Learning there was a Museum of Communism in Prague instantly piqued my interest. I put it at the top of my list of things to do in the city. An entire museum about communism appealed to my sensibilities as a politics nerd. Then I read up on the museum and realized that I knew very little about the history of communist regimes in Eastern Europe.
It hadn’t yet occurred to me as I walked around beautiful Prague, eating trdelniks and gawking at the St. Charles Bridge, that less than two decades ago the people in this city lived under a communist, one-party rule. One reason for this might also be that signs of communism have been all but effaced in Prague.
You can blame it on my lack of historical-cultural sensitivity, or on the failing of the American education system when it comes to the Cold War. Since I was a politics and international relations student at university, though, I probably should’ve known better. Realizing I understood very little about Prague’s communist past made me want to visit the museum even more.
A Brief History of Communism in Prague
From 1948-1989, the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia (KSČ) ruled the country. The country went through periods of Stalinization, de-Stalinization, the Prague Spring, and Normalization. These phases finally culminated in the Velvet Revolution in 1989. Stalinization saw the close adherence to Soviet policies. Nationalization of industry, collectivization of agriculture, and the persecution of political dissidents were common. De-Stalinization and the Prague Spring, in the 1940s and 1950s, were characterized by talk of liberal reforms by the government. The economy had been tanking so privatization measures would be re-introduced. In addition, opposition parties were allowed to exist by the KSČ and state-imposed censorship on media and press was lifted.
Worried about Czechoslovakia’s “counterrevolution” the Soviets invaded via the Warsaw Pact agreement. This intervention caused student Jan Palach to set himself on fire in protest at Wenceslas Square on 19 January 1969, an event memorialized at the Square and in Czech history.
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Prague & Communism – 1970s Onward
During Normalization, in the 1970s and 1980s Czech and Slovak culture was once again brutally repressed. The state demanded once again demanded strict conformity to the socialist ideology. Thinkers, writers, and artists continued to agitate for freedom of expression throughout the 1970s and 1980s.
Protests mounted and in November 1989, along with the collapse of other Warsaw Pact countries. The communist one-party state agreed to step down. This prompted a return to parliamentary democracy and the breakup of the country into the Czech Republic and Slovakia. The nonviolent turnover of power is known as the Velvet Revolution.
Apart from that last bit about the Velvet Revolution, I was clueless about Prague’s history. Going to the Museum of Communism, then, turned out to be very informative for me.
Visit to the Museum of Communism
I visited the Museum of Communism alone, since my two travel companions – my sister and her friend – opted for watching an outdoor basketball tournament near Wenceslas Square instead. I was expecting information about both communism and Prague at the museum, which delivers on both fronts.
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Likely with uninformed Westerners like me in mind, the museum often draws comparisons between life in Prague under communism and life in the West at the time. It strives to present as detailed representation as possible with full dioramas of a classroom and convenience store. These serve well for helping visitors imagine what life was like.
The museum also reconstructed a communist-era secret police interrogation room. The lighthearted references to the West give way to a more sobering reality here. This is the kind of reality that many Westerners would have a harder time picturing than children in a classroom.
Following the interrogation room is a room with a short film about the communist era, equally as sobering. After that, the exhibit features info on the Velvet Revolution and important thinkers from Prague like Václav Havel.
Is Prague’s Museum of Communism on point?
The Museum of Communism struck me. Some visitors have criticized its lack of nuance, even calling it polemical. It’s true that communism is not presented favorably in the museum and the presence of a glossy gift shop seems like capitalistic irony. Expecting a balanced representation of the communist era in Prague seems a bit foolish to me, though. I was not surprised by the denunciation of communism, considering the city’s history with it.
Perhaps that speaks more to my own cultural background, my general unfamiliarity with communism. In fact, over two-thirds of Czech residents over 40 disapprove of the Velvet Revolution. They considered the welfare system and social relationships better during the communist period.
A Complicated History with Communism
In light of this, maybe an unfavorable view of communism at the museum is inappropriate. Maybe it doesn’t reflect how Czech people deal with their past and it’s incongruous to give visitors this idea.
Whether the Museum of Communism in Prague is biased or not (and it is), it’s still worth a visit. The reconstructed displays and impressive number of artifacts are fascinating to look at. On my visit, I gained a deeper understanding of Prague’s history, which is ultimately what I was after.
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Prague and Communism in Context
I couldn’t help but reflect on the Museum of Communism when hearing about the protests in Prague this summer. Crowds took to Letná Park to protest the recent actions of Prime Minister Babiš.
Their main concern was that Babiš stood accused of using EU funding for a business project that later benefitted his agricultural conglomerate, Agrofert. He was being investigated for this but in September 2019, the courts decided not to indict him.
Past actions of Babiš’ worry some Czech citizens as well. His name appeared on a list of secret police officers from the communist era. He sued to have it removed but was unsuccessful. In the spring of 2019, he also dismissed the Czech justice minister without warning, after rumors of his possible indictment first surfaced. Finally, Babiš owns a large media company that runs two of the country’s biggest newspapers. All these factors together have caused Czech citizens to raise concerns over corruption and good governance.
Update – on 1 December 2019, the European Commission found that Babiš has a conflict of interest due to his former business empire Agrofert receiving EU subsidies. Czech authorities are still investigating.
Same Issues, Different Revolution?
Many commentators on the protests did not fail to point out that 2019 marks 30 years since the Velvet Revolution. Indeed, it was the biggest public protest in Prague since 1989, which you can watch here.
Was there truly an echo of the 1989 in Prague this summer? To some degree, yes. Frustrated citizens who saw threats to their country’s democracy and rule of law took to the streets. Protestors announced that they saw these freedoms, legacies of 1989, threatened.
The notion of Western liberal democracy, the hope of the 1989 protestors, hasn’t played out quite as they expected and many feel let down by the system. The two are linked not because today’s protestors demand the same reforms. They are linked because the 1989 reforms didn’t deliver on what was promised for some people. Today’s protestors, lambasting corruption and the tide of “illiberalism” that has been creeping over Eastern Europe, are not angling for a new revolution. But they are embracing the ideas of the old one – using them to spark change for modern times.
Places like the Museum of Communism have an all-too-important role to play in the crafting of a national identity. Coming down on one side or another of history has significant modern implications. I’ll pose the same question here that I posed before: does the Museum of Communism adequately represent the sentiments of the Czech people toward Communism?
If you ask protestors from Letná Park this summer they might say yes. If you ask the two-thirds of Czech citizens who disagree with the 1989 revolution, they might say no. It’s a question that museums and other institutions that safeguard history should continue to ask. It’s one we, as visitors, should ask of them as well. Who do you represent? Whose story are you trying to tell? This is what helps up put history in context.