Museum of Communism offers foreign visitors a glimpse of life behind the Iron Curtain

18-11-2011

On Prague’s Na Prikope street, in the very heart of the city –right next to McDonalds – is a Museum of Communism. What comes as a surprise to many locals and foreign visitors is that this private venture is the work of an American businessman who owns a number of bars and restaurants in the Czech capital. Glenn Spicker came to Prague 17 years ago, on a wave of interest in the post communist world. Unlike others he launched a successful business venture and stayed. As Glenn gave me a tour of the museum, he explained what made him branch out so far from his field of enterprise.

“Well it’s not that far off of what I do. I did start out in the restaurant business here in the Czech Republic, but I studied foreign policy before the revolution which was an exciting time period for me and that is actually why I moved here. I heard about the revolutions in eastern Europe and I wanted to travel and see things ,so I got here and started to do business and it was only some years later that I realized that a lot of people did not get the experience that I got - which was to be welcomed by Czech families, to be spoken to about the communist era, to go to people’s country cottages, to have lunch with them, to have them open up and hear about things in the past. That era ended and the experience that I got a lot of people didn’t get. But they are still interested in what happened, what it looked like –a lot of people would ask me what it looked like before and what’s changed. So I thought it would be an interesting venture to start a museum of communism. It seemed like a good idea and a fun project that would help tourists and people in general get a quick, fairly objective overview of what happened here.”

So can we walk around and see what sections there are and why you opted for certain exhibits?

“Sure, well Jan Kaplan who is an artistic director and lives in London – he emigrated in 1968 – was one of the people most responsible for coming up with this three-act play, this trilogy. We decided to have the museum three-dimensional, not so chronological -not extremely boring, hopefully, -and lay it out where it was the DREAM, the REALITY and the NIGHTMARE, because after all communism was voted in by the people. After defeating fascism communism probably looked like a great alternative. Of course, it was hijacked and it is obviously not be a realistic system of government –it does not really work. But people did not know that then and Czechs may not want to face that or realize that but that was the case after WWII. So that was the dream.”

So what is in the dream section?

“The dream section is mostly the 50s, five-year-plans and everyone working together for the betterment of mankind –you know – it’s going to be a great future and we are going to work for everyone not just for ourselves –so it’s a belief in the ideology. But anyway, let me just explain that this is sort of the ante-room providing a historical backdrop to the exhibition proper–you start from the 20s and you see how things evolved from President Masaryk, through Hitler and WWII and that gives you a broader perspective of events and what’s going to happen after the war. Here besides posters and a painting of the Aurora we have a little section on Marxism and Leninism just to give people some background and then on the left-hand side is the rise of communism here in Czechoslovakia –so we have the first communist president Klement Gottwald, posters and that type of thing. Then we get to the dream segment – praising the industry, the air force, technology, people building, working, the ideology in the schools plus a small section on socialist realism in art….this is the DREAM and that is why we have the hammer and sickle painted in gold and this is what people maybe thought was going to happen.

Then we get to the REALITY section and that is all muddy and grey, with a grey hammer and sickle. We have a small section on sport, because I think that was and always is a big diversion from politics and was a big part of people’s lives. But we also have an agricultural section, an empty storefront and we discuss how people had to wait in line and there were very few goods in the shops and the TUZEX shops (for the communist top brass) as opposed to regular shops and the podpultovky – under the table goods. So this section is about what life was like. Here we have an abandoned, non-functioning telephone booth, street signs named after Lenin and Gottwald, a nice series of black and white photos of what the streets looked like – garbage, empty shops, buildings left broken down, people fixing their Trabant cars and that kind of thing. We even have some pictures of stuff that hasn’t changed very much at all –like Usti nad Labem or Decin or some of those places. But again, this is the destruction of the environment which is unfortunately a by-product of the regime. Here we have Lidove milice – the People’s Militia, there’s a section on propaganda – anti-imperialist posters, anti-imperialist paintings, this is an original Hoffmeister –with the evil Rockefeller capitalist depicted in this cartoon….”

And what section is this now?

