Exhibition at Vitkov Memorial highlights the Klement Gottwald personality cult

The National Museum has opened an exhibition highlighting the personality cult of the first Czechoslovak communist president, Klement Gottwald. The exhibition, named Laboratory of Power, is located in Prague´s Vítkov Memorial which the communist regime turned into a mausoleum for Gottwald after his death in 1953. One of the exhibition’s organizers Marek Junek took me through the underground rooms built for the army of people who took care of the embalmed body for nine long years. He started out by explaining how the memorial underwent a significant transformation after the communists took power:

“The Vitkov Memorial was built in the years of the First Republic as a memorial to Czechoslovak legionaries who fought in WWI and as a symbol of the First Czechoslovak Republic. After the communists took over in 1948 they did not know what to do with this building. About three years later they decided to change the concept of this building and they started to call it the Proletarian Pantheon and important members of the communist party were buried here. When Klement Gottwald died in 1953 the communists took inspiration from Moscow’s Lenin and Stalin mausoleums and decided to build a mausoleum for Gottwald in Czechoslovakia. In the space of six months they built the underground rooms and turned it into the Klement Gottwald Mausoleum. And Gottwald lay here from 1953 to 1962.”

Can you briefly explain what it is that you are showing here?

“Yes, we are now standing in Velin – the control room from which everything was operated. Everything that visitors can see here is authentic. All the equipment, all the instruments are from the 1950s.”

The Vítkov Memorial
What are they for?

“Well, in a mausoleum you need constant conditions regarding temperature and humidity –all this equipment ensured the right conditions in the entire building.”

I must say the atmosphere here is very, very oppressive. I would say even morbid. But I suppose that is your intention, is it not?

“Yes, of course. We aimed to create an oppressive atmosphere because it reflects the mood of this period, it reflects the times. There was no escape from the 1950s and there is no escape from this part of the exhibition. Visitors can see lights for example and they can escape, but they see guns. So it is about this period, about how people felt at the time.”

I should say that we are standing in a very small room. Grey concrete all around us and lots of knobs and switches and clocks in this control room and we are about to walk down an extremely grey, narrow, dark corridor that has not been lit properly – what are we moving towards now?

“Now we are moving to the laboratory, to the place where doctors took care of Gottwald’s embalmed body.”

It looks like an autopsy room – quite scary. There’s a glass case in which we see a body – a model, obviously, covered by a white sheet. Everything looks very clinical, the walls and floor are tiled white. There is nothing else in the room. ..

“Yes, this is where doctors took care of the body. In the early 1950s it was doctors from the Soviet Union, later from Czechoslovakia who maintained the embalmed body, inspecting it on a daily basis. If you look up at the ceiling you will see where there was a lift with the help of which the body was elevated from the laboratory into the upper hall where it could be viewed by the public.”

So how many years did it spend here?

“Nine years.”

And they were able to keep it in good condition throughout that time, were they?

“Of course it was maintained, but we do not really know what condition it was in because we do not have complete archive materials and the memories of people who worked here differ ostensibly. Some tell us that parts of Gottwald’s body disintegrated with time and his hands and eventually entire arms had to be replaced with artificial members, but one doctor who worked here claims that the body was in perfectly good condition. So it is very hard to say what really happened. The last archive materials we have are from the year 1960 and we do not know what happened in the next two years.”

How many doctors took care of the body on a regular basis?

“It was about five doctors, but there were 100 people employed here. One hundred people taking care of one dead body.”

How long were they intending to keep it here?

Marek Junek
“I think – forever. When they built this mausoleum president Antonin Zapotocky said they wanted to preserve this body forever. But, of course, it wasn’t possible, because in 1962 the personality cult ended and Klement Gottwald was blamed for everything that had taken place in the hard line 1950s so it was no longer possible to show his dead body here. So that year his body was cremated and placed in a sarcophagus where it stayed until the end of the communist period.”

So he is buried here –his ashes are here somewhere still?

“No, his ashes were only kept here until 1990 and after that they were placed in a common grave at Prague’s Olsany cemetery –together with the ashes of about 20 other communist leaders which were originally placed in the mausoleum. The Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia is now maintaining that common grave. ”

It must have been quite awful for these doctors to be brought here to look after the body. They were sworn to secrecy, about everything that went on here, presumably...

“Yes, that is true. Of course this place was a top secret in the 1950s and the doctors had no choice but to obey orders and work here, because had they refused they would have been persecuted.”

Where did you get the information about everything that went on here? Have you spoken to any of the doctors who were here and who took care of the body? Or are they long dead?

“We have several sources, of course. For a start we have some archive materials from the National Archive here in Prague and of course we tried to find people who worked here in this memorial during the 1950s. It is very, very interesting that some of them spoke to us and some of them refused. They said they were afraid to speak with us, which is very strange because the mausoleum has been closed for more than 50 years. And they really would not talk about it.

So in the end we only talked to three people who worked here, but they were in very important positions. One of them was a doctor who took care of Gottwald’s body, another was an engineer who was in charge of the technical apsects – maintaining a set temperature, humidity and so on and the third was the son of Jan Zazvorka – an architect who arranged Gottwald’s body in the sarcophagus. We talked with these three people and each one of them has different memories about what happened here –that is very interesting.”

In what way?

“Well, one says that Gottwald’s body was completely fine, another says it was in a state of complete disintegration and so on. So there are contradictions in what they tell us.”

But how do they remember the times they worked here – were they all forced to work here?

“Some of them yes, but of course some of them did it for the money because it was a very well-paid job. But when they remember those days they say it was a time of fear, that everything was controlled and it wasn’t very pleasant work. So they were glad when the mausoleum was closed in 1962 and they were moved to a different position.”

Clearly though it marked some of them for life if some of them are still afraid to speak today...

“Yes, yes, that is right.”

Photo: Barbora Kmentová