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.
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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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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 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.
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.