Prague’s communist past
Museum of Communism, Prague, Czech Republic
I walk down the main pedestrian shopping mall of Prague, past a New Yorker shop, a United Colours of Benetton, a Zara. I turn into an entranceway next to a McDonalds and find the internal staircase up into a casino. At the top of the stairs, a sharp turn to the left stops me heading for the gambling tables and takes me to Prague’s Museum of Communism. It seems an odd place to be situated, surrounded by so much capitalism – most of it Western. But maybe that tells the story of communism in the city as well as anything exhibited inside.
If you look back at the twentieth century, communism had a large impact on Prague. The city was ruled by communists for 41 years, from 1948 until 1989, and it was in the Soviet sphere for several years before that. Students of modern history could be forgiven for thinking of Prague – and the Czech Republic more generally – as having developed in the past hundred years within a prism of communist-controlled, Soviet-influence, Czechoslovakia.
The problem with that view of history is that it forgets the centuries that came before and the decades that have come since. The Czech Republic, as I learn as I travel throughout the country, has most of its heritage in its Austrian and Hungarian past. And modern culture is defined by the period since independence and separation from Slovakia. Those communist decades in between – they have been shrugged off and wilfully forgotten.
That’s not to say it isn’t an important part of history and it’s what has brought me to the Museum of Communism here in central Prague.
The museum is laid out on one floor and is separated into three broad sections – communism the dream, the reality and the nightmare. It has a collection of items from the period but most of the information comes from fact sheets on the walls, explaining the history and the life of the time. As well as the politics and the economics, it talks about the role of the police and the media, the way people were censored or imprisoned.
Different areas are decorated to give a sense of the time – there’s a classroom with books the children would’ve read on the desks; there’s a lounge room of an average apartment with the spartan furniture of the period; there’s the display counter of a local grocery store; and an interrogation cell. Mannequins wear uniforms or gas masks, and busts of Lenin and Marx sit on shelves.
Life for citizens in Czechoslovakia during the communist control would not have been pleasant. You were not free to say what you thought or do the job that you wanted. Those who were deemed to be actively working against the state were treated the worst – they were isolated, imprisoned or even executed. But the regime had an effect on many parts of life for everyone – in the arts, sports, education and religion. Those who accepted the conditions could live a normal life in the sense they would do their job, spend time with their family, and see their friends… as long as they never tried to challenge the status quo.
In the end, the fall of the communist government in Czechoslovakia was a relatively peaceful affair that has become known as the ‘Velvet Revolution’. After mass protests, a change in attitude from Moscow, and political shifts in neighbouring countries, the transition to democracy happened quite quickly at the end of 1989. That began the process of splitting the Czech Republic and Slovakia into two separate countries.
It’s fair to say that the victors always get to write history and so it’s no great surprise that the communist era is not painted in a positive light at the museum. Then again, even an objective observer would probably agree it was not a particularly positive period. It certainly was not as harsh as it was in some of the neighbouring countries but communism in Czechoslovakia will always be defined more by its failures than any genuine attempt at a better system of government.
Over the next few weeks, as I travel around the Czech Republic, I see very little that reminds me of this communist past. Occasionally there is some architecture from the period, with a more brutal edge than the buildings around it, but not much else. Instead, I visit grand palaces and castles decorated with riches, I sit in beer gardens in forests with people having a break from a day of cycling, and I catch modern transportation with snacks and free wifi.
The Museum of Communism is just that – a museum. I have learned a lot from my visit and I understand the history much better now. However, I don’t think my view of the country is greatly altered by seeing the exhibits. I could probably skip it and my time here would not be very different. The people of the Czech Republic probably like to think the same about the era it depicts.
Where is the Museum of Communism in Prague?
The Museum of Communism is at Na Příkopě 10, 110 00 Prague 1, Czech Republic. From the main road, you need to go into an internal courtyard and then up some stairs. You can see it on a map here.
When is the Museum of Communism open?
The museum is open from 0900 (9am) until 1900 (7pm) every day except December 24.
How much does it cost to visit the Communism Museum?
I think the museum is slightly overpriced by Prague standards for what you get but still affordable. An entry ticket costs 190CZK (US$7.50) and 150CZK (US$5.90) for students.
Need more information?
You can find out more information about the museum at the official website here.
Where should you stay in Prague?
If you’re looking for a budget option, I would suggest the Post Hostel which is modern and friendly.
For something good value and a bit local, Family Lorenz & Coffee House is a great place.
For a cool and stylish option, you should try Hotel Josef.
And if you want to splurge for somewhere really cool, have a look at the BoHo Prague Hotel.