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Did they have to set up a museum of communism in Prague right between a McDonald's and a casino? An intrigued visitor describes the attempt to turn an anti-capitalist era into a free-market commodity...

Communism – I'm lovin' it


In the tourist centre of Prague, just off Wenceslas Square with its moneychangers and trinket stalls, the Museum of Communism is to be found. Though not found easily. On a sombre poster Joseph Stalin points the way, between the rather more garish McDonald's and a Black Light theatre, through the arch to the Casino in the Palace Savarin. Having ascended red-carpeted stairs the tourist must make a choice (that's democracy for you); either right to the casino or left for the museum.

At £4.50, admission seems a little expensive, but this is commerce, a celebration of the victory of private enterprise. The museum is sited in what was a ballroom, sub-let from McDonald's.

Any doubts as to the intentions behind the exhibition are dispelled even before entry by the very name, "Museum of Communism": this is a past time displayed, with a frisson of the good fortune of being able to look then leave it behind. The museum is organised in three themes; "Dream", "Reality" and "Nightmare" – to "bring back the era of Communism in all its dreariness and puffed up glory". That last quotation is taken from their advertising leaflet that also carries in facsimile an article published by Newsweek in February 2002.

Prague view
Freedom of choice: Big Mac, a spin on the roulette tables, or anti-communist propaganda?
American businessman
Despite the tiny print, it is worth the effort to read, as it reveals that the museum is not the product of the efforts of disgruntled Czechs, but of an American businessman, Glen Spicker, who just happened to find himself in Czechoslovakia when the "Velvet Revolution" was taking place. He decided to take the opportunity to set up a number of restaurants and bars that prospered enough to leave him a surplus of $28,000 dollars to invest in the museum. He claimed to be fascinated by communism, ". . . just how outdated it is." (Newsweek, 11 February 2002). He did recruit Czech assistance: Jan Kaplan, a documentary filmmaker who left Prague for London after the upheavals of 1968, designed the museum on his behalf.

Kate Connolly, writing for Guardian Unlimited (6 March, 2002, the year the museum opened), found it was "...mainly tourists rather than Czechs who have deigned to visit, despite positive reviews in the local press." She goes on to identify a possible reason for this lack of local interest. "The Communist Party is the third strongest bloc in the Czech parliament, and a recent survey found that 50% of Czechs hanker for the past." This is remarkable considering it was written so soon after the "Velvet Revolution" and the collapse of the Soviet Union, when people supposedly had just emerged from the "Nightmare".

Indeed, during the pre-eminence of the Communist Party, 10% of the population were members. And in the General Election held in May the Communist Party won 12.8% of the vote. Connolly clearly identified the museum's purpose: "...a Czech filmmaker and an American entrepreneur have managed to turn the anti-capitalist era into a free market commodity."

There is no pretence in the museum at objective assessment or critique - everything communist is tainted. Even the "Dream" is fatally flawed, as Marx and Lenin were "utterly wedded to force and terror". So, whatever the good intent of individual Communists, the harsh "Reality" and grim "Nightmare" were inevitable.

There is no mention of the external and internal forces against the Soviet Union from its very inception, or that those forces gave rise to the Nazis who occupied Czechoslovakia and then continued their malign purpose after 1945 through other means. The "Museum of Communism" propagates the myth that Lenin, Stalin and subsequent Soviet leaders sat in the Kremlin acting on the merest whim to dispatch the innocent to prison and keep the shelves emptied of groceries. They were assisted in their machinations by weak puppet ministers who did what they could to thwart the wishes of the Czechoslovak people.

The Newsweek article has a quotation from Jiri Pehe, head of New York University's Prague campus (good to see the "Velvet Revolution" succeeded in getting rid of foreign influence in the country), "Ninety-nine percent of the (Czechoslovak) population were involved with the system and have a bad conscience that they were forced to collaborate, so it is difficult for most to be objective about what went on," he wrote.

However, as the Americans and British are finding in Iraq, it is woefully difficult to force a population that refuses to collaborate. That there was discontent with good reasons in Czechoslovakia and other socialist countries is undeniable. The Soviet system was cracking as consumer capitalism raged around its borders. It would take over twenty years from Jan Pallach's self-immolation in 1969, to the eventual triumph of those forces which the Soviet tanks tried to suppress. After the maelstrom of the Cold War it is difficult to be objective for people trying to make the best of what now is. It is also difficult to believe that what Jan Pallach had in mind was the ubiquity of McDonald's throughout his city.

Secret police
One element in the museum requires consideration: the secret police. The exhibits actually reveal not "...the nightmare of a state controlled by the secret police through surveillance, censorship and imprisonment," as Jan Kaplan claims in the Newsweek article. Rather it seems the secret police used those methods to operate independently of the state, on its own behalf. The Czech Communist Party, and the state as a whole, failed to exercise control of the secret services, who directly employed 200,000 civilians. Such a secret state within the state serving its own ends could easily shift from one ideological camp to another. There, at least, must be a lesson worth remembering.

For now, the "dreariness and puffed up glory" of Communism has been supplanted by the monotony of pop music and garish neon of the catchpennies. A foreign-owned stock market casino runs the Czech economy, where, as in Britain, people's lives are used as chips on the gaming tables.