Communist Ideology and Everyday Life in Prague
Communist ideology dominated all aspects of life in from 1948 to 1989. Political decisions were imposed by the Soviet Union. Everyone had to comply with socialist rules. If not, interrogation and intimidation followed. House searches by the Secret Police were the order of the day. No one could speak openly as informants were everywhere. If a person defected, the family members were severely punished. Workers were worshiped as heroes and had better salaries than university professors but they were exploited as propaganda for the regime. Employees who obeyed Communist doctrine were rewarded with holidays abroad to Romania, Bulgaria, and the Soviet Union but never to the West.
Communist Ideology: The Socialist Man
The socialist man was an archetype of a person as depicted in Stalinist literature. A socialist man should be satisfied with a modest income while conscientiously fulfilling the work tasks, improving his knowledge of communist doctrines and being observant as to whether someone in his environment would disturb the social order. Only this attitude would bring long-term success.
Communist Ideology and the Education System
It was necessary to re-develop the Czech education system according to soviet example to create the Socialist Man. From their first day at school, pupils were ‘raised’ and encouraged towards class hatred against more wealthy classes and hostility towards democratic states and religion.
Students studied Marxism and Leninism. They learned by rote and were discouraged to discuss issues or form their own opinions. Students were accepted into university if they had working class backgrounds, supported the Communist regime and had participated in Communist youth organizations.
Math and technical subjects were encouraged with the aim of producing technicians for manufacturing and heavy industry. In their early teens, children were directed to apprentice training schools and became involuntarily part of the communist network.
University students were steeped in Communist ideology. Compulsory classes included Marxist-Leninist philosophy, the international Workers Movement, the history of the Czechoslovak Communist Party and the Russian language.
Communist Ideology and Long Schooldays
Children spent their days in school and when they came home they were looked after by their grandparents or were latch-key children. Both parents had jobs and youngster often saw little of their parents who, after work, had to shop for necessities which often meant waiting in long lines.
Children and teenagers from more wealthy families listened to the radio or watched television, but all programmes were state-censored and promoted the view of the Communist Party. Yet it was sometimes possible to receive Western broadcasts. To prevent this, Zizkov television Tower was built as a jammer of West-German radio and television broadcasts. Ironically, the tower became operational after the Velvet Revolution.
Young Pioneers and the Communist Youth Movement
Every child was a pioneer and a member of the Pionýrská organizace Socialistického svazu mládeže, the communist youth movement. Boys wore light blue blouses and grey trousers, girls white blouses and dark blue trousers or skirts. Both wore a red neckerchief. What child wouldn’t want to wear this and be part of this youth movement?
The children went to summer camp, participated in communal activities, were creative, for example made posters but with images in which socialist life was central and was praised. They also made friends, navázání družby, these were MANDATORY friendships. Membership appeared to be voluntary, but any child over the age of six was expected to join.
Children also took part in the spartakiades, huge sporting events, held at the Strahov Stadium in Prague: sport as communist propaganda. Basically, children were forced to participate in this in order to glorify the communist regime.
Children were good pioneers when they did their best in school, loved to read, and continued to develop themselves. So far nothing unfavorable but a pioneer does this to be a good ‘builder of socialism’. Good pioneers also prepared for their admission to the Czechoslovak Youth Union, ČSM, Československý svaz mládeže, in order to become good socialist-minded citizens. Socialism was therefore spoon-fed to the children.
Everyday life: shopping for food and luxuries
After Stalin’s death in 1953 the pure ideological aspects of communism gave way to a more pragmatic approach. In the West, post-war prosperity was quickly producing a consumer society. Privileged circles of socialist Czechoslovakia also began to desire luxury goods. The state, however, lacked foreign currency for the purchase of such goods. If Czechoslovaks received gifts or fees for work or services in foreign currency, they had to hand this over to the state controlled bank. In return they were given Tuzex crowns which could be spent at the Tuzex shops that sold Western luxury goods.
Ordinary people spent a great part of everyday life in searching and waiting for basic goods, including food. People, and in particular working women with families, stood hours per day in long lines to buy eggs, meat, potatoes and vegetables, whatever was available in the shops. There were also chronic shortages of toilet paper, soap, shampoo and other personal hygiene items as well as medicine.
