Not the happiest of topics, but an interesting look at the mentality of a city and the collective memory of the communist days.
During my Christmas furlough, my private student Wendy (who had invited me to Christmas dinner the previous week) asked if she could show me around Vysehrad, the ancient home of Czech kings. Having never been, and having nothing better to do on a cold December afternoon, I agreed.
As we left the metro station, Wendy motioned me to a nearby balcony. She pointed to a gigantic concrete bridge that dominated the view in the distance.
“That is the suicide bridge,” she told me matter of factly in her pre-intermediate English. “Under the communism, many jump from bridge.”
“Oh, I see…” I said, rather confused by this morbid trivia. Wendy then smiled, and motioned me to follow her to Vysehrad.
The bridge in question has an actual name, of course. And that would be the Nusle Bridge. The bridge is named for the small village that used to exist where the bridge now stands. Nusle was absorbed by Prague in one of the city consolidations of the 19th century, and ceased to exist as a separate entity by the time the bridge was built. It’s a cantilevered bridge that carries one of the Prague Metro’s tubes and a six lane highway, and it was constructed in the late 1960s to early 1970s. 20,000 cubic meters of concrete was poured into this massive construct. Dedicated in 1973, the new bridge quickly became an essential link in Prague’s transportation network, as it’s the one of the only north/south routes into the city center. It’s said by some that the Nusle Bridge was built as big as it was to support tanks in case the city was invaded by NATO forces… or should fall prey to a repeat of the Prague Spring.
There was, however, another, darker Cold War aspect to this bridge. Since the bridge’s completed, it has proven a magnet for people who simply couldn’t stay in the socialist paradise anymore. The exact number is unknown; Wendy claimed “many,” the city itself (which does not allow the numbers to go public) reluctantly estimates two to three hundred, and even the bridge’s designer Stanislav Hubicka concedes “several hundred.” This rather unfortunate fact has become a vexing issue for city fathers. Hubicka personally suggested nets to catch people, but the city rejected this as pointless; either the victims would stay in the net or find a way to fall out of them.
The problem has continued well after the fall of communism. A fence was put up in the 1990s, but someone determined enough could climb over it in as little as 8 seconds. To give you a sense of how profound the problem is, rescue workers were called to the bridge 63 times in 2006 with 5 fatalities, and 31 times with 3 deaths in the first four months of 2007. Finally in that year, the railing was extended and topped with sheer metal, and tested with a trained climber. After 10 failed attempts, he declared it impossible to climb. I have found no sources commenting otherwise, so I assume that this boast is at least partly accurate.
At this point, I’m sure you’re wondering why the hell I’m blogging about this. Well, I find it an interesting example of how people remember the communist period. Even though the suicides continued after the collapse of the eastern bloc, the trend is connected primarily to those years. Overall, the people I’ve spoken to unanimously agree that times now are far better. Some memories are very strong. Wendy had family that was persecuted by the regime; during one lesson she brought me photocopies of the police records and explained what they said. My landlady shuddered when I mentioned the 1968 invasion, simply saying “No, no.” Others remember the mad rushes for fresh fruit, or buying popular English language novels in the 1970s the way crack addicts were staying supplied in Bryant Park in New York at the same time.
Still, there is a strange nostalgia that some of my students have. The most popular memory is how they would prepare for what was thought to be the inevitable nuclear attack from the imperialists. Most of my readers are probably familiar with, or remember doing “duck and cover” like parents in the US, or the fact the BBC would be replaced with Protect and Survive broadcasts (AKA “Hey, this is how you bury a body” 24/7) in the UK. In Czechoslovakia, children were urged to dress in hazmat suits, pick up mock grenades and guns, and essentially have a fight. The students all agree that, being little kids, they had fun doing this. They thought it was all game, they told me.
(Perhaps a war game is more like it; I’ve recently read that one Soviet plan for WWIII had the Czechoslovaks marching to capture the now radioactive ruins of Vienna, Munich and Nuremberg after a limited nuclear exchange in Europe, and NATO saw Czechoslovakia as a possible invasion route into the eastern bloc.)
And there were things that my students said even felt good from the communist years. The feeling of continuity, albeit under an iron fist, was a bit comforting. After the embarrassment that the current president has turned into, some even have admitted that the corruption and arrogance of the Party seems quaint. Most of all, people admired the travelling. In order to encourage the bloc to be one big happy socialist paradise, cheap-o trips around the bloc and to the Soviet Union itself were easily had. One student told me just this week he went to Sochi often. And even Wendy admitted she’s been to Moscow, and found looking at Lenin’s embalmed corpse more than little interesting.
In fact, the mere casualness of Praguers calling the Nusle Bridge the “suicide bridge” shows the almost naturalness of this under communist rule. It was a fact of life, and it was part of the world they knew, a world that while they are glad is gone, even its more fervent haters admit there was something worth being nostalgic about.
To end this post on a soapbox, I think the story of the “suicide bridge” shows the ignorance of many people when it comes to depression and suicide. In the United States, bridges far more famous and graceful than the Nusle, like the Golden Gate and George Washington, have proven sadly popular for suicide attempts. People like to say that these victims just wanted to do it to call attention to them; to make a show of it by using something pretty to kill themselves. I can assure you that the Nusle is no more beautiful that what it sounds like: a giant hunk of concrete.
It’s always upset me that people in the US seem to view suicide as depression victims being “negative” or “selfish,” as if it’s somehow a personal flaw that someone has been so beaten down by life that they think ending it is the only option. I find these people, both from outside and personal observation, fundamentally unable to see depression as an illness. No, it’s just someone being a downer. I know people who’ve struggled, and I myself have mauled several times by what Winston Churchill called “the black dog.” Suicidal and depressed people do not want pity; they want understanding. The longer the general public refuses to understand this, the worse the problem will get. If you know someone who’s depressed… be there for them. You never know if you’re all that’s keeping them in place.
As a final thought on the difference of cultures… where as people have been pushing for years to get some sort of protection on the Nusle Bridge, similar designs for the Golden Gate Bridge have been vetoed for fear of marring the bridge’s appearance and the views from the pedestrian paths. No judgment either way… just a thought on how Americans and Europeans view the same problem.