Prague’s Bad Dream

Postcard from an awakened city

The Web site for Prague’s Museum of Communism instructs visitors to make their way to No. 10 on Na Prikope in the heart of the city: “We are above the McDonalds and next to the Casino.” Against these flashy consequences of the Velvet Revolution, the museum itself has a cramped, grubby feeling appropriate to the four decades of Czech life that it memorializes. During my Sunday-afternoon visit, I need to crane my neck over someone’s shoulder to read the display panels, and have to wait in a slow-moving line to reach the de rigueur piece of the Berlin Wall at the exhibit’s end.

TIMELY ARRIVAL TO WORK DEALS THE DECISIVE STRIKE AGAINST THE AMERICAN AGGRESSORS! So exhorts the sign posted beside a vintage rack of factory time cards. Nearby grim displays include a replicated police-interrogation room and a photographic history of the gigantic monument to Stalin that stood in Letná Park from 1955 to 1962. But there’s plenty of mere kitsch, too, the sort of nervously nostalgic stuff I found filling a theme restaurant in Moscow three years ago. Here, it’s a Brezhnev-era poster celebrating the launch of the first Czech cosmonaut (a satellite’s satellite) and museum placards explaining how Czechs used to abuse the “Tuzex” vouchers and luxury-item stores that were designed to attract foreign currency:

If for example, a girl received 20 dollars from a foreigner for a night of love-making, she could exchange it

in the state bank for about one hundred and sixty Tuzex crowns, which she could sell on the black market for 800 Czechoslovak crowns, which equaled the monthly wages of a shop assistant.

Discarded busts of Klement Gottwald, the syphilitic Soviet puppet who ruled as president from 1948 to ’53, are so numerous that they have to be crowded together in a corner, on the museum floor.

Outside, signs no longer blare the virtues of the KSC, the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia; there are only advertisements for KFC, the colonels’ secret police having given way to the colonel’s secret recipe. Along the route of the marvelously efficient No. 22 tram, the banners hanging from lampposts celebrate not Soviet-Czech solidarity but the merits of Samsung electronics. And as Wikipedia—that people’s reference book—notes, the bare plinth where Stalin’s statue once stood is now “considered to be one of the best skateboarding spots in the world.”

Under the Communists, the old city was—in the awkwardly poetic locution of one museum wall panel—“changing into ruins.” In the past two decades, Prague’s repaired buildings have put on a pastel face that draws tourists to what seems a new sort of Switzerland. The Czech Republic, severed from its old Slovak half, sits in apparent landlocked contentment, inside the European Union but outside the troubled Euro Zone, set into the new Continental mosaic like one of the small sturdy paving stones, just a few inches square, that form the sidewalks under the visitor’s ambling feet.

All is not really so tidy, of course. Beneath those tight little walkways flows a tributary of the old Soviet presence, a measure of 1990s-style Russian-mafia mayhem: the newspapers are full of reports that Anders Behring Breivik, the Norwegian mass killer, made a weapons-shopping trip to Prague in 2010. But daily life as it’s lived by most is incomparably less sinister. When I dine at the old Café Slavia with Patricia Hampl, an American writer who has been coming here since the mid-1970s, she recalls for me a long-ago meal she shared with a mildly dissident poet: while they ate, he pointed out the secret policeman assigned to watch them. Nowadays, the café’s literary patrons have only secondhand smoke to fear.

I’ve come to the Czech Republic to teach for a couple weeks in a study-abroad program. We are quartered at Charles University, on what is today Jan Palach Square, named for one of the students who set themselves on fire to protest the Soviet army’s extinction of Alexander Dubček’s 1968 reforms. On a Thursday evening during my stay, I do a reading at the Ypsilon Theatre, following Ivan Klíma to the platform. The 80-year-old Czech Jewish writer spent part of his youth in the Theresienstadt concentration camp, surviving to live for most of his writing career under the guidelines and bannings of the Soviet-controlled regime. His autobiography, My Mad Century, has become his first best seller in his own land.

Only a few evenings after the reading do I recollect, quite out of the blue, that the first typewriter I ever bought, in 1966, the year I turned 15, was of Czech manufacture. My little Consul portable, which I coveted for months in a store window in my Long Island hometown, was made here in Prague—an unlikely export designed, like the Tuzex, to attract foreign currency. My machine may have been made by workers whose timely morning arrival struck a blow against the American aggressors, but I appreciated only the reliable way its keys struck the paper on which I was composing my first callow essays and stories—with no one looking over my shoulder.