After I experienced the commemoration of Prague Spring, 1968 in the Czech Republic, my interest in the history of communism in this country peaked. One of my friends from class mentioned that she wanted to go to the Museum of Communism downtown, and I immediately asked to join. What I was about to learn would change my life.
I had always known that communist governments were repressive. But, the extent to which they repressed their citizens was unknown to me. I had a fictional picture of communism in my mind: an Animal Farm-like reality in which nobody could trust anybody, wealth was extremely difficult to accumulate, and freedom was nonexistent. But, this fictional idea never was real to me. I imagined the real version of communism to be less harsh--that Czechoslovakia wasn’t repressed that much. I couldn’t have been further from the truth. Communism in Czechoslovakia was extreme. It robbed people of everything they had, including their consciences, personalities, and ability to trust. It made each person just a number in a system, forcing them to act as cogs in the machine rather than human beings. The following is what I learned at the museum:
Although it wasn’t until after WWII when the Communist Party officially took control of the country, many citizens sympathized with communism in the early 1920’s. Leading up to the establishment of the Communist Party in the Czechoslovakian government in 1921, Czech lands suffered from droughts and poverty, and thus communism appeared to offer a solution to their problems. By 1928, the party had gained a substantial amount of followers, making it the second-largest party in the Communist International party.
After WWII, the USSR dictated the government in Czechoslovakia. Socialist parties were abolished, and the Communist party gained control. Once in control, the Communist Party leaders initiated massive eradications of dissenters. At the start of Communist control in Czechoslovakia, 23,000 people were found guilty of crimes. Of the 23,000, 713 were sentenced to death immediately.
In 1945, 75% of industry was in the government’s control, and in 1948, the government put to use the taking of others’ property, or “legalized theft.” Although Klement Gottwald was the president of Czechoslovakia, he had limited control himself. Most of the decisions were dictated to him from the USSR. Thus started what the Museum of Communism calls the “Communist Dictatorship.”
From 1948-1968, Czechoslovakia was subject to extreme poverty, doctrination, and oppressive control. The Communists created a new ideal for their citizens: Homo Communism. The new socialist man was the laborer. He volunteered for his community, loved the army, and waved the soviet union flag. To showcase this ideal, the government created many banners and paintings glorifying Homo Communism, including the huge painting attached at the bottom of this article. Because labor was valued so much, and because the Communists in Czechoslovakia thought that the bulk of the community relied on physical labor, the government sponsored many uranium mines. Working in these plants was extremely unhealthy, and the stress of gathering uranium left huge environmental issues in the country, as well as economic.
To compensate for the government’s overinvesting in industry, it decided to change the value of its currency overnight and lower its debts. Although a few days before doing so government leaders promised that the money value would not change, they changed the value regardless on June 1, 1953. Imagine going to bed with $50,000 dollars in your bank account, to wake up to only $1,000. The reform made paupers out of the citizens, while it decreased the debt of an extremely inefficient government system. Cash lost about 80% of its value. The West referred to this reform as the “great swindle,” which it surely was. 130 anti-communist strikes occurred as a result of the reform, to which the government acted violently to repress.
Additionally to the Homo Communism ideal, and all of the problems it brought with it, communism hacked away at Czech culture. Baby Jesus, who traditionally brings presents on Christmas Eve, was replaced by Grandfather Frost. The Scout program--an important extracurricular program for many Czechs--was replaced with the Pionyr program. The Communists tried desperately to thwart religious practices. Many faithful Catholics could not hold jobs where they had the possibility of affecting the culture. Among many Catholics thus persecuted, Dr. Radomir Maly, a former historian for a museum in the town of Kromeriz, was forced to quit his job and work as a menial worker because he would have had too strong of a religious effect on those around him. Dr. Maly’s story of persecution is a common one for faithful Christians in Czechoslovakia; from 1948 to 1968, the number of priests in the country decreased in half. Many practicing Christians were forced to either stop practicing their religion, or turn to illegal, underground meetings. The persecution of Christians has a lasting effect in Czech Republic. In 1921, about 82% of Czechs identified as Roman Catholic, but by 2011 only 10% of Czechs identified as Roman Catholic.
