While touring Prague last spring, I kept coming across cheeky advertisements for the Museum of Communism. One featured a painting of a defiant Vladimir Lenin beside the words “We’re Above McDonalds and across from Benetton. Viva la Imperalism!” After checking out the city’s highlights, I hightailed it over there.
The museum shares an ornate lobby with a casino, adding another surreal element to the proceedings, especially since it’s just off Wenceslas Square, the site where hundreds of thousands gathered during the Velvet Revolution back in 1989. After paying the entrance fee and heading down a hallway lined with plaster statutes of Stalin, Marx, etc., my eyes fell on a sign in a factory exhibit telling me that “timely arrival to work delivers the decisive blow against the American aggression!”
I wasn’t sure if that sentence was supposed to included an “a” instead of that”the” but there you have it. Other exhibits at the museum include an historical schoolroom complete with commie propaganda text books, an interrogation room and a shop with mostly bare shelves. They’re all separated into three sections: Dream, Reality and Nightmare.
Strangely enough, this was the brainchild of an American named Glenn Spicker, who also owns a series of bars and bagel shops around Prague. That might explain its tongue-in-cheek advertising campaign but the museum itself is much more somber. He sought the consultation of locals like documentary filmmaker Jan Kaplan, who fled from his homeland to London in 1968.
In an interview after the museum’s debut in 2001, Spicker confessed concerns regarding his involvement. “I expected criticism because I didn’t live through communism. And I came here after the revolution,” he said. “And I’m a foreigner. I expected criticism – that no matter what we did some people were going to say you haven’t gone far enough and some people were going to say you’ve gone too far. “
For some visitors, the museum’s a hoot but for others it’s a stark reminder of one of the most painful eras in Czech history. In the years following World War 2, the country found itself caught between the idealism of the west and the political influences of the east. As the populace became increasingly disillusioned with the political climate of Western Europe, the country’s Communist Party grew in strength. After netting 46% of the vote in 1946’s national elections, the party quickly consolidated power and took over the government a few years later in 1948.
Communism was not kind to the Czechs. Now firmly embedded in the Eastern Block, they watched their country’s GDP drop rapidly while the communists nationalized production. Hundreds of thousands became political prisoners throughout the 1950s and paranoia ran rampant. Efforts to liberalize in 1968 during the fabled “Prague Spring” under the leadership of politician Alexander Dubček came to a grinding halt once the Warsaw Pact was signed a few months later that August. A system of “Normalization” went into effect as foreign troops established an occupying force in the country’s urban centers. This lead to further suppression of dissenters and heavy censorship.
Before the peaceful “Velvet Revolution” in 1989, which would split the nation into Slovakia and the democratic Czech Republic, over 250,000 Czechs were incarcerated for “anti-state activities.” Another 400,000 fled to the west. Since then, the country’s reforms and new government have helped turn it into the most democratic nation in the region. If nothing else, the Museum of Communism, given its ironic location, should serve as a reminder of how far the Czechs have come over the past two decades.
Click the jump to view a gallery of photos from the museum…