The Angry Babushka

Trip Start Sep 09, 2013
Trip End Dec 16, 2013

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Where I stayed
Prague Central Apartments

Flag of Czech Republic  , Bohemia,
Monday, September 30, 2013

When I was a kid, Czechoslovakia was on 'the other side' of the Iron Curtain. I tended to see international politics through the emotional lens of ice hockey. Somehow I knew that 'real' Czechs weren't 'real' communists, if only by the fact that it didn't seem to hurt as much at the times when we lost to the C.S.S.R., as opposed to the times when we lost to the big bad red machine, the U.S.S.R., in international play. That all changed in the late '80s when communism fell throughout Eastern Europe, and the Czechs, with fashionable and 'oh-so-80s' mullets, started to arrive in the NHL as premier hockey players.

OK, OK. The world isn't really all about hockey.... well, except during the playoffs....

The Czech Republic is still a young country - which in a way is ironic when one looks around a sees so much history - with less than twenty years since the modern state was formed. Czechoslovakia under communism is contemporary history - as is the Velvet Revolution (the end of communism) and the Velvet Divorce (when the Czech and Slovak States separated). I guess you know you are getting old when things that happened in your lifetime are now in museums! 

The Communist Museum in Prague is amateur-ish, but fascinating. The icon for the museum is 'The Angry Babushka,' which as a symbol represents the stern and domineering 'mother Russia' of the Soviet era. Communist era posters and textbooks are explained and on display, and there are some moving videos from 1968 (the Prague Spring) and 1989 (the Velvet Revolution), which were actually taken from communist secret police files when they interviewed people that they had arrested during demonstrations.

A subtle form of protest occurred during the communist era, called "trekking." Trekkers refused to participate in collective farms and industries, those pillars of the soviet economy and communism. They basically bummed around in the woods and the hills of Bohemia and Moravia wearing - believe it or not - cowboy hats. Trekkers listened, intentionally, to country music. Not rock music, not even folk music, but country music! For them, cowboy hats and music typified the American spirit of freedom (West Bohemia had been liberated by the US Army after WWII, not the Red Army which liberated Prague) but could not really be considered subversive by the communist regime. I have to say... I will never listen to Hank Williams the same way again!

I don't believe that John Lennon ever set out to become an icon, in fact if he were alive today the idea would most likely repel him. However an icon he is, in the Czech Republic as much as anywhere else in the modern world. 'The Lennon Wall' began in the late '60s in Prague, an exercise in subversive graffiti in a secluded alley way. Every time the wall was whitewashed by the communists, a new 'subversive' slogan (usually a Lennon lyric or image) would re-emerge over night. The tradition continues to this very day - although the original artwork is long gone, buried under decades of spray paint, and the wall now looks like any one of millions of graffit-strewn city walls the world over. Still, it offers a pilgrimage of sorts to tourists and Czechs alike who want to remember the oppressive nature of communism, or who want to, as Lennon suggested, 'imagine.'

The most profound exhibits of the communist era are found at The National Monument at Vitkov. We came across this museum by accident, it is well off the tourist path but just so happened to be in a park right behind our rented apartment in Prague. The Republic reclaimed this building after the communists had turned what had originally been a war memorial into a bizarre temple to honour their own party stalwarts - including the embalmed remains of Klement Gottwald, the first communist president and a Stalinist puppet (his remains have since been cremated and buried elsewhere). Even more creepy was the interrogation room in the basement, used by the communist secret poilce and the labyrinth of equipment they used to tap the phone calls of anyone in the city.

Most Czechs are happy to have moved on from communism. A giant metronome now overlooks the city where a statue of Stalin once stood, signifying the 'time lost' during the 50 years from 1938 and Nazi occupation, followed immediately by Soviet domination, until 1989 and the emergence of the modern Czech state.   Communist era architecture is derisively referred to as "brutalism," as it stands in stark contrast to the prevalent beauty of the medieval and romantic architecture in Prague. However, some Czechs say that the communist era was not all that bad. In the communist state, everyone had a home, food and employment. Certainly the abundance, of strip clubs, blatant prostitution, casinos and homeless beggars combined with the materialistic indulgences of high end, name brand glitz - which is the modern Prague - gives one pause to think about the future of a free and unfettered Global Village.

But these are weighty subjects and I looked for something more mundane to contemplate on our last day in Prague. Looking out the window of our apartment, I noticed a Czech fellow who lurched out of his building, towards his car, hockey stick in hand and equipment bag slung over his shoulder. He was not so svelt, and balding, like me.  I knew for sure he was going to hit the ice with his buddies in a beer league or perhaps drop-in, sticks in the middle. Yes, I thought to myself, I know where he is going. Life is about hockey, after all.
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