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  • Nobody Goes to the Gulag Anymore
  • Diane Simmons (bio)

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Photo by Honza Groh

[End Page 66]

At least not in the Czech Republic. But it’s the first thing I need to see. [End Page 67]

So I take the train from Prague to Pribram, fifty 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 twenty minutes, seem to have slid decades back in time. Now we are traveling through a post-industrial 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 midtwenties, 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 forty 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 fifteen 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 [End Page 68] 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...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1548-9930
Print ISSN
0191-1961
Pages
pp. 66-82
Launched on MUSE
2019-11-02
Open Access
No
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