By: Michael Kahn
Glitzy new shops, fast food restaurants and trendy bars have replaced Prague's former monochrome socialist-era landscape but a museum dedicated to the country's communist past offers glimpses of the uglier times.
The Museum of Communism
, which focuses on politics, history, sport and other aspects of daily life in socialist Czechoslovakia, touts itself as the first of its kind in Prague exclusively devoted to the system that dominated the country for more than four decades following World War II.
Located just off a busy shopping street and situated next to a casino and a McDonald's, the museum takes visitors on a journey that began with the February 1948 coup which ushered in the totalitarian regime and ended with the quick-fire Velvet Revolution of 1989 that toppled communism.
"We wanted to pay respects to the people who suffered under the totalitarian regime," said Glenn Spicker, an American who co-founded the for-profit museum.
"The museum is kind of a work in progress; hopefully by next summer we can have more exhibits."
Spicker, who landed in Prague along with a wave of other young Americans shortly after 1989, compared the museum experience to a three act play involving the dream, reality and nightmare of communism.
He and his partner have collected historical documents, posters and other memorabilia of the communist propaganda machine to provide snapshots of life under the socialist system.
One exhibit, for example, recreates a typical communist-era shop with nothing in the counter and only stacks of two different kinds of canned food available on the shelves.
Others focus on things such as the socialist school system and the importance of sports under communism, including a section dedicated to long-distance runner Emil Zatopek who won three gold medals at the 1952 Summer Olympics.
There are also plenty of reminders of the brutality of the system. A reproduction of a secret police interrogation room furnished little more than a typewriter and a lamp is a chilling reminder of what happened to people who spoke out.
"Part of the museum aims to show how much communism was involved in the daily lives of every citizen," said Spicker, 43, who also owns a popular chain of restaurants and a jazz club.
For many Czechs who grew up under communism, there is little need of a reminder of how brutal the system was. But 20 years after the Velvet Revolution some wonder whether many have forgotten the past in a country where the communist party still attracts about 15 percent of the vote.
Spicker estimates that most of the visitors who find their way to the museum are foreign tourists hoping to learn more about the past of a country known these days for its jaw-dropping historical sites and world-famous beer.
Karla Nogueira, 35, said during a recent visit she sought out the museum to see for herself how a country seen as a leading democracy between the two World Wars tumbled into a brutal communist regime.
"I want to know the history of what happened in the past," said the Brazilian who was on her first visit to Prague. "It was interesting to see the perception they had of the West."
(Reporting by Michael Kahn, Editing by Paul Casciato)