Prague Museum of Communism

While I was in Prague thirty years ago, newspapers were publishing the names of people who had been coerced into signing contracts with the authorities to provide information regarding matters of which the state had some interest.  Jiri, my host, would show me the list in the morning, highlighting who were his neighbors and colleagues, and who were his cell mates when he was in prison for his crimes against the state.  It was an interesting time to be in Prague as the nation was coming to acknowledge what Jiri called the “deformation” caused by fifty years of totalitarian rule.

I was attending the international conference of the Institute of Cultural Affairs, which is an NGO focused on organization and empowerment of communities.  I would travel each day on the Metro, forty five minutes each way with two train changes, to reach the conference facility.  I watched the fellow passengers sit in stone silence, eyes straight to the front, refusing eye contact and not speaking for the duration of the trip.  I could sense the utter alienation of the citizens one from the another.

Many details of the conference are lost in the haze of an aged memory.  Among those surviving is a reference made by the keynote speaker of the “parenthetical phrase” that started in 1917 and was now coming to its close.  Our trip to the Museum of Communism makes me question whether the “close parenthesis” has yet been typed onto that page of history.   The conditions described at the museum reverberate through time and many of the vibrations echo in the present and in my own country. As the statement mis-attributed to Mark Twain reminds us, history does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.

The exhibit starts with a presentation on the origin of the Czechoslovakian state from the Austrian-Hungarian empire at the close of World War I, the birth of the Czech Communist Party and its growth in response to the post war poverty and. the Great Depression.  Then there was the “great betrayal” of the Munich Agreement when other European powers ceded the Czech border lands and ultimately the entire nation to the Nazi regime. In this part of the exhibit, I remembered Jiri showing me the various informal monuments where the bullet holes still remained in the walls where partisans had been executed.   And I recalled that earlier in the day I came across one of those monuments. 

The Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia was clearly harsh and brutal yet the suppression of the mind and spirit that was achieved in the next phase of totalitarian rule was complete and comprehensive.  As I read the text and saw the images of the communist periodI knew that I had not really understood what Jiri had called the “deformation.”

The exhibit showed how in nearly every aspect of life, from the family, the church, the civic organizations, and the entire industrial enterprise had become a tool of oppression.  What is called “oppression” in the West today is a mere shadow of the oppression experienced by the Czechoslovakian people (as well as the other nations and cultures on “that side” of the iron curtain.

Fathers of Communism
Timeline of totalitarianism
Heroes of Socialism

Know your place

Among the actions taken to implement the regime, as outlined in the exhibition, were:

  • Adoption of emergency powers by the State;
  • Exclusion of opposition political parties and implementation of one-party rule;
  • Monopolization of news and distribution of information;
  • Suppression of dissenting views through censorship, harassment, and the use of raw state power;
  • Currency reforms directed at degrading the economic position of the citizens;
  • Centralization of economic and social planning;
  • Elimination of small businesses and entrepreneurs;
  • Elimination of private ownership of farmland and centralized control over food distribution;
  • Use of the legal system and judiciary to persecute;
  • Ideological indoctrination of children and instruction in a revised history to sever links to the past;
  • Politicization and weaponization of police and military and using it against the population;
  • Systematic surveillance of the population using technology and networks of informants and secret police; and
  • Compelled obedience to the State through economic, social and physical coercion.

Do any of these measures seem familiar?

The exhibit concluded with the fall of communism in Europe.  Among the last panels we found the statement that “the fall of communism took ten years in Poland, ten months in Hungary, ten weeks in Germany, and ten days in Czechoslovakia.” That assertion addresses only the “Velvet Revolution” of 1989 and its aftermath. Earlier, the exhibition includes a long history of resistance and disobedience.  There was the “Prague Spring” of 1968, the annual self-immolation of protestors, and the various examples of cultural insurrection through art, poetry, and literature, distributed through the underground.

Names and dates of the martyrs for liberation

The last item in the exhibition is a video of the street demonstrations and the State’s response during the Velvet Revolution.  The heroism of the demonstrators who stood against the unconstrained violence of the State was astounding.  As for the closing of the parenthesis, it is an open question whether the citizens of the West have the clarity of mind and the courage to act as the totalitarian forces in our society solidify their control.

Beginning of the End
Velvet Revolution

One thought on “Prague Museum of Communism

  1. Berta Carela September 27, 2022 / 8:47 pm

    Hello Paula y Charlie! The start of your adventures, from drenching rain to reunion with old friends and more, sounds magical and supercharged. The photos are beautiful and your stories and narrative as intriguing as only you can make. Thank you for sharing this adventure!


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