasingly difficult to add to the collection. “Memorabilia is harder to come by nowadays and when something does arise, it is usually very expensive. It began as a hobby but I could also see the value something like this would hold for younger generations.” It is his television room repeatedly running a video of the protests that captures the attention of visitors. Secret police are seen working in cahoots with riot police to disrupt the peaceful protests using anything from batons to water cannons.  The room is adorned with busts of Lenin and Stalin, while the walls are decorated with potraits of ex-presidents, Antonin Zapatocky, Antonin Novotny and Gustav Husak.“We would like to expand the museum. First we will make better use of the 140 square meter terrace and eventually we might move to a bigger space where we can expand on the exhibits”, says Spicker. 

A children’s classroom, with authentic communist textbooks on child size desks, serves as a reminder of how the doctrine was ingrained on children at an early age.   One of those children, who later became a student at Charles University in Prague in 1969, was Jan Palach. At 19 years old, he protested the occupation of Czechoslovakia by Warsaw Pact forces as well as the abandonment of democracy by Czechoslovak politicians. Tragically, Jan doused himself with flammable liquid, set a match to his clothes and set himself aflame on Wenceslas Square.

He died as a result of his burns in the Burn Clinic on Legerova Street in Prague. Student sculptor Olbram Zoubek secretly took a death mask of Palach and the next day brought the cast fastened to a black disk to the Museum ramp, where university students held a funeral ceremony. Jan Palach is remembered in the museum.  There is a small sporting exhibition with posters of successes at Olympic Games. Sporting glories were vital to the communist propaganda machine. Emil Zatopek was the most celebrated Czech athlete. At the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, ‘The Bouncing Czech’ won three gold medals for the 5k, 10k and marathon. 

A replica shop with only two varieties of tins on the bare shelves is a reproduction typical of a shop under communist rule. On paper, prices were favourable to the customer, but the items were seldom available. ‘Under the shelf’ sales which were rife benefited the privileged few. The fortunate one were often government workers, doctors and the military.  A sizeable section of the museum is devoted to propaganda posters, which is amongst the most interesting of the exhibits. The artwork is impressive and most portrays the workers as heroes. The artists weren‘t without a sense of humour either, most notably in anti-American posters. Woman workers are celebrated with honour as much as their male counterparts and look just as ferocious. The artist drew Czech workers, athletes and politicians in a way which epitomized a strong nation under one soviet flag. Artwork unique in style and rarely seen in another context.  A replica office with desk, lamp, typewriter and eerily ringing telephone, evoke memories for those who remember interrogation.

The nightmare of communism was never more horrific than for those who were arrested by secret police and brought to stations like the one seen here. Communists and dissidents alike would be sentenced to prison, death or simply disappeared. A prison uniform and noose are on display for anyone not sure of the consequences for betraying the state.  Asked if the Czech Republic is now a better place post communist rule, Katerina hesitated before saying; “Well in some ways, but now the restaurants and cafes are too expensive for us to eat in. Shops are now chains from around the world and the local community has been driven out”. She added; “I especially remember the services that were available to everyone…the libraries and the laundrettes. Every house block had it’s own laundrette and services. There is nothing like that anymore”. 

And what about the government? Katerina smiled, saying; “Not enough change has been made in respect to the people in parliament. On the outside there has been change but on the inside much is the same, things don’t happen quickly enough.”  The streets of Prague’s city centre are picturesque and lively with tourists from across the globe. It’s churches and cobbled streets evoke romantic images and are home to boutiques and jewellery shops. The destruction of Russia’s invasion of 1968 is nowhere to be seen, nor is the blood of the protesters from the 1980s.

Czechoslovakia’s dark past has vanished from sight, but the museum serves as an important reminder.  Did Katerina think there would one day be a museum of capitalism? “The capitalist museum is already here, all you have to do is look around our streets”.

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