The Communist policies were bad. Taking away freedom anywhere is a violation of human rights. But the ways in which they were enforced are close to unimaginable. The StB was the Czechoslovakian secret police who monitored their neighbors all while remaining under cover of ordinary citizens. StB infiltrated all parts of life. In every avenue of work, members of the StB monitored their neighbors and coworkers. StB kept records of the people they watched. They listened in on phone conversations at switchboards, bugged rooms, and set up secret cameras. If these records hadn’t been burnt, they would have covered several soccer fields, piled a few meters high.
In the 1950’s, 422 labor camps were created, in which lived 11,026 residents. Dissidents and non-dissidents alike of the ‘Communist Dictatorship’ were systematically placed in these camps. The Ministry of Justice predetermined how many people they wanted to imprison. Thus, many of the imprisoned had not been loud dissidents of communism, and some hadn’t even committed any crimes. The StB had two rules regarding the placement of people into the prison camps: 1. The people arrested were the only witnesses to their crimes, and 2. The StB could never free someone they arrested. Breaking any of these rules would undermine the StB authority. The StB had several ways of forcing confessions out of their imprisoned: they would torture the arrested by not allowing them to sleep well, waking them every 15 minutes from their cells, they would beat them up physically, inject drugs into their systems, and not let them live until they forced a confession.
Travel was hardly an option for Czechoslovakians. Either they travelled to the West illegally (and never returned), or they travelled to the USSR on highly supervised trips. When Czechoslovakians visited the USSR, KGB was vigilant in never letting its visitors see the true face of communism. Escape from Czechoslovakia into Western countries was nearly impossible. Huge barriers and barbed wire fences were built along the borders, and sand plains led up to the barriers to highlight the dark bodies trying to escape against the white sand. Many were killed while trying to escape.
Communism was indoctrinated in schools. Children were taught to tell on their parents if their parents ever talked poorly of communism. My grandmother, who grew up in communist Prague, said that she had to be very careful with what she told her children. She admits though, that her children were smart and knew not to say anything, and that most of the other children understood not to talk about communism, too. Additionally, children were taught that wealth was evil. If someone acquired wealth, they were against the common man. The subject of their education was likewise made up of propaganda. For example, children had to write essays on the benefits of their liberators, the Soviet Union. Undoubtedly, if they questioned the essay prompt, or the USSR, they were met with grave repercussions.
Thus, Czechoslovakians lived very tough lives. Their commemoration of Prague Spring, 1968 weighs much more when seen with the knowledge of what Czechoslovakians were trying to escape. The goal of the commemorative movement--that the nightmares never go grey--was met with me. The commemoration made me interested in Czechoslovakian history, and made me question my previous knowledge. Now that I know this “Communist Dictatorship” started with the approval of the people, I will be much more skeptical about politicians in my own country, and vigilant that none try to take away my freedom. I hope that learning about communism in Czechoslovakia has the same effect on you, too.
Stay tuned for the second part: Prague Spring 1968-Post Communism
Read more here:
This past August 21, the world, especially the Czech Republic, commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Prague Spring invasion. In 1968, Czechoslovakia experienced a brief period of liberation and artistic creation, called Prague Spring. Coined by then president Alexander Dubcek as “socialism with a human face,” Czech society was liberated from a previously oppressive and completely socialized society. Czechoslovakia was known as the connection between the East and West, and experienced a burst in creation, giving this time period its name, “Zlata sedesata” (the golden sixties). But, upset with the direction in which Czechoslovakia was headed, and wary the country would be more and more westernized, troops from the USSR, ordered by stalinist president Antonin Novotny, along with other Warsaw Pact countries, rolled through Czechoslovakia and repressed their breath of freedom, crumbling the end of the tunnel and blindfolding the country to any light coming from the western world. All in all, around 250,000 troops invaded Czechoslovakia, including some 6,300 tanks and 250 airplanes. Around 72 Czechs and Slovaks were killed during the invasion, and some 270 injured. Although the numbers may seem low for something commemorated as such, the invasion symbolizes the loss of freedom and the catalyst of many more deaths during the 'normalization' back into the Communist way of life.
During the week leading up to the Tuesday, many of the historic locations in Prague housed special events to honor the lives lost in the reoccupation of Czechoslovakia. In Wenceslas Square, where citizens--typically students--historically protested, and where Warsaw tanks famously fired at the Radio station during the reoccupation, several organizations, including Vojenský Historický Ústav Praha and others, sponsored the showing of documentaries on a blow-up screen, posters displaying images of the brutal invasion, speakers, and singers. The goal of the commemoration was twofold: to remember the victims of Communism, and to make sure that Communism and similar ideologies never return. Their logo reflects their goal: “Aby sny nezešedly” (Let not the dreams (read nightmares) go grey).
