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Communist Prague: 3 places to learn about it

Here are three things to do and see to learn about life in Communist Prague – and Czechoslovakia as a whole – during the Cold War era. #prague #czechrepublic #coldwar #communism via @rachelsruminationsHere are three things to do and see to learn about life in Communist Prague – and Czechoslovakia as a whole – during the Cold War era. #prague #czechrepublic #coldwar #communism via @rachelsruminationsHere are three things to do and see to learn about life in Communist Prague – and Czechoslovakia as a whole – during the Cold War era. #prague #czechrepublic #coldwar #communism via @rachelsruminationsHere are three things to do and see to learn about life in Communist Prague – and Czechoslovakia as a whole – during the Cold War era. #prague #czechrepublic #coldwar #communism via @rachelsruminations

If you’re interested in the history of Prague and Czechoslovakia in the Communist era, a number of walking tours are on offer, as well as a few museums. I visited the three main sites that have to do with the Communist era in Prague: besides the more mainstream visit to the Museum of Communism, I’ve toured a nuclear bunker and had a machine gun pointed at me at a so-called KGB Museum.

Disclosure: This article contains affiliate links. If you click on one of them and make a purchase, I will get a small percentage of what you spend.

Pinnable image Text: Learning about Prague under communist rule: 3 sights + recommendations Image: a cluster of gas masks
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Here are three ways to learn about the history of Prague – and Czechoslovakia as a whole – during the Cold War era.

The history of communism in Prague

But first, the history: It all started before World War II. In an effort to appease Hitler’s ambitions, the Allies agreed in the 1938 Munich Agreement to give him the Sudetenland, the German-speaking section of Czechoslovakia. Soon after, the Germans invaded most of the rest of Czechoslovakia. The Nazis’ plan was to eliminate the educated classes and the Jews and then “Germanize” the rest.

On the left is the famous astronomical clock, built onto the side of a building. In the background, across a big open square, is a row of buildings, about 6 stories high, all in shades of beige. Behind them and much taller: a large cathedral with two spires, each adorned with a number of smaller turrets. At least the communist rulers of Prague left the old section intact.
Old Town Square in Prague

Czechoslovakia under communist rule

After the war, despite the fact that the Allies got there first, the Soviet Army took over control of Czechoslovakia. In the first open election in 1946, because of the Czechs’ feeling that the West had betrayed them twice (first with the Munich Agreement and then after the war, allowing the Soviets to take over), the Czechoslovak Communist Party won. Or they could have won because of a policy of intimidation; it depends on who you believe. It was the last relatively free election in four decades.

Here are some other articles about Prague and the Czech Republic that you might enjoy if you’re planning a trip:

Prague Spring

Czechoslovakia’s 40+ years under Communist dictatorship were a time of shortages, nationalization of businesses, land collectivization, an emphasis on heavy industry, political oppression and general decay. The only moment of light was in 1968, when Alexander Dubček became First Secretary of the Czechoslovak Communist Party. He allowed a certain level of freedom of expression, and citizens grabbed the opportunity with both hands. This “Prague Spring” only lasted from January to August that year, when it was brutally quashed by a military invasion by the Warsaw Pact armies.

If you’d rather get an overview of the history in the form of a walking tour, try this three-hour walking tour that shows where many of the important events took place in Prague, and includes admission to the Museum of Communism.

The Velvet Revolution

Communism in Czechoslovakia fell in 1989, when a succession of Warsaw Pact countries restored democracy. In the “Velvet Revolution,” it took only 10 days for a student demonstration to spread across all of the population and bring down the government.

A metal plaque on a plain background. The cluster of hands emerges from the top of the plaque: about 7 hands, some showing the V sign with palm outward, some showing all fingers with palm outward. A white ribbon has been wrapped around some of the hands and obscures them, along with a shrivelled rose. It emphasizes the peaceful nature of the protests that started the Velvet Revolution against the communist leadership in Prague.
This plaque memorializes the Velvet Revolution with an image of hands forming a V for peace.

Another remarkable point in their history was the fully peaceful separation of Czechoslovakia in 1992 into the Czech Republic and the Slovak Republic.

1. The Museum of Communism

I’m going to order this article from most mainstream to least. You’ll see what I mean later on.

