Archaeologists excavate Prague labour camp for “politically unreliable” conscripts who built giant Stalin statue

Jan Hasil, photo: Daniel Mrázek / Czech Radio

Historians have long known that members of the infamous communist-era Auxiliary Technical Battalions (PTP), army units comprised of “politically unreliable” persons, helped build the Stalin monument in Prague’s Letná Park. But only recently has a labour camp housing them been revealed. Archaeologists now have a unique opportunity to examine the remains.

Photo: Daniel Mrázek / Czech Radio

Tens of thousands of “anti-state elements” passed through correctional army units in the early 1950s. Known as “Pétépáky”, after the Czech acronym PTP for the units they were conscripted to, hundreds scores worked on the construction of the statue of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin – the largest statue ever built – which dominated the Prague skyline from 1955 until 1962.

The hilltop site near the Czech prime minister’s official residence overlooking the Vltava River is now under excavation. It is the subject of “rescue” archaeological research before a water reservoir is installed there to complement the Letná Park landscape.

Photo: Daniel Mrázek / Czech Radio

Archaeologists have been surveying the area near the Stalin statue’s pedestal since January. So far, they have excavated several long troughs, each just over a metre deep and wide. Jan Hasil of the Institute of Archaeology of the Academy of Sciences explained the situation to a Czech Radio reporter on a tour of the site.

“This group of troughs here is laid out to show the state of preservation of one of the residential buildings within the labour camp. As you can see, almost nothing has survived. With such facilities, if they were liquidated by the same regime that built them, the authorities generally took great care to erase all traces of the sites.”

The communist regime realised that the existence of labour camps in Czechoslovakia would not sit well with the public and so shielded the construction site from view. But a glimpse of what is now known to have been a labour camp for “Pétépáky” can be seen just over halfway into a 13-minute newsreel from 1955 titled “A Monument of Love and Friendship”.

Pomník lásky a přátelství (1955)

According to Jan Hasil, typically camps liquidated by prisoners or forced labourers themselves are better preserved, as they did not want to remove evidence of those who toiled in them, out of a certain reverence.

Photo: Daniel Mrázek / Czech Radio

To the untrained eye, the troughs reveal little. But the researchers have determined that about 120 men were housed there, in barracks measuring just 10 metres wide and 18 metres long.

Archaeologists have also found some objects in the troughs, which are now being analysed in a temporary laboratory erected at the site. Ivana Hrušková is among those busy sorting them and recording entries.

Photo: Daniel Mrázek / Czech Radio

“This is where the basic classification of found material takes place. Tiles, roofing, porcelain, glass, sheet metal and so on. Each item is listed and categorised, placed in a separate bag, and then sent to a specialist. Even the type of electrical insulation is of interest – they place the date of the layers.”

The massive granite statue of Stalin, in front of a line of anonymous workers and “heroes of the proletariat”, was unveiled on May Day, 1955. Locals soon took to calling it the “meat queue” (“fronta na maso”). The statue was blown to pieces in 1962, after the dismantling of the dictator’s cult of personality began in the Soviet Union and its satellites.

Authors: Brian Kenety , Daniel Mrázek
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