“This is still the reality, but we sneak in a socialist-realism art exhibition –a few oil paintings. Then we have a border section, people can see what the country’s borders looked like. There is army stuff, medals, guns, and even an interesting STB (secret service) oil painting –all glorifying the army and how it protected the country’s borders – some really interesting stuff here.”

And this is an interrogation room?

“Yes, that is the interrogation room. We painted it red and we have Stalin’s famous slogan “one death is a tragedy; one million deaths is a statistic” and although we are not going chronologically (we are harking back to the 50s here) this part reflects a time when dissent and opening your mouth against the regime was punished by torture. That later changed, but with Mr. Kaplan we felt that this was the nightmare time – when people were spied on with cameras and listening devices. The interrogation room is a kachlikarna (tiled room) basically –there are tiles on the floor and we made it dark and eerie and we are fortunate to have some authentic arte crafts from Pankrac prison which have been loaned to us – a noose and a prisoner’s outfit and a little food bowl in which political prisoners got their food. Plus there is a whole section on the stb –secret service – and the show trials.”

Table lamp, old typewriter….

“Yes, and the leather jacket and phone that rings when you least expect it. Stalin and Gottwald on the walls.”

And there seems to be a mini-theatre next door…

“Yes, the theatre is probably the most important part of the museum, something that everyone should see. It shows the suppression of the Prague Spring in 1968 and then the Velvet Revolution in 1989. It’s fascinating, amazing. It shows the police marching against the people. We have those helmets and uniforms here. Everything…that’s something people need to come and see. This is kind of sad….. We are now looking for more positive footage of the Velvet Revolution which we would like to show in the 1989 section which we will get to soon. Here we have a small section on 1968 which doesn’t do justice to what happened here but we are a bit limited on space – then we go through the normalization period –there’s president Husak and some pretty funny photos here of Husak with Mugabe and Husak with Khomeini. Then there is the dissident – Havel with the Plastic People underground rock band –so you get a feel of what was going on then….We would welcome some Charter 77 documents (if anybody has them) or some samizdat publications, but again you are limited here to about ten square meters of space. And here we go into Gorbachov and the Berlin Wall – and Radio Free Europe –and the revolution on Wenceslas Square –you can see some of the photos of Wenceslas Square filled with 300,000 people -it’s amazing.”

So you want the exhibition to end on a positive note for people?

“That is the idea, which is why we want to redo this section and get some better footage and more colour and music and make people feel more emotionally upbeat when they leave here –which is why we have the Berlin Wall being torn down – that’s symbolic obviously, because the Berlin Wall wasn’t in Prague, but that’s the idea.”

Who comes to see it? Foreigners or Czechs? Young –or older people?

“It’s mostly foreigners, the whole range of foreigners –from young Spanish or Brazilian students to Americans in their 50s, Canadians, Germans ….we have the accompanying text in many different languages. Here it is in English, Czech and German but you can ask for the text in Japanese, Italian or any number of languages –you just have to ask for it. By no means do we have a lot of Czech people. We have students – groups of students from about 7 or 8 years old to about 13-14 that come every year. We encourage people to come and we have a comment book …”

What kind of comments do you get – anything that pleased you in particular or upset you?

“I think most people actually like it. Most people write pretty positively. Occasionally people will say -“oh well, capitalism is no better” or they will hear that I am an American and they will write “what do you know – Ronald Reagan was terrible. “ Well, I actually agree. I just don’t have a museum about capitalism. If I did I would slander it almost as much as I would communism. But we can only do so much here. So it is not even a look at China or even Poland. This is Czech and Slovak with an emphasis on Prague for people that come here. But most people write nice comments, get something out of it and enjoy the experience and I think that even Czechs –when they come (they don’t want to come - they’ll say we know everything about it –we don’t want to hear about it –leave me alone, I can’t believe it ) if they actually come here they get a lot out of it and they like it because they see the old motorcycle or the first bike that their parents bought them or the schoolroom which is a replica of the one where they sat when they were kids. They get more nostaligia and more emotional value out of it than an American does because none of the stuff here really speaks to them.”

For those who prefer a more laid-back atmosphere to that of a museum–Glenn Spicker has opened an Iron Curtain restaurant- bar in the city.

18-11-2011