Communism is a system of walls.
No matter what country communism is implemented in, the government inevitably ends up constructing walls around its people – generally figuratively, sometimes literally – instead of allowing the people to find the dignity of labor that the ideology is based upon.
Opinions of communist regimes aside, you can hardly ignore that this part of Europe has been shaped by communism. Intangibly, the people in this region dislike talking about the communist era, except to say that the whippersnappers should be thankful they didn’t live through it. It’s a touchy subject that’s rife with emotion, especially among the older generations. Tangibly, monuments have been put up that honor people or ideas that either helped to overthrow communism or contributed to the individualization of the nation. In Prague, one of these monuments came into existence right under the nose of the communist officials.
One thing that Westerners generally don’t think of when we think about communist regimes is the extent of censorship. Censorship wasn’t limited to the news; everything from newspapers to novels to movies to music was censored by the government. Anything deemed to be unacceptable for a good communist family to be exposed to was prohibited. One of those things was rock and roll. Of course, as anyone who went to high school will know, the tighter you grip your hand, the more things slip through your fingers. The communist government worked to keep rock and roll off the radio and out of music stores. While the rest of the world was jamming to the Beatles in concert and hanging pictures of Paul McCartney on their bedroom walls, Czechs were smuggling their records into the country and selling them on the black market.
Needless to say, John Lennon and his “All you need is love” theory of life were extremely attractive to a people for whom military-grade brutality over the use of a wrong word in a newspaper was a daily occurrence. His message of tolerance and acceptance, in addition to being attractive, was also in direct opposition to a totalitarian government. When he was murdered in 1980, he became, in the eyes of the Prague youth, a martyr to the cause of personal freedoms. They decided to honor his memory by living that freedom.
To protest in public was to subject oneself to the aforementioned brutality. Instead, the youth of Prague opted for a method that was just as public, but much less overt, than marching.
They graffitied a wall.
Vandalism! say some.
Subversive activities against the state! say communists (punishable by jail time).
A non-violent reaction to a violent situation! say others.
Pretty cool, says I.
Under the cover of night, people would sneak out to a certain wall, not far from the famous Charles Bridge, and paint messages of love and acceptance on it. The authorities tried to cover it up, paint it over, protect the city walls from ‘vandals,’ but all in vain. People kept coming and painting words of encouragement to their fellow citizens on the wall.
As weird as it sounds, this was one of the first steps towards the Velvet Revolution, the peaceful overthrow of the communist regime that took place in Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic and Slovakia) in 1989.
What I think is very cool about this wall is that, even though communism has been chased out of this part of Europe, the wall continues to be a symbol of everything John Lennon sang about. People from all over the world come and add their own messages of love and encouragement to those of the people who came before. I’ve been to Prague twice in as many months, and both times I visited the John Lennon Wall. Each time, it looked almost completely different. Every day, people make contributions to the cause of peace and love.
It’s one wall that didn’t function the way the communists thought it should: instead of keeping people apart, it brought them together.