Communist Kitsch

by David Sturm

You can find these souvenier stands at a dozen spots in Prague and they often stop tourists in their tracks.

There, on cloth-covered boards, are pinned row after row of communist medals. Many are reproductions such as Lenin in profile on a red star selling for 50 crowns ($1.50), but others are original decorations priced at about 700 crowns ($25). Take your pick from Stalin heads, hammer and sickles, red stars, submarines, etc.

Communist trinkets have a niche in Prague's tourism marketplace for obvious reasons: "Hey, wouldn't Uncle Harry back in Scranton get a kick out of these? Talk about easy to pack! I'll take three Lenin heads, one of those Stalins and a KGB T-shirt. Say, how much are those hats?"

But these geegaws and regalia are not the only vestiges of communism in Prague. Despite the orgy of statue-removal and street-renaming that went on after the Velvet Revolution overthrew the Czechoslovakian Communist Party in 1989, monuments to Prague's red past still exist. They are often worth seeking out, if only to experience the frisson of seeing Cold War iconography from "behind the Iron Curtain" writ boldly -- and often hugely -- in bronze and marble.

Socialist gigantomania lives

And there's one place in Prague that packs a wallop like no other -- the Communist Party mausoleum called National Liberation Monument. High on Vitkov Hill near the Florenc Metro station overlooking the Zizkov neighborhood, this massive concrete edifice was built to display the embalmed remains of red boss Klement Gottwald, "the first working class president of Czechoslovakia," after his death in 1953.

Here, in all its hulking monochromatic glory, is socialist gigantomania. No one comes here much anymore and the vast plaza surrounding the mausoleum is eerily still. The spacious boulevard stretching east from the mausoleum is all but devoid of cars. The two olympic-size torches in front have not been lit in years and the fountain stands dry and full of leaves.

Inescapable is the mammoth statue of the one-eyed feudal general Jan Zizka, a Czech national hero of the Hussite Wars. It's the largest equestrian statue in the world and its presence here indicates how the communist regime arrogated to itself the role of 20th Century standard bearer for centuries of Czech struggle against oppressors.

The mausoleum itself is closed and empty now (the remains of Gottwald and his cronies have long since been disinterred, cremated and returned to families). But the huge mausoleum doors are worth inspecting for their bronze bas reliefs, which display characters in amusingly corny Stakhanovite posturing (strikingly similar, incidentally, to the statues of rapturous, gesticulating baroque saints all over the rest of Prague). It's a comic book in bronze. A Czech worker appears to kiss the coat hem of his Soviet Red Army liberator on one and a machine-gun toting soldier stands nobly vigilant over a be-scarved peasant woman with her baby on another. Beneath one tableau of beaming workers is the motif of crossed jackhammers in a laurel wreath. Not surprisingly, sarcastic graffiti has been chalked onto many of these.

Only one other place in Prague contains unmistakeable propaganda on a large scale in a public place and that's the Andel Metro station. Prague's clean and efficient subway system was built by the Soviets in the 1960s as a gift to the Czech people (note the discreet Cyrillic-lettered plaque on each train car) and Praguers thanked them by naming this station Moscow Station and decorating it with huge murals carved onto marble depicting workers holding hammer and sickle aloft and a Moscow skyline with red star and Kremlin prominent. The station on the Metro's yellow line has since been renamed, but the murals are still there, albeit partly covered by a bank of pay phones.

Today, Stalin. Tomorrow, a metronome

Prague's most preposterously huge piece of cultural junk was demolished long before the Velvet Revolution. This was 14,000-ton granite statue of Stalin leading the people that stood above the city in Letna Park, staring down Parizska Street. Unveiled amid much hoopla in 1953, it became an embarrassment and was shrouded in scaffolding after Krushchev denounced Uncle Joe in 1956. In 1962 the colossus was dynamited into oblivion. A huge metronome now waves cheerily back and forth on the site and the plaza has been taken over by the skateboard set.

Prague has one statue of a communist that no one seems to mind. It's of Jan Sverma and it stands on a modest pedestal at the south end of Svermuv Most, his namesake bridge. A hero of World War II, Sverma was killed fighting the Nazis in 1944 and consequently had no involvement in the communist regime that ruled from 1948-89.

In fact, he was supposedly part of the liberal wing of Czech communists that opposed hardliner Gottwald. A grandson of Sverma, incidently, was a classmate and friend of an Oxford University student named Bill Clinton, now the United States president, and Clinton visited Prague in 1970 while a student as a guest of this friend, named Jan Kopold.

What happened to all the rest of Prague's communist statues? Most of them are gathering dust in a former airplane hangar owned by the Gallery of the City of Prague near the town of Louny, about 70 kilometers from Prague. Here, closed off from the public, 10-foot carvings of Lenin, Marx and assorted generic revolutionaries wait in the dark for the city to decide what to do with them. Although in Budapest the Hungarians have gathered more than 50 such statues in an open-air setting for the edification of the curious, the Czechs say they have more important priorities for now.

Where spies came in from the cold

Elsewhere in Prague there are remnants that tourists walk past constantly without noticing, although native Praguers who are old enough are keenly aware of them.

For example, look up at lampposts and you'll notice that many contain public address megaphones. Although now silent, on socialist holidays, for hours on end, these horns once blared speeches and martial music to every corner or the city.

The Inter-Continental Hotel overlooking the Vltava River, the black, hulking former Parliament Building next to the National Museum on Wenceslaus Square and the television tower in Zizkov that looks like a space station were built to be proud symbols of the communist age. Now, they're just big, banal examples of modernism (it's an irony to savor that the Parliament Building has since 1993 housed the headquarters of Radio Free Europe).

Prague's newest pilgrimage site for aficinados of Cold War huggermugger is the bell tower of St. Nicholas Church in Mala Strana, now reopened after a year of renovations. It was at the top of this tower that the secret police maintained a spy nest. If you pay your 30 crowns (90 cents) for a ticket and huff and puff your way to the top you'll easily see why. There, to the west, beneath the mini-Eiffel Tower on Petrin Hill, are the interior gardens and courtyards of the U.S. and British embassies in plain view. Flip open the English language folder next to the guestbook on top and you can read a history of the tower, including its utilization for surveillance.

Finally, lest this sound like an utter campfest, there's a place that's devoid of amusing hokiness.

In the castle district of Hradcany there is a cobbled lane on the north side of the Loretto shrine called Kapucinska. It was at Kapucinska 2 that the communists operated a military prison and it was in a small outbuilding in the courtyard of this prison that interrogation units tortured the "enemies of the state." The site is closed now and high walls and a gate obscure the view, but the Czechs, who pride themselves on their long memories, have put up a plaque noting that it was the place where political prisoners suffered under communism.

(Originally appeared in The Washington Post.)

(c) 1994-2001 David and Chris Sturm
Home | Return to TOP | Next