An immersive experience in Soviet-era Communism — and customer service.
The Museum of Communism in downtown Prague is tucked away in a corner on the second floor of a building on Wenceslas Square, above a shiny new McDonald’s. The location is easy to find thanks to the museum’s advertising slogan: We’re above McDonald’s, Across from Benetton. Viva la Imperialism!
Wenceslas Square, where Václav Havel addressed a million Czechs and Slovaks gathered there in 1989 to rise up against their Communist government, is where the European Soviet empire began to crumble. The theme of the Museum of Communism is unequivocal: Communism—the Dream, the Reality, and the Nightmare. But not without a bizarre hint of irony: It was a time of happy, shiny people—the shiniest were in the uranium mines, reads one poster. Paranoia, propaganda, military invasions. No, it’s not George W’s America, reads another.
Inside the Museum of Communism, threadbare carpets cover the floors and faded posters decorate worn marble pillars in a way that is reminiscent of photos of contemporary Havana. The displays, whose advertising promises an immersive experience, are intended to give visitors a taste of what it was like to live under Communism. The first exhibit is a brief history of what was, for fifty years, Communist Czechoslovakia, presented in standard museum style: black-and-white photographs mounted on display boards, accompanied by quasi-objective explanations in three languages.
The museum is served by a dour and morose staff, one of whom grunted for us to hand over the significant admission fee. They all seemed intent on providing an immersive experience in Soviet-era customer service. Like the faceless, oppressed Czechs described in the exhibits, they seem weary, sullen and bored.
The final exhibit is a video of Wenceslas Square during the 1989 uprising, assembled from footage shot by the Czech secret police toting Betamax video cameras the size of missile launchers. It documents the vicious beatings of protesting students and citizens by the undercover officers who are making the video. In a weird inversion of the police brutality incidents surreptitiously recorded by bystanders in North America, these police attacks are deliberately documented. The police fan out among the hundreds of thousands of people in the square, randomly selecting, then interrogating and beating individuals in the crowd.
We stood in the back of a dark screening room with a dozen or so tourists, most of them Americans, and watched a thirty-something woman with ’80s hair singled out for interrogation on screen. She dutifully answers the secret police’s questions, but not before a look of barely suppressed contempt flashes across her face. It is a glimpse of her honest feelings that is both involuntary and deliberate, and seems to be a microcosm of the fluid moment she is part of, in which one order is replaced by another. In this moment of transition it becomes—for the first time—suddenly, briefly, almost possible to show the waning power what she really thinks. After this fleeting moment, the woman recovers her mask of composure. The police carry billy clubs, after all. Her face hardens, and her responses to the questions (What are you doing here? Have you ever been arrested for illegal activity?) turn monosyllabic and monotone. It’s the flat, nothing-to-gain, nothing-to-lose tone used by a child well practised in the art of taking punishment.
The video cuts to a young man wiping tears from his face, who answers the questions openly. His respect for his interrogators is obvious as he tells them where he lives, where he goes to school and his most recent grades, all of which were C’s and B’s. “Except one class,” he adds. “It was an A.” “In what?” the interrogator asks him. “Obedience,” the boy replies. The policeman says nothing. What might it mean to them that a teary-eyed eighteen-year-old who got an A in obedience is risking his life to participate in an attempt to overthrow the state?
We stumbled out of the museum into the bright mid-afternoon sunlight of Wenceslas Square, where the interrogations had taken place. Tourists of all colours and ethnicities—the global upper middle class—flowed effortlessly around us, parading up and down under the Gap and Louis Vuitton signs, the size and gaudiness of which rival anything I’ve seen in San Francisco or New York. On that night, in 1989, when Václav Havel addressed the nation, is this what they thought would come?
Since 1989, downtown Prague has been revitalized. The buildings have been restored (many are for sale, and all the for sale signs are written in English). As far as I could tell, no Czechs now live in the downtown core. Every morning before dawn the downtown air filled with diesel fumes as bus after bus disgorged Czechs coming into the city to work as service providers for the four million tourists who visit every year. Prague has become a spectacular backdrop, pretty and authentic enough to make even the most normal activities of shopping and drinking and strip-club- hopping new and exciting.
On our third night in Prague, after a few beers, a couple of university students spoke uncertainly about their parents’ generation.
“My parents are now unable to make a living,” said one of them. “They do not like the changes.” “Neither do mine,” said another.
“It’s good, though.”
“Yes. Now we have freedom.”
As we stood outside the museum, a group of very wasted young Russian men wearing holiday shorts drank at a patio on the square, staggering around their table until one of them lurched into a camera-toting Vietnamese family. Pulling back, he bumped into one of his buddies, who dropped his pitcher of Pivo, shattering it on the cobblestone. Another turned to look, and then threw up on the pavement.