The Communist Past; Tours With a Difference
Joanna Eckersley looks at how Slovakia is slowly learning to reinterpret its Communist history for a tourist market.
Today’s rubbish is tomorrow’s treasure. In 1967 the Jewish quarter of Bratislava was razed to the ground to make way for the iconic New Bridge. Those in the history and tourism industries still regret the loss of the capital’s Jewish heritage to the Communist development, and the sole surviving building now houses The Museum of Jewish Culture. The managing director of one of the country’s leading tourism companies says the area would have been a real asset to the city today. František Fabian said: “Bratislava was a Jewish centre for a long time. We deal with Israeli people so it is a shame that parts of the city had to be demolished. Unfortunately during the Communist era some very nice buildings – part of the old town – were destroyed. Somehow we have to take care that there are no more devastating impacts on the old city centre because there are buildings you can’t rebuild quickly and easily”.
Ironically, the city’s Communist legacy may face the same fate, but this is a difficult industry to develop. The history is recent, and it was a regime so cannot necessarily be seen as Slovakia’s history. Brano Chrenka is embarking on a career as a Post-Communist tour guide. He said that although younger generations have shown an interest in this side of the country’s history, the middle generation who lived through it “see it as the black side of history”. It is understandable to regret the loss of Jewish heritage because it is important to a religious community, but communist architecture doesn’t have the same connotations.
Perhaps reflecting this, most tour companies in the city don’t do Communist tours. František Fabian said: “We have special architecture which was used during the communist era, but I don’t think there is potential in this area”. Vladimir Bibel represents Panorama Tours, who advertise Communist tours third on their list of itineraries. He agrees with František: “Just now guiding around old Communist Bratislava looks to be a sleeping agenda”.
But in the Czech Republic there has been considerable development in the industry. The Museum of Communism opened in 2003, and according to its owner it welcomes around 100 visitors a day. City walking and bus tours of Communist sites and sights which complement the wealth of information in the museum sprang up on the back of it. One such company selling a variety of guided walking tours is Prague Real Tours. Three of their 12 guides are specifically trained to show the meagre but important sights still standing since the Soviet-style regime.
Manager Eva Hermans said: “Our guides train for the Communist tours, but we also specially seek out guides who remember the time 20 years ago, and they have special experience because they lived through that time. The guides have distinct feelings because they remember, they try to be neutral, but at times they speak some things which hurt. This is unusual because most Czechs don’t think about this any more”. This is significant because it is a living history; most historic sights in Central Europe are too old to be accompanied by real-life testimony, something which won’t last forever. Eva Hermans said she sees the trend for his kind of tourism as a positive because people are working through their emotions: “We are putting these things in the past”, she said.
Though the history is dark, it cannot be ignored, and is better when it is understood. This is the view of Human Geography lecturer Dr Duncan Light, who works at Liverpool Hope University, specialising in Post-Socialist Central Europe, and looking at the inter-relationships between tourism, culture and identity. In his essay An Unwanted Past: Contemporary Tourism and the Heritage of Communism in Romania he argues that countries in the region often want to draw a line under the Communist era, and hope tourists will too. But, he says, this is, “frustrated by the distinctive material legacy, the heritage, of four decades of Communist Party rule which will, whether or not the Central and Eastern European countries desire it, endure long after the transition to democracy and a market economy is complete”. It is certainly hard to ignore the influence of communism in Bratislava; outside of the small old town a huge proportion of the flats and developments are in the Brutalist concrete style famously attributed to Soviet architects.
British journalist James Thomson thinks despite these buildings’ appearances, more could be made of their past. He said: “I think probably it is ignored for a reason. I think Slovaks probably aren’t particularly proud of their Paneláks, those tower blocks and other Communist eyesores. Still, I think there is potential for that”.
Brano Chrenka called his and his brother’s company ‘Authentic Slovakia’, because they want to show the positive and negative elements of the country; an authentic view. He agrees that companies are naïve to think they can ignore the material legacy of Communism in the city. He said: “The cheesy stories about a reconstructed bunch of medieval buildings in the Old Town are strange, when just a few hundred metres away there are places of complete abandonment. Most of the city remains censored, and tourists wonder what they pass by on the bus”.
In fact, what they pass in Bratislava by could be very interesting. In Prague, tour guides face the problem of having to paint with words. Eva Hermans said that: “Prague doesn’t have as many Communist buildings and sights as other Post-Communist cities have. Prague has a historical city centre but it doesn’t have big 1960s developments so the guides don’t have a lot to show”. Tourists do get to walk in the squares and streets where the Prague Spring happened, followed by the Soviet-led invasion, they then see the sight of Jan Palach’s self-immolation and the Velvet Revolution of 1989; but many of these places have now been developed into shopping centres or office blocks. In contrast to how well the older history has been preserved, tourists will see little hard evidence of the period.
