Saturday, 15 October 2011

Communism in Czechoslovakia - You couldn't get laundry detergent, but you could get your Brainwashed

When walking round Prague today, with it's fast food stands, big billboards and the odd strip club, it can be sometimes hard to imagine it's communist past. But if you happen to find yourself wondering in the vicinity of Wenceslas Square (Václavské náměstí), the chances are you may find Prague's Museum of Communism, located above a McDonald's and a casino (oh the irony!).
So one day, I found myself doing exactly this. As you ascend the staircase and catch your first glimpse of the museum, you are greeted immediately with gift shop items intermingled with various Soviet style artifacts. The slogan for the title was taken from a postcard in the gift shop. As you make your way around, you are taken on a journey through time, starting with Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels and concluding with the eventual fall of both communism and the Berlin Wall.
As well as the various artifacts on display, strategically placed plaques guide you along explaining the stories behind them as well as in depth explanations as to what happened over the years.
The highlight for me was the interrogation room. This mock office style room where various people would be interrogated was strangely eerie. Plaques on the wall describe how the secret police became the most powerful figures of this regime. By means of threats and blackmailing, the secret police managed to discredit even the top representatives of the party.
WARNING! Border Zone. Enter only on authorization.
As suspicion and paranoia rose, over 100,000 citizens were interrogated and sentenced for all manner of reasons, often they were completely innocent. By the late 80's, over 200,000 people had worked as spies. There is also a description of the trials of the party members where the 'Prague process' resulted in 11 party members being sentenced to death and executed, and a further 3 receiving life imprisonment. After the accused were executed, they were cremated and their remains were used for sprinkling on the icy roads. The head investigator Doubek was rewarded by promotion and a gift of 30,000Kc for the convictions and false confessions obtained through means of torture.
If you want to learn about Czech's communist past, the Museum of Communism is a great place to start. But there are also other places you can go.
Situated in the vicinity of Letna park, and occupying a prominent position over the city of Prague, is the monodrome. Erected in 1991, it is a replacement of the giant 30 metre high statue of Stalin that once stood there, commissioned by the party. Construction work commenced in 1950 and lasted lasted 5 years. It was finally unveiled on May 1st 1955, 2 years after Stalin had died. Not even the architect of the sculpture (Otakar Švec) lived to see the day, he committed suicide before he got to see his greatest commission complete. The monument lasted 7 years, before the party had it demolished in 1962. The locals (mostly young skateboarders) who frequent the area, often still refer to the place as 'Stalin'. 
Wenceslas Square (Václavské náměstí) staged many a demonstration during the communism era, most notably being the suicide of a young, 21 year old named Jan Palach in January 1969. In protest against the occupation of Czechoslovakia and the regime, the student set himself on fire in the square. Suffering 85% burns, he was taken to hospital where he lived for 3 days. Following this, there was a march of citizens in his honour, and was for a long time, the last mass demonstration against communism. A month after Palach's suicide, another student, 18 year old student, Jan Zajik, committed suicide in the exact same way by setting himself on fire. Initially, Palach was buried in Prague, his funeral attended by 750,000 people, but fearing that his grave may become somewhat of a shrine, in 1973, his body was exhumed by the police and moved to the country. At the top of Wenceslas Square, in front of the Czech National Museum, there is a memorial embedded in the stones, dedicated to him.
Wenceslas Square today
A peaceful demonstration (which was fully approved by the Communist party) commemorating International Students Day, and the fiftieth anniversary of the murder of students by the Nazi government was also held on Wenceslas Square on November 17th 1989. This ended in violence when the riot police intercepted the protesters on Narodni Street and beat them before they could get to the square. This was the beginning of the Velvet Revolution. Over the course of November and December demonstrations gained momentum and were taking place almost daily. By November 20th, an estimated half a million protesters had joined in the demonstrations. Victory was gained by the people on November 28th when the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia sensed its defeat and agreed to give up their monopoly on political power.
In the lesser town, under Petřín hill, Újezd Street, is a memorial dedicated to the victims of the regime from 1948-1989, unveiled in May 2002. It consists of seven bronze human figures descending some stone steps and is the work of Olbram Zoubek, a famous Czech sculptor and architects Jan Kerel and Zdeněk Holzel. The first figure is complete, but as you look at the figures further back they are gradually missing more and more body parts, and seemingly splitting open until eventually, at the back, there is nothing left. These disintegrating figures represent the gradual mental and physical deterioration of man living under the totalitarian regime.
On the stairs there is some writing on a bronze strip that runs down the middle, that shows the estimated numbers of those affected by Communism. It says that 205,486 were arrested, 170,938 were forced into exile, 4,500 died in prison, 327 were shot trying to escape and 248 were executed. The bronze plaque nearby reads "The memorial to the victims of communism is dedicated to all victims not only those who were jailed or executed but also those whose lives were ruined by totalitarian despotism".
Looking around Prague now, bustling with tourists on a late summers day, one can only be grateful to those people who helped to bring this regime to an end by toppling the government, for they are the reason that everyone walking around today no longer has to live in fear of this regime.


  1. Thank you so much for the heads up about this place...I hope to make it there very soono and see it for myself!

  2. No problem. Let me know how it goes :)