On Tuesday, August 21, many important locations had commemorations. A concert, organized by Czech Radio, was held in Wenceslas square, where many songs about the invasion were sung. A special video and mapping was projected onto the National Museum nearby. Various museums had special exhibits on the invasion, free to the public on Tuesday. In addition, in Kampa, a grassy, tranquil area by the Vltava river, several speakers recounted the events of the haunting day. About 300 melancholic people, holding Czech flags and banners, surrounded a small stage which held three speakers. Among them, a USSR expatriate Mr. Gorbanevska spoke against ignorance of the history of Communism.
Gorbanevska’s family has a detailed history with Communism. The repression of Prague Spring happened when he was young, and living in Russia at the time. His mother Natalya Gorbanevskaya, a strong proponent of freedom, and vocalist against the USSR, was one of the eight people who protested on the Red Square in Moscow several days after the Prague Spring invasion. She brought young Gorbanevska with her, as well as her two other children. All eight protestors were swept up by the KGB within seven minutes of sitting in the square with a Czechoslovakian flag and a banner which read things such as: “мы теряем лучших друзей” (We are losing our best friends), “Ať žije svobodné a nezávislé Československo“ (Long live free and independent Czechoslovakia), and “Позор оккупантам!” (Shame to the occupiers). Most of the seven were subject to harsh treatment, including Gorbanevska’s mother, who was later sent to a psychiatric hospital for being a dissident, diagnosed with “sluggish schizophrenia.” She has been celebrated as a hero in the West, and is well-known for her numerous acts of courage and literary works on the necessity of freedom.
At the talk, Gorbanevska humbly opened his speech in a highly accented Czech, saying “Odpust mi, nemluvim Cesky” (Forgive me, I don’t speak Czech). A translator stood by his side and translated his Russian into Czech for the younger people in the crowd. For a people who had to learn Russian under the occupation, hearing Russian would be a hard thing on such a day. Gorbanevsky’s opener, however, created a sympathetic platform on which he and the Czechs listening could together mourn the invasion. He continued to say, “I wanted to share a few words. A normal person to normal people.”
Gorbanevsky’s message was brief and direct: we must never forget the atrocities of Communism, and must actively reject it in all of its future forms. He dwells on current Russians’ ignorance of the repression, and how refusing to learn about the evils of the USSR based on the fact that these events took place in the past is an unforgivable excuse. If we forget the history of Communism--how it first started out as a political party which gained much popularity but evolved into a soul-killing machine--we risk repeating it.
In his talk, he chastises the Czech president, Miloš Zeman, for his weak stance against the Communist party in the Czech Republic. To the mention of Zeman, a rustling went through the crowd, stirring everyone a brief period of whistling in disapproval of Zeman. They’d been stabbed in the back by the secret police, their own brothers, countless times during Communist occupation. Betrayal by their president is close to unbearable.
Gorbanevsky concluded his speech by encouraging the crowd to never forget the tanks rolling into Prague, and to never tolerate limitations of freedom. He encourages everyone in the crowd to continue protesting injustice everywhere, even if you risk persecution. Protesting evil is the right thing to do.
Following Gorbanevsky’s speech, the founder of the “The Memory of a Nation” project, a non-profit organization, talked about his work in sharing stories of normal people’s lives under Communism. His work has the same goal as those who organized commemorations throughout Prague--that people should never forget Communism, and never stop fighting for freedom.
After all of the speakers held the stage, a young singer was called to the stage. She sang the Czech national anthem, “Kde domov muy” (Where my home is), and the whole crowd joined. Following the song, members of the crowd lit candles for people they knew who died at the hands of the Communists during the occupation (the intellectuals, celebrities, and politicians who wouldn’t promote the USSR, as well as many others). They processed from Kampa to the statues memorializing the enemies of the state, and lay the candles at the feet of the statues. At the statue’s side, a scout (Scouts had been outlawed under Communism) held up the Czech flag. People reverently placed their candles down by the statues, and quietly related their stories to their neighbors.
