Visiting Vojna: on the Horrors of the Communist Regime in Czechoslovakia
The Post-Eastern Bloc Generation Confronts the Past
Nobody goes to the gulag anymore. At least not in the Czech Republic. But it’s the first thing I need to see. So I take the train from Prague to Pribram, 50 miles to the south. It’s a beat-up old train, shabby carriages passing through crumbling stations, nothing like the slick international service going through to Vienna or Berlin. Prague is filled with tourists, but there are none here. With the exception of me, the train is loaded with locals going about their weekday business, none of them heading for the gulag.
We pull away from the glass-and-boutique Central Station, travel through the outskirts of the city, and then, within 20 minutes, seem to have slid decades back in time. Now we are traveling through a postindustrial zone, the horizon dominated by shabby but still-inhabited panelacky, those rigidly uniform Communist-era housing blocks named for their precast concrete panels. Thrown up after World War II as emergency structures, they were designed to last for two generations at most. But they endure, home to a third of Czechs even now. From the train windows they loom as immense, still-functioning monuments to an oppressive past.
As an American born in the Cold War era, I am, irrationally, amazed to see evidence that Communism was real. Considering all we were told about Communists—about their wild-eyed and unworkable economic schemes, their paranoid surveillance, their insane punishments—it sometimes seemed that the Communists had come out of a comic book, not history.
Was it all real? Or was our Cold War propaganda a little over the top?
Arriving in the Czech Republic as a Fulbright Commission teaching fellow, I am determined to see as much of the shadow left by the Communists as I can before I encounter my graduate students. In their mid-twenties, they never experienced the actual Communists, who left power in 1989. But they were born into a world that had been shaped by the party for the preceding 40 years. To get to know them—to engage in the cultural exchange that is my charge—I have to do my best to understand what has been experienced here.
At the Pribram station there’s no public transit, at least not any discernible by me with my 15 or so words of Czech. But there is a kid in a blue-and-green beater in front of the station, and I write out the words Pamatnik Vojna in my notebook. He nods. Sure. The former Vojna prison camp, now preserved as a memorial.
As we drive the four miles, I stare at the back of his head. I would give a lot to know what’s in there, what he knows about the place we are going, what he thinks about it. Of course, he’s too young to have witnessed the camp in operation. But if his family has lived here for a generation or two, they probably had some complicity in the life of the gulag. They may have been aware of slave labor from the camp that helped to rebuild part of Pribram. At the least, they would likely have been considered politically trustworthy by the Communist regime. The untrustworthy were relocated.
But I don’t have the Czech for such a conversation.
He leaves me at a pair of high wood-and-wire gates that remind me of a fort in a TV Western. I walk through the gate, through the double fence of barbed wire, past the wooden guard tower, past a large gray chunk of uranium. I pass the miniature train tracks and carts that transported the uranium aboveground. Though the prison was intended for punishment, it was also an extremely important source of labor, in particular, extraction of the uranium that lay in the underground mines. Uranium was needed to make atomic bombs for the coming world war with the West.
It’s a lovely, peaceful location, set among wooded hillsides, today covered with a skiff of snow. The name Vojna, in fact, comes from the name of a nearby hill. I’m a little ashamed at how pleasant it is to be here, how nice to be out in the crisp country air after a couple of weeks in the beautiful but crowded streets of Prague. Here, there are no crowds; in fact, I am all alone. There are no other visitors. There is a man at a desk who gives me a brochure showing a rough map of the camp. He says something that might be “self-guided tour.” Then he disappears.
All the buildings are open, so I self-guide myself into one of the squat cell blocks. I walk down a corridor, looking through the bars and into the cells. All is tidy and clean: ten double bunks, one stove, one bucket. I stop at one of the cells where a small square window faces the afternoon sun. If I had to be imprisoned here, I would pray for this cell with its glimpse of light.
Then I try to remember the reality of the place. Probably I would not have the chance to gaze at the setting sun. Probably before the sun rose and after it set, I would be underground. And suddenly I remember a scene from a banned Czech movie I once saw: a young man, newly in love and filled with the rapture of life, greets a fatherly party official who arrives to inspect his worksite. The young man, sensing a kindred spirit in the smiling official who speaks of music and flowers, chimes in, speaking of love and mutual respect. The official seems to nod approval. But when he has gone, trench-coated men whisk the youngster into a car. At the movie’s end, we see him with a group of other prisoners, descending on an open elevator into a mine. Above him, the square of daylight grows smaller and smaller.
