Statue Wars

‘Fronta na Maso’

It is not only in Britain that we are at odds about what to do with controversial statues. In fact, Britain has joined that particular party rather late in the day. Ex-communist countries have been tearing down the statues of former leaders for decades now, even if in some cases, it has taken 800 kilos of explosive to do so. This was the case with 15.5 metre high monumental statue of Stalin, followed by a line of citizens, which stood in Prague’s Letna Park. Locals referred to it as ‘fronta na maso”, (the meat queue) and said it looked as if Stalin was about to take his wallet from his coat to pay, but then saw how expensive meat was and decided not to bother.

That particular demolition took place even before the end of the Communist Regime and yet its repercussions still rumble on. Only this year, when excavating for a lake, builders came across the  remains of the camp used by the forced labour who had built the statue. On my walk through Letna Park, I passed the huge crater at the bottom of which could be seen the remains of the various barracks and buildings. 

Now back in Prague for the first time since covid, it is actually a more recent statue conflict that has intrigued me. When I was here in May 2019, I walked up to my Czech lessons every day past a statue whose stance reminded me of Lenin. On closer inspection, I discovered it was a statue of Marshal Konev. The name meant nothing to me until I read about the wartime experiences of Helena Petrankova, Alice’s best friend. 

Marshal Konev holding a bunch of lilacs to signify liberation.

Helena escaped from Slovakia in 1939 and crossed the border into Poland. When Hitler invaded Poland, she escaped East and joined the Soviet forces, working as a pharmacist with the Czech regiment led by Ludvik Svoboda. When, in the summer of 1944, the Slovaks rose up against their Nazi occupiers, they appealed to the Soviets for help. The Czech regiment was a part of the Soviet army, led by Marshal Konev, which responded to their appeal. It was many months and only after the loss of thousands of lives that Slovakia was finally liberated. The Soviet troops then moved through to the Czech lands to liberate Prague. Helena was with Marshal Konev’s troops when they finally marched into the capital to be greeted by cheering crowds.

Marshal Konev was a hero, but his later actions cast him in a different light. He crushed the Hungarian Revolt in 1955, oversaw the building of the Berlin Wall and may have supported the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. The information about his exact role is unclear. His statue has caused much controversy and in recent years was often defaced. The cost of having it cleaned fell to the local council of Prague 6. Finally, the mayor’s solution was to offer the statue back to the Russians. The Russians, however, refused and the controversy became an international incident. 

During the lockdown Mgr. Ondřej Kolář, mayor of the District of Prague 6 decided to remove the statue, which prompted some dismay from certain Czech groups, including the Communists and President Zeman, as well as from the Russians themselves. At one point a toilet was placed on the plinth, and swiftly removed in order not to add further insult. However, the damage was done and the Russians retaliated by proposing to change the name of the Moscow metro station, formerly called Prazhskaya to General Konev.

The Brief Reign of the Toilet Bowl

Having followed the saga online from my study in St Albans, when I got to Prague I went along to see what had happened. I found the empty plinth standing in the little square and on the pavement in front there was a series of placards with explanations about Marshal Konev and testimony from people who either celebrated his entrance into Prague in 1945 or suffered from the occupation in 1968. I have no idea whether there are plans to remove the plinth or place another statue in Konev’s place.

The empty plinth as it was last week

In the former Czechoslovakia it is not only statues that are removed. Researching Czech history is made complicated by the many changes of names that have occurred since the country’s foundation in 1918. The end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire heralded the first of these. Over the years street names, names of cities, names of metro stations and even names of people have been replaced by new ones. The first changes came in order to reinforce Czech national identity but they lasted barely twenty years before the Nazi occupation introduced streets named after Hitler and revived many of the German names. This was then followed by the Communist era when the revolution, Stalin and other Soviet references replaced earlier names. Finally, after the Velvet Revolution in 1989, names were once again adjusted to purge the country of reminders of a hated regime. 

The pre communist name of the street Evropska visible beneath its replacement Lenina

My current flat, just off Vitezne Namesti and Dejvicka metro station used to be just off October Revolution Square and Lenin metro station. The names were changed decades ago, but this week a further event signalled the end of the Communist era. Following the recent elections, for the first time since the Velvet Revolution, there are no Communists in the Czech parliament, a fact emphasised by every Czech I met. I understand the desire to move on and away from the horrors of the past, yet the past is not so easily erased.

The city is a palimpsest with each new generation writing its own story, but the layers of the past remain close to the surface. You don’t have to dig deeply before it re-emerges and reminds you that the wounds of history take a long time to heal.

Current excavations at Letna Parkův_pomn%C3%ADk

4 thoughts on “Statue Wars

  1. Another really engaging piece, Liz, and one close to my own heart. As a historian, like George Orwell, I see all history as a palimpsest: it is written and rewritten or overwritten. However one of the things that has interested me for as long as I studied Soviet and post Soviet regimes is how blatant the rewriting of history is. Classic cases from Soviet Russia include Trotsky being excised from leadership photographs that had been on public display only a few weeks earlier, and arguably the most outlandish case, in Khrushchev’s time, where libraries owning the latest copy of the main Soviet encyclopaedia were sent pages of text on the Bering Straits to paste in over the fulsome biographical entry on the now-discredited Beria, former head of the secret police. Non-personing is a standard historical practice but to our Western democratic minds the crude manner of how it is often undertaken in Soviet/ post Soviet Eastern Europe is bewildering. Our preference is to revision: discredit by reinterpretation rather than by culling.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. So interesting Liz. You write so well that you paint a complex picture in a way that makes it clear and accessible. I do hope you’re finding your time there rewarding and enjoyable. Looking forward to seeing you soon. Much love Anne


    Liked by 1 person

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