Sunday, April 6, 2008

Forty years after Prague Spring, all that’s left of communism is a babushka with an ominous overbite. Or is it?

Renting its space from McDonalds on one of the busiest streets in Prague is Museum of Communism. It shares a beautiful, Baroque building with a casino.

Haphazardly thrown into the corners of its rooms are artifacts – pieces of Soviet airplanes, propaganda posters, a time card puncher with a proletarian slogan– that bear witness to decades of communism in Czechoslovakia (today's Czech Republic), now almost 20 years gone. Huddled on the floor, the busts of communist leaders command neither fear nor reverie – nor praise for a great aesthetic achievement.

Aesthetics may not have been the primary concern of the museum’s owner, American restaurateur Glenn Spicker who came to Prague in the early 90s, following the fall of communism. There was excitement in the air, Spicker remembers, and his thirst for adventure and a knack for business led him to open Bohemian Bagels in the city’s center. But a decade into it, the increasing expenses made him look for new ventures: the Museum of Communism.

“The idea was to create a museum that would be an expression of how Czech people feel – simple, objective and historical,” said Spicker who hired a Czech documentary producer Jan Kaplan, to help him with the set-up. Together, they scavenged the city’s antique shops for much of the museum’s paraphernalia. Several Czech historians and journalists wrote the text for the exhibition, which is divided into three thematic parts: “dream, reality and nightmare.”

Yet objectivity seems to be a relative concept. While the museum may be a helpful introduction to those who are not familiar with communism, for those more thorough students such as Sophie Schasiepen from Vienna, the approach appears polemic and irresponsible, peppered with commentary that has little to do with an objective look at the ideology.

“I was already shocked by the very sarcastic posters they are using as advertisements and that are printed in the guidebooks without any comment,” Schasiepen said. “The manner in which the presumably neutral texts in the exhibition where talking about Karl Marx, Lenin and communist ideas in general was outrageous. Calling Marx a ‘bohemian and intellectual adventurer, who started his life career as a romantic poet with an inclination towards apocalyptic titanism’ - I really don´t even know what to say to that.”

For a middle-aged couple from Hamburg, Germany, the museum was a reminder of a time they witnessed. “The museum was informative,” said Klaus Dernidinger, but the text, while trying to be objective, contained a “Western bias,” he added.

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the Prague Spring, a period of several months in 1968 when the new leadership of then Czechoslovakia's communist party headed by Alexander Dubcek attempted to introduce mild economic and social reforms. The Soviet Union, fearing the rebellion of its satellite state, sent troops in August of the same year. About 100 people died in the demonstrations that followed. In the protest of the clampdown, two youth Jan Palac and a month later, Jan Zajic, set themselves on fire and burned to death on Prague’s Vaclav Square.

The museum’s portrayal of the every day life under communism 

in Czechoslovakia left Mrs. Card from St. Louis in the United States grateful for “having been blessed to live in America.” The most effective displays were a bleak lineup of a few cans on the store’s shelf and the eerie echo of the telephone ring in the model of an interrogation room where potential dissidents were often tortured.

While Spicker was hoping that many Czechs would visit, he had no illusions. “I knew that tourists would be the main people to come – Czechs are not that excited to talk about the past.”
Marian J. Kratochvil of Institute of Contemporary History in Prague disagrees.  "The Czechs do not mind discussing things that happened during those 41 years of Communist rule, most of us are proud to have contributed to the resistance; others were, at least, 'non-belligerent." But, he added "the Museum is a damned pseudo-capitalist venture and no Czech would ever visit it."

The Velvet Revolution– a series of mass demonstrations in 1989 – brought communism in Czechoslovakia to an end. According to Spicker, unlike some other former Soviet satellite states that took pride in some of communism’s legacies –its monuments and artwork, for example – Czechs were eager to sever the connection, destroying many public markings.

However, the relationship to the time is not that clearly cut. In the aftermath of Velvet Revolution, today’s communist party in Czech Republic – Czech Republic’s Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia – is the only former ruling party of the Eastern Bloc that has not dropped “communist” from its title. It has consistently won an average of 12 percent of the votes in each parliamentary election since 1989.

According to Kratochvil,  "the Communist electorate consists mainly of pensioners, born in 1920s -1930s, who witnessed the Nazi occupation and Communists were a smaller evil for them.  Now, they lost their 'social securities' guaranteed by the state in the Communist era; they mutter, they are against everything, but they cannot present any solution."

Remnants of communism are in people’s attitudes, adds Spicker. “People still behave with innate cultural oddities. Arrogance in restaurants and bad customer service, for example – that all stems from communist background,” he said.

Kratochvil agrees that traces of that time "are present in our hearts, the way people think, how shop assistants present their goods to their customers - mostly unwillingly, reluctantly, knowing their wages are under average." But the new generations have welcomed the changes, he adds.  Most of them support either the Civic Democratic Party or the Social Democrats.  "The Communist Party is predestined to die out, sooner or later, or merge with Social Democrats just as soon as their electorate would die out."

Chris Card, 17, of St. Louis, United States sees very little of that time in today’s Prague. “Prague is really capitalist – you have to pay for everything, even to go to the bathroom.  It’s so un-American to have to pay to pee.”