The complicated history of Prague's Tank No. 23

Tank No. 23, photo: CTK

Prague's Kinsky Square was for many decades called The Square of Soviet Tank Crews. It was because a huge Soviet tank, a memorial to the liberation of Czechoslovakia in 1945, used to stand there on a 5-metre pedestal, its barrel menacingly pointing at a tram stop. Until one morning, in the spring of 1991, locals woke up and could not believe their eyes. The tank had turned pink overnight.

Tank No. 23,  photo: CTK
"Of course, it was a political statement and at the same time it was an artistic action. And it was a lot of fun."

The enfant terrible of Czech visual art, David Cerny, was only 23 when he covered the green tank in pink paint making it look rather like piece of candy. But his act was seen by many as an outrage against the Soviet liberators of Prague.

More than a symbol of the liberation of Prague by the Red Army in May 1945, for many Czechs the tank became a reminder of the Soviet-led occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1968.

"Having to pass this symbol of the Russian dictatorship which was here since I was born, I did not take the tank as a symbol of freedom - the end of the Second World War."

Of course, the Czechoslovak Army would have no such nonsense as a pink tank, so three days later soldiers arrived with buckets of paint and gave the tank a new green coat. Ten days after that a group of parliament deputies repainted it pink again in support of David Cerny's act.

To end the dispute, the tank was finally taken away, much to the relief of the local authorities - partly because the tank itself was a historical nonsense.

"It was the wrong tank, the wrong type of tank with the wrong number on its turret."

The military historian Tomas Jakl specialises in the liberation of Czechoslovakia.

"The tank which was built on the monument was an IS2, which is an infantry tank, but the first Soviet tank which came to Prague in the early morning of May 9th, 1945 was a T34 cruiser tank, or fast tank, or medium tank. So it was completely different type of tank. The number on the turret of the monument was completely different than the one which was on tanks which came to Prague on the early morning of May 9, 1945."

No one knows what actually happened to the very first Red Army tank that came to Prague, but since July 1945 when the monument was erected, Prague citizens were made to believe the IS2 was the first one to have entered the city.

The Soviet IS2 infantry tank, reportedly still sporting a pink coat, is now kept in a military history museum outside Prague, but that's not quite the end of the story. There are plans to restore it to its one-time glory.

A communist representative on the Prague city council, Frantisek Hoffman, says he was approached by war veterans' organisations who would like to see the tank back in its place. Mr Hoffman says he disapproved of what the artist David Cerny did to it fourteen years ago.

"Certain things should be untouchable. If someone lays down his life far away from home for someone else, their dignity should be respected, no matter what followed historically. There should definitely be a memorial of some kind to those who lay down their lives during the liberation of Prague."

The military historian Tomas Jakl says, however, that Prague does not need another monument commemorating the events.

"I think that there are a lot of monuments on Soviet presence in Prague in May 1945: for example a statue of Marshal Konev in Dejvice, Marshal Konev's Street in Zizkov or a memorial plaque of Guards Lieutenant Goncharenko who died in Prague on May 9, 1945, and so on. I think it is unnecessary."

Opinions on the return of the tank may differ but one thing is certain: the champions of its restoration did not make it for this year's 60th anniversary of the end of the Second World War. But they say they won't give up.

And the artist, David Cerny, who fourteen years ago started the debate around the allegedly first Soviet tank in Prague, in his typical tongue-in-cheek manner welcomes the initiative.

"I think it's a great idea! I think we should bring back more communist symbols. I would go much further and I would build back all the Russian stars, all the signs saying that the Communist Party is our leader and the Soviet Union is our biggest brother because when you look at the 40 percent of population saying that it was much better to live under communism than now - it would be just better!"