Bratislava, however, has a whole wealth of unusual relics built by comrades. The New Bridge, strikingly shaped like a UFO and dominating the skyline, is commended as one of the World Federation of Great Towers. Petržalka, over the bridge from the historical centre, is a fascinating monument to urbanisation, being the most densely populated housing estate in Central Europe. It is a complex sprawl of Paneláks – the Czechoslovak name for the pre-fabricated tower blocks, and inspired a documentary this year; Petržalka Identity. The radio building is in the shape of an upside-down pyramid, and was scaled by the famous French Spider-man in 2007. Freedom Square is a ghostly reminder of the impracticality of the era; the biggest fountain in Slovakia, a steel structure in the shape of a flower, had to be turned off because it required too much water.
Sitting on the border of Austria and just one hour from Vienna, Bratislava often has trouble competing with its near neighbour. The part of the city tour companies usually promote – the bit within the previous boundaries of the city walls – which František Fabian tends to limit his tours to, is a much smaller, much less grand version of Vienna. What makes the city special, even more than Prague is, according to Brano: “The Socialist architecture; buildings like the Slovak radio tower and the New Bridge, the location of the city on the border and 40 years of Iron Curtain, personal histories of the people who live there, then developments like Petržalka”. Certainly the fact that he uses a vintage Skoda his grandfather handed down to him to transport tourists makes the experience all the more ‘authentic’.
Last July Slovakia’s Prime Minister Iveta Radičová acknowledged the importance of this part of Bratislava’s past by announcing that the government will build a Museum of Communism. Formalising this into a government-funded museum is an unusual step, especially since the Museum of Communism in Prague is owned by a private, American businessman. But the potential educational value is great, as well as offering an incentive for companies to develop this special interest tour, and for developers to leave historic buildings alone.
It is important that mistakes like losing the Jewish quarter are not made again by governments of this generation. Two factories, one for tiles and one for cables, which Brano said were of a ‘high historic significance’ were torn down in the last ten years. The Slovak National Monuments Board currently has 9681 national cultural monuments listed. But because of the huge number, Brano said that it can be difficult to get industrial buildings with historical significance listed, and it was pressure from investors which may have resulted in the two buildings being demolished.
On the website for the Monuments Board, a list of 72 monuments of selected national cultural heritage appears. The Slavín monument is the only Communist monument to appear there, which suggests sights from this period are yet to gain credence within heritage authorities. Hotel Kyjev is certainly hasn’t been given this recognition; built in ’73 with a spiral staircase, brash red carpeted bar and orb lights suspended from the ceiling, the hotel that once entertained party dignitaries closed its doors last year. British developers Lordship plan to refurbish the hotel, which remained open and unaltered through the 40 years of Communism. Managers heavily promoted the history of the place, and the 180 budget rooms were fully booked throughout summer. This is unusual for hotels in the city, which can usually get business guests during the week but no one at weekends. This is a successful hotel, and the historic branding was a large part of its success.
Maria Slavikova was a receptionist at the hotel, and shares Brano’s conviction that the Monuments board need to plan more carefully when dealing with historic buildings from this era. She said: “They will show the plans for the project in January next year, and I am really curious what they will do with this building.
“I prefer it to stay like this because it is a Communist building and for me it’s like a memory for everything, it is part of Bratislava. Our hotel was mainly about Communism, all the targeting. Some people liked hotel, some people did not. People liked it because it was Communist; some architecture students came from different countries to see the hotel because it is a really unique piece of architecture”.
Perhaps they will decide to continue marketing it based on its rich antiquity. Brano argues that the concept is gaining popularity: “I think it is becoming a more fashionable thing just like in Berlin. I think the whole Communist history is coming more to museums and galleries and many artists start to use this concept. I think Slovaks now start to see it as an interesting part of their history – but just step by step”.
Step by step is probably the way the industry will progress too. Prague Real Tours charge €105 for each Communist tour, but only about 5% of their customers request it; they see it as a specialist excursion. Since last year František Fabian’s more traditional company has had an 80% growth ‘Authentic Slovakia’ had five times more requests for Communist tours, but that was from a starting point of only 6 in 2010. If the government go ahead with the museum this will signal a turning point. Until then specialists in the Monuments Board, developers and tour guides, need to understand the potential for Communist tourism in Slovakia, and not make the same mistakes that the Communists themselves did. Brano remembers when he told his grandfather that his Skoda was being used to take people on Communist tours: “He was quite happy when we told him, he was quite proud”.
By Jo Eckersley, as part of her MA in Journalism