The Communist Planned Economy
In a planned economy, the government decides what goods to produce,how to produce, in what quantities and by what deadline. This often resulted in targets not met meaning a shortage or overproduction. The emphasis was on heavy-industrial products like tractors, trucks, and tanks. Low priority was given to consumer goods like household appliances, clothing, shoes and personal hygiene products. Especially clothing was unappealing because the Communists aimed at a uniform appearance for all. They disapproved of individuals who distinguished themselves through fashion and lifestyle. There was no freedom of expression. There were, of course, exceptions. Party members had privileges and could escape this uniformity. They obtained Tuzex currency and bought in Western luxury in state–run stores. In later years, also ordinary members of society had access to these shops.
Wages, Prices and Barter
In the socialist economy, wages as well as prices were fixed by instructions of the party management. Goods in the shops were prices very reasonably, but the reality was that many products were either not available or there was a surplus. One day the greengrocer’s shop would be full with potatoes the next day there would be only carrots. People waiting in line often did not know what was available on that day. The surplus of demand led to under-the-shelf sale. The poorly paid shop assistant hid rare merchandise for special customers who were able to pay some extra money or provide a certain counter-service. Barter trade was also widespread: the butcher exchanged pork cutlets for oranges from the greengrocer who in his turn bartered tomatoes for toothpaste from the chemist.
Everyday Life: living in fear
People lived in constant fear of being betrayed. The caretaker of the apartment where one lived or the friendly shopkeeper all and everyone could be a traitor. All of a sudden a complete family would disappear and be taken to prison camps. A communist-minded family came to live in their apartment. A family that obeying to communist rules would most likely grass on their neighbours.
Everyday Life: problems and improvements
Not only the food-shopping lines made every-day life difficult for the Czechs, they also travelled to and from their jobs on overcrowded public transport. Buying a car was problematic and took years. First the buyer had to save money and then he was put on a waiting list for often longer than ten years. Yet, there were improvements. During Communist days completely new neighbourhoods, called sidliste, of prefabricated high-rise apartment blocks arose. This was an improvement on pre-WW II housing as these new apartments were lighter, had reliable plumbing and a bathroom.
Hot water came from the tap and the apartments had central heating! The heat came in through an underground network of hot water pipes: district heating. The heating was turned on early September and turned off early June, regardless of the weather. It was nice and warm in the apartments, sometimes too hot, because there was no control knob. The disadvantage of district heating system were the leakages when a pipe burst and hot water flowed across the streets. As long as the leak was not stopped, there was no heating or hot water. Sometimes the repairs took several days.
The Communist era marked the end of the Sokol organization because of its strong democratic tradition. The Sokol movement is gymnastics for all-ages and all-genders based upon the principle of “a strong mind in a sound body”. The Sokol also organized discussions and group outings. This did not fit in the Communist ideology that emphasized the importance of the group over the individual.
From 1948 onward, Spartakiada festivals, held every five years, replaced the Sokol movement. These festivals were sports shows in which thousands of gymnasts performed choreographed feats as a group, not as an individual. The Communist regime encouraged sports as part of state sponsored propaganda. Read more about the Sokol movement
Czechs survived the regime
Many Czechs adapted to the situation. They spent their weekends at their country cottages, surrounded by nature, went for walks, dug their gardens and grew vegetables and did not get involved in politics. Yet, there was a large group of dissidents who paved the way for the Velvet Revolution.
In 1989, only a few days after the fall of the Berlin Wall, a student protest against the regime was violently put down. The repression strengthened protest and within days thousands of people gathered on Wenceslas Square. On 24 November Vaclav Havel, a playwright and political prisoner, addressed the crowd that swelled to 300,000. On 29 December 1989, the Federal Assembly appointed him President of Czechoslovakia.
Vestiges of Communism in Prague
Four decades of communist rule put their mark on Prague. The urban landscape tells the story of the totalitarian regime. The Stalin Monument that was blown up, Bartolomejska Street where a whole block of houses was converted to accommodate the State Security Service, Stalinist architecture like the intercontinental Hotel on Prarizska Street or the Socialist Realist murals in Smichov train Station. Residents of Prague are confronted daily with their communist heritage: the metro system is a carbon copy of the Moscow metro. The Museum of Communism with an exhibition that tells about the dark days. The museum is popular with foreigners and tourists, but hardly any Czech visitors. They do not want to be reminded of the dark years and try to forget.