Lifestyle, Travel

Skylines and Soviets: The Legacy of Communism in Czechia

Monuments to communism and the Red Army are the most blatant marks left by the Soviets in Czechia. But the legacy of the USSR can be seen manifested in many different spheres of life, from social, to work, to housing and faith. The history of the 20th century can be witnessed in the streets of every city, but the effect of that history on the people, on society at large, is more elusive.

Three hours to the east of Prague lies a small sleepy town of around 100,000 people. I have come here as part of the last British Erasmus cohort, but have recently been more concerned with my cultural education than academic. Olomouc has a long history, dating back to when it was the capital of the Kingdom of Moravia, yet much of that history still feels present in the centre of the city where cobbled streets and alleyways are lined by baroque architecture. Statues and fountains honouring various religious and artistic movements are scattered randomly throughout the city. But the outskirts of the city tell a different story.

The concrete tower blocks which shot up from the sixties through the eighties are still housing large portions of the population, despite their various forms of decay. In recent years, the Czechs have taken to painting these concrete blocks in bright colours, which offers an interesting, dichotomous effect. I feel that this painted concrete is in some way representative of the relationship between the Czechs and their time under Soviet colonialism.

‘Why did you come here?’ This is the inevitable first question which follows the explanation of my British origins. The question generally comes from a place of curiosity, but I can’t help but feel, after I’ve offered some garbled response about cultural immersion and Central European history, that there remains some disbelief at my presence.

In the last 30 years, Czechia has exploded into the free market with a burning passion for modernisation – and they aren’t slowing down. New developments crop up all over Olomouc, and Prague is far ahead. Yet despite this rapid modernisation and development, the Soviet era has left a profound impact on the mentality of the Czech people. Hungarian literary scholar Csaba G. Kiss claims that “We—Hungarians, Czechs, Slovaks, Poles— have an inferiority complex. This is a shared feature. Being aware of our shared inferiority complex can liberate us from it.”  

Perhaps this is an extreme viewpoint, but I can see how this conclusion could be drawn from the humbleness of the Czechs, and the way they confront their history openly. The British and the Czechs have had completely different experiences with colonialism, and while we may feel guilt and lament the lack of education about our violent past, the Czechs approach their experiences under Soviet occupation with sorrow, but without denial. Kiss continues: “We have been affected by a tragic history, and we should be aware of shared traumas.” The history of the Soviet era is unavoidable in the Czech Republic, and perhaps this constant reminder is partly responsible for the dedication and ambition of the students in Olomouc.

It would be wrong to say that the Czechs aren’t proud of their country: quite the opposite. The feeling when the old Czechia appears in daily life is nostalgic and patriotic. When traditional food is served (nice enough) or when beer is poured (excellent), when folk music rings out in the pubs and when national holidays roll around, when people talk of the Moravia/Bohemia divide. And when they talk of the folk-tales and myths of ancient Czech cities, they do so with a beaming smile on their face and pride in their hearts. The same cannot be said for the 20th century.

The Czech’s don’t hide from their past. They appreciate its importance and how it has shaped their country into what it is today. But they also fail to recognise the value of this shared history, this knowledge of an experience fundamentally contrasted to that of Western Europe. The Czech students I have met at university frequently study in English, and their grasp of grammatical nuance is better than my own. They have an incredible understanding of 20th century history, because not only have they read about it, but they need but step outside and raise their heads to look around and see it written on the walls. But it seems that they take this knowledge, this academic prowess, somewhat for granted.

I view overcoming this “inferiority complex” as an inevitable part of the development of Czechia. And if there is anything I have learnt since I’ve been here, it is that it takes a lot less time to change a city’s skyline than it does to change its mindset.

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Finlay Porter

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May 2022
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