This experience taught me many things. It explained the quiet stillness in the crowded metros, and the hard, emotionless faces of passersby. Communism may be gone in the Czech Republic, but its effects still linger. We must never forget what Communism was, and how it came to be here, but we also must be willing to move on and trust others again, rejoice, and enjoy this life.
Stay tuned for my impression and recap of the Museum of Communism next.
Interesting links for follow-up research:
After the election, students at Cornell University organized a “cry in.” Much like the community students have sought through “safe spaces,” these students want to feel that they are not alone in their misery. They gathered to mourn the recent election of Donald Trump and console each other in their coming fear of a man who, they claim, is a bigot, sexist, misogynist, homophobe, xenophobe, and racist, among doubtless more personal attacks.
Professors at other Universities have condoned similar behavior, cancelling tests throughout the week to accommodate the emotional “shock” of their students.
People have fled to Facebook to voice their pain, writing that they will be “allies” to women, blacks, members of the LGBTQ community, and so forth. They claim that those who voted for Trump reflect the descriptors they have used for Trump–attacking their morals and character.
These people make it seem as though everybody who voted for Trump did so out of hate; because they believe in a kind of white supremacy that demands that they bully people who are different.
But that is the way they have seen this whole election. The media has presented Trump as this figure of hate, while the media presented Clinton as the beacon of love. Clinton would be able to support these minority groups and repress the bullying from the privileged. But a vote for Trump would condone it.
Why have people become so weak to the point that they feel the need to publicly cry for the outcome of an election? And why has that become acceptable in this nation? Why have there been an increasing amount of “safe spaces” on campuses?
It seems like the people who have cried, who have voiced their opinions against Trump and for Hillary, and who have felt the need for safe spaces on campuses do exactly what they claim they oppose. They use the system to accommodate their feelings and insult the people who don’t agree with them. They limit these conversations, which could be made about rational things such as policies and actual facts, down to merely emotional responses. And claim that anyone who disagrees with them is a bully and a horrible person.
But, is it really the students’ fault? Many of the universities now have professors who support a progressive, liberal agenda. They reflect the arguments the media has used to demonstrate the weaknesses of those running. But because the media has relied so heavily on the emotional response of the voter, they have focused too much on name calling and mudslinging. So much so that those who claim are rational beings, the university student, is left with little or no means of expressing himself well. They rely on sudden bursts of rage on Facebook, or public displays of sadness through cry-ins, or signs of giving up through “safe spaces” because they think that those who disagree with them will hurt them in person.
What happened to the idea of civil discourse? Has this tool, the very one that lets us express ourselves as people through communication and our use of reason, become just something of antiquity? Can we still fight back the animalistic urge to express ourselves in tears instead of reason?
I think so. As Edmund Burke puts it, “To read without reflecting is like eating without digesting.” Let us read, then. And reflect. So that we may differentiate fact from opinion–truth from falsehood.
Meet Yaya, my new “adopted” grandmother. Yaya and I have shared many afternoons together, cooking, taking care of the hens, and talking. I have learned much about her incredible life, and have felt inspired to share her story.
Yaya grew up during an extremely difficult time in Spain. She was born during the Spanish Civil war, and lived throughout the Franco's Nationalistic dictatorship. In her early childhood, when Yaya was just six years old, her mother passed away from an illness. Then, when Yaya was eight, her father was killed because he opposed Franco. With both parents dead, Yaya had to rely on her two older siblings for food and protection. While her older two siblings went to work during the day, Yaya stayed home with her dog and worked in their garden. Every morning, Yaya would help make breakfast for her siblings. And every night, Yaya would have a meal prepared from the vegetables in the garden. From not much food, she was able to sustain her older siblings and herself.
When Yaya was 11, she studied at a school nearby for one year. However, realizing that her work was needed in the house, she decided to sacrifice her schooling for her family. Her older sister, instead, taught Yaya. From a very young age, Yaya realized that her self-sacrifice was a gift of Love that she was able to perform no matter what.
When Yaya was in her early twenties, she married another young man from her village. They had grown up together as friends, and both knew what sacrifice and Love meant. Both understood that these were needed for the success of a family. A few years after getting married, with two children and pregnant with the third, the couple moved to Barcelona to look for better jobs. Yaya and her husband wanted their children to have better lives, and better educations, and knew that it would be easier to find better sustaining jobs in the city.
