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A trippy visit around Prague’s KGB Museum


‘Thanks,’ I said to my new American best friend, as I held the door open for him to step onto the winding, cobblestone path.

‘Whaddya furrrr?’ he replied in his southern drawl, before dismantling his camera like a sniper dismantles his weapon after taking a successful shot.

‘You know why: Andrey wasn’t going to run the 2pm tour if good ole’ yarrrr hadn’t made the numbers up!’

Whether Clyde took offence where none was intended or simply struggled to comprehend my Beatle-like-Forrest Gump hybrid accent, I don’t know, though I remained grateful that the budding David Bailey walked by when he did.

Andrey’s the curator of the KGB Muzeum, hardly a must-see in Fodor’s, which is situated on the north side of Prague’s Vltava River. Tours around his ‘cabinet[s] of communist curiosities’ (how Konstantin Akinsha describes the city’s Museum of Communism but which, in truth, is more apt a description for this overpriced, underwhelming attraction) only run with two or more persons. He broke this news to us near-simultaneously earlier that afternoon, around 1.30pm, and Clyde – with his chin tucked into the folds of his neck – nodded my way before leaving, presumably to kill half an hour.

The tour lasted seventy-odd minutes, undoubtedly the usual running time despite its chaotic nature (interruptions by tourists knocking desiring admission and reconstructed assassinations climaxing with gurney-like faces), yet the native Russian’s entertainment value (a Brit latecomer affectionately referred to him as ‘Borat’) compensates for the fact that neither the bill (350 CZK) nor the billing (Soviet spies) is suitable.

The twenty-minute delay to the start of proceedings (due to a technological glitch, with Andrey’s recording of Russia Today footage proving as unreliable as the channel’s reporting) suited me, however, since this coincided with Clyde’s reappearance and helped ease a next-day hangover headache.

I’d frequented various watering holes the evening prior, merely to get into the swing of native life, you understand, given Czechs hold the mantle of world’s biggest beer drinkers. One was Café Imperial which brews its own lip-smackingly dark concoction that didn’t taste particularly strong yet, at 8.5%, it’d take the stripes off a zebra – and stripped me of colour.

Feeling as rough as a badger’s behind, I positioned myself at the top of a narrow road facing the museum and attracted disapproving looks from locals who evidently believed I – with nose to the wind and with wind blowing in my furry face – resembled a dog’s head sticking out of a car window. With alcohol seemingly oozing from every orifice, the breeze provided some much-needed relief, as did the smell – if not the taste – of my takeaway coffee. With a baroque-looking building helping to keep me upright, I stood – rather leaned – with my eyes fixed on the red-tiled roofs opposite. Moments later a police car pulled up and parked beside.

I’d walked to the museum on Vlašská street on three occasions that day: first on a recce mission, thinking it’d help remove tile imprints from one side of my face, as well as gauge the time it takes to walk the perpetually packed, statue-bedecked Charles Bridge; second for my intended solo visit; and third, after buying a lukewarm latte, for a tour. Taken together, this clearly caught the eyes of those guarding the U.S. Embassy, a 100-or-so-metres away.

Being watched by these officers – who had a distinct Stalinist air about them, staring as they did with the suspicious eyes of border guards checking passports – led me to reflect on what I’d seen the day previously at the (albeit subjective) Museum of Communism (290 CZK), specifically the ‘Dream, Reality and Nightmare’ of the years 1948-1989, and, on Wenceslas Square, at the Hotel Jalta underground nuclear bunker (170 CZK), where guide Olga (another native Russian) wore period secret police uniform.

I’d not had chance to absorb the scale of state-socialist surveillance behind the Iron Curtain the night before since I – as any northern, working-class lad does – popped to the opera afterwards and had to bypass a starter – heretical for any self-respecting aforementioned – to catch a main before Imperial’s kitchen closed. Given communist-held belief that coffeehouse culture attracted bourgeois clientele, comrades closed or nationalised cafés after their putsch. Learning this fact, I had renewed appreciation and re-visited Imperial, though after first appreciating the Memorial to the Victims of Communism at the foot of Petřín Hill.

Prague memorial

This wasn’t where Einstein mused, like at Café Louvre (closed in ‘48), or the floor-to-ceiling windowed Slavia (nationalised) on the riverfront where dissident Václav Havel plotted post-‘68, granted, but rather where (Kafka patronised and) customer service suffered least from a communist hangover: a smile wasn’t interpreted, for instance, as raising the middle finger. Coffees were consumed for fear of suffering another hangover, suffice to say, but nonetheless cheered to celebrate the downfall of a(n anything but antifascist) communist regime.

 

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