A plain metal sign reads "Museum of Communism". Behind that is the simple entrance to the museum. To the left of the entrance is a bigger arched door, with big letters proclaiming "BILLA": the entrance to a supermarket. One man, my husband, stands in front of the museum entrance, waiting for me to finish taking pictures.
The unimposing entrance to the Museum of Communism in Prague

The Museum of Communism is the place to get the overview of Czechoslovakia’s Communist-era history. In a series of rooms, the museum takes visitors through the history in detail, covering every aspect of life in Communist Prague and the country as a whole. Besides all sorts of detail about the politics, one section looks at the Stalinist development of heavy industry, another looks at the economy and the devaluation of the currency, another looks at the limited possibilities under Communist rule for vacation and leisure activities, and so on.

The wall is about two stories high and is covered with artworks, mostly showing things like proud peasants and workers in idealized country settings. A few people at the bottom of the photo look at them. The title painted on the wall reads "The Socialist Hero"
a wall of propaganda images of heros

At several points mock-ups show how things were under the Communist regime: a sparsely-supplied shop, for example; a border post; and a secret police office.

A separate room goes into depth about the Prague Spring, of course, and another looks at the Velvet Revolution and the collapse of Communism in Czechoslovakia.

Two full-size statued in a niche in the wall: Stalin on the left in a military suit, Lenin on the right in a civilian suit. Both seem to be made of metal. The wall behind them has badly peeling paint and, in the middle, between the two statues, is a big red star.
I found these statues right outside the entrance to the bathrooms.

The museum is rather text-heavy, all in both Czech and English. I didn’t feel like I needed to read it all to follow the story, but text certainly dominates. Most sections showed photos or other artifacts to illustrate the text, and some showed videos as well. The visuals about the Prague Spring and the Velvet Revolution are particularly moving.

The space has a high roof with a latticework of bars holding up a translucent glass ceiling. Below, the walls around the exhibit spaces are normal wall height but without ceilings, so from this viewpoint the contents of the rooms are visible. The nearest room has titles painted on the wall that read "Fall of the Berlin Wall", "Dissidents" and "Normalization." The rest is not legible form this distance.
Most of the museum is on one floor.

Click here to pre-order your tickets to the Museum of Communism.

Museum of Communism: V Celnici 1031/4, entrance on náměstí Republiky (Republic Square) next to Billa supermarket. Open daily 9:00-20:00. Admission CZK380 (€15/$16)

2. Prague Communism and Nuclear Bunker Tour

While I knew the outlines of the story already from visiting the Museum of Communism, I signed up for the Prague Communism and Nuclear Bunker Tour because I wanted to see the nuclear bunker; I had already seen one in Brno, Czech Republic, and found it very interesting. As far as I could figure out, the only way to see it is to take a tour.

A typical Prague building with ornate touches above the windows. In the center ground floor is a grand entrance with two pillars on either side supporting a balcony. On either side of the entrance are shops, both with a sign reading "Jewellery Garnet"
The tour’s office is down the alleyway inside this archway.

Leaving from the tour’s office right off the old town square, we walked across the center of the old city, stopping now and then for our guide, Catarina, to tell each part of the story. She stopped at a few locations to point out where, for example, the demonstrations of the Velvet Revolution took place and a small memorial to mark that event. We saw a building once used by the secret police, still being used as a police station. Generally, though, the first part of the tour was just a well-told explanation of the history of Prague under communist rule, with added stories about life for regular citizens in communist Prague.

These articles are about the same period in other parts of Eastern Europe:

Next we boarded a tram to go out of the center to an area called Prague 3. The contrast was pretty astonishing. Here you could see the product of Stalinist thought: lots of big ugly concrete buildings. In the distance, Catarina pointed out, was Žižkov television tower, which, she told us, was once voted the second ugliest building in the world. I didn’t find it so ugly; it’s got a sort of retro charm to it: a 1980s vision of the future. (She was the second person in Prague to tell me that; it seems a point of pride to have the second ugliest building in the world.)

Looking down a wide street. On the left is a concrete building with windows in rows on each story. It has vertical red blocks here and there - perhaps elevators added later? On the right it's hard to see if the building has windows at all. The building straight ahead is another concrete one: apartments, probably. Beyond that is the tower, much taller, with "pods" protruding from it about halfway up.
I think several of these buildings could win ugliest building awards. The TV tower is in the distance.

