Central Europeans reflect on life before the fall of the Berlin Wall
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Jan Morrison

Everything good, we were taught, was from Russia

Prague, Czech Republic, 2009
Czech English

Jan Morrison, Record Store Owner

When I was nine years old the cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin came to Prague. Ten of thousands of people met him with flowers because he was the first person to go to space. Everybody was so happy. In school the teacher said to us that Russia would go far forward. That in five years we would be vacationing on the moon and that there would be free chocolates and free toys. And each one of us would get just one pill and if you swallow this pill you would be satisfied because it would fill up your stomach. You won’t be hungry and you won’t want chocolate. They told us that when you are in a Cadillac you sit next to the ground. In a Russian tractor you could sit high and see the world. Everything good, we were taught, was from Russia.

Every year there was a big military parade. In 1965, first came the soldiers and then came the soldiers with cars, then the tanks and artillery and after, at the end, the planes. We were ready to go home and over the speakers we heard, “citizens stay because we have something special, a surprise”. We waited for twenty minutes and then came very big cars with missiles. The next day at school, the teacher opened the door, yelling, “We have missiles, we are the greatest!” We all were clapping our hands and yelling, “We have missiles, we have missiles, we have missiles.”  Over the school speakers they said that we have missiles now so we do not need to be afraid of Americans and Germans.

In our class, one boy’s father was a diplomat. He came to class with a bag full of chewing gum, Disney figures, and Marlboro cigarettes. The cigarettes were sealed in the pack. We could just smell it and look at the nice color and design of the package. We started to know about these things from America and we loved them. We did not have too much, but still it was a nice time and there was not too much to compare to so we were okay.

I had a friend who lived south, in Pilsen. They would get programs from West Germany. Once a week was the TV show the Beat Club. We saw the Beatles, the Stones, the Kinks, and Manfred Mann. We were absolutely fascinated. Nobody was taking communism so seriously at this time, 1966 – 1968. It was a very free time.    

I knew the Plastic People (an important Czech underground rock band) and I was working with them at their concerts. I was having a very nice life. Then the Russians came and there were the demonstrations in Prague. We threw stones at the tanks in Wenceslas Square. They started to shoot at us. We were standing against a wall and bullets went above our heads. I was scared. Then the bricks from the building fell on our heads.  

In the 1970s, during “normalization”, there was a demonstration, with 10,000 people in the streets, against President Husác. The Special Forces Police came with tear gas. They arrested me and I went to prison for two days. They were beating us and then they let me go home. After two months I went to court. I couldn’t say anything. They sent me to a labor camp for one year, making panels at a cement factory. After a half year, I broke my finger and was sent to the hospital.  

It was a regular hospital. The top floor had bars on the windows and was for prisoners. 
We had six of us in one room. We tied together bandages with one sock at the end. We put a bar of soap and a note that said please send us a cigarette inside this sock. We threw the sock from the window and people sent us cigarettes and chocolates. One day somebody pulled the sock from the window and gave it to the police. They sent us back to the labor camp, which is why my finger didn’t heal and I still cannot make it go straight.  

After I got out of the camp they took my passport for five years. I couldn’t get a good job. They were always checking my flat to see if I had fliers against the regime. After five years, in 1980, I got my passport and went to live in West Germany.  

After the revolution I came back here to visit my mother. It was very strange for me. I had knots in my stomach. I had to go to the toilet and there was two woman handing out toilet paper and soap on a chain. “What am I doing here?” I asked myself. I forgot over the years the small things.

I moved back here because when Germany reunited everything changed. The rent for my record store went very, very high, from 1,000 marks to 3,000 marks. In Prague everything was changing too, but it was becoming better. People were coming from all over to Prague. It was a new time. The rents were very cheap, so one friend and I opened a big store on a very good street and for many years we made good business. It was a very good time.  

The business for records has changed. Rents are high and a good location is not so easy to find as it was in the ‘90s. I have a smaller store, but my life is very good. I am living with my wife in a nice house outside the city. I come to the store on Saturdays. I am doing what I want. 

This interview was in English
Photo by Janeil Engelstad

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