Portion of Berlin Wall
"Let me live my life, enjoy freedom, touch the limits, reach the stars, understand the world. That’s what I want."
(Note: August 20, 2006,
marks the 38th anniversary of the
Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. Following is a slightly edited version of
a commentary that first appeared in the March 2004 issue of
The Freeman, a magazine published by the Foundation for Economic Education.)
More than 150 years ago Karl Marx predicted that communism was
inevitable. History, he claimed, was marching inexorably toward a communist
paradise. In hindsight it would appear that if anything about communism was
inevitable, it was that it would sooner or later be relegated to the status of
museum relic. In the capital city of a formerly communist country in eastern
Europe, that’s exactly what has happened.
Museum of Communism poster
Visit Prague in the Czech Republic these days and there’s a
spot you won’t want to miss. It’s the
Museum of Communism, amidst the city’s main shopping district and just a
five-minute walk from the foot of beautiful Wenceslaus Square. Advertisements
around town tell the tourist where to find it and reveal a little irony too:
"We’re Above McDonald’s, Across from Benetton, Viva La Imperialism!" A lively
casino occupies the adjacent building.
While in Prague last August, I stumbled into the museum with no
expectations of its perspective. Was it sponsored by allies of the ancien
régime, nostalgic for the "good old days" and eager to whitewash the past?
Or would it be honest about the country’s painful, 40-year experience with a
failed ideology? Fortunately, this place tells the truth.
The man behind the museum is not himself a native Czech. He is
Glenn Spicker, a 38-year-old American entrepreneur who was attracted to Prague’s
new business opportunities after the 1989 "Velvet Revolution" expelled the
communists from power. He introduced bagels to Prague and opened a jazz club and
several successful restaurants. It soon struck him that what was missing in the
city was any vivid public reminder of what life was like before 1989. So he
spent several months and $28,000 searching flea markets and junk shops for
almost a thousand bits and pieces of Red memorabilia—including busts of Marx and
Lenin, textbooks, posters and samples of the shoddy merchandise that once
adorned dingy state-owned storefronts all across the country. The museum opened
its doors in December 2001.
Exhibits that explain the communist "dream" greet the visitor
first upon entering. Slogans, propaganda, and all the paraphernalia of promises
made to be broken remind one of the wildly utopian vision once offered by Marx
and his followers. Communist theoreticians boasted that they would produce an
egalitarian "workers’ paradise" of happiness and abundance, but nothing of the
sort came to pass in eastern Europe or anywhere else the system was tried. The
largest portion of Spicker’s museum is dedicated to portraying the reality of
the communist "nightmare" — an Orwellian trap where private hardship was the
rule behind all the public smiles.
Prague is often called the Paris of eastern Europe for its open
and lively city life, stately architecture, rich musical heritage and cultural
diversity. Tourists marvel at the art and entrepreneurship evident on every
block. Czechs smile and make friends quickly. Just 15 years since liberation,
it’s easy to forget how tyranny once kept these same people in thralldom.
In Spicker’s museum the reconstruction of an interrogation room
used by the secret police provides a chilling refresher in state terror. Records
show that under communist rule Czech political dissidents were executed by the
dozens; more than a quarter million were imprisoned. The secret police employed
no fewer than 200,000 spies paid to keep watch over their fellow citizens.
In another corner of the museum sits a replica of a grocery
storefront, shabby and unattractive because that’s the way storefronts looked
under communism. Shelves were often bare or stocked with goods few people
wanted. Shoppers had to endure long lines to secure the most basic of
commodities. An inscription tells the visitor that price controls led to a
thriving black market in which "poorly paid employees of the shops hid rare
merchandise for selected customers, who were able to pay some extra money or
provide a certain counter-service." Much of Czech society resorted to simple
barter: "the butcher exchanged his steaks for bananas from the grocer," for
Did communist central planners nurture the natural environment?
Hardly. Everywhere communists were in charge — from the Soviet Union and its
satellites to mainland China — ecological disaster ensued. The Prague museum
explains: "Surface mining in Northern Bohemia changed extensive areas of land
into wasteland and the use of solid fuel in power stations polluted the air and
killed border forests. Attempts to increase the yield in collectivized
agriculture with the application of industrial fertilizers and heavy
mechanization led to extensive damage of soil and underground water. This led to
the elimination and extermination of a large number of small wildlife species.
The statistics show that the average age of inhabitants of communist countries
was considerably lower than the average age in the democratic countries. After
the fall of communism in the Czech Republic, the average age of citizens rapidly
increased by about five years."
Though the story the museum is designed to tell is grim,
Spicker does have a sense of humor. To help raise money to pay the bills, the
museum gift shop offers postcards and poster-size reproductions of communist-era
propaganda photos but each with an added caption. One depicts a peasant woman
holding aloft in the breeze a piece of cloth. The caption reads, "You couldn’t
get laundry detergent, but you could get your brain washed." Another shows a
parade of smiling teens waving red flags below these words: "It was a time of
happy, shiny people. The shiniest were in the uranium mines."
Near the museum exit stands a portion of the Berlin Wall, still
adorned with the graffiti that Westerners scrawled on the free side of that
despicable barrier. Among the scribblings are these poignant words large enough
that no visitor can miss: "Let me live my life, enjoy freedom, touch the limits,
reach the stars, understand the world. That’s what I want."
Communism was one of history’s most infamous lies. What it
wrought stands as a horrible testament to the "planned chaos" of the omnipotent
state. The truth demands that its record be documented and displayed. Glenn
Spicker’s museum does precisely that, for which men and women everywhere should
Lawrence W. Reed is president of the Mackinac Center for Public
Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich.