Discover the traces of Communist Prague hidden in plain sight on a historical tour of the Czech capital
In Prague, Communism may have been the law of the land for nigh-on 40 years, but go for a wander around the city today and, well, you’d hardly know it. Since the Velvet Revolution in 1989, most vestiges of Communist Prague have been scrubbed away. But do a bit of digging and you’ll find some fascinating evidence of the era hiding in plain sight. From Cold War nuclear bunkers to the Museum of Communism, memorials in Wenceslas Square to Communist architecture that would make a design student wince, there’s plenty for the amateur investigator to uncover.
Today, Wenceslas Square is associated with old-world architecture and bustling urbanity, but this historic plaza is also an ideal starting point for those looking to learn more about Communist Prague. For one thing, it’s been a frequent host to revolution: in 1968, Prague Spring protesters flooded the square during the Russian invasion, while the 1989 Velvet Revolution saw hundreds of thousands of locals flock here once again.
Wenceslas Square is also a site of considerable emotional significance. In 1969, students Jan Palach and Jan Zajíc committed self-immolation here in political protest. Today, a memorial to both can be found steps from the National Museum, while the square is also home to another monument to the victims of Communism.
From Wenceslas Square, it isn’t far to go to the Museum of Communism. Established in 2001, the institution is petite but packed full of fascinating Communist-era memorabilia, from propaganda posters to a reconstructed classroom. Organised in three rather dramatically titled sections – The Dream, The Reality, The Nightmare – the museum also has some intriguing film footage on hand, which allows for a truly immersive experience.
Black and white footage not quite enough to fully bring the past alive? Step foot into the Nuclear Bunker Museum, which is situated within a Cold War-era bunker, one of several constructed in the city. From within the creepy confines of the gloomy space, visitors can discover gasmasks, army gear, period newspapers and other fascinating exhibits.
Even during the most oppressive periods of Communist rule, Prague’s artists and students helped keep the spirit of revolution in Prague alive. Národni Street is famous for its creative history – a major artery in the centre of the city, it was host to cafes and bars where intellectuals gathered. Keep a careful eye out for the bronze plaque commemorating the Velvet Revolution, which consists of hands posed in the V for Victory sign, near to the National Theatre. It was here that student gatherings helped kick off the movement that ended Communist rule.
Though many Communist-era statues and monuments have been melted down or otherwise removed from Prague, a few lone holdouts are still standing. The striking former mausoleum of Klement Gottwald is one of the survivors, and it certainly makes an impression: the first Czechoslovak Communist president, Gottwald was initially interred here before being moved to the Olšany Cemetery. Though the structure is now part of the National Memorial on Vitkov Hill, its history – and those views – makes it a must-visit.
Prague may not have the classic Soviet bloc look that so many ex-Iron Curtain cities do, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t boxy, Communist architecture to be found here. In fact, one unmistakable structure from Communist Prague is the former Parliament Building, perched at the top of Wenceslas Square; the building is now managed by the National Museum, and tourists are welcome inside. Prague’s subway system, while now renowned for its design, is also a remnant of the era, with many being used as bomb shelters in the past. Other constructions to look out for include the Žižkov Television Tower (complete with crawling babies) and the Kotva Department Store in the Old Town.