A short walk from Prague’s Wenceslas Square, hidden between clothes shops, is a gloomy alleyway, to your left the entrance to a McDonald’s and to your right a pair of doors into a nondescript brick building. Compared with the beauty of Prague’s Baroque and Gothic buildings nearby, where so many of the city’s finest museums are housed, this uninspiring edifice has little obvious appeal. Yet you can find much to stimulate you inside, for it houses Prague’s Museum of Communism, a place that documents a key part of the city’s history. And yes, it is shabby, but so was the era it commemorates.
The exhibits — more a ramshackle assortment of relics — have been assembled to mark the decades after 1948 when the Communist Party seized control of what was then Czechoslovakia. Most are everyday items, collected from flea markets simply because they were made and used during the period: rusty wrenches, garden shears, shovels, bikes. Some aspects of everyday life are universal, it would seem.
Others are very different from those of the West, however, and include a large collection of busts of various Communist leaders, including Stalin and his acolyte Klement Gottwald, Czechoslovakia’s president from 1948 to 1953. There is a mock-up of a Soviet-era shop — unsurprisingly with few items in it — whose artefacts seem ancient, even though many only date back to the Eighties, reminding us that Soviet satellites were rarely allowed to modernise.
In a darkened room, I watched a video on Charter 77 and the Velvet Revolution of 1989. It was poorly edited (huge purple lettering fizzled on to the screen announcing important dates, much as they do in a schoolchild’s first Powerpoint presentation) but compelling. Clips included scenes of Wenceslas Square in 1989 packed with protesters, and showed police ripping film from cameras, a West German reporter being hassled and violently shoved as he tried to film, and a number of bruised and bloodied protesters trying to explain why they were there. It was a vivid reminder of how much Europe has changed in a mere 25 years.