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Czech Republic: New Museum Traces Communism From 'Dream' To 'Nightmare'

  • Don Hill

The latest business endeavor of an American restaurateur based in Prague is a museum of communism -- a set of exhibits tracing the history of communism from Russia's Bolsheviks in 1918 to the beginning of its end at Germany's graffiti-cluttered Berlin Wall. RFE/RL correspondent Don Hill previews the museum's opening next week, and takes a tour with the exhibits' designer, Czech film producer and publisher Jan Kaplan.

Prague, 20 December 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Prague entrepreneur Glenn Spicker has hit upon a new free-market commodity: communism.

Spicker came to Prague from the United States and, together with a partner, made a name for himself in the restaurant business in Prague. He reintroduced to Eastern Europe the bagel -- a dense, low-fat roll with a hole in the center, eaten plain or sold as sandwiches with a variety of fillings. His Bohemia Bagel restaurants have become a landmark in Prague for tourists and, increasingly, young Czechs.

Spicker's latest endeavor -- scheduled to open on 26 December near the northwest end of the city's central Wenceslas Square -- is the Museum of Communism.

"Well, I thought it was a great idea," Spicker says. "I wanted to do something new -- something a little different than what I was used to doing, but something where I could use my experience...that I've acquired over the years. And something that was interesting."

Spicker's museum -- which will charge entry fees starting at the equivalent of about $4 -- is designed to be interesting both to Czechs and tourists. Other cities -- Berlin, Budapest, and Riga, to name a few -- house educational exhibits on aspects of communism, but Spicker says he thinks his museum is unique in its scope and approach.

It decidedly is not a celebration of communism. To design the exhibition, Spicker hired Czech dissident, film producer, and publisher Jan Kaplan.

Kaplan, who fled communist Czechoslovakia to live in London, has arranged the exhibits in three sections. He starts with what he calls "The Dream" of a communist brotherhood that many Czechs hoped for just after World War II. He ends with what he calls "The Nightmare" -- what life in the country actually turned out to be.

Kaplan took our correspondent on a tour of the Museum of Communism.

"Well, we are in the Museum of Communism. And we've just entered a section that is called 'The Dream,'" Kaplan says. "We tried to re-create here the way people imagined things would work in the 1950s, with this factory being, you know, the classical type of factory with the posters of its time, with all sorts of communist memorabilia."

In the early days, the Czechoslovak government embraced Soviet-style communism with enthusiasm. Kaplan's creation illustrates this spirit by re-creating one of the era's most grandiose monuments.

"So in this section, we tried to create the sort of impression of what people hoped the society will look like," Kaplan says. "I would say the centerpiece is the panel showing the building of the Stalin monument, which was quite a piece of engineering at the time. It was the biggest statue to Stalin in the world."

The statue was destroyed in 1962 as part of Soviet leader Nikita Krushchev's anti-Stalinization movement. According to Kaplan, any hopes for an idyllic life under communism were also soon destroyed.

"And this is the section where suddenly things become more realistic. [This] will be the empty shop where, as I recall, my mother going to shop in Prague was quite a task, because half of the time, or most of the time, she was told that the things she was asking for were not available. So...when it's tidied up a bit, you will see there is absolutely nothing there except tinned peas, carrots, and sauerkraut."

One artifact in the museum has a cruel currency.

"This is, sadly, becoming very topical, has become topical recently. It's an anti-chemical-biological warfare suit from 1965, that, sadly, now somehow is one of the dreads...something that is reminiscent of the continued threat of this type of warfare to this day. So it's, sadly, not just a museum piece."

One of Kaplan's most chilling creations gains its power less from drama than from banality. He borrows the title of author Joseph Conrad's masterwork to describe it: "Here we are in the 'heart of darkness,' as far as the exhibition is concerned. This is a reconstruction of an early-1950s interrogation room."

The room is nearly bare, containing a battered typewriter and a small, timeworn oak desk. Two wooden straightback chairs stand on each side of the desk. The one intended to be occupied by the person under interrogation is evident from the goose-neck desk lamp set to shine directly in his or her face.

Kaplan ends his exhibition with a faithful reproduction of a section of the Berlin Wall, complete with the graffiti that West Berliners contemptuously had plastered on it. Kaplan said this display's intent is to bring to mind the days of 1989 when communism in Eastern Europe unraveled.

Museum founder and owner Glenn Spicker says his first goal for the museum -- located in the Savarin Palace on Na Prikope street -- is for it to become self-sustaining. After that, he says, he would welcome profits.

That failing, Spicker says, he may seek public backing from a foundation or a government agency.