A Tribute To Barren Shops

The Museum of Communism is easy to miss, nestled among the foreign-owned chain stores in Prague's main shopping district. Housed in the elegant Palace Savarin, the museum is bordered on one side by a McDonald's and on the other by a casino. Visitors walk through a sweeping, red-carpeted foyer--and enter into another era. Inside they can sit in a classroom decorated with Soviet and Czechoslovak flags, as well as a poem extolling the virtues of tractors. A replica of a barren shop stocks just two types of tinned food. "Visitors who see the Benettons and Pizza Huts don't get an idea of how different life was," says Glenn Spicker, the museum's creator. "The younger generation has not been told the whole story by their parents because everyone's too busy living a new life."

Twelve years after the fall of the Berlin wall, the Museum of Communism has opened to remind them of what the old life was like. Now Czechs--and tourists--can take a break from the world of high-speed travel, hypermarkets and start-ups to visit a chilling reproduction of an interrogation room, complete with ancient typewriter and brightly shining lamp, where the secret police forced people to sign confessions. Stanislav Stransky, chairman of the Czech Association of Former Political Prisoners, says the museum is an important step toward helping the country come to terms with its past. "People just don't talk about the communist period and the difficulties," he says. "But young people need to be reminded how life was."

It took an American businessman to make it happen. Spicker, 36, spent several months and $28,000 scouring markets and junk shops for close to 1,000 items of memorabilia, including Russian textbooks, anti-American posters, chemical-warfare protection suits and statues of Lenin and Marx. A former student of politics, Spicker was passing through central Europe in the late 1980s when the Velvet Revolution toppled Czechoslovakia's communist regime. He decided to stay on and capitalize on all the new business opportunities, opening up a jazz club and a string of bars and restaurants in Prague. Then he hit on the idea for the museum. "As a student I found communism fascinating because of the influence it had on all aspects of people's lives," he says. "But now its fascination for me is just how outdated it is."

Spicker recruited Czech-born documentary filmmaker Jan Kaplan to design the museum. Kaplan, who fled to London in 1968, created what he calls a three-act tragedy--"the dream, reality and nightmare"--to depict the communist regime. Using re-created scenes, artifacts, film footage and photographs, he demonstrates the utopian ideal of communism, the reality of life under the regime--complete with long lines for scarce groceries and public phones that never worked--and the nightmare of a state controlled by the secret police through surveillance, censorship and imprisonment. "The country has been deeply scarred, and many feel the era has not been properly accounted for," says Kaplan, 52.

But whether Czechs actually want to relive that era remains unclear. The state, caught up in privatization and preparing to join the European Union, seems in no mood for reflection. Czech president and former dissident Vaclav Havel recently called for greater efforts to remember the past. He also expressed concern that the trials of perpetrators of communist crimes had been dragging on for years. Despite the founding of a special police division to investigate such crimes, the process has been hampered by courts still headed by communist-era judges and by large-scale apathy. Since the early 1990s just a handful of prosecutions have ended in court.

Now, slowly, that's changing. The museum's opening in January coincided with the start of three trials of prominent communist figures--including former prime minister Lubomir Strougal, accused of covering up three murders by secret-police agents. Still, the process of facing up to the past will take time, says Jiri Pehe, head of New York University's Prague campus. "Ninety-nine percent of the 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 says. The museum will help. Gazing around the exhibit, 77-year-old Kveta Libenska, imprisoned by the authorities during the 1950s, says: "Young people don't know what things were like, and I doubt they will ever understand what we went through." Now at least they can get a glimpse of what their parents survived.