Prague and The communist architecture

Pavel Kalina

“The communist architecture has many negative connotations, of course. The architecture […] of those townships or settlements built in 1960s, 1970s, are of course not taken as the good address. In the same time, the townships din not change islams, anything like that. They are normally inhabited by the new generations, but usually are the old generations of people. Many of those buildings were renovated, in the last 2 decades, many of them were given façades  for example, so sometimes you would not recognise that they are from the time of the communist regime. So, I think normal people do not take these houses as good addresses, good architecture, as a good place to live. But they are cheap, they are a form outside of the historical cities, so in this aspect is not completely a bad place to live and they are sometimes defended as urban textures by historians of architecture who are interpreting these buildings as a part of our heritages.

I think very problematic. I myself live in a town from 1994, which was designed in the 1980s. And I’m not completely satisfied with the building, but I live there since 1994, so.. but it is not a typical housing, but I think it is a normal place where you  live in present day Prague. In present day Prague, people do not live in the historical centre. The historical centre is futurist and for managers and international accountants, but not so much for normal people.”

Klara Mergerova

“I’m a historian of architecture, so I, myself see the qualities and of course I try to show that there are buildings which were constructed during the communist regime, but which still present some qualities, but I think the general opinion is that those buildings were there to abrupt intrusion and most people refused even to think about qualities connected to the regime, so even buildings which are considered from architectural point of view are not appreciated by the general public. But there are of course, more and more tourists, which try now to see them as something specific for this region and who come to see them.”

Pavel Kalina

“Here in Prague, the  most despised project of the communist era was the so called Palace of Culture. It is just behind the border of the historical city, but even this project, which is ugly, even this project was no exception in the European architecture in the 1970s, 1980s, including Western European. You will find many ugly buildings in Western Europe as well. This building was not much bigger, not much ugly than the lords houses… I don’t like… I would never say that …in this aspect… that the communism expressed the totalitarian character in every house, or in every part of the town. It would be very, very exaggerated.”

Klara Mergerova

“Then you have Czech Department Stores, which are also found all over the country and also in Prague. We have some really good examples in the city centre (Department Store Kotva) which are representants of the most quality architecture of the period.  On the other hand, they are also disputable and not maybe … the quality isn’t fully recognized until today because they are very monumental  and people still see them as the residues of communist architecture. […]

Kotva Department Store

These buildings were financed by the communist regime, so they reflect (the department stores) reflect their aims to compete with the other world, the Western commercial centres, etc. The other buildings reflect the aim to impress and to prove the power of the regime.”

Marina Gogeanu

Interviews transcribed by: Marina Gogeanu


The Decree and The New Man of Romania

Ceausescu had a big dream for Romania – to create a pure communist generation – to create “The New Man”.

Marinetti suggests in his Futurist Manifesto (1909) the need for the “New Man” – an aggressive, animalistic merging of machine and human body, in the future of the human society. For example, while he notes that “Woman does not belong to a man, but rather to the future and the race’s development,” he also points out that this “future” is one entirely devoid of “every emotional morbidity, every womanly delicacy” (M 86). So women are bound to animalistic feelings and impulses which Marinetti’s “new man” is capable of overcoming. In order to overcome humanity’s physical and emotional limitations and recreate humanity, Marinetti must first recreate creation: namely, women’s “animalistic” power to reproduce. In short, Marinetti’s conception of Futurism requires that he both stigmatize and vilify that female body to achieve his prescribed vision of the future.

Ceausescu understood very well the role of women in the development of Romania’s economical system and especially for the procreation of “The new man”, so he gave the 770 Decree which forbade women to do abortions. This documentary illustrates the demographic and the psychological disasters provoked to the almost 2 millions of people born because of the decree. It is a truly terrifying documentary about “the crimes of communism in Romania” and more specifically about all the women murdered by the clandestine abortions and all the “malfunctioning” children declined by the system and then exterminated. “The new man” ideology also led to a racial purification in Romania, as unlike Romanian women, the gipsy ones were allowed/obliged to do abortions.

The Decree was one of the largest social experiments in the human history.
The Romanian Government banned abortions in 1948 to legalize them in 1957, after the Soviet model, because of the effects on women’s health. Statistics had shown that diseases caused by illegal abortions or inadequate conditions for pregnant women led to the damage of the Romanian women’s health.
Between 1959-1965, only one out of five pregnant women gave birth whilst the others were provoking themselves abortions.
So, Ceausescu put the issue of abortion ban just a year after arriving in the management of PCR.
On the 1st October of 1966, Ceausescu gave the 770 decree, banning all women to interrupt pregnancies with few exceptions: if the pregnancy endangered the woman’s life, if one of the parent suffers from a communicable hereditary disease, if the mother presents serious disabilities, if the women were over 45 years and have already born four children or if the pregnancy was the result of rape or incest.
Women who worked were obliged to go to regular gynecological controls; the company doctors were obliged to do even 60 examinations a day;

Ceausescu also banned the sex education; books about human reproduction were classified as state secrets and used only as medical textbooks.
Contraceptive methods were not longer imported in Romania. The only women who have had access to them were just the wives of the party members, the athletes and the athletes’ wives.
This led to clandestine abortions which killed thousands of Romanian women.
According to data from the ‘Centre for Statistics and Medical Documentation’, there were 9452 women who died between 1966 and 1989 due to clandestine abortions.

