Deep Under the City of Modern-day Prague lies a Hidden Story

A young man crouched in the trenches with a gun, gearing up to take down the advancing Germans, if he could. Trainloads of men stood behind him, unarmed and barehanded. The might of the Germans was no match for their lack of weaponry.

The Germans fired and the young man with the gun dropped dead. The soldier behind him raced forward, picked up the gun and fired back at the Germans before he was fatally shot. Then, the third one followed suit and began firing until he went under…and on and on it went.

“This is how the Soviets fought the Germans,” noted a Prague local, who had long since decided that helping researchers, writers and tourists navigate through the intricacies of Czech history was more his cup of tea than working in one of the biggest—and presumably the most propagandist—advertising agencies in Europe.

“That’s true—this is not made up,” he said earnestly. “Because [the Soviets] didn’t have enough weapons. Even though they were supplied by Allied forces, they couldn’t keep it up.” He added: “People still have nightmares from it. It keeps coming back into your head. You can’t probably imagine, but you have to believe me.”

As I listened, I was in Prague’s communist nuclear bunkers, built in the 1950s to give people shelter in the face of a nuclear threat, following the war between Germany and the Soviet Union, which officially began in June 1941—a war which had claimed millions of Russian lives. The exact figures are disputed by multiple sources.

The Russian Central Defense Ministry Archive points to roughly 14 million missing or dead military service personnel in its databases. Some Russian journalists and political figures peg total losses at more than 40 million. And the Russian Defense ministry had estimated nearly 9 million military deaths from that time.

Fighting to live

As money was flowing out to overseas comrades crusading against dictators in Chile, Cuba and elsewhere in Latin America, civilians in Prague and other parts of the Czech region were scrambling for money to make water, polluted with radioactivity, drinkable again. They were struggling to build crates for newborns, babies and toddlers to survive the radioactive pollution and the threat of a nuclear war.

Without exception, everyone wore a gas mask.  The gas mask is awfully heavy. But it was the only way you could survive, back in the 1950s. There were masks with an in-built filter to breathe from. If you were older, smaller or weaker, you could get a gas mask with an external filter connected to a hose, so that the mask would be lighter on your face.

But that didn’t change the fact that the filter on the gas mask had to be replaced every two hours. Otherwise, you drop dead. That meant each person had to carry thousands of filters just to stay alive. If you were a child, you would have a crate and someone would have to pump air through a filter on the bottom of that crate, every 15 minutes, or you would die. Inordinate sums of money were channeled towards producing as many gas masks and filters as possible to protect people from radioactivity and radioactive particles.

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Crate for children

"You’d have to pump air through the filter on the bottom of this crate. And you have to pump every fifteen minutes. Otherwise the child will die."

As I traipsed through the bunkers’ chambers and tunnels four levels under the city of Prague, I was told that about 5,000 civilians were squished into a space built to hold about 2500 people. For twice as many people stuck there for a week, there were only five loos. Some reportedly committed suicide during that time.

Finding a balance as a writer

Hearing these stories tugged at my heart like never before. As a journalist on the field, it is de rigueur to remain objective, and validate the veracity of those horror stories by insisting that your subjects cite their sources.

However, as a writer and novelist, it is nearly impossible not to empathize, even if you aren’t siding with any notion or ideology. It is about people and what they go through. It is about the strength of the human spirit amid chaos, war, grief and loss. It is about love, peace and harmony. It is about the will of the spirit to rise above that incessant suffering.

And sometimes, events can be misleading to the point of being cruel. For instance, Czechoslovakians believed they were liberated from Soviet rule during the Prague uprising in 1945, which culminated in a ceasefire with the German army.

However, that didn’t happen. In 1968, Soviet troops reemerged as vanguards of the Eastern bloc Warsaw Pact to come down on the reformist culture in Prague.

In a football stadium near the historic Wenceslas Square, or Václavské náměstí, a Polish man set himself on fire in protest against the Soviet invasion.  “And the communists said it was an accident, that he wanted to light up a cigarette and didn’t do it right and just burned himself,” the Prague local and former ad-man said.

The Russians did not leave until 1992.     

Get your hands dirty

I like writing stories that are real, stories that people can relate to. In any era, the monstrosity of grief and turmoil remains the same, whether it is the Second World War and brutalities unfolding behind the Iron Curtain, or the growing threat of terrorism, which many political theorists say is outstripping efforts by governments, world leaders and intelligence forces to contain it.

To do justice to my writing, or any scenes I hoped to pick up while on the field, I needed to feel at least a semblance of what it must have felt like to live in a Soviet-controlled communist regime. I also needed to simulate the experience of being out there on the front-lines in a push for survival and redemption.

So, I tried on a gas mask. I even posed before a Soviet flag holding a Kalashnikov rifle. With the gas mask on, of course. Once I stepped out of that scene in the bunkers, I decided never to whine ever again.


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Simulating the experience of being on the front-lines

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Gas masks and other Cold War relics