I can’t grasp it, of course. Can’t imagine this rather small acreage—I easily walk from one side to the other—teeming with more than 1,500 prisoners, as it did in its heyday, the largest forced labor camp in the country. Can’t imagine being one of 20 prisoners in that tiny cell, vying for turns at the one bucket. Can’t imagine what it would mean to go down into the mine every day and to know that this would be my life until I died, if I were lucky enough not to be executed. Unless, perhaps, execution would feel finally like luck.
But running the camp required more than cell blocks. There is, for example, the doctor’s office, with its white examining table and framed photograph of Stalin. There’s a head administrator’s office with an antique manual typewriter, black telephone, and Gestapoesque black leather jacket hanging on the coat rack. A smaller, presumably lesser office holds a desk and 60-year-old girlie posters. In what appears to be irony but is probably just a precaution, both offices are caged in by iron bars.
On the walls, the story of the place is told in both Czech and English. After 1951, Vojna became particularly prominent in the gulag system. Designated at that time a “reeducation center,” it was the destination of the most “dangerous” of political enemies. Some apparently were considered threats because of their achievements: winners of the 1947 and 1949 ice hockey championships were here, along with scientists and artists.
Some arrived after televised show trials where they were convicted of treason. Hideously—maybe this hits me the hardest of anything—many of those imprisoned and murdered here were heroes of the Nazi resistance. Because they were courageous, I suppose. And the regime was afraid of courage.
There are, too, on the walls, handwritten accounts created by those who survived. And there are letters written by those who did not. Here, for example, is a letter written by Milada Horakova, herself a hero of the resistance. Captured, she withstood dozens of beatings and interrogations by the Nazis before being transported to the Terezin concentration camp. After the war, she refused to support the Communists, was again beaten and interrogated, and, when she wouldn’t recant, was charged with treason.
Film clips of her widely publicized trial show a dignified gray-haired woman of 50 in wire-rimmed spectacles and a dark dress with a white lace collar. In the letter written from Vojna to her friends and family, which included her 16-year-old daughter, Horakova exhorts her loved ones not to mourn her impending death by execution. Rather they should be glad for her, knowing that “I shall fly back to the fields and the meadows and the hillsides and the ponds. . . . I will be unfettered again.”
So it was real. What I am seeing here today is no Cold War propaganda.
And it is far from comical. But it’s over now. In November 1989, two years before the collapse of the Soviet Union, and in a complicated and generally bloodless series of events dubbed the Velvet Revolution, the regime fell. In the West, it is remembered for the crowds filling the long boulevard called Wenceslas Square. People “rang” their house keys and cheered Vaclav Havel, the philosopher, playwright, and resistance leader who would become the country’s president.
The Czech presidency is largely ceremonial. But because Havel was a founding member of the protest group Charter 77, his election represented a triumph for the ideals of freedom. As he came into office, he laid out the ills of Communism and the challenge to the newly free Czechs in powerful terms. The job now, he said, would be to overcome the legacy of the former system, that “monstrous, ramshackle, stinking machine” whose worst effect on society had been not economic failure but a “spoiled moral environment. . . . We have learned not to believe in anything, not to care about each other.”
Havel was lionized in the West; news photographs showed him doing the twist with a beaming Hillary Clinton in the White House. And the change he spearheaded lasted. In Wenceslas Square today, capitalism rules. The street is lined with luxury shops and international chains; it seems there’s an H&M on every block. And in the newly refurbished Museum of Communism in central Prague, there is little regret for the former regime, which is laid out it in all its dysfunction.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.
Here there are visitors, mostly foreign tourists, who examine exhibits detailing repression and shortages. Here you can learn that Czech currency lost 80 percent of its value after the devaluation of 1953. That collectivization drove tens of thousands from the rural areas. As for shortages, there were many. Toilet paper was a particular problem, frequently requiring the use of the Communist newspaper Pravda as a substitute.
There is likewise little nostalgia at one of the former regime’s most prominent sites, a cement slab high on a bluff overlooking the Vltava River. Known simply as “Stalin,” it was the location of a 59-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 70-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 500 years, beginning with the Austro-Hungarian Empire, whose German-speaking officials ruled Czechs from Vienna from 1526 to World War I. 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 40 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 14 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 credentials. His grandmother cleared brush in the forests; others in the family were tailors. One particular memory is of his grandmother’s hoarding: toilet paper and clocks. If things got bad, she believed, you could always trade either for something to eat.
