Capitalist fills in red Czech past

January 11, 2002

A quarter-page ad in the Prague Pill - the Czech capital's newest free listings magazine - displays a bold portrait of Vladimir Lenin beneath a copy line peppered with Cyrillic-style lettering: "Down the road from Benetton. Next door to Mickey D's. Guess who's turning in his embalming fluid?" In smaller lettering, like a choker around Lenin's neck, it carries the legend: "Museum of Communism. The way it was."

The Czech Republic's first museum devoted to the country's 40 years under communist regimes does not shrink from displaying its capitalist colours - hardly surprising given that its founder and owner is a 36-year-old American political science graduate who has spent the past ten years running restaurants and coffee shops in Prague.

Glenn Spicker, the founder of a museum that many Czechs, 12 years after the velvet revolution, still consider in bad taste, does not hide the fact that the museum celebrates the triumph of capitalism over communism. Based on the concept of a "three-act tragedy", the exhibits are designed to reflect the dream, reality and nightmare of communism.

Mr Spicker, who did postgraduate studies in Soviet politics at Essex University after taking his first degree at the University of Connecticut, collected all the exhibits himself, scouring Prague's junk shops and flea markets.

"I had first talked about this idea with friends years ago, but did nothing about it. Now I figured was the right time as there is a great interest in the communist period," said Mr Spicker, who has lived in Prague since 1992.

Retired Charles University professor Cestmir Karcmar was drafted in to write the texts for the exhibits, and documentary film-maker Jan Kaplan was brought in as conceptual designer.

Early visitors to the museum - which opened just after Christmas - were mainly foreign tourists, but Mr Spicker said a small number of mostly elderly Czechs have come by to see how an American businessman interprets their postwar past.

A grim reconstruction of a secret police interrogation cell records the blunt statistics of repression: 178 executions by 1989, 257,000 prison sentences for political offences, 200,000 paid police spies, 500,000 party members expelled during the purges that followed the crushing of the Prague Spring in 1968.

Swedish tourist Kristian Svenberg, who was a student in Czechoslovakia in the late 1960s, said he felt little of the true atmosphere of the period but plenty of the current political spin: "Of course, for the Czech people the period was a disaster, although they still don't understand that simply swapping this past for the culture of the dollar is not the answer."

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