While in Barcelona, Yaya worked for three households. At six every morning, Yaya would wake up, make breakfast, and help the two oldest children get ready for school. At seven, she would take her youngest with her out to the first house to clean and cook breakfast. After spending a couple of hours at the first house, she would move on to the next house, cleaning and cooking meals for the rest of the day. When I questioned her about the families she worked for, she said that they were very kind. She would often sit with them to eat meals, and she did not feel disrespected at all. These families greatly appreciated her hard work, and honored her as a part of their households.
Once the children grew up and became independent, Yaya maintained an active lifestyle full of hard work. She and her husband moved to Reus, where she started raising hens and gardening. She kept up the same work hours as before, waking up at six and starting work bright and early. Whenever her children needed her help with anything, she was ready and willing to show her love and sacrifice her time for them.
A year ago, she lost her husband to cancer. Leading up to his death, she took great care of him, sacrificing many of her hours to help him. Once he passed away, it became very hard for her to live alone. However, Yaya decided to spend her time helping her children instead of feeling sorry for herself. Now, she still gets up at six every day, ready for her work. She has two properties where she raises hens, and she helps out with the cooking (lucky me) for one of her sons’ family. When I asked her why she still gets up so early, she said “To work! Clearly,” surprised that I would even ask her that. It has been this attitude which has helped her do so many things. Yaya’s persistent, self-sacrificing, and optimistic attitude has enabled her to work extremely hard and to never ever give up. She rejoices in the challenges of each day because she is strong.
Despite her many years of work, she has never lost her sense of humor. A couple of days ago while we were drinking tea and eating a rice dessert (arroz con leche), she was so involved in her story that she plopped a spoonful of rice in her tea instead of on her plate! It was hilarious, and we both died from laughter. After we calmed down a little bit, she just stirred up her tea and drank it anyways. Nothing seems to slow her down.
While recounting her childhood, she still has haunting memories. “It was really hard,” she told me, with tears in her eyes. At such a young age, Yaya had to grow up and do what not many of us could ever fathom doing. She lost both of her parents and had to take over many of their responsibilities for her older siblings. But, even through all of her hardships, Yaya has maintained a positive attitude. By first encounter, you would have never been able to guess her history, despite the fact that she saves and uses everything. A child at heart, she welcomes all around her with Love. Whenever I see here, she brightens up, smiles, and proceeds to tell me about her day. I have cherished her stories, and honor her as a model of hard work.
July 4th, 2015
This past weekend, Americans celebrated the 239th anniversary of our country’s birth. Many people celebrated by having barbeques, going on lakes, playing outdoor games, parading, and going to the beach with their family and friends. Some Americans in the military were protecting our country. The most memorable event for kids, however, was probably the firework displays that most cities or towns put on at night.
The beginning of the United States of America began with a war. America fought Great Britain. Unfortunately, America still has countries that are testing our military. On July 4th, 2015, four Russian bombers flew close to American air space, and in response American fighter pilots intercepted them. Off the coasts of Alaska and California, two Russian bombers flew towards American territory in a threatening manner. The American pilots then flew their planes close to the Russians, and the Americans ordered the Russians to turn around. The Russian pilots did turn back.
July 4th, 1776
On July 4, 1776, the American founding fathers approved the Declaration of Independence, a document that stated that Americans were no longer going to be colonists of Great Britain Some historians say this was the beginning of the American Revolution. Much against the world’s expectation, the Americans won.
Independence Hall (The Pennsylvania State House)
The Declaration of Independence was signed in the Pennsylvania State House, later to be called Independence Hall, in Philadelphia. This hall previously housed the three branches of Pennsylvania’s colonial government. The American founding fathers rented the Assembly room to discuss the coming war with Great Britain and to sign the Declaration of Independence. Twenty-one years later, they wrote and signed the U.S. Constitution in the exact same room!
1. How many years has the United States of America had its independence?
2. Which country, on July 4th, 2015, sent bombers close to the U.S.A.?
3. From which country did the U.S.A. win independence?
4. What do we call the building where the Declaration of Independence was signed?
5. What two important American documents were signed in the same room?
Jessica De Gree
Jessica teaches English as a second language in Spain and plays basketball professionally there. She recently received her Bachelor's degree from Hillsdale College, one of the nation's top Liberal Arts schools in MI. At Hillsdale, she played basketball and studied English and Spanish. Some of her hobbies include reading, writing, painting, surfing, and playing the piano.