And he remembers the absence of variety. When you went to play at a friend’s house, the apartment, furniture, and toys were identical to the ones you had. On the street, the beautiful buildings of central Prague were always covered in scaffolding, as money was not allocated for their repair. There seemed to be only three colors: yellow, brown, and gray.
“We were little gray mice,” he says. But today he’s dapper, in an expensive topcoat and gloves so new the packing creases still show. He loves being in the EU. Things are good.
Tomas’s family was not alone in feeling more fear than joy following the Velvet Revolution. For Sabina, a college freshman in 1989, the anxiety began even before the November 17th Revolution, on November 9th, when the Berlin Wall fell. The memory of the Nazis was still strong among the older generation, and in the Soviet period, propaganda about the warlike intentions of the West had been intense. Now there were anxious discussions about whether there would be a German resurgence.
Most people I meet did not have—or do not admit to having—family members who were Communists. But many, it seems, conformed to the party in some way. Verka’s mother, a doctor, did not become a Communist but found it necessary to take training courses from the party. Zoe, a woman in her thirties, has one predominant memory: after her mother joined the party to get a better job, her father was so angry he punched down a door.
Everyone made their different arrangements. But everyone, Vaclav Havel suggests in his famous essay “The Power of the Powerless,” was complicit. As an example, he describes a greengrocer who put up a placard in the window reading, “Workers of the World Unite.” Since the same slogan was up in every other shop window, he did not really feel a responsibility to promote worker unity. Further, Havel claims, by the 1970s, no one believed in the once inspirational program of the Communists, not even the regime itself. Ideology was no longer a real belief but merely a “bridge of excuses between the system and the individual.”
The greengrocer put up the placard, but he knew he was doing it only to stay out of trouble. What the placard really meant was “I am obedient, and therefore I have the right to be left in peace.” Havel appreciates the problem of the greengrocer; he did what he must to survive. But by doing so, by “adapting to conditions,” he “help[ed] create conditions.” The more one person complies, the more compliance is expected, demanded, and received from everyone.
Though most people I meet seem to come from families who went along only to the extent necessary, one exception is a man in his thirties, Jiri, who tells me that his grandfather was a Communist. Party membership got you good jobs and apartments that you couldn’t get otherwise, even if you had the money. Jiri is proud that his father, born in 1953, had the “courage” not to join the party, though he acknowledges that the grandfather’s party affiliation probably helped get his father into medical school. Though his father was never a party member, his work as a doctor was appreciated in a small, remote town, and Jiri’s family did not suffer.
And how do father and grandfather reconcile their past differences when they meet? They don’t, Jiri says. Communism is never discussed. However, Jiri knows that his grandmother voted Communist in the last election: “She thinks she’ll get a little more, maybe another piece of meat for her table.”
I encounter only one person whose family directly suffered. Vanesa, a professional woman in her forties, tells me that her uncle went to prison for leading a group of workmen in a protest. As for Vanesa herself, she did not exactly suffer unless you count teenaged angst over the unobtainability of Western jeans. Walking down the street in Prague, she points out the site of the hard currency store where Western goods were available, but only to the party elite. As for the Velvet Revolution, a main change for her was that she could leave the study of metallurgy, a subject to which she had been assigned. Now she could switch to her favorite subject, history.
Well, there are plenty of jeans on offer today, and—except for railway stations out in the country, where you take a few grayish sheets under the eye of an attendant—toilet paper doesn’t seem to be a problem. Yes, it was a dark era, both terrifying and tiresome. But it’s over now. Communism lost; the West won.
And things here seem to be going pretty well. There is near full employment. Wages are low, but so is the cost of living. Everyone gets free education and free health care. And almost everyone seems to have a cottage in the country. To some extent, this appears to be a positive legacy of Communism, when people developed the habit of getting away from the surveillance of the concierge in the panelacky. People make time to enjoy nature; public transport is often filled with backpackers of all ages heading for the woods. Even the schools, in what seems to be a holdover from Communist youth programs, promote healthy activity in the outdoors, staggering spring breaks so young hikers will not find the trails overcrowded.
This excerpt is reprinted by permission of the author. The full essay appears in Volume 42, Number 3 of the Missouri Review (Fall, 2019).