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EU > Czech Republic > Prague

Communist legacy

Prague, CZ (View on map)

No fewer than twelve countries have been added to the European Union in the last 10 years. Czech Republic was one of the former ex-communist states which joined in May 2004. Within barely fifteen years after the revolution, Czechs have had to convert from a centrally-planned market economy with work and accommodation for everybody, into a capitalist state ran by financial gains and egoism. Today, I am asking people which communist traits have survived the revolution and are still commonplace today.

Ondra (27):

`Former communist leaders barely got prosecuted after the 1989 revolution. Most of them are still active in politics and business`
When democracy and capitalism came to Czech Republic in the autumn of 1989, few people realised that overthrowing the regime would not put an end to all their problems. It would solve only some, and create a whole bunch of new ones. But this time, the state would not be around to provide ready-made solutions. In the new system, each individual became responsible for his or own well-being.

The wish for the Czechs to escape the oppression by the Soviet Union had a first climax in 1968 during the Spring Uprising. The Red Army then entered Prague to brutally beat down the demonstrations. Communism was reinstalled and even more strictly implemented than ever before. Until 1989, when all of the communist regimes in Central and Eastern Europe collapsed one after the other.

Ondra (27, photo) remembers how his parents took him to Prague city centre when the 1989 revolution was taking place. `I was 8 years old and not particularly scared. My parents didn`t tell me what was happening because I was too young to understand anyway. I learnt about the revolution when I was older, through school and by my parents telling me. I know that the 1989 revolution was a quite peaceful one, contrary to earlier demonstrations that urged for political changes.

Playright, intellectual and anti-politician V?clav Havel emerged from the revolution as the new leader of the country. He had been the inspiration behind the revolution movement. Unlike other countries, the new Czech Republic only marginally prosecuted leaders of the former communist parties. `It was also quite difficult`, says Ondra. `After all, they did not break the law that prevailed at the time they were managing the country. Some leaders who really messed up were trialed, most others got away with it. A good amount of them is actually still in politics today. They had the right connections during Communist times, which helped them to rapidly find their way in the new system as well.`

Andrea (17) was born after the changes and only heard about them in school or in movies. `I mainly know that people were not allowed to have an opinion, or to express one. People couldn`t travel to other countries and they couldn`t buy whatever food they liked`, Andrea explains.

From the West
`Life is different now from what it used to be`, says Veronika (29), `while at the same time, it`s not. I spent a happy childhood, regardless of which political ideology ruled the country. What can you do anyway. I don`t have many bad memories of the communist times. It was just everyday reality. The major advantage we have now is that we can travel. Before the revolution, I only once traveled to Poland where we bought clothes. I don`t remember much of it though.`

`Shops are nowadays full of products that used to be unavailable in Czech Republic before 1989. Only a handful of state-organised shops would sell Western-style project year round. These Tuzex shops did not accept normal Czechoslovakian Crowns. Special Tuzex Crowns or `Bony` were the only accepted currency and it was not easy for normal citizens to get them.`

Veronika remembers how going to a Tuzex shop was like going to an attraction park: `My father traveled a lot for his job, also to Western Europe. He could exchange the salary he earned abroad into Bonys and we would go shopping with the whole family. Tuzex was the only place that sold jeans, Western European chewing gum, coffee and Easter eggs. Despite the heavy propaganda against the West, we always knew that the living standard was much higher there. Still today, products from the West somehow enjoy a better reputation than anything that comes in from Poland, Vietnam or even Czech Republic itself.`

`Apart from the Tuzex shops, the key to getting a new fridge or a new car was patience. You applied for one, waited for a long time and were then informed that the product of your choice was available at the shop`, Veronika says. `Since 1989, the shops have gradually filled up with more luxurious products and/or products that were hardly available under communist times. Tropical fruit was unheard of. Only bananas and oranges from Vietnam occasionally made I to Czech shops. People would be happy to queue with several family members so they could get twice as many bananas as they would if one person did the shopping.`

What is now completely normal all over the Czech Republic astonished me on my first trip to Vienna, soon after the collapse of the regime. They had more then 10 different types of yoghurt, while we only ever had one or two different types of everything. Seeing that it was even possible to choose from more options was just incredible at first.`

`Stealing was quite common under communist rule`, Veronika explains. `Everything was somehow collective property, so it didn`t really matter if you took a pen and some empty paper home from work. People also built there own houses and they often somehow collected materials from other building sites. I think that many people still stick to this tradition of trying to get a hold of something simply because it is available. It`s difficult to explain to older people that the shops are now fully stocked, but how product are not handed out to whoever is in need of them. Getting credits is the only way to legally acquire stuff you can`t afford and many people get into trouble because of borrowing money without being about being able to refund their loans.`

Vit (21) thinks that shop assortments have been adjusted since 1989, but the behaviour of many a shop assistant has not: `I still often walk into shops where the personnel look as if I am there to spoil their day. They are not in any way planning to be friendly to their customers, because they still have this feeling that customers depend on shops to supply them with goods. To a certain extent, that is true. On the other hand however, shops now depend more on their customers than the other way around. Everybody is free to go to another shop where they get better service. Shopkeepers, especially older ones, don`t always realise that.`

Vit explains that communist `traditions` will stay around for quite some time. `Many habits are deeply rooted. You can see that with old people, who only trust their direct family and friends who were traditionally the people who were least likely to betray them or to get them in trouble with the secret police. Still today, this legacy explains why so many older Czechs appear withdrawn and reserved up until secretive. They only care about their own small personal lives, and try to keep the outside world at large. Depending on the different generations and social layers, younger Czechs have fewer problems to communicate with strangers. They also have many more communication options at their disposal: TV and radio to remain informed, the internet to communicate with each other.`

Barbora (31) thinks that many people are now more careful about their possessions than before. `When everything was owned by the state, people didn`t care about their front yard or even the building they lived in. It wasn`t theirs anyway. After the revolution, cities like Prague quickly noticed that refurbishment would repay itself by the development of tourism. I think that it`s quite difficult to find tangible traces of communism in current day downtown Prague. It looks much more colourful than it did during the communist era`, Barbora says.

Despite the general opinion that the totalitarian communist regime in Czech Republic was a shame for the country`s history, the current communist party could still count on 20% of the votes during recent elections. Older generations long back to the times when people were equal, where nobody was homeless and nobody hungrier than anybody else. `When vegetables were still grown domestically instead of imported from the West`, Helena (29) says, explaining that many Czech farmers go bankrupt because the EU subsidises large-scale production in Western Europe. `We used to have our own sugar, but for some obscure reasons, it is now cheaper to import it from Germany.`

A sense of nostalgia has even led to the re-introduction of former communist brands: Kofola which was the Czech version of CocaCola is back on the market. Czech people will smile when they are reminded of Partizanky cigars, Benatska Tecinka, a long and colourful lollipop, or Pedro: bright pink chewing gum which tasted of nothing particular except sugar.

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