Czech debate about Red Army monuments

Памятник маршалу Коневу (Фото: ŠJů, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Monuments to the Soviet Red Army, which were part of the townscape for many years, now find themselves at the centre of a fierce, protracted debate which appears to be gathering momentum. The Prague 6 district authorities recently decided to remove a statue of the controversial Soviet Marshal Ivan Koněv, from their premises, but an important thoroughfare in another part of Prague still bears his name.

Marshal Ivan Koněv statue in Prague 6, photo: Šjů, CC BY-SA 3.0
No one can doubt that the Soviet Army drove the Nazis out of most of Czechoslovakia at the end of the Second World War. The overall Red Army commander for Central European military operations was Marshal Ivan Koněv and so he won the gratitude of Czechs and Slovaks in 1945.

However, a decade later, he commanded the violent and bloody Soviet suppression of the Hungarian Uprising and he participated in the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961.

According to some historians he also personally participated in the preparations of the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 which resulted in more than two decades of occupation of the country by unwelcome Soviet troops.

After the marshal’s statue in Prague 6 was repeatedly vandalized with red paint by protesters, the local authorities voted for its removal.

But on the other bank of the Vltava River, I am walking down Koněvova ulice, or Koněvova Street, one of the major thoroughfares of Žižkov, an iconic quarter of Prague increasingly popular especially with young visitors of the Czech capital. That does not make sense, some of the locals argue: Why should we have Koněvova Street here, if in another part of Prague they are tearing down his statue? They petitioned their mayor Jiří Ptáček, to do something about it.

“The citizens‘ initiative is not demanding that we rename the street. It is asking us to cooperate with a relevant institution and prepare a document that will explain the life of Marshal Ivan Koněv both before and after 1945. So that we can better understand his activities since this street was named after him. The local council then officially asked me to do all that is necessary to prepare such a document. The Military History Institute of the Ministry of Defence is working on it right now.”

But when push comes to shove, it is not all that easy to change the name of a place where people live. Jiří Ptáček again:

“You know, to rename a street is not just about putting up new street signs. We are talking about one of the most important streets in this part of Prague. There are several thousand people who live there. I made some inquiries to find out what the name change would mean for the people who have their addresses there.”

“You need to change your ID, you also have to file a form at the tax office. If you have a car, you are obliged to change the registration, visit the social security agency, bank, etc. I was really shocked.”

Koněvova Street, photo: Packa, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0
Many other Czech streets and squares have actually changed their names several times in the second half of the 20th century depending on the ruling ideology. Is it really that important what the names of the streets where we live are?

Markéta Devátá is a historian at the Institute of Contemporary History in Prague. She grew up under Communism in the Prague quarter of Dejvice and has no doubt that what she read and saw around her as a little girl going every day to school was important for her perception of the world. And during her childhood the names of streets and squares in this particular part of Prague read like an encyclopedia of the International Communist Movement:

“I started out in the Great October Revolution Square, went on to Thellman Street, passed Ždanov Street, then I would take a turn to Sverdlov Street. Since I was a curious child, I looked all the names up and I thought they must have been some really important people and events if the streets and squares are named after them. It was only much later that I learned that the original names were completely different.

“Dejvice was built after the First World War during the years of the First Republic and all the original names referred to the struggle for independence and the memory of Czechoslovak legions that fought against the Germans and Austro-Hungary and also the Bolsheviks in Russia: there was Victory Square, Verdun Street, Terron Street. I think it is important what sort of names you hear around you growing up in everyday life.”

Markéta Devátá’s colleague Tomáš Sniegoň is a Czech ex-pat living in Sweden. He is a senior lecturer in European Studies at the University of Lund. He has been following the Czech debate about Marshal Koněv statue closely:

“What surprises me in such debates is this: everyone starts talking about Marshal Koněv, who he was and what he had done. But from what I know, nobody is interested in documents relating to who decided to build this monument, when and how. And that, I think, is the most important aspect of this particular monument.”

Marshal Koněv’s statue in Prague 6 was repeatedly vandalized, photo: Czech Television
In other words: the debate should not really be about Marshal Koněv, but who decided to erect the statue, why and when. Tomáš Sniegoň has devoted many years of research to various monuments and memorials of the Holocaust. Lately, he has focused his research on how the Soviet concentration camps or “Gulags”, where millions of people died, are presented in today's Russia. So why is it important to study how societies remember such traumatic events?

“At the very least, it reflects uncertainty about present-day values. Many people aren’t even sure whether democracy is better than dictatorship and their words and actions show that. At least part of the society does not see communism or even Nazism and some present-date dictatorships as necessarily bad. I believe that having discussions about such monuments overall is a healthy thing that can help at least try to find some broader consensus in how society views its own past. We just mustn't get overexcited and lost in such discussions.”

Perhaps it is important to remember, that history does not end at a certain point in the past. It keeps going on, it is only natural that the reputation of former heroes such as Marshal Koněv may become tainted by their later controversial actions. How we remember the past, who and what we celebrate, who or what we condemn, says more about us and our generation than the people who lived a long time ago.