We recently took a “Communist Tour” through Prague, and we were lucky to have as a guide someone who lived their childhood through the Communist years. She was there through the indoctrination in the schools all the way to the last demonstrations in Wenceslas Square before they kicked the bastards out on their asses.
According to our guide, Tereza, living through Communism was like living as a schizophrenic. I think a better analogy might be living as someone fluently bilingual. When you speak one language, you switch completely into it. You haven’t forgotten the other, but it sits below the surface for a while. You can switch back and forth between them, but not word by word. Similarly, living under Communism is like living as two people (hence the schizophrenia reference). You know what you are supposed to and compelled to say in public. You haven’t forgotten the truth, and around trustworthy people you can tell the truth, but you won’t switch back and forth between truth and party line word by word.
I have my own opinions about Communism, and bear with me because they’re subtle. Communism is like the horrifying fever dream of a second-year political science undergraduate with borderline personality disorder who has just taken his first sociology course and thus knows exactly why the world is so oppressed. However, it apparently did have its moments of levity. Perhaps it would be best to focus on those. Remember that these stories come straight from a survivor. They’re real.
- When we walked past a wall covered in graffiti, which is admittedly a real problem in Europe, someone made a comment about how they saw graffiti all over the place. Tereza responded by saying: “there was no graffiti in Communist Czechoslovakia. You weren’t allowed to buy paint.”
- Shops were open from 8 to 5 only on weekdays, and workers worked from 8 to 4:30. This would have been a huge problem if the shops had much of anything at all; instead, you showed up and were quickly given whatever was available. After the fall of Communism, Tereza traveled to California and came up with an observation: “Under Communism, there is a sign that says ‘meat’ outside a shop that contains a butcher. Under Capitalism, there is a sign that says ‘butcher’ outside a shop that contains meat.”
- Speaking of which, the first rule of Communism is apparently “throw your wife under the bus.” Tereza’s father occasionally worked the night shift and so was able to do the shopping during the day, usually with retirees and children standing in line with him. He was able to get good cuts of meat by telling the butcher, “I don’t know what I’m doing, but if I don’t get a good cut of meat, my horrible wife will beat me!” Tereza was always able to get toilet paper from the shopkeepers (who always kept extra stock in the back for themselves) by crying and saying “if I don’t get toilet paper, my horrible mother will beat me.”
- Continuing on the theme of throwing wives under the bus, Tereza told us about the border fence with Austria. (The fence was about two kilometers inland from the border because the border patrol rifles were accurate to two kilometers.) Once, a man took some buckets of paint and painted markings on the road to the border. When approached by the border patrol soldiers, he began complaining about his horrible wife, making the soldiers laugh. For about two weeks, he did this, each day telling a new story about his old hag of a wife, and each day getting closer and closer to the border. Eventually the guards greeted him as if he was supposed to be there. He painted the final marking next to the border, set his brush down, stepped into Austria, and never came back. He had made up the job for himself, and the guards were none the wiser.
- Shifting gears a bit to good wives, we saw the prison where Vaclav Havel wrote his “Letters to Olga.” Officially, there were never any political prisoners held by the Communists in Czechoslovakia. Mainly because people could be arrested and imprisoned without a reason.
- When the Commies ended up getting kicked out on their asses, the president was not directly elected but selected by the parliament. When the last Communist president was ousted, anti-Communist Vaclav Havel was unanimously elected. How did this happen with a unanimously Communist parliament? Tereza’s theory: the true believers don’t think, they just do what they’re told.
- In school, children were given monthly gas mask drills for when (not if) the Americans attacked. They also did some weapons training, including throwing hand grenades. Tereza was banned from throwing hand grenades because she couldn’t throw them at least 20 meters. I can see how this might be a problem.
- In the late eighties, when Tereza was a teenager approaching high school, she and her family knew that all of their phone conversations were being listened to and probably recorded. Because of this, and because the Soviets heavily subsidized the telephones, she would talk for hours and hours with her school friends, mostly about boys, knowing full well that someone on the other end of the line was tasked with taking copious notes. I like to think that there were high Communist officials somewhere in Prague following along with Tereza’s little soap opera, maybe deploying a low-ranking lieutenant to help get spoilers for next week’s episodes.