Entrance to the Museum of Communism, Prague.
Last week on the way to my language class I spied a tobacconist on the opposite side of the street and, as I needed some more tram tickets, decided to cross over. It was a main road with two tramlines going down the middle. The pedestrian crossing sign showed the red man standing still, but there was no traffic coming. I did notice the policeman on the opposite pavement, but decided to cross anyway. This was a mistake. I had half expected a bit of a telling off, but I didn’t expect to be told I had committed a traffic violation and was to be fined 2000Kc! I didn’t even know it was possible for pedestrians to commit traffic violations.
The conversation that ensued proceeded in a mixture of Czech and English. I wanted him to understand me but thought my chances were better the less Czech I could speak. I explained I was English, that I hadn’t realised it was not allowed, that I was sorry and would never do it again, that I didn’t have 2000Kc (I certainly had nowhere near that on me). He started to relent and said for this once he would just give me a warning, I was full of gratitude and promised never to do it again. For the rest of my walk to school, I stood obediently at every pedestrian crossing, even in front of completely empty roads.
I was reminded of an incident in the USSR when I was there as a student and had set off across the road in Leningrad when, again, the red man was on the crossing sign. An irate, gun wielding policeman had insisted I return to the kerb I had left, even though I was three quarters of the way across. Jaywalking is obviously a habit I have had a long time, learned from my mother, who continued to do it into her late eighties with no adverse consequences. I think we have always both viewed pedestrian crossings as guidance, to be used only when necessary, leaving it as a matter of personal judgement. Some countries take my view to an extreme – Sicily or India, for example, where everybody just crosses as and when they please, cows included, and the rest of the road users keep their wits about them and navigate around them.
Adherence to rules, even those that are unnecessary, is a particularly Soviet habit and although the Czechs (in my brief experience) now view their communist era with horror, certain habits still linger. I have been here just over a week and am finding that researching and thinking about those decades of communist rule raises many interesting questions. One of my earliest visits was to the Museum of Communism, the very name placing it securely in the past as history, dead and buried. For many of the visitors crowding round the various exhibits, it definitely was in the past, they were far too young to remember, and even my young Czech teacher had not heard of the show trials of the 1950s. The emphasis in the Museum is entirely negative, anyone going round would assume that the USSR had schemed from the start to impose an authoritarian regime on the unsuspecting Czechs. That may be true by the 1950s, but in the beginning there was a genuine belief in the ideals of communism. Czechoslovakia was one of the few countries where the communists were a regular legal party before the war. Even in 1968 people were not against communism per se, they wanted communism “with a human face”. It was the USSR’s response that made them realise that this was an impossible dream.
Hotel International, Prague.
The Czech Republic is a very popular destination for Russians, both as tourists and as students. Just a few minutes from my current home for the month, is the Hotel International built between 1952 and 1956 for the express purpose of accommodating Soviet visitors, it was even hoped that Stalin himself might stay there as it is built on exactly the same lines as the “Seven Sisters” buildings in Moscow, which include Moscow University, the Ministry for Foreign Affairs and several hotels. It is not as huge as they are, but otherwise has the same wide frontage and imposing tower. The public is allowed to go to the suites on the 14th and 15th floors to see the decor and admire the view across Prague. The porter who escorted us up there started talking in Czech, but soon switched to Russian, I am not sure whether he was Russian or was just still so used to Russian tourists that he moved into it. He was of an older generation and if he was Czech, he had learned Russian at school, as was compulsory for everyone. There is a strange dislocation in the society; the young cannot imagine a world without freedom and Western goods, the older Czechs remember it all too well.
Today I went on my personal walking tour of the city, identifying houses where Alice lived, hotels where my father stayed and other sites on interest. Coincidentally, earlier in the morning I received a letter from a relative in America with memories of a visit to Alice in Prague. She had been shocked by the flat in which Alice was living, describing it as a poor person’s flat, and was acutely aware of the fact that Alice had come from a wealthy family. Standing outside the building in Dlouha Trida, one of several places where Alice had lived after her release from prison, I was overwhelmed by a sense of the drabness of the street and the building, and overwhelmed too from imagining Alice on that same pavement, going through the door I had passed, and looking out of the windows I was staring at.
Alice’s Apartment on Dlouha Trida was on the top floor.
Only a stone’s throw away were gracious apartment blocks from the turn of the century, but Alice’s was more recent and lacked any charm. Yet, she had chosen communism, chosen to reject the bourgeois comforts into which she had been born. The dislocation is with me wherever I walk. On the one hand there are all the beautifully painted buildings with their ornate doorways, the gilded, chandeliered theatres and opera houses, the imposing museums and the Art Nouveau gem of the Municipal House with its two concert halls. On the other hand, I keep wondering where the security police headquarters were, picturing the dark cars that for days followed those they had identified as suspect, before finally bundling them inside and whisking them away.
I look at the grim faced police and never consider asking them the way. They may not be sinister any more, but they are not there to help. I wait patiently at every pedestrian crossing.