Catarina also pointed out a large white building on a hill in the distance. Built before the war as a war memorial and an institute of military history, it was used for storage by the Nazis. After the war, the plan was to use it to mark the resistance to Nazism. Instead, the Czechoslovakian Communist Party decided to make it a mausoleum for Klement Gottwald, the party’s leader from 1929-53, as well as other party dignitaries. The idea was to create an equivalent to Lenin’s tomb in Moscow for Gottwald’s body, but attempts to preserve it failed, and it decayed gradually until, eventually, it had to be cremated.

A very large block of a building on a rise, with an equestrian statue to its left. The statue must be quite large to be so visible from such a distance. Below the ridge are some more typical older buildings: one in pink with yellow edging and one in white, both with decorative elements around the window. A green dome peeks from behind one of the buildings. The side of the hill between the older buildings and the mausoleum is tree-covered.
The building is now an army museum, but is closed indefinitely for renovations. I’m not sure how that group of people on the roof got there. The equestrian statue shows Jan Žižka, a Czech general back in the Middle Ages.

The nuclear bunker

A short walk led us to a graffiti-covered wall in the side of a tree-covered hill. Catarina pulled out a key and opened a door I wouldn’t even have noticed. Inside, she needed the help of one of the other visitors to get the inner door open; she informed us that it weighs 400 kilos and is solid steel.

The wall is covered in tagging-style graffiti. The piece where the door is reads SYT.
entrance to the bunker

Climbing down a four-story spiral staircase in dim light, I struggled a bit to see where I was stepping. My feelings of being off-balance were accentuated when a recording started playing of an air raid siren.

The shelter is made up of a series of tunnels 16 meters deep. We only saw about a fifth of the tunnels, which serve as a museum. An array of gas masks, suits and other devices stand along the tunnel’s sides, all intended to protect citizens from a nuclear attack.

Photo taken from floor height looks through an open doorway. The first visible room seems to have a bunk in it, a chair and some shelves. Several doorways into the distance are visible straight ahead, but not what's in each room.
a view down one of the tunnels

Catarina explained that this shelter was meant to keep 5000 people safe for two weeks. They had to bring their own suitcases with their own supply of food, but the shelter was equipped with air filtration equipment and water. Whether it would have actually kept them safe is another question, and there doesn’t seem to have been any thought to what would happen after the two weeks.

The gas masks are mounted on the wall so that none of the wall is visible: it's just a hodgepodge of gas masks and hoses and one mannequin head.
gas masks decorating a wall

According to Catarina, there were many more such bomb shelters all over the city, supposedly enough to protect about a million people. The metro system was expected to take many of them and had been fitted with similar supplies. It was all a grim reminder of that fearful time.

This is the link to book the tour that I took: the Prague Communism and Nuclear Bunker Tour. I would add, though, that it was closer to three hours than two.

Taken from floor level, looking at a row of mannequins, each dressed in what looks like rain jackets and pants and wearing a gas mask and mittens.
Supposedly these suits could protect people from radiation.

The Prague Communism and Nuclear Bunker Tour: Starting point is the Prague Special Tours ticket office on Male Namesti 459/11, inside an alley on the west side of the Old Town Square, quite near the famous astronomical clock. The tiny ticket office is on the left side halfway down the alley. English tours are offered daily at 10:30 and 14:30. Fee: CZK700 (€28/$30).

If you’re planning a trip to Prague, make sure to book your hotels through this Booking.com link!

3. The KGB Museum

The KGB Museum in Prague is not “official” like the Museum of Communism. And it’s nothing like the Stasi Museum in Berlin or the KGB Museum in Riga, both of which are what I would label as proper museums.

As far as I can tell, this is one of those museums where a person has collected lots of stuff and decides to start exhibiting it to the public. Housed in a few rooms behind a simple storefront, this place is a rather disturbing experience to visit.

The store front reads "KGB Muzeum" with a red star with a hammer and sickle inside it. The store window appears to be bricked up.
The KGB Museum in Prague

The collector in question is also the tour leader. He’s oddly over-enthusiastic about all things KGB. Speaking extremely quickly in a very thick Russian accent, he told us about many of the objects filling the room, arranged on shelves or in glass cases. But he didn’t just tell us; he showed us as well, seeming a bit too eager to use the weapons – rifles and machine guns, mostly, and also daggers – he was brandishing, and sometimes pointing at us.

