Prague has to be one of the most magical cities in the world: its Gothic cathedral and gold-topped spires; the astronomical clock that peers over Old Town Square through indecipherable dials. It’s a city renowned for jazz and synagogues, strong beer and marionettes… a heritage so colorfully defined – so Bohemian – one might almost forget that Prague spent 41 years as the capital of an oppressive communist regime.
Unlike the other capitals of former socialist republics though, here in Prague the physical legacy of communism is almost conspicuous in its absence. While cities such as Moscow, Warsaw, Bucharest or Sofia are dominated still by the architecture – the concrete, marble and steel – of their socialist past, the Czech capital maintains, even after all that time, a reputation not for grey totalitarian spaces so much as rare medieval splendour ~ explains Darmon Richter on his blog.
That’s not to say, however, that Prague was left untouched by its four decades of communist rule. On previous visits to Prague I’ve seen the castle and the bookshops, the bridges, churches, cemeteries and towers for which it’s so well known – I visited the home of Franz Kafka and went hunting for the legendary golem. This last time though, I wanted to try experiencing a different aspect of the capital; and so I took to the streets, looking for physical memories of a communist Prague.
In communist Czechoslovakia, there were restrictive rules governing the creation of art and architecture. The lavish, imperialist and religious styles so typical to Prague would become a thing of the past. Functionalism, too, was deemed too Western an approach; but rather Czechoslovakia was to inherit the USSR’s preferred socialist-realist and Stalinist classical styles.
Stalinist architecture was a movement towards grand, impersonal public spaces and broad streets fit for military parades – though while other Eastern Bloc capitals were subjected to major redevelopments, Prague was largely spared these projects. There were plans for new developments near the river, behind Parizska Street, for example; though the historical value of the pre-existing buildings ultimately saved them from demolition.
By the late 1960s the Czechoslovak economy was in decline, and a tide of dissatisfaction led to the forced resignation of First Secretary Antonín Novotný. In his place, in 1968, came Alexander Dubček.
Dubček sought to reform Czechoslovakia, beginning with the Party itself. He called for ‘socialism with a human face,’ while introducing measures of liberalisation to the constitution. State media censorship was abolished, as elements of a market economy were introduced to buoy up the sinking planned economy. Citizens were given greater freedoms, including the right to travel abroad.