I was in Prague doing both traveling and researching for a book I have not yet written, but as fate often occurs, I found myself wandering down an unfamiliar street that took me into an area that seemed both blurry in atmosphere and reminiscent of an era the rest of Prague had long since pushed into the cobwebs of its temporal lobe. Before I could turn around and find some place more touristy, I found myself stopped in front of a decrepit warehouse and an old man in a well-worn suit. On the doorway behind this man were words indicating that we were standing in front of The Communist Museum of Czechoslovakia.
Being somewhat of an amateur historian, I was immediately intrigued and asked him if he was the owner of this establishment. He told me that he was.
You see, even though I would hope that no backstory is necessary here, I have been teaching college students for years, and one of the things I have learned is that you can’t make assumptions on knowledge and history. No matter how much history may have been interesting to me, there’s no guarantee that everyone else has been lucky enough to encounter the same information I have, and I would suspect that there is a great deal of knowledge out there that others know that I do not. So, I avoid such assumptions these days.
So, what I did want to disclose is that Prague has not always been part of the Czech Republic. Before that, it was part of a consortium known as Czechoslovakia, a nation of Communism under the firm grip of the Soviet Union, and in its history, it was known to be quite horrible to the Czechs when circumstances seemed to require it.
But one thing I learned while being in Prague in the later years of the 1990s is that the people who were wandering around had been the same people who had lived through this brutal regime. Some of them were a bit younger and might not have been through the harder times of the experience, but there were still memories, and people were not yet in the 2010s, meaning that a new generation wasn’t on the rise yet, so it was hard to forget the horrible things most people had lived through.
When I spoke to the younger people of this time, they still responded with a bit of trepidation and disgust for that era only a short time back. Fortunately, the backlash of realizing that democracy also comes with negative aspects (like economic blight) had not taken effect yet; it’s hard to imagine such things when you’re still reveling in the concept of having choices of both Lucky Charms, Cap’n Crunch and Fruit Loops rather than whatever gruel the state allowed you to have on any particular day.
Why am I focusing on this sort of stuff while standing in front of the Museum of Communism? Well, for the simple reason that while most of Prague was beginning to embrace a whole new economic model of freedom and democracy, this one guy (let’s call him Josef) seemed to be in a world all of his own. He invited me into his museum for a really low price of money so that I didn’t even think anything about the cost. This was a little more than half a decade before the first Hostel movie, so the fear that some crazed psycho was going to torture me and chop me up for sport was not even a thought on my mind (it was the second time I was doing research in Eastern Europe and had already seen that series of movies). But spoiler alert: This guy was normal and mostly interested in showing me his museum.
His museum was interesting, and strangely enough it reminded me a lot of another museum I had visited while a freshman (fourth class) cadet at West Point, which had one of most intimate museums I’ve ever experienced, telling the story of both West Point and the United States Army. I did use the word “strangely” because while I was reminded of West Point’s museum, it was also nothing like it. Let me explain.
West Point’s museum is huge and contains a lot of great memorabilia that spans the entire history of the US, plus the concept of warfare in general. This man’s museum covered the decades that his people had lived through communism.
And it was both fascinating and equally depressing.
What was similar to West Point’s museum was how both of them attempted to include anything they could find that told its narrative, from clothing to weapons to personal items to anything that was left over that told a bit of the story.
At West Point, there were shaving kits of old days; in his museum, there were shackles used to secure prisoners who were unruly and trying to avoid work. At West Point, there were old, preserved cannons that had been used in Civil War battles; in his museum, there were coats peasants wore to keep out the cold, even though they were tattered and drab, giving the distinct impression they had been in such disrepair at the time of their use. At West Point, medals awarded by Douglas MacArthur were preserved in cases; in his museum, a pencil used by astronauts of the Czechoslavokian Space Agency as a cheap alternative to the upside down writing pen developed by NASA. Josef seemed quite interested in sharing that history of the inenuity of Czecks involving pencils.
Throughout my tour, even as sparse as the museum was in comparison to other museums I’ve visited over the years, two things were apparent. One, there was a sense of history present at all times, almost as if that building itself had been preserved throughout time itself, and second, Josef was really proud of the work he had done to preserve this information.
What I also noticed is that no one else seemed to be present for the tour; there were no other visitors. This made me suspect that either Czechs weren’t interested in learning about their history, or perhaps they wanted to forget it instead.
As I visited Prague itself, the one thing I noticed was how industrial the city was becoming and how enterprising the population was as well. The more I engaged with the people, the more I noticed that their young people seemed much more Western European than they appeared Eastern European, even though they were actually the latter. Part of the environmental discourse indicated to me that this population chose to be something that they were not allowed to be only a decade before.
I was able to ask Josef a number of questions while I was there, but two seemed to be more salient than others: First, as indicated earlier, I was curious as to why he thought fellow citizens of Prague seemed to be avoiding his museum. I suspected he would tell me that his museum was located off the beaten path, which made it difficult for people to find (I mean, I stumbled upon it myself by complete coincidence). He said:
“We are embarrassed to remember that it was we who are reprseented by this museum, that it isn’t a display of other people, but of us and our own people. No one wants to be reminded of our own evil deeds.”
Which begged the second question: “Then why are preserving such a museum?”
He said: “If I don’t preserve it, no one else will. And then we forget forever. And then we do it again.”
I don’t remember if the tour ended on that note, but it probably should have.
I remember a few years later telling someone about the Communist Museum of Prague, and he told me that he had visited it, too, that it was still around. He said also that he had been the only visitor, which makes me suspect that if it’s still around today, he’s giving one-on-one tours to the few people left who are willing to hear his story of a horrible time in history, even as his fellow comrades walk in shadows around him, ignoring their own history because they’re too embarrassed to believe it happened around them.
Or to them.
Or worse: Because of them.