But the decree has reached its goal, at least initially. In 1967, the number of births has almost doubled, from 14.3 per thousand in 1966 to 27.4.

The sociological effects of Decree 770 decreased gradually, and in 1983 reached the same figure as in the 1966 birth rate. At the same time, the number of maternal deaths due to abortion rose from 64 in 1966 to 192 in 1968.
The number of births increased but not proportionally with restrictions.

In 1989, the birth rate had risen to 16 per thousand inhabitants, but the mortality rate increased up to 170 maternal deaths recorded per hundred thousand births, which is ten times more than the highest rate ever recorded in Europe, according to a study.

The first government after the fall of the communist regime annulled the decree 770.  On December 26, 1989, Romanian women were free to do whatever they wanted with their pregnancy.

Unfortunately, the abortion liberalization triggered a demographic catastrophe: there were a million of abortions done in 1990 which led to a decrease in population, which can still be felt.

Marina Gogeanu

Interview with Vlada Zhmuro – perceptions of the communist era in Ukraine

1.       To you, what is communism?

I think the idea of communism (all people equal, share everything blah blah) is not a bad one but its utopian because it goes against human nature. In communism all people are supposed to have access to the same goods/ services, have similar living conditions no matter how educated you are or what position you hold in society.  In reality this did not work because higher educated people and people with power still wanted to be richer, have better things such as food, education and medical care and not mix with factory workers and bus drivers.  Soviet Union Ukraine was still a society with class divisions because certain people especially those in the government lived like kings of soviet luxury life, while everyone else lived in despicable conditions were food and a lot of products were unavailable.  This relates and has been seen in China, Cuba and North Korea…So I think communism always fails.


2.       Do you think your country has improved since the communist era?

I think yes… Because it has become more European, making certain important services available for all. Such as you can travel abroad, you can buy property/ cars, have your own businesses and make money, we have a higher degree of freedom of speech. No ridiculous censorship for TV, films and books. Unlike when under the USSR’s control all films/books had to be approved by a special committees which banned a lot of films/books because they saw them as immoral or anti soviet/written by enemies of the state, same people who would be sent to the Gulags.

Also there is less importance put on race, in the Soviet Union they used to write your “race/nationality” in your passport (Russian, Ukrainian, Jewish, Armenian, Georgian etc.). Jewish is not a nationality, but somehow they did write Jewish in passports!  This meant it was more difficult to get into a good university or get a good job if you were Jewish or Georgian.

Other improvements include being able to criticise the government openly, people don’t spy on each other, a sexual revolution attitudes towards sex are far more liberal and foreign products are freely available. Basically Ukraine became almost like Europe in terms of culture, economics etc. Of course it is far from Europe if you really compare standards of living and wealth but comparing to the USSR it is like Europe now. So in generally it has definitely improved but obviously there are things that have got worse.

The quality of education and public healthcare has significantly worsened; there is a higher crime and unemployment rate. Different from during the communist era since you could actually go to prison for not working.

3.       What do you think were the most obvious advantages and disadvantages of communism?

Advantages – As I previously mentioned no unemployment you were guaranteed a job after university or some other training, good education and healthcare, free kindergartens, very cheap basic food (bread, milk, baby food). There was also free housing, you had to wait sometimes for like 6-10 years and the quality wasn’t great, also you couldn’t choose the location but all flats were given for free. A disadvantage of this was you couldn’t sell it if you didn’t like the flat of it was too big you could only change it with someone else if you wanted their flat and they yours. Sometimes people changed one big flat for to smaller ones (e.g. after divorce) or vice-versa.

People had long compulsory vacations you had to take each year, could be up to a month. There were free trips to the sea, or other resorts, your children got free trips to summer camps. The public transport was cheap even flying and on fixed prices, that were cheaper than today.

Disadvantages – All houses, flats, factories, businesses and land was owned by the government so a normal citizen couldn’t sell or privately own them.

After university you had to work for 3 years in a designated company/factory / hospital depending on what your profession was. It was compulsory and you could get sent to any corner of the country. Only After that you could come back and choose where you want to work.

