New exhibition looks at modern Czech folklore, including what it was like to do compulsory military service under the Communists

Young men that just finished the compulsory military service

On Thursday Prague’s National Museum launched a new exhibition at the Kinský summer palace, located in Prague 5 at the edge of Petřín Hill. The show, called New Czech Fables (or New Czech Myths), examines urban legends, sayings, social rituals and counter-culture movements in the former Czechoslovakia as well as present-day Czech Republic. The show’s themes include tramping (an emulation of America’s Wild West), compulsory military service under the Communists, and role of punk and metal movements under the former regime.

Young men that just finished the compulsory military service
Ahead of the opening I spoke to the show’s main organiser Petr Janeček:

“We focused on five main themes in the exhibition apart from modern Czech folklore, which included compulsory service in the army under the Communists. It was a very dominant aspect in young Czechs’ lives: people really disliked having to do their service for the regime, which was oppressive, and they had to be there for two years. They really hated it.”

What are some of the objects on view that pertain to this period?

“People usually spent two years in mandatory service and they counted every single day: more than 600 days. They used a kind of tailors’ metre to mark the days, shortening them accordingly. The army officers really hated the use of these metres, so they had to remain hidden. But anybody who served in the last 50 years, is familiar with this. The objects in the show were also really hard to get.”

Was it hard, by their very nature, to find the objects still intact?

“Usually, the last portions remained and were often decorated or painted, for example with symbols of freedom such as the Statue of Liberty or the US flag. Even this was a form of resistance. We found about six. We are very proud of this: this was in fact very submerged, hidden counter-culture.”

Is it fair to say, then, that the former Communist regime had a huge impact on the folklore of the time?

“Absolutely. At first we thought that we would gather mostly jokes that used to be made about politicians and so on. But it went much deeper than that. People reacted in all kinds of ways, even in the sphere of material culture. Because there was real scarcity in decorative items and it was a real challenge for the Communist market to produce these, to make paintings or sculptures, so people often had to do many things themselves.”

Especially if they wanted their interiors to be different from the drab norm…

“People made things themselves and often it was very similar to naïve or primitive art. Most had no formal schooling and had little idea how to create. So they often copied pre-war designs. Or they invented their own. Sometimes they would gather branches or rots in the forest and bring them home to make stuff, in order to be closer to nature, different from the Communist ideology of industry. People wanted to escape that.”

And certain items wouldn’t have been available at all, right?

“Yes, and it’s fascinating. We have a home-painted punk jacket here which has mistakes in English since it was a language many didn’t know – they knew only Russian. And you can compare it to a punk leather jacket today: bought in a punk store, globalised, marketed and factory-made. Things now, of course, are very different.”