There's a photograph in Prague's Museum of Communism showing a boy and girl arm in arm. She is dressed in the height of late-1980s fashion: wild perm, boxy business suit, extravagant eye shadow. He is in a soldier's uniform. They are not courting. His leather-gloved fist clamps her upper arm to his body as he leads her away from a demonstration. The caption on the photograph says '1989: Sametová Revoluce' (1989: Velvet Revolution).
It's a poignant shot. Look closely at the conscript's face. His heart isn't in it. He wishes he could be anywhere else, maybe taking this protestor on a date, not to a cell. She ignores his misery, looking coolly past him, as if a shop window across the street has caught her eye.
This is a photograph of the future. The soldiers lost, and the protestors, led by a ragtag band of intellectuals, writers and musicians, took over the Czechoslovakian state without a fight in what became the happiest of all the revolutions that tore down the Iron Curtain in that momentous year. The girl in the picture won her freedom – to say what she felt, to work where she liked and to shop where she wanted. It's her Prague you visit today. The shopping is great. You rarely see a soldier or policeman.
As for communism, it's in that museum off Na Prikope, the city's busiest shopping street. You can shop there, too, for old Soviet cap badges and mocking T-shirts and postcards. There's one of a woman on a march from the 1960s that says, 'It was a time of happy, shiny people. The shiniest were in the uranium mines.'
It's not a great joke, but it's typical of the nose-thumbing contempt the free Czech Republic (Slovakia seceded in 1992) has for the old regime. You can read it in the once-banned works of Klíma, Havel and the rest, and you can see it in this museum. But unless you look really hard (as you have to for the Museum of Communism, which is tucked away somewhere behind McDonald's and Mango), there is little else in the city to mark the dull, bleak 40 years of repression.
I am in town because… well, mainly because Prague is always a fantastic place to visit. After Venice, it's the most unbrokenly beautiful city in Europe. I'm also here to check out some developments in the bourgeois art of fine dining. But I'm here, too, because I want to remember the Prague Spring of 1968, the brief period of liberalisation when Alexander Dubcek, a 46-year-old Slovakian, was in power.
Before 1989, both the communists and their opponents were obsessed with anniversaries. (The Velvet Revolution was started by marches to mark various martyrdoms and victories.) They matter less these days, so Prague doesn't go out of its way to mark the fact that it's 40 years since Dubcek became First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia. Dubcek wanted to show the humane face of socialism and immediately began allowing more freedom of the press and the sale of more consumer goods. It was the beginning of a year of reform and protest around the world. Dubcek was no student in a tie-dyed T-shirt, yet his challenge to the authority of the Soviet Union was perhaps the most radical and far-reaching act of a radical year.
The Prague Spring was a false dawn. Dubcek took over in midwinter, but by May, the Soviet tanks were grouping on the Czech border. In the heat of August, they rolled in and took over the country and a process of communist 'normalisation' began. Dubcek was sidelined, first as an ambassador to Turkey, then as an official in the forestry department. In the newly normalised Czechoslovakia, normal things like saying what you thought and listening to the music you liked became abnormal and, sometimes, officially deviant.
Music and the struggle for freedom were to become uniquely intertwined in the cold years between 1968 and 1989. The Velvet Revolution was fomented in underground jazz clubs around Prague; secret policemen evidently didn't like jazz. And, after 1968, music also became a cause célèbre for the underground.
In the early 1970s, the government banned and later imprisoned members of a band called the Plastic People of the Universe. They weren't trying to overthrow the system; they just wanted to play their own brand of experimental, free-form prog-rock, keep their hair long and do their own thing. Their persecution ultimately led Václav Havel and others to write Charter 77, the first attempt since Dubcek to propose a fair, tolerant society.
After the revolution, the Plastic People reformed, hairy as ever, and they continue to play their uncompromising brand of heavily mystical prog. They remain gloriously untouched in their early 1970s bubble. The music business loves its hyperbole, but here's one band that genuinely did make history.