Czech Republic: Past in Present

This is the second in a series of essays by globe-trotter Kevin Nguyen, who is currently studying at Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic. Wrapped in historical culture, Kevin sees how the country’s commemoration of its past is making way for its future.

At first, the Czech Republic seems to be a country that is keenly aware of its own history.

Prague, the country’s capital and economic center, has gone to great lengths to preserve its thousand-year-old semblance. Particularly in the aptly-named Old Town district, Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque architecture provides the faces for trendy restaurants, upscale shopping, and the popular nightclub scene. Considering how much of the downtown area panders to international tourism, the city’s effort to preserve its millennium of architectural history is commendable.

But I suppose it’s this aesthetic that has made Prague such a hip destination.

Admittedly, I’ve spent very little time outside of Prague, other than a day trip to the South Bohemia Region.

Leaving the city, glimpses of the countryside along the highway offer a more honest portrayal of the Czech Republic–miles upon miles of farmland; windy dirt roads; houses with chipped paint, broken shingle roofs, and rusting fences. The frequently sunless weather casts a bleakness over the villages.

Chateau Orlik was more or less a royal summerhouse for the Kings of Bohemia, a reigon that comprises the western half of the Czech Republic. A room-by-room tour of the chateau reveals countless well-furnished dining rooms and bedrooms, connected by hallways lined with deer antlers mounted on the walls. According to our guide, a knowledgeable girl with the world’s worst dreadlocks, the castle contains over 2,000 sets of antlers. Apparently Czech royalty was hellbent on precipitating the extinction of deer.

A 15-minute drive away from Orlik, Zvíkov Castle sits above the Otava and Vltava Rivers, nestled within a thin forest. According to our guide, a knowledgeable man with the world’s worst mustache, the layout of the castle was irregular for the 13th century, featuring two floors connected by arcades facing a central courtyard. The faded 800 year-old wall paintings demand far more attention than Chateau Orlik’s antlers. Hiking up the castle’s claustrophobic staircase takes you to the top of Hláska tower, a photogenic vista overlooking the entirety of the medieval fortress.

But as interesting as Chateau Orlik and Zvíkov Castle were, I found their history lessons dry. I shamefully take relief in an ice cream stand outside Zvíkov.

In Prague, I feel like I’m living somewhere dynamic, a place where history intersects the future.

The Museum of Communism is a small but cheap attraction in Prague, consisting of a linear tour through the country’s history under the socialist movement. Helpful but poorly translated interpretative signage accompanies the displays of old Lenin statues, propaganda, weapons, and other communist paraphernalia. The gift shop is also pretty neat, with affordable oddities to send home. (Wax candles of Lenin’s head, anyone?)

I don’t want to make sweeping generalizations, but, from the tone of the exhibit, the Czech Republic still sounds bitter about its forty years of Soviet rule. Although I’m sure one could make a convincing argument for the impossibility of historical objectivity, the writers behind the Museum of Communism have ignored the concept completely. One of the first panels gives a brief but laughably biased biography of Karl Marx:

The practice of revolutionary terror and dictatorship of the proletariat was justified by the communists by an alleged irrefutability of the “scientific” theories of Karel Marx, the bohemian and an intellectual adventurer, who started his life career as a romantic poet with an inclination towards apocalyptic titanism… The attempts at the implementation of Marxist theories demanded, according to contemporary and lower estimates, around 100 million human victims.

(Though the clumsy language is probably the product of poor translating, I’m convinced that the misspelling of “Karel” is intentional.)

At first, one might consider the Museum of Communism’s location, embedded within symbols of capitalism and consumerism (beside a McDonald’s and above a casino in the heart of Prague’s trendy New Town shopping district), somewhat ironic. Realistically though, I’m sure the Czech people, or at least the museum’s curators, take pleasure in the building’s situation as a final jab at the Soviet Union’s occupation.

But to say that the Czech Republic is stuck in the past would be a misconception. If nothing else, the Museum of Communism illustrates the country’s focus on its bright future. The Czech Republic’s recent admission into the European Union in 2004 serves as proof of its rapid development and economic potential.

As a self-conscious English major, it’s hard not to see the roads of Prague as a loose metaphor for the country’s perspective. Despite a tram system that sprawls throughout the city, almost all of Prague’s cobblestone roads have been preserved around the tracks. Functionality and efficiency are able to exist without sacrificing the city’s Old World aesthetic, embracing the Czech Republic’s future without forgetting its past.

Read more from Czech Republic.

Kevin Nguyen is a founding editor of The Bygone Bureau. His only marketable skill is an above-average knowledge of European geography. He has been useless since the introduction of the atlas in 1477. Reach him by email or follow his Twitter account.