The rubble of Stalin
It was once the world’s biggest monument to Josef Stalin, casting a dark shadow over Prague at the height of the communist dictatorship that ruled the former Czechoslovakia after the second world war. Now the smashed granite remnants of the notorious statue will form the backdrop to an exhibition highlighting the Czech Republic’s experiences of totalitarianism.
Visitors will be given a tour of the central European country’s struggles under oppression just metres from the pile of rubble that is all that remains of the 15.5-metre sculpture designed as a tribute to the Soviet tyrant when he was at the peak of his powers.
The exhibition, organised by Post Bellum – a group dedicated to preserving Czech historical memory – is housed in an underground chamber beneath the hilltop site in Letná Park where the 14,200-tonne statue stood before it was blown up in 1962 after the personality cult surrounding Stalin had been discredited. It pinpoints nine landmark events in the national encounters with dictatorship, beginning with Nazi Germany’s invasion of Czechoslovakia in March 1939 and ending with the mass demonstrations of the 1989 Velvet revolution that ended more than 40 years of communist rule.
One dramatic scene simulates the experience of an RAF Spitfire pilot engaging a German Messerschmitt in the Battle of Britain in 1940. It is based on the experience of František Peřina, one of several exiled Czech flying aces who served with the RAF in the second world war. Most were persecuted by the communist authorities after returning home and Peřina later fled to Canada.
There are also mock-ups of interrogation cells, where political prisoners were held before the Stalinist show trials of the early 1950s, and a depiction of the church crypt where the British-trained assassins of Reinhard Heydrich, the head of the Nazi occupation authority, were killed in 1942.
Outside, a temporary five-metrehigh wall has been constructed to resemble the Berlin Wall, but also to symbolise calls by leaders today to build barriers against migrants.
The display is timed to coincide with events marking the 100th anniversary of Czechoslovakia’s establishment on 28 October 1918, as the Hapsburg empire collapsed at the end of the first world war. Featuring oral testimonies, it will run initially until December but organisers are lobbying for a permanent publicly funded museum to totalitarianism, something the Czech Republic lacks in contrast to neighbouring Poland and Hungary.
“The lack of a national museum is embarrassing,” said Mikuláš Kroupka, Post Bellum’s director. “When people visit here and ask where they can go and learn about our recent history and the history of communism, there is nowhere. Prague does have a Museum of Communism but it’s a private enterprise and not really enough.”
The need has become more urgent, campaigners say, because of the recent growth of the European far right and the return of the Czech Communist party to the fringes of power as a supporter of the minority government of prime minister Andrej Babiš.
The site – now a popular with skateboarders – is still commonly referred to as “Stalin’s”. Ironically, the Letná site also witnessed the biggest anticommunist demonstration in 1989, when hundreds of thousands gathered to demand an end to the regime.
“The place is a symbol of the humiliation of the Czech nation but also of freedom,” said Kroupka. “It’s the perfect location.”
Stone broke The Stalin statue in Letná Park, Prague was destroyed in 1962