A lot of goods were really hard to get even if you had money. Like cars, house electronics, foreign clothes, furniture etc. You had to have connections. There was even a saying “It’s better to have 100 friends than 100 Rubels.”  There were serious laws against bribing so people usually bartered instead of bribing with money (also a lot of people had no money but had access to some goods they could use bartering). Even products from countries that were seen as allies such as the Czech Republic, Poland and East Germany were hard to come by.

The government had unlimited power and often abused it. Example not valuing human life and just sending masses of soldiers to death in WW2 or when Chernobyl blew up instead of telling people the truth and protecting them from radiation by imposing rules that everyone should stay inside they made everyone including children go out and celebrate 1st of May! Because they wanted to conceal the incident, sending people unprotected to extinguish the fire in a radioactive reactor.

People were not allowed to travel abroad, there was no freedom of speech, and all information on television / films/books was heavily censored. There was no adequate knowledge of the west other than what the government wanted people to know. Which was the west was evil, and that the rest of the world was dying and life in the USSR was the best in the world.

You had to be a member of a party to get a good job or get a promotion to a high position, young people aged 14- 28 had to join the Pioneers and later on the Komsomolec. These were strict groups were if you got expelled for some wrongdoings it caused bad consequences for the rest of your life. Also if your parent/ parents were sent to prison for something especially something that was considered anti USSR and especially if they were proclaimed an enemy of the state you had to publicly disown them in front of everyone in your school/ university. If you didn’t you could get expelled from Komsomol or Pioneers . And even if you did it was a really negative influence on your life. If you were a child of the enemy of the state it was almost impossible to get into university or get a good job.


4.       Are the opinions of your parents/ grandparents different to yours?

The opinions and perceptions I have expressed are mine and those of my parents. But my grandparents have completely different opinions as they lived most of their working lives within the communist regime. Especially when it was at its strongest and most idealistic stage.

My grandparents miss the USSR because they miss low prices on food and transport, pensions on which you could live on. I forgot to mention pensions in the advantages and disadvantages; it is a very important advantage of the communist regime. Elders could live normally now elders can’t, if they don’t have a family to support them they can’t afford anything and die in poverty.

Also moral factors such as no sex before marriage was highly advocated back then unlike now. No one is responsible for anything e.g before if for example a director of a sausage factory was caught making sausages of a bad quality he would go to prison for 25 years. Also morally questionable things such as paedophiles, drugs and other things were not reported on so they believe they didn’t exist in those days.

They also say (especially from my dad’s side because they were educators) that people were more cultured read classics, loved poets , were interested in meaningful debates about science and literature now everyone is only interested in music, sex and money. Also they believe western influences have brought negative consequences to Ukrainian society. Both my grandparents say that in the Soviet Union people were more friendly and helpful and there was a very strong sense of community. People didn’t care so much about material things and money. Also both of my parents love their childhoods and university years in USSR and they say it was very good and they loved it even though they didn’t have all the stuff kids have today.

They do still acknowledge though that its good now we have freedom of press, information, travel, can make good money if we can, buy everything we want and have choice in everything.

5.       Do you know of any specific experiences your parents/ grandparents/ family encountered during the communist era?

Experience N1:  My Granddad from dad’s side got his first flat for his family by basically doing this barter thing with one of his students. The student happened to be a boss and my granddad made a deal with him. The student needed to get this education to get promoted/keep his high position and my granddad got him good grades in exchange for a flat. Then the second better flat he got using a similar method.

Experience N2:  Same Granddad was a lecturer at university and he was really good but he couldn’t become a professor because he wasn’t a member of the communist party.

Experience N3:  No adequate sex education under communist rule, my grandma’s friend was shocked when after her wedding her husband tried to have sex with her. She was so scared she ran away to my grandma’s house. She didn’t know sex existed!

Experience N4:  Though this was after the fall of communism in Ukraine, things still took a while to change. After I was born my parents wanted to get a flat but even through it was in 1993 it was still very hard to buy a flat just with money. So my dad found this 50 year old Jewish woman who was emigrating to Israel, and he arranged it so that he gives her money and in exchange she marries him and leaves the flat as sort of inheritance to him when she leaves . So he divorced my mom, married that woman and then she emigrated and left the flat to him. That’s how we got our first flat. He then divorced her somehow.

 Mwen Fikirini


Interview with a 57 year old Romanian woman – perceptions of the communist era in Romania

What do you think was good about communism?

Maybe the fact that the kids with poor families benefited from free camps and that the kindergarten taxes were cheap. You were able to give your children an education without being wealthy.

What was bad about communism?

What I hated the most during the communist era was the lack of privacy and the in-existent access to information. Me and my husband used to lock up in the kitchen in order to listen to “Free Europe”, a radio station with international news which was forbidden during communism. We would do the same to listen to rock music which we enjoyed, but was really hard to find. My husband used to invite his friends over, and listen together to those foreign radio stations, even though they weren’t allowed to do that. We lived in a building with lots of flats where all the other owners were working for the security, so we had to be very careful each time we were doing that.

