River. Known simply as “Stalin,” it was the location of a fifty-nine-foot,
14,000-ton statue of the dictator that until its demolition in 1962 could
be seen on the skyline from all over the city, rivaling famous Prague
Castle. The large empty space has now become a graffiti-covered skate
park, a pop-up beer garden, and a site of rock concerts. A red metronome
with seventy-foot arms swings back and forth above the site, and young
people sit on a balustrade drinking beer, smoking grass, and evidently
tossing their sneakers up to hang from the metronome’s guy wires.
“Stalin would hate this,” someone writes on a concert Facebook page.
For Americans, most of what we know about central Europe begins with
the existential battle against Communism and ends with the triumph of
the West. So it can come as a surprise to learn that the Communists were
a relatively brief part of the overall totalitarian picture. In fact, the Czech
lands have been dominated by one outside power or another over most
of the last five hundred years, beginning with the Austro-Hungarian
Empire, whose German-speaking officials ruled Czechs from Vienna
from 1526 to World War 1. After Czechoslovakia’s brief postwar First
Republic, the Nazis came in 1938. Then, soon after the Nazis left, came
Soviet-backed Communists, who were to rule for the next forty years.
In all, people here have been ruled by a foreign power for more years
than America has existed. Given all this oppression, how does it feel to
be free at last?
Since I can only speak with Czechs who speak English, I limit my
already extremely limited sample. But in Prague cafés, at dinner parties
and literary events, and through Fulbright academic connections, I encounter a dozen or so Czechs who are old enough to remember and are
willing to talk to me about life under Communism. I ask how people
remember the regime and how they felt when Communism fell. Was
it—and has it been—the triumph of freedom that Americans assume?
One man in his forties, Tomas, was only fourteen in 1989, and his
parents would not allow him to join the thousands who came out into
Wenceslas Square, “ringing” their house keys to call for change. But he
remembers that in his household, the Velvet Revolution was not so much
a time of joy as one of anxiety: His parents feared that at any moment the
Soviets would return.
He is not unaware of the horrors of Communism, mentioning a
new film on Milada Horakova. But his own childhood passed quite
smoothly, perhaps because his family had solid working-class creden-