The rub­ble of Stalin

The Guardian Weekly - - Inside - By Robert Tait PRAGUE

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.”

GETTY

Stone broke The Stalin statue in Letná Park, Prague was de­stroyed in 1962

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