Prague’s historically working-class Žižkov district is perhaps best known today for its abundance of pubs (even by Czech standards) and colossal TV Tower – once voted the world’s second ugliest building. Lesser-known is the rich cultural history of what some natives proclaim the “Independent Republic of Žižkov”. Two of its proudest sons, Jaroslav and Miroslav Čvančara, have just published a sweeping illustrated book about the Prague 3 district, literally filling in the historical picture.
Žižkov, named after a Hussite warrior, makes up the lion’s share of Prague 3, a district which since 1960 includes slices of Vinohrady, Vysočany and Strašnice. The Čvančara brothers’ newly released 364-page chronological history, called ‘Prague 3 Through the Ages’, covers everything from the time the area was a Celtic settlement to the present day.
Jaroslav Čvančara, 70, is a historian and researcher at Prague’s Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes. He says most of the hundreds of photographs and documents in the book come from their extensive personal collection.
“We were born in Žižkov, and our family is among the district’s oldest. Our father had already begun writing a chronicle of the town of Žižkov. It was not enough for a comprehensive work, but my (older) brother Miroslav continued with it, taking countless photos and collecting loads of materials.
“We divided up the specific periods, from the settlement of the Celts to today. I had already written a lot on the Second World War, for example, or about the artist Zdeněk Burian, who lived in Prague 3 for 28 years and is known worldwide for his illustrations of prehistoric times done in Žižkov.”
The Čvančara brothers’ parents had worked in Czechoslovakia’s film industry and before World War II had run a Žižkov cinema and been a distributor of films. Under communism, Miroslav Čvančara, 85, worked as a technician in film laboratories, and never stopped collecting images.
“For more than 60 years, I myself was also taking photos, gathering materials… Over the past 100 years, easily a dozen histories of Žižkov have been written. But none of them have so many pictures.”
The book has compiled more stories of people who lived or worked in Prague 3 than the other published histories put together, says Jaroslav Čvančara. Among them is the former first lady Olga Havlová, the first wife of Václav Havel, who often proclaimed herself to be “a Žižkov patriot”, proud of her humble roots.
The district’s unique working-class character stems in large part from its explosive population growth in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Back in the year 1869, fewer than 300 people lived in the area, which like today’s neighbouring upscale Vinohrady district, was then home to the eponymous Royal Vineyards. Within a decade after Emperor Franz Josef I in 1881 promoted Žižkov to an independent town, its population had grown to about 21,000.
When annexed into Prague in 1922, Žižkov was the city’s most densely populated district, home to thousands of factory workers, packed into five-storey buildings whose beautiful 19th century façades belied the conditions within – families lived in single or two-room flats without kitchens, each floor sharing a toilet. Jaroslav Čvančara again:
“Žižkov has a specific feeling, a patriotism to it… Also, when I was young, there was a pub on every corner – more beer was drunk in Žižkov than anywhere else in the world – and in some of those pubs, that’s still the case today.”
Known before WWI as “Red Žižkov”, due to its support for leftist parties, the district was ironically the site of the first demonstration Czechoslovakia’s Communists permitted after four long decades, on December 10, 1988.