busts galore

though the museum’s pride in occupying the same building as a McDonalds seems somewhat overdone, the Museum of Communism in Prague does a remarkable job of illustrating the hardships endured by the Czech people under communism, from the end of World War II until the success of the Velvet Revolution in 1989.

an array of busts took up a portion of the middle of the museum; ones completed in bronze, studies in plaster and clay, half-completed relics of Stalin and Lenin. a display explains the development, construction, and demolition of the world’s largest Stalin monument, which was located in Letná Park across the Vltava from the Jewish Quarter. construction began in the early days of the new communist regime, when adoration for Stalin remained high. the process took five and a half years, however, and the accelerating rate of anti-Stalin sentiment during the period mean that even upon its unveiling, the statue quickly became an embarrassment for the Czechoslovak Communist Party. all the same, the state unveiled the monument in 1955 under even greater stigma than produced by mere anti-Stalinism — unable to endure the pressure exerted by the party, the secret police, and hate mail from Czech citizens, sculptor Otakar Švec killed himself three weeks before the unveiling. in 1962, the monument was demolished. a new sculpture, the Metronome, now stands on top of the plinth.

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astronomical clocks, pt. 2: Olomouc

despite the radiance of the Prague Clock, I found the clock in Olomouc (along with almost everything to do with the town) equally or more impressive and much, much less touristy. part of this stems, as alluded to in recent posts, from Olomouc’s interesting relationship with the realities and after-effects of communism, lasting realities that one can see with the city’s own Astronomical Clock.

also dating from the early 1400s (1420 in this instance), clock-makers remodeled and updated the Olomouc clock every century or so until, in 1945, as in Prague, the retreating Nazi army blasted the hell out of the clock, leaving only a few pieces to start a collection in the nearby history museum. the new communist regime proved keen to rebuild the clock, but naturally eschewed the religious aesthetic of the destroyed clock for one more representative and suitable for the ideal(ized) socialist state. rather than kings and saints, the clock features athletes, workers, farmers and scientists. while the calendar face still contains a listing of saints days, it also lists important dates in communist history, such as Stalin’s birthday.

after the end of communist rule, the new democratic regime elected to remove and/or destroy much of the statuary and public art associated with or a product of the socialist state. the remarkable nature and detail of the Olomouc clock, however, saved it from destruction and, as I said, it’s absolutely fascinating to behold. when compared to the clock in Prague, the mosaic background of the Olomouc clock sets it apart — and above, for me. the Olomouc clock has the lengthy chronology and the same weight of history, but with the additional, intriguing dimension provided by the social-realist redesign.

and perhaps even more winningly, standing and waiting for the noon display in Olomouc, I didn’t have to contend with anyone for a good view. well, no one apart from a pack of three-foot tall kindergartners in yellow safety vests on a field trip. but they didn’t do much to obstruct my view.

modern (Cold War) global realities confront ancient fortifications

another interesting remnant of the communist regime in Olomouc: a fallout bunker built into the base of the city wall. during the Cold War, the Civil Defense Association decided that the best place for an impenetrable bunker of safety, in the event of nuclear holocaust, was deep inside and/or beneath the city walls. standing at the very edge of the Iron Curtain, it’s easy to understand why officials in the Czech Republic might worry about impending war with the west. early annexation by Nazi Germany may have spared the nation the kind of damage visited upon active war zones (Dresden is less than 50km from the Czech border, and only 150km from Prague), but fear of destruction in an East-West conflict seemed perfectly reasonable.
and so, the Civil Defense Association carved a hole into the city’s centuries-old defensive wall and installed your standard, ugly mid-century nuclear bunker. the city now runs tours of it, though I don’t know how keen I’d feel to enter through that gated door on the left. (tours weren’t running while I was there.)
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Attention! Comrades of Olomouc a message from the Party

more than anywhere else I visited, the remnants of the Communist regime appeared most frequently around Olomouc. while the town certainly has its share of historic sites at its core it feels like your average working, university town, albeit one that has undergone changes in the last two decades. while I’m sure one could say the same about other places, like Prague and Brno, Olomouc seems like a work in progress, as an evolving, thriving city. in Český Krumlov there was a concerted effort to restore the medieval character of the town to appeal to tourists, and Prague readily embraced capitalist/consumerist culture and adapted itself to suit the new system and obfuscate elements of communism that didn’t fit into a limited, easily-quantifiable box of history.

in Olomouc, however, you see things like these speakers, still attached to a light post in Dolni nam (one of two large town squares), twenty-one years after the Velvet Revolution. the speakers broadcast messages from the Party to residents of Olomouc — the importance of productivity, working for the betterment of the state and society, admonitions not to worry about reports of unrest in Prague, what are you talking about “velvet revolution”? students don’t protest – that’s just silly. whether a reminder of the past or simply a matter of expending resources on more important things, Olomouc still has some of these unique remnants that more seamlessly blended that part of the past into the present for me, reminded me that the present builds upon the past and no matter how ardently we might deny what we have or have not done, those events remain part of our nature and sense of self.