Shelving on the right, a glass case on the left. The shelves hold a variety of items: an old radio, several old telephones, a typewriter, several lamps, a collection of heads of Lenin and Stalin, some framed items that I think are medals, some clocks, etc. It's hard to see if any of this had anything to do with communism in Prague, or whether they were just Russian bric-a-brac.
An array of Soviet bric-a-brac

He, for example, demonstrated the use of a serrated garrote to kill someone. Fortunately, in this case he played both parts – the assassin and the victim – dying a dramatic death.

The gathered group of visitors – you are not allowed to walk around the rooms without the “tour” – did a lot of widening their eyes at each other at the sheer craziness of this guy and his spy toys. His generally extreme behavior meant that we didn’t feel we could particularly trust his explanations of the history or the use of the items we saw. After all, it wasn’t even called the KGB in Czechoslovakia; the secret police was called Státní bezpečnost, or StB.

Nevertheless, he did have some unusual items on display: tiny cameras, for example, devices for eavesdropping, medals and commemorative plates, propaganda posters, and lots and lots of weaponry: mostly daggers and guns. We also got to hold a gun and try on a Russian soldier’s cap. Yet I never got a sufficient explanation of why the collection also included various Nazi-related paraphernalia. As I said, the whole thing was a bit disturbing.

The newspaper underneath is in Czech, titled "Lidove Noviny". The article's title is "Dudce Padl" and the only photo of the page is of Hitler. On top of the paper is an open glasses case with small round wire-rimmed glasses, three stamps and a tie pin.
A Hitler death announcement (the headline translates as “the leader falls”, some Nazi stamps, a tie tack and a pair of glasses (Hitler’s?). There was also a whole collection of Nazi medals.

The KGB Museum: Vlašska 13. Open daily 10:00-17:00, but you might have to wait, because tours will not run without at least three people. Even during opening hours you might have to wait outside if the guide is busy running a tour at that moment. During our tour he kept running out the front door whenever someone tried to enter, stopping them and telling them to wait. Admission: €16/$17.

This is a head shot of me wearing an army cap that has the red star with a hammer and sickle above the brim. This guy was far too enthusiastic about communism in Prague!

Which experience is best?

Of the three, I’d say the nuclear bunker tour is the best choice. It’ll give you the overview of the history, presented in an interesting, personal way – Catarina linked events to her own and her family’s experiences – and a sense of the fear surrounding the nuclear threat in the Cold War period.

If you would prefer more detail, the Museum of Communism is the way to go. You can take your time and read the parts that are most interesting to you.

I wouldn’t particularly recommend the KGB Museum. The nuclear bunker has plenty of artifacts from the period, as does the Museum of Communism. Not only that, both of them focus much better on Prague under communism and Czechoslovakia as a whole, while the KGB Museum is more about the Soviet Union. The only real reason to visit the KGB Museum would be to see this particular over-the-top collector in person. It’s good for a chuckle, but I wouldn’t trust much of what he says or expect to learn much.

Here are the links again to book the Museum of Communism and the Prague Communism and Nuclear Bunker Tour.

Pinnable image Text: 3 ways to experience the history of communism in Prague: with recommendations Image: a statue of Lenin, hand in pocket
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6 Comments

  • Lori

    February 26, 2020 at 5:21 pm

    A couple of years ago we did a walking food tour in Prague. After a few hours with the guide who made the ‘then and now’ comparisons almost everywhere we stopped, we decided to check out the Museum of Communism. Interesting and agree that there’s an awful lot of text with the photos. Comprehensive article, thanks.

    Reply
  • Karen Warren

    February 29, 2020 at 10:27 am

    When I visited Prague in the 1990s it was just getting over Communism, but our young guides seemed to regard it all as a bit of a joke. It is interesting to see how it the subject is treated with a bit of historical perspective.

    Reply
  • alison abbott

    March 2, 2020 at 2:51 pm

    We were in Prague two years ago and it was the 50th anniversary of the Russian Invasion. They had a wonderful photo exhibit of the Czech resistance in a gallery off the Tourism Office in the city center. It was quite an eye opener and very moving. Wish we had read your post before our visit!

    Reply

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