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Seeing Red Over a Czech Museum

August 12, 2010 By:
Jelena Kopanja
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The Museum of Communism rents its space from McDonald's, on one of the busiest streets in Prague. Its neighbor, on the first floor of a beautiful Baroque building, is a casino.

Haphazardly thrown into the corners of its rooms are artifacts from the communist years of the former Czechoslovakia (today's Czech Republic): pieces of Soviet airplanes, propaganda posters, a time card-puncher with a proletarian slogan. Huddled on the floor, the busts of Communist leaders command neither fear nor reverie -- nor praise for a great aesthetic achievement.

Glenn Spicker, the museum's American founder, may have been thinking of more than aesthetics. He came to Prague in the early 1990s after communism fell. He recalled the excitement in the air. His thirst for adventure and knack for business led him to open Bohemian Bagels in the city center.

After a decade, the increasing expenses made him look for new ventures. So he set up a 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 Czech documentary producer Jan Kaplan to help him make the exhibits.

Together, they scavenged the city's antique shops for much of the paraphernalia. Several Czech historians and journalists wrote the text for the exhibition, which is divided into three thematic parts: "dream, reality and nightmare."

'Nyet' Her Cup of Tea
Yet objectivity may be in the eye of the beholder. A visitor from Vienna, Sophie Schasiepen, found the museum's approach polemical and irresponsible.

"I was already shocked by the very sarcastic posters they are using as advertisements and that are printed in the guidebooks without any comment," criticized Schasiepen. "The manner in which the presumably neutral texts in the exhibition were talking about Karl Marx, Lenin and Communist ideas in general was outrageous."

A middle-aged couple from Hamburg said that the museum was a reminder of a time they had experienced themselves. The husband, Klaus Dernidinger, called it "informative," but said that he thought the text contained a "Western bias."

This month marks the 42th anniversary of the Prague Spring, the half-year of economic and social reform led by the Communist government of Alexander Dubcek, which was crushed by the Soviet Union in August 1968.

More than 70 people died in the subsequent demonstrations. In the protest against the crackdown, two young men -- first Jan Palac, and a month later, Jan Zajic -- burned themselves to death on Prague's Vaclav Square.

The museum's grim portrayal of the everyday life under communism left one Mrs. Card from St. Louis grateful for "having been blessed to live in America."

(Those who want to experience Prague during a different era only have to visit the Jewish Museum and take a tour of the Jewish Quarter, including a stop at Franz Kafka's birthplace, available at: www.praguetourservice.com.)

The most effective displays are a bleak lineup of a few cans on a store shelf, and the eerie echo of a ringing telephone in an interrogation room, reminiscent of places where dissidents were tortured.

While Spicker also hoped that many Czechs would visit, he'd had no illusions.

"I knew that tourists would be the main people to come," he said. "Czechs are not that excited to talk about the past."

Marian J. Kratochvil of the Institute of Contemporary History in Prague said that he didn't think that was the issue.

"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," he explained. "Others were, at least, 'non-belligerent.' "

But, he quickly 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 here to an end. Spicker argued that the country was more eager than other ex-Soviet satellite states to sever the Soviet connection. Czechs destroyed many public symbols from that time, he pointed out.

Remnants of the Communist era can still be seen in attitudes, he acknowledged: "People still behave with innate cultural oddities. Arrogance in restaurants and bad customer service, for example -- that all stems from the Communist background."

Kratochvil agreed that traces of that time "are present in our hearts, the way people think, how shop assistants present their goods to their customer -- mostly unwillingly, reluctantly, knowing their wages are under average."

But the new generations have welcomed the changes, he put forth; most 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 dies out," he said.

Chris Card, 17, couldn't detect much of what he found familiar about communism at all. "Prague is really capitalist -- you have to pay for everything, even to go to the bathroom," he said. "It's so un-American to have to pay to pee."

For more information, go to: www.pragueexperience.com.


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