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Melantrich Building

it never fails that I set out to write a quick post about some place of seemingly limited historical significance, only to learn it’s far more important than I understood at the time of my visit.

situated on the southwest side of Wenceslas Square, the Melantrich Building doesn’t stand out from other facades but is steeped in history. it was reconstructed in the early 1920s and renamed for the Czech-language publishing firm that occupied the building. until well into the twentieth century, German was the official language of the Czech lands and there is a long history of fighting or Czech language rights to support Czech autonomy.

the publishing firm was established in 1897 and lasted until 1999, surviving the many political ups and downs of the twentieth century. initially, it was associated with the Czech National Social Party (which formed after breaking with the Social Democratic Party) and began a “printing press for national socialist workers”. a printer from the firm (Jaroslav Šalda)began a successful daily in 1907, “The Czech Word”, and with it’s success the firm purchased the Hvězda building (or “The Star”) on Wenceslas Square and began reconstruction to suit its purposes. during this period of success, the firm adopted the name of Melantrich (after Jiří Melantrich from Aventino, a 16th century printer) and gave the building that name after completion of reconstruction in 1922.

in 1919, the publishing firm obtained an official permit to print newspapers and began to expand throughout the country and, in the 1930s, even got into film production. during the years prior to Nazi occupation, circulation on some of the newspapers and journals reached hundreds of thousands and, in a few cases, over a million.

during the Nazi occupation, the press was taken over by the Germans and Šalda was thrown into prison. the communists took over publication in 1948 but Šalda no longer wanted to participate in politics and was removed from his position by the communist party leaders.  the firm was split into three parts and, while technically owned by the state, the party ran publication. this odd arrangement resulted in protracted legal battles during the 1990s and, eventually the firm was sold off and, when the new owner bankrupted in 1998, what remained of the firm couldn’t compete.

and now the part I set out to tell you: in 1989, the balcony of the building was used as a platform for those addressing protesters gathered in Wenceslas Square during the Revolution. the success of the protests, moreover, was confirmed when Vaclav Havel (future president of the new democratic Czechoslovak Republic) announced the end of the communist state from the balcony.

the building is now luxury apartments and a Marks & Spencer.

a history of tea

while I was in Český Krumlov, among many pleasant local establishments, the owner of the Krumlov House recommended a place called Dobrá čajovna for tea. it’s down a back alley near the entrance to the castle and, she advised, served its teas in the style of their place of origin. I checked it out and was not disappointed; in addition to living up to it’s name as a “good tea house”, it lacked all trace of that blight of gorgeous tourist towns — the o.a.p. tour group/herd. my visit to the Krumlov Dobrá čajovna fell into a euphoric phase of my travels and I spent an hour and a half waxing … euphoric about travel in my journal (at nine pages, unquestionably my longest entry of the trip). I enjoyed my tea, wrote, savored the Czech atmosphere, watched the kids of one of the employees explore the cafe, and headed out and on to dinner.

a week later, back in Prague, wandering around a packed Wenceslas Square, I spied the cafe’s distinctive sign pointing down another back alley. same decor, same menu, same good tea, but a more Prague than Czech atmosphere (i.e. expat and/or international — lots of English). enjoyed my tea, rested my feet after walking back from Vysehrad, wrote a shorter entry in my journal, read my book, and headed off to find dinner.
a week later, back in Madison, heading up Gilman St to exchange my movies at Four Star, I once again spied the cafe’s distinctive sign. and it clicked, why the sign and decor looked familiar when I was in Krumlov — I’d been inside a Dobrá čajovna before, though one called the Dobrá Cafe. I must confess to feeling somewhat dismayed that this great teahouse I’d found turned out to be a chain — do U.S. companies have to co-opt everything?
except it’s a Czech chain! the tea room in Wenceslas Square in Prague is the original. the Communist regime forbid the importation of tea, but a group of tea enthusiasts met anyway to sample various teas smuggled into the country. after the Velvet Revolution, they opened the location in Wenceslas Square and have since expanded to all over the Czech Republic, as well as to Budapest, Krakow, Bratlisalva, Burlington, VT, and Madison, WI! if you enjoy tea, and find yourself in any of these cities with some time to spend at a tea house, check this one out.

(incidentally, I figured out it was a Czech chain because the package of tea I bought for a friend last week was in English and Czech. why the hell else would the packaging be in Czech?! it is not a language one slaps on merchandise without reason.)