When it comes to food, I don’t even want to remember how much time I spent waiting in queues in order to buy some. At one point, they introduced queue tickets. But you couldn’t find food any-more  People would do anything for food; they were capable of anything because they had to eat and there was nothing at the markets.

Besides that, we didn’t have heating in our homes. Me and my husband had our first kid in the ‘80s when we didn’t even had any heat in the apartment, so we got hold of a diesel oil heater. We used to steal fuel every day from our workplaces in order to heat up the baby’s room, but it was very risky because we could start a fire in the building and everyone would have been in danger, so we had to be very careful who sees us when coming back from work.

It was a time when they wouldn’t allow curtains in restaurants. All the restaurant owners were instructed to take off all the curtains as they had to be aware if there was someone drinking alcohol early during the day or late during the night. The communist party’s observers had to watch closely people coming in restaurants and interrogate the ones choosing to drink alcohol.

Because Ceausescu’s wife, Elena, hated how churches looked, many were either demolished, moved away or surrounded by blocks of flats. People didn’t have to believe in God, but in Ceausescu and communism.

If you wanted to buy yourself a book, you were obliged to buy another 5,6 books with Ceausescu’s discourses.

Ceausescu’s portrait was on each first page of the textbooks. You weren’t allowed to destroy that page or draw/write on it. Also, every classroom had a painting with Ceausescu.

When watching television, all we could see were communist films. They would start broadcasting at 6,7 in the evening with a cartoon programme and afterwards start the news which lasted 2 hours, until 10 o’clock when they also switched off the electricity. All the news were about Ceausescu and his discourses, walks, controls. And all of these were lies.

We had to watch all the time on the news, Ceausescu “having fun” while hunting. His results were always remarkable for the camera, even though the boars were bounded in order to stay still. We all knew this, but we used to find it funny, especially because we found out that Ceausescu always had someone else shooting in the same time with him to be sure he was successful.

His visits to various workplaces (refineries, industrial warehouses, etc.) were also lies, as we were all rehearsing everything before his arrival. I remember that it was very annoying when he was coming in control because we would work full weeks in order to clean and re-paint the place, to write down messages and to create expositions with everything that we had in the enterprise.

I remember that one time he visited an apple orchard. The president of the co-operative declared that he had the biggest production of apples in the orchard’s history and when Ceausescu decided to control it, he asked his employees to tie apples in the trees, so the first 3 rows of trees would have lots of apples. And this was not a one-of-a-kind situation. The farms did the same as cows, pigs, sheeps were moved from a place to another depending on Ceausescu’s controls.

How do you think communism affected Romania?

I definitely think that Romania would have been better now if it wasn’t for the communist era.

In the inter-war period, Romania was well rated by Europe because it was much evolved culturally and industrially. We would have been a very rich nation.

My grandmother used to tell me that before the communist era, everyone in the country had a house and all kinds of animals, so they didn’t feel the need for food. The entire surplus was going to the citizens which were able to buy everything they wanted to. Romania used to be known as “Europe’s granary” during that time. We had petroleum, salt, iron, ore, coal. Also, the relief favoured us: rivers, mountains, fields, seaside so the Romanians had everything they needed for a living. The industry was very developed and people used to live well.

In the inter-war period, Bucharest (Romania’s capital) was known as “The little Paris” of the Balkans, because the wealthy people of the city constructed for themselves really nice houses. The communists said that they are going to modernise it, but actually, they destroyed it.

Ceausescu demolished everything they built, and constructed lots of grey block of flats, which we called “boxes of matches”.  Many of the rich people from the pre-communist era were obliged to move out of their house for various reasons (“enemy of the state”, “traitor” and so on). Because of this, entire families lost their homes, their possessions and it led to exasperation and even to suicide.

There were many people who killed themselves because they lost their houses. Ceausescu’s strategy was to put all the people at the same level in order to control them. People would have little to no freedom in a building full of flats as most of the neighbours actually worked for the police and if someone would do anything out of the ordinary, he would be classed as “a threat” for the party and he would end up really bad.

I met a family which used to be very wealthy, but because the communists took everything they had, they ended up living in a basement. The woman, Florence still had her old dresses and she used to wear them and talk by herself on the street. Her husband was one of the few still wearing hats and tailcoats – from aristocracy  they became the laughing stock of everyone else. She ended up getting a job as a “shopper” for anyone willing to give her a few coins. She would wait in long queues for hours to get someone else’s food and she ended up carrying lots of bags everywhere she went. That’s how we started sarcastically to compare ourselves with Florence every time we had more than 3 or 4 bags